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Movie roundup 2020, #24

Just working my way through the last few films I watched last year. A very mixed bunch, from all over the world.

Mariam’s Day Off, Arshak Amirbekyan (2017, Armenia). This is apparently the second film I’ve seen by this director, and the first one was also just over an hour long. Mariam is a sex worker, who turns up to her patch one day to find it occupied by an old man. They get talking, and he reveals he has a friend who’s an artist, and would she like to model for him? There is nothing salacious in their discussion, nothing suspicious, so she agrees. And experiences an entirely different world, in which two old men in the arts enjoy each other’s company and treat Mariam with respect and courtesy. The next day, she returns to her patch, and she tells her fellow sex workers she did something different yesterday. Filmed in black and white, with a small cast, and only two locations – the sex workers’ patch, a stretch of fence outside a park; and the artist’s studio. Enjoyed it.

Inferno, Ron Howard (2016, USA). Who remembers Dan Brown, and his series of novels about a “symbologist” (sic), which were not only badly written but also managed to be badly researched? They were best-sellers, big enough in fact to justify a film series. True, the first book to hit the big time, The da Vinci Code, which was not Brown’s first novel, actually prompted the film series, and none of the sequels, or prequels, matched it in sales. But they still made films of them. And, really, it’s easy to like Tom Hanks, who plays the symbologist (sic). He’s a nice guy (and a huge space nut, which I think is great), but his involvement in these films really does make me wonder about him… I forget the plot of Inferno – it was something to do with Dante Alghieri, and I’m all up for popular culture being used as a vector for complex ideas, sort of like Sophie’s Choice. But Brown’s fiction is not that. It’s a dumbing-down of the complex ideas it robs wholesale from other sources. Which it freely mixes with complete fiction and downright distortions of history. And the films are no better. They replace Brown’s lumpen prose with polished visuals. Avoid.

The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair (2018, Vietnam). A fourteen-year-old girl is given in arranged marriage to a man with two wives in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Her status in the family depends on her providing her husband with a son. She is soon pregnant, but unfortunately gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, the second wife is having an affair with the son of the first wife. And when he is married off in turn, he reuses to accept his new child bride and she commits suicide. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old wife contemplates poisoning her daughter… I recognise this is real historical practice, but why turn it into drama? While sex trafficking and child brides still exists in some parts of the world, the former much more so than the latter, The Third Wife is an historical movie. It evokes its period impressively, at least to my untutored eye, but I’m not sure how its story maps onto the present day, and without that I don’t understand what the point of the film was. I mean, it’s not entertainment. This is no brainless popcorn action flick. It’s a commentary-free period drama.

Slave Widow, Mamoru Watanabe (1967, Japan). This is a “pink film”, which is a term used in Japanese cinema for films that contain sexual content. The title is… a pretty good summary of the plot, although the film is more of a domestic drama than anything salacious. A businessman dies unexpectedly, and it transpires his business was failing and he was massively in debt. His largest creditor offers to cover the debts if his widow will stay on in their house and sexual service the creditor when he desires. But the creditor’s eldest son, who is in training to take over the business, falls in love with the widow. It’s presented in a very mundane style, almost like Yasujiro Ozu, although without his eye for detail or elegiac quality. But the trap in which the widow is caught is laid out clearly, and she eventually takes the only way out. A  bit slow in places, and a bit obvious in others, but better than expected, or its title might suggest.

Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland). A man receives a fraught telephone call from an ex-boyfriend who has retired to a remote cottage and, scared the ex-boyfriend might be thinking of taking life, he goes to see him. Something weird is definitely going on – a strange figure haunts the exterior of the cabin, one of the neighbours has been behaving oddly, and something peculiar happens in a nearby rift, a fissure no more than a metre or so deep, when they visit it. Any Icelandic film and your eye is mostly on the scenery, because it’s so distinctive and bizarre, and Rift scores pretty highly in that respect. But despite being a two-hander film, Rift also does a really good job of maintaining the suspense and fear throughout its 111-minute length. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, although unexpected. Worth seeing.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola (1974, USA). Gene Hackman plays an expert surveillance expert who slowly discovers that a conversation he recorded of a woman and her lover doesn’t mean quite what he thought it did. Much is made of the fact Hackman’s character is generally considered the best in his field, although he despises self-promotion – as demonstrated by his reactions during a local surveillance tech expo and his treatment of a rival whose reputation rests more on promotion than results. There are a few inconsistencies – Hackman’s growing paranoia is fed by his privacy in his apartment being breached, but there’s nothing in the story to justify or explain those breaches. Hackman has taken precautions, and they’re not trivial precautions. The Conversation is generally recognised to be a classic New Hollywood thriller, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s slow and takes its time to reveal its twist, but it also makes a character out of Hackman’s surveillance expert, rather than just the usual stereotype or archetype you get in most thriller films. Recommended.

Tam Cam: the Untold Story, Ngo Thanh Van (2016, Vietnam). It’s astonishing how much the early parts of this story resemble that of Cinderella, although the Vietnamese predates the French version by, I believe, several centuries. It’s also considerably more gruesome. A prince encounters a young village woman while riding back to his palace. He thinks little of it, but then the king dies, he takes the throne, is persuaded he needs to find a wife. So he invites all the unmarried women in the kingdom, high-born and low-born, to a ball. The young village woman, Tam, has two stepsisters and an evil stepmother (played by the director), and they conspire to prevent from attending. But with the help of a fairy godfather-type, well, fairy, she makes it to the ball, charms the prince, loses her shoe and so on. But then the stepmother kills Tam, and one of the stepsisters, Cam, takes her place. And tries to poison the king. But Tam reincarnates as a bird and saves the king from the poisoning attempt. Cam kills the bird and eats it. Tam reincarnates as two trees. Cam chops down the two trees and burns them. But the ashes are blown away on the wind and where they settle a golden apple tree grows. An old woman takes an apple from the tree home, and it turns into Tam. The king passes by, meets Tam, and the two are back together. Not part of the original legend, as far as I can discover, is a subplot about a demon who has disguised himself as human and acts as chancellor to the new king. He’s done a deal with a neighbouring state, so they invade and the demon gets the throne. So the king is off fighting a war, which he loses, and then his best friend turns on him and tries to kill him… Tam Cam: the Untold Story gets through a lot of story in 116 minutes, and in laces it feels more like fantasy than Vietnamese legend.


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Moving pictures, #40

Cracking on, so to speak… More cinematic consumption by Yours Truly.

BSG1978Battlestar Galactica (1978, USA). So this Black Friday seems to have infected the UK from the US (and to be fair it’s a better tradition than the UK’s home-brand Black Friday) and Amazon had a whole bunch of mostly uninteresting deals going, but one which caught my fancy was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ultimate Collection on Blu-ray for £60 reduced from £160. To which I succumbed. And then the following week, they had Cyber Monday, and fuck knows what the fuck that is, but Amazon were selling a bunch of stuff cheap, among which was the original Battlestar Galactica series from 1978, plus the much-maligned Galactica 1980 sequel series, on Blu-ray for half-price at £20. So I bought it too. Foolishly. And watched it. Even more foolishly. I remember Battlestar Galactica quite fondly from the 1980s – it used to be on at 6 pm on BBC2 in Janet Street-Porter’s “yoof” spot. Much as I loved the universe of Star Wars, so I loved the universe of Battlestar Galactica. The uniforms, the spaceships, the, er, well, that was about it. Certainly not the stories. After all, who can forget the episode in which they spend an hour trying to figure out how to put out a fire on the Galactica before deciding to “let the vacuum in”? And the mangling of English in pursuit of a futuristic dialect is both annoying and embarassing – “frak” is okay, “felgercarb” is acceptable, but “chancery” is not the right word for a casino, and when a warrior goes on leave it’s not a “furlong”. Argh. I was, however, surprised by how closely the rebooted series followed the plots of the original series. Not entirely, obvs – but some of them were a lot closer than I’d remembered. The original Battlestar Galactica remains a notable piece of science fiction television, even if it was designed to totally cash in on Star Wars, and the things it did right mostly, but not always, outweigh the things it got wrong. Which is more than can be said for Galactica 1980

sensoSenso*, Luchino Visconti (1954, Italy). Visconti is a director I think well of – he has directed a number of films I admire. So I was predisposed to like Senso, despite knowing little about it. Other than the fact it was a period drama, which is not necessarily in my book a fact which might affect my opinion. And so it proved. Senso is a good period drama, but I’m not sure why it is a better period drama, other than perhaps its director’s name. Admittedly if its period is not of interest to audiences, that’s hardly the fault of the film-maker. But the whole point of period dramas is that they’re recognisable – or something about them is recognisable – to the viewer. For Senso, this is undoubtedly true of an Italian audience, much as it would be for Visconti’s excellent The Leopard… But Senso, for all its plaudits, never quite manages to evoke its time and place as a time and place sufficient to persuade audiences of its story. To be honest, I don’t recall much of the film (I write these posts a week or two after viewing the movie) and from what I do remember it struck me as mostly unsuitable romances during a period when such a thing existed and had very real social consequences. Nothing in the cinematography stood out, which I would have expected of a film by Visconti. He’s done better, and I’m surprised this one made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

BSG1978Galactica 1980 (1980, USA). Ever watched something – several episodes of something – and then wonder why the fuck you bothered? Admittedly, Battlestar Galactica, the original 1978 TV series, is far from great television. But even fans of that are hard-pressed to say something nice about Galactica 1980. It’s not just that the project started off with a dumb premise, but also that the premise was shot down by the network after the pilot and then replaced with an even dumber premise. It’s a generation after the original Battlestar Galactica ended and its stars all have better things to do except Lorne Greene whose career must have been in the toilet as he’s back but this time with a fake beard. And there’s another villain, another nasty member of the Council, played by Richard Lynch, who also played a villain in an episode of the previous series. The “ragtag fugitive fleet” has finally reached Earth, but our world is, er, far too technologically primitive to help them fight the Cylons. But Betamax! I hear you cry. Walkmans! Sinclair ZX81s! Ford Pintos! Legwarmers! So Xavier, the councillor played by Lynch, decides to travel back in time in order to boost Earth’s technology – and the period he chooses is – yawn – Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Peenemünde, to be precise. Xavier is going to help von Braun invent the V-2. But grown-up Boxey – now called Troy because Boxey is a dumb name, even for a kid – and Barry van Dyke sidekick Dillon are sent back after Xavier – whose name is at least not pronounced ecks-avier because that’s not how you fucking pronounce it, you fucking stupid X-Men – and manage to destroy the V-2 prototype as it launches and so, er, stop V-2s from raining death and destruction on London– no, wait. That happened anyway. Anyway, they don’t change history. Xavier escapes to another time period to continue his dastardly plan. However. The network didn’t like the idea of Galactica warriors chasing Xavier through time-period-of-the-week and asked for a rethink. So we got… space scouts! A bunch of kids from Galactica are stranded on Earth, chaperoned by Troy and Dillon, who decide to disguise the kids as a scout troop. The remaining six episodes involve Troy and Dillon having adventures in USA 1980 – including a cringeworthy double episode featuring Wolfman Jack – sometimes with, sometimes without, the super-strong, high-jumping super scouts who can also turn invisible. The final episode is a flashback in which Starbuck crashlands on an alien world, finds a crashed Cylon fighter, reprogrammes one of the Cylons into a middle-American, and then becomes the father – without actual sex – with a mysterious and flighty young woman of the young genius who directed Galactica’s strategy in earlier episodes. Both, I should add, remain remarkably clean during their ordeal. And the woman wears a quite flimsy nylon dress. Even the Cylon is shiny as fuck. Battlestar Galactica is pants; Galactica 1980 is an entire underwear department. I expect the Blu-ray will prove useful at persuading unwanted guests it’s finally time to leave…

hanabiHANA-BI*, Takeshi Kitano (1997, Japan). According to Wikipedia, the title of this film should properly be in all caps. So that’s how I’ve done it. I have a lot of time for Takeshi Kitano – he has a wonderfully varied oeuvre, and some of his films are actually classics (plus if you don’t love the final musical number in his version of Zatoichi then you are clearly not human). This, however, is an early work, although apparently not early enough not to be known to display his trademark. er, trademarks. Such as gory violence. Which it contains in abundance. The film also follows an achronological narrative. Kitano plays Nishi, a police officer, whose wife has cancer. His partner is confined to a wheelchair after a shootout with a Yakuza. Nishi retires, and finds himself in debt to a Yakuza loan shark. So he masquerades as a police officer and robs a bank. The film skips back and forth in time, without clues (remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s plaster on her face in Sliding Doors?), which initially makes the film hard to follow. But it soon becomes clear and starts to grip. The moments of violence are shocking and bloody. Nishi, however, remains a cipher. A good film and a deserving entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I think.

henry_vHenry V*, Laurence Olivier (1944, UK). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has been finding films you really enjoy and/or greatly admire that you would not otherwise have come across. Now I respect Shakespeare, and I’ve been intermittently working my way through the BBC adaptations of his plays (I really ought to buy the damn boxed set), but he’s hardly my first choice, or second , or third, choice of viewing. More so for a 1944 adaptation. By Olivier, who, for all his evident ability, has been characterised as a “luvvie”. So, unexpectedly, I found myself really liking his staging of Henry V. Not because he’s chopped it down to a suitable movie length, or because everyone acts like an actooor (including some godawful Welsh characters)… but because he chose to represent the world of his play as towns and cities are represented in mediaeval art, because he framed the play as a play, and because he staged the battles really quite effectively. It works, it works really well. From the opening pan across a model London to the Globe Theatre, its cast and audience, to the not-quite-Technicolor of its costumes and sets, to the faux mediaeval representations of places to the battle itself… it all works wonderfully well. It is Shakespeare made real. It’s not the dry play as learnt by schoolgirls and schoolboys, it’s visceral and real… and yet still a play. I had expected Henry V to be dull and firmly up its own arse, but in fact it is a great piece of cinema. It needs a proper re-issue , remastered on Blu-ray, not some afterthought “classics” DVD release.

hearts_darknessHearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse*, Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper (1991, USA). I like Apocalypse Now, I think it’s a good film. It wears its inspiration a little too obviously on its sleeve, but it doesn’t suffer because of that. And some of the supporting cast pretty much define stereotypes of Vietnam War movies (except Dennis Hopper’s character, which is a stereotypically Dennis Hopper character). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, however, is the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, a notoriously difficult film to make. Partly it was money – Coppola had to stump up his own cash, and it still went over-budget. Partly it was the location – the Philippines stood in for Vietnam, and despite promises by the government the borrowed military helicopters often disappeared with little or no notice to fight rebels. And partly it was Coppola not knowing what the fuck he was doing. Then there was Marlon Brando, who demanded $3 million for three weeks’ work, and who then spent days sitting around discussing his character’s motivation. What a prima donna. Seriously, that’s totally unprofessional behaviour, and I doubt his name on the credits added significantly to the movie’s takings. Coppola also spent a week filming Harvey Keitel in the lead role, before firing him and casting Martin Sheen (Sheen is very, very good, but it would have been interesting to see what Keitel was like, but sadly no footage is included). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an object lesson in how not to make a film – there are a few problems which are a result of the location, but the main takeaway is that Coppola didn’t know what he was doing and bit off more than he could handle. Having said all that, Apocalypse Now is a genuine piece of classic cinema, but so perhaps it was all worth it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 696