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Moving pictures 2018, #26

I think this might be the most peculiar post of the series so far this year. Okay, it’s two-thirds Anglophone, but only two films of the six could ever qualify as, well, “normal”, and I’m not entirely sure that holds true for one of them – although part of the appeal of the films made by the Archers is their slightly off-kilter aspect…

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie (2017, USA). Okay, so anything Ritchie touches never survives the encounter intact, and I knew that was as likely to be true of the Matter of Britain as it was of the Man from UNCLE or the Sherlock Holmes canon. So why was I surprised that Ritchie’s Arthurian Britain features giant elephants, Cockneys and Himalayan mountains? It didn’t help that David Beckham appeared to have been cast in pretty much every role, except the one played by Jude Law. (It wasn’t Beckham, of course, just a bunch of male actors cut from the same cloth and styled the same way as him.) I can’t even remember the plot, only that it took considerable liberties with its source material, even though it managed to include most of the best-known elements. Sword in the stone: check. Merlin: check. Camelot: check. Uther Pendragon: check. Londinium: check. Um, that can’t be right – in the fifth century? Masked army of goons: check. Er, hang on. Ninjas: check. No, wait. Impromptu football match: check. What? Jude Law turning into a giant snake: check. Oh come on, this is just taking the piss. Although I may have dreamt the football match. Basically, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a Mockney fantasy film, and if that’s your bag then I suppose it does the job. But it’s not the Matter of Britain. In fact, it’s not even Britain. Bollocks.

Mr Skeffington, Vincent Sherman (1944, USA). I think I’ve always had a certain impression of Bette Davis and the parts she played, despite not following her career or making an effort to seek out her films. And having now seen several of them, I can’t honestly say my impression of her was all that different from the reality. She played brittle women who seemed to have trouble dealing with reality – or at least put on a pretence of being unable to do so, while often being considerably more capable than those around her suspected. So either she can’t cope, or she’s secretly coping. Usually, the story is tragic, and Davis’s character is the most tragic of them all. Despite the title, Mr Skeffington is definitely a Davis vehicle. She plays a socialite whose brother fritters away the family fortune, and so she marries the title character, played by Claude Rains, who is very rich. She never loves him, and she forever has a string of beaus in tow, but she’s never unfaithful. They have a girl, but Davis is not interested and does not bond with her. The two divorce, when Davis learns Rains has been squiring his secretaries about town. Rains and daughter move to Europe. Once she is grown, the daughter returns to the US, but does not get on with her mother, marries and moves to Seattle. The war happens. Davis loses first her fortune – Rains’s fortune was taken by the Nazis – and then her looks when she contracts diptheria. But then it transpires Rains did not die in the camps as previously thought, and has returned to the US… And he still loves Davis. Even better, he is now blind and can’t see her raddled features. Sigh. Davis’s character really is unlikable, right from the start; and her dim brother is even worse. Rains plays the title role with a look of constant silent suffering, which he does very well. But it all gets a bit much as the film moves into its final act, and the mawkishness is so thick you can cut it with a chainsaw. Astonishingly, both Davis and Rains were nominated for Oscars for the film, although Rains only as Best Supporting. One to avoid.

A Canterbury Tale, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1944, UK). I’m a big fan of the the Archers, and I’d put their Black Narcissus in my top twenty films (despite its somewhat problematic aspects), so naturally I’ve been keen to watch their entire oeuvre, and not just their most celebrated films. A Canterbury Tale is generally well-regarded, if not especially well-known. It’s a war-time piece, made during WWII and featuring soldiers. And actually starring a serving US Army soldier. But it’s also very much a film about England and its countryside. A young woman disembarks from a train in the fictitious Kentish town of Chillingbourne late one night. She is looking for farm work as a member of the Land Army. A British Army sergeant and a US Army sergeant also get down from the train, the latter by mistake. As they head off looking for digs, the woman is attacked by a man in uniform who pours glue into her hair. The police admit this has happened several times but they have no clues to the identity of the assailant. The three decide to team up to solve the mystery. Which involves the local landowner and the nearby Army camp. It’s a trivial mystery, when it comes down to it, and if the motives of the perpetrator prove somewhat confused they’re at least pure. And spectacularly ill-timed, even though the incidents are entirely the result of the Army camp having been built nearby. I was reminded while watching a film of a documentary I’d seen about hop-picking in Kent in the first half of last century. Hordes of East Enders used to head down there for a few weeks every year to pick the hops. They’d stay in crude huts and were paid a pittance, but for most of them it was the nearest they had to a holiday. Mechanisation completely killed off the practice. Anyway, A Canterbury Tale… the three leads are sympathetic and engaging, the mystery is resolved without anyone getting hurt, and each of the leads’ character arcs ends the film on a happy note – literally, in the case of one, who had always dreamt of playing a church organ and gets to play Canterbury Cathedral’s during a service to mark his division’s departure for the front. Worth seeing.

Demonlover, Olivier Assayas (2002, France). I’ve been following Assayas’s career since first watching his film Irma Vep back in 2000, but Demonlover has been a hard one to track down. It doesn’t appear to have ever been given a sell-through release in the UK, although DVD editions from other European nations are commonplace (and yes, the UK is part of Europe; and Brexiteers are fuckwits). Having now seen it, I can understand why a UK label might have been reluctant to issue it in this country, although, to be fair, it’s pretty tame and now, sadly, badly dated. Connie Nielsen plays the CEO of a French computer game company. She is trying to acquire the rights to a Japanese hentai series. The title refers to the US company she turns to for handling distribution in the US, which is run by Gina Gershon. But Demonlover, the company, are under threat from their main competitor, Mangatronics. Meanwhile, Nielsen finds evidence linking Demonlover to the Hellfire Club, an online BDSM website. At which point, as the Wikipedia plot summary has it, “the narrative structure of the film more or less breaks down”. It’s tempting to think Assayas was channelling David Lynch while making Demonlover, but it never quite manages Lynch’s levels of strangeness. And for all his utter weirdness, Lynch somehow managed to maintain narrative coherence in his films. If Demonlover feels like an exercise in pushing boundaries, it’s not narrative boundaries. The plot is built around online porn – not just of the animated variety, but also the fringe parts of BDSM – but it all feels very dated. Which it shouldn’t really, when you think about it: a film set in the first couple of years of the twenty-first century will no doubt look like a film set in the first couple of years of the twenty-first century, except… everything except the presentation of the Web in the film could be two, three, five or seven years old. Which makes the Internet parts of the film stand out. Nielsen is good in the title role, Gershon I’m not so sure about. Demonlover is a film, I think, that needs more than one watching, but I’d prefer a better quality transfer than the one I saw.

Dasepo Naughty Girls, E J-yong (2006, South Korea). I probably shouldn’t have to explain that this was recommended by David Tallerman. Five minutes in, and I texted him to say, “this film looks like someone on drugs tried remaking Grease“. Happily, it settled down a little after that, although it was still completely bonkers. It takes place in the Useless High School, among the students of one class. The main character is “Poor Girl”, who carries a stuffed toy on her back called “Poverty”. Another student, called Cyclops, has, er, only a single eye. Poor Girl’s mother has invested heavily in a pyramid-selling scheme – literally, the product is a plastic pyramid – and so to make ends meet Poor Girl becomes a prostitute. One of her clients is a mobster who enjoys dressing up as a schoolgirl, and the two become friends. Meanwhile, Anthony, a rich boy in the class, falls in love with Cyclops’s sister, Double Eyes, who is transgender. Anthony and Poor Girl become friends. She fancies him, but he doesn’t return the sentiment. He also has a secret in his background. There are a couple of musical numbers, including the opening credits, but it’s not really a musical. And not really like Grease at all. It is completely mad, however, and a lot of fun. Worth seeing.

The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland). I was browsing for documentaries on Cinema Paradiso to add to my documentaries list, when I stumbled on this one. Its subject matter is something that interests me: space probes. In this case, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. I used to think space probes were boring and much preferred reading about crewed space exploration – and it’s true that the engineering required to keep human beings alive in space I find fascinating… But space probes hold a fascination all their own too. They are machines built to operate in an inimical environment for decades, and for which our ability to direct and control becomes subject to greater and greater time lags, such that operating them becomes totally divorced from reality. The two Voyager probes are, of course, the furthest – or even farthest – travelled human-made objects. And one of them will come back a few centuries from now as a giant fuck-off spacecraft and threaten the Earth. But not to save the whales, that was a different giant fuck-off spacecraft. Anyway, The Farthest consists of lots of talking heads, archival footage and some very pretty CGI. And it really is fascinating stuff. It must be really weird discovering something completely unknown millions of kilometres and many hours after the actual moment of discovery, almost vicarious, but The Farthest manages to evoke something not so very different. Excellent stuff.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908

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Moving pictures 2016, #2

More films watched by Yours Truly, some of which might have been from a certain list, some of which might not.

amores_perrosAmores Perros*, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2000, Mexico). I hadn’t realised this was the movie which brought Gael García Bernal to fame (admittedly, I’d thought Bernal Spanish, not Mexican), but having now seen it I can understand why so much notice was taken of him. Like another South American film on the list, Meireilles & Lund’s City of God from Brazil, Amores Perros is a series of interconnected stories, in this case three, all springing from a car crash. Bernal plays a young man who discovers that his brother’s dog is an excellent fighter. So he enters it in dog fights, and it wins repeatedly (the film-makers make it clear no dogs were actually harmed during the making of the movie). But then he accepts a private fight with a local gangster, and when his dog wins, the gangster shoots it. Bernal stabs the gangster and flees, with his friend and his wounded dog… which is when the crash happens. The driver of the other car in the crash was a model, the lover of a wealthy magazine publisher. Her leg is severely broken. While recovering in the new flat she shares with her lover, her yappy dog disappears down a hole in the floor, and searching for it she injures her broken leg, which then has to be amputated. The third section centres on a homeless man who appears briefly in the previous two stories. He rescues Bernal’s dog, but it is killed after he agrees to murder a man… Like most such films, the plot is complicated and somewhat convoluted. It is also, however, well-played by its cast, and well-shot. A deserving entry on the list.

ryans_daughterRyan’s Daughter, David Lean (1970, UK). I’ve always been conflicted about Lean – I mean, I love Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but for all his plaudits I’ve never really thought of Lean as a particularly good director. And Ryan’s Daughter appears to be an attempt at making another epic movie like the two previously mentioned, except, well,… Mind you, it has to be said the cinematography is frequently gorgeous. But Robert Mitchum makes an unconvincing Irish school teacher, although he does give it a good go. John Mills’s Oscar-winning village idiot feels like an invader from a much older, and less sophisticated, film, and the story’s leisurely pace means its moments of high drama often fade away to nothing. And there are several moments of high drama, perhaps the most notable of which is when the villagers help the Irish Republican Brotherhood recover arms and munitions during a fierce storm from the German ship which attempted to deliver them but foundered. It’s a movie that feels like it lacks focus because it has so many things going on in it, and in such a short narrative time-frame and constrained to such a small geographical location. And, to be honest, the whole introduction, intermission and entracte thing, with incidental music, just feels pretentious. Yes, I know Lean did it in the other two aforementioned films, but sticking up “INTERMISSION” in big letters on the screen does not make it an epic (I’m old enough – just – to remember when cinema showings did have intermissions), and I’ve yet to be convinced it serves any good purpose.

londonLondon, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK). Given my admiration of James Benning’s films, this was recommended to me as something similar I might like, and I ended up with a copy as a Christmas present and… Yes, good call. It has more of an overt narrative than Benning’s films – here provided by Paul Scofield’s narration – although the cinematography does indeed consist of static shots. Of, er, London. As the camera focuses on various parts of the city, the narrator recounts anecdotes and aphorisms by his friend Robinson, not always as they relate to the part of London on-screen. It’s fascinating, although there’s less work required to piece together the story as the voice-over pretty much does that for you. But the Scofield’s somewhat circuitous explanation of events is its own reward, and the anecdotes are entertaining, irrespective of their relevance to the view on the screen. I plan to watch more films by Keiller – and he’s made quite a few.

man_from_uncleThe Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie (2015, USA). Having just worked my way through eight of Solo’s and Kuryakin’s theatrical adventures, I thought it worth giving this twenty-first century reboot a go. True, the director’s name didn’t bode well, although I didn’t actually know it was a Ritchie film when I bunged it on the rental list. But, it arrived in its little envelope, I stuck it in the player and… the title sequence is actually really good. And the film’s commitment to period detail is impressive. The only problem was the two leads – Henry Cavill and Arnie Hammer – have zero on-screen charisma. Cavill has a chin you could chisel granite with, and you feel he ought to light up the screen when he appears, but… he just doesn’t. His urbanity felt like a thin veneer, and not bone-deep as it did with Robert Vaughan, and his suave something he put on only when the camera was on him. Kuryakin, on the other hand, has been re-imagined as some sort of Soviet super-strong thug, and Hammer plays him like a block of Soviet wood. I can’t actually remember the plot, and I’m pretty sure there was one somewhere.

ohenryO Henry’s Full House*, various (1952, USA). I stuck this on the rental list not realising it was an anthology film, with each segment directed by a different person. It starts off strangely, with a man in a jailhouse making notes on what the other prisoners are saying. This, we are then told by John Steinbeck, who is sitting behind a desk in a book-lined study, was O Henry, a journalist who used the people he encountered during his career as fodder for his stories… and each of the short films in O Henry’s Full House is in some way a result of this. Unsurprisingly, given the age of Henry’s stories, the sting in each one’s title comes as no real surprise. Charles Laughton plays a gentleman vagrant, who is chivalrous to Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Richard Widmark plays a hugely irritating villain who gets his just desserts in a nicely ironic fashion. A young woman is convinced her pneumonia will kill her when the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window – but the leaf never falls. Two men kidnap an annoying kid for ransom, and it pretty much goes as you’d expect. And finally, a poor married couple each make a sacrifice in order to afford a decent Christmas present for the other – with ironic results. The directors involved were Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King. I’m guessing they couldn’t find five directors called Henry, although both Hawks were Negulesco are both excellent film-makers.

avengers_ultronAvengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon (2015, USA). I’m not a big fan of the MCU films (and now even less of a fan of Marvel given its CEO’s financial support of Trump) and I really didn’t like The Avengers (despite being a Brit, and despite “the Avengers” referring to the far superior group led by John Steed, I think Avengers Assemble a stupid compromise title – we’re smart enough to figure out the difference between a bunch of US near-fascist goons in Spandex and the sarcastically urbane umbrella-wielding Steed; and I also note the Lycra’d loons have lost their definite article for this sequel). Anyway, Avengers: Age of Ultron: I didn’t like this either. Awful film. A stupid movie carried by the personalities of its cast – not the personalities of its characters, but of the actors who played them. With a stupidly confusing plot plastered over the top. One of the problems with Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation was that when you have a villain so powerful, how can you realistically have dramatic conflict? Marvel’s universe suffers from the same problem – something the comics themselves often side-step by randomly ramping up heroes’ superpowers from one story to the next – and Avengers: Age of Ultron falls into the same trap. The only way the Avengers can actually beat Ultron is by Plot Hole. But, to be honest, by that point of the film I was long past giving a shit about any of them, as they came across more like a team of parodies than a serious attempt at recasting comic-book stories for the cinema. Avoid.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 706