I’m working my way through the backlog of these. And it’s time to start thinking about what films to pick for my best of the year – and o god, I’ve watched so many films this year…
First Man, Damien Chazelle (2018, USA). Well, I couldn’t not see this, could I? Back in 2009, for the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I read the (auto-)biographies of the three crew: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Collins’s Carrying the Fire is probably the best of astronaut auto-biographies. Aldrin has written a number of books but his first, Return to Earth, is remarkably frank. Armstrong, however, never wrote about himself, and it is the (official) biography of him by James R Hansen from which Chazelle’s movie was adapted. (For that fortieth anniversary, I also wrote a flash fiction piece, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, about an invented Apollo mission… and from which the Apollo Quartet grew.) Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on an alien world, but he was only the point man in a remarkable achievement which employed tens of thousands of people, cost billions of dollars and took several decades. In all other respects, he was a pretty dull chap. Which presents a problem for a commercial Hollywood movie. It’s one thing reading about a boring man who achieved something remarkable in a dry biography – the book is going to appeal to a particular audience. But a Hollywood film has to appeal much more widely. Chazelle tries hard to make Armstrong interesting, but he is only as interesting as things he does. Which means opening First Man with one of Armstrong’s flights in the X-15, and making the whole thing come across as something that was forever seconds away from disaster. Yes, it was dangerous, and several pilots died. But Armstrong was notoriously cool. To increase the sense of the jeopardy, Chazelle takes a leaf out of Christopher Nolan’s book and ups the ambient sounds to ear-splitting levels. It worked superbly in Dunkirk, and it does work quite well here. But the characterisation of Armstrong doesn’t tally with the source material, and the tacked-on human drama feels like it diminishes the achievements of the Apollo programme. The Moon landings are an excellent subject for a blockbuster movie; Neil Armstrong as a person is not. First Man does some things really well – it’s very… visceral in places, but lacks the sheer presence of Dunkirk – but ultimately I was disappointed.
Jab We Met, Imtiaz Ali (2007, India). A young man walks away from his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to another man, leaves all his worldly possessions behind and wanders off… eventually finding himself at the railway station, where he jumps on the first train to… wherever. He ends up sharing a sleeper with a garrulous young woman from the Punjab, on her way home to see family. She prevents him from throwing himself from the train to his death. At the next stop, he disembarks, but she is worried about him and follows. And misses the train. So they catch a taxi to the next stop. But they miss it a second time. And so it goes. The scenes showing the taxi hurtling along the roads, or the train hurtling along the tracks, are sort of stylised model shots, like something out of Gerry Anderson by way of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. Which is odd – but works well. The female lead, Kareena Kapoor, is good, but male lead Shahid Kapoor is a bit bland. The scenes with the woman’s family are a definite highlight, especially the musical number. Of course, the two are mistaken for lovers, and so eventually become lovers. It’s a fairly standard Bollywood plot. But Jab We Met has bags of charm, and if it’s a bit of a downer to start – and that’s a Bollywood staple too – then it quickly warms up and proves lots of fun.
Manji, Yasuzô Masumura (1964, Japan). Apparently this film also had an international release under the name Swastika. I suspect it would do much better now with that title than it did back in the mid-1960s, what with press barons in the English-speaking world happily promoting Nazi ideology. Burn the press to the ground, it’s no longer fit for purpose and, if anything, is the enemy of society. None of which, sadly has anything to do with this film, and its story in no way explains its title. Because manji is apparently Japanese for ‘swastika’. The story is about the wife of a lawyer who falls in love with a model at her life-drawing class. The two women reject their men, then re-introduce one… and it all ends in a bizarre suicide pact. Except… the story is told entirely as flashback, with an opening scene in which the wife tells her husband’s boss (I think) how she came to be obsessed with the model. So clearly she survives the suicide pact – although she doesn’t know why the other two switched her dose of poison with something harmless. Manji has apparently been remade several times since, and while the tragic romantic triangle is a popular plot – sort of like Rome and Juliet but with a, er, third person – I couldn’t honestly see why this story has proven so appealing it had been remade. Meh.
Matilda, Alexey Uchitel (2017, Russia). The Russians have been churning out expensive commercial movies for a couple of decades now, but few of them make it out of the Russo-speaking world. Of course, they have a film tradition going back as long as the US’s, and have had their fair share of world-class directors, even under the Soviets… But go into HMV and all you’ll find are a handful of twenty-first century Russian movies, as curated by labels such as Artificial Eye. For example, Pavel Lungin’s The Island (AKA Ostrov) is readily available, but not his later Tsar (see here), which is arguably better. But now we have streaming, and curated streaming services such as Mubi and Curzon, for those of us who dislike Extruded Hollywood Product. But I found Matilda (AKA Mathilde AKA Матильда) on Amazon Prime, which has some pretty good stuff hidden away. But you have to look for it. Matilda was the mistress of Prince Nicholas Romanov, who became Tsar Nicholas II. The film opens with her about to disrupt Prince Nicholas’s wedding to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, with whom he probably shared most of his chromosomes anyway, as European royalty at that time was all as inbred as fuck. The film then flashes back to Nicholas spotting Matilda in the ballet, stealing her from her ducal boyfriend, and basically behaving like Prince Super-Entitled, so sort of like a nineteenth-century One-Percenter but without the arms-dealing and money-laundering and secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. The film is all very glossy, with visibly high production values, and some quite lovely visuals – a nicely-done commercial cinema treatment in other words. It’s not the most fascinating piece of history – who gives a fuck about inbred royals? – but it was good drama and presented well.
The Lilac Dusk, Yuri Konopkin (2000, Russia). I also found The Lilac Dusk (AKA Lilac Twilight AKA Сиреневые сумерки) on Amazon Prime, although I will admit I had no idea what it was when I started watching it. The black and white poster led me to think it was an older film, perhaps mid-twentieth century, but actually the film is in colour and less than two decades old – certainly well after glasnost. Having said that, I’ve no idea what the film is about. I think I can work out what it thinks it’s about, but for much of its length it felt like a poor Russian attempt at a Peter Greenaway film. A young man is sent to a strange sanatorium on an island. There don’t seem to be many patients, and the staff are as odd as the patients – if they are patients, it wasn’t entirely clear. The male lead isn’t always the lead in scenes, or indeed always on screen, although when he does appear he’s clearly the viewpoint character. It made for a confusing story, that wasn’t helped by its resemblance to a Greenaway film without actually feeling like it was deliberately trying to be a Greenaway film. More a similarity in approach than a deliberate homage. Parts of the film also reminded me of the work of Wojciech Has, but, well, cheaper. I know nothing about Konopkin’s career or oeuvre, but on the strength of this film I suspect his influences were not altogether homegrown…
War and Peace, Part 3: 1812, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). War and Peace 2, Natasha Rostova (see here) ends with a cut to the Imperial Russian forces gathering outside a village called Borodino. This is where they meet Napoleon’s armies in the, er, Battle of Borodino. And the entire 84 minutes of this third film in the series is taken up wholly with the battle. From the thick of it. It’s brilliant. Oh, it’s not visceral and gruesome like we do it these days, in Atonement or Saving Private Ryan, to name two recent films famous for their depictions of WWII. It’s very much old school, with physical effects and clever camera work. And for that reason it looks a little dated, if the viewer has the imagination to picture how it might be staged today… But for its time, it’s an amazing achievement, sort of like complaining that 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t have the twenty-first special effects, when what it does have are effects that still work today given a suspension of their limitations (to coin a phrase). These Bondarchuk War and Peace movies are bona fide classics of cinema and it’s a fucking tragedy there are no decent copies of the original print left. If there were any justice, some would be found in some ex-CSSR state, and the four films can take their rightful position in the history of cinema.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933