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Moving pictures 2018, #17

After a month of watching mostly television series – the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, a season of Rebecka Martinsson, the latest series of Endeavour and Shetland… – I had expected my movie consumption to slow down a bit. But it doesn’t appear to have done so. So I’ve got three or four of these to post before I’m caught up. I know, I know… I promised this year wouldn’t be repeat of last year, with just posts about the movies I’d watched – it was even a New Year’s Resolution, FFS – but I still find myself consuming lots of films… On the plus side, SF Mistressworks is up and running again, and I’m back reviewing for Interzone. Now I just have to start writing some critical posts, and maybe even write some of that made-up stuff, you know, fiction

Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, USA). I read Vandermeer’s novel last year, but never bothered with the two sequels, even though they made a nice set. To be honest, it’s not a novel I would have thought open to a film adaptation, so when news that it was indeed being turned into a movie surfaced, I was surprised. And… it’s turned out to be a bit of a Marmite movie. It’s not the book, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It dials back on the much of the strangeness, which is also not necessarily a bad thing. It remains strange, and its “Shimmer”, the film’s version the book’s “Area X”, does much the same job. There’s something about it all which reminds me a little of Apocalypse Now or Embrace of the Serpent, but that may be just the fact it’s an exploration story. On the plus-side, Annihilation has an all-female cast, and it’s presented as perfectly normal, and more films should be like that.

The Fencer, Klaus Härö (2015, Estonia). This was apparently based on a true story, a teacher who upset the authorities in Leningrad and so moved to Estonia, where he ended up teaching kids, many of them orphaned by the Nazi occupation, how to fence. So it’s a bit like Dead Poets Society (I still cringe every time I hear “O Captain! My Captain!” after that film), which I suspect is just one version of a story that goes back considerably farther – Goodbye, Mr Chips, anyone? – perhaps even to ancient Athens or Rome. Anyway, by teaching these kids in 1950s Estonia how to fence, the hero gives them self-respect and ambition, and also jeopardises his own freedom. Because they want to enter a competition in Leningrad, but if he returns there he’s likely to be arrested by the secret police. You can guess what happens. It’s apparently based on a true story, an Estonian hero from the days of Soviet occupation. Not a bad film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts (2017, USA). Spider-Man, Spider-Man, just as annoying as a teenager can, er, be… It was certainly refreshing to see a Spider-Man re-re-re-reboot aimed at the actual demographic matching Peter Parker’s rather than that of the people who remember reading him when he debuted in a Marvel comic… Peter Parker has been on a mission with Iron Man, but now it’s back to school and he can’t wait to be called up again to help out the Avengers. Except they never call. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton sees his lucrative contract to clean up alien tech after The Avengers (AKA Avengers Assemble!) taken over by a shadowy government department. So he becomes the Green Goblin. I think. He flies, and he’s sort of evil. Oh, and he’s the father of the girl Peter Parker really fancies and wants to take to the prom. I hate that: when the girl you fancy has a supervillain for a dad. Total bummer. To tell the truth, I hated the selfie video opening of Spider-Man : Homecoming, but really enjoyed it once the film had settled down into its story. The third act, unfortunately, was the usual MCU bollocks, which was a shame. But overall I enjoyed it and I hadn’t really expected to.

Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA). See there on the DVD cover where it quotes from a review, “his funniest film by far”… because of course it’s fucking hilarious pointing out that the US is a completely fucked-up country run for the benefit of a rich handful on the misery of millions – which is pretty much also what the Tories want here, and have been driving the UK toward. Moore visits half a dozen European (and one African) countries and investigates one of their social policies, interviewing ordinary people and asking how they feel about it. He does this as part of a running joke about “invading” the country, because the US military hasn’t actually won a war since WWII. The countries he visits are: Italy, to learn about paid holidays and maternity leave; France, for school dinners; Germany, employee rights; Portugal, decriminalisation of drugs and abolition of the death penalty; Norway, the prison system and rehabilitation; Slovenia, free university education; Finland, which has the best pupils in Europe; Tunisia, women’s rights, free healthcare and abortions for women; and Iceland, the role of women in business and government. None of this stuff is difficult to understand, but apparently Michael Moore had to make a film about it so that Americans would get it. I remember some moron from the US tweeting something like “hate speech laws are immoral and public healthcare is imprudent”. FFS, it’s the twenty-first century.

Anna Boleyn, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). The title alone should be enough to indicate what this film is about. Lubitsch does a silent version of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. (Why “Anna”? I don’t know.) Emil Jannings plays the king and Henny Porten the title role. The story seems to stick reasonably closely to the historical record, although the depiction of Henry VIII follows the usual bullshit portrayal of a carousing fat man, who enjoyed wine, women and hunting, and not the despot he really was. They say he killed more people during his reign than any other English monarch. Much as we Brits – well, English, but I don’t really think of myself as either – like to think well of Henry VIII for breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, let’s not forget he only did it because he was a serial adulterer. Although, to be fair, the Roman Catholic Church has hardly been a force for good throughout the centuries, so booting them out was a good thing. A shame Henry VIII didn’t go the all the way and ban religion altogether.

Attraction, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2017, Russia). Commercial cinema in Russia has been churning out some solid sf blockbusters in recent years – not to mention films about its space programme – and Bondarchuk is a name known to me. His The 9th Company from 2005 was a good film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan; and 2008/2009 Dark Planet (AKA, The Inhabited Island) was an interesting adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Prisoners of Power, which was annoyingly cut by almost half in its English-language sell-through release. Attraction has been described as YA, and perhaps it is, although it doesn’t feel much like YA properties such as Divergent or Maze Runner. An alien spaceship crashlands in a suburb of Moscow, the local youth take advantage of the alien tech thrown off during the crash, while the military tries to control the situation. One of the aliens – they only look alien in their armour, they’re really human underneath – is attacked on a scouting mission, escapes, and is helped by a young woman (it stands to reason he’s a cute guy). And, ho hum. The alien ship rebuilds itself – it attracts water to itself, for, I think fuel. See what they did there… attraction. The film looks good, the sfx are impressive, the cast are, er, attractive, and it’s all very Russian. You could watch worse. But I hope Bondarchuk’s next movie is better than this.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896

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Moving pictures, #23

Still trying to get up to date on these…

femmeUne femme mariée, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I have a theory about Godard. So far I’ve seen about half a dozen of his films. Two of them I loved, the rest I didn’t much care for. The two I loved were both shot in colour – Le Mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her – the rest were black and white. So it seems I only like Godard’s colour films. Obviously I need to watch more to determine the truth of this theory, but Une femme mariée is black and white and I didn’t really like it. The married woman of the title is having an affair, and the film opens with her and her lover in bed. Then she leaves him, fetches her young son from school and meets her husband at the airport. He has a colleague with him. They head to the couple’s apartment, where they eat dinner. The colleague leaves, husband and wife then run around a lot and come close to domestic violence (it didn’t much look like a “play-fight”, as Wikipedia has it). And then… This is one of those films where the cast act naturally and it’s all about the dialogue. And like many Godard films, it’s all over the place, and the plot often seems like little more than a vehicle which allows the cast to pontificate on various topics that seem to have little or no bearing on the actual story (which is, I suppose, just as true of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but in that film everything around the “lecturettes” worked much better and seemed much more interesting). Une femme mariée seems to be generally rated as one of Godard’s best, but I wonder how much of that is trading on its title character.

42ndstreet42nd Street*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I found this in a charity shop. It’s one of several Busby Berkeley films on the 1001 Movies list, many of which aren’t that easy to find in the UK. Busby Berkeley… a camera placed above the stage and looking down as large numbers of dancers make patterns not unlike those you’d find in a kaleidoscope. Then they wrap a plot around it. In this case, it’s a progenitor of Chorus Line and films of that ilk. I tweeted a line from this, “It’s going to be the toughest five weeks you’ll live through”, and asked people to guess the movie, expecting them to pick Platoon or Full Metal Jacket – which one or two did. No one guessed a 1930s film about putting on a Busby Berkley musical. Which is all beside the point. Ginger Rogers in an early role plays one of the female leads, the plot is fairly standard for the type, the final numbers are the usual over-the-top Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, and it’s easy to see why such films were popular back in the day… and you have to wonder why something similar isn’t equally successful today. Or perhaps that’s just me.

coherenceCoherence, James Ward Byrkit (2013, USA). Some films should hold your interest because they have an intriguing genesis, or a really fascinating idea at their core. And certainly the elevator pitch for Coherence sounded to me like something which would appeal. Unfortunately the end result never quite manages to pull it all together. It’s one of those films where the low or non-existent budget becomes a strength rather than a weakness – it was filmed mostly in the director’s own house. There’s a dinner party, and during it a comet passes over and things turn strange… Strange as in superposition, multiple instances of the same events – which means dinner guests from other alternate universe versions of the dinner party getting mixed up and crossing into alternate universes. So much so that keeping up with who is really who, and from where, becomes near impossible. The cast are generally good, but it’s one of those films where everyone talks over one another, and while real life is certainly like that it does get annoying very quickly in a movie (which is by definition artificial, and it’s the ones which make a virtue of it I tend to prefer), and anyway it sort of worked against what was quite a clever central conceit. The premise demanded a domestic story, but the idea needed to be progressed much faster than it was – the longer you take to develop an idea, the thinner it seems, whether it deserves it or not. Coherence managed to dissipate its drama when it really had more than enough to make a very good film.

broken_blossomsBroken Blossoms*, DW Griffth (1919, USA). This film is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. Some of Griffith’s other films have been accused of racism, and while Broken Blossoms‘ lead is played by a white man in Chinese make-up, the film was deliberately written to push tolerance during a period of heavy anti-Chinese prejudice. A Buddhist monk leaves China for London, where he finds it hard to promote Buddha’s peaceful philosophy to London’s huddled masses. Especially Lillian Gish, the abused daughter of a boxer. The monk rescue her after she’s been badly beaten by her father, and the two fall in love. But it is not to be. It’s pretty much Romeo and Juliet, even down to the ending, but set among the slums of London, and with Romeo as a Buddhist monk (which, I suppose, in the England of the time makes him no more welcome a suitor than a Montague to a Capulet). Griffith has a number of films on the 1001 Movies list, and while he was undoubtedly a pioneer of the medium, I can’t see what this particular film did to merit inclusion. Maybe it’s just because it’s an historical document…

dark_planetDark Planet, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2009, Russia). The real name of this film is Обитаемый остров, or The Inhabited Island – which is the name of the Strugatskys novel from which it was adapted. Why a random English-language distributor decided to randomly re-title it with the entirely random title Dark Planet is beyond me (mind you, we did better than the French, as it was titled Battlestar Rebellion in France). Because it deserves better. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Bondarchuk – yes, son of the actor – has made plenty of well-received films – I thought his 9th Company wasn’t bad, for example – and while Dark Planet certainly entertains throughout its length, it does feel a little like too much of it ended up on the cutting-room floor, and it’s more notable for the story it could have been, and which is plainly obvious, than for the story it is. A young man of Earth, played by the improbably good-looking (and, according to Bondarchuk, totally untalented) Vasiliy Stepanov, crashlands on a world on which the entire population are held in thrall by towers which broadcast brainwashing signals. You can see how it would have made sense in the novel, although it doesn’t really in the film. The plot is a little haphazard, but the final battle scene is done quite well. It’s a film that feels more like a series of missed opportunities than a coherent narrative – I’m reminded of The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres), in which the film-makers decided to leave some important exposition on the cutting-room floor because it slowed the pace of the narrative… resulting in a film that made a weird and inexplicable leap in its third act. Anyway, Dark Planet: worth a second look, though I’d prefer an edition more in keeping with the film-makers’ intentions than the one I watched. (After I wrote the above, I discovered the original Russian release consists of two parts of 100 minutes and 115 minutes. This UK release is an edited down version of 118 minutes. Why?)

leni_riefenstahlOlympia 1, Fest der Völker*, Leni Riefenstahl (1938, Germany). Riefenstahl, tame director of the Nazis, is a name I certainly know, but I’d never had any real desire to watch her movies. But she’s on the 1001 Movies list, more than once in fact, and her films are not available for rental, so I ended up buying a box set which included the two Olympia films, Triumph of the Will and a pair of other propaganda pieces. So I’m probably now on a list somewhere. Anyway, I watched Triumph of the Will several weeks ago but didn’t think it worth mentioning it here because, well, it’s a film about Nazis and Hitler and while it may have been state of the art in the 1930s, and still holds up reasonably well today, it’s probably only of real interest to historians. Olympia 1, Fest der Völker, however, is a more interesting film because it actually presages the way we watch sports on television, if not lays the actual groundwork for sports broadcasting. It is, as the title states, a film of the 1936 Olympics. So there’s lots of people in quaintly-long shorts competing in various athletic events, with occasional shots away to the wholesome German crowd or Hitler. Of all the events, I found the high jump the most interesting because it predates the Fosbury Flop, meaning the techniques on diplay looked odd and mostly inefficient. There is a second part, Fest der Schönheit, which I have yet to watch.

whosafraidWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?*, Mike Nichols (1966, USA). I’d always thought I’d seen this, and had it in my head it was some fluffy rom com much like those Rock Hudson films I love so much. It’s not, of course. It’s a very intense, and really quite mean, three-hour play by Edward Albee cut down to a two-hour cinema outing by Mke Nichols – his first film, in fact. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple at a small town college. She’s the dean’s daughter, he’s a professor of history whose boat has long since sailed. And now they just snipe at each other. A young couple join the faculty (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) and are invited to dinner by Taylor and Burton. They all get very pissed. Certain truths are aired. There is a lot of very uncomfortable dialogue. And… ho hum. There’s some good stuff in here, some really sharp dialogue – but I’m not convinced Taylor and Burton overcome their Hollywood profiles sufficiently to do the characters justice. Segal is pretty good, though. The film is also long – and it’s shorter than the play. It drags quite a bit in places. Having said that, watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? didn’t make me interested in Albee’s work, although this appears to be the only play of his that made it onto the silver screen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 625