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Moving pictures 2017, #28

Another mixed bag…

Passengers, Morten Tyldum (2016, USA). This didn’t do too well at the box office, and was panned by critics; and was especially panned by many of the people I follow on Twitter/read on blogs. Chiefly because it was characterised as a rape/stalker fantasy. What many of those critics had failed to mention is that Pratt’s character agonises over his decision, but goes ahead and does it despite knowing he’s in the wrong. Although that in no way justifies his action, or makes it right. And Lawrence’s character roundly rejects him when she learns the truth. It’s an unpleasant story, but it’s disingenuous to claim it presents it without commentary. On top of which, the film has plenty of other problems. Briefly, Chris Pratt is a glorified mechanic being shipped in cold sleep to a distant colony world aboard a fancy CGI starship. A meteorite strike causes a glitch and he’s awakened ninety years before the starship reaches its destination. He cannot go back into cold sleep. And he’ll be dead by the time the ship reaches its destination. In the cold sleep chamber, he spots Jennifer Lawrence, fancies her, looks into life – she’s a celebrated writer – and falls in love with her. So he wakes her and pretends it was another glitch. They have a good time aboard the deserted starship, despite knowing they’ll not live to see the destination. Then she discovers he deliberately woke her. She rejects him. Then the reactor or something goes berserk because of the meteroid strike or something, and they have to work together to save the ship. Ship fixed, rift healed. The two of them live happily ever after… True, Passengers shows Pratt doing something unthinkable, and then shows him enjoying the fruits of that act – it is, in effect, a death sentence for Lawrence, triggered wholly by Pratt. But the consequences of that act are not left unexplored, or presented without commentary. In fact, the shit third act’s bullshit jeopardy, thrown into the plot in order to effect a reconciliation, is probably more offensive. Boy wakes girl, thus consigning her to an early death aboard a starship populated only by him, but fusion reactor meltdown makes it all okay… And yeah, he did wrong, he was being punished for it… and the film then fakes a situation to make it all work out okay. That’s the really bad thing about Passengers. I probably should have avoided it, as advised.

A Girl At My Door, July Jung (2014, South Korea). Another film David Tallerman added to my rental list. And another good call. (This is not to say they’ve all been good calls, but we seem to be averaging quite a high hit rate each.) A policewoman has been assigned as station chief at a small seaside town after a scandal back in Seoul. On her first day, she witnesses some schoolkids bullying a a girl their own age. Later, she spots the girl’s father beating the same girl, and she stops it. The policeman gets reluctantly involved when the girl turns up at her house, and she takes her in so she will no longer be beaten by her father. This, of course, causes talk. And is not helped by the policewoman drinking. It all comes to a head when the father – a drunkard, and manager of the town’s main business – accuses the policewoman of abusing his daughter. Which is only made worse when the daughter, in all innocence, gives answers to the police which can be easily misconstrued. But the girl has her revenge – she fakes an incident of rape from her father while her phone is on and afte rshe has called a policeman. A Girl At My Door can’t decide if it’s a drama or a thriller, and flips between both registers… but that works in its favour. It goes for dead-pan throughout, which means the spin put on events later in the film can be seen purely as perspective. Having said that, the teenage girl is a bit creepy – although in a way you can never quite put your finger on. The fact everything starts to go horribly wrong for the policewoman comes as no real surprise, but the way the girl turns the tables is a neat twist. Definitely worth seeing.

The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin (1940, USA). I admit I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, perhaps because it’s possibly Chaplin’s most famous film (it’s also an important plot point in Iron Sky)… but I’d never actually seen it. And then it popped up on Amazon Prime… And, well… It seems it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See  Before You Die list and I can see why: it’s a bit rubbish. It’s more Benny Hill than your actual Charlie Chaplin. The title refers to Hynkel who is, well, Hitler. But there’s also a Jewish tailor (that’s the actual name of the character) who closely resembles him. Both played, of course, by Chaplin. But the tailor loses his memory after being injured in WWI. He returns to the Jewish ghetto and tries to rebuild his life, but Hynkel’s stormtroopers are proesecuting a campaign of antisemitic violence and intimidation against the ghetto’s inhabitants. When the Jewish tailor becomes a target, he ‘s first helped out by Paulette Goddard, and later by an officer high in Hynkel’s regime, whose life the Jewish tailor saved during WWI (an early sequence in the film shows this: it’s a pretty dumb flying comedy routine). Having seen several Chaplin films, and thought them good, I was expecting more of The Great Dictator. It didn’t deliver. There were some clever gags in the films – the ack-ack gun, for example – but they were usually book-ended by weak comedy. It’s probably worth seeing this, so you can cross it off your list. But it’s far from being one of Chaplin’s best.

Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson (2016, Canada). Someone, a known and plainly deluded denier, asked Buzz Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had been to the Moon… and Aldrin punched him in the face. Since 1969 there have been conspiracy theories claiming Apollo 11, or all of the Apollo missions, were faked. It’s all complete bollocks, of course. (Hint: when a cover-up is more expensive and complicated than the event is it is supposedly covering up, chances are the event actually took place.) But while faked Moon landings have appeared in fiction during the past four and a half decades, the nearest Hollywood came was Capricorn One, which posited a faked landing on Mars. Until now. In the past two years, there have been two films about faked Moon landings – both, incidentally, suggesting Kubrick was involved – but neither of which have been US films. First was Moonwalkers (see here), which was French, and not entirely successful; and now we have Operation Avalanche from Canada. In this one, an ambitious young CIA agent persuades his bosses to allow him to a film a faked Apollo 11 moon landing because all indications are NASA will fail to achieve Kennedy’s target of the “by the end of the decade”. The agent and his team pose as a documentary crew, and the enture film is presented as found footage – ie, the footage they shot. And it makes a better fist of the found footage angle than Apollo 18 (which remains the best fictional representation of Apollo on film). The DVD’s cover art does Operation Avalanche no favours – nor, in fact, does the the title. The synopsis led me to expect something like Moonwalkers, which was not especially good, or funny. But Operation Avalanche is actually pretty good. It maintains an impressively earnest tone throughout, evokes its period especially well, and its cast of unknowns and barely-seens do a good job of convincing the viewer it’s all really quite real. Worth seeing.

Cumbres, Gabriel Nuncio (2013, Mexico). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime – it is proving not entirely useless, and despite being full of shit films, does actually have the odd gem buried in there. And it’s no good searching for it, because the search function is shite. You just… stumble across it. And hope it doesn’t disappear before you get the chance to watch it. I guess it’s little different, in effect, to channel-hopping… and discover ing that one of your 200+ cable channels is not showing an episode of NCIS or Friends by is ten minutes into a hard-to-find film you really want to see… Which is all somewhat irrelevant, as I knew nothing about Cumbres when I came across it – but the synopsis sounded intriguing, and it was a Mexican film and I’ve not seen many Mexican films (er, Jodorowsky… and that’s about it). A father wakes up his teenage daughter and tells her she has to drive her older sister out to relatives in the country because something bad has happened. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Nuncio takes his time revealing what the elder sister has done, although it’s mentioned early that it involves her boyfriend. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white, and is mostly set in the car in which the two drive south. It’s well-played, Nuncio’s coyness over revealing the reason for the sudden flight quickly ceases to be annoying, and it all hangs together exceedingly well. Good film.

Fat City*, John Huston (1972, USA). I’ve yet to figure out why Huston is important, or at least important enough to appear eight times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Eight times. Some of his early stuff is clearly seminal Hollywood film-making – and he was part of a Hollywood dynasty too. But I’m not sure this grim drama about a has-been boxer and an up-and-coming boxer was all that good. Stacey Keach plays a boxer fallen on hard times, forever promising he’ll get fit and return to the sport, but usually ending up back on the booze. Jeff Bridges plays the amateur Keach decides has talent, and who he pushes into a career in the sport. It’s set in a run-down area of Los Angeles, featuring a cast of alcoholics and low-lives, and is based on the only novel published by Leon Gardner. When I started working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, Fat City was unavailable on DVD, but a posh new dual format edition has just been released. Which was lucky for me. I guess. Although why it ever ended  up on the list is a mystery. True, I’m no fan of boxing films – or indeed of the sport (and it’s a bit rich actually calling it a “sport”, if you ask me), so much of its appeal is lost on me. But I am a fan of films, and nothing about Fat City especially stood out for me. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list count: 865

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Moving pictures, #21

And back to more films from the US than elsewhere. Given that only half the films described below are rentals, I can’t claim the vagaries of their service as an excuse. Oh well.

cindrelac2Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh (2015, USA). I bought a Blu-ray of the animated Disney Cinderella and the cheapest version available was a double Blu-ray box set with the 2015 live-action version of the film, because, probably, the live-action needs a bit of extra help to sell. I mean, whoever heard of a live-action Cinderella? Okay, it was directed by Branagh, and it’s got stars like Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgård and Derek Jacobi in it… but given the number of princess films Disney churns out, my expectations were understandably quite low. And yes, the film takes a few liberties with Perrault’s story, chiefly in order to give the characters more of a background. The two leads – Lily James and Richard Madden – are also a bit bland. But… there were some quite clever references to the Disney animated version, Bonham Carter’s absent-minded Fairy Godmother was fun, and Blanchett was on good form. However, the choreography during the ball scene just looked silly, and spoiled for me what had been up until then good family entertainment. A better film than I’d expected, but nowhere near as good as the animated version (although in its favour, its mice are considerably less annoying). [ABC]

rescuersThe Rescuers, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens (1977, USA). I have a vague memory of this film’s original theatrical release. I can’t remember if I went to see it at the cinema, or if on a trip to the cinema my sisters saw it and I watched some other film. Watching it this time, 38 years later, very little seemed all that familiar. The seagull I sort of remembered, and Madame Medusa I think I remembered… But nothing else. Apparently, The Rescuers was instrumental in turning around Disney’s fortunes – they had not a successful film since The Jungle Book in 1967. I’m not sure I understand why – I can’t think of a weirder pairing for the main characters as Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. And the animation looked a little crude and not very crisp when compared to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. I wasn’t that impressed. Amusingly, in 1999 Disney had to recall 3.4 million videocassettes of the second home video release because someone had spotted a photo of a topless women in the background of one of the shots.

hard_to_be_a_godHard to be a God, Aleksey German (2013, Russia). I’d heard a great deal about this film, and everything I’d heard led me to think I’d be much impressed by it. Not just that it was made by a Russian director, and made in that sort of very Russian style; or that it’s an adaptation of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky… Anyway, I bought the Blu-ray when it was released… and it sort of sat on the pile of films to be watched for six months or so before I finally decided to stick it in the player… An agent from Earth has infiltrated the society of another planet. The humans of the planet are anti-intellectual, and so are mired in the Middle Ages. The agent has taken the place of a local baron, and the local populace treat their nobles as god. On Blu-ray, the filth and squalour of the world German has created is visceral and obvious.  The film sort of meanders about, revelling in the awful conditions in which everyone lives, and the dumb laws under which they must survive (an old man is drowned upside down in shit, for example, for writing poetry – and being what the subtitles call a “smartypants”). It’s all very grim and very cheerless, but in a sort of weirdly unbelievable and implausible way. The cinematography is fantastic, the film’s commitment to its world is astonishing… but, even though I like slow cinema, this is not a film in which things happen at a particularly fast pace. I thought I’d like it more than I did, so in that respect it’s disappointing. But it’s definitely a film that stands numerous viewings, so I’m glad I bought a copy. [ABC]

black_godBlack God, White Devil*, Glauber Rocha (1964, Brazil). So I’d watched Rocha’s Entranced Earth – because it was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, it was a rental, see here – and I really enjoyed it and I was a bit drunk, so I went and bought DVDs of Rocha’s three films, of which Entranced Earth forms the middle part of the trilogy. Black God, White Devil is the first of the three. Obviously, I was interested to see what I made of it. And… well, it’s not a very good transfer. I like that Mr Bongo are releasing hard-to-find non-Anglophone movies, but they don’t seem to put much effort into it. Happily, Black God, White Devil is a good film. A really good film. It has a bit of the Jodorowsky about it, and it works really well. A poor farmer has to flee when he kills his boss (after his boss insists the farmer carry the cost of the loss of the two cattle which died of snake bites en route to market). The farmer and his wife join St Sebastian, an apocalyptic preacher who suggests violence is necessary for redemption. Meanwhile, the government is getting worried about St Sebastian and his growing influence. So they hire bandit Antonio das Mortes to kill the preacher and his followers. Two are left alive to spread the word – yes, the farmer and his wife. And they in turn become bandits. I now want more of Rocha’s films, but the three I have appear to be the only ones that are available. Bah. [0]

nobodoy_knowsNobody Knows, Hirokazu Koreeda (2004, Japan). This was recommended to me by David Tallerman, who has previously recommended anime films, but this is live action… although “action” may not be the right word. It’s a dramatisation of a true story. A woman with a twelve-year-old son moves into a new apartment. However, she actually has four kids – two are very young and are smuggled into the building inside suitcases, the other is eleven and turns up later. The woman continues to pretend she only has the one kid to her landlord. One day, she heads off to work… and never returns. She has abandoned her children. The oldest boy tries to keep the other children safe and fed, although what little money the mother left soon runs out. Then the utilities are cut off since the bills haven’t been paid. When the youngest girl falls from a stool, hits her head and dies, the three children bury her in a field near the airport. The film is played very flat, like a documentary, which has the odd side-effect of making the mother appear merely flighty instead of criminally negligent. Apparently, the real-life case was somewhat more gruesome – there were five children, not four; the youngest died after being assaulted  by friends of the eldest; and all were badly malnourished when discovered by the authorities (after a tip-off from the landlord). Another of the children also died – Wikipedia does not give the cause – and the body was found with the three survivors. The mother gave herself up when the case hit the news. Astonishingly, after she’d served her three year jail sentence, the mother was given custody of the two surviving girls.

olvidadosLos Olvidados*, Luis Buñuel (1950, Mexico). The title refers to the forgotten kids and teenagers who live on the streets of Mexico City – although this is not a documentary. The teenage leader of a street gang escapes from juvenile jail, tracks down the kid who supposedly grassed him up, then beats him to death with a rock. A younger kid is witness but promises to say nothing. His mother persuades the kid to go straight and he gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. But then the gang leader turns up and steals a knife. The kid is accused of the theft and sent to a progressive rehabilitation centre where, after a dodgy start, he seems to settle down. But then up pops the gang leader again, and he steals some money from the kid. They fight. During the fight, the kid tells everyone the gang leader is a murderer. The gang leader runs away. Later, he tracks down the kid and kills him. But the police are now after him – and they find him and gun him down. Shot in black and white, and in a social realist style, this is anything but a cheerful film. In fact, it’s really grim. To be honest, it didn’t much feel like a Buñuel movie, despite a bizarre dream sequence. To date, I’ve seen eight of Buñuel’s thirty-two films and only really liked two of them – The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, neither of which have that much in common. Much is made of Buñuel’s surrealism, or the surrealist elements of his films, and certainly the surrealism of the two I like is their major draw. But then I don’t see where Tristana, Belle du jour or Viridiana are especially surreal – and Un chien andalou and L’age d’or felt more like experimental films than anything else. An important director, undoubtedly, and one whose movies I will continue to watch – but I can’t say he’d make my top ten, or even top twenty…

kidThe Kid, Charlie Chaplin (1921, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, I can’t think why I put it on my rental list otherwise, but it’s not. Strange. Anyway, I watched it. The Kid is one of Chaplin’s most famous movies, and probably because of the title character. A woman has her baby stolen, it’s then left in an alleyway, where Chaplin finds it. He tries to get rid of the child, but fails… and so takes it home with him. The film then jumps forward five years, and the baby has grown into a little gamin, whom Chaplin’s tramp uses in his various cons. The kid throws rocks through windows, then Chaplin turns up with a pane of glass and is paid to replace the broken pane. There’s a scene where Chaplin is beaten up by a tough who’s wearing a bizarrely-padded jumper, and lots of Chaplin-like visual jokes… and a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Chaplin imagines himself as an angel, the kid too, and everyone else who has appeared in the film, and the two of them fly along the street set… and then Chaplin wakes up.  He decides to track down the kid’s mother, and return him to his rightful home. Which he does suspiciously easily – mother and son are re-united as if it had been five weeks and not five years, and everyone lives happily ever after. I actually prefer the other Chaplin films I’ve seen to this one, yes, even Monsieur Verdoux.

african_queenThe African Queen*, John Huston (1951, USA). Katherine Hepburn is the sister of a British missionary (Robert Morley) in German East Africa in 1914. Humph is the captain of the eponymous steam-powered river boat which regularly delivers supplies. WWI breaks out, the Germans burn down the missionaries’ village, Morley is killed, so Hepburn and Humph escape on the African Queen. They plan to follow the river to the lake at its end, and there destroy the German gunboat which is preventing the British from attacking. Along the way, they fall in love, sneak past a German fort which commands an excellent view of the river, fix a broken propellor, survive a trip through some fierce rapids… It’s all very adventuresome – but then it is adapted from a CS Forester novel. Hepburn and Bogart forever hover on the edge of parody; and half the time they feel like impressionists playing the actors playing their roles. It’s all very silly, and amazingly lightweight for a film that’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. In fact, I’m surprised it actually made the list. Huston is on there eight times, and some of the choices are baffling – Prizzi’s Honour? WTF? After early classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (both also starring Humph), you have to wonder what happened…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 761


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Moving pictures, #27

Almost caught up with these. Although no doubt I’ll go and watch another half a dozen films one afternoon and end up behind again. Sigh. (Um, have just noticed: after my last Moving pictures post contained no US films, this one is entirely movies from the USA. Ah well. Must do better.)

deseretDeseret*, James Benning (1995, USA). Ever watched a film and loved it so much you go online and buy every other film by that director you can find? I knew nothing about Benning, only that Deseret was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list. I didn’t even know what the title meant. I couldn’t find a rental copy, so I ended up buying the film on DVD. And then I watched it one evening. The title actually refers to the name of a provisional state, proposed in 1849 by Mormon settlers but never accepted by the US government. Deseret-the-film is about Utah, which is one of the states in what would have been Deseret-the-territory. While a static 16mm camera records the Utah landscape, and later urban areas, in shots of no more than two or three minutes duration, a voice reads out stories about the state from the New York Times, starting in 1851 and through each year to 1994. Initially shot in black and white, when the voice-over reaches the 1990s the film becomes colour. The images show the changes wrought on the state by the presence of humanity; and some of the newspaper stories are quite critical of the people in Utah (although apparently the Mormon Church are happy with the film). I loved the use of imagery and voice-over, I found it mesmerising. It reminded me of Sokurov’s elegy films. I loved it so much I looked online, discovered the Österreiches Filmmuseum in Vienna has to date released five DVDS by Benning, including this one, featuring eleven of his films. So I bought the other four DVDs:  American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide, casting a glance / RR, California Trilogy and natural history / Ruhr.

bigskyThe Big Sky, Howard Hawks (1952, USA). This film is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the amalgamated list – meaning it either got added after 2013, or dropped in favour of a more recent film. But it’s a Howard Hawks film, which is why I rented it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw proved to be a terrible transfer, pretty much a VHS quality picture. It’s set in 1832, Kirk Douglas is a hunter who has run in with another hunter, the two become friends and travel together to New Orleans, where they sign up on a trip to travel 2000 miles up the Missouri River to trade with Blackfoot Indians. And they can do this because they have with them a Blackfoot princess rescued years before from an enemy nation. This is US history as told by whites for whites. The Native Americans are treated sympathetically – more so than you would expect for a Hollywood film – but this is still manifest destiny in action, the continent for its conquerors, etc. Douglas is at his smirking best, the nasty fur trading company is nasty, Arthur Hunnicutt does a good line in drunk hunters who have done it all and actually know quite a bit… A film worth seeing once but not a great film, and probably not really good enough to make any instantiation of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

swingtimeSwing Time*, George Stevens (1936, USA). You can’t go wrong with Fred and Ginger. They are, in fact, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon when I bunged this disc in the player, but a Sunday afternoon film was what I was expecting. And so it seemed to be. Fred misses his wedding because the rest of his dance troupe conspire to delay him as his marriage would lead to the troupe disbanding. When Fred does make it, after the wedding has been called off, he promises his angry father-in-law-to-be that he will return to wed his fiancée when he has earned $25,000. So he heads off to New York, bumps into Ginger but gets off on the wrong foot with her, follows her to the dance studio where she works as a teacher, buys a lesson with her so he can apologise, but when he fumbles his dancing she is fired by the studio’s oleaginous owner, so Fred demonstrates she really has taught him astonishingly well in such a short lesson… leading to a quite brilliant Fred and Ginger dance routine… And from that point on, the film couldn’t put a foot wrong. Okay, so it went a bit all formula, but it had built up such a bank of charm it would have had to really fuck up to lose it. Fred and Ginger audition for a club to put on a dance routine, but there are obstacles to overcome, not least Fred’s love of gambling… But it all works out in the end, as it must. A fun film.

deseretFour Corners, James Benning (1997, USA). This is the second film on the DVD mentioned above (see cover art to the left). It follows a similar pattern to Deseret, although it’s not quite as successful. The film is based on the works of four artists – Claude Monet, Moses Tolliver,Native American wall-painter “Yukawa” and Jasper Johns – and opens each of its four sections with on-screen text about the artist’s life. It then shows a series of 16mm shots of landscape from one of the four states which make up the four corners region: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Mostly the voice-over focuses on the Native Americans who once lived in the region, the discovery and subsequent exploitation of their artefacts by local families, and the eventual disposition of the sites. Shots are often longer than in Deseret, which can test your patience, but the voice-over is always interesting. According to the DVD booklet, “I wanted to be entirely democratic, and so each section is exactly the same as all the others, down to the number of letters in the text biographies of the artists [total 1,214] and the number of words [1,186] in the voice-over stories”. I can’t wait to watch the other Benning films.

hitchcock1The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock (1955, USA). A couple of months ago, Amazon had a “Prime Day” and offered a bunch of bargains to Prime members. On offer were Blu-ray editions of two Alfred Hitchcock collections for £15 each. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever bought, back in the 1990s – but I fancied upgrading. And so I’ve been rewatching them on Blu-ray at irregular intervals. I’ve always rated Hitchcock as one of the most consistently entertaining of directors, a master craftsman who made a lot of excellent movies, including a couple of stone cold classics. This one, sadly, is neither. But what I had forgotten about The Trouble with Harry is the gorgeous Technicolor. It’s shot in New England in autumn, just like a favourite film of mine, and it looks beautiful on the screen. Unfortunately, the story is thumpingly light-hearted – Hitchcock’s only outright comedy, apparently – and the male lead, John Forsyth, can’t manage the lightness of touch required by the script. As I’ve rewatched these Hitchcock films I’ve found myself re-evaluating them. He was remarkable in how little footage he discarded  – in other words, he shot precisely as much footage as he needed and no more, and planned each shot so thoroughly retakes and reshots were unnecessary. And his films are brilliantly framed – even when it doesn’t go right, he still stuck to his plan (in this film, the trees were apparently embarrassingly free of leaves when the crew arrived to shoot, so Hitchcock had leaves glued to them – er, the trees, that is). But some of the stories he chose to film are, frankly, not very interesting. This one is a case in point – it’s like he tried for a screwball comedy but instead shot it as a melodrama. The end result is identifiable as neither. Another male lead might have been able to pull it off, especially given that the supporting cast are so good, but I doubt it – Hitchcock’s hand lays a bit too heavy on the movie. Still, it is, as I said, a beautiful-looking film.

m_verdouxMonsieur Verdoux*, Charles Chaplin (1947, USA). Chaplin plays the title role, a bank clerk turned bigamist and serial killer of wealthy middle-aged women. I’m not sure where the humour comes from in this, although there are a number of nice slapstick routines – a fall out of a window, for example, surprised a laugh out of me – and Chaplin does play his role well. But. But. It all feels a bit like a traveller from a different era. I can see the film working as a silent movie in the 1920s, but by the late 1940s it’s inability to decide if it’s a drawing-room farce, a slapstick comedy, or just plain black humour results in far too many shifts in tone. And Martha Raye’s character is just plain weird. I’m glad I went to the trouble of seeing it, but I’ll not be dashing out to buy all of Chaplin’s DVDs…

project_almanacProject Almanac, Dean Israelite (2014, USA). Is it possible to put a new spin on the time travel story? And no, doing it as found footage doesn’t count. In fact, that’s a strike against it. Because found footage needs to be part of the story, not just a gimmick for telling it, and it’s been so over-done now it’s lost all currency. But never mind, because at least Dean Isrealite thinks it’s a smart way to tell his story. Which in this case involves a high schooler whose deceased father turns out to have built a time machine – or very nearly one. But inventor son completes it, and he and his friends start travelling back in time, initially for shits and giggles, then kicks and Groundhog Day style romance, then personal gain, then to fix the dreaded Hollywood father-son issue. Twenty years ago, perhaps, this would have been an interesting film, but time is a friend to no one (oh the irony), and instead we have something not quite original enough, nor derivative enough, to be interesting, which pretends to scientific credibility while making a sixteen-inch pizza with all the trimmings of its pseudo-science, and whose central scene is set back-stage at a Lollapalooza festival as if the film-makers don’t want anyone the slightest bit confused about their audience demographic. This is a film whose window of relevancy is about five seconds long, and even shorter for anyone not in their early twenties, and whoops one year later it’s gone. Shame, as it had its moments.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 643


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Recenter Reading Roundup

I think I’m going to start doing this sort of thing regularly – a fortnightly run-down on the books I’ve read and the films I’ve watched. It’s sort of the blog equivalent of reality television, without having to resort to pimpage or thieving content from elsewhere.

Books:
Stickleback, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli (2007), first appeared in the comic 2000AD. The title character is a Victorian crime lord, initially presented as a mystery to be investigated by half-Turkish Scotland Yard detective Inspector Valentine Bey. But it’s all a plot because Stickleback is trying to defeat the City Fathers, a druidic brotherhood which has secretly controlled London since the Dark Ages. In the second story in this volume, Stickleback is the hero – well, antihero – as he prevents some eldritch horrors from taking over the earth after they’ve stolen the last dragon’s egg. Some mysteries are left unexplained – Stickleback’s real identity, for example. Excellent stuff.

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad (2005). See here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004), I liked less than I had expected to. It was shortlisted for the Booker, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke Awards, and won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, so I had high hopes of it. Unfortunately, I thought the sf elements were clumsily done – a post-apocalypse story written in debased English… yawn. And the transcript of an interview with an uplifted clone in a corporate near-future Korea – hardly a ground-breaking idea – which is spoiled because the clone actually speaks in purple prose. Having said that, the book’s structure of six nested stories was a neat idea, and the writing was generally very good. Unfortunately, the whole didn’t quite add up to the sum of the parts, and the links between the stories often came across as forced. A noble failure, I think.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (2007), I was unsure about reading. I hadn’t really enjoyed his previous book, Saturday, so I wasn’t going to shell out money for his latest. But I managed to blag a copy of On Chesil Beach for nothing on bookmoch.com. And I’m glad I got it for nothing. It’s typical McEwan – well-written (and excellent in parts) – but his formula has long since lost its shine: ie, a leisurely build-up to a decision, the wrong choice is made, and the rest of the book shows the consequences of that choice. A new plot would be nice.

The Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster (1972). See here.

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980), is, I think, better than The Balkan Trilogy. Admittedly, I’m interested in the period it covers – World War II in Egypt – because of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups, two groups of poets and writers active during that time, which included Manning herself, Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, John Jarmain and Keith Douglas, among others. In this book, Guy Pringle remains mostly unsympathetic and Harriet Pringle still incapable of recognising what the people around her are really like. Sadly, the television adaptation Fortunes Of War didn’t handle this half of the story as well as it did The Balkan Trilogy – too much was missed out. The fact that the books are better should come as no real surprise. And this might well be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865), is a book I’d never actually read as a child, although I’d picked up the story through cultural osmosis. Unfortunately, it seems to be a book you should read as a child. As an adult, I found it patronising and simplistic. Ah well. At least I can cross it off the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books list.

The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury (1975), is another of the books on the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books. Which is why I mooched a copy and read it. It took me two goes to start, and the second time I was on a coach heading for London, so I couldn’t really put it down and pick up another book… And I’m glad I forced myself to read it. It takes a while to get going, but once you’ve clicked into the narrative, it’s an excellent read. The committee meeting alone is worth the price of admission. Now I want to see the 1980 BBC television adaptation…

The Custodians, Richard Cowper (1976), is a collection of four short stories by the author of the excellent White Bird of Kinship trilogy. In fact, The Custodians includes the prequel short story, ‘Pipers at the Gates of Dawn’, for that trilogy. The other three stories are very much of their time and place – very considered British science fiction of the 1970s, with some good writing, some creaky ideas, and a mostly slow narrative pace.

Films:
Show Me Love, Together, Lilja 4-Ever and A Hole in my Heart, dir. Lukas Moodysson (1998 – 2004), are all in the Lukas Moodysson Presents DVD boxed set which I bought when it was on sale. Show Me Love, a sort of Swedish Skins – misbehaving teenagers – in which the most popular girl in the year first victimises the class lesbian then falls in love with her, is good. Together – battered wife takes her kids to join her brother in his leftie peacenik vegetarian commune – is less gripping, although a more gently affectionate film. Lilja 4-Ever is the best of the four – fifteen year-old Lilja is left behind in Russia when her mother emigrates to the US. Abandoned and in desperate need of cash, she becomes a prostitute… and finds herself a new boyfriend who promises to take her to live in Sweden. When she gets there, she’s kept locked up in a flat, and escorted by a brutal minder to have sex with other men. Oksana Akinshina is superb as Lilja, and Artyom Bogucharsky is very good as her friend Volodya. A hard film to watch. A Hole in my Heart is also difficult to watch, but for different reasons. It takes place entirely in a single apartment, in which a man is making amateur porn films while his teenage son hides in his bedroom and listens to music. It’s one of those films where the director’s intentions are clear, but he’s not been entirely successful in presenting them.

City Lights, dir, Charlie Chaplin (1931), should be familiar to everyone. Chaplin’s cheeky tramp saves the life of a rich businessman, who rewards him by showing him the high life. But he does so when he’s drunk. When he sobers up, he forgets who Chaplin is. It might be eighty years old, but it’s still very funny.

Walk On Water, dir. Eytan Fox (2004), proved a surprise. A Mossad agent returns to Israel after assassinating a Hamas leader to discover his wife has committed suicide. His boss gives him an “easy” assignment while he comes to terms with his loss: he is to act as guide to a German who is visiting his kibbutzim sister. Their grandfather is a Nazi war criminal who was in South America but has recently disappeared. The Mossad agent is tasked with discovering if they know the grandfather’s location. The story doesn’t quite progress the way it seems as though it might, but never mind. A good film. And apparently inspired by a true story.

Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005), was a rewatch. I was never in to Buffy, and I thought Firefly was too much “Cowboys in space” – not to mention ripping off the Traveller role-playing game – to really appeal. Even on re-watch, Serenity seems too dependent on Firefly, and while its story does explain some things about Firefly‘s universe, it still feels too much like a sequence of set scenes. Oh, and the bit where River kills all the Reavers is just silly.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, dir, Bille August (1997), was another rewatch. One of these days I’ll have to reread the novel by Peter Høeg on which it was based. Julia Ormond manages to make the prickly Smilla a sympathetic protagonist, but the opening mystery surrounding the young boy’s fatal fall from the roof of the apartment block feels mishandled – as if something else were driving the plot, and it was just being carried along for the ride. I still like the film, though.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – the only thing I can say about this is, “Oh dear”. George Lucas must have decided that since his fanbase is greying, he needs to drag in the kiddies. Which explains some of the gloriously ill-considered mis-steps in this mess of a film. Anakin Skywalker is given a wise-cracking teenage girl as a sidekick, who manages to spend the entire film irritating the audience. The plot doesn’t make sense – rescue the (disgustingly cute) baby son of Jabba the Hutt, because the Republic needs access to the Hutt’s trade routes. Eh? A minor gangster on a backwater world suddenly controls half the galaxy? And so the Republic decides to send a single Jedi, plus teenage girl, to effect a rescue? It’s not so much that Lucas jumps the shark in this, as if he’s running the 400 metres hurdles over sharks. Definitely a film to avoid.