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Movie roundup 2020, #2

It’s been a while since my last post. I have no excuses. And now the world is falling apart – and if I was glad I moved to Sweden last year, I’m profoundly grateful now given all that’s going down. Still, social distancing doesn’t mean I can’t write blog posts. If anything, it should result in more opportunities to write them. And maybe even some fiction. We shall see. For now, another quick run-through of my recent viewing.

Glitterbug, Derek Jarman (1994, UK). Yet more Jarman. Often described as his final film, it’s a compilation of shorts – home movies, pretty much – shot by Jarman but put together by others for a BBC2 programme and broadcast after Jarman’s death. There’s a sort of narrative, given that the shorts document Jarman’s life and travels and friendships, especially that with Tilda Swinton, who appears in several of the films. It’s definitely one for fans, although by its very nature it could hardly not be.

Song of the South, Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson (1946, USA). A Disney mix of animation and live-action that has almost achieved cult status for being so racist. It’s based on the Uncle Remus stories, which are not themselves racist although the presentation of them, and the black culture of the time, relied overmuch on racist stereotypes. It’s clear Disney were not making an explicitly racist film and just screwed up big time. But… the US is the world leader in racism, so it’s no surprise Disney made such a bad job despite relatively benign intentions. Given the amount of time that’s passed since the film’s release, it’s perhaps safest to view it as an historical document – it’s still racist, and still offensive, but structurally, and production-wise, it’s also very much a Disney film of its time. It’s not a bad movie per se, but I’m glad it’s a movie that’s considered offensive – because a world in which it was not considered offensive would not be a very nice world. This is not an opinion I will share on Twitter…

Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley (2019, USA). Stanley comes out of retirement for a pet-project adaptation of a favourite Lovecraft short story – and not the first time the story has been adapted. This version stars Nicolas Cage in “slightly unhinged” mode, which actually works really well with the material, but does unfortunately throw the rest of the cast into the, ahem, shade. The presentation of the alien colour – a weird violet shade – also works well. But despite all that, this is just a grade a tad higher than B-movie.

The Goldfinch, John Crowley (2019, USA). Literary bestseller from a couple of years ago from a literary sensation who has managed to publish three novels in nearly thirty years, all of which have been hugely successful. How does that work? Especially when their stories are so dull. I’m told the novel is good, but this movie has very little to recommend it. Dull New York literary stereotypes in some sort of dull New York stereotype plot kickstarted by an atrocity – an entirely implausible bombing of an art museum – that leads to a secret no one really cares about that apparently blights a number of dull New York literary stereotype lives. Literary fiction has a bad name because of films like this. Avoid.

I worked my way through the Harry Potter movies over a couple of weeks. I’ll not bother listing the titles. There’s an interesting transformation that takes place as the series progresses. Initially, it’s all Jenkinson Goes to Wizard School and jolly magical public school japes. I’m completely mystified by how popular the series – the books, that is – became. They’re not very well written, not very well constructed, and entirely ignorant in their uncritical borrowing of children’s fantasy tropes. By about the fourth film, however, it’s all turned into a bit of a generic high fantasy, with its Peasant Saviour and Dark Lord and Wise Mentor and back-story and mythos. Rowling’s completely tone-deaf approach to appropriating tropes and world-building from a variety of sources throws up a few interesting variations, and some of the characters do start to develop real pathos. But then it all turns into wannabe Star Wars, and then the bad guys are outed as complete Nazis, and you have to wonder how anyone could see the last two films, or read the final book, and not see the somewhat thumpingly obvious allegory. Sigh.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Francesco Stefani (1957, Germany). I’ve been told this movie has psychologically scarred a generation of German children, and it’s easy to understand why. I only survived unscathed thanks to the fortifying effects of a bottle of wine – not fortified wine, I hasted to add, although that might have proven more effective. The Singing Ringing Tree is a fairy tale of some sort, turned into a feature film. But, well, weird.

The Silence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998, Iran). A blind boy in Tajikistan is forced to support his family. His blindness has given the boy super astute hearing and he hires himself out as a musical instrument tuner. Unfortunately, whenever he hears music, he forgets whatever it is he is supposed to be doing. Makhmalbaf had always been somewhat elliptical when ti comes to plot and this film is no exception. But it looks great and tells a good story, so worth seeing.

Aliens, James Cameron (1986, USA). Many people think this is the best of the Alien films. They’re wrong. While Cameron did an amazing job of world-building, he turned the Gothic horror of the first film into just another Vietnam War movie. Thirty-five years later, a lot of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, although the special effects, world-building and plot have stood the test of time. The whole Vietnam soldier thing just doesn’t play these days, and certainly not outside the US, even if it ever did. A polished addition to the franchise, but only looks good when its sequels are considered.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Surender Reddy (2019, India). Tollywood historical epic, three hours of over-the-top resistance to East India Company depredations of Andhra Pradesh. The title character tries to unite all the feuding warlords to fight the British but even being some sort of super-duper paragon isn’t enough to win their support. There’s been a bunch of these films in recent years, although none, of course, end happily – the British weren’t kicked out until 1947, as any fule kno. Bloody entertaining films, though.

Alien 3, David Fincher (1992, USA). A famously difficult production that has few fans even today. I was surprised at how, well, good-looking a movie it was. I’d also forgotten how English too. None of the sequels are a patch on the original, but this was surprisingly better than I’d remembered.

Alien: Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1997). I loved the movies Jeunet made with Caro, so putting the pair of them on the next entry in the Alien franchise should have produced cinematic gold. But, oh dear… I’d remembered the film as being pretty bad, but this rewatch did not go well. The dialogue was appalling, even worse than Aliens, and Ron Perlman’s character was a walking cliché and hugely offensive. A few nice set-pieces could not rescue a plot that makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Dishonored Lady, Robert Stevenson (1947, USA). Hedy Lamarr was great. Very clever woman, led a fascinating life. Not, it has to be said, a brilliant actress, although she’s very watchable in this star vehicle. Successful art editor under pressure from various men in her life has a breakdown, chucks it all away, downsizes, takes a new identity and becomes a painter. Hunky pathologist lives next door, romance ensues, but past returns to haunt her. They churned these out by the Swedish mile (that’s 10 km, by the way) back in the 1940s.

The Garden, Derek Jarman (1990, UK). Experimental film from one of the UK’s best experimental directors. The effects are a little crude, even for 1990, although the film was made with a small budget, and the “subjective musings” which form the bulk of the film are hardly subtle… but then Jarman was reacting to a far-from-subtle attack on gay culture. Jarman had an excellent eye and there is some stunning imagery here. It sometimes obscures the plot – but the experimental nature of the movie more or less blends it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Still a huge fan of Jarman’s films, which would have come as a complete surprise to twenty-year-old me.

Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019, South Korea). Surprising winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture (and other Oscars), the first non-English film to ever win it. It’s a bafflingly non-safe choice for the awards, and claiming it won because it was the best of the nominated films is to ignore the entire history of the Oscars. I liked how it made the house a character in the film, although the final act was all a bit OTT and violent, no doubt deliberately so.

The Palace, Pan Anzi (2013, China). Star-crossed lovers meets palace intrigue in Qing Dynasty China, during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1661 – 1722). Girls are taken at a young age and trained to be palace servants. Some years later, servant woman A and prince X fall in love, but prince X mistakes servant woman B for his love, but servant woman B is having an affair with prince Y, and both X and Y are involved in separate plots for the throne, so Y stitches up X and gets him thrown into prison, where A visits him, but he’s blind so he thinks it is B, but then Y makes his move but he’s backing the crown prince, who fails and so Y is imprisoned and X is released, and X discovers it’s A all along that he’s loved. It’s a fairly standard romance plot, if somewhat convoluted. Well handled with good period detail. Apparently panned by Chinese critics, though.


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Moving pictures, #13

I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…

darlingDarling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.

demoisellesLes Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.

deepseaJames Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…

sokurovSave and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.

spivetThe Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.

thiefofbagdadThe Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.

jeuneJeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591