It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures 2017, #38

I had a Reading diary post lined up next after my last Moving pictures post, but it takes me longer to write about books – chiefly because books take longer to read than films to watch, so I need to remind myself of the earlier ones in a post, and, also, a lot more happens in a book than in a film. I’m also working on a post about the Clarke Award, perhaps even the current state of awards, but I’m not even sure I’ll bother publishing that one. These days, no one gives a shit about honest criticism, reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hype, and fans are more concerned with protecting the ego of their creator friends than they are in any sort of real conversation about the genre. But who knows, perhaps I’ll end up in a ranty mood one evening… and publish and be damned…

But, until then, it’s…. the return of the film post! Only a couple of days after the last one! And the one before that! And it’s only the thirty-eighth I’ve written so far this year alone! (Out of probably about forty-two actual blog posts. Oh well.) The movies in this batch were all a bit random, chosen chiefly because I wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about what to watch.

The Woman Next Door, François Truffaut (1981, France). So I went and bought the François Truffaut Collection Blu-ray box set, because it was going cheap and I’d found myself increasingly drawn to his films, and of the eight films in the set I’d only seen four, so it was pretty much a bargain. And the first disc I pulled from the box was The Woman Next Door, a film about which I knew nothing. Although from the cover art, it clearly starred Fanny Ardant, whom I’d watched only the week before in, er, Truffaut’s Finally, Sunday, also in this collection (see here). The male lead is Gerard Depardieu, and while I’ve always thought him a good actor, in this film he seemed to shift between blank-faced and hyper-emotive, with nothing in between. He and his wife and small boy live in a house in a village near Grenoble. The empty next-door house is rented by a couple around the same age… and the wife, Ardant, turns out to be a woman Depardieu had had a turbulent relationship with before getting married. Their affair rekindles, but it doesn’t go well. He kicks off at a barbecue with the neighbours, she has an incident at the local tennis club… Much as I enjoyed The Woman Next Door, it felt like many of its narrative hooks were left unexplored or unresolved. Ardant was good, as indeed were the supporting cast, but I wasn’t convinced by Depardieu… And the end result was a film that promised more than it delivered. Even the final shock twist felt a bit meh, given what had gone on before. I still admire Truffaut for his films, but this isn’t one of his best ones; and though its slick performances might convince some that is the case, he’s made much better.

The Lavender Hill Mob*, Charles Crichton (1951, UK). I had a feeling I’d seen this before, but I couldn’t remember the details… and when I came to watch it, pretty much everything in it was immediately familiar. Alec Guiness plays a mild-mannered bank clerk whose job entails fetching gold bullion from a foundry, and accompanying it in an armoured lorry to the bank. He’s completely trusted, but he’s planning to steal a shipment of gold just before he retires. His only problem is how transport the stolen gold out of the country. When the owner of Gewgaws Ltd, a company that makes tourist trinkets, moves into the boarding-house in which Guiness lives, he has his answer. Among the souveniers Gewgaws manufactures are gold-painted lead miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, sold in Paris. By making a consignment out of real gold, they can send them to France undetected. To help them in the robbery, the two recruit a pair of criminals, using the Gewgaws premises as a honeypot by talking loudly about a broken safe there, full of wages, on the Tube. The robbery goes more or less according to plan – there are a few hiccoughs, but the police are clueless, so it all comes right in the end. Until they get to France… and discover their Parisian contact has sold six of the real gold Eiffel Towers… to a party of British schoolgirls. And it’s the robbers’ attempts to get back those missing Eiffel Towers that proves their undoing. Ealing Studios have always been well-branded, and it’s easy to see why – their films are very distinctive. There’s a breeziness to the comedy in them, despite their obvious Britishness, that no other studio of the time managed. It’s almost a a sketch-show type of humour, but grounded in quickly- but effectively-drawn characters that carry over from one set-piece to the next. It is, in other words, jolly good fun. And if it all seems a bit implausible in places, that’s the part of the charm. But I’m not entirely sure why it rates a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Blow Out, Brian De Palma (1981, USA). I’ve never really known what to make of De Palma. He’s pretty much a straight-to-video director who manages to get theatrical releases, a sub-B-lister who is treated like a low-level A-lister. It’s not as if he makes bad films, although his use of split-screen is an affectation too far, but his movies mostly seem massively unoriginal. Blow Out is, apparently, De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but if it is then De Palma has either never seen Blow-Up or has completely misunderstood it. Travolta plays a sound technician who is out one night recording ambient sound for the latest straight-to-video schlock horror movie he is working on, when he witnesses a car plummetting into a river. He dives in and rescues one of the passengers, a young woman. The other, who dies, proves to be a politician tipped to be the next president. Travolta analyses the recordings he made on the night, and realises there is a gunshot before the car lost control – someone shot out a tyre. The rest of the movie is Travolta trying to figure out what’s going on, while a hired assassin runs round trying to clean up the mess he has inadvertently made, and it’s all pretty much by-the-numbers thriller material. Lithgow is creepy, but not especially plausible, as the assassin, the parts about the film industry feel more like in-jokes than character development or background, and the dimwittedness of some of the characters contradicts their ability to avoid the noose the conspiracy is drawing about them. I have no idea why I stuck this on the rental list.

Clash by Night, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I mentioned several Moving pictures posts ago that I’d been making an effort over the last few years to see every film directed by Otto Preminger. The same is true for Fritz Lang. Their shared nationality is a coincidence. As are their Hollywood careers as chiefly directors of well-regarded noir films. With Lang, you have those early silent classics, not to mention the Mabuse trilogy, or even the frankly bizarre India-set pulp adventure movies on which he finished his career. But, like Preminger, during his Hollywood years Lang made a wide variety of films – yes, including a couple of Westerns… and melodramas… like Clash by Night. Which is, er, not very good. Barbara Stanwyck plays the wild girl who returns to her fishing port home after years living it up away. She falls in with simple trawler captain Jerry, who introduces her to his wise-cracking mate, Earl, the projectionist. Earl is clearly more Stanwyck’s type, but she marries Jerry. But then Earl is a nasty piece of work, so it’s easy enough to understand why she rejects him. Although only for a few years… and then the marriage begins to fracture when Stanwyck does indeed take up with Earl… This is one of those gritty urban melodramas the US churned out by the yard back in the first half of the twentieth century, in which middle-class problems were ascribed to working-class families, but with added domestic violence. There is a horribly offensive thread running throughout this film in which men claim the only way to control their spouses is through violence. The relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes (Stanwyck’s “brother”) basically consists of him controlling her through threats of violence. It’s nasty stuff. There are some classic US melodramas from the 1950s. This is not one of them. Despite its director. Best avoided.

In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili (2013, Georgia). I can’t remember where I came across mention of this Georgian film, but I suspect it was a trailer on another DVD. The directors are actually given as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, but given that the former has a Wikipedia page and the latter does not, and the latter is also credited as a producer, I’m tempted to cast Groß as more of a facilitator… except it turns out the two are a couple, so perhaps it’s even more complicated. Still, this is a film set in Georgia, about Georgian people, and Ekvtimishvili is given preference as director, and she is actually Georgian, so I will do the same and credit her with the lion’s share. (And kudos to Groß, he seems content to let his partner represent the two of them.) Two fourteen-year-old girls get into trouble when one of them gets hold of a gun and uses it to rescue a younger kid from a bullying. Except it’s not about that, it’s about growing up during the Georgian Civil War, and about being a teenage girl during those turbulent times, and this is by no means a cheerful film, and certainly not one likely to re-affirm your confidence in humanity’s good nature – these days, the only films which do that are superhero ones, and they only do it for superheroes, so how fucked up is that? But there’s a rawness to Ekvtimishvili’s vision that lends her story a verisimilitude Hollywood could only dream of (this is not something unique to In Bloom, but it is something Hollywood strives for and fails to achieve). A depressing story, but worth seeing.

Two for the Road, Stanley Donen (1967, UK). Apparently eureka! have released a dual edition of this film, but the rental copy I watched was a terrible transfer, no better than VHS quality in places. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it deserves the treatment eureka! have given it. It’s pretty much a couple bickering, in cars, over a decade. Okay, so the chronology jumps back and forth quite cleverly, and the way the film signals at which stage of the relationship/marriage it is set works really well (er, it’s the model of car). But it’s still two people bickering. And it’s not helped by the choice of leads. I’ve never really taken to Albert Finney – he plays everything flat and snide, and it makes him unlikeable. When he tries for charm, as he often does here, it often falls flat, especially when he’s doing his terrible Bogart impression. Finney does some things really well, but romantic lead isn’t one of them. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, should be a natural romantic lead – and indeed has been in many films. But here she’s playing a woman from callow teenager to jaded housewife, and it’s beyond her range. She does either end of the spectrum well, but she can’t manage the transition – or rather, the transition doesn’t seem convincing when it happens to her. Of course, it doesn’t help that the version I saw was a terrible transfer. Perhaps there were subtleties I missed. Certainly, the film’s structure was cleverly done, and there were some good lines of dialogue (and an amusing running joke about Finney and his passport), but the couple also went from young and hapless to privileged and insulated with a speed and lack of commentary that is almost breathtaking (although not altogether surprising given the time the film was made). I wanted to like Two for the Road, either as fluff or as something a bit more serious… but it failed on both counts. One for Audrey Hepburn fans only.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 874


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Moving pictures 2017, #18

I don’t seem to have watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list for weeks. But then I have got to the point where, bar a few really populist movies I’m not especially keen on watching (The Lion King, The Sound of Music, etc), the films I’ve yet to see are getting hard to find. I suspect I may never actually watch all 1001 – not that I want to die, either – but if I can get pretty damn close to completion I’ll be happy. And then I’ll move onto a different list…

The Last Man on the Moon, Mark Craig (2014, UK). The title refers to Gene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to land on the surface of the Moon. Cernan died earlier this year, although this film about him, and sharing a title with his autobiography, was made three years ago. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – talking heads, including Cernan himself, discussing his career prior to NASA, his career at NASA, and his flight to the Moon, intercut with archive film of naval aviators and astronauts. The footage shot on the Moon’s surface is, of course, fantastic, and the nearest anyone will ever get to an actual alien planet this century. (I suppose there might be a commercial, or Chinese, or even Indian, flight to the Moon before 2199, but the way things are going I suspect climate crash will get us all first.) There are a handful of documentaries about the Apollo programme made over the last 45 years, which had theatrical releases, and they’re all very good indeed. Later ones have perhaps featured more talking heads, but then they’ve been more about the people involved than just the achievement itself. Which is hardly surprising, given technological progress since 1972 and the complete lack of political will to contribute to human space exploration. Recommended.

The Man in the Sky, Charles Crichton (1957, UK). I like films whose plots heavily feature aeroplanes, although I much prefer Cold War fighters and bombers than other types of aircraft. The plot summary of The Man in the Sky mentioned a rocket plane, so I bunged it on my rental list and… Well, it’s not really a rocket plane. It’s a Bristol Type 170 Freighter, a late 1940s prop-powered cargo plane, that has had JATO rocket pods attached to give it a much shorter take-off run. Jack Hawkins plays the chief test pilot who takes it up for a demonstration flight for the owner of a freight airline who is planning on buying the plane. The aircraft manufacturer desperately needs the sale, or he will go out of business. So it’s a bit of a downer when one of the engines catches fire during the flight. The crew and passengers parachute to safety, but Hawkins has to figure out how to bring the aircraft down safely because the fire has damaged the ailerons on one wing. It’s all very British Stiff Upper Lip drama, making light of a crisis, etc, and Jack Hawkins plays Jack Hawkins the way he always has done. It’s a mildly entertaining British drama and very much of its time.

Uniform, Diao Yinan (2003, China). This is the second Diao film I’ve watched, after the excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice (see here). A slacker tailor, with an ill father and nagging mother, tries to return a uniform left by a policeman who needed it ironing. But the policeman isn’t home, and a neighbour tells the tailor he was in an accident. On his way back home, the tailor is soaked in a rainstorm, so he swaps his shirt for the policeman’s. And he discovers that people treat him differently when they think he’s a policeman. So he starts doing it more often. And when his father has to go into hospital, but he has no money to pay for it, so he impersonates a policeman and shakes down people for money. He starts seeing a girl who works in a CD shop, but then he discovers she works for an escort agency as well. This is a pretty bleak film – and, to be fair, a lot of the Sixth Generation Chinese directors seem to go for bleak – but it also has that documentary air I find so appealing about recent Chinese films. The protagonist of Uniform is hardly admirable, or even sympathetic – he’s a slacker who turns into a bully. But his situation is certainly sympathetic, and not just unique to twenty-first century China. I’ve said before that China has an especially strong cinema at present, and this film is ample evidence.

Lenny, Bob Fosse (1974, USA). I wanted to see this since the editing of Lenny plays such an important part in Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, a film I really like. I know very little about Lenny Bruce as he was a) American, and b) before my time. Dustin Hoffman plays the title role, and the film follows his career, intercut with excerpts from some of his later stage performances. It’s astonishing how badly he was treated by the authorities – repeatedly arrested for using words like “cocksucker” in his act – but then the hypocrisy and corruption of the US establishment is hardly news. (Of course, the same can be said of the establishment of pretty much every country.) As biopics go, it’s a good one. But biopics are also dependent on the person being covered, and Lenny Bruce wasn’t all that interesting a person. He was a professional arsehole who ran afoul of the establishment, which hardly makes him unique; but the subject of his comedy seemed fresh and necessary, and was also the reason he was targeted. It makes for a good story. The problem is that when this is real, and the heroes are so deeply flawed, it often invalidates the point being made. Lenny Bruce was a knob. He also had important things to say. So what does that say about his message? Very little, sadly. Most of what he complained about is, these days, generally  acknowledged to be true, but no one seems especially interested in changing things. So US society remains sexist and racist, even more so now than when this film was made.

Marriage Italian Style, Vittorio De Sica (1964, Italy). This is the fifth film by De Sica I’ve seen, and I think most of the earlier ones were Italian Neorealist, a film genre of which I’m not a big fan. Marriage Italian Style, however, is very much a 1960s drama, although it opens in the late 1940s. Sophia Loren plays a prostitute frequently visited by successful businessman Marcello Mastroianni, and he eventually sets her up in his own house, ostensibly to look after his ageing mother. But when Mastroianni plans to get married to another woman, Loren feigns a mortal illness and extracts a promise from him to marry her instead. Then she “recovers”. He marries her, she moves her three sons into the house (one of which was fathered by Mastroianni, but she refuses to tell him which). They start shouting at each other. The two leads are experienced actors, and very good ones too, and they play their parts as well as can be expected. Burt none of it actually adds up to much, and the story never really ignites. Sadly, you don’t much care what happens to the marriage. I’m not sure why I stuck this one my rental list, and having now watched it I’m even less sure.

The Class, Ilmar Raag (2007, Estonia). After Georgia in the last Moving pictures post, it’s now the other end of Europe and another country I can cross off the list of nations whose films I’d never previously seen. The Class is set at a high school in an unnamed Estonian town. One boy in the class is consistently bullied, first by a group of jocks but then by pretty much everyone in the class. But then one classmate decides enough is enough, and he fights the bullies. Which makes him a targe0 toot. Which eventually ends up with the two of them walking through the school with guns, shooting those who had bullied them. It is, sadly, these days a somewhat clichéd story – at least in certain parts of the world – Estonia, it has to be said, not being one of them (but the Wikipedia page mentions two school shootings in Finland which quote the film as inspiration). The problem here, of course, is not kids shooting up schools with guns, but bullying. The Class presents a story that feels very European – this could never be mistaken for a Hollywood film – even if the story is one Hollywood has covered several times. It is also an extremely polished piece of work. Pretty much all nations have a film industry, but not all of their output makes it out of their country – and for some, none of it does. I saw something recently about Jia Zhangke, a Chinese director whose films I rate highly, and whose first three films were made without official approval. It was the international film festival circuit at which his movies were shown which helped finance his later films and also persuaded Beijing to give him their approval. And while I realise there’s been a cinema underground as long as cinema has existed – Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man are evidence of the US’s own underground avant-garde cinema scene – the twenty-first century has made it much easier for the armchair enthusiast to access previously hard-to-find material. While I’ll happily travel to Sweden or Iceland for a science fiction convention, I’ve yet to work up the enthusiasm to travel to London to see a specific film (damn you, Curzon for showing Francofonia only in London).  Which is, I admit, a purely personal fault. But while I can continue to explore the world’s cinema from my armchair, I will do so – rental, if I can, and I’ll buy them if I think them good enough (as I have done). Because I think it’s important to watch films from as many nations as possible.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Space movies

I saw a list recently of “space movies” and the first film on the list was… Star Wars. I like lists, and though they usually make me angry I also like bad lists – because they inspire me to create my own. After all, if you’re going to put together to a list of “space movies”, then you’d expect “space” to play a major role in the film. And yes, there’s the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon running away from the Imperial space destroyer and that final space battle and it’s space opera which even has the word “space” in it… but is Star Wars really a “space movie”?

There are plenty of films – not just Hollywood ones, either – where space or space travel forms a major portion of the plot, or is indeed the actual subject of the film. Having said that, any list of films which comprises almost entirely Hollywood output, bar one or two token world cinema entries, is also going to generate rage. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris as the token non-Hollywood sf movie in a lists of sf movies. Tarkovsky was a great director, no doubt about that, but he made two other sf films – all of which is beside the point, as there are a huge number of non-US and non-Anglophone directors who have made science fiction movies, many of which are excellent.

All this is, of course, a somewhat long-winded way of introducing my own list of “space movies”, ie films that are space-related – inasmuch as they are about space exploration, or the setting is space for at least more than half of the film. I have, as is my wont, tried to avoid the obvious and commercially safe choices…

space_odysseySpace Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (2004, UK). This is my go-to for near-future space-based science fiction. It’s a television dramatisation of a near-future Grand Tour, made chiefly by the BBC. It’s hard to find these days, but it’s definitely worth hunting down a copy. The CGI hasn’t aged especially well, the acting is not great, and the talking heads often slow things down… but much of it was filmed on the Vomit Comet and it does a top job of presenting life aboard a spacecraft travelling about the Solar Sytem. In fact, it does a top job of presenting all the technology required to visit all the planets of the Solar System. Good stuff.

apollo18sdApollo 18, Gonzalez López-Gallego (2011, USA). Okay, so the rock monsters are a bit silly, as is the, er, plot. But this is still the best fictional presentation to date of an Apollo mission on celluloid. And it also scores highly because it shows a Soviet LK and gets it absolutely right. This is the proper way to do a space movie… even if it’s in service to a hoary old plot. Admittedly, it’s a found footage movie, and it’s never quite made clear how they found the footage, given we’ve never been back to the moon… but never mind.

cargoCargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). This is a polished piece of sf from a country not really known for producing science fiction movies. The story takes place aboard a starship on its way to an Edenic colony world, which is closed to the masses teeming in space stations orbiting a poisoned Earth except as a prize in a lottery. En route, the film manages to pull in most modern sf movie tropes, but it handles them well and even manages a few – albeit somewhat predictable – scares along the way.

eolomeaEolomea, Herrmann Zschoche (1972, East Germany). Deutsches Film-Aktiengesellschaft made four big-budget – for East Germany – sf movies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They’re a bit dippy, but they did go all out to make good-looking, globally-minded intelligent science fiction. Eolomea is perhaps the best of them, a mystery about the plan to settle the eponymous exoplanet and a space station that has suddenly gone silent. Some great 1970s retro-futuristic production design, too.

testpilotpirxTest Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (1979, USSR). AKA Pilot Pirx’s Inquest. Based on the character created by Stanisław Lem, this sees Pirx take a trip to the rings of Saturn, with a crew which contains one or more androids – but he doesn’t know who is which. It starts as a weirdly-paced future thriller, before turning into a space movie that strives for accuracy in some areas but gets it bizarrely wrong in others. And, like most Eastern Bloc sf movies, the future is assumed to be a world of peaceful multinational cooperation, unlike in US films. The soundtrack is also surprisingly ahead of its time.

ikarieIkarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963, Czechoslovakia). The titular spacecraft is sent on a long mission to Alpha Centauri, and various incidents happen en route, including one member of the crew going mad. The production design reminds me a little of Raumpatrouille Orion in places, and there’s plenty of Anglophone films that were later influenced by it – perhaps because, unlike Hollywood sf films of the time, it had an intelligent script.

frau-im-mond-loresFrau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929, Germany). Not the first ever sf movie, that was Georges Méliès’s Le voyage dans la lune in 1902 (which is worth seeing), but Lang’s silent epic Frau im Mond is considerably more realistic and famously gave us the rocket launch countdown. It perhaps spends overmuch of its length laying out the background to the moon shot, and the scenes set on the lunar surface are unsurprisingly not especially accurate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first actual space movie.

queen_of_bloodQueen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA). This is one of those films Roger Corman cobbled together from footage from a pair of Soviet sf movies – in this case, Небо зовет and Мечте навстречу – with US-filmed material starring John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Judi Meredith and Basil Rathbone. Florence Marly plays the title role, an alien vampire stranded on Mars who is rescued by a mission from Earth. Although considered a B-movie, Queen Of Blood rises above its humble origins – those astonishing Soviet visuals, Meredith’s equal treatment alongside Saxon and Hopper, and Marley pulling a star turn as the alien vampire.

o_the-day-after-tomorrow-into-infinity-dvd-gerry-anderson-f508Into Infinity, Charles Crichton (1975, UK). AKA The Day After Tomorrow. A live-action made-for-television film by Gerry Anderson, it describes the maiden voyage of Altares, the first human spacecraft to travel at the speed of light. The dialogue is mostly exposition, there’s an explanatory narration by Ed Bishop, and, to be fair, the plot is somewhat on the dull side… but I remember loving it as a kid, and although a recent rewatch did reveal many of its flaws it still fired the sense of wonder I recalled from all those decades ago.

royalspaceforceRoyal Space Force: Wings of Honneâmise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). An anime film about a space programme on an entirely invented world, and which ends with the first launch of a crewed rocket, should surely qualify for this list. I only watched this for the first time recently, and I wasn’t that taken with it – but in the weeks since I found myself thinking more kindly of it, and I’m even considering getting hold of a copy of my own.

There are some others I could have included, one or two of which I might even hold in higher regard, but for this list I wanted a good geographic spread.