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Movie roundup 2020, #21

I found season 18 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on Amazon Prime… and had forgotten how grim and depressing it was. And how its dialogue was written so explicitly to make a specific point. True, it made many important points – for example, New York apparently doesn’t consider “sex under false pretences” as rape, unlike civilised countries, or at least it didn’t in 2016. But forcing characters to say or do things that appear out of character purely in service to a point gets really annoying after a while.

I did try watching Welcome to Sweden, a sitcom by and starring Greg Poehler, brother of Amy Poehler (no idea who the fuck she is), based partly on his own personal experiences. Basically, accountant to celebs in US jacks in job and moves to Sweden to be with Swedish girlfriend. Before the first episode had even finished, it had hit all the major clichés. It was sort of interesting watching a bi-lingual series and following both languages, but the comedy was so bad and the treatment of Swedish culture so cack-handed, it was embarrassing. Avoid.

Films…

Portrait of a Soldier, Marianna Bukowski (2015, UK). A documentary about female soldiers in Warsaw during WWII. It’s mostly an interview with one of those soldiers, interspersed with actual footage from the Warsaw Uprising. The stories are grim and brutal, but this was WWII and the Nazis, and nothing is going to change as long as popular culture valourises the dangerous values used by sociopaths to motivate angry, and not very bright, young men who define their existence using toxic masculinity criteria. I sympathise with the Poles, and this film is an important historical document. But, given current world events, you sometimes wonder if making bad history disappear from the record might not be a bad strategy after all.

Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China). I don’t know the name Bi Gan, and this film was, until I’d watched it, completely unknown to me, but I’m pretty sure Bi is a Sixth Generation film-maker. Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks. But I can’t find anything to suggest Bi has any link to the Sixth Generation, but then I can’t find much about Bi. At least not on the English-language internet. I like Chinese films, both the commercial ones and the art house stuff, but little information about them makes it west, unless the director is a film festival darling, like Jia Zhangke. Kaili Blues is notable for one third of it being a single take. Apparently, they blew the entire budget on that shot, and then had to scrabble for cash to complete the film. The whole single-take thing has caused a bit of a fuss recently. 1917 garnered much praise for being (apparently) a single-, or double-take movie, but the take(s) was put together in post-production. There are actual single-take films out here, the first of which was Sokurov’s Russian Ark, but also Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, so why celebrate a fake single-take film when real ones exist? Oh wait, 1917 is a Hollywood film… Anyway, Kaili Blues contains a 41-minute long take, out of 113 minutes, and it’s hugely effective. All the more so because the story is so small scale. An excellent film. Worth seeing.

Battalion, Dmitry Meskhiev (2015, Russia). The battalion in question is the First Battalion of Death, which is not my first choice of a name for a battalion, but is notable for being the first female-only battalion in the Red Army. The film opens with it being formed and women from numerous walks of life volunteering to serve it. It’s clear it’s not taken seriously, but it proves its worth. But it’s not until the battalion reaches the front that things get really, well, scary. There’s already a battalion of (male) soldiers there, but they’ve decided not to fight anymore. They’re sitting it out, and they resent the women soldiers actually fighting. Which all comes to a head when the Germans attack. The women’s battalion suffers great losses but manages to beat back the German advance. The men sit it out. Like most Russian historical films, the story takes liberties with history – the founder of the First Battalion of Death, Maria Bochkareva, has not always been a Soviet hero, and her profile has risen and fallen depending who was in power. She strikes me as a genuine female hero, even if her politics were not always in line with the regime. (Which is not to say than indefensible politics are, well, defensible.)  A good film, slickly-made, if not an entirely accurate depiction of the events it, er, depicts, but still much closer than any Hollywood would likely get.

Chinese Zodiac, Jackie Chan (2012, China). I wrote in an earlier blog post that Bleeding Steel was the worst Jackie Chan film I’d seen, but this one must come a close second. It’s actually a sequel to Armour of God II, but only loosely. Chan plays a treasure hunter who works with a team to recover stolen Chinese artefacts. Several group of people are after bronze heads depicting various Chinese years – this bit wasn’t entirely clear as Hong Kong films are never good at exposition. Anyway, Chan leads an expedition to a remote island where a pirate disappeared centuries before, allegedly in possession of several of the heads. The expedition runs into a bunch of pirates, and thugs from an antiquity counterfeiting ring – who are behind the entire plot, it seems – and it’s at their secret factory where the countdown place. The film is an odd mix of its prequels and James Bond, without being as good as either of them. There are some entertaining fight scenes, but the plot all feels a bit well-oiled and reliant more on cliché than anything else. Watchable, but this is from the bottom end of Chan’s oeuvre.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith*, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia). A difficult film to find, and then it suddenly appears on Amazon Prime. That happens sometimes. It’s a shame it took so long for this one. The title character is an Indigenous Australian, and abused by white people as he tries to make a living. He puts up fences but is not paid for his work. This is in late nineteenth-century Australia. When they were actually more racist than they are now. If that is possible. Jimmy marries a white woman, and they have a baby. But then their employers encourage the wife to leave him and seek a distant service position. When he learns of this, he complains and his attempt at retribution goes badly wrong and he murders all the white women. So he goes on the run. With a half-borther and a mate. The film covers the pursuit. It’s an excellent film, and makes an excellent fist of its premise. Not that it changed anything. Forty years later and indigenous Australians are probably no better off, at least in terms of popular perception. Recommended.

The Spy Gone North, Yoon Jong-bin (2018, South Korea). This is apparently based on a true story, although given the details it’s a little hard to believe. A military officer is persuaded to go undercover in North Korea. But first he has to torpedo his career, because who would believe a serving military officer had suddenly turned into a sleazy salesman for a cross-border trading company? Er, not me? He does this by becoming an alcoholic, and borrowing money from his friends and family and not paying it back. And then he manages to worm his way into the confidences of an official high up in the North Korean government. I hadn’t realised how much each Korea depended on trade from the other. I had, foolishly perhaps, imagined their trade links were greater with their allies. But, of course, Brexit. People assume the UK can simply trade with nations independent of the EU, when more than half of the UK’s trade is with the EU. But then Brexiteers are stupid. Or venal. Or both. Probably the last. The food, medicine and service shortages resulting from Brexit will entirely be on them. Anyone brags about supporting Brexit, it’s okay to punch them. They’re probably racists and Nazis, anyway. The Spy Gone North, however, is a good Korean thriller, and sheds surprising light on the relationship between the two countries. Noirth Korea may well be what post-Brexit UK will look like. After the famines, that is.

The Curse of the Werewolf, Terence Fisher (1961, UK). Another classic Hammer film. Despite their low budgets, Hammer really did produce some good stuff. Apparently, the story was originally set in Paris, but a Spanish-set film planned by Hammer was dropped when the BBFC objected to the script, so they decided to re-use the sets and re-wrote The Curse of the Werewolf and set it in Spain. Oliver Reed, in his first starring role, plays a young man who turns into a werewolf every full moon and kills people. And, er, that’s it. Other than his adoptive father having to kill him using a silver bullet. The setting may be a bit odd, but the story hits all the usual tropes. Reed over-acts, as usual, but he’s supported by a solid cast, including Warren Mitchell and Peter Sallis, and an uncredited appearance by Desmond Llewelyn. Hammer made good films. They’re very much historical documents – but for the time they were made, even with their low budgets, they were still good stuff. Respect them.

Cannonball, Paul Bartel (1976, USA). The title may be a clue to this film’s story. I think this was the first to be based on the illegal across-America road race, and it was, of course, a Roger Corman movie. David Carradine plays a race-car driver out on bail who decides his best route to a new career is to compete in the Trans-America Gran Prix, despite the fact the race is illegal and it would break his parole. But never mind: he’s the good guy. And there are several bad guys. Who each get their just deserts. This is cheap but slightly prescient film-making, inasmuch as it was the first of a series of films, which arguably became a genre (ie, Fast and Furious). It’s New World Pictures in all the ways that name implies. Cheap. Borderline original. Semi-convincing action sequences. Slightly subversive in small ways. But, overall, what feels like a cheap copy of a much slicker film… which actually was made later. New World Pictures did a lot of good stuff. Respect them, too.

The Other Side of Sunday, Berit Nesheim (1996, Norway). This was described as a “black comedy”, but even for a black comedy there wasn’t much in the way of laughs. The teenage daughter of a village priest, in 1950s Norway, does not subscribe to her father’s strict religious worldview, which manifests as arguments and a cynical voice-over. Coming-of-age films like this are ten-a-penny, and this one is only notable for not being some weird variety of fringe American Christianity. The copy I watched looked like it had been transferred from a VHS tape, with subtitles burned in. Can’t recommend it, but I’m glad I watched it.

Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden). The Sami are the people who live in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland and, like most indigenous people, have been mistreated throughout their history. This film, based partly on the life of the director’s grandmother, makes explicit the racism directed at the Sami by the Swedes. The film opens in the present day with an old woman driven north by her son for the funeral of her younger sister, who, it is revealed, was Sami. But the old woman refuses to admit she speaks Sami. The film then flashes back to the 1930s, and the two sisters are sent to a  school for Sami children. Elle-Marja is drawn to the Swedes in the area, especially after sneaking into a dance given by the local Swedes for some visiting young soldiers, where she lies and gives her name as Christina (her teacher’s name). She meets a boy who lives in Uppsala, but is told she can’t go there to study because Sami can’t handle education. So she runs away. The film makes explicit the treatment of the Sami – the systemic racism, the treatment of them as “protected aborigines”, almost a subspecies to some, their exclusion from mainstream Swedish culture, the ambivalence of young Swedes to them, a combination of tolerance and Othering… An excellent movie, about an important topic. Racism is, any shape or form, intolerable – and I use that word deliberately. Being tolerant does not mean tolerating intolerance.

L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties, Guo Jingming (2016, China). This was fun. Annoyingly, it was the first in what appears to be, at least, a two-part series, and the second part wasn’t available. So I’ve no idea how the story concludes. To tell the truth, I didn’t have much idea what the story actually was as I watched the film, but then the last ten minutes are basically the characters explaining to each other what just went down. Which is helpful. Although not an especially good narrative technique. Anyway, there’s a fantasy land, which Wikipedia calls the “Aslan Empire”, even though that name has already been taken, and I don’t recall seeing it in the subtitles of the version of the film I saw. And it has “dukes” (subtitles) or “noble lords” (Wikipedia), who each have unique magical abilities. They were given these by some sort of gods. The young barman at an inn narrowly escapes death when one of the dukes attacks, and is subsequently conscripted as apprentice by another duke. And it’s all to do with a duke who turned himself into an island in order to imprison the most powerful duke… but it turns out the gods are actually criminals from another world… I think… But there’s lots of weird fight scenes, some real uncanny valley CGI, and two hours of world-building that makes no sense until all is explained in the final act. Fun. But not a well-constructed 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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Movie roundup 2020, #13

Just the one US film, and it’s Netflix. And it was rubbish. Although it seems to have its fans, and I seriously worry about criticism in the genre these days. Otherwise some Jackie Chan, some Shaw Brothers, and some Bollywood.

The Protector, James Glickenhaus (1985, China). Chan tried to break into the US market several times – one has to wonder why he bothered – but most of his attempts didn’t go well. Like this one. A lot of it was re-shot by Chan as he was dissatisfied with Glickenhaus’s work. I think I saw Chan’s cut. Certainly there’s a change in tone from the bad early 1980s New York to later scenes set in Hong Kong. Chan plays one of a pair of cops on bodyguard duty at a fashion show (and this is the 1980s!), when a prominent businessman’s daughter is kidnapped by armed gangsters. Because drugs. And a falling out between each end of a New York – Hong Kong drugs pipeline. So Chan and partner (Danny Aiello) head off to HK to find the missing woman. The final fight scene, on a shipyard crane, is somewhat OTT.

Disorder, Olivier Assayas (1986, France). I’m a big fan of Assayas’s films, hence my purchase of a Blu-ray of two of his early works, Disorder (1986) and Winter’s Child (1989). A group of musicians break into a music shop and accidentally kill someone. Then they get on with their lives. I tweeted while watching this that you could tell the French band in the film were “edgy” because they were singing in English. Other than that, it was all very low-key and a bit meh.

Dhoom, Sanjay Gadhvi (2004, India). The title means “blast”, and I suppose the film was just that, in one narrow sense of the word. A group of thieves on high-powered motorbikes have been robbing banks in Mumbai. With great success. A police inspector enlists the help of a dodgy motorbike dealer, and his friends, in catching the thieves. It’s all very glossy, and a bit silly, and I was never really convinced the high-speed chases were, well, high-speed. But there’s some good comedy in it, and the use of slo-mo in the action sequences is gloriously over the top. There are apparently two sequels.

The 14 Amazons, Cheng Gang & Charles Tung (1972, China). Historic martial arts epic from the Shaw Brothers, in which the family of a general killed in battle, plus an army of volunteers, set off to defeat the enemy. Fans of present-day historical epics will probably find this one disappointing. It was made before the days of CGI, and the Shaw Brothers were never ones to spend lavishly on sets or location shooting. Meh.

Golmaal: Fun Unlimited, Rohit Shetty (2006, India). A friend recommended Golmaal and I put it on my watch list, but it disappeared before I got to watch it – explain to me why streaming is a good thing, again? – but having watched this film I have to wonder if it’s the one he meant. Anyway, four friends run numerous small scams until the only one of them that’s at university… is booted out of university. They move into the house of an old blind couple, and two of them pretend to be the couple’s grandson – one playing the body, the other providing the voice (don’t ask) – because of some treasure or something. But the “treasure” turns out to be the ashes of the grandson, who the old man already knew was dead. Except a gangster hid some diamonds in the ashes and he wants the diamonds back… It’s all completely daft but quite funny.

Deewana, Raj Kanwar (1992, India). This film has to be seen to be believed. It’s basically Dynasty dialled up to 13. At least. Rich popular singer visits small country town and falls in love with a young woman who is one of his fans. His nephew, who wants the singer’s fortune, sexually assaults the new bride. The uncle sends men to kill the singer, which they do, although the nephew is killed in the attempt. Young widow and her mother move to another city. They are run over by the wastrel son of a wealthy industrialist. The son falls in love with the young widow. But then the singer turns up, because it seems he wasn’t dead after all (although since he was shot at point blank range and then fell off a cliff, I suppose it was an easy mistake to make). But the singer is happy to let his wife stay with the wastrel, and the two guys fight off the uncle’s goons in an epic battle. Absolutely bonkers. Even for Bollywood.

Police Story, Jackie Chan (1985, China). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before but when I looked I could find no record of it. So I assume I saw some of it, but not all. Chan made it partly in response to his dissatisfaction with The Protector, and while it’s a little more realistic it’s still not entirely believable. Especially the court scenes. The villain gets off far too easily, and the police are far too quick to believe the worst of Chan’s character. For all that Police Story is said to be one of Chan’s best movies, some of the others I’ve seen were, I thought, better. Worth seeing, nonetheless.

The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood (2020, USA). This has has had a lot of positive press, which is not unexpected for a new genre property from Netflix. Unfortunately, it’s based on a comic that has borrowed far too much from French bandes dessinées and presents a US-privileged worldview despite being allegedly global. True, every country’s art privileges its home nation, but no one outside the US believes the US has a fucking clue what it’s doing. Anyway, the head of a UK pharmaceutical company learns of the existence of four immortals, who have sort of done various good but secret things for centuries, and he wants whatever it is that means they can’t die. So he sets up a complicated plan to capture them, one which results in a death toll over the course of the film of several hundred people. CEOs do this all the time, of course – extraordinary rendition, kidnap, torture, mass murder… No, wait. That’s US presidents. The whole thing was complete bobbins from start to finish, and high production values can’t disguise a story that’s morally repugnant. Avoid.


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Movie roundup 2020, #7

I’ve been trying to catch up on all the blog posts I should have written and posted over the last few weeks. I’m not sure what’s prompted this sudden burst of productivity. Perhaps it’s because the weather has turned and it’s been (mostly) sunny for the last week. Unfortunately, at this time I also have to contend with the sun rising at you-must-be-fucking-joking o’clock and setting at stupidly-late o’clock …

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino (1992, USA). I don’t remember where and when I first saw Reservoir Dogs, but it has certainly not survived a twenty-first century rewatch. I’d thought Pulp Fiction much more racist than I remembered it, but Reservoir Dogs is much worse. Tarantino’s characters as written spend most of their time spouting racist slurs as if that’s some sort of badge of authenticity. It certainly makes them authentically racist. Most of the dialogue and the acting is over-the-top, which doesn’t play well with the stripped back locations and simple camera-work. In those respects – framing and blocking – Reservoir Dogs works well. And Tarantino clearly had the smarts to hire a good DP. But Tarantino’s films are notorious for their stories and snappy dialogue and, oh dear, that does seem to be somewhat unearned on the strength of this film. Best forgotten.

Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mohammed Sadiq (1960, India). A classic bit of Bollywood starring Guru Dutt. Two men fall in love with the same woman. Unfortunately, this is Muslim Lucknow, and one of them is married to the woman and the other didn’t realise she’s his best friend’s wife. There’s plenty of comic scenes, courtesy of Johnnie Walker – yes, that really was his screen name, and he had a long and successful career – and Dutt proves he’s the “Orson Welles of Indian cinema” just as much as an actor as a director. This is classic Bollywood, perhaps not up there with Pakeezah or Mughal-e-Azam, but certainly one that should be on every Bollywood fan’s watch list.

Armour of God, Jackie Chan (1987, China). I’d thought in Andrzej Żuławski’s L’amour bracque I’d found the most 1980s film ever, but Armour of God runs it a close second. The former qualified because its cast robbed a bank in shoulder pads, Armour of God, however, features some concert scenes that are even more 1980s than I remember the 1980s actually being. None of which has anything to do with this plot. There’s this suit of armour that was involved in a fight between good and evil, and a guy who is trying to collect it all, and Chan and his partner are sort of hired to find the last few pieces of it in order to prevent its misuse by a bad guy. Like most Jackie Chan films, Armour of God is a string of cleverly done fight scenes, bad dialogue, cheesy romance and relentless action. It’s a formula that’s produced many entertaining Hong Kong movies, but the presence of Chan at the centre of it does give them that little bit extra.

In Order of Disappearance (AKA Kraftidioten), Hans Petter Moland (2014, Norway). I mentioned this film to my mother and she said, “It’s brilliant!” and admitted she’d even recorded it so she could watch it again. Stellan Skarsgård’s son works at the local airport and is murdered one night by gangsters who thought he’d stolen some drugs. True, he’d been helping a friend smuggle in drugs, but he’d not stolen any. He wasn’t an addict but apparently died of an overdose. Skarsgård doesn’t believe this and investigates. And works his way up the drug dealers’ chain of command, killing everyone who had a hand in his son’s death. The drug dealers think a rival Serbian gang is muscling in on their territory and inadvertently kick off a gang war. Excellent film. And slightly weird for me as Skarsgård speaks Swedish throughout, and different bits of the Danish and Norwegian were sort of intelligible. Definitely check it out.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Takashi Miike (2011, Japan). After my last post’s disappointment with Miike, he goes and remakes a Masaki Kobayashi film from 1962, which is highly regarded, and produces something that is arguably better than the original (which, admittedly, I’ve not seen). A young ronin asks permission to commit seppuku in the palace courtyard of a lord, hoping he will be turned away and given money instead – a common practice. But the lord’s head samurai calls the ronin’s bluff, and he is forced to commit suicide with a bamboo blade, having already pawned his sword. Some months later, another ronin turns up and makes the same request. Flashbacks explain that the previous ronin was his son-in-law, and he holds the lord’s samurai responsible. This was excellent – gripping, violent, excellent fights scenes, sympathetic protagonists… Everything you could want in a samurai film. Worth seeing.

Hitch-hike, Pasquale Festa Campanile (1977, Italy). The title pretty much tells you the story. And there are no doubt a dozen films with the same title and plot. A couple holidaying in some canyons on their way home pick up a hitchhiker who proves to be a violent criminal on the run. He takes them hostage and forces them to drive to Mexico. Although set in the Us, the film was actually made in Italy – but it doesn’t long to get used to American set dressing and Italian dialogue in giallo, or even well-known UK or US faces seemingly speaking fluent Italian. The star here is Franco Nero, an actual Italian, who at the height of his career was probably as good-looking as John Phillip Law. The villain, however, was played by a Z-list US actor dubbed into Italian. Meh.

The Fox and the Hound, Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens (1981, USA). This was apparently a hand-over film for Disney, when the Nine Old Men, Disney’s original team of animators, retired and passed the torch to a new generation. Unfortunately, the two generations argued over the story for this film, resulting in something even more mawkish than usual. The story is a Disney staple – kids from opposing sides grow up together, are forced to confront their differences once grown, manage to put them aside after a dangerous situation shows their hearts are in the right place. It’s such an American lesson. And completely unsupported by US history or national character. In this case, one kid is a dog and the other is a fox. They play together as pup and cub. The dog hunts the fox once adult. Fox helps save dog and his owner from a bear. Everyone lives happily ever after. sort of. Not one of Disney’s best.

The Incoherents, Jared Barel (2019, USA). Lead singer/songwriter of an alt rock band packs into because he can’t handle the uncertainty. Twenty-five years later, he has a mid-life crisis and decides to “put the band back together”. It’s never that easy, of course. But he persuades the others to follow his dream, they get some small online interest and perform a few well-reviewed gigs. The film is good on the the difficulties in succeeding in a greatly changed industry and market. Other than the giant conglomerates, culture in the twenty-first century has once again become a cottage industry, and The Incoherents makes a good fist of showing the perils, the work required, and the limited success available that entails. Of course, there’s a big showdown at the end, but its results don’t follow the usual Hollywood formula. Not bad.

Project A I & Project A II, Jackie Chan (1983 & 1987, China). Chan plays a sergeant in the Hong Kong Maritime Police, called, of course, Jackie Chan. Or was it Kevin? Might have been both. Pirates and corrupt businesses have Hong Kong tied up. The Marine Police are disbanded after one too many fight with the regular police and subsumed into the latter. This includes Sergeant Jackie Chan. He impersonates one of the business men doing, er, business with the pirates, infiltrates their lair, and defeats him, with the help of his Marine Police friends and the regular police. The sequel wraps in mainland politics, when Chan is given command of a Hong Kong district whose previous inspector was on the take. Chan gets involved with Kuomintang agents (coincidentally female) while trying to take down a gangland boss. The first film is best-known for a twenty-metre fall by Chan from a clock tower; the second features a climactic battle at a chili-drying factory and on a giant bamboo stage. Excellent stuff.


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Movie roundup 2020, #6

It’s been a while, but it’s time I documented the films I’ve watched over the last few weeks. As usual, it’s a mixed bag.

Sukiyaki Western Django, Takashi Miike (2007, Japan). An attempt to make a samurai film framed explicitly as an arthouse Western. It… doesn’t work. It’s like the entire movie was shot through Snapchat filters. It’s distracting. And the costumes all look like they belong in a visual kei promo video. I can’t actually remember what the story was. There might not have been one. I find Miike’s movies a mixed bag at the best of times, and while there are several Japanese directors whose films I actively seek out he’s not one of them. Meh.

The Die Hard series, comprising Die Hard, John McTiernan (1988, USA), Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin (1990, USA), Die Hard with a Vengeance, John McTiernan (1995, USA), Live Free or Die Hard, Len Wiseman (2007, USA) and A Good Day to Die Hard, John Moore (2013, USA). There’s little doubt the first is a classic piece of Hollywood cinema. It’s complete hokum, of course, but so were the 1970s disaster movies which inspired it. It’s completely clichéd superficial action from start to finish. Unfortunately, the series has been on a downward slide ever since. Die Hard 2 manages to stick to the formula but presents a set of villains, and a twist, that are completely implausible – or, at least, even more implausible than the other movies. Die Hard with a Vengeance at least gets its villain right, although Jeremy Irons is no match for Alan Rickman, and the audacity of the robbery is hard to swallow – as indeed is the existence of a bank in central New York that holds most of the gold reserves of many nations. Live Free or Die Hard is just plain bad. Willis’s character is dragged out of an alcoholic stupor to help a hacker with several million dollars worth of gear prevent an ex-NSA hacker genius from stealing a backup of every piece of financial data in the US – because of course all the banks and brokers and financial institutions in the US obviously let the US government copy their data and keep a back-up. FFS. When Willis isn’t pretending to be hungover – and might very well have actually been hung-over – he’s wearing an iff-putting smirk. And the central premise is so mind-numbingly stupid it’s a miracle anyone ever signed off the film financing. A Good Day to Die Hard is just plain shit. The franchise has sunk so low it’s had to relocate to Russia. Willis’s estranged son is in a Russian prison, so Willis goes to break him out, but his imprisonment was all a cunning CIA plot to rescue an imprisoned Russian politician. Except it turns out everything is actually the opposite of what it seems, except the quality of this movie which remains resolutely shit throughout.

Viking Blood, Uri L Schwartz (2019, Denmark). An odd film, made by an American, in Denmark, with a mostly Scandinavian cast, all speaking English. A mysterious stranger appears in a Viking village, where the Christians and the Pagans are in an uneasy stand-off. The stranger claims to be a mercenary, and seems to do his best in provoking the village to war. It’s all very low-budget, the acting is generally poor, the use of slow-motion in the fight scenes only displays how badly they are choreographed, and even a last-minute twist can’t redeem the plot. Avoid.

One Day: Justice Delivered, Ashok Nanda (2019, India). A modern Bollywood take on And Then There Were None. A respected judge retires, and after his daughter’s wedding party two of the guests go missing. More people go missing. An inspector from another district is called in to investigate, and she soon discovers all of the missing people were involved in one case or other that appeared before the judge. The judge has kidnapped them and is torturing them so they will confess to their crimes. Flashbacks handily explain those crimes and what total scumbags the missing people are. For all that it was somewhat predictable, I enjoyed this.

Killer Nun, Giulio Berruti (1979, Italy). The title pretty much says it all. A giallo, with Anita Ekberg in the title role. It’s about a nun. Who kills people. In the geriatric hospital where she works. It’s all very over-wrought and intense, even for a giallo. A notorious film, apparently, but not a good one.

Miracles, Jackie Chan (1989, China). It has always amused that Jackie Chan plays characters called Jackie Chan in his movies, even if those characters are different people in each film – I mean, Jackie Chan in Miracles, set in the 1930s, can’t be the same Jackie Chan as in Armour of God, set in the 1980s… Of course, when Jackie Chan is not playing Jackie Chan, he’s playing Kevin something, and it usually depends on the distributor, or whoever does the subtitles, what his character is called. In Miracles, Chan plays a hapless innocent who unwittingly becomes the chief of a group of gangsters in 1930s Hong Kong. The gang is at war with another gang, and it all comes down to a one-on-one fight in a rope factory with the usual clever and amusing stunts. Good stuff.

Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino (1994, USA). I can remember exactly when I first saw this film. I’d graduated and was stilling looking for a job six months later. I was staying with my sister in Chiswick, and she and some of her friends had planned a trip to the cinema to see a film. There were two to choose from: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Pulp Fiction. I chose the former but was out-voted. I know which film has aged better. Not this one. It’s, well, really racist. Especially Tarantino’s character, who drops the n-word like a nerd who’s too dumb to realise crackers are fucking horrible people. Perhaps the chopped-up chronology of the narrative was innovative in 1994, although I’m pretty sure Hollywood has been playing tricks with narrative chronology since the 1940s. Other than a lot of swearing and a desperate attempt at a hip soundtrack, there’s little in Pulp Fiction that justifies the reputation it once had.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, UK). After a hiatus of fifteen years, the series creator returned to it with a prequel. And I was bitterly disappointed. It looked great, but relied on idiot characters and idiot plotting and retconned the entire franchise so it made no sense whatsoever. And in the sequel to that film, Scott… doubled-down on everything. The visuals are even more striking, the plot makes even less sense, and the character are even more ridiculously stupid and stereotypical. A third film is due next year, I believe. I expect the downward trajectory to continue.

Bed & Board, François Truffaut (1970, France). The fourth film of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series. He’s now working for a florist and expecting his first child. So, of course, he has an affair with a Japanese woman. It’s easy enough to appreciate the skill with which these films are put together but I have no idea what point they are trying to make.


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Moving pictures, #3

More culture splashed across the silver screen… although it’s a pretty loose definition of “culture” for some of the films I’ve seen over the past few weeks. More and more, I find myself avoiding recent Hollywood product (and I use the term “product” deliberately) in favour of arthouse or classic Hollywood films.

Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks (1970, USA) I freely admit Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) is one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite Western, and I was aware Rio Lobo is often considered to be little more than Hawks having another bash at that earlier film. Like Rio Bravo, it stars John Wayne as a sheriff, who must defend a town against a cattle baron’s henchman and… The difference here is that Wayne was a Union officer and the film opens with an ambush by Confederate troops on a gold train he’s responsible for. Later, he meets the Confederate captain who commanded the ambush in a POW camp and the two become friends… and later allies against the evil cattle baron. A solid Hollywood western, but not a patch on Rio Bravo.

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Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999, France) I forget why I put this on my rental list, possibly I’d seen it on some list of top films or something. I’d seen a few by Denis before, and while they were good I can’t say they’d blown me away. But Beau Travail… It’s set in Djibouti among soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, and is framed as the memories of a sergeant after the fact. A new recruit joins the troop and the sergeant becomes envious of his looks, ability and popularity. He tries to kill him by sending him out into the desert with a faulty compass, but the legionnaire survives. The film ends with the sergeant dancing, representing his suicide after failing to adjust to civilian life. It is quite brilliant. I’m pretty sure Beau Travail is going to make my best of the year. It’s also the third film I can think of that’s lifted from good to near-genius by an unexpected dance scene, the other two being François Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000) and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 (1993, USA) So I finally got around to watching the final season of Next Gen, and now a week or two later I have very little memory of it all. I think I spent most of the time marvelling at how much make-up Marina Sirtis and Gates McFadden were wearing. The plots of the individual episodes were, I seem to recall, rather dull and it all felt very formulaic and “the [tech] does the [tech] with the [tech]”. There were, as usual, some totally cringe-worthy episodes and, surprisingly, one featuring Lwaxana Troi that didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out (it was a bit barf-inducing, though). Ah well, seen them all now. Seen all of DS9 as well. Voyager next, I guess. Sigh.

Outpost 11, Anthony Woodley (2012, UK) The Second World War is apparently approaching its centenary and three men at a listening outpost – listening to Russian radio traffic (er, they were our allies during WWII) – are slowly driven mad by something strange out in the ice and cold. Everything looks a bit steampunk (er, the Victorian Age ended nearly forty years before WWII), the acting is terrible, and the pacing is abysmal. A film to avoid.

Gilda, Charles Vidor (1946, USA) Glenn Ford is a gambler in Buenos Aires shortly after WWII. He ends up working at an illegal casino – though you’d never guessed it was illegal from all the glitz – as floor manager. Some months later, the casino owner goes away on a trip and returns with Rita Hayworth, his wife. Cue smouldering hatred between Ford and Hayworth. Meanwhile, the casino owner is neck-deep in a cartel among tungsten mine owners. A quality Hollywood noir this one. Hayworth is mind-blowing. Definitely worth seeing.

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Queen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA) This was actually a rewatch, but it’s such a good film it’s worth mentioning again. It’s another US movie cobbled together from footage from two Soviet films – мечте навстречу (Mechte Navstrechu) and Небо зовет (Nebo Zovyot), with additional US-filmed material starring Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, Judi Meredith Florence Marly, and, yes, that is Dennis Hopper. Alien crashlands on Mars, Earth sends rescue mission, they find sole survivor Marly, but during journey back to Earth she proves to be a vampire and kills all of crew except Meredith and Hooper, who kill her. Marly is astonishingly good as the titular alien, Meredith is treated like just one of the crew (a gender-equal future society, in a 1966 film!), and the footage from the Soviet movies is weirdly beautiful. I love this film.

My Neighbours The Yamadas, Isao Takahata (1999, Japan) The cartoony Studio Ghibli film, in other words. The title pretty much says it all – the film is structured as a series of vignettes about the eponymous family. I quite enjoyed it, although the best Ghibli I’ve seen so far is still Only Yesterday, like My Neighbours The Yamadas also directed by Isao Takahata.

Project A, Part 2, Jackie Chan (1987, Hong Kong) When I was living in the UAE, I watched quite a lot of Jackie Chan films – they were readily available there on VCD. It’s nineteenth century Hong Kong and Chan is drafted in as police superintendent in charge of a notoriously corrupt district. With the help of the Marines, he cleans up the  district, battling the local kingpin, an Imperial Chinese spy and his henchmen, and the previous superintendent who has been promoted to a position where he can allegedly do no harm. Also involved are a bunch of Chinese revolutionaries  – which is who the Imperial Chinese spy is after. There’s lots of cleverly-choreographed action, including a brilliant sequence with some chilis, and it’s pretty much a pure hit of Jackie Chan comedy-action. Definitely worth seeing.

20 Million Miles To Earth, Nathan Juran (1957, USA) This was on Film4 one weekend afternoon, so I plonked myself in front of the telly and watched it. My expectations were low and it still failed to meet them. A spacecraft on a mission to Venus crashlands in the sea off Sicily on its trip back to Earth. Some Sicilian fisherman rescue the sole survivor, but a young local boy also finds a specimen jar from the rocket containing a blobby thing, which promptly grows into a Godzillary-type creature and subsequently terrorises the island. This is a B-movie, with a B-movie script and B-movie talent, and notable only because Harryhausen animated the ersatz kaiju. Eminently avoidable.

Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan (1947, USA) This was a surprise. I forget where I stumbled across mention of it, but it was a good call. Gregory Peck plays a journalist who’s just landed a top gig with a New-York-based magazine. He proposes an article series on anti-semitism, but initially finds it hard to present the subject in a way that will really get it across to readers. Eventually he decides that he will tell everyone he is Jewish, and experience anti-semitism for himself – he’s new in New York, so there’s no one around who’ll know different (except his editor, of course, his mother, and his WASP-y fiancée). And experience it he does. Both conscious and unconscious. The topic is handled intelligently and sensitively. Sadly, I doubt a film like this would be made today.

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Sons of the Desert, William A Seiter (1933, USA). Also, by various hands, We Faw Down (1928), Their Purple Moment (1928) and On the Wrong Trek (1936), which were all on the same disc. Sons of the Desert sees Stan and Ollie pull a fast one on their wives in order to attend the titular organisation’s annual bash in Chicago, which their wives have forbidden. Ollie fakes an illness, and the pair are allowed to travel to “Honolulu” to recuperate. Everything goes as planned… Except the ship the pair are allegedly returning on sinks. Just after they’ve lied their way out of trouble on that, the wives sees a newsreel about the Sons of the Desert parade in Chicago… and there are Stan and Ollie whooping it up. We Faw Down is a silent with an earlier version of the plot – Stan and Ollie want to attend a poker game so lie to their wives… only to get caught up in various shenanigans and consequently caught out. I thought it funnier than Sons of the Desert. Their Purple Moment is another silent – this time Stan & Ollie are out for some fun with some of Stan’s saved cash, they end up having dinner in a club with a pair of women (not their wives), but it turns out Stan’s wife has replaced his cash with coupons. Also a good one. Laurel and Hardy only make cameos in On the Wrong Trek, which is actually about another actor back from holiday telling his office mates about the disastrous week he’s just spent on the road to California with his wife and mother-in-law. There’s a quite good musical number, but that’s about all.

Red 2, Dean Pariscot (2013, USA) A bunch of oldies run around like twentysomethings, committing implausible mayhem and I completely forget what the actual plot was about. I’d dismiss this as complete tosh, but the script was pleasantly witty and though it trod a fine line it actually managed to avoid falling into stupid. It felt more like a European action thriller than a Hollywood one (amusingly, it featured a Russian aircraft masquerading as a USAF one, the precise opposite of all those Hollywood Cold War films…). For a beer and pizza night, you can do a lot worse than this film.