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Moving pictures 2019, #28

Catching up with my movie posts…

Inseminoid, Norman J Warren (1981, UK). This film has an amazingly detailed write-up on Wikipedia, which is surprising given it’s a crappy UK rip-off from of Alien. Something the Wikipedia entry is at surprising pains to deny. It doth protest too much. On an alien planet, a team are investigating alien ruins found in an extensive cave system (actually filmed in Chislehurst Caves). One of the team is injured in an explosion and mysterious crystals embed themselves in his flesh. He’s taken over by an alien intelligence, which sets out to kill everyone else. It’s all wrapped up in some juvenile metaphysics and really cheap production values. I can understand why it might have a cult following, in as much as it’s so bad some people might mistakenly believe it’s good. It’s not, believe me. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap, the script is terrible, and the story is far too reminiscent of the far superior Alien (one of the best sf films ever made). Perhaps the only thing in Inseminoid‘s favour is that Chislehurst Caves make an effective setting. Quite why Inseminoid warrants such a detailed entry on Wikipedia is a mystery. The film is very much of its time, a straight-to-video rip-off of an innovative Hollywood sf movie, the sort of thing Roger Corman spent several decades doing (with the occasional surprisingly good result). I suspect the making of Inseminoid would make a more interesting movie than Inseminoid itself. But perhaps it’s worth seeing at least once.

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, John Korty (1984, USA). There are many puzzling things about this movie, the first of which is: why did I even watch it? However, the most puzzling thing is: why was it even made? It’s set on the Ewok world which featured in The Empire Strikes Back and whose name currently escapes me, and features a cast composed chiefly, unsurprisingly, of Ewoks. So, animated teddy bears. In creepy rags. And there are some rebels whose spaceship crashes and the adults are abducted by some giant monster. The two kids are rescued by the Ewoks, who they persuade to help them rescue their parents from the giant monster. So they do. The end. Perhaps it’s me misremembering the Star Wars film, but the Ewoks in Caravan of Courage, well, their masks weren’t animatronic and so were fixed – ie, they didn’t change expression or their eyes blink at all. It was weirdly disconcerting, like watching a cast of animated toys designed by some deranged toymaker. Even the most ardent Star Wars would be disturbed by Caravan of Courage. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two child actors needed years of therapy after performing in it.

Aadai, Rathna Kumar (2019, India). Not all of the Indian films I watch are Bollywood ones. Some of them are Tamil-language, so Kollywood. Although just to confuse matters, many recent ones have been released in Hindi and Bengali as well as Tamil. Sometimes with different titles. The version of Aadai I watched was the Tollywood, Telugu-language, one and titled Aame. A young woman who presents a prank reality show tricks her way onto being an anchor for a serious news programme and impresses her bosses. That night, the television station vacates their offices for new premises. The woman and her friends break into the empty offices to celebrate her birthday. With mushrooms. When she wakes, she is locked in, her friends have vanished, and she has no clothes. The prankster has been pranked. But it’s played as tense drama, and the “prank” is actually well-deserved revenge. Although the film started off feeling a bit amateur, perhaps even deliberately so given it was aping a reality show, it improved pretty quickly. At 199 minutes, it’s probably stretched beyond its natural length, but this is Indian cinema and their definition of natural length is, well, longer. Not a bad thriller. Worth seeing.

Murder, Anurag Basu (2004, India). I had to check the year of release when watching this film because it all felt very 1990s. Not just the plot, but the set dressing too, the entire look and feel of the film. True, it’s only just twenty-first century but it seemed like an older film. Young woman marries her late sister’s widower chiefly to be a mother to her nephew. But the husband is a workaholic and doesn’t seem interested in her. She bumps into her old college boyfriend – the film is  set in Bangkok, incidentally – and the two embark on an affair. And, well, you can pretty much see where this is going and it’s only a matter of waiting for the twist, there’s always a twist, and hoping it was worth the wait, and… Meh. The film was a massive hit according to Wikipedia, a “super hit” even, and was followed by the imaginatively titled Murder 2 and the even more imaginatively titled Murder 3. Both sequels are free to view on Amazon Prime, so I will probably watch them.

Dragon Blade, Daniel Lee (2015, China). Another random film from Amazon Prime, although not quite as Chinese as it appeared. The two main roles were played by John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Plus Jackie Chan. Chan is the leader of a troop dedicated to safeguarding the Silk Road, but he is framed for a crime and sent, with his men, to Wild Geese Gate to join the slave labour there. Then a bunch of Roman legionaries, led by Cusack, turn up, having got a bit lost, and help out using their Roman engineering ingenuity (like the Roman Empire could teach the Chinese anything…). Which is fortunate because bad Roman Brody wants to kill the young boy Cusack is guarding so he can seize the throne, and has tricked the Parthians into an alliance. The historical basis for the story is apparently flimsy at best, and despite Chan playing the most senior character it still comes across as a mostly white saviour narrative. But it’s also a Chinese historical epic, which means pretty much everything is dialled up to eleven and there’s more CGI than you can shake a very tall Roman standard at. Watching Chan and Cusack go mano a mano is… not something I’d have imagined ever doing. It’s entertaining enough, although about as plausible as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Abrar Alvi (1962, India). I’m a big fan of Guru Dutt, the so-called “Orson Welles of India” and, like Orson Welles, he acted as well as directed. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a film in which Dutt appears but did not direct. Which is a bit weird because admiring someone as a director is not the same as admiring them as an actor, and the two roles have very little obvious overlap when it comes to creating movies. However, it seems there is some controversy over who actually directed Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, with some saying Dutt was responsible not Alvi, although both denied it. The film is certainly similar in style to the movies Dutt directed, but as star and producer, and director of the musical items, he probably had a great deal of influence. It was also Alvi’s directorial debut, but he’d worked as writer on four previous films directed by Dutt. Sahib Bibi aur Ghalum opens with Dutt wandering through the ruins of a Kolkata haveli, a nineteenth-century town mansion, which is being pulled down. The film then flashes back to when the house was occupied, and charts the adventures of a country yokel who joins the household and becomes the confidant of the young wife of one of the owning family (it’s all a bit Downton Abby, to be honest). He ends up a witness to her failing marriage, if not an inadvertent cause of it. The film is very Dutt, which I don’t consider a problem, obviously. The framing narrative is… odd, but gives the movie a poignant ending it would otherwise have lacked. Apparently Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam was a critical success but a box office flop. Fortunately, it has aged well. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #25

A couple more of these posts and I’ll be up to date. Then I can start watching the Blu-rays I brought six months ago in my suitcase…

Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg (2019, USA). I have this as a graphic novel in storage. Well, an omnibus of the comic story of it anyway. But that’s not what this film is. I remember quite liking it. The comic series, that is. One of Chris Claremont’s better storylines, I thought. I was slightly predisposed toward liking his material because I liked the sf trilogy he published about space pilot Nicole Shea, which were not great but very readable. I forget their titles. I probably have them in storage in the UK. None of which is in the slightest bit relevant. Anyway, the gist of the Dark Phoenix story, both comic and movie, is that Jean Grey, AKA Marvel Girl, and second only to Professor X in the X-Men, has some sort of weird space encounter which multiplies her powers and turns her to the dark side. In the comic she was a mature, established character, as indeed she was when the same thing sort of happened in the second of the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. But in this new retconned version, it happens when she is young and impressionable and not well established. In other words, this is a “teenager goes off the rails” movie but said teenager has fantastic powers. And the end result is surprisingly dull. I really didn’t care about the characters, even though most were played my actors I admire. Nor did I care about the story, most of which I must admit I’ve already forgotten. Although not a comics fan, I’ve always liked the X-Men more than other superhero groups, but this new version of them is very boring.

Mulan, Barry Cook & Tony Bancroft (1998, USA). I wanted to like this as the story is quite good: young woman takes her father’s place in army, is trained as warrior while masquerading as male, becomes hero in battle thanks to a clever decision during a battle rather than some manufactured reason. Her situation gets complicated when romance, with the emperor’s son, enters the picture. As trans narratives go, it’s safe for massmarket consumption and predictable. But this is Disney, so that’s hardly unexpected. But this is also Disney, so there are songs. And they’re bad. I cannot remember a single song from the movie, they are totally unmemorable. In all other respects – well, technical respects – Mulan wasn’t too bad. The characters were well-designed and readily identifiable, and the look and feel of everything was appropriate to the time and place of the setting (to, admittedly, my untutored eye). The narrative is one that appeals to me… but I really didn’t think a great deal of Mulan. I’ve remarked before that Disney films almost weaponise charm, and it’s the ones that are charming I find more successful – personally – than others. Mulan was good but not charming. I can’t put it up there with the Disney films I really liked. But it’s still worth watching if you’ve not seen it before.

The Olive Tree, Icíar Bollaín (2016, Spain). A young woman has a close relationship with her grandfather. But he has never really recovered from selling the ancient olive tree which formed the centre-piece of his olive grove. When he suffers a stroke, the young woman decides to track down the sold olive tree in the  hope it will improve his condition. This puts her at odds with the rest of the family. Eventually, she manages to find it… in Germany. Where it forms part of a company’s corporate identity, so they’re not going to part with it… This was one of those films you stumble across on Amazon Prime – because its recommendation algorithm is shit: I watch one Guru Dutt film and the only drama and comedy movies it recommends are Bollywood films. FFS. It’s not like you can browse the movies available using the website, either. There’s loads of good stuff there free to watch with Prime membership, but finding it is stupidly difficult. Anyway, The Olive Tree was a well-played drama, and one of the few Spanish dramas I’ve seen, as most Spanish films I’ve watched, the oeuvre of Pedro Almodóvar aside, have been thrillers. And pretty good ones too. Worth seeing.

White Vengeance, Daniel Lee (2011, China). China has a long tradition of making movies about its history, and the last couple of decades have seen a steady stream of lush CGI-heavy Chinese historical films. But then, it’s not like they’re short of history to make movies about. Unlike another country with a huge film industry… And like that other country, China seems to prefer making films about the bloodier periods of its history. White Vengeance is set during the interregnum between the Qin and Han dynasties, 206 – 202 BC. That’s a long time ago, and even with China’s long, long history, the production design of White Vengeance made it all look more mediaeval (to, admittedly, my untutored eye). Basically, two generals of a rebel king are charged with conquering a Qin kingdom, and the winner will sit on its throne. So there are lots of battles. and, to be honest, I got a bit lost in the middle. One scene, however, has stuck in memory: the generals challenge each other to a game of weiqi, which looks a lot like go, and each puts forward a champion. But one general’s champion is blind, so the other must blindfold himself, and they play five games simultaneously, from memory, to the death. It’s weirdly impressive and overly melodramatic. White Vengeance is not helped by a confusing structure, in which most of the plot is told in flashbacks, or crosscuts between the two groups, who seem remarkably similar in dress and appearance (all armoured, and beards and pony-tails). It looks fantastic, but it’s hard work figuring what’s going on. I’m tempted to give the film another go, because the history it depicts is quite fascinating and it’s a very immersive film. But I’ll have to concentrate…

Memory: The Origins of Alien, Alexandre O Philippe (2019 USA). Alien is one of my favourite films, and has been pretty much since its release. Although I didn’t see it first then, of course, as I was only 13 in 1979, and Alien was released with an 18 certificate. But I had loads of books about it. Memory: The Origins of Alien, however, slightly oversells its connection to that film as it’s mostly about Dan O’Bannon, the writer of the original script. O’Bannon also worked on Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie, and later created Farscape (ETA: as pointed out in a comment below, Farscape was created by Rockne O’Bannon, who is not related; whoops). It was after Dune had folded, that O’Bannon came up with the idea for Alien, which, to be honest, is not all that original. He called it Star Beast, and eventually sold the script to Walter Hill’s production company. But Hill hated the script and wanted to completely rewrite it. It all fell through, but Hill’s involvement gave the script a higher profile than previously. One of the directors O’Bannon sent it to was Ridley Scott, who apparently loved the chestburster scene – even though at that point Scott had only directed commercials and The Duellists, a historical film. Memory: The Origins of Alien doesn’t go into the making of Alien in great detail. There are a number of talking heads – but not O’Bannon, who died in 2009; or Ridley Scott – who describe what it was like on the production. It’s fascinating stuff, although perhaps more for fans of Alien. Which seems to be getting some sort of push at the moment, with a number of coffee-table books about the franchise being published this year, even though a sequel to Alien: Covenant (2017) is still a couple of years away. Worth seeing.

100, Sam Anton (1019, India). The title of this Kollywood movie refers to the 100th emergency call received by the protagonist, who, despite wanting to be out on the streets solving crimes and catching criminals, has been assigned to the emergency call control room. I wasn’t entirely sure if 100 was meant to be a thriller or a comedy as it seemed to be a bit of both. The hero is nowhere near as competent as he thinks he is, and other members of the cast seemed more like comic sidekicks. But the plot was almost pure thriller, with that 100th call leading the hero to discover that a young girl thought dead is actually the victim of a kidnapping, and she’s not the first… I’ve seen Kollywood – and Bollywood and Tollywood – films with better production values than 100, and, to be honest, better plots, but this was still pretty enjoyable. I’ve been watching a lot of Indian films recently – there’s lots of them on Amazon Prime, although not all have English subtitles, which can be bloody annoying – and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Most of them are not great films, but they’ve all been very entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941