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Movie roundup 2020, #16

I have been bingeing on boxed sets recently, and not really ones I can in any way recommend. I worked my way through all five seasons of The Professionals, and it was all a bit crap but sort of fun. Then I watched three seasons of Hamish Macbeth, and I have no fucking idea what that was about. Ostensibly a murder-mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands, it was as daft as those fringe murder-mystery series the US churns out by the metre, but with added chocolate-box Scotland. Entertaining enough, but also baffling. I tried watching The Diplomat, an Australian miniseries set in the UK but gave up after ten minutes when it was clear the makers hadn’t bothered to research how the police operate in the UK. I watched one episode of Jack Taylor, a grizzled private eye in Galway, but when the second episode opened with him framed for murder in the most obvious framed-for-murder plot twist on the planet, I decided to give it a miss as I have a low threshold for clichés.

Happily, there are feature films. And I should watch more of them, instead of shit TV series.

War Requiem, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). I think it’s pretty obvious I have a somewhat eclectic taste in films, so it’s hardly a surprise I consider Jarman among the ten best directors the UK has produced. I find myself conflicted about War Requiem, chiefly because it’s a staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, and the War Requiem features nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve admired for many years. Interestingly, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, and I attended Coventry University, whose campus is right next to the cathedral, so I know the building well. Which reminds me – and this is an entirely true story – of a winter night in the early 1990s when I was returning home after some drinks in town and I passed between the new cathedral and the old one (which is little more than a roofless shell). As I walked past the entrance to the old cathedral, I glanced inside it… and saw a naked woman with long blonde hair sitting on a white horse. Lady Godiva, of course, lived hundreds of years ago. Happily, this was no ghost – as I walked on, lights and a camera crew came into view. I never learnt what was being filmed that night, but glancing into the old Coventry Cathedral and seeing Lady Godiva on her horse is not something you forget. But, War Requiem, which opens with Laurence Olivier in a wheelchair in the garden of a sanatorium, but is mostly black box theatre. The music is not to my taste – I’m into death metal not a “mass for the dead” – and while Owen’s poems lend themselves really well to being performed, I’m still more of a reader than a listener. In other words, I like the idea of Jarman’s War Requiem more than I liked the experience of watching it.

Where is the Friend’s House?, Abbas Kiarostami (1987, Iran). Kiarostami is an easy director to admire, even if his individual works are not all that likable. Where is the Friend’s House? is one of his Koker trilogy, along with And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in and around the village of Koker in northern Iran. A young boy realises he has accidentally taken his school friend’s notebook home, and his friend will be punished if he fails to complete his homework. After an abortive attempt to find his friend’s house, the boy ends up doing the homework himself, and earns his friend a commendation from the teacher. If you’ve seen a Kiarostami film before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s not one of his best – its story is too thin for a feature-length movie – and it’s hard to compare it to other, better, films by Kiarostami. On the other hand, if it didn’t exist there would be no blu-ray box set from Criterion called The Koker Trilogy, which I believe is the first appearance of this film and And Life Goes On on disc. So there’s that.

Venus in Furs, Massimo Dallamano (1969, Italy). Amazon Prime continues to recommend Shameless releases to me, and since I like some giallo, I continue to add them to my watch list. True, giallo is quite a wide genre, although mostly horror or erotic horror, and I tend to lump poliziotteschi films in with it. And, to be honest, it’s Shameless’s releases of Italian sf movies I like best, such as Footprints on the Moon or The Tenth Victim, and I’m not sure they really qualify as giallo. So perhaps I’m misusing, if not abusing, the term. Venus in Furs is straight up late-sixties erotic drama, and if it had a plot I failed to find it. It all seems over-egged, and it’s not hard to believe it’s based on a novel published in 1870 and written by the man whose name gave us the word “masochism”.

Atragon, Ishiro Honda (1963, Japan). We all know Honda’s work, and if not we can at least imagine it. He’s best-known for the original Godzilla movie, but he had a long career directing films that were, well, pretty much the same as Godzilla. Some were more overtly science-fictional than others, but they all featured monsters portrayed by men, and women, in rubber suits. Atragon refers to a submarine – that can fly and tunnel into the earth – invented and built by a submarine captain who disappeared in the last year of WWII. As is revealed when the Empress of the lost continent of Mu, which now exists at the bottom of the ocean, tries to abduct the captain’s daughter from Tokyo. It’s all complete bobbins and makes not the slightest jot of sense, but the model work is pretty cool and the film’s commentary on Japan’s war record is interesting and surprisingly honest (UK and USA, take note). I note that Honda’s film are undergoing a minor revival, with Eureka about to release several of them as limited edition Blu-rays. I am not complaining. They are good stuff.

Sputnik, Egor Abramenko (2020, Russia). I don’t understand why this movie wasn’t named Soyuz. A cosmonaut returns to Earth – aboard a Soyuz – with an unwelcome passenger, an alien parasite. Sputnik means “fellow traveller”, which is apt, but soyuz means “union” and that meaning plays to the plot, too. And, well, the film opens in an actual Soyuz spacecraft. Anyway, a cosmonaut is brought back to earth with an alien parasite and a psychiatrist is brought in to study him. She learns the military have already learnt quite a bit about the parasite, although she refuses to accept the price they paid. She decides to rescue the cosmonaut and rid him of his alien “fellow traveller”. In other words, what we have here is Alien set in 1980s USSR. Expect many reviews to refer to it as  “Alienski”. It’s a good-looking film, but it’s covering ground that has been done better – and not just by Alien.  It all feels a bit tired and predictable, despite its Soviet paint job. Meh.

Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ishiro Honda ((1965, Japan). This was the second of three Japanese-American collaborations, all three of which were directed by Honda. It’s more overtly science-fictional than the one mentioned above, but is still very much a monster movie. A joint US-Japan mission to a mysterious “dark planet” near Jupiter (sigh) encounters an advanced civilisation, the Xiliens, currently under attack by “Monster Zero”. Earth offers the use of Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Monster Zero, but the Xiliens kidnap those monsters and then use them to demand the earth submit to their rule. I think this is the most typically Honda movie I have seen – it has everything. Like most of his movies, the story trundles along, requiring no more than normal levels of suspension of disbelief… and then falls of a cliff. That, I suppose, is part of their charm. Nonetheless, I would be happy to watch high-quality restored editions of his films.

Bill & Ted Face the Music, Dean Parisot (2020, USA). There is likely no one who said what the world really needed in these troubled times was a third Bill and Ted film thirty years after the last one. But it got one. And, though it pains me to say it, I actually enjoyed it. Another review pointed out that the characters of Bill and Ted were nice and sincere, and that we have few heroes like that in the twenty-first century. Leaving aside the fact we had few like that in the twentieth century, it is still true. Bill and Ted, even in this film, are just gosh-darned likeable. They’re dim, but they’re well-meaning. And the way they explore their own future – including not-so-nice Bills and Teds – is cleverly done. A lot has been made of their daughters, but they only get something like a third of the screen-time, which – unpopular opinion – is just as well as they come across as a pair of young female actors doing impressions of Bill and Ted. The climax of the film sees the daughters put together a band of historically important musicians, and playing a song to save all space and time. The choices for “historically important musicians” are… interesting. Jimi Hendrix. Yup, totally agree. A young Louis Armstrong. Why young? Why not later, when he was at the height of his creativity? Mozart. Right, everybody’s choice for “musical genius” – totally lazy pick. Ling Lun. Who is the legendary founder of music in China (around 300 BCE). Good that the film makes Ling Lun female. Bad that they made her just a flautist. The final member of the group is a cave woman who likes banging things and so is the best drummer ever. I mean, let’s not even go there. Good that the drummer is female, bad that it ignores the entire fucking history of playing drums. Having said that, Bill & Ted Face the Music ends with a really shit song being performed to save the universe. There’s a lot to like in the film – basically, the characters of Bill and Ted, the careful plotting, its diversity – but there’s a  lot of minor stuff here that gets a pass because it does right on some of the big stuff. It’s not that good a film, but it’s entertaining and it’s a surprisingly inoffensive sequel to the first two films.

The Kennel Murder Case, Michael Curtiz (1933, USA). William Powell played urbane sleuth Philo Vance in four films for Paramount, between 1929 and 1933, but he was one of nine actors who played the role over fifteen movies, the last of which, Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, was released in 1947. Vance seems to have been an odd character – sort of a New York version of an English aristocrat sleuth, and coded as gay. The books were best-sellers, but despised by Raymond Chandler. I might try reading one some day. Anyway, a rich capitalist and all-round nasty piece of work is found dead in his locked bedroom, seemingly of suicide. But he seems to have bashed himself across the head with a poker, and then knifed himself in the back, before shooting himself in the temple some time after he had actually died. And then man’s brother turns up dead in the hall closet. Vance solves the “how” pretty quickly – the door was locked from outside using some string and a bent pin – but everyone except those investigating the crime have a motive for seeing the man dead. So Vance plays a trick and forces the murderer to reveal themselves. The Kennel Murder Case is apparently considered the best of the Philo Vance films, which doesn’t say much for the others. I thought the Thin Man movies better, but if any more of the Vance ones pop up on Amazon Prime I’ll happily watch them.

Bleeding Steel, Leo Zhang (2017, China). I think I’ve seen around thirty of Jackie Chan’s films and this is easily the worst one I’ve watched. It’s one of those trans-Pacific near-future sf movies, like The Meg, with a Chinese and Australian cast, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics or plausibility. Jackie Chan plays an officer of the “United Nations Special Forces” who is asked to take a rogue scientist into custody, even though his young daughter, who is dying of leukaemia, has just taken a turn for the worse. While Chan battles some cyborg and his over-equipped troops, Chan’s daughter dies. But no! She doesn’t. The rogue scientist implants a mechanical heart and “bio-engineered blood” into her, and saves her life. Thirteen years later, the daughter, believing herself to be an orphan, is a student in Australia, and Chan has been keeping a surreptitious eye on her. But the murder of an author whose novels bear an uncanny resemblance to the life of Chan’s daughter kicks off a series of action sequences in which Chan fights off assorted baddies – including one fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Chan is his usual likeable self, and most of the fight scenes are creatively choreographed, but from start to finish this is piss-poor near-future sf and in a genre which takes care over its fight choreography not even a Jackie Chan film can stand out, other than by putting him front and centre. And Bleeding Steel – and what exactly does that title fucking mean? – does that, but it’s not enough. This is a bad film but, even more shamefully, it is a bad Jackie Chan film.


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Movie roundup 2020, #14

I’ve been binge-watching box sets mostly for the past few weeks, hence the gap between the last Movie roundup post and this one. That’s seven seasons of Beck – which I watched partly to improve my Swedish… so, of course, they go and introduce a Norwegian as a major character in series 6… Plus two seasons of Alias – and no, I’ve no idea why I’m watching it. It’s a series that jumps the shark every episode. But that’s JJ Abrams for you. And a rewatch of Farscape, which is holding up pretty well.

Grimsby, Louis Leterrier (2016, UK). Every Sacha Baron Cohen movie seems to have an infamous scene. It’s almost as if his films are designed around them. If you need to ask what the scene is in this film, then you really don’t want to know. It’s ostensibly a spy thriller, with Cohen as an intellectually-challenged football hooligan from Grimsby and Mark Strong his urbane super-spy brother – who is framed for for assassination and has to turn to his brother for help. There are some funny moments, but far too many cringe-inducing ones.

Dhoom 2, Sanjay Gadhvi (2006, India). The first film was relatively low budget, but did so well Bollywood put more money into its sequel. Most of that money seems to have gone into CGI. In this sequel, the police inspector and his ex-bike dealer buddy are hot on the trail of a mysterious thief who robs high profile targets. But then a copycat turns up and, of course, it’s a gorgeous woman, so they partner up and… Whatever charm the first might have possessed has been lost under a desperate attempt to look cool. Even the item numbers are cringe-worthy. True, jumping the shark is just part of Bollywood’s cinematic language, but in Dhoom 2 it reaches heights even home audiences probably found hard to swallow.

Dhoom 3, Vijay Krishna Acarya (2013, India). In Bollywood, big budget movies like to show their budget on screen by… filming in locations such as New York and London. Even if setting the story there doesn’t make sense. Like this one. A bank forecloses on an Indian circus based in New York. Many years later, the son of the owner uses his background to pull a string of daring robberies. Somehow, the Indian police inspector and his dodgy bike dealer mate are brought in to catch the bad guy. The plot completely rips off The Prestige, but what’s most notable is that the lead actor looks like a Vulcan (see below) but behaves completely illogically. To be fair, this trilogy are fun, but you’ve need to go into them knowing what to expect.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mel Brooks (1995, USA). Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun films is funny. Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles is funny. But Brooks directing Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It is… not funny. It’s pretty much Stoker’s story but with… I hesitate to use the word “jokes” as that would imply they might make you laugh. A desperately unfunny comedy. One to avoid.

Dragon Lord, Jackie Chan (1982, China). This is one of Chan’s period kung fu action/comedies and, to be honest, I prefer his modern films to his period pieces. Nominally a sequel to The Young Master, it has Chan as the wastrel son of local gentry, who gets into scrapes and, well, things happen. Some comic sequences, some fights, and a very thin plot. One for fans.

Boy, Taika Watiti (2010, New Zealand). This was Waititi’s second feature film, although apparently it was a project he worked on for many years before his debut feature film. An eleven year old boy’s father – played by Waititi himself – turns up after being released from prison, with two mates. They’re there to try and find cash they buried after their last robbery. But the boy wants to reconnect with his father and see if the reality matches the fantasy he has come to believe. This film is all about the boy’s voice, and it works perfectly. The humour is that slightly absurd humour Waititi does so well, the cast are mostly okay, although Boy, played by James Rolleston, is excellent, and Waititi and his two henchmen put in good turns. Definitely worth seeing.

With or Without You, Michael Winterbottom (1999, UK). Christopher Eccleston and Derval Kirwan are trying to have a kid but failing, when a French penpal of hers turns up for a visit. She doesn’t like her job, he regrets giving up his position in the RUC to join her dad’s firm, the French guy is easygoing and affable, and the sexual tension between the three is so manufactured you could could cut it with a butter knife. Eccleston manages a passable Belfast accent – to my ear, at least, although actual Norn Irish people might disagree (but at least it’s not Irish – and yes, I can tell the difference between the two). But for all that, it seems a bit 1980s for a 1999 film, although I’ve a feeling it’s actually set then but I can’t actually remember (the song the title references was a hit in 1987). Winterbottom made Code 46, a film which spectacularly failed to make sense of its premise or the world in which it was set. This earlier work is entirely forgettable.

Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA). The title refers to a retired industrialist who takes his wife on a tour of Europe. But she wants more than retirement, she wants a life he is not prepared to give – because she’s afraid that his retirement will age her. Dodsworth is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while that list is over-burdened with US movies, many of which actually aren’t that good, this one definitely deserves its place. It’s not that Walter Huston or Ruth Chatterton shine in the lead roles. Or that there’s some nice modernist design set design in the early part of the film, and the direction is good, with shots that are well framed and well blocked. It’s the script… it really is excellent, with some real insight and lines that show real understanding and development of character. Definitely worth seeing.

Latitude Zero, Ishiro Honda (1969, Japan). If you know the name Honda, you’ll have a pretty good idea what this film is like. And yet it’s not as batshit crazy as most of his work. Three men in a bathysphere are rescued by a mysterious submarine when an underwater volcano eruption breaks their umbilical. It turns out their rescuers are from a secret undersea city at latitude zero, peopled by scientists who the world believes to have died or vanished. And their actual rescuer is over two hundred years old. The secret scientific elite who secretly scientifically rule the world, or ignore the world, is hardly a new trope in science fiction, but I’ve not seen it used so overtly in a sf movie since, well, the last adaptation of a Jules Verne novel. There are monsters, of course – well, men, actually usually women, in monster suits – and they look just as risible as in Honda’s other films. But the submarines look sort of cool, and the undersea city looks pretty neat too. And there’s a cool twist at the end.


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Moving pictures 2018, #41

I have seen other films by all the directors in the post, except for the last. Some, of course, more than others – Lang is my 8th most-watched director, with 25 movies. (Alfred Hitchcock, unsurprisingly, occupies the top spot.)

House by the River, Fritz Lang (1950, USA) Unsuccessful author Louis Hayward is left on his own with attractive maid Dorothy Patrick. Enraged by his latest rejection, and drunk, he sexually assaults Patrick, and strangles her when she resists. His brother, Lee Bowman, then turns up, and Hayward persuades him to help him dispose of the body – in the river by, er, the house. Hayward then puts it about that Patrick has run away with clothing and jewellery belonging to Hayward’s wife. But then Bowman learns that the meal sack in which they hid the body had his name on it. And the body has re-appeared. Hayward claims Bowman was the murderer. And it looks like he might go down for it. Lang made some classic noir films during the 1940s and 1950s, but this isn’t generally reckoned one of them. It apparently flopped on its release, but time has been kind to it: the starkly-lit studio sets, indoors and outdoors, look really quite effective, and if the script and acting is perhaps a bit overwrought there are some really effective scenes. The scene where Hayward tries to recover Patrick’s body from the river is especially good. Despite that, it’s probably one for fans – of Lang or noir.

Space Amoeba, Ishiro Honda (1970, Japan). The original Japanese title of this film translates as “Gezora, Ganimes, and Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas”, which, er, pretty much describes the entire plot. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as Space Amoeba, or the film’s US title, Yog-Monster from Space (although what a “yog-monster” is, is anybody’s guess). Anyway, space probe on its way to Jupiter encounters a strange energy alien, which takes over the probe and sends it back to Earth. It crashes in the Pacific, and the alien takes over the body of a cuttlefish and grows it to giant-size. Meanwhile, a group of photographers and developers have travelled to Selgio Island to explore the sight of a future resort. The giant cuttlefish attacks them, and when they defeat it, the alien turns into a giant stone crab, and then a giant mata mata. So, lots of monster fights. And, er, that’s about it. There are a few character arcs and stuff, but let’s not get carried away – kaiju films are all about the monsters, after all. Strangely, the lead characters seemed to have been dubbed by Australian actors.

Ali and Nino, Asif Kapadia (2016, UK). I learnt of this story watching a documentary about Baku (see here), but at the time thought it was only a 1937 novel. But it was apparently adapted two years ago by a British director, with a Palestinian playing the Azerbaijani and a Spaniard playing the Georgian. Oh well. Casting aside, the film makes a good fist of the story and even manages to present Baku as it was in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Both Ali and Nino are from well-off families, aristocracy if not minor royalty. A rival for Nino’s affections kidnaps her, but Ali rescues her. But the rival dies during the rescue, so Ali has to hide out in the hills. Meanwhile, WWI breaks out. A friend re-unites the two and they marry in the hills. The Russian Revolution takes place. Post-WWI, Azerbaijan becomes independent. The couple return to Baku and Ali is made a government minister. But then the Russians invade and Azerbaijan becomes a vassal state. Ali and Nino flee. Ali and Nino is all a bit, well, Dr Zhivago, with a bit of Lawrence of Arabia mixed in. It’s clear where Kapadia’s inspirations lay – and it’s no bad thing, as those are both excellent films. The two leads are, perhaps, a little bland, although Mandy Patinkin, one of only two faces I recognised in the cast, makes a good Grand Duke Kipiani, Nino’s father. Kapadia at least does a better job of making his locations look like Baku of the 1930s than Lean did making Spain look like Russia (athough both are good-looking films). Kapadia is probably better-known for documentaries made from found footage, but if this, his feature film, is any indication he has a good career ahead of him in that area too.

Through the Olive Trees*, Abbas Kiarostami (194, Iran). This is probably Kiarostami’s most highly-regarded film and yet, despite the fact pretty much his entire oeuvre is available on DVD, this one film isn’t. Every other film he made: available on DVD, probably soon to appear on Blu-ray. Through the Olive Trees: nope. I can only hope that when that long outstanding Kiarostami collection appears on Blu-ray, it includes this. Through the Olive Trees is about a director making a film in a village in Iran that recently suffered a bad earthquake. I can’t think of another film director whose movies were so consistently meta – whether it was the pull back to the crew at the end of Taste of Cherry, or the plot of Close-Up (see here), which consists of a man pretending to be rival director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In Through the Olive Trees, two of the locals the director has cast have a bad relationship: he asked for her hand in marriage but was rejected by her mother. Acting in the film has brought the two together, and while he still burns a torch for her and is incensed by his rejection, she doesn’t seem especially concerned and is happy to accept her mother’s decision. But the two start to confuse the parts they’re playing and their real lives – I believe most of the cast were amateurs from the area where the film was made, and many of the events in the film happened in real life. In and around this, the director has to cope with making a film far from Tehran, with only local support, living in tents and using a much-reduced crew. This hasn’t overtaken Where the Wind Will Carry Us as my favourite Kiarostami, and I think I like Close-up slightly more as well, but it’s certainly in the top five. Excellent stuff.

The Warrior and the Wolf, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2009, China). I watched this twice before returning it to Cinema Paradiso and I’m still not sure sure what it’s about. I think I know what it thinks it’s about, but that’s not the same as what appears on the screen. It receive some stick because it’s a Chinese historical film starring a Japanese man and a Hawaiian woman in the lead roles – cf Zhang Yimou for casting Matt Damon in The Great Wall. The Warrior and the Wolf opens with on-screen text explaining that General Zhang guards the northern border, but during the winter months his army returns home. When Zhang is captured by barbarians, a new recruit, Lu, frees him. Zhang leaves Lu in charge and heads home. Winter arrives and Lu leads the garrison home, but they end up trapped in a village by a snowstorm. Lu takes a village woman for himself, She tells him that sex with outsiders turns the villagers into wolves. When the soldiers leave, they are attacked by wolves. This is definitely a film that’s all about the visuals, not to mention the sex scenes between Lu and the village woman. Occasional screen-fulls of narrative text, however, fail to bed the story into the visuals, so the end result is a film that looks gorgeous but is as dull as dishwater. I’ve now seen three films by Tian, and he definitely seems stronger on cinematography than narrative. The Horse Thief (see here) had the most interesting setting, but The Warrior and the Wolf doesn’t seem all that much different to the current crop of wu xia and historical epic films flooding out of China.

A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio (2017, Chile) This is one of those films where the plot is easy to describe. That, however, is the only thing that’s “easy” about it. A man in a relationship with a transgender woman, Marina, has a seizure one night. She manages to get him to the hospital, although not without him falling downstairs at one point. Due to the injuries sustained from the fall, the police are called. The man dies of an aneurysm. The police seemed happy Marina was not responsible for the death, but they are afraid she might have been a victim herself in the relationship. So while trying to manage her grief, she’s having to deal with an officious police officer intent on digging into her private life. Then her late lover’s transphobic ex-wife turns up. And she wants everything back. Like the car. The son moves into the flat and throws Marina out. He even keeps the dog, which was given to Marina. And the family refuses to allow her to mourn her lover’s death – they ban her from the funeral, and the son and his mates physically assault her when she turns up. The one thing I don’t understand is why the ex-wife has such powers. Her relationship with the deceased ended when she divorced him. It’s implied Marina’s relationship was relatively recent, but even so she lived with him, they were a couple. A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s certainly a good film. Its star, Daniela Vega, is excellent in the title role. But it’s also a film that makes you angry with the injustices heaped on its title character. Obviously, they’re making a point – and the success of the movie shows the point is getting across to some people. But the fact it has to be made in the first place… and the treatment meted out by transphobes… It’s disgusting, makes you ashamed to be human. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 925