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Moving pictures 2017, #45

Bit of a USA-fest this time. Not sure how that happened. Bit of a mixed bag quality-wise, however. Mars and the Pasolini I bought, but the rest were rentals.

Mars (2016, USA). This six-part mini-series for National Geographic – the National Geographic? – was apparently executive produced by Ron Howard, although I’m not entirely sure what that means he did. It depicts a serious attempt, in 2033, to set up a colony on Mars somewhere in the Valles Marineris. Six international astronauts are sent on a spacecraft funded by a consortium of private and public interests, with a base camp already set up remotely and awaiting their arrival. But their lander misses its assigned landing spot, and they have to trek across the Martian surface to the base camp. Which presents a problem, as they were supopsed to live in the lander until the camp was up and running. In fact, the Mars mission is just one long litany of disasters. None are serious enough to kill everyone, but it’s a bit like Apollo 13 every week, with something killing one or more of the colonists (a second mission arrives in episode 4, set four years after landing), or jeopardising the colony’s future. Clearly, they’re making the point that colonising Mars is a dangerous business – and judging by the Earth-set scenes, a hugely expensive business – but, like The Martian, the series is in danger of basing its entire narrative on manufactured jeopardy. Alongside this, or rather interspersed with this, is documentary footage about… SpaceX. Obviously, they provided some of the funding for the series. Elon Musk appears several times, discussing his dream of colonising Mars. The rest feels like a SpaceX infomercial. And yet… the production values are high, the Martian mission is convincing, the euro-cast are mostly good in their roles, and the end result is something which feels a good deal more plausible than The Martian. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I bought this, but it’s actually not that bad. One for those mostly interested in the topic, perhaps, but a good deal more intelligent than a certain feature film…

Suicide Squad, David Ayers (2016, USA). These are DC, right? Not Marvel. I get confused sometimes. One guy in tights looks much like another, one implausibly pneumatic woman looks much like another implausibly pneumatic woman. But the Joker is in this, and he’s from Batman, so I guess this must be DC. And, to be honest, when it came to reading comics, which I never did much as a kid, I tended to read Marvel more than DC. I still have a soft spot for the original Guardians of the Galaxy, for example (not the crappy rewritten version they made the crappy movie about). But I can’t say any DC hero, or villain, ever appealed me the same way. The Suicide Squad, a group of captured villains forced to work for a secret arm of the US government – like they need to do shit like that, when they have “security contractors” like Blackwater – includes a whole two villains I’ve heard of before, the Joker and Harlequin, and that’s only because they’re part of the Batman mythos. The rest are nobodies. And they’re all in prison. And then are taken out by the aforementioned secret government department, and sent to New York or maybe Chicago to fight the zombies created by an Ancient Egyptian sorceress or something who was, I seem to remember, one of the inmates, and who would not have been freed had they not freed them all to fight, er, her. I don’t know. Maybe that’s wrong. I zoned out during this movie because it was very dull. The cast had zero chemistry – Jared Leto’s Joker felt like a bad Halloween costume – and the plot was the usual nonsense about magical villain attacking metropolitan centre and needing to be defeated by superpowered forces. Suicide Squad does not have a good rep, and it’s easy to see why: it is not good. Watchmen is a better film; anything made by Zack Snyder is a better film (and it hurts to make that admission). This is, as Monty Python once said, one for laying down and avoiding.

Kal Ho Naa Ho, Nikhil Advani (2003, India). Bollywood has this knack – or perhaps it’s a philosophy – of turning even the most downer of stories into a film that will have the viewer smiling by the end. Kal Ho Naa Ho (the title means Tomorrow May Never Come) is a perfect example. It’s set in New York, not India. A young woman, Naina, has reached marriageable age but is not all that keen on marrying. Which is where Shahrukh Khan comes on the scene. But rather than present himself as a romantic rival for Naina, he encourages the relationship between Naina and her fellow MBA student, Rohit. And although there’s some initial confusion over who’s wooing who, it all gets sorted out with some singing and dancing, only for Khan to then reveal he’s terminally ill. I tweeted while watching this that the opening song sampled Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, and actually made a good job of it… and was surprised whem a Finnish friend correctly identified the film. I shouldn’t have been, of course – they watch more than just Kaurismäki up there, obviously – but most of the conversations I’ve had about Bollywood have been with Indian colleagues (I’m not sure which surprises them most: that I watch, and like, Bollywood films, or that I don’t like cricket…). Kal Ho Naa Ho was a really entertaining film. Either I’ve been very lucky with my Bollywood picks so far – and that seems unlikely, given I’ve watched several historical ones as well – but I’ve enjoyed more of them than I have recent Hollywood films – which is not to say there haven’t been a couple of stinkers, because there have; but on the whole, I’ve found Bollywood films I’ve watched in general considerably less annoying than recent Hollywood ones.

Hawks and Sparrows, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966, Italy). There was a sale on the eureka! website, and a new – and more complete! – edition of Metropolis available for pre-order, so I embiggened my order of the latter with a couple of discounted titles… including this one. It’s early Pasolini. As should have become evident throughout this year’s Moving pictures posts, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of Pasolini’s films, and while the sheer bizarreness of the costumes and settings of movies like Arabian Nights and Medea plugs into a long-running fascination of mine. I suspect I find his earlier movies – well, except for the Antonioni-esque Theorem – only to my liking because they seem like pastiches of Italian Neorealism, a cinematic genre of which I’m not overly fond. Hawks and Sparrows is about two itinerants who wander the Italian countryside looking for work and sustenance. En route, they meet a talking crow, who tells them of two Franciscan friars who were told to preach the Gospel to the hawks and sparrows. The friars eventually learn to understand the birds, but cannot persuade them to change their ways. This is all acted out in flashback, with Nanetto Davoli, Pasolini’s partner, and famous Italian comic actor Totò, as both the itinerants and the friars. (Totò turned out to be the illegitimate son of a Neopolitan noble, and was later recognised as a legitimate heir, so his real full name is a right mouthful: Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio. Still wonder why we need the upper classes?) Hawks and Sparrows has its moments – there are some good comic scenes, and the joke which drives the plot is not over-played. It’s not the sort of Pasolini film I really like, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.

Glory*, Edward Zwick (1989, USA). This I had marked down as one of those “chore movies” that I have to watch because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but don’t expect to enjoy. And yet, I did enjoy it. I thought it quite good, in fact. Matthew Broderick, who manages to look fifteen throughout the film, despite playing a character in his twenties, a real historical character, is a Yankee captain who is put in command of the 54th Regiment Massuchusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment in the Union army. Although Broderick’s character takes his responsibilities seriously, everyone else seems to think it’s a bit of a joke. The POC characters in the regiment are all drawn a bit broadly, perhaps even as stereotypes, but they certainly make the point that that only difference between the 54th Regiment and any other regiment is skin colour. Given the current fuss about the Confederacy – they were fucking racist fucking slave owners, FFS, it has nothing to do with erasing history and everything to do with recognising historical crimes, because, let’s face it, and you’d have to be an evil piece of shit to say otherwise, slavery was a horrible crime and there’s no defending it. Glory I had expected to be well-meaning rather than good drama – which I don’t have a problem with, least of all with the topic it covers – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually manages to make a decent fist of its story. The 54th Regiment were, ultimately, a failure, but they led the way for many more all-black regiments, most of which went on to serve with distinction during the American Civil War. Glory is a well-made film, and while that’s not enough for it, for me, to make the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it does cover an interesting incident in US history, and does it well, but, more than that, it covers a topic that should be more widely know. So, yes, I think it deserves its place on the list.

Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016, USA). If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that when social media praises a science fiction film, chances are I won’t be all that impressed. The reverse doesn’t always hold true – if they hate a film, I might like it, but I’ll probably agree with their take on it (or at least agree with their opinion of it, but for slightly different reasons). Arrival, as no doubt everyone knows, proved very popular in genre fandom. It even won a Hugo Award. So I had hopes for it (especially since LoveFilm had sent it to me just before I left for Finland, so I knew I had it waiting for me when I returned from Worldcon75). The story is adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, ‘Story of Your Life’. Chiang is a far from prolific writer whose fiction many people in genre are greatly enamoured of. He famously withdrew a novella from the Hugo because he didn’t think it was good enough. He must have a warped idea of the Hugos, then… And – unpopular opinion time – I don’t think he’s actually that good. His reputation is over-stated. And ‘Story of Your Life’ is not even one of his best stories. Or one that would seem obvious adaptation material. Which undoubtedly explains why the film is so poor. Ignoring the fact Villeneuve chose to frame, and shoot, it as warmed-over Malick (not a beneficial comparision, to my mind), the whole story is based on a conceit that simply isn’t justified by the narrative. The big reveal appears to be that the flashbacks are actually flashforwards, which only works because Amy Adams’s character is so poorly drawn the audience can’t tell the difference. The iconography used for the alien alphabet is effective, but doesn’t support the mid-film bolt-from-the-blue that it is not chronologically linear. In fact, there’s nothing in the film to support that except Adams’s voiceover. Am I surprised Arrival won the Hugo? No. The Hugo voters have notoriously bad taste in movies, and will vote for any Hollywood movie that looks like it possesses more than half a brain cell. It was, to be honest, the best film on the shortlist. But it was a piss poor shortlist.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 879

 

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Moving pictures, #37

I’m still working toward my entirely USA-free Moving picture post, but I’m not quite there yet…

sicarioSicario, Denis Villeneuve (2015, USA). I’d heard many good things about this film, although these days that doesn’t really give you any real indication of what to expect. It’s a thriller about the US-Mexican border and drugs and drug cartels. That tells you much more. Like, for example, it’s an essentially racist film. Every Mexican is either a gangbanger or an illegal immigrant. The only one that isn’t, a Mexican lawyer working with the US authorities, turns out to be an assassin bent on revenge. The message of the film seems to be the only way to beat the drug cartels is to descend to their level – ie, to tacitly admit that the rule of law has failed. This is pretty much implicit in the fact the operation which comprises much of the film’s narrative is planned and led by the CIA. Who are legally prohibited from operating on US domestic territory. But that’s not a narrative I’m prepared to accept. Treating Mexicans like subhumans, assassinating drug barons, and behaving like Wild West cowboys makes the good guys worse than the bad guys. You cannot win if you surrender the moral high ground. What makes it especially egregious is that there’s an easy way to solve the problem: legalise drugs. I fail to see how it can continue to be considered “political suicide”. The only explanation is that the illegal drug market earns so much it is in its interest to remain illegal, and those involved have bought sufficient politicians to keep the situation unchanged. Of course, it doesn’t help when popular culture valorises those who both supplying drugs and those break the law in order to prevent the supply of drugs. Because in order to create a hero, you need a villain for them to fight (but not necessarily defeat – because the War on Drugs is as unwinnable, and as just as much created and perpetuated by the forces of so-called law and order, as the War on Terror). This is not drama, it’s propaganda for the status quo. Films like Sicario have tendency to make me rant, which is why I dislike watching them. It nevertheless is a nice-looking film, and Emily Blunt is good in the lead role. But the story is a bag of shite, and a film that requires you to cheer for people who have willingly abandoned law and morality in order to achieve a suprious objective (and, in this case, a frankly objectionable, illegal and offensive, objective) leaves you little to like. Meh.

three_coloursThree Colours: Blue*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1993, France). Many years ago, I decided to widen my movie viewing by watching something highly-regarded that wasn’t your usual Hollywood output. I’d been subscribing to Sight & Sound for a few years, and over the decades I’d watched the occasional “arthouse film” or “world cinema” – if anything, I liked those sort of’films, which displayed different sensibilities and visions to those I’d grown up with. And so I came across Kieślowski, who was apparently regarded as a critics’ and directors’ director, and I dutifully bought all his available films in Artificial Eye DVD editions. And yes, they were good films, streets ahead of a lot of the stuff I was used to watching. Although Blind Chance didn’t do much more than other films using the same repeated-time premise had done, and while I really liked No End it felt like an aberration in Kieślowski’s oeuvre… But of all his works, the Three Colours trilogy is reckoned the best, and I duly bought it and watched each of the three films and thought them superior drama… Recently, Artifical Eye decided to release all of Tarkovsky’s films on Blu-ray for the first time, which reminded me they had already done so for some of Kieślowksi’s – so I decided to replace my DVD copies with Blu-ray editions, and… Juliette Binoche plays the wife of a composer who attempts to free herself of her life after her husband’s death in a car accident. But it proves much harder than she had anticipated. But with a Kieślowski film, it’s as much about the cinematography as it is the story – this is the film with the infamous sugar cube scene. I was surprised by what I’d remembered from previous viewings – the overall shape of the story had gone, but a sequence shot from the back offside wheel of a car had stuck with me, perhaps because it had struck me as a corny shot when I first saw it and still seems somewhat corny. But most of the rest of the film has that clarity of mise en scène you often see in French films (well, except perhaps in some of Godard’s more experimental movies), as well as the tight focus on a single character, usually an emotionally-damaged person. Blue is certainly excellent film-making, and Kieślowski’s reputation is well-deserved; but after watching the film it felt like a superior example of a particular type of film rather than a superior film. If that makes sense.

atlantisAtlantis Down, Max Bartoli (2010, USA). I bought this at the same time as the execrable Battle Tanker (see here), but it’s not that much better. The title refers to a Space Shuttle (surely by 2010 it was known the fleet was going to be retired? The last flight, by Atlantis, coincidentally, was in July 2011, after all). But not apparently in the world of Atlantis Down. A simple supply mission to several space stations goes awry when a bright flash strikes the Shuttle, and the crew mysteriously find themselves back on Earth… or is it? One member remained behind on the spacecraft, but the rest find themselves in a mysterious wood. And as they explore it, they’re killed off one-by-one in weird ways. It’s some alien experiment or something, but it’s also exceedingly derivative and dull. I forget what the actual point of the alien experiment actually was; I’m probably better off for not remembering. I do recall that the CGI Shuttle didn’t look right, that the Shuttle’s flightdeck appeared weird (the windows were above the crew’s heads), and that the references to “internal gravity” just made the whole thing sound stupid. Atlantis Down is not as bad as Battle Tanker, but that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s two wasted hours I could have better spent watching something by, say, Sokurov…

days_eclipseDays of Eclipse, Aleksandr Sokurov (1988, Russia). It’s not easy to love everything in a particular director’s oeuvre. Take Douglas Sirk, for example. All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, and I also love Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind. But Sirk also made a lot of forgettable films, like Taza, Son of Cochise or Battle Hymn. Aleksandr Sokurov is the director I most admire, and while I don’t love his films in the same way I love All That Heaven Allows, I do find them endlessly fascinating – and one or two I have watched repeatedly because they are so gorgeously filmed and yet so strangely resistant to parsing. Days of Eclipse is one of Sokurov’s better known films, albeit not in the Anglophone world as no English-subtitled edition has ever been released on DVD. It is also, unlike many of his other films, an adaptation of a novel, a science fiction novel, Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. But not an especially faithful adaptation – in the book, the main character is an astrophysicist and a mysterious force is interfering with his research; in the film, the main character is a doctor in a poor town Turkmenistan, and he discovers that religious faith appears to be improving the health of his parents. The movie is shot in a variety of different styles – mostly in a sienna-tinted monochrome, but occasionally in colour, and sometimes in straight black and white. If there’s a pattern to this, I didn’t spot it. The protagonist also unfortunately looks more like a member of a boyband than a Soviet physician, which is a little off-putting. But it’s certainly a film – like all of Sokurov’s – which bears repeated viewings and, in fact, pretty much demands them. I’m going to have to watch it again, for sure. At least it’s not one of the impenetrable ones which, typically, I tend to prefer as I can never figure out what’s going on in them. Days of Eclipse feels perversely straightforward. I still think Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently working, and I love the philosophical meditations of his documentaries… but his fictional films seem, to me, to succeed more the… more painterly they are. If that makes sense. The stories feel like snapshots, as though an encylopaedic knowledge is required to tease out and comprehend all the references. It makes for a viewing experience that leaves you wanting another viewing…and another one… and another one. I’m glad I finally got to see Days of Eclipse, even though I found it a little disappointing; but I’m extremely glad I have a copy of my own and can watch it again at my leisure. Which I certainly plan to do.

julietJuliet of the Spirits*, Federico Fellini (1965, Italy). When I bought myself copies of Casanova and Fellini Satyricon, I decided to chuck Fellini’s Roma onto the order despite having never seen it. I could have chosen Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) instead, since it was Fellini’s first film in colour and initially it looks on a par with the films mentioned… Fortunately, I didn’t. I liked Roma much more than I did Juliet of the Spirits. You see, there’s something I don’t quite get about Fellini’s films. The colour ones I’ve seen are hugely self-indulgent – it’s their chief appeal; and yet the black and white ones I’ve watched have not been as indulgent to the same extent. Except perhaps . And now I think about it, the whole trapeze thing in the final act of La strada is pretty self-indulgent… But Juliet of the Spirits is just as mad as Fellini Satyricon and Casanova, and just as much the product of a director who appeared to have free rein, and no desire to self-censor. It’s the complete antithesis of Hitchcock. At least it is in that respect. But Hitchcock apparently liked to build complicated sets on soundstages, and so too did Fellini – pretty much all of Juliet of the Spirits appears to take place on one. (I was also maused to spot in the openning titles that much of the film’s wardrobe had been supplied by Bri-Nylon.) The title character is married to a man who organises events and charity shows, and is also a serial philanderer. A series of encounters with a number of strange people guide her to a resolution with her husband. It would not be unfair to describe the film as a series of encounters with grotesques (in its original sense – the word derives from the statues placed in grottos in 15th century Italy), although the “caves” here are mostly over-furnished sets intended to be people’s homes, or a wood, or the beach, or…  Giulietta Masina is quite astonishingly good in the title role, appearing both knowing and wide-eyedly innocent. The artificial nature of some of the sets – their house, for example, appears to have an astroturf lawn – sometimes feels tonally wrong. And, to be fair, the whole occult element of the plot was totally lost on me. I would rate it higher than the black and white Fellini films I’ve seen – except for – but not as good as the other colour ones I’ve seen.

aar_paarAar Paar, Guru Dutt (1954, India). There’s this weird series of tonal shifts in many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. Apparently serious subjects are interrupted by song and dance routines, or unprompted moments of physical comedy. Aar Paar does sort of the reverse. It starts off as a comedy – a bit of light-hearted joshing as Dutt is released from prison, and while wandering the streets of Mumbai he pratfalls when he trips over the legs of a mechanic under a car… This last is Nicky, the love-interest, and that’s the “meet cute”. But Nicky’s father will have nothing to do with Dutt. He carries a message, as promised, from another prisoner to a local gangster… and so becomes embroiled in the gangster’s dirty schemes, while posing as a taxi-driver. But as he woos Nicky, and she comes to love him, against the wishes of her father, so a young woman working in the gangster’s bar falls in love with Dutt. And then it all turns serious, with Dutt coerced into being the getaway driver for a bank robbery because the gangster has kidnapped Nicky… And then Dutt, plus Bollywood regular Johnny Walker, decide to double-cross the gangster and rescue Nicky, leading to a Hollywood-style car chase and shootout. With songs, of course. I think th ereason I enjoy Dutt’s films is because he shows more of India than you see in more recent Bollywood films – the first song in Aar Paar features a series of women carrying water; compare that with the generic Westernised yuppie characters in Dil Chahta Hai. True, Aar Paar owes a lot of its story and story beats to Hollywood rather than Bollywood, but it’s still a very idiosyncratic approach to the material, and it’s also highly entertaining. I’ll be watching more by Dutt, I think.

outlawThe Outlaw, Howard Hughes (1943, USA). I think this one ended up on my rental list because I thought it was a Howard Hawks film – and so it is… sort of. It was actually directed by Howard Hughes, but Hawks was uncredited co-director. And, after all that, it seems the film is mostly famous for Jane Russell’s boobs. Hughes claims to have invented a push-up bra in order to make Russell’s bust more, er, well, more. But according to Wikipedia she never wore it. And, to add insult to injury, Russell plays a token over which the male characters fight but isn’t in the movie all that much. It’s actually about Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett – and although the last is a sheriff, I’m not entirely sure who the title refers to. Anyway, Russell tries to kill Billy in revenge for her brother but fails; later, after Billy has been wounded in a fight with Garrett, she nurses him back to health… and falls in love with him. But Holliday still wants his horse back – the theft of which kicked off the whole plot, although it being in the Kid’s possession didn’t prevent the two from becoming friends (Holliday and the Kid, that is). But it transpires Russell is also Holliday’s girl, so her falling for the Kid pisses him off. There’s a double-cross which sees her strung up to tempt the Kid back so Garrett and Holliday can capture him. And some gunfights. And mostly it felt like the sort of mythologising sexist rubbish Hollywood has always churned out about the Wild West, with nothing to lift it above any others of its ilk. I believe it is currently out of copyright, but I can think of no good reason why it should be remembered and celebrated.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 789