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Moving pictures 2018, #45

Even given my usual viewing, this is a bit of an odd bunch – mostly films I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Because good luck trying to actually find films on there, as the search function is next to fucking useless. I learnt this week there are a lot of Nollywood films available for free on Prime (I also learnt they’re mostly dreadful), so an ability to search by country of origin would be really useful…

Air Crew, Alexander Mitta (1980, Russia). There are also a number of Mosfilm and Lenfilm movies available on Prime, including Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – and Air Crew was the first of several I added to my watchlist. It is apparently the first disaster film made in the USSR, and was clearly modelled on 1970’s Airport (and sequels). The first half of the film sets up the lives of the three main characters, the captain of an Aeroflot Tu-154 who fears he will be grounded because of his age, a Lothario co-pilot on the same plane who enters into a relationship with a member of the cabin crew only for it to be torpedoed by an ex-girlfriend, and an ex-member of the crew who now flies helicopters picking up cosmonauts after they’ve landed and is involved in a custody battle for his son with his ex-wife. The film doesn’t pick up until the Tu-154 is diverted to Bidri (a made-up town) where an earthquake has struck. Air Crew switches to model-work, and the disaster that unfolds makes Thunderbirds look amateur. A plane crashes and explodes, the earth quake causes an oil refinery to, er, explode, and a lava flow hits the airport and causes everything to, um, explode. But the Tu-154 – now with helicopter pilot on board, although I can’t remember how he ended up there – manages to take off. But part of the skin on the upper fuselage has ripped open, and there’s something obstructing one of the elevators on the T-tail… So while at 10,000 feet or something, one of the crew has to crawl out through the intake into the jet engine in the tail onto the upper fuselage to nail the rip shut. Another has to climb up inside the tail and out onto the horizontal stabilisers to clear the obstruction. Tu-154s had a cruising speed of 850 kph, by the way. It’s all completely mad and makes Airport look a bit feeble. While the second half massively overwhelms the first half of the film, it does give a good, if somewhat rosy-tinted, portrait of life in the USSR. Which, for all its deprivations and secret police and shit, was considerably less sexist and racist and Islamophobic than US society was. Not a great film, but definitely one worth seeing.

Monkey Business, Norman McLeod (1931, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I’m watching these, to be honest. I don’t think they’re that funny, and Groucho’s famous wit has been massively over-hyped. In fact, Chico is the funniest of the four, and he’s playing a racial stereotype. Harpo is just a creepy stalker, and Zeppo, who had the coolest name of the four, was lumbered with the straight-man role because he was the most normal-looking. And I can’t even tell the plots apart. In this one, the four Marx Brothers stowaway aboard a ship en route to the US. So the plot is basically a series of jokes in which each of the brothers plays on their characteristics. Groucho is cynical and witty (more the former than the latter), Harpo is creepy, Chico plays a comedy racial stereotype but often has the best lines, and Zeppo is completely wasted in the straight-man role. Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother”, doesn’t appear in this, which is probably why it’s so unmemorable. In fact, just about the only thing I can remember is the sketch with the fish barrels, which is pretty much all anyone can remember of this film. The Marx Brothers were… seminal? I don’t think so. Hugely popular in their time? Almost certainly. Their reputation as comedic geniuses has remained mostly undiminished for nearly 90 years, although it’s probably fair to say all the successful comedy stars from that period continue to enjoy a high reputation – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, etc. Yes, some of those are earlier – and the Marx Brothers were basically filming their Broadway shows for their early movies – but many of them survived into the 1930s and later. And, of them all, I’d say Buster Keaton was best in the early days, and Laurel and Hardy in the later days. The Marx Brothers brand of comedy was often done better by one-offs, like Hellzapoppin (see here), or by screwball romances starring Cary Grant or Clark Gable or Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck…

Crime or Punishment?!?, Keralino Sandorovich (2009, Japan). I have no idea what this film was about, but that was not unexpected given that it was recommended by David Tallerman. A model, who was printed upside down in an issue of a magazine, and objects violently to the mistake in the magazine’s office, is sentenced to be “police chief for a day” for a small prefecture’s police force. This apparently does happen in Japan. She finds herself investing in the role, and proves surprisingly popular with the police officers. One of whom is a serial killer, and she knows this is because he’s an ex-lover and he had tried to kill her. There’s also a salaryman who witnesses a murder but is then hit by a lorry. The film jumps about in time, – that salaryman’s death appears a few times – and the young woman in the lead role doesn’t especially stand out, which means it all seems a bit confused and a bit confusing. The film is a black comedy, but there wasn’t a great deal that was comic about it – although I guess that’s the point with black comedies. The fact it’s all over the place doesn’t help. Enjoyable, but I’ve seen much better.

The Millionaire, Sergey Chekalov (2012, Ukraine). Doing your life over again is hardly the most original story out there, especially when it’s linked to romance. Kirill is about get engaged to the daughter of an oligarch. He’s an architect and wants to make a name for himself on his own, without his future father-in-law’s help. But when he discovers that’s never going to happen, he rejects his fiancée and walks away. At the reception he’s just left, a waitress tripped over his best mate and brought the champagne fountain crashing down. Kirill got chatting to her outside. After he decides to walk away, he gives her a call and meets up with her and her best friend. He and his best mate take the two women on a date. Ten years later, Kirill is married to the waitress, with a small son, she works as a teacher, and he still has yet to have one of his designs accepted. But he’s still best mates with his, er, best mate, who is now married to his wife’s best friend. But then Kirill attends a ten-year reunion, meets up with his ex-fiancée ad rues what might have been. Cue fairy godmother. Who, by means of a fatal collision with a speeding lorry, throws him into an alternative present where he’d been married to the oligarch’s daughter for ten years. And… he’s a total shit, stuck in a loveless and childless marriage, and his best-mate is poor and alcoholic and his “wife’s” best friend is a disabled writer because she was injured in the taxi ride on that night after her friend was fired from her job as waitress at the engagement party and died… It’s all very obvious, but it’s well-played and the cast are likeable. The Russian filter made it perhaps more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but it was all very glib and superficial and proof that Russian culture can be just as shallow as American culture.

The Villainess, Jung Byung-gil (2017, South Korea). I think this is the first film I’ve seen that opens with a FPS POV. In fact I’m not sure if there are any films that make use of first person as camera, although surely there must be some, as it’s such an obvious cinema narrative trick. In the opening ten minutes or so, we see a young woman, as if she were the camera, basically slaughter her way through a crowd of gangsters. Later, we learn what prompted this murderous spree. We also discover what happened immediately afterwards – the young woman was picked up by a secretive organisation and locked away and trained in a variety of skills… Yup, it’s the plot of La femme Nikita. Pretty much blow by blow. And, like Besson’s film, The Villainess is immensely stylish. Perhaps not definingly so, as Besson’s film was, which spawned a TV series, but then South Korean cinema has been definingly stylish on its own for a couple of decades now. In comparison to other Korean films, The Villainess scores highly; in comparison to La femme Nikita, it blows it out of the water action-wise but can’t reach its level of stylishness. So it’s a sort of swings and roundabouts, half a dozen of one and six of the other, sort of thing. The Villainess is nonetheless definitely worth seeing.

L’Assassino, Elio Petri (1961, Italy). I’d expected this to be a giallo thriller about a, well, an assassin. From the title. But assassino just means killer or murderer in Italian, not necessarily a hitman. In this case, it refers to an antique dealer, played by Marcello Mastronianni, who is taken in for questioning by the police but not told why. Eventually, he – and the viewer – learns it is because his lover, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, has gone missing. And is then found murdered. As the police interrogate Mastronianni, and take him out to view the scene of the crime, so the story is interrupted by flashbacks showing the relationship between Mastroianni and his lover. There’s one great sequence where acquaintances of Mastroianni’s character talk to camera about him, and, of course, their testimony contradicts his own self-serving account of his past. Petri is better known for his film The Tenth Victim, an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story, ‘The Seventh Victim’, which was subsequently novelised by, er, Sheckley. Anyway, Mastroianni is or isn’t the murderer of his lover and this film keeps its cards very close to its chest for much of its length. But that’s okay because it apes a Neorealist look, although the quality of the picture is much better and the cast are pretty much all professional. But even in 1961, Rome didn’t apparently look that much different from Rome in 1941 – in some areas at least, although part of the film takes place in newly-built suburbs and one section in an abandoned building site, for a hotel, all concrete floors and no walls. It’s an atmospheric piece, if not the piece I expected, but it works, and does actually make me want to make The Tenth Victim again.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929

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Moving pictures 2017, #48

I’ve managed to knock the percentage of films I’ve watched since 2001 that are from the US down to 50.9%, but I’m still trying to get it below half. So far in 2017 alone, the percentage is much lower – only 26%, with the UK at 12%, China at 8%, France at 7% and so on… I’ve also watched movies from 52 different countries to date in 2017.

Into the Sea, Marion Poizeau (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, an hour-long documentary about an Irish surfboarder’s attempt to introduce the sport to Iran, specifically to Baluchistan, and, being female, using female contacts in Iran. I’ve watched a bunch of Iranian films, I’ve even visited the country (although it was back in the days of the Shah), so I have some knowledge of the country. And many of the obstacles met by Easkey as she tries to surf on the Baluchistani coast, with the help of snowboarder Mona and diver Shalha – and okay, I’d always thought Baluchistan was a part of Pakistan not Iran – came as no real surprise. However, the way the three women won over the local male authorities was a done really well, and the scenes of them teaching some of the area’s male youth to surf promised a brighter future. (Much as the young women of the local villages would have liked to surf, their families would not let them.) Surfing is not a sport, or a pasttime, I find interesting – like many sports, it’s more fun to do than to watch – and while Easkey’s mission may have been born out of a selfish desire to surf a coast no one has surfed before, what she actually achieved is so much more. In these days of normalised fascism and overt racism by world leaders, it’s nice to know that some people still believe in, and are successful in creating, bridges between different cultures. No matter what prompted it, or what the “bridge” is made from.

The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1952, Japan). I found this box set on eBay and bought it because it includes an Ozu film that is not otherwise available. It classifies only two directors as “Japanese masters” – Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi… and while it’s hard to deny them their master status, it’s surely a title that should apply to more directors. The Ozu I couldn’t otherwise find is The End of Summer, which the BFI doesn’t appear to have released yet in the lovely dual format editions they have of Ozu’s other films (of course, now I’ve tracked down a copy, they’ll go and release it…). But The Life of Oharu is Mizoguchi, a director I do not esteem as I do Ozu, although David Tallerman repeatedly tells me he is very good and insists I watch his films… And having now seen The Life of Oharu (or O-haru), I can sort of see what he means. This wasn’t an especially good print, far too dark in places, and with a muddy soundtrack. One of the things I like most about Ozu’s films is that they’re ensemble pieces, where as Mizoguchi’s, if the titles are any indication, are not. And that’s certainly true of The Life of Oharu, which tells the story of its title character from the moment she’s exiled from her liege lord’s land for falling in love with a man of a much lower class (he gets beheaded). She’s then chosen to be the mother of another lord’s heir, but is sent home afterwards with a pittance. Her father had run up debts in expectation of her reward, and so sells her to a house of courtesans. But she fails at that too. There’s a heartbreaking scene near the end where Oharu is taken to meet her son, who has now taken over as lord on the death of his father. But all she’s allowed to do is watch him as he walks past with his entourage, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that her history is too embarrassing for him to ever acknowledge her as his mother. A depressingly grim film in places, but a good one.

The Hustler*, Robert Rossen (1961, USA). I’m not a Paul Newman fan, I’d much sooner watch Rock Hudson or Cary Grant or William Hurt, but The Hustler is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and there was a box set of four Newman films going for a couple of quid in an Amazon Prime Day or something a few months ago… so I bought it. And… meh. US critics seem to like films about working class types who try to better themselves, appear to succeed, but walk away with nothing more than their dignity battered. Because, of course, actually prospering would show up the American Dream for the hollow lie that it is. Newman plays the title role, a pool shark who meets his match in Jackie Gleason, but then goes away to improve his game and… well, the path to riches can never run smooth in the American Dream. Because it only really exists in cultural artefacts whose sole purpose seems to be to prove its existence by documenting its failures. If that makes sense. In a way, it helps mythologise those who do succeed in the real world – all the while helpfully obscuring just how much of an evil shit, or how bafflingly lucky, they were to succeed in the first place. None of which is especially relevant. Newman is beaten, he goes way, gets better, comes back, and humiliates Gleason. Along the way, some shit happens. There was apparently a Tom Cruise vehicle sequel a couple of decades later. I won’t be watching it.

Joi Baba Felunath, Satyajit Ray (1979, India). I mistakenly bought this thinking it was unavailable in the UK, only to then discover it’s in Artificial Eye’s Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2, which is readily available. Oh well. I hope that version is a better transfer than this one. It didn’t help that the subtitles were often out of synch with the dialogue – and disappeared altogether in some parts of the film – so I was never really sure who was saying what (in one scene, you have to remember the subtitles from a dialogue-free scene some thirty seconds earlier to figure out what’s going on). And the movie had been encoded onto the disc as two films, one of 82 minutes and another of 23 minutes that began immediately after the first. Which was confusing. Joi Baba Felunath is an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Ray featuring his private investigator character Feluda. In Joi Baba Felunath, he is asked while visiting Benares to look into the theft of a valuable Ganesha figurine made of gold and jewels. The owner has a good idea who the thief is – a wealthy merchant who has asked several times to buy it – but he’s not sure. Feluda, with his cousin and a friend who writes detective novels, investigates. It’s not a convoluted mystery, and there’s no real urgency to Feluda’s quest – although a showdown with the villain does get threatening, and a murder later follows. It’s also a wholly male film, and there’s no soundtrack – although there are a couple of musical set-pieces. Joi Baba Felunath seems to be quite well-regarded in Ray’s oeuvre, but I thought it played more like a drama than the thriller its plot demanded.

Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough (1969, UK). The title rang a vague bell, and I stumbled across this in a charity shop so it was doubtless worth a punt… The title refers to WWI and the film is an anti-war musical that tries to make palatable its points but instead makes light of them. The dialogue is, a pre-credit title card helpfully informs, taken entirely from published commentary by the historical characters depicted. Hindsight renders this somewhat less than shocking – we know WWI was a clusterfuck, and we know it was because of the clueless generals. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tackles the same subject but far better. Oh! What a Lovely War, however, does have a fascinating cast list – pretty much everyone who was anyone in UK acting circles in 1969. And quite a few whose stars would not rise for several years, such as Ian Holm. It’s a typical Attenborough movie: big bold statement, colourfully presented, top-drawer cast, sentiments the audience have long since assimilated, and just enough whimsy in the staging to be eligible for an award… It was entertaining enough, but horror stories about WWI no longer have the shock value they did half a century ago, and frankly if anyone these days is shocked by Oh! What a Lovely War they must be a fucking idiot. Not a bad film, by any means, just one whose time has come and gone.

The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri (1965, Italy). I must admit, these Shameless releases are actually quite good. Well, perhaps “good” is not exactly the right word… But, you can’t go wrong with a well-made giallo, and the Italians certainly made enough of them for one or two to stand out. I was so taken with Footsteps on the Moon, also released on DVD by Shameless, that I bought my own copy. The Tenth Victim is famously based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, ‘The Ninth Victim’, and he later went and wrote two sequels to the film titled Victim Prime and Hunter/Victim. Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni are contestants in a televised game in which the contestants try to stalk and kill each other. The hunter and victim are picked by computer. Andress has come up with an interesting spin: she will kill her victim on live television during a commercial by her sponsor. Which means it all has to be just right, and the repeated opportunities to kill Mastronianni which she fails to take persuade him she is not his hunter… It’s all complete tosh, of course, but it’s one of those movies which tries to project the future by filming in Brutalist/Modernist buildings of the time. It doesn’t always get it right – or even get it remotely close sometimes. But the misses are pretty cool, anyway. Mastroianni sleepwalks through his role, Andress is Andress. There’s not much in the way of surprises in the plot. This is a film that’s all about the look and the setting. And in that it’s pretty entertaining. I might try a few more of these Shameless releases…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880