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Moving pictures 2019, #27

Another selection of recent movies.

Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jon Watts (2019, USA). I watch these sort of films because they don’t interfere with my drinking on a Saturday night – which I probably phrased wrong, but you know what I mean: they’re brainless, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve had to drink, you can still follow the simplistic story and marvel at the expensive sfx, and if you can’t remember the details the follow morning then how is that different from if you’d watched the movie sober? This third – or maybe fourth, or fifth, or thousandth, I’ve lost count – reboot of Spider-Man has him cast as a callow youth who hero-worships Iron Man. But then The Avengers: Endgame had the whole universe hero-worshipping Iron Man, and it was a bit disappointing to see Marvel’s cinematic arm twist the company’s entire corpus into a prop for Robert Downey Jr’s ego, but there you go. Spider-Man: Far From Home is more of the same, despite Tony Stark having died before the film begins and appearing only briefly in it. But that appearance involves him gifting some soft of space-based weapon system to Peter Parker, because of course such weapons should be in private individual’s hands, especially a sixteen year old’s hands, and could the MCU get any more fucking ridiculous and fascist? Perhaps not, but it certainly can’t get any more American… than a bunch of US high school kids, including Parker, on holiday in Europe (Europe is not a country) displaying an unsurprising level of ignorance about any country other than their own. Which is purely incidental as the actual plot is about some hero from an alternate universe who turns out to be a special effects wizard who has faked an attack by supervillains, and faked his own superpowers, in order to steal control of the aforementioned space-based weapon system. It is, if that is possible, even less believable than actual superpowers. And while the movie tries hard to stick to its high school template, that doesn’t play well when they’re being Ignorant Abroad, and even less well when shoehorned into a MCU superhero movie. So rather than drink not spoiling the viewing experience, Spider-Man: Far From Home actually results in the film spoiling the drinking experience. Despite all the gloss and polish and money. One to avoid.

Kaal, Soham Shah (2005, India). There have apparently been several films with this title released by Bollywood, but this particular one is about man-eating tigers in an wildlife park. The film opens with a musical number starring Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora, neither of whom are actually in the movie. I have since learned these are called “item numbers”, and are becoming more prevalent in Bollywood films. Some actors only appear in item numbers, not feature films. Anyway, a researcher for National Geographic is sent to Jim Corbett National Park in northern India is sent to investigate. He bumps into a group of thrill-seekers who are planning to hunt the tigers. But it’s not tigers that have been killing people in the park, it’s a mild-mannered guide. Who is some sort of supernatural spirit or something. I wasn’t entirely sure. Watching Kaal was a chore – everything seemed so amateur. The acting was awful, the script was bad, and it all looked terrible, like it was filmed on a cheap video camera. One to avoid.

Anna, Luc Besson (2019, France). It’s been a while since Besson last directed a thriller film, even though his entire thriller output seems to have been attempts to remake Nikita. And Anna is the latest of these. It’s set during the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, although you’d be hard-pressed to spot it. In fact, if anything, it leads to a weird disconnect: it appears to be a contemporary thriller… and then the KGB make an appearance. Er, what? Oh, wait, it’s set in the 1980s. Anna is a young woman recruited by a department of the KGB and trained as an assassin. Her cover is a top model for an agency in Paris. I hadn’t thought films like this were still being made but, having learnt that they are, it comes as no surprise to discover that Besson was the director. This sort of glossy misogynistic violent thriller went out with shoulder-pads and power-dressing, and for good reason. Anna was promised five years of service and then her freedom. But, no shit, they lied: the only way out of the KGB is in a coffin. Not what you want to put on the recruitment posters, is it? And, seriously, the KGB was corrupt as shit but it wasn’t La Cosa Nostra. Anyway, Anna’s drive for freedom happily aligns with the ambitions of Helen Mirren, who wants the KGB top spot. So they make a secret alliance and… yawn. It’s glossy, it’s violent, it’s wildly improbable, it’s the sort of crap glamorous Euro thriller they were making thirty years ago, but with twenty-first century production values. Another movie, in other words, that probably won’t interfere with your drinking…

Bidaay Byomkesh, Debaloy Bhattacharya (2018, India). Byomkesh Bakshi is a well-known fictional detective in Bengali literature, and was first adapted for film by Satyajit Ray in Chiriyakhana in 1967 (see here). He’s appeared in 32 stories and novels since 1932, and 19 movies and six TV series. If Wikipedia is to be believed. Most of the stories appear to be available on Kindle, so I think I might give reading them a go. Anyway, Bidaay Byomkesh, which means “Good bye Byomkesh”, is a later instalment in the series, although not its last. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to all of the films in the series, or indeed the actual books or short stories, at least not in English – and I’d certainly like to explore the series further. I read an anthology of Tamil pulp fiction last year, and it was an interesting read even if the quality of the prose was pretty poor. I have also read Bengali literary fiction – Adwaita Mallabarman’s A River Called Titash is a novel I like a lot, and the film adopted from it is a favourite movie… which is a long-winded way of saying I have had some exposure to the culture which produced the Byomkesh Bakshi stories – but, on the other hand, far from enough to fully appreciate it. But certainly enough to see how it plays off Western traditions. Bidaay Byomkesh is not your typical Bengali film, as far as my experience goes. It’s very… serious. Almost po-faced. And given that the title character is played by a much younger actor in age make-up, it goes to show this is a serious film. And, perhaps, had I been more familiar with the character, I might have appreciated it more. But to someone with or little no knowledge of Bakshi, it felt like a film that took itself a little too seriously. Admittedly, that’s watching it as an Indian film after a diet of Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood movies, which is not entirely fair as I admire India’s third cinema, which this is closer to. A good film, and it almost certainly demands a rewatch – although I’d prefer that to be part of a watch of the entire series.

The Belle of New York, Charles Walters (1952, USA). I do love me some 1950s Hollywood rom com, and if it features stars like Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. I mean, this is feel-good cinema at its height. Now we’d sooner dismember someone in graphic, and all too realistic, detail, but half a century ago – more, in fact- Hollywood preferred to entertain people by dancing a lot and presenting shameless white boy gets off with white girl narratives. Which is totally exclusive, but at least didn’t involved people being chopped into bits. I can rue the whiteness of classic Hollywood films – it was not universal, cf Carmen Jones – but there are films from other countries. Like India. Which is not an excuse for Hollywood’s failings, merely a suggestion that Hollywood is not and never has been the only cinema on the planet. It’s good to look further afield and that’s on you. But, sometimes, Astaire tap-dancing his way through some Hollywood rom com is just what you need. And Astaire was a good leading-man, who made some really good films. This was another one on the genre of “rich person amends their ways in order to win the love of poor person”, which given the number of times Hollywood has used that plot you’d think it would have sunk in that rich people are basically shits and always have been, and they only care about poor people when they can exploit them. But Hollywood has spent just as long promoting the American Myth, that anyone could become rich through hard work, which we all know is complete bollocks and the majority of the super-rich these days inherited their wealth. But 1950s Hollywood is not the place for arguments about the equity gap or neoliberalism, and with Astaire you always get good entertainment – although I prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner; actually, I just prefer Ginger Rogers, she’s one of my favourite actresses – and The Belle of New York does feature a remarkable sequence in which both leads literally dance on air, which I quite enjoyed. The film apparently flopped on release but has since been re-evaluated. Astaire wasn’t happy with it, thinking the dancing on air was sequence was “silly”, but it plays surprisingly well in the twenty-first century. I can see why it failed in the 1950s: I can also see why it’s better regarded these days.

Hope and Glory, John Boorman (1987, UK). Boorman is a name known to me for many years, if not decades, although perhaps chiefly for Excalibur and Zardoz, both of which are films it is easy to like in a sort of ironic way, although in the last couple of years I have found myself appreciating Zardoz without irony… but otherwise I’m not that familiar with Boorman’s oeuvre. Hope and Glory I had certainly heard of, and may well have seen before many years ago. But no memory of it remained. So I watched it again, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. If anything, it reminded me of a Ken Russell film. For a start, it’s a comedy. About a family broken up by World War 2. It’s allegedly semi-autobiographical, and certainly the scenes of the kid playing with friends on the bombed outhouses, and forming gangs who go on barely legal scrounging sprees, seems entirely likely and true. But the characters are somewhat caricatured and played for laughs – especially the sixteen year old daughter who gets dressed up every night and goes partying with servicemen… But Boorman has always been an excellent director and Hope and Glory is an extremely well-made film. It belongs to a small genre of movies (because its concerns are not American, of course), but it is a superior example of that genre. The humour is low-key, very British, and quite black in parts. A good film. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2017, #66

I managed to knock a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and despite them both being US films – one Hollywood, one independent – I thought they earned their place on it.

Mr Arkadin, Orson Welles (1955, Spain). After making Macbeth, most of Welles’s remaining films were made in Europe with international financing. It’s perhaps a bit of a cheat to describe Mr Arkadin as a Spanish film, given it was English language, had an American director, and featured a cast including Americans, Italians, Germans, Brits and Spaniards, among others… but it was shot mostly in Spain, and Welles was resident there at the time, so… The story opens with a private plane flying into Spain with no one aboard and presents it newsreel-fashion as a mystery, which the film will then solve… by telling the story leading up to that moment. Robert Arden is an American knocking about in Spain, who inveigles himself into the affections of the daughter of reclusive billionaire Arkadin, played by Welles in a bad wig and beard. When Arden finally meets Arkadin, he’s offered a job – Arkadin cannot remember his life before 1927, and wants Arden to research it for him (the reason given is so that no nasty surprises turn up when Arkadin bids for military contracts). So Arden tracks down past associates of Arkadin, ending up in Mexico, where he discovers the truth about the man. And the truth about why he was asked to research the man’s past. Arden heads back to Spain to tell the daughter, Arkadin charters a plane in an effort to stop him. He fails. Apparently, there are several cuts of the film knocking about, some better than others, and none what Welles really intended. The end result is something that tries to be The Third Man, with bits of Shakespeare thrown in, all shot in Welles’s inimitable style, and then edited so it teeters on the edge of sense. Welles overplays his role, Arden is not a sympathetic hero, and the supporting cast  are more like circus performers than actors. But it’s Welles, so it’s worth seeing.

Roger & Me*, Michael Moore (1989, USA). I know of Michael Moore, of course, and the career he has carved out for himself. I’ve seen seen a couple of his films. But I’d never seen the one that started his career, and since it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… So I bunged it on the rental list. I wasn’t expecting much of it – Moore has tackled much more contentious subjects in later films, and given that this was his first too, I expected it to be crude and simplistic. And while it was certainly the latter, it was never the former. It’s a surprisingly polished piece of work. Unfortunately, recent events have pretty much underminded it. Flint, Michigan, was the town where the automobile production line was invented, and it has relied heavily on car manufacturing ever since. But in the 1980s, the automobile corporations decided to cut costs by closing down plants in the USA and opening them in much cheaper countries. This is known as “making the product cheaper while taking away the spending power of the market which buys it so your business eventually collapses and oh look guess what happened…” Around a third of Flint’s carworkers found themselves out of a job. This is painted as devastating to the community, well, some parts of the community, the country club set are completely oblivious of course… which is why Moore wants to beard GM chairmain Roger Smith and ask him to defend his decision. In the film, the workforce is cut from 80,000 to 50,000 over slightly more than a decade. True, this is bad for any community which relies on a single industry. But as of 2015, GM has 7,000 workers in Flint. And, of course, the city is better known now for its poisoned water supply. A city in the US without fit drinking water for much of its population the three years and counting. And the US still think it’s a world leader. Ha.

Zardoz, John Boorman (1974, Ireland). I think I last saw this back in the 1980s, but it’s one of those sf films you tend to know a lot about if you’re into sf without actually having to have seen it all that often. I mean, you either absorb the plot – or major points of it – through osmosis, or it’s extremely memorable. I’m noty entirely which is the case. Okay, so Sean Connery in a Zapata moustache and red nappie is pretty memorable. And so is the flying head which appears on the Blu-ray cover-art. Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, whose job it is to, well, exterminate Brutals, who are the debased remnants of the population after some catastrophe (although they seem to wear 1970s clothing). Meanwhile, there are the Vortexes, safeguarded by forcefields and in which live the Eternals, the immortal descendants of a group of scientists who chose to safeguard all human knowledge. Zed hides away in the floatibng head and is taken to one of the Vortexes. During the flight, he kills Arthur Frayn, the Eternal who controlled the floating head and looked after the Exterminator/Brutal programme. In the Vortex, Zed is studied, and discovered the be more intelligent than the Eternals. Because they’re sort of Eloi, they’re weak and decadent and many of them have drifted into catatonia. But Zed shakes them up. And they needed it, because they were going nowhere. I know plenty of sf fans count this as a favourite, and it has sort of dippy 1970s charm to it – and I’m a fan of many things from the 1970s – but it’s hard not to reach the conclusion Zardoz is more style than substance. Bits of it are borrowed from all over, not least the book/film it directly references. And asking the viewer to believe Sean Connery is more intelligent than Charlotte Rampling or John Alderton… Well, suspension of disbelief only stretches so far. On the other hand, some of the shots of the Irish countryside are really impressive, and the production design does a lot with very little – although does a look bit like a BBC production at times. I’m glad I watched it again – and can do so whenever I want, as I bought the Blu-ray in the eureka! sale – and it’s certainly true there are shitloads of worst sf films. But there are also a lot of better ones, and it’s never going to make it into my top ten.

Varsity Show, William Keighley (1937, USA). So  I tracked down a copy of the Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 2 on eBay, and it was cheap – and, when it came, it has to be said, a bit battered, but never mind. It’s also not as good as the first collection. But I knew that going in. In Varsity Show, Dick Powell is a washed-up Broadway writer who is co-opted into helping out his alma mater with their annual variety show. He’s doing it because he needs the money, and they want him to running things because the fuddy-duddy in charge is sure to produce a piss-poor show. Powell is on form, and some 0f the female cast shine, but it’s also one of those films where twenty-somethings are referred to as “kids” and the musical numbers aren’t especially memorable. The “kids” rebel, of course, and end up occupying a theatre in New York in order to put on their show. Which is where it turns into your typical Busby Berkeley number. And they really were astonishing. Okay, there’s a leap of imagination required when a dozen dancers on a tuny stage suddenly turns into hundreds of dancers on a massive soundstage… but the way it does that kaleidoscope thing with the dancers is often mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the final scene, in which the theatre’s owners send the police, who sit down to listen to the show, and then the National Guard, who takes seats to watch the show, and, well, you can guess the rest. Varsity Show has a weak story but it manages a good Busby Berkeley extravaganza at the end.

The Phenix City Story*, Phil Karlson (1955, USA). This was a hard film to track down. Despite being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on DVD, and certainly not in this country. But I found a copy on eBay, from one of those sellers who sell DVD rips of out-of-copyright movies, and it proved to be a pretty good transfer. And a pretty good film. There are two cities either side of a river: Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama. There is a street in Phenix Citty lined with casinos and brothels, and the gangs who run them pretty much control the town. That is, until they inadvertently convince a popular lawyer to run for state attorney general on a ticket to clean them out. And when they kill him, his warhero son takes them on instead. Interestingly, the film opens as a documentary, with a journalist interviewing people involved in the clean-up of Phenix City. It’s only about 15 minutes in that it becomes a traditional narrative cinema film. The gangsters aren’t very convincing, and it’s all a bit Wild West in places – although apparently it’s based ona true story. It’s also pretty brutal, far more than you’d expect from a mid-1950s movie. That aside, and despite a somewhat sensationalist tone, The Phenix City Story proved a lot better than expected, and might just about deserve its slot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman (1973, Sweden). I bought the Criterion edition of this a while ago, which includes both the international movie release and the original Swedish television series. And it was the latter I watched. Of course. Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson are a happily-married couple. He’s an academic, she’s a family lawyer. At least, they’re happy when the series opens. They’re being interviewed by a magazine and they discuss their marriage openly. And later, when friends comes round for dinner, the friends’ unhappy marriage is contrasted with that of Ullmann and Josephson. Except, as the following five episodes show, it’s not all sweetness and light. There are several shocking incidences of violence, which really should not have been acceptable even in 1974. Josephson leaves Ullmann for another woman, but then tries to rekindle his marriage – and he’s really quite horrible about his girlfriend. Eventually, the two separate, and then meet up years both married to other partners… and they have an affair. Josephson’s character is quite a nasty piece of work, and Ullmann seems far too accepting of his actions – although she does use them to advantage when they agree to divorce. Scenes from a Marriage was apparently blamed for the rise in divorce rates in Europe, although it was most likely coincidence. The film/series is highly regarded, and it does seem in places like the epitome of Bergman, but I can’t really say I liked it. It looked bland – perhaps deliberately so – but neither of the main characters were pleasant, or sympathetic, enough to hang a 281-minute TV miniseries on. There were some good bits, true, and it times the marriage did actually feel genuine. But it was a bit like a gory autopsy, and unpleasant to watch more than it was intertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 890