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Moving pictures 2017, #58

Bit of an odd mix this Moving pictures post, although it’s a good geographical spread. Not so much of chronological spread, however, with one from the 1960s, one from the 1980s, and the rest less than a decade old (well, nearly). Half of the movies are by directors I’ve seen other films by – Edwards, Park and De Sica (two, four and six respectively). One of the films below was excellent, one was better than expected, and the rest were meh.

The Beast in Space, Alfonso Brescia (1980, Italy). I really liked Footprints on the Moon (see here), an Italian giallo released by Shameless, and I enjoyed The Tenth Victim (see here), also a Shameless release, but that doesn’t mean every film they’ve published is worth seeing. I’ve seen a number of spaghetti sci-fi films over the years – the most celebrated is probably StarCrash (see here) – and I’ll probably watch many more. But it’s a stretch to describe any of them as good, and The Beast in Space, which adds very mild softcore porn to the mix, is a case in point. It opens in a bar, and everything screams bad science fiction – the decor, the costumes, the dialogue… A studly man defends a woman from the approaches of a group of space merchants. Later, he offers her a position in his crew on the best spaceship in the galaxy, or something. It’s all about a planet at the edge of the galaxy which is the source of a valuable ore, but which few people have returned from. So the studly man’s spaceship flies there, and they discover the world’s secret – its inhabitants are immortal thanks to the unique ore… And there’s some giant satyr-like creature which chases the woman through a forest. Or something. The Beast in Space is pretty tame, and though the bad science fiction feels mostly like its in service to the titillating parts of the movie, the end result is something that doesn’t convince as either.

Priceless, Pierre Salvadori (2006, France). Audrey Tatou plays a young woman who lives as a kept woman. She targets rich old men, and enjoys a rich lifestyle as a result. One day, she mistakes a waiter for a rich playboy. He plays along, spending all his savings in the process, but is quickly dropped when Tatou realises her mistake. But then he is picked up by a wealthy older woman and becomes her toy boy, and so starts to follow the same lifestyle as Tatou. So, of course, they keep on bumping into each other and, of course, fall for each other. They try to outdo each other, seeing who can scam the most out of their patrons. And they manage a relationship under the noses of their sugar daddy/mummy. In an earlier decade, this might have played as a light fun comedy in which a pair of ne’er-do-wells take advantage of the rich. But these days it feels like a complete mis-step. We’re not the rich’s problem, they are ours. They take our money and hoard it. We know trickle-down theory doesn’t work. In fact, we know any economic theory which concentrates wealth decreases quality of life for everyone else. So there’s nothing amusing about rich people being shown as unwitting dupes. Oh my, someone cons a Rolex out of them. Boo hoo. When the truth of the matter is: a government should tax the shit out of them. You want fairness? Then redistribute wealth. The American Dream is a pernicious lie, and serves only those already in positions of wealth and power. So it’s a little disappointing to see European cinema opting into the same mendacious narrative.

The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook (2016, South Korea). You know those films which are structured in several parts – not acts – in which each part tells the story from a different character’s point of view and so offers a different persepctive on the story to the viewer. This is one of those. In the first part, a young woman is put in place as the maid of a rich man’s daughter, so she can gaslight the daughter into marrying the con man who arranged for her hiring. Once married, he plans to consign his wife to an asylum and live off her fortune with the maid. But he pulls a switch at the end, and the maid is committed while the daughter goes off with the con man. Except… in the second part, the story is told from the daughter’s point of view, outlining quite how horrible her father – a collector of rare Japanese porn – is, and the things he makes her do. And, well, the daughter discovers the con man’s game and decides to turn the tables on him… And there’s yet another take on the story in the third part… and any real discussion of the plot would involve lots of spoilers so maybe not… The movie looks gorgeous, and its structure, with its voiceovers and overt exposition, works extremely well. I don’t think it’ll make my top five for the year, but it’ll certainly get an honourable mention.

Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders (2017, USA). There was a lot of fuss when this film was announced because it’s an anime property and yet its main roles in this, its Hollywood live-action adaptation, were being played by white actors. Certainly they could have found an Asian actress to play Scarlett Johansen’s role, they’ve done it in other films. And you have to wonder how much influence stars have on box office, especially for known genre properties like Ghost in the Shell, a popular anime series. True, Beat Takeshi plays Johansen’s boss – but unless you know Japanese cinema, and that means you’ve likely seen the original Ghost in the Shell anime, that probably means little. The original was very much influenced by Blade Runner, and this US remake pushes that even further. The CGI is actually very pretty throughout. Unfortunately, the plot is dull. Johansen plays a woman given a cyborg body after a horrific accident. She is a member of an anti-terrorist squad which is chasing a mysterious villain who is threatening Hanka, a powerful robotics company. There’s a sideplot about Johansen remembering little of her past, and discovering that what she does remember has been falsified, but it’s given little weight against the main shoot-em-up plot. I can see why this film didn’t do very well, despite looking flash – in an OTT-CGI sort of way – in parts.

Monsters, Gareth Edwards (2010, UK). Edwards is, of course, the director of Rogue One, a gig he landed after this film and Godzilla. Which is a pretty meteoric rise. Star Wars is, after all, a massive property, and jealously guarded by Disney. They don’t just let anyone near it – and they’ve quickly fired anyone who treated it in a way Disney felt it should not be treated. Which makes Monsters surprising on two fronts – that the director of Monsters would be chosen to direct Rogue One, and that he would stay in the job as director of Rogue One. Monsters is set in Central America, and depicts a US couple’s efforts to to return home through an “infected zone” – northern Mexico – that has been devastated by an alien invasion. Initially, the aliens are never actually seen, only the damage they’ve wrought. But toward the end, once the couple reach the US, the aliens do make an appearance – and the CGI is a bit dodgy. Unfortunately, the film seems to depict the Central Americans as chiefly either corrupt or violent. A businessman charges them $5000 for a ferry ticket to the US coast. The male half of the couple – he’s actually an employee of the woman’s father – is then robbed by a woman he picks up in a bar… forcing the couple to take a more dangerous route. The treatment of the aliens is cleverly done – final scene notwithstanding – and the wrecks and ruins the couple witness on their journey north are convincingly staged (I assume they’re pretty much entirely CGI). The giant wall forming the US border – I expect Trump has that part of the film on a loop so he can masturbate over it – is especially effective. Better than I’d expected, even if the male lead is annoyingly useless.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Vittorio De Sica (1963, Italy). De Sica is, like Visconti, one of those directors whose films I have watched sort of accidentally. The films of his I have mostly watched have been Italian Neorealist, which is not a film genre I’m especially fond of (but there are a number of them on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list). I’m pretty sure Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow doesn’t qualify as Italian Neorealist. It’s actually a sort of anthology film, although all three of its stories were directed by De Sica, and all three star Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The first is set just after WWII. Loren and Mastroianni are poor. He’s out of work, she makes a living selling contraband ciagrettes. But she’s caught and fined. They can’t pay the fine, so the police come to arrest her. But they can’t because they’re not allowed to arrest pregant women. Loren manages to maintain her freedom by getting serially pregnant… for seven or eight years. Eventually, she decides enough is enough, and agrees to go to prison. But Mastroianni persuades a lawyer to petition for a pardon, which she receives. I wouldn’t have thought carrying, giving birth and caring for seven kids was preferable to a prison sentence. In the second story, Loren is an industrialist’s trophy wife, who gives her lover, Mastroianni, a ride from the airport in her husband’s expensive Rolls-Royce convertible. They bicker. En route, she is forced to swerve to avoid a child on the road, and crashes the Rolls. The damage to the car pisses her off more than the fact she nearly killed someone. Mastroianni is not impressed. She flags down a sportscar, and goes off with tis driver, leaving Mastroianni with the crashed Rolls Royce. In the final story, Loren is a high-class prostitute. Her neighbour’s grandson visits, and falls in love with Loren. Unfortunately, he’s all set to head off to the senminary, and his grandparents are horrified by his decision to pack it in to woo Loren. So Loren, with their help of one of her clients, Mastroianni, a playboy, try to convince the erstwhile priest not to give up his calling. Of the three stories, the first was the most memorable, and the second by far the most dull. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885

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Moving pictures, #68

Half of the films in this post are from the US, but then one of them I did actually see at the cinema. It’s become a bit of a tradition over the last decade to go see something at the cinema during the Christmas holiday, and that usually means something genre and very commercial… like Star Wars. And this year, it was Rogue One.

20462046, Wong Kar-Wai (2004, China). I bought this years ago, along with In the Mood for Love, when they were originally released in the UK on DVD – both as special editions in cardboard sleeves. I’ve no idea why. Somewhere I’d come across the director’s name, possibly in Sight & Sound, and picked up his two latest films… and while I’d clearly liked them enough to hang onto the DVDs, I’d not rewatched them until recently. And… my, 2046 is gloriously self-indulgent, isn’t it? It rehashes the plot of In the Mood for Love, with the same actors, but set in the titular year. Kar-Wai sets his scene through the use of neon-soaked montages, a combination of special effects and live photography, and it’s very effective. The actual set dressing is a little dated, although clearly not meant as an entirely serious attempt to present a real 2046 CE. Certainly 2046 is one of those films that doesn’t so much tell a story as provide a feast for the eyes. I’ll be hanging onto my copies of In the Mood for Love and 2046, I think. I also need to watch more Wong Kar-Wai, I think.

400_days400 Days, Matt Osterman (2015, USA). Some films look good on paper, but fail to live up to their promise. This is a classic example – although it tries hard. Four astronauts are consigned to a simulated space mission for the eponymous period of time in an underground replica of a spacecraft. Rather than build a simulator in a nice controllable environment, like an aircraft hangar, which is what most actual experiments of this type do, in the film they bury their fake spacecraft in a field in the middle of nowhere… Despite this, it all goes well for about 200 days. Then they start to turn psychotic, but that turns out to be caused by a fault in the environmental system. Then someone breaks into the “spacecraft”, and they lose touch with “mission control”. So they climb out of their simulator… and discover a post-apocalyptic world. Apparently, while they were on their mission, an asteroid hit the moon, and a vast quantity of pulverised moon dust dropped into earth’s atmosphere, causing a nuclear winter. However, two of the astronauts think this is all part of the simulation. The other two are not so sure. The film doesn’t resolve itself either way. 400 Days tries hard, but never quite convinces. The simulator in no way resembles a realistic spacecraft, and burying it in a field is just daft. The final scenes try so hard not to resolve the set-up, they end up setting a completely different tone to what’s gone before. This is a film that wants its cake and to eat it too, but manages neither. Avoidable.

death_lazarescuThe Death of Mr Lazarescu, Cristin Puiu (2005, Romania). Some films, on the other hand, don’t work on paper, and should not work on the screen – but somehow manage to. This is a classic example. An old man with a drink problem and past medical problems needs to go to hospital because he feels ill, but gets taken from hospital to hospital – in Bucharest – by the ambulance, because none of the hospitals will accept him. This is a black comedy. Ten years from now, it could be reality. In the UK. Thanks to scumbag Tories. Lazarescu complains of an upset stomach, and blames it on a prior condition. It gets more serious, his neighbours get involved, an ambulance is called for. And then the ambulance, and the paramedic who is taking care of Lazarescu, is bounced from hospital to hospital. Because he drinks, he is seen as less deserving of medical care – and since when did lifestyle become a barrier to healthcare? What next? Skin colour? Nationality? True, drinkers are more likely to suffer from certain conditions – but that doesn’t make drinking the cause of everything they might suffer. And healthcare for all is healthcare for all. Romania was, nominally, a socialist nation, but seriously who thinks the Ceaucescus were an actual socialist regime? Which is not in the slightest bit relevant, as Romania has an apparently quite efficient health service, it just failed the title character in this case – and more for effect, I hope, than an actual representation of the current state of affairs. Despite that, a good film and definitely worth seeing.

rogue_oneStar Wars: Rogue One, Gareth Edwards (2016, USA). Unlike The Force Awakens, I went into Rogue One with no particular preconceptions – this was not a prequel or sequel or midquel, it was a story set in the same universe as the two Star Wars trilogies. Except, of course, it turned out to be a midquel – although it retconned details I hadn’t even known, given that I’m supremely uninterested in EU Star Wars… Anyway, I took Rogue One as I found it, and I even sort of ignored the various moment of fan service as the sort of dumb frills the story didn’t need but the marketing department had insisted on including. And, as a result… it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, by any means. But it wasn’t bad. A science officer who walked away from the empire is tracked down and forced back to work – building the Death Star. Because, of course, the Death Star could only be designed by one man. But his daughter escaped and has become a bit of a freebooter. But now the rebels want her because she’s a link with an extremist group led by Forrest Whitaker and he has an Imperial pilot who has defected and wants to deliver a message to the Rebel Alliance. The message is from the science officer. Cue reluctant hero, lots of heavy-handed Imperial enforcement, and some eye-popping visuals. But, as with all of the Star Wars films, the story logic falls down in several places. We’re supposed to believe the science officer deliberately built a flaw into the Death Star (you know, that bit at the end of the first ever Star Wars film), but, well, couldn’t he have made it a bit fucking easier? And then there’s the Empire’s love of “master switches”, which are usually sited in some totally random place because of course where else would you put it? And an archive of technical plans that isn’t accessible over the network? What use is it, then? It’s like something out of an IBM catalogue from 1988. And how come the rebels could talk to the ships in orbit through the shield, but they couldn’t beam the data out? How does that work? Oh wait, made-up bollocks. Of course. In hindsight, The Force Awakens feels like a canny way to open Disney’s management of the franchise – a giant cheese-fest of fan service with a plot that reiterates the original, and parades all those beloved favourites in all their aged glory across the screen – because, hey, cultural icons turn wrinkly too, or rather, that actors who play them, and get paid to do so, turn wrinkly and, sadly, die. Which, also sadly, ties back into Rogue One and its two turns by CGI actors – Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, and a young Carrie Fisher, who even more sadly died only last month. Neither looked quite real – close enough to be very creepy, anyway. I suspect Rogue One is a good example of what we can expect from Disney in the Star Wars universe: feature-film-length episodes of a long-running series, with a story arc that retcons itself and tangles itself up so completely as it progresses that by 2050 it’s not going to make the slightest bit of sense to even the most ardent of Star Wars nerd. Still, who knows, by then we could have moved past post-truth to a post-narrative world…

red_queenThe Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Emilio Miraglia (1972, Italy). Is this a giallo? I think this is a giallo. Although it’s more like supernatural horror than a detective story. Two sisters, one blonde and one brunette, do not get on. The blonde accidentally kills the brunette, as you do, when they’re teenagers. Many years later, the father dies and his will is held in probate for a year. Because there’s a family legend that the Red Queen will return and kill seven family members, and look!, people are getting murdered in horrible ways. All the clues seem to point to the brunette sister, who everyone has insisted is living somewhere in the US, but yup, her body is still down in the cellar, where the two surviving sisters hid it. There’s a twist, of course, maybe even two or three. To be honest, I only watched this a couple of days ago as I write this and I’m having trouble remembering the details. Barbara Bouchet, as the blonde sister, is very watchable, but it must have been about two-thirds into the film before I even noticed it was set in Germany (everyone speaks Italian, of course). It’s all very silly, one of those films pretty much defined by the bright-red fake blood they use on, er, films of this type. The final scene, in which Bouchet is trapped in a room in the cellars which begins to fill with water – deliberately, it’s a trap – is a cleare reference to The Phantom of the Opera, or perhaps to one of the zillions of films which ripped off the idea from The Phantom of the Opera, but it does make you wonder why they built a room in the cellars of the castle that could be filled with water… A fun night in, providing alcohol is involved.

bad_dayBad Day at Black Rock*, John Sturges (1955, USA). This is apparently not available on DVD in the UK or US, which is a surprise. Fortunately, someone on eBay was selling a Korean copy they’d bought for a cheap price – not that I realised it was a Korean release until I received it. But it was an excellent transfer – and it need to be, because this is Technicolor in all its, er, technicolour glory. The film is set in 1946. Spencer Tracy plays a stranger who appears at titular town, looking for a Japanese man. The locals don’t take kindly to his questions. But that’s because they killed the Japanese man during the war, because he was Japanese and they are racist. Parts of the plot of Bad Day at Black Rock were very reminiscent of Rio Bravo from 1959, although that would require a temporal paradox, and, to be fair, the plot of Rio Bravo was so good Howard Hawks used it at least three times himself. However, the film that Bad Day at Black Rock most reminded me of was Violent Saturday, another Technicolor thriller and absolutely gorgeous to see, although Bad Day at Black Rock‘s desert scenery didn’t really lend itself to the format. But it’s a good thriller, sort of noir without being noir, and looks great, even if some of its performances are a bit over-egged (Ernest Borgnine, for example). Some of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die I’ve had to buy legal rips or foreign-language DVDs because they’re not available in the UK or US… and most, I’ve no desire to keep. But this one is a keeper. A good film.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 839