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Moving pictures 2019, #15

Despite my best intentions, I’ve actually got worse at keeping this blog up to date. But then, it’s been a funny old month-and-a-bit: moving apartment, SFI twice a week, a couple of red days, and then a very long weekend in the middle for Åcon, followed by Swecon two weeks later. Which may explain the delay, but not the pretty odd selection below. It’s just the way it worked out.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Bruce Beresford (1972, Australia). Remember that time you were down the pub and some bloke told a joke that seemed funny at the time but you were pissed and so was everyone else but but not everyone thought it was funny and in sober hindsight you realise it wasn’t at all funny and was in fact borderline offensive if not outright offensive and if you had been with a more diverse group of friends they probably wouldn’t be friends anymore? Well, that’s this film. Which is why it’s a little embarrassing to write about The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, in which a racist and homophobic young Australian man visits the UK and has humorous adventures, ostensibly at the expense of the English, but he comes across as, well, racist and homophobic, so hardly a good advertisement for Australian manhood. Not that the English behave particularly well, as they’re depicted as either corrupt or even more racist than the Australians. The film was commercially successful but Beresford later said it blighted his career. Making shit films will do that. And just because a film is popular in its time, that doesn’t mean it’s not shit. And I don’t mean “shit” here as in “not well-made” but rather “offensive”. So I can understand Beresford’s complaints. A film to avoid.

Stan & Ollie, Jon S Baird (2018, UK). In the 1950s, shortly before the end of their careers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy toured the UK. This much is fact. It was partly to drum up interest – financially, mostly – in a film project of Laurel’s, a signature reworking of the Robin Hood legend. But the film producer played the comic duo for fools and the UK promoter of the tour did a less than stellar job. It is somewhat disappointing to learn that despite a career in Hollywood Laurel and Hardy were just as easy to fool as those who had stepped off the bus the night before. The film even shows them being smart about contracts… only to have them not actually learn anything from the incident. But that’s real life. And so is this film. It conflates a few things, changes a few minor details, but it’s essentially true to the pair’s final tour of the UK. And their reasons for doing it. But in any biopic, ninety percent of the appeal comes down to the depiction of the subjects, and in that respect Stan & Ollie scores very highly. Steve Coogan has Stan Laurel’s mannerisms down to a tee, although occasionally he does feel more like an actor playing a part; but John C Reilly is a pretty much a perfect Babe Hardy. I’ve seen a lot of Laurel & Hardy films over the years, I have even seen a few documentaries about the pair. And Reilly is extremely convincing. The pair of them make the film, but Reilly more than Coogan.

Sadak, Mahesh Bhatt (1991, India). According to Wikipedia, this film was inspired by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, although to be honest I didn’t spot the resemblance myself and I’m not sure how closely one maps on the other. The one thing I do remember about Sadak is that it was more like a Hollywood musical in places. Several of the musical numbers had everyone come together on what were clearly indoor sets purporting to be street scenes to sing and dance. And maybe a bit like the TV series Taxi, that one with Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman. The film centres on Ravi, a good-natured but insomniac taxi driver, who one day stumbles across the beautiful  Pooja, shortly before she is kidnapped and indentured to an evil transgender brothel keeper. One of Ravi’s passengers had been a celebrity cop, so Ravi enlists his help in rescuing Pooja. But it doesn’t go as planned, as nothing does in films of this sort, even Bollywood ones, and the final scenes sees a shootout between the good guys and the bad guys. Ravi is left for dead, but uses the last of his strength to have vengeance on the bad guys and finally rescue Pooja. Happy end. Sadak felt more 1970s than 1990s, although the transfer was much better than would have been usual for a Bollywood film from the earlier decade. I couldn’t decide if the musical numbers were deliberate pastiches – the opening one, for example, reminded me of one of the songs from Grease in its staging. If you’re into Bollywood films, you’ll get an evening’s entertainment out of Sadak, even if it does take some swallowing in places.

Shazam!, David F Sandberg (2019, USA). DC have had real trouble creating a property with the appeal of MCU’s properties. Which is odd, when you think about it, because they’ve got some big super-powered guns in their arsenal. But they’ve rebooted Batman that many times… and Superman too… and only recently did they finally realise that Wonder Woman was commercially viable (despite a successfully syndicated TV series decades ago), and as for the rest… Aquaman is DC, right? I forget. It was complete bobbins, but very entertaining (see here). There was that Justice League movie. I think I’ve seen it (apparently, I have – see here). So it must have seemed to DC like the most natural thing in the world to pick a second-rate hero like Shazam and make a big budget film about him. The central premise of Shazam! is the super-powers are passed from person to person, and the film’s first act sees those powers being given to a fourteen-year-old boy. Who, when he says the magic word – bet you can’t guess what it is – and transforms into a superhero, he’s a grown man but he’s still got the mind of a kid. It makes for a good joke… when used sparingly. The plot is something to do with a previous candidate for the powers who, peeved he was rejected, turns all-out evil and abducts Shazam’s friends and stuff like that. The movie had its moments, but it’s considerably less memorable than Aquaman, even if my overriding memory of the latter is endless battle scenes and a treasure map that required the use of a statue of a Roman emperor who didn’t exist until centuries after the map was made. Oops. Anyway, a bottle of wine and something trashy to eat like pizza, and Shazam! could be considered suitable accompaniment.

Vinyl, Sara Sugerman (2012, UK). Titling films is important. Sometimes it’s why people watch them. So to title a film Vinyl – an over-used title – when it really has nothing to do with vinyl, ie, LPs, seems like a pretty dumb decision. But that’s what they did here. And it’s even based on a true story. Which also had nothing to do with vinyl. But Vinyl is a film about music and bands, so it’s not like there isn’t some link. In the early 2000s, the members of a punk band popular twenty years earlier all meet up at the funeral of a friend. They’ve all got their own lives, not all of which has been successful. After a piss-up, they jam. The following morning, one of them cleans up the song they spontaneously wrote while pissed, and they all decide it’s good enough to give their band a second lease of life. Except the A&R man of their old record label disagrees. He likes the song, but he’s not interested in a band of fortysomething washed-out punks. So the band hire a bunch of young people to play the part of the band responsible for the song. It works. They get a contract. And the single is successful. But then the fake band members decide they’re a real band and they want a proper career… Vinyl was apparently filmed almost entirely in Rhyl, and much of the cast – with the exception of a handful of lead roles – were local players. The end result is a small town British – well, Welsh – comedy, with perhaps a little too much profanity but some good comic set-pieces, and a story that sounds almost entirely implausible despite being (mostly) true.

The White Balloon*, Jafar Panahi (1995, Iran). There are several films from Iran on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although most are either by Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf. (The former actually provided the script for The White Balloon.) The presence of movies from Iran on the list is no surprise – its cinema has some excellent directors and has produced some excellent films. I’m not sure I’d put The White Balloon in that group – I think I preferred Panahi’s later The Circle – as I can think of a number of other Iranian films I thought better. The story involves a young girl who wants a goldfish and eventually nags her mother into giving her the money for it. But she loses the money, and it’s only with the help of a white balloon given her by a street boy selling balloons that she retrieves it. The White Balloon is very much a product of Iranian cinema, which is why it probably didn’t stand out for me all that much. It’s not structurally innovative, which both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf are known for. It’s as well-acted and as well-shot as any number of Iranian movies I could name – but it seems to lack their mordant wit and black humour. It’s a good film and worth seeing, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which could be said of many films on the list – and the presence of quite a few of them is downright mystifying.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940

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Moving pictures 2019, #13

Once again, I’ve managed to get a bit behind with these posts. In fact, I’ve not been blogging much since moving to Sweden. Starting a new job. New town. New country. All that. I also moved apartments a couple of weeks ago, and now have a five kilometre walk every day. And I’ve started Swedish lessons, two days a week after work. But I really need to get on top of my blogging. I was hoping the move would help me kick off the writing again but, naturally, there’s an adjustment period… although I do have to keep reminding myself that I’ve only been here for two months. It feels like a lot longer. In a good way, of course.

Jashnn – The Music Within, Raksha Mistry & Hasnain S Hyderabadwala (2009, India). The title refers to a wannabe rock god, who dreams of stardom but doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how to go about it, even though he has a band and write songs. He doesn’t, for one thing, even know what a demo is. He lives with his sister, who is the mistress of a rich businessman. One day in a cafe, he chats up a beautiful young woman, and they start seeing each other. But it turns out she’s the sister of the businessman, and he doesn’t want Jashnn dating his sister – so much so, he threatens to cut Jashnn’s sister off without a cent. Jashnn’s girlfriend is so incensed, she moves in with Jashnn, who is now living in the place where the band rehearse. And she becomes their manager, introduces them to the concept of a demo, and takes them round the various record labels. But the businessman owns the record company, so he gets them thrown out. And it all comes down to a talent contest – as it always does in films of this sort. Jashnn has dropped out of his band, so they enter without him. But his girlfriend convinces him to perform as a last-minute contestant. Which he does. But the businessman has the judges in his pocket. Except… he gives a long impassioned speech explaining that Jashnn’s song really moved him and now he’s completely changed his mind and won’t be the evil bastard he had been previously and Jashnn can keep on seeing his sister, he won’t throw Jashnn’s sister out of her house, and everyone can live happily ever after. A polished piece of Bollywood, but romantic tosh from start to finish.

The Lego Batman Movie, Chris McKay (2017, USA). It was free to watch on Amazon Prime. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. The original The Lego Movie (see here) was sort of fun, except for the horribly intrusive daddy issue swerve in the story toward the end. The Lego Batman Movie is, well, more of the same, but instead focuses on the titular superhero. The film is a relentless sequence of jokes, most of which manage to be funny. The Joker turns the tables on Batman by surrendering – along with all his fellow super-villains – so giving Batman no reason to exist. But it’s all a cunning plot, because Batman steals Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector to send the Joker to the Phantom Zone, which is what the Joker was hoping, because he promptly escapes and brings with him all manner of villains from assorted intellectual properties. There’s a running joke about Bruce Wayne accidentally adopting Dick Grayson, which a is bit uncomfortable in places, but then Batman decides to turn him into Robin (resulting in one of the films better comedy sequences). Still, it’s a Lego movie and you get what it says on the tin. I’m not entirely sure who these films are aimed at – the jokes are a bit too knowing for kids, but Lego is a child’s toy. I guess Lego have done well with these films, then, to position them for such a wide audience.

Dastak, Mahesh Bhatt (1996, India). This was Sushmita Sen’s first film. She was crowned Miss Universe in 1994, and in Dastak she plays herself, a winner of the Miss Universe contest, who is being stalked by a killer. The policeman assigned to look after her turns out to be an old schoolmate, and romance soon blossoms between the two. Which the stalker does not like. And, er, that’s pretty much it.  Although released in 1996, the film feels like it’s a decade or two older. The violence is all a bit pantomime, and I can’t honestly remember any of the musical numbers. But Sen is good in her first film role – not that it seemed to require much acting – and the stalker plot follows the usual story beats, with the stalker escalating each time he feels Sen’s behaviour doesn’t meet with his approval. Meanwhile, the police have no clue to the stalker’s identity. But at least moustachioed cop gets to kindle a romance with his charge. For all its by-the-numbers plotting, and despite the fact it was clearly a star vehicle for Sen, I quite enjoyed Dastak. Perhaps it was because it was a Bollywood film but it felt more dramatic than is usually the case for a Bollywood film of that time. I mean, I’ve seen some excellent Indian thrillers, like Thadam and Kahaani (see here), but they were twenty-first century films. Anyway, not a bad film.

The Getting of Wisdom, Bruce Beresford (1977, Australia). A friend told me that prior to the 1980s pretty much every internationally-recognised film made in Australia was shot by one of two directors. I’m guessing Breresford was one of the two. The Getting of Wisdom was his fifth film and is adapted from a 1910 novel by Henry Handel Richardson (despite the name, a female Australian author), which has apparently been in print continuously since then – so, quite highly regarded, then. Laura Tweedel Rambotham is a provincial naif from a small village who is sent to a boarding-school in Melbourne. The other girls are all snobs, so she finds it hard to fit it. But she’s a gifted pianist and makes friends through her talent. She also invents a romance with the school’s visiting priest, engineering encounters with him in such a way the other girls believe the relationship is real. Until it’s abruptly revealed to be a lie. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of The Getting of Wisdom. It seemed a bit cobbled together in parts. It probably didn’t help that the source novel is more a series of escapades than an actual straight-through plot, and the film reflected that. I’m glad I saw it, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, Krish & Kangana Ranaut (2019, India). Apparently Amazon bought the distribution rights to this film immediately after its theatrical release in India. Which is why it’s on Amazon Prime. Although not why it’s free to Prime members. I’ve seen a few recent Indian films available on Amazon Prime, and I think the same deal applied to them. Just to confuse matters, Amazon are releasing them in different language versions – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and sometimes Malayalam. Anyway, Jhansi is famous for its queen, who fought against East India Company at a time when it pretty much had all the various kingdoms, sultanates and principalities sewn up, and was busy robbing them blind in the name of English commerce and good Queen Vic. Manikarnika was having none of that, and refused to submit. So the British threw an army at her. Strangely, all the British characters in this film had South African accents, although apparently it was just Americans doing bad British accents. Other than that, the film is a long sequence of battle scenes, which are rendered extremely well, with much CGI, or courtly intrigue, most of which involves the British being perfidious or Manikarnika being heroic. It’s good stuff, but no one could accuse it of being subtle. And it’s a definitely a piece of history British people would benefit from learning about, especially all those arseholes who think the British Empire was some sort of noble endeavour that brought all the good things to most of the planet. Was it bollocks. It was a shameful period of British history, and movies like Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi give an excellent indication why. Worth seeing.

Area Q, Gerson Sanginitto (2015, Brazil). Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s a place where several people have gone missing, and then returned claiming to have been abducted by aliens. For reasons never made entirely clear, an award-winning journalist is sent to that place to look into the matter. The journalist is currently trying to find his young son, who disappeared some months previously. The journalist interviews some of the abductees, and they seem to have been genuinely changed by the experience. Then he is abducted himself, and learns that his son was also abducted. This is all being told to another journalist after the events, because the original journalist’s career bombed after he came back claiming to be an abductee. Area Q differs slightly in its presentation of this over-used and somewhat dated premise because it’s Brazilian. The journalist is an American from LA, but the abductions (except for the son) all take place near a mountain in Brazil. It adds a strange gloss to what is a bog-standard plot strung together from unbelievable clichés. It doesn’t help that the acting is not very good, and the script pretty terrible. Definitely one to avoid.

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 939