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Moving pictures 2018, #68

Unusually, this post includes a film that is both recent and Extruded Hollywood Product. I even saw it at the cinema! But it was Christmas, and it’s sort of a family tradition to see a film at the cinema at Christmas. And, to be honest, dumb as it was – it gloried in its dumbness, in fact – I enjoyed the film much more than I’d expected to. So there.

A Day at the Races, Sam Wood (1937, USA). And another Marx Brothers film chiefly famous these days because Queen used its title for one of their albums – and if you want to argue which of the two deserves to be better remembered… Well, Queen are still going, albeit only just, although the recent jukebox musical has probably done the surviving members’ bank accounts a world of good. And the Marx brothers… well, Zeppo was the last to die, in 1979, and the brothers’ last feature film was released thirty years before that… Obviously their films were very much of their time, and those elements of their comedy which have been picked up and re-used no longer seem fresh – which, perversely, means parts of their movies just aren’t very funny, and other parts would be funny if the jokes had not been done to death in the decades since. It doesn’t help that all their madcap escapades are generally hung on a rom com skeleton, and the latter is usually pretty weak. In this movie, a struggling sanatorium, under threat from a developer who wants to turn it into a casino, panders to a wealthy resident – Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother” – by hiring Groucho as her personal physician. Meanwhile, the boyfriend of the sanatorium’s owner has spent all his money on a horse. Which everyone knows runs a like a donkey. Fortunately, they accidentally discover the horse jumps like a champion, so they enter him in a steeplechase, he wins a big pot, and the sanatorium is saved. These films are worth seeing once, I think, although I couldn’t honestly tell you which is the best one.

Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969, France). I’ve watched a lot of French films but Melville is not really a director whose oeuvre I’ve been especially keen to explore. Some of his films are considered classics, and certainly Le Samouraï I thought very good, although more for its visuals than its somewhat derivative story. “Army of shadows” refers to the French Resistance, and that’s what the film is about: a group of resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France; and based on a novel (I think) published in 1943. The film was not well-received in France on its release, not released in the UK until a decade later, and not even released in the US until 2006. It has been re-evaluated in recent years, and it may well be because there’s no one left who lived through the events it depicts and is likely to be offended by Melville’s treatment. While they say history is written by the winners, as the generations come and go and events pass beyond living memory, so the movies which depict them become less personal and are re-assessed and then valued pretty much solely for their technical qualities. Fifty years from now, should someone make a movie which takes seriously the premise the Moon landings were faked, it could be considered a work of genius… because where is Buzz Aldrin to punch them? And so for Army of Shadows… And yet, other than its grimness, nothing much really stood out in the film. Meh.

Adela Has Not Had Her Supper Yet, Oldřich Lipský (1977, Czechia). Imagine if the Czechs had made The Little Shop of Horrors, but with stop-motion animation instead of songs. Actually, you don’t need to. Because they did. And it’s this film. Adela is a carnivorous plant, brought to life using stop-motion. And, er, that’s it. The film opens when famous US detective Nick Carter, an American pulp detective from 1886, while on a visit to Prague is caused to solve the disappearance of a dog. Which leads to a series of bizarre murders. And it’s all because of a mad scientist and his carnivorous plant. The animated sequences were all done by Jan Švankmajer, which, if you know the name, tells you everything you need to know. If you don’t know the name – why not? I stumbled across this film on Amazon Prime, and it was one of those gems which makes you grateful the platform exists. Recommended.

Aquaman, James Wan (2018, USA). It has been a tradition for many years in our family to go and see a film at the cinema together at Christmas. If I remember rightly, the first time we did it was to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Which would make it 2001. So we’ve been doing it for nearly two decades. This year, the only movie suitable, and showing at a convenient time, at the cinema in Lyngby, just outside Copenhagen, was Aquaman. Which, to be honest, I was not especially bothered about seeing. I had, after all, seen Justice League, and that was bloody awful. I’d also heard that Aquaman was pretty dumb. So my expectations were low. And… surprisingly… it both met them and exceeded them. It was indeed as dumb as shit. And there were plot-holes you could sail an entire continent through… A king of Atlantis who died tens of thousands of years ago leaving a clue which references a statue of a Roman emperor? WTF? Anyway, Jason Momoa, probably best known as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, plays the title role, a half-Atlantean, whose mother, Nicole Kidman, washed up onshore in Maine after fleeing an arranged royal marriage under the sea. A lighthouse keeper rescues her, they fall in love, have a baby, and then she’s recaptured by her estranged submarine husband’s soldiers… The baby grows up to be Aquaman, presented initially as a full-on, if disenchanted, superhero. And… is it worth describing the plot? Of course not. There’s a subplot featuring the villain Black Manta which serves no purpose but does give the film one of its best action sequences. There are giant sharks with laser beams on their heads ridden by Atlantean warriors. There is an entirely pointless duel between Aquaman and the chief villain. And there is a vast undersea battle with some astonishingly effective CGI. It all looks pretty damn gorgeous, but it also quite evidently has the IQ of a lump of concrete. And yet, despite the latter, it’s pretty damn entertaining. I’ll not be rushing out to buy the Blu-ray, this is true; but when I left the cinema I didn’t feel like I’d been robbed. Aquaman is so stupid and OTT and yet so clearly not taking itself very seriously, that it keeps you entertained for all of its 143 minutes. It’s not going to win any awards – well, it might get on the shortlist for the Hugo Award, which tells you all you need to know about the Hugo Award – but it’s a tentpole crowd-pleaser, and as that it succeeds better than I’d expected.

Sword of Honour (2001, UK). I read Sword of Honour over Christmas, and then watched the DVD when I returned home after the holiday. So I had the novel fresh in my mind when I put the disc of the Channel 4 TV movie adaptation in the player… And they really didn’t do a very good job, did they? The novel is a satire, but film turns it into a dull wartime drama. Daniel Craig plays Guy Crouchback, who has been living in Italy for years but returns to the UK before the outbreak of WWII in order to sign up. In the book, Crouchback’s career is a consequence of the general incompetence of the British military, enlivened with a couple of comic set-pieces, such as that surrounding Apthorpe and his “thunder-box”, which the film turns into a short pathetic incident. In fact, most of the emphases of the novel’s plot are misrepresented in the film. Crouchback’s experiences on Crete are a direct result of a military blunder, but the film presents it as a straightforward defeat. True, a novel can offer much more in the way of context than a film – or rather, it can offer more than just immediate context through visuals, which films do so much better. Of course, a lot of nuance is lost, because it can’t be telegraphed as well onscreen as it can in prose. But there’s a meaty enough plot in Sword of Honour to build a really good satire about WWII and, watching what Channel 4 actually did, it feels like they pulled every one of their punches, as if afraid to be too critical of Britain at war. Which is ironic, given that Waugh “cleaned up” his own wartime experiences when writing Crouchback’s – or rather, he made Crouchback a much more sympathetic character than Waugh’s actual career would have made him (“officer most likely to be shot by his men”, one fellow officer described Waugh). Sword of Honour, the film, follows the story of Waugh’s trilogy, later rewritten as a single novel, reasonably faithfully, but it turns a smart satire into a dull drama. Avoid.

Passion, Brian De Palma (2012, France). De Palma has a well-earned reputation as a poor man’s Hitchcock, inasmuch as he tends to direct knotty thrillers that have all the plot complexity of a Hitchcock film but never quite manage to look as good as a Hitchcock movie. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair – true, Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors Western cinema has produced, but I suspect de Palma’s reputation partly rests on the fact the films he makes are somewhat… salacious. In this one, we have Rachel McAdams as an ambitious advertising executive, more than happy to steal credit for good ideas from her underlings. Chief among whom is Noomi Rapace. Who discovers that McAdam’s lover Dirk is being blackmailed by McAdam because he has embezzled the firm. But then the lover is found dead, and Rapace appears to be the murderer. And even confesses to the crime. Except she’s been so strung out on prescription drugs since McAdams torpedoed her career that perhaps she isn’t guilty, after all… The movie’s resolution should come as no real surprise, although de Palma sets it all up very cleverly. Unfortunately, the two lead characters, played by Rapace and McAdams, indeed the entire set-up, feels really very 1980s. The only thing that’s missing is the shoulderpads. It looks good, all very twenty-first century, but the corporate world feels so old-fashioned the whole film could be mistaken for an extended episode of Dynasty featuring secondary characters. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2017, #62

Let it not be said I don’t watch a variety of films, as this post should demonstrate. Okay, half are from the US, but from the 1930s and 1990s and the current decade… and the last is a spoof a 1970s exploitation film…

Animal Crackers, Victor Heerman (1930, USA). There were two films on one Blu-ray disc I was sent from this collection, and I wasn’t especially impressed by the first, The Cocoanuts (see here). But I had at least heard of Animal Crackers; if someone had asked me to name a Marx Brothers films, it’s one of four titles I could have given. And, after all that, I liked it even less than The Cocoanuts. It’s based on a musical play of the same title, which also starred the Marx Brothers. Groucho plays a renowned explorer who has been invited as guest of honour to a weekend party at the house of a wealthy socialite. An art collector, also invited, plans to unveil a painting he has recently acquired by a famous French rococo painter as a treat for the guests. Cue Groucho insulting host and guests, a running joke in which two groups of people try to steal the painting and replace it with a copy, leading to total confusion over which is the original, and a mildy amusing gag in which Chico asks Harpo for a “flash” (he means a torch, but the gag wouldn’t have worked if he’d said flashlight) and Harpo pulls out a succession of incorrect items – a fish, a flush, a flute… Given their stature, I’ve been surprised at how unimpressed I’ve been by the Marx Brothers films I’ve seen so far. I’ll keep them on my rental list, and hope they improve.

Raising Cain, Brian De Palma (1992, USA). I don’t get De Palma. I get that he makes thriller films, and quite effective ones… but they’re so, well, rubbish. I mean, they’re not in the least bit plausible or convincing, although they’re presented with an absolutely straight face, impressively straight faces by the cast in fact. In Raising Cain, John Lithgow plays twins, one of whom is a child psychologist who needs volunteers for his pioneer child psychologist father’s experiments in Norway… and so ends up kidnapping a kid from a playground, with the help of his twin, who is, well, evil. Except they’re not twins. There’s only one of them, and he has multiple personalities. Lithgow also plays the father, who turns up halfway through the movie. And he’s like some sort of Mengel figure, but in child psychology. And it turns out he deliberately gave his son multiple personality disorder because reasons. It was all very silly, even if it started out quite well – which is something De Palma’s films do, I seem to recall. I don’t remember why I put this one on my rental list, but at least I won’t have to watch it again. Meh.

Crisis, Ingmar Bergman (1946, Sweden). According to my records, I’ve now seen 34 films by Bergman, which makes him my second most-watched director after Hitchcock. (The figures look like this for the top ten: 1. Hitchcock (44), 2. Bergman (34), 3. Herzog (33), 4. Sokurov (28), 5. Jennings (27), 6. Godard (25), 7. Lang (23), 8. Preminger (22), 9. Ozon (21) and 10. Hawks (19).) Crisis is actually the first film Bergman directed. He also wrote the screenplay. And it’s very, well, Bergman-esque. A young woman in a small village finds herself torn between her foster mother, a piano teacher, and her real mother, the glamorous owner of a beauty salon in the city… Not to mention exploring her own power over the young men of the village. The bulk of the film seems to be about generational conflicts, with the young people of the village, egged on by Jack, a dodgy friend of the young woman’s real mother. At a recital, where all the elders of the village are gathered, Jack kicks off an impromptu jazz party in the next room, and incenses all the village worthies. Bergman spreads his conflict widely – across generations, city versus village, men versus women… For all that it was his first film, Crisis feels like a solid piece of Bergman work. But then Bergman wasn’t new to drama, having been involved with film-making since 1941. Even so, that demonstrates a notable talent, which he more than demonstrated over the next fifty years. Ingmar Bergman is not just a giant in Swedish film, but globally. It’s a shame he’s considered a bit fringe by most Anglophone cinema-goers.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang (1985, Taiwan). This is the last of the films on the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2, which includes DVD and Blu-ray (sadly, region A) copies of six movies, from the Philippines, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Turkey and Taiwan. Having now seen several – well, three – of Yang’s films, and having thought all three of them excellent, I think I have a handle on his film-making. His films are about people trying to make sense of their lives in Taiwan. In Yi Yi (see here), it’s initiated by the preparations for a marriage. In Taipei Story, it’s a young woman and her relationship with her boyfriend, an ex-baseball player, whose finances are precarious. Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose films I love, plays the male lead, the female lead is a Taiwanese pop star who ended up marrying Yang. There is something about Yang’s films that appeals greatly – and not just to me, judging by the plaudits he has received. They seem almost documentary-like in their starkness, a likeness only heightened by their use of real locations, rather than sets, and handicams. In fact, on reflection, one of the appeals of Chinese and Taiwanese cinemas, especially sixth generation Chinese cinema, is its lack of soundstage footage and the fact much of it is location shooting. Hitchcock was a master of soundstage shooting, and I do love it in my 1950s melodramas, but Taiwanese and Chinese cinemas’ seeming insistence on less artificial staging is very much in its favour. I don’t know enough about the cinema tradition in the two countries to know if this was an artistic choice, or a result of the constraints on film-making in the country, government or otherwise – but The Goddess, made in 1934, was plainly made on a set, although that was a world away historically and politically; on the other hand, Jia Zhangke’s first three films were made illegally as he did not have government permission… None of which is entirely relevant. Anyway, Taipei Story is indeed excellent, and I plan to watch more of Yang’s films.

The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA). I want to make a film, I know, I’ll make a pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s exploitation B-movie… I’m not sure it’s a thought process I’d have followed, had I the talent, skills and resources to make a feature film – although I can think of many bad films I’d like to remake (sf ones, of course). But I can also think of a number of sf novels I’d sooner adapt, rather than remake or reboot an earlier film… And I think my first choice for such a novel would be AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, a hackity mess of California noir and pulp sf, and for which I have a completely unjustifiable love… And okay, I guess I see why Biller made The Love Witch. And it’s so beautifully done you’d swear you were watching a 1970s movie – except, that is, for the feminist lecture in the middle. Which is well deserved, I might add. Because it’s all very well aping the forms of 1970s exploitations cinema, but aping the sensibilities requires a tone-deafness to present day society that is, well, strictly Hollywood. Biller, happily, is not Hollywood. This may be a note-perfect spoof of a 1970s film but it’s also a 2017 film and that’s undeniable. I watched The Love Witch expecting a guilty pleausure and ended up becoming a fan of Biller.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Tony Richardson (1962, UK). I picked this up from a charity shop for £1.99, which isn’t bad for a dual-format BFI release. I’d certainly heard of the film before, and while Tony Richardson was not a name I knew particularly well – see Joseph Andrews here – my knowledge of the film was enough to lead to high expectations… which it failed to meet. Tom Courtenay plays a youth – although he looks his age, twenty-five, rather than the youth he’s supposed to be – who is sent to a borstal, Ruxton Towers. The borstal’s governor spots that Courtenay is a good runner, and so encourages him. The film ends with the borstal boys running against the pupils from a nearby public school (for non-British readers, that’s a private school). Their best runner is James Fox. Courtenay beats him, but refuses to cross the finish line. Throughout the film, Courtenay’s life is told in flashbacks. He lived in Nottingham – so it’s very much Saturday Night, Sunday Morning territory (also adapted from an Alan Sillitoe novel) – and was arrested for stealing a cashbox from a bread van. I’d expected more of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which is often held up as a classic of 1960s UK cinema, especially its kitchen-sink realism side. But it all felt a bit put-on, like a cross between a BBC play for today and a Northern soap opera. Meh.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 885