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Moving pictures 2018, #35

A good mix, nothing too populist, but instead some good films from a number of different countries… Well, okay, maybe not all of them are that good…

Caravaggio*, Derek Jarman (1986, UK). That’s the last of the Derek Jarman box set and it’s a film I first saw many years ago – not at school, as it was released two years after I sat my A Levels, but perhaps when I was a university student. I don’t remember, I just remember the film itself… and this rewatch did not in that respect provide any surprises. There were a few scenes I had forgotten, but much of the film had remained in memory. Which I guess means something. Jarman’s use of deliberately anachronistic set dressing I’d certainly remembered, so the appearance of trucks and such in some scenes did not seem as shocking as perhaps intended. Which is not to say they did not perform their purpose – perhaps even more so, because the shock value no longer applied, I could see them for what they were. Which was elements of an idiosyncratic retelling of the life of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which used his paintings – or those that have survived – as inspiration to document parts of his life. The  title role is played by Nigel Terry, who has never been better, but there are plenty of other familiar faces in there. Also in the cast is Sean Bean, in his first major role, as is Tilda Swinton, whom he snogs. Which was weird. The film is mostly told from Caravaggio’s death-bed, using it to jump back to incidents in his life. It works as well inasmuch as it allows for commentary. The film’s aesthetic, anachronisms and all, I thought especially effective, and I ended up liking the film more than I had expected. I bought this box set on a whim, and because I’d not seen Jubilee but some recent watches on Jarman’s films had persuaded me it might be worth a punt. And it was indeed. It’s even turned me into a sort of fan of Jarman’s films, which I wasn’t before. I’m now eagerly awaiting the Volume 2 box set.

Black Rose Mansion, Kinji Fukasaku (1969, Japan). Fukasaku, who is best known these days for his film of Battle Royale, made two films with famous Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (AKA Akihiro Maruyama) – this one and Kurotokage (see here). Having seen both, I can definitely say Kurotokage is the better of the two. Which is not to say Black Rose Mansion, AKA Kuro bara no yakata, is bad. It has its moments. Miwa plays the mysterious singer in the titular roadhouse. Not only is Ryuko’s past a mystery, but it also seems wildly inconsistent, as a series of men turn up claiming to be her lover and she refuses to admit whether she had affairs with them. It is, to be honest, all a little over the top, especially given that some of them profess their undying love by killing themselves and the deaths are presented with all the technicolor relish of B-movies. The whole thing began to pall after a while, it must be said, given that Miwa’s character remained stubbornly mute on her past and the parade of past lovers didn’t seem to prove anything. If you must watch a camp 1960s Japanese thriller, then I’d recommend Kurotokage over this one.

Okja, Bong Joon-ho (2017, South Korea). This was recommended by a number of friends, both those who watch Korean cinema and those who don’t. And having now seen it, I can understand why, as it sort of feels like a Korean film without actually being one. Although it certainly opens like a Hollywood movie. A US company has a bred a super-pig and sent super piglets around the world to be reared by indigenous farmers. Ten years later, they will be assessed and the best will win a prize. There’s a problem right there – not just the genetically-engineered pig, but the idea of using subsistence level farmers to grow it, given that the governmental and corporate world have been trying to wipe out subsistence level farmers for decades. Anyway, the one in South Korea, called Okja by the young woman who cares for it, wins and is shipped to New York for the ceremony. But an animal rights group try to prevent this, as they’re convinced the corporation’s motives are not as advertised. And it’s all the slightly off-kilter approach Boon brings to a story married to the usual Hollywood glib depiction of corporatisation and the near-future, sort of like cyberpunk with its raison d’être surgically removed so smoothly it hasn’t even noticed… It didn’t help that the titular super-pig looked more like a hippo, or that Tilda Swinton, playing the twin sisters who ran the corporation chewed the scenery more than the super-pig… It all felt like a fun movie that was trying so hard to appeal to a Hollywood market it had lost whatever charm it might have had. It looked very nice, but it was not very likeable.

Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975, Senegal). Xala, pronounced khala, means “temporary impotence” in Wolof, and is also the title of the novel by Sembène from which this film was adapted. The film opens with a voiceover describing Senegal’s independence, with actors playing the parts of the new Senegalese government. One of these, a minister, is congratulated on his upcoming nuptials. To a woman less than half his age. And she’s his third wife. I’m sorry, I don’t give a shit what your religion is, but there’s no justification for polygamy. Women are not property. Sembène is making the same point, although he’s also setting out an allegory about independence, in which the new wife is the country’s new-found freedom. Which results in impotence – the minister can’t get it up despite the manifold attractions of his new wife. He is not only too wedded to the old ways, he prospered too well under them. Now he has control, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So to speak. I have to date seen five films by Ousmane Sembène and I think they’re all pretty damn good. It’s not that they’re polished pieces of work, because they’re not – there are no special effects, no studio sets, most of the cast are non-professional, Sembène’s lack of resource as usually there to see on the screen… But they’re so well-presented. Not just as depictions of life in Senegal – in Dakar – at the time of filming, but also as drama and as political statements. Sembène made 13 movies (four of them shorts) and wrote ten novels. I want to see all his films, and have a bash at some of his novels.

Winter Kills, William Richert (1979, USA). This film is allegedly a forgotten classic, and “forgotten” certainly applies to it as I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. And yet it received many positive reviews on its initial release. It also had a troubled production history, and I wonder if that has added to the film’s reputation… because as a straight-up thriller it leaves something to be desired, and as a comedy, black or otherwise, it fails dismally; although it nevertheless manages to mostly entertain. The plot is a thinly-disguised reference to the assassination of JFK. Twenty years after the death of the president, his brother is approached with evidence demonstrating the commonly-accepted narrative is wrong. So he investigates further, and follows a chain of anecdote and interview to… I’m not sure if it’s worth the spoiler. I can’t honestly see what was so good about this film it gained the label “forgotten classic”. The cast are pretty good, true, but the plot stumbles from the obvious to the inane, and its so-called humour falls flat more often than not. Its production history is actually more entertaining – look it up on Wikipedia. The version I watched was the director’s cut, which is not always the best cut. But, to be honest, it’s hard to see how any cut could make this film a classic unless there were thousands more feet of film left on the cutting-room floor. Best avoided.

Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999, China). More Chinese cinema, from a well-known Fifth Generation director. The teacher in a countryside village has to leave for family reasons, so a substitute teacher is sent… but she’s thirteen-years-old and hardly qualified. And it shows initially. When one of the boys runs away to the city to earn money to pay off his mother’s debts, she follows him. But he’s not where he’s supposed to be, so she tries to persuade the radio station manager to broadcast a message to him. Instead, a local TV station take up her story and interview her on air – or at least try to, as she clams up from nervousness. But the boy, who’s living on the streets, sees the broadcast, the two are united, and they’re returned to the village with money and school equipment – chalk, basically – by the TV station, who smell a better story. Everyone in the movies is a non-professional actor, and many filled roles they hold in real life. It gave the whole thing a very documentary air, something I especially like about Sixth Generation movies, and I have to wonder if this is one of their touchstone works. Zhang, from the films of his I’ve seen, has had a varied career, but Not One Less so much resembled the sort of Chinese film I really like that I couldn’t help but love it. The cast of mostly children are really good, especially the two leads, and the whole thing is both excellent commentary and excellent drama. Apparently, the Chinese authorities made Zhang change the text at the end which claims one million children drop out of school due to poverty because the real figure – three to five times that – was too embarrassing. The poverty of the schooling actually shown on the screen should be embarrassment enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 918

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Moving pictures 2018, #30

Six films, six countries, six languages. And not one of them English. Don’t think I’ve managed that before. And yes, Sebastiane is a British film. But the dialogue is entirely in Vulgar Latin. (On the other hand, there’s some English dialogue in Force Majeure – but the main language is Swedish.)

Sebastiane, Derek Jarman (1976, UK). I’m fairly sure I watched this back in the 1980s, perhaps even when I was at boarding school – although the likelihood of a bunch of fifteen or sixteen year old boys watching a homoerotic film set during Roman times with dialogue entirely in Vulgar Latin seems a bit far-fetched. Maybe I watched it during a school vacation. Or maybe when I was a student. Certainly, some parts of the film as I watched this time were familiar to me. The title refers to Saint Sebastian, who was a member of the Diocletian Guard in fourth-century Rome, and exiled to a remote garrison after trying to prevent the murder of one of the emperor’s catamites during an orgy. The orgy opens the film, and pretty much sets the scene for the rest of it. This is not a movie which makes a secret of who it is aimed at. At the garrison, Sebastiane declares himself a pacifist, and is eventually executed for refusing to fight. There are a lot of male bodies in very little clothing either lying around on a beach or fighting with wooden swords. According to Wikipedia, Sebastiane “was controversial for the homoeroticism portrayed between the soldiers and for being dialogued entirely in Latin”, and while I can see the latter being controversial – as indeed is the misuse of “dialogue” as a verb – the former should really not have been a problem in 1976. True, it would limit the film’s release – to pretty much a handful of cinemas in London, I imagine – but even in 1976 a gay film could hardly be controversial. It’s not like Jarman had built up a reputation for making heteronormative crowd-pleasers – Sebastiane was his first feature film after a number of avant garde shorts, many – if not all – of which had gay content. For all that, Sebastiane is… mostly dull. The opening orgy has its moments, is almost Fellini-esque in parts, but once the title character is exiled, the pace slows to a crawl and it often feels like the film is making more of a meal of its nudity and Latin than it really needs to. Despite that, for a first feature, this is quite a polished work, although the camera-work often impresses more than the acting. The more Jarman I watch, the more I’m glad I bought this box set.

Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund (2014, Sweden). I was lent this film by David Tallerman, although I’m not sure what prompted it as he normally lends me weird Korean or anime films. Not that I’m complaining, I hasten to add. A Swedish family are holidaying in the French Alps. One afternoon, while eating lunch on an outside deck of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche is triggered. But it looks much more severe than it is, throwing up lots of snow, which covers the restaurant deck and causes the diners to panic. The husband runs away, leaving his family to the their fate. And when the, er, snow has settled, he tries to make light of his, um, flight. But his wife is not so forgiving. And the rest of the film charts the disintegration of their marriage. It’s one of those films that isn’t at all funny but is described as  a comedy, a black comedy. As a general rule, even black comedies generate one or two laughs. This one didn’t. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s actually really good. Just not very funny. Worth seeing, though.

L’humanité, Bruno Dumont (1999, France). I’ve yet to figure out what to make of this film. It was… odd. Emmanuel Schotté plays a police inspector in a small town in the north of France. A young girl’s body is discovered – she has been brutally raped and murdered. Schotté’s character seems a bit, well, not all there. Almost child-like at times. He reacts badly to the crime. He also spends time with his friends, who seem to accept him on sufferance, and lives with his mother, who bullies him. He interviews two Brits who were on the Eurostar, which passed the crime scene around the right time, but their testimonies prove completely useless, contradicting each other repeatedly. Eventually the crime is solved, but it’s not Schotté’s character who does it. L’humanité is essentially a crime narrative, and sort of the follows the forms, in as much as it features a crime, an investigation, and a resolution. And it mostly follows the unspoken rules of the form, as the killer proves to be a known member of the cast. But the nearest I can get to the way it treats its protagonist, Schotté, is that subgenre of crime novels which feature long angsty paragraphs focusing on the mess the protagonist detective is making of his or her life – although not quite as dourly as in Nordic noir. Scottish noir, perhaps? But the French version of it. Pascale Garnier, maybe? I’m not that well-read in the genre. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

Cruelty, Anton Sigurdsson (2016, Iceland). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and thought it worth a go. I’ve now seen four Icelandic films, and I have to ask: do they ever make happy films? Because the Icelandic title of this movie is Grimmd, and that’s pretty close to the English word which best describes it. Two young girls are found murdered in a wood. A female detective is put on the case. Her boss teams her with an ex-partner against her wishes. The detective focuses on a man she arrested for sex offences years before but never managed to prove her case against him. Registered sex offenders are pulled in, and her partner bullies a confession out of one of them. But that quickly falls apart. It turns out the detective’s brother is a sex offender, but he has been rehabilitated – but this crime results in someone digging up his past. And so his co-workers near beat him to death. Did I mention this was not a cheerful film? I have to wonder if the Icelanders are capable of making cheerful films. And yet it’s a lovely country and the people are extremely friendly. But I have yet to find an Icelandic comedy. If you like Nordic noir, then Cruelty, AKA Grimmd, is a good example; others may find its appeal limited.

Ceddo*, Ousmane Sembène (1977, Senegal). This is one of two films by Sembène on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he is the only representative of his country, Senegal. The other film is Moolaadé (see here). Moolaadé was given a UK DVD release by Artificial Eye in 2004. It’s since been deleted, but copies can still be found. But Ceddo never was, and copies are really hard to find. (For the record, Sembène’s only other film available on sell-through in the UK is Black Girl, released in a dual format edition by the BFI in 2015.) But, Ceddo… The film is set around the time Westerners discovered the tribes of Senegal. And so too has Islam. The traditional monarchy in under threat on two fronts – the local imam wants to convert everyone to Islam, and the white traders are happy to accept anything that doesn’t disrupt their trade in slaves. The common people – the “ceddo” – kidnap the king’s daughter in order to force him to reject both the Muslims and the whites. But the king sides with the Muslims, and various attempts are made to “rescue” the princess. This is not a film that presents a nuanced picture of white/Islamic colonialism, and that’s fair enough as there’s little that’s nuanced about it. A traditional way of life was destroyed in the name of religion and/or commerce. The film is very declamatory, which is a style that appeals to me, with the opening scenes consisting of cast-members appealing to the king for judgement in various matters. The film also looks like nothing you might have seen before – unless you’ve watched other films by Sembène – and if not, why not? – or perhaps a film like Yeelen – and is a fascinating depiction of what I suspect is now a long lost way of life. This is my fourth Sembène film and they really are very good. Given that Ceddo is an historical film, it doesn’t have the punch of Moolaadé, which is set in the present-day. You should still watch both, however.

The Village of No Return, Chen Yu-hsun (2017, Taiwan). It looks like a Taiwanese distributor has gone and dumped a load of films on Amazon Prime, Not that I’m complaining. Admittedly, I watched this because it starred Shu Qi, one of my favourite Chinese actresses, although I’ve not seen her in anything for a while. At some point in China’s past, a village survived by collaborating with a local troop of bandits. But the local warlord needed the village under his control before making a play for the throne. So he sends an agent provocateur in to blow up a few houses, etc. Except the plan goes wrong from the start. He is accidentally poisoned by his wife (Shu Qi), who is kept chained up and had planned to commit suicide – but she couldn’t do it, and he innocently ate the poisoned sandwich. And then a con man poles up to the village with a machine that allows him to selectively edit people’s memories. And after a couple of demonstrations, he uses it to seize control of the village and convince everyone he has always been the chief. But then Shu Qi’s boyfriend, who had joined the bandits, returns and everything falls apart. This film was amusing, if somewhat confusingly plotted. The memory device was presented well, with memories displayed like they were silent films. I don’t think the title is especially accurate, but The Village of No Return is a lot fun.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 912


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Moving pictures 2018, #27

I could claim there’s a system to the films I choose to watch, but that would be a lie. It pretty much depends on what I feel like watching – plus a host of other factors, as outlined in a previous post. So I make no apologies for the somewhat scattershot results of my recent viewing…

Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2016, USA). I had this on my rental list, but I was so intrigued by the polarity of the reviews on Amazon that I decided to get a copy for myself. I may joke that these days books only receive 5-star or 1-star reviews, and I suppose that’s just as true of movies, but Kate Plays Christine actually had only 5-star or 1-star/2-star reviews. And the latter were quite uncomplimentary. But they struck me, as so many such reviews do, as having missed the point. Kate Plays Christine is not only an exploration of the real-life character Kate Lyn Shiel plays – Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide on air in 1974 – but also about the process of film-making, especially documentary-making. Shiel researches her role very carefully, and this involves interviewing people who knew Chubbock personally. That makes for uncomfortable interviews. More so when the topic of an alleged videotape of Chubbock’s on-air suicide is often raised. But the film also interrogates Chubbock and her life. Her suicide shows something was amiss, although Kate Plays Christine makes no attempt to analyse her motives. Not that they really could as there was little available information about her – back in 1974, people’s lives were not that well documented, people no longer wrote letters as extensively as they had done and the internet comprised a handful of servers accessible only to some academics and engineers… I thought the film fascinating and an interesting exploration of its subjects –  Chubbock, Chubbock’s story, and the presentation of her story to an audience forty years later. So that’s 5 stars from me.

You Were Never Lovelier, William A Seiter (1942, USA). Astaire has had enough of New York so he heads down to Brazil to join his chum, bandleader Xavier Cugat, played by, er, Xavier Cugat. But Astaire can’t get a job, in fact he can’t even get to see impresario Adolphe Menjou. Meanwhile, Menjou’s oldest unmarried daughter, Rita Hayworth, has no intention of getting married. So Menjou plays a Cyrano de Bergerac on her, and sends orchids and poems as if from a secret beau. Events conspire to make her think it’s Astaire. He goes along with it for a spot at Menjou’s club. It’s not the most original plot in the world, and Astaire is not as likeable as he usually is. But I hadn’t realised Hayworth was so good a dancer, and she more than holds her own with Astaire. Having said that, I much prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner for him. I mean, Hayworth is great, no doubt about that. But I see her more as a femme fatale, or in something like Gentleman Prefer Blondes, than I do as a comic foil and dancing partner to Fred Astaire. In which role, Ginger Rogers was excellent. Indeed she was excellent before that, as I learnt when I watched the films in the Busby Berkeley box sets I own. You Were Never Lovelier was good but, let’s face it, it’s a film for fans of Astaire, Hayworth, or 1940s movies.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos (2017, Ireland). The only other film by Lanthimos I’ve seen is Dogtooth (see here), and it was… odd. This is not necessarily a bad thing in my book, and I did think Dogtooth very good. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Lanthimos, a Greek director, working in the Hollywood system, Hollywood has a bad record of adapting, or attempting to co-opt, world or art house directors. Michael Haneke’s Hollywood remake of Funny Games is inferior to his Austrian original; George Sluizer’s Hollywood remake of The Vanishing is inferior to his Dutch original. And that’s when the original directors are involved! But then The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not actually Hollywood, as it’s an Irish production that happens to be filmed in the US with US characters (played by an Irish, Australian and American cast). But it is also quite clearly a Yanthimos film. It’s not just the batshit plot, which toys with genre without fully committing to it, but also the stilted way in which the cast play their parts. Colin Farell plays a heart surgeon who befriends a teenage boy whose father had died in a car accident. He introduces the boy to his family. But it transpires the father died on the operating table under Farrell’s knife, and the boy has engineered the friendship so he can get close to the family. And curse them. So Farrell’s son, the youngest, is mysteriously paralysed from the waist down. Then he refuses to eat. The last stage is bleeding from the eyes. Unless Farrell agrees to murder one of his family in reparation. It’s a bonkers story – inspired, apparently, by a play by Euripides – but the weird, almost hypnotised, way everyone plays their parts gives it a bizarre sense of authority. Perhaps the lack of naturalism suits the unnatural plot; I don’t know. A very good film, whatever the reason.

The Angelic Conversation, Derek Jarman (1985, UK). I thought I had a handle on Jarman’s films after seeing The Tempest and then Jubilee, and relying on vague memories of Caravaggio, but I’d forgotten he was an experimental film-maker, and his resolutely amateurish aesthetic was only one element of it. After all, there was Blue, which I may not have seen but knew about. (And, okay, Wittgenstein, doesn’t quite fit in there, but given that it’s the film that persuaded me to give Jarman another go I think that’s fair). Anyway, all of that and I come to The Angelic Conversation, which is mid-career Jarman, made after a six-year gap since The Tempest and contemporary with Caravaggio. It comprises 78 minutes of filtered footage of two men, or sometimes just one of them, in a sort of dreamlike landscape, while Dame Judi Dench reads sonnets by Shakespeare. And some mostly atonal music. And, er, that’s it. The combination proves effective – and the imagery is often quite beautiful – but at 78 minutes it does outstay its welcome somewhat. Most of the avant garde/experimental films I’ve seen to date have been short, between 3 and 30 minutes. Jarman clearly was not afraid of trying his audience’s patience, or pushing their willingness to spend time watching his films. I don’t know enough about his work to determine if that was a deliberate policy on his part or simply something that never occurred to him. Given there are another four films in this box set, not to mention a shitload of extras, I will no doubt find out. Despite only being a third of the way into this first collection, I must admit I have every intention of buying Volume 2 when it is released.

Anon, Andrew Niccol (2018, UK). Niccol’s Gattaca is generally regarded as one of the best sf films of the last 25 years, but I’ve never really been a fan of it. His subsequent genre films – S1m0ne and In Time, especially – may have been relatively successful but are not so well regarded. Nonetheless, he appears to be seen as a non-commercial genre director who has yet to produce a really great genre film. Some might consider Anon to be that film. I’m not so sure. It has a neat conceit at its core, but it feels a bit tired, a bit like an argument we want to be over because we already know what the conclusion should be. But then, “we” – ie, me – are genre fans, so this is shit we’ve been retreading for forty-plus years and perhaps it’s not so tired to to the general movie-seeing public. In the near-future of the film, people’s entire lives are uploaded to “the Ether” (this is science fiction, remember; we can’t call it by the name it has in the real world, “the cloud”), including everything they see and hear. The police – in the person of detective Clive Owen – have access to these records. So when a crime is committed, they just scroll back through the suspect’s record so they can see exactly what happened. But then a man is murdered, and his murderer remains invisible, because the murderer hacked the Ether so the victim sees his death through the murderer’s eyes. Owen discovers there are hackers who can make people’s records in the Ether disappear. He tracks one down – Chloe Sevigny – who apparently has no record of her own. It’s patently obvious she’s not the murderer, even though she’s linked to all the victims, because the film spends so much energy making every clue point her way. With the end result that the real identity of the killer falls completely flat when it’s revealed. Niccol also seems to think the future will be Brutalist. I’m a huge fan of Brutalist architecture, but it hasn’t signified the future since the 1970s. Putting up great slabs of concrete is time-consuming and expensive; the future will be steel frames and gypsum walls, cheap and easy to put up by immigrant labour– oh wait, we won’t have immigrant labour in the UK anymore, because it will take years to get a visa and three months to get through immigration control. Cheap and easy to put up by indentured local labour, then; because what else are you going to do when the welfare state has been dismantled… Anyway, Anon… Not a bad film. The central mystery was badly-handled, and the premise is not as original or shocking as it thinks it is, but the film did look very pretty.

Lightning Bolt, Antonio Margheriti (1966, Itay). Back in the 1960s, Italy and Spain collaborated on a bunch of cheap thrillers, often with cheap US stars thrown in as a draw. While some cheap Italian films of the period, gialli or otherwise – like Danger: Diabolik or Footprints on the Moon – have transcended their origins, it doesn’t seem like any of these Spanish-Italian co-productions did. Lightning Bolt, starring Anthony Eisley, star of US TV series Hawaiian Eye (1959 – 1963), as Harry Sennet, a pretty obvious take-off of James Bond. The plot is even a rip-off of Dr No. Having said that, Lightning Bolt uses real stock footage of Nasa launches, and does a much better job in that respect than Dr No. Anyway, Nasa’s last six launches have all failed, with the rockets not making much more than a couple of thousand feet from the launch pad. So Eisley, an agent for the Federal Security Investigation Commission, poses as a playboy while investigating the Florida keys just down-range of Nasa for likely causes. His boss is female… and it doesn’t help when she’s introduced as “Agent 36-22-36”. And her treatment is pretty standard for the treatment of women in this film. It’s not that the film makes 007 look feminist, which Trump certainly does, but it’s clearly closer to unreconstructed sexist pig than Bond. Anyway, it’s all because of a beer mogul who has a secret base at the bottom of the sea, and who plans to launch a laser cannon to the Moon which he can then use to blackmail the nations of Earth into ceding him control. FSIC’s playboy agent foils his plot. Of course. There’s a lot of noir-ish voiceover in this film, which is definitely not a characteristic of the genre; and I’m not really sure it works. I recently saw someone on FB post a list of “favourite spy parody films” and they had Derek Flint in their No. 1 spot. I think I’d nominate Matt Helm (but Flint would make my No. 2). Harry Sennet, however, is no spoof, even if at times he seems like one. A film for fans of spaghetti spy-fi only, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


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Moving pictures 2018, #24

After the last post’s diversity, it’s swung the opposite way here, with a mostly Anglophone half dozen films…

Supersonic Saucer, Kadoyng, The Glitterball, Guy Fergusson, Ian Shand, Harley Cokeliss (1956, 1972, 1977, UK). These three films were packaged as “Outer Space”, which is a  bit of a phiz as they all take place on Earth. In the south of England, in fact. In the first, an inhabitant of Venus, all of whom can transform themselves into flying saucers, is a bit of a late starter, and when he – or perhaps it – finally transforms, he makes his way to Earth, where he is befriended by two girls spending half-term at their school in the care of the headmaster’s know-it-all son. Since said alien has the power to make things vanish and then re-appear, much typical 1950s moralising then ensues, with a raid on the local cake shop reluctantly undone before the pesky kids, and alien/flying saucer, foil a bank robbery by some comedy villains. Very much of its time. Kadoyng, on the other hand, is the name of a comedy alien who lands on Earth and is befriended by a group of kids. He looks like a human, however, except for the stalking growing from the top of his head. So they give him a top hat to hide it. Meanwhile, a bypass is about to be run through the village, and the kids are on the nimby side… and there are a bunch of kids who bully them on the other side. Naturally, the alien helps save the village from the march of progress, through the use of alien, er, advanced science. The Glitterball is is also an alien, which a pair of kids find and, er, befriend. But some others want the alien ball once they realise its powers. And like the other two films on this disc, it’s all about kids standing up for something else, and perhaps some noble cause, as catalysed by the arrival of an alien, human-looking or otherwise. I thought it might be fun watching these CFF films, but I can’t really say that it has been. I doubt I’ll bother with the rest.

Dark Victory, Edmund Goulding (1939, USA). My mother found a box set of four Bette David films in a charity shop and lent it to me after she’d watched them. I’m not a Bette Davis fan – there are other actresses from that period I’d sooner watch. And it turned out I’d seen two of the films in the box set before – Now, Voyager and The Letter (see here) – but I’m happy to rewatch classic Hollywood films, so no bother. Dark Victory is a film adaptation of a well-known play, in which Davis’s role is that of a young socialite with bad habits who learns she has a brain tumour, marries her doctor, who then tells her that her condition is operable, which it is not. Despite being a play before it was a film this still comes across as a Bette Davis star vehicle – although, to be honest, pretty much every Bette Davis film does. Humphrey Bogart plays a minor role as an Irish horse trainer, but the film is all about Davis and her illness-induced deterioration. Meh.

Jubilee, Derek Jarman (1978, UK). A new box set of Derek Jarman films on Blu-ray? I’ll have me a copy of that… No, wait. I’ve seen a few of his films over the years, but I’d hardly call myself a fan. I never quite plugged into his slightly amateurish aesthetic, and his choice of subjects was not one designed to appeal to me… But then I watched his Wittgenstein earlier this year (see here) and was really quite impressed. Clearly, I had misjudged Jarman. And since this new box set included Jubilee, perhaps his most famous film, and one I’d never actually seen, then maybe it was worth a punt…  So I bought it. And a very nice object it is too. The BFI have done him proud. Obvs, the first film I chose to watch from it was Jubilee. And it was not at all like I had imagined. I had thought it was some punk aesthetic celebration of the time, starring some well-known names from the scene and some of its defining music. Except, it wasn’t. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic UK after the death of Queen Elizabeth II (although even back in 1978 that was an unlikely outcome for her death). Queen Elizabeth I is transported forward in time to the 1970s by John Dee (played by Richard O’Brien. With hair! And a beard!), and then it’s sort of her hanging around with a bunch of punk misfits. The music is not at all punk, and surprisingly good. Some of the cast aren’t great, but the whole thing hangs together much more effectively than I’d expected. I thought it pretty good. And I’m glad I bought the box set.

Herostratus, Don Levy (1967, UK). I stumbled across this on the website of a certain online retailer whose owner is so desperate to spend his fortune he’s throwing it at a private space programme but apparently won’t even considered giving his employees a living wage. Anyway, I spotted it in my recommendations, before they went and changed how that works so now it’s next to sodding useless, and I bunged it onto an order. I suppose I was expecting something either like Penda’s Fen (see here) or Privilege (see here). What it is, is like neither. If anything, it reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (see here). A young man, sick of the world and its failure to cater to his sensibilities, decides to commit suicide, and tries to turn it into a media event. He approaches an advertising mogul, and they try to make a media event out of it all. Every so often, the film flashes up images of a woman in black, or a woman in a red. There’s also a scene where a young Helen Mirren, in bustier and fishnets, performs an erotic dance. Herostratus is very much a film of its time. I think it’s trying to make a similar point to Watkins’s Privilege, but it’s not as biting, or as entertaining, a satire as that one is. But I did enjoy it more than Performance.

Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence (2018, USA). It’s 2018, FFS, should we still be making movies in which Russians are played by Anglophones sporting silly accents? (Although not entirely, as one of the Russians is played by a Belgian, and another is Dutch.) And the entire plot relies on copying data on 3.5″ floppy disks. In 2018. Good luck on finding a computer with a floppy disk drive, even in Russia. Jennifer Lawrence, who may be a very good actress but seems to have the usual Hollywood problem of being unable to pick good projects, plays a ballerina who is injured onstage and then blackmailed by her uncle into becoming a sex operative, or “sparrow”, for the KGB, er, FSB. This is a film that wants its Cold War and is determined to ignore the last thirty years of actual history to get it. After demonstrating she is not going to obey the rules at sparrow school, the viewer is repeatedly told she is something special, not that this is especially evident onscreen. She’s sent on a mission to Budapest to seduce a CIA agent. Because he runs a mole in the KGB, er, FSB, and naturally they want to know who it is. She goes about it in her own way, which means blackmailing anyone who thinks she’s behaving like a double agent for the CIA. There really is nothing good to say about this film. It feels like it’s set 30 years ago and not in the present day. Jennifer Lawrence is a complete blank. And the plot doesn’t even make sense as a spy story plot. One to avoid.

Winter of Discontent, Ibrahim El Batout (2012, Egypt). This is a dramatisation of events during Arab Spring, featuring actors playing real people. One of the major characters is the female anchor of a current affairs show, who quits after being bollocked for asking dumb questions on air and decides to investigate the events ongoing in Tahrir Square for herself. The film shows both sides – and not just those fighting the authorities, but also those who are trying to shut down the insurrection. And even those who are caught up in it by accident. One such man was arrested by the secret police simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then beaten and tortured as a “rebel” despite his protestations of innocence. Arab regimes have been, traditionally, autocratic, and even democratic Arab nations have often devolved into autocracy. The West is happy to support such regimes, either to protect strategic resources – look up the history of BP, if you don’t believe me – or to keep active a ready market for armaments exports. And dropping bombs on such nations will not “fix” them. And yet, in most cases, these authoritarian regimes are so well-entrenched that not even an Arab Spring can unseat them, especially not when they’re being propped up by the West. Let’s not forget that Gaddafi may have been Public Enemy No. 1 but he was left in power for precisely as long as the West was happy to let him be in power. And now that’s he gone, Libya is a disaster area. And for all that we boast of our freedoms, they’re being eroded daily – only this month, voters were turned away from polling stations because they did not have ID for the first time in British history. Demanding ID to vote is not a solution to electoral fraud because it’s a trivial problem – in 2017, there were 28 allegations from 45 million votes, and only one conviction. It’s a way to disenfranchise people. And if the government is going to tackler electoral fraud, they would do well to address the illegal campaign spending perpetrated by their own party in the last general election… None of which is especially relevant to Winter of Discontent, which provides a good overview of the events of the January 25 Revolution of 2011 but does very little reaffirm a person’s faith in humanity…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907


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Moving pictures 2018, #8

A nice geographic spread of films, which is the sort of viewing I’d like to be normal for me.

Salyut-7, Klim Shipenko (2017, Russia). At the time I watched this, Salyut-7 had not been released on sell-through and was only available for streaming – I watched it on Amazon Prime, inexplicably as a three-episode series: they split the feature film in two, and then added a making of featurette as a “third episode”. Which is bonkers. Happily, Salyut-7 – stupidly marketed as “the Soviet ‘Apollo 13′” – is excellent. The previous mission to Salyut – the USSR’s space station during the 1980s – had had a few problems, but when the space station completely shut down after its solar panels were hit by micrometeoroids, and resisted efforts to be restarted from the ground, the only solution was to send up a pair of cosmonauts to fix it. The mission is generally considered one of the toughtest ever attempted – although, of course, the West knew nothing of it publicly until after glasnost. In some respects, Salyut-7 is clearly a Russian attempt to outdo Gravity – at which it happily succeeds. The bulk of the action is set aboard Salyut 7, and the presentation of micro-gravity is just as convincing, if not more so, than in Gravity. True, there’s not much in the way of drama – I mean, even though the mission’s details were kept from the public, the death of the cosmonauts could never have been covered up. So it’s obvious they succeeded – well, to anyone who knows anything about the Space Race. But it was far from easy, and the film makes a meal of the difficulty. But it is, above all, really convincing in its presentation of microgravity and the hardware involved, Soyuz and Salyut. Much as I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, I do find the Soyuz spacecraft an interesting piece of hardware, and it was good to see it in detail on the big screen (so to speak). If Salyut-7 set out to beat Gravity at its own game, then it succeeded admirably: the effects were as good, if not better; but it was also a true story. I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-ray. Recommended.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). Do I classify this is a documentary or an animated film, because, well, it’s both. And it’s not like there are that many animated documentaries they can form a genre of their own. Folman served in the Israeli Defense Force (hah) during the invasion of Lebanon, but it’s not until he’s contacted by a friend from those days that he realises his own memories of his army service are suspiciously free of trauma. So he investigates, and discovers that he was present during a massacre of Lebanese prisoners of war by Falangists but had wiped it from his memory. The film implies the IDF was not complicit in the massacre but allowed it to happen – not because it had been unaware of what might occur, but because the consequences suited them. Years later, Folman has to make sense of memories he has suppressed for nearly thirty years. He travels to the Netherlands to talk to another survivor from his tank squadron, who has made a comfortable living from selling falafel. His friend too has been happy to forget what occurred during the war, although he has not actually blocked the memories. As Folman talks to people who were involved in the circumstances which led to the massacre, so he starts to remember himself what happened. Because the film is animated – it’s a sort of Rotascoped animation, unique to Waltz with Bashir – so it’s easy to tell the flashbacks and present day narratives apart. The film pulls no punches, it depicts the IDF conscripts as ill-trained and clueless, happier having barbecues on the beach than fighting… and completely unprepared for the brutality they encounter. This is not news… but it was suppressed by the Israeli authorities. Not that any other country would not have done the same. All nations did it repeatedly during WWII. The UK and US continues to do it in regard to the Middle East. I remember reading once about a first-hand account by an Israeli soldier in Lebanon and because he described soldiers stealing cars it was not published in Western newspapers as that would undermine the the reputation of Israel. Wars happen; but wars would not continue without a continual supply of weapons… and the same nations who publicly condemn those wars are happy to sell weapons to the combatants. To my mind, that makes them war criminals. They need to be prosecuted. And yes, if that means people like Folman are tried for war crimes – because they were certainly involved in them, whether they remember it or not – then so be it. I would hope the sentencing would reflect their level of involvement and culpability. That’s the proper way to do it.

Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I have, over the years, watched several of Jarman’s films, and have often wondered why his reputation was so high in certain circles. I remember thinking Caravaggio was quite good, but The Tempest felt a bit amateur-ish, and Blue was pretty much unwatchable. So I’m not sure what prompted me to put Wittgenstein on my rental list – perhaps a desire to give Jarman a more serious look? If so, I picked a good one for it. Because I actually thought Wittgenstein pretty good. The entire film is filmed against a black background. It’s not black box theatre staging because it doesn’t even make an effort to suggest scenery. It’s actors in front of a black screen. And it works really well. Wittgenstein is shown as a young boy and as a young man, played by two different actors. I know very little about philosophy, I never studied it at school and certainly not at university. And, to be honest, I’ve never felt inspired to explore the subject in the decades since I left full-time education. But Jarman’s Wittgenstein had some choice dialogue on philosophy, like “philosophy is just a by-product of misunderstanding language” and “Professor Wittgenstein, I recommend you read more Hegel”. The script was actually written by Terry Eagleton, although Jarman apparently heavily rewrote it. I’m not especially interested in how films are made, at least not as much as I’m interested in the final product. Sometimes, the genesis of a film can be as interesting as the film itself, but in most cases… Movie-making is a collaborative venture in which various creative types apply their vision to the project… and it’s a toss-up as to which vision finally makes it to the released product. At least with auteur cinema you can be fairly sure it’s the director’s vision. But in Wittgenstein alone, there’s that gap between script and film, between what Eagleton wrote and what Jarman has his cast say. As a film, I liked Wittgenstein – I found it informative and enjoyable. The black background totally worked. If I had wondered about Jarman’s reputation before seeing it, the film at least suggested he deserved his reputation. I plan to watch more Jarman, although I suspect I may have seen the best… (Gah, I now see the BFI are releasing a limited edition box set of his first six films on Blu-ray next month.)

Sumurun, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). Described as an “Oriental pantomime in six acts”, and also known as One Arabian Night, Sumurun is actually based on a play by Friedrich Freksa (do they have pantomimes in Germany?). A travelling group of performers arrive at an unnamed city. A slave trader wants to sell the troupe’s dancer to the sheikh for his harem. Meanwhile, the sheikh’s favourite from his harem, Sumurun, has fallen in love with a cloth merchant. The sheikh wants the dancer, Sumurun wants the cloth merchant. And then it turns out the dancer falls in love with the sheikh’s son. It’s all very tangled and frenetic and, er, tinted. I’ve no idea why they tinted early films. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the experience. Nor does there seem to be any reason for the tint – sometimes it’s blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes red… Sumurun was apparently filmed entirely in Berlin, using sets, which makes the external shots of the city an impressive achievement – and the desert even more so. Pola Negri is good as the dancer, and Paul Wegener makes a menacing sheikh, but the rest of the cast gurn at the camera like, er, championship gurners. Lubitsch himself, who plays the hunchbacked member of the troupe, is one of the worst. He was apparently so disappointed by his performance he swore never to act again. I’ve now seen four of the six films in this box set, and I must admit the first two were easily the best. Still, there are two films to go – Anna Boleyn and Die Bergkatze– so we shall see…

Mammon (2014, Norway). My mother, who is a big Nordic Noir fan, lent me this. She’d found it in a charity shop. It’s one of those television series where you’re not sure where it’s going for much of its length, which can be an advantage, inasmuch as it promises much. But, of course, it has to make good on that mystery in the finale. And Mammon didn’t quite pull that off. A newspaper publishes allegations of fiscal malfeasance at an investment company, and the CFO resigns under a cloud. It turns out he’s the brother of the journalist who broke the story. A few days later, the CFO commits suicide. The narrative jumps ahead five years. The journalist has dug deeper, with the help of a police officer from the financial crimes unit (they were together for a while during those five years but it’s over now). Their research leads them to a conspiracy centred around a class at a prestigious business school in Bergen twenty years earlier. Then two more important businessmen commit suicide when their finances are questioned… It’s all to do with that group at the business school – and the journalist’s brother was the leader – who decided to use insider trading to create fortunes and so beat the old boy network. And when one of their number decided to grass them up, they murdered him by tying him to a chair and setting fire to his house, also killing the man’s young son in the process… And so creating the creating the defining philosophy of the group – that they would not, like Abraham, sacrifice their sons but would sooner commit suicide. Helping the journalist is a billionaire who gained his wealth suspiciously, and he’s trailed several times before the viewer as a possible villain. But. And it’s why Mammon ultimately dissatisfied – there’s a good conspiracy at the heart of the story, and an excellent mystery… but it over-eggs the cake. We never learn the source of the billionaire’s fortune, for example – and then turns implausibly violent in the final episodes, with men in black SUVs murdering people with impunity. For four of its six episodes, Mammon was good telly. Then it threw it away. There is a second series, broadcast in 2016, and the show has been renewed for a third series.

The Pirogue, Moussa Touré (2012, Senegal). The title refers to a type of open boat used by the Senagalese to travel up the west coast of Africa to land illegally in Spain, and so make a better life for themselves in Europe. Some are realistic about their chances, some imagine Europe as a land of gold. The captain of the pirogue knows he is responsible for all those on the boat – about thirty people all told. He had initially refused the job, but he needed the money. At first, all goes well during the journey. They come across another pirogue whose engines (main and spare) have both failed, but decide they cannot stop to render assistance without jeopardising their own survival. But then there’s a big storm, and one of the men is swept into the sea. Unfortunately, he had the GPS on him. So they continue on, navigating by blind reckoning… but they’re as likely to be heading for Brazil as they are Spain. Fortunately, they’re picked up by the Spanish coast guard a day or so after their water runs out. After a couple of weeks in a camp in Spain, they’re repatriated to Senegal, none the worse for their ordeal. Except for the two who died, that is. The bulk of the film takes place in the boat, and it does an excellent job of setting out the characters, their reasons for being in the pirogue and their hopes for the future. There’s a tribal element to it, with the passengers coming from two tribes, one of which seems predominantly muslim, but it doesn’t generate conflict. There’s also a stowaway, a young woman, who causes some tension when she’s discovered – there is only so much food and water, after all. For all that The Pirogue is set on a boat in the open sea, it’s convincingly done. And the storm is especially convincing. I’m surprised this film isn’t better know, it’s a solid piece of drama and it is hugely relevant as an antidote to the racist scaremongering over immigration and refugees put out by the right. (A country without immigrants is a stagnant country. Easiest way to stop the refugee problem? Stop bombing the shit out of their homes. It’s very simple. Refutations that “it’s complex” are just excuses to not do anything.) Anyway, The Pirogue is very good, and there are two more films on this Great African Films Volume 4 DVD. It’s a shame the series is so hard to find, as it contains some excellent films (only one, Daratt, from Chad, was independently released on DVD in the UK). More films like this should be released in the UK.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895