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Moving pictures 2018, #68

Unusually, this post includes a film that is both recent and Extruded Hollywood Product. I even saw it at the cinema! But it was Christmas, and it’s sort of a family tradition to see a film at the cinema at Christmas. And, to be honest, dumb as it was – it gloried in its dumbness, in fact – I enjoyed the film much more than I’d expected to. So there.

A Day at the Races, Sam Wood (1937, USA). And another Marx Brothers film chiefly famous these days because Queen used its title for one of their albums – and if you want to argue which of the two deserves to be better remembered… Well, Queen are still going, albeit only just, although the recent jukebox musical has probably done the surviving members’ bank accounts a world of good. And the Marx brothers… well, Zeppo was the last to die, in 1979, and the brothers’ last feature film was released thirty years before that… Obviously their films were very much of their time, and those elements of their comedy which have been picked up and re-used no longer seem fresh – which, perversely, means parts of their movies just aren’t very funny, and other parts would be funny if the jokes had not been done to death in the decades since. It doesn’t help that all their madcap escapades are generally hung on a rom com skeleton, and the latter is usually pretty weak. In this movie, a struggling sanatorium, under threat from a developer who wants to turn it into a casino, panders to a wealthy resident – Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother” – by hiring Groucho as her personal physician. Meanwhile, the boyfriend of the sanatorium’s owner has spent all his money on a horse. Which everyone knows runs a like a donkey. Fortunately, they accidentally discover the horse jumps like a champion, so they enter him in a steeplechase, he wins a big pot, and the sanatorium is saved. These films are worth seeing once, I think, although I couldn’t honestly tell you which is the best one.

Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969, France). I’ve watched a lot of French films but Melville is not really a director whose oeuvre I’ve been especially keen to explore. Some of his films are considered classics, and certainly Le Samouraï I thought very good, although more for its visuals than its somewhat derivative story. “Army of shadows” refers to the French Resistance, and that’s what the film is about: a group of resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France; and based on a novel (I think) published in 1943. The film was not well-received in France on its release, not released in the UK until a decade later, and not even released in the US until 2006. It has been re-evaluated in recent years, and it may well be because there’s no one left who lived through the events it depicts and is likely to be offended by Melville’s treatment. While they say history is written by the winners, as the generations come and go and events pass beyond living memory, so the movies which depict them become less personal and are re-assessed and then valued pretty much solely for their technical qualities. Fifty years from now, should someone make a movie which takes seriously the premise the Moon landings were faked, it could be considered a work of genius… because where is Buzz Aldrin to punch them? And so for Army of Shadows… And yet, other than its grimness, nothing much really stood out in the film. Meh.

Adela Has Not Had Her Supper Yet, Oldřich Lipský (1977, Czechia). Imagine if the Czechs had made The Little Shop of Horrors, but with stop-motion animation instead of songs. Actually, you don’t need to. Because they did. And it’s this film. Adela is a carnivorous plant, brought to life using stop-motion. And, er, that’s it. The film opens when famous US detective Nick Carter, an American pulp detective from 1886, while on a visit to Prague is caused to solve the disappearance of a dog. Which leads to a series of bizarre murders. And it’s all because of a mad scientist and his carnivorous plant. The animated sequences were all done by Jan Švankmajer, which, if you know the name, tells you everything you need to know. If you don’t know the name – why not? I stumbled across this film on Amazon Prime, and it was one of those gems which makes you grateful the platform exists. Recommended.

Aquaman, James Wan (2018, USA). It has been a tradition for many years in our family to go and see a film at the cinema together at Christmas. If I remember rightly, the first time we did it was to see the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Which would make it 2001. So we’ve been doing it for nearly two decades. This year, the only movie suitable, and showing at a convenient time, at the cinema in Lyngby, just outside Copenhagen, was Aquaman. Which, to be honest, I was not especially bothered about seeing. I had, after all, seen Justice League, and that was bloody awful. I’d also heard that Aquaman was pretty dumb. So my expectations were low. And… surprisingly… it both met them and exceeded them. It was indeed as dumb as shit. And there were plot-holes you could sail an entire continent through… A king of Atlantis who died tens of thousands of years ago leaving a clue which references a statue of a Roman emperor? WTF? Anyway, Jason Momoa, probably best known as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, plays the title role, a half-Atlantean, whose mother, Nicole Kidman, washed up onshore in Maine after fleeing an arranged royal marriage under the sea. A lighthouse keeper rescues her, they fall in love, have a baby, and then she’s recaptured by her estranged submarine husband’s soldiers… The baby grows up to be Aquaman, presented initially as a full-on, if disenchanted, superhero. And… is it worth describing the plot? Of course not. There’s a subplot featuring the villain Black Manta which serves no purpose but does give the film one of its best action sequences. There are giant sharks with laser beams on their heads ridden by Atlantean warriors. There is an entirely pointless duel between Aquaman and the chief villain. And there is a vast undersea battle with some astonishingly effective CGI. It all looks pretty damn gorgeous, but it also quite evidently has the IQ of a lump of concrete. And yet, despite the latter, it’s pretty damn entertaining. I’ll not be rushing out to buy the Blu-ray, this is true; but when I left the cinema I didn’t feel like I’d been robbed. Aquaman is so stupid and OTT and yet so clearly not taking itself very seriously, that it keeps you entertained for all of its 143 minutes. It’s not going to win any awards – well, it might get on the shortlist for the Hugo Award, which tells you all you need to know about the Hugo Award – but it’s a tentpole crowd-pleaser, and as that it succeeds better than I’d expected.

Sword of Honour (2001, UK). I read Sword of Honour over Christmas, and then watched the DVD when I returned home after the holiday. So I had the novel fresh in my mind when I put the disc of the Channel 4 TV movie adaptation in the player… And they really didn’t do a very good job, did they? The novel is a satire, but film turns it into a dull wartime drama. Daniel Craig plays Guy Crouchback, who has been living in Italy for years but returns to the UK before the outbreak of WWII in order to sign up. In the book, Crouchback’s career is a consequence of the general incompetence of the British military, enlivened with a couple of comic set-pieces, such as that surrounding Apthorpe and his “thunder-box”, which the film turns into a short pathetic incident. In fact, most of the emphases of the novel’s plot are misrepresented in the film. Crouchback’s experiences on Crete are a direct result of a military blunder, but the film presents it as a straightforward defeat. True, a novel can offer much more in the way of context than a film – or rather, it can offer more than just immediate context through visuals, which films do so much better. Of course, a lot of nuance is lost, because it can’t be telegraphed as well onscreen as it can in prose. But there’s a meaty enough plot in Sword of Honour to build a really good satire about WWII and, watching what Channel 4 actually did, it feels like they pulled every one of their punches, as if afraid to be too critical of Britain at war. Which is ironic, given that Waugh “cleaned up” his own wartime experiences when writing Crouchback’s – or rather, he made Crouchback a much more sympathetic character than Waugh’s actual career would have made him (“officer most likely to be shot by his men”, one fellow officer described Waugh). Sword of Honour, the film, follows the story of Waugh’s trilogy, later rewritten as a single novel, reasonably faithfully, but it turns a smart satire into a dull drama. Avoid.

Passion, Brian De Palma (2012, France). De Palma has a well-earned reputation as a poor man’s Hitchcock, inasmuch as he tends to direct knotty thrillers that have all the plot complexity of a Hitchcock film but never quite manage to look as good as a Hitchcock movie. I’m not entirely sure that’s fair – true, Hitchcock was one of the greatest directors Western cinema has produced, but I suspect de Palma’s reputation partly rests on the fact the films he makes are somewhat… salacious. In this one, we have Rachel McAdams as an ambitious advertising executive, more than happy to steal credit for good ideas from her underlings. Chief among whom is Noomi Rapace. Who discovers that McAdam’s lover Dirk is being blackmailed by McAdam because he has embezzled the firm. But then the lover is found dead, and Rapace appears to be the murderer. And even confesses to the crime. Except she’s been so strung out on prescription drugs since McAdams torpedoed her career that perhaps she isn’t guilty, after all… The movie’s resolution should come as no real surprise, although de Palma sets it all up very cleverly. Unfortunately, the two lead characters, played by Rapace and McAdams, indeed the entire set-up, feels really very 1980s. The only thing that’s missing is the shoulderpads. It looks good, all very twenty-first century, but the corporate world feels so old-fashioned the whole film could be mistaken for an extended episode of Dynasty featuring secondary characters. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #44

Not a single US film in this half-dozen. I’m steadily reducing the number of American films I watch, although there are still a large number of countries I’ve not seen films from.

Deewaar*, Yash Chopra (1975, India). There are only three or four Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, while around half of the list are from Hollywood. Despite the fact the two film industries are not so different in size (Indian cinema, including Bollywood, is around a third bigger than Hollywood, and Bollywood accounts for nearly half of Indian cinema’s ticket sales). Of course, the list is aimed at English-language film-watchers, but even so there are some excellent historical Bollywood films that have been missed off, such as Kaagaz ke Phool (see here), Mughal-e-Azam (see here) or Pakeezah (see here), just to mention a few of my favourites. Anyway, Deewaar is neither an historical epic, nor the usual boy-meets-girl Bollywood story, but a family drama and thriller. The film opens with a police officer being decorated, and in his acceptance speech he tells everyone he owes everything to his mother… And then the film heads straight into flashback territory. The two sons of a trade union activist go their separate ways after their father is blackmailed into betraying his fellow workers. One son becomes a criminal, the other a police officer, and… you can guess where this is going. Deewaar apparently had an enormous impact on Bollywood, and it’s certainly a much grittier and realistic – and yes, with singing and dancing – movie than others I’ve seen. In places, this means its age tells against it, as later films have covered similar territory – and, to be fair, it’s not an uncommon story in other countries’ cinemas. I think there should be more Indian films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I can see why this one is there.

Accident, Joseph Losey (1967, UK). Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter made three films in the UK during the 1960s: The Servant (see here), The Go-Between (see here) and this one. Accident opens with a, er, car accident, from which Dirk Bogarde manages to rescue Jacqueline Sassard but Michael York is already dead. The two were on their way to visit Bogarde, who was York’s tutor at Oxford. But this is Pinter, so nothing is quite as it seems, and the female characters are never treated well – in this case, that’s Bogarde sexually assaulting Sassard after the accident. Confusing matters is Stanley Baker, another Oxford don, who has been sleeping with Sassard but, unlike York, has no plans for matrimony. The car accident is amazingly shot, not like it would be these days with OTT physical/CGI effects, shot from a number of surprising angles that really evoke the accident extremely well. It’s an arresting opening, and the film takes advantage of it, so when it starts the flashback main narrative it still has the shock of the opening sequence echoing. Which is just as well, as the story which follows is not the most exciting. It’s a cross-between a romantic triangle and a campus professor/student illicit affair story, and fuck knows what sort of shape that makes. It doesn’t help that it all takes at Oxford University, and over-entitled white men no longer play as sympathetic as they once – apparently, bafflingly – did. Bogarde plays a role he’s good at: the quiet restrained type who doe something nasty. Michael York plays, well, Michael York. As usual. Jacqueline Sassard is apparently better known in Italian cinema, and retired from acting two years after Accident when she married the head of the Lancia family (that’s cars, of course). The three Pinter/Losey films are worth seeing, but I couldn’t say which was the best of them. Probably the first.

The Spring River Flows East, Zheng Junli & Cai Chusheng (1947, China). I’m a big fan of current-day Chinese cinema, especially that of the Sixth Generation directors (and Fifth Generation too), but I also like early Chinese cinema a great deal, especially contemporary dramas from the 1940s, like Spring in a Small Town (see here) and this film, The Spring River Flows East. Which is a bit epic. 190 minutes epic. Released-in-two-parts epic. The story opens in Shanghai in 1931 and follows the fortunes of a family during the Japanese invasion. A man joins the resistance, but his wife and child are put in a refugee camp when the Japanese reach Shanghai. The man is later captured but manages to escape and heads for Chungking, which is under the control of the Kuomintang. Years pass, the man becomes a successful entrepreneur and marries another woman. The Japanese are defeated. The man returns to Shanghai. At a party, his first wife, working as a waitress, recognises him and reveals he is a bigamist. His second wife insists the first divorce him, but she finds another solution. The story is pretty much a soap opera, but played out against a backdrop of war, occupation and postwar deprivation. Obviously, the first wife is the sympathetic heroine – she’s played by Bai Yang, the foremost of China’s “Four Great Actresses” – although much is made of the fall from grace of the husband, from working-class hero to bourgeois lackey. The film isn’t as well-shot as Spring in a Small Town, which is really excellent, but what it lacks in cinematography, staging or script, The Spring River Flows East makes up for in breadth of story and scale. I can understand why it’s so highly regarded in Chinese cinema. I’d like to see it again too.

Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico). After watching this, I added all of Reygadas’s available films to my rental list – which, fortunately, appears to be all of them. This film takes place in a Mennonite community in Mexico, and the dialogue is chiefly in their language, Plautdietsch. The cast are also mostly non-professional – with the exception of Miriam Toews, a Canadian Mennonite author and actor, who plays the wife of the main character. He is having an affair with a single woman, and his wife knows about it. She confronts him, whch leads to her suffering a fatal heart attack. At the wake, the mistress kisses the wife’s body and she comes back to life. This is one of those films with long static takes and sparse dialogue. The movie opens with a gorgeous shot of the sun rising, and closes with one of it setting, and I thought the whole thing from start to finish excellent. It’s very much the sort of cinema I really like, almost faux-documentary, but with those long slow-moving takes where the very lack of action draws attention to the smallest of details. It’s the polar opposite of Hollywood action movies, with their relentless series of short-span jump-cuts, CGI-enhanced action, and so much detail on screen you’ve no idea where to look or what the fuck is actually going on. Reygadas is definitely a name I’ll be keeping an eye open for from now on.

Yellow Submarine, George Dunning (1968, UK). I think I may have seen this before, although whatever bits and pieces I remembered may well have been from watching only parts of it rather than the whole movie. And that was likely over thirty years ago, during the early 1980s or late 1970s. So when it popped up free-to-view on Amazon Prime – and there’s some surprising stuff on there, but searching on the Fire Stick TV interface is next to useless (mind you, it’s next to fucking useless on the Amazon website too) – I decided to watch it. It’s… very much of its time, and very much what you see on the DVD cover-art. Young Freddie is sent in the Yellow Submarine to recruit the Beatles to help free Pepperland from an invasion by the music-hating Blue Meanies. En route, we’re treated to a number of tracks from various Beatles albums, some well-known, some pretty much forgotten except by fans of the band. I was never much of a fan of the Beatles – I’m still not one – and of the bands popular at the time (which was, I hasten to add, years before my own time), I much preferred the Hollies. I’ve always been slightly baffled by the Beatles’ level of success, but one thing I noticed watching Yellow Submarine was how familiar so many of their songs’ melodies were. I don’t mean familiar because the songs were famous, but familiar because the melodies were simple and sounded very like many other songs. Everything felt, well, a bit re-used. Maybe that was the secret of their success. After all, Oasis were huge too, and every one of their songs sounded like it was ripped off from something else. (I still think Oasis were a scam played on the British public by a jaded music press.) Anyway, I’m glad I watched Yellow Submarine, but I doubt I’ll bother rewatching it.

Le Samouraï*, Jean-Pierre Melville (1967, France). I borrowed this from David Tallerman, as it’s not available  for rent in the UK. (There isn’t even a UK release, and the only one for sale here is the US Criterion Collection DVD.) The only film by Melville I’d seen previously was Bob le flambeur, which has, to be honest, sort of mingled together in mind with a whole bunch of noir films I’ve seen over the years, so much so I don’t really know whether something I remember from it is actually from Bob le flambeur or a film by Dassin, Carné, Tourneur or Duvivier. So Le Samouraï came as a bit of a surprise, as it reminded me of Tati’s Playtime more than anything else. I mean the colour palette, of course. And some of the staging. Not the plot. Alain Delon (I prefer Belmondo, to be honest) plays a hitman, who lives alone in a small barely-furnished apartment with a canary in a cage. He shoots the owner of a nightclub, and is witnessed in the act by the club’s singer. However, when he is pulled in by the police – among many other men – the singer insists he was not the killer. He also had an alibi for the time of the murder – his girlfriend claims he was at her place. Then the hitman finds himself the target of an assassin, but he succeeds in forcing the assassin to tell him the name of his boss. While the plot was almost pure noir, the look of the film was definitely not Nouvelle Vague. The subdued colour palette and the minimalist set design, along with several industrial locations, gave the film a flat affect which suited its story. Delon played his role mostly stone-faced, but the rest of the cast felt more like types than characters. I’d not expected much when putting the disc in the player, but I found myself liking Le Samouraï a great deal. A good film, but I’m unsure whether it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929