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Movie roundup 2020, #11

Just the one US movie this time, and that’s from nearly thirty years ago. To be honest, I had a feeling I’d seen Demolition Man before, but having now watched it I’m still not sure – and I generally have a really good memory for movies…

These Movie roundup posts – and their precursors, the Moving pictures posts – don’t seem to be as popular as my book reviews, but I think it’s important to demonstrate to Anglophone readers there are shitloads of really good films out there that are tons better that the latest glib and simplistic Hollywood blockbuster. Put a bit of intelligence into your movie watching and you will find they can be as intellectually and artistically rewarding as books.

Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça Filho (2019, Brazil). Not entirely sure what to make of this one. It’s Brazilian. But it stars Udo Kier. It’s supposedly set in the near-future, but I don’t recall much that signalled as much. A remote village begins to fall apart after the death of the matriarch, and random strangers turn up and kill people. It probably deserves a second watch, but I didn’t get much out of it – and I’ve seen a number of Brazilian films.

Demolition Man, Marco Brambilla (1993, USA). Risible near-future action from Hollywood, in which Wesley Snipes overplays a violent criminal defrosted in a utopian California in 2032 but has been secretly programmed to sabotage the utopia in order to turn it into a dictatorship. Unfortunately, the authorities defrost his historical enemy, Sylvester Stallone, to catch him and Stallone demonstrates the freedom to starve is worth more than utopia, and he’ll kill to prove it. The whole thing plays like an advert for Reaganomics. No thanks. A story based on a bullshit argument from the rich people who have the most to gain from it. Avoid.

Tiger on the Beat, Lau Kar Leung (1988, China). Hong Kong cop duo action comedy, with Chow Yun-fat as a lazy and ineffectual police officer teamed up with by-the-book go-getter Conan Lee. Takes a while to get going, but there’s some good comedy, and the final fight scene with chainsaws has to be seen to be believed.

Tokyo Raiders, Jingle Ma (2000, China). This was apparently the last film ever released on laser disc, although there were many films released in that format that have never made it to DVD or Blu-ray. With the success of streaming, recent years have seen DVD/Blu-ray labels turn boutique and specialise in collectible and cult films. Which I applaud. A man misses his wedding, and the bride-to-be teams up with an interior decorator who is owed money (yes, really), and they head to Tokyo to track down the missing man’s business partner, who is apparently wanted by gangsters, and there’s a private detective with three female sidekicks, and the story goes round in so many circles it’s astonishing it makes some sort of sense at the end. Worth seeing.

The Sister of Ursula, Enzo Miloni (1978, Italy). Another giallo. Two sisters visit a seaside hotel, indulge in much nudity, while a mysterious killer stalks and kills the female guests. A review on imdb probably describes it best: “spends too much time on the rumpy-pumpy and not enough on the stabby-stabby”.

The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven’s Palace, Soi Cheang (2014, China). I tweeted while watching this that it seemed to be some unholy mashup of Avatar and Cats. And, a week later, that’s pretty much all I can remember. Monkey is a common and popular figure in Chinese mythology, and variations  of him have worked their way into Western culture. I admit I know little about him, so my view of this film is pretty much based entirely on the visuals. Which were… weird. I think the film was shot entirely in green screen, with CGI backgrounds, and to be honest I lost track a bit of whose side Monkey was on, with demons fighting angels but the demons acting like they’re the good guys. All very strange.

A Better Tomorrow I & II, John Woo (1986 and 1987, China). I’ve been aware of Woo’s influence on Hong Kong cinema since first seeing Hard Boiled back in the mid-1990s, and Chow Yun-fat’s popularity as an action star, but it’s only after watching several 1980s Woo movies on the trot recently that I’ve come to appreciate precisely how much he changed Hong Kong, and then world, action cinema. In A Better Tomorrow, the brother of an enforcer for a gangster joins the police, but then their father is killed in a bungled attempt to kidnap him to put pressure on the enforcer after a fall-out with a Taiwanese gang. The enforcer gives himself up after a drug deal gone wrong and spends three years in prison. When he gets out he wants to go straight but everyone else is determined otherwise. A good solid thriller. The sequel is more of the same, but in New York. Chow Yun-fat’s character, who died in the first film, was so popular he was resurrected as his twin brother in the second. While both movies are knotty thrillers, the fight scenes, particularly in the second, weren’t as good as some I’ve seen in other films. But it’s weird seeing how Woo “Americanised” Hong Kong thrillers so effectively that later HK thrillers would be remade by Hollywood…

Bahu Begum, Mohammed Sadiq (1967, India). A classic Bollywood film – and there are a surprising number of them available free to watch on Amazon Prime – set in Lucknow, which was apparently a popular setting. A woman falls in love with one man but is married off to another, not realising until the ceremony it’s a different man. Um, that sounds a bit dumb but it makes sense in the film. I was surprised to see Johnny Walker playing a serious role, as most of the Bollywood films I’ve seen him in he plays comic characters.

Andaz Apna Apna, Rajkumar Santoshi (1994, India). This film was apparently so successful it’s become a cultural phenomenon. Certainly, if its humour were any broader, it would rival the Indian Ocean. An heiress from London visits India to find a husband. Two wastrels decide to win her hand and end up in competition. Complicating matters is the fact the heiress’s assistant is really the heiress, but somehow or other one of the wastrels transfer his affections to her. This is definitely one of the funniest films I’ve seen for along time, despite being such a hackneyed plot.


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Movie roundup 2020. #10

No US films, as promised in my last Movie roundup post.

The Five Deadly Venoms, Chang Cheh (1978, China). The title refers to five masked kung fu masters, who each base their style on one of Chinese folklore’s poisonous creatures – the centipede, the snake, the scorpion, the lizard and the toad. A pupil has to figure out the identity of the masters before they join up and rob the clan of its riches. Unfortunately, the two good masters are easy to spot – although film drags out the identity of one them long past time – and the two evil ones are even more obvious. The fifth is not revealed right until the very end, and it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. An odd film – a treasure hunt but it all takes place on three sets, and the fighting is so mannered it’s just not that exciting. I’m surprised this is considered a classic, to be honest.

The Killer, John Woo (1989, China). Whenever I see this film on best of lists, I have a feeling I’ve seen it. But I can’t actually remember the story. Nor have I recorded it on my list of films I’ve watched. And now I’ve watched it… and I still think I might have seen it before but I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s very very 1980s. Chow Yun Fat plays a hitman who’s had enough. He promises to do one last job, during which he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer while returning fire with one of his target’s goons. He feels sorry for her, and later starts seeing her romantically. She, of course, doesn’t know who he is. You can probably guess the rest.

Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate, Stanley Long (1978, UK). The third and final film in the series, with Christopher Neil still as the lead, but this time he’s a, well, a plumber’s mate. Actually, he seems to be an actual plumber, who works under contract for a plumbing company run by Stephen Lewis, you know, that bloke from On the Buses who used to say, “I’ll get you, Butler!”. Neil is asked to replace the toilet seat in a well-off woman’s house, which leads to the expected sexual shenanigans. However, it turns out her husband has just been released from prison after serving time for a gold robbery. The proceeds were never found. Neil sells the toilet-seat to a junk shop. He thinks it’s brass. It’s the gold from the robbery, of course, melted down into a toilet seat. Comedy ensues. Not great films by any means, but this was probably the best of three, perhaps because it had the most coherent plot.

Wheels on Meals, Sammo Hung (1984, China). And speaking of very 1980s films, here’s another one with Jackie Chan. He and Yuan Biao operate a food van in Barcelona. They become involved with a young woman who proves to be a pickpocket. But there are men after her, and not because of her light fingers. It turns out she’s the heir to a large fortune and the next in line wants her gone. This is easily one of the best Jackie Chan films, with an excellent car chase, and a final fight, against Benny Urquidez, which is generally considered Chan’s best.

Balgandharva, Ravi Jadhav (2011, India). In the nineteenth century in India – or perhaps only parts of India – women were banned from the stage, much as in Elizabethan England. The title refers to one such male actress who became hugely successful. Unfortunately, it went to his head and he insisted on ever bigger spectacles and eventually ended up broke. But his career greatly influenced Bollywood (although it’s Marathi cinema and not Bollywood which made this film). Not a bad film, although the actor playing the lead had a disconcerting resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio.

High Hopes, Mike Leigh (1988, UK). It’s Thatcher’s Britain and a working-class couple in Camden have to deal with his aged mother, who lives in the only council house in a gentrified street, and whose neighbours are Hooray Henries, and a self-centred social-climbing sister who’s married to a used-car salesman. The central couple, and the mother, are well-drawn, but the rest of the cast are caricatures. Still worth seeing, though.

The Bad Education Movie, Elliot Hegarty (2015, UK). Jake Whitehall plays a teacher who has never grown up, tells stories about his salad days at public school, and takes his class on inappropriate school trips. His latest plan to take them Las Vegas is scuppered by the school, and he has to take them to Cornwall instead. Where Whitehall inadvertently hooks up with the “Cornwall Liberation Army”, who then occupy a local tourist spot castle. The humour is a bit hit and miss, and a lot of it is comedy of shame with Whitehall the butt of the joke. The film has its moments, but it’s hard to really like a film that paints everyone outside London as some sort of intellectually-challenged yokel. Those sort of jokes weren’t funny in the 1970s, and they really haven’t aged well.

In Love with Alma Cogan, Tony Britten (2011, UK). Roger Lloyd-Pack plays the manager of Cromer’s pier-end theatre, which is losing money and the Council are threatening to sell off. The reason it’s losing money is because Lloyd-Pack has kept ticket prices low so the townsfolk can afford them. And it’s the low-key battle between the two that forms the plot of the film. The title refers to a tribute act hired to boost ticket sales at the theatre and, to be honest, while the I know the name Alma Cogan I have no real who she was. So I’m not really sure what this film’s intended audience was – because the story seemed quite contemporary, but anyone who remembers Alma Cogan is going to 70+…

Tracker, Ian Sharp (2011, New Zealand). Shortly after the Boer War, a Boer arrives in New Zealand, hoping to begin a new life. But then a Maori is accused of murder and goes on the run, and the Boer is asked by the local garrison commander, who knew him from the war, to track the runaway. (The Maori is innocent, of course.) The Boer, played by Ray Winstone, eventually captures the Maori, played by Temuera Morrison, and they earn each other’s respect. Some lovely landscape cinematography, solid turns by both Winstone and Morrison, and yet another story that shows the British Empire as it really was.

Five Fingers for Marseilles, Michael Matthews (2017, South Africa). Marseilles is a shanty town in South Africa. A teenager, one of a group of five friends, shoots and kills three police officers who are demanding protection money from the local stores. He runs away. Many years later, he returns, after spending time in prison, and discovers the town has grown, one of his friends is now mayor, and a mysterious gangster now runs everything. It’s all framed explicitly as a Western, although the setting bears no resemblance to the Wild West. An excellent film.


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Moving pictures, #41

This year’s viewing is nearly done. It has been the Year of Films. A huge number of them. Sadly, not all were especially good. But I did “discover” the films of Jacques Tati and James Benning, and started to obsess over the films of Aleksandr Sokurov. So not all bad then. The following movies pretty much take me to the end of the year. I’ve yet to decide what I plan to do about documenting my film-watching next year. I’m hoping I won’t be spending as much time watching DVDs, so I might well follow the same format. But we’ll see how it goes…

ang-lee-trilogy-dvd-coverThe Wedding Banquet*, Ang Lee (1993, Taiwan). I’m fairly sure I’ve seen a variation on this story, although the particulars escape me at the moment. Taiwanese expat has moved to the US, and is now living with partner Simon in Manhattan. His parents, however, think he is straight and are still trying to fix him up with a suitable wife. To forestall them, and to help out, he agrees to marry a tenant of his, a Taiwanese artist with no money. But then the parents want to visit and they bring $30,000 to pay for a sumptuous wedding. Son manages to keep the ceremony low-key, but his parents use the money on a huge banquet at a local Chinese restaurant run by a man who had been the father’s driver when the father had been a senior officer in the army. I am, I admit, somewhat conflicted about Ang Lee’s films. I’ve enjoyed many of them but not enough to seek out his oeuvre. He strikes me as good, but not great. His films are, at least, wide-ranging in topic, but though several of them appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, including this one, none to me feel really deserving.

deewaarDeewaar, Milan Luthria (2004, India). I watched this film by mistake. As you do. There’s a Deewaar on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, but it was made in 1975 – although it does also star Amitabh Bachchan. But I rented the wrong one (actually, the other isn’t actually available for rental). By the looks of it, the two films are completely different. Ah well. This one, the 2004 film, is about a group of Indian soldiers held as POWs by Pakistan since the 1971 India-Pakistan War. Without India’s knowledge. But one of the prisoners escapes and tells the son of one of the imprisoned men, a war hero, and together they plan an escape. Over the film’s three hours, Deewaar manages to hit every WWII POW movie cliché with impressive accuracy. There are, of course, since this is Bollywood, a couple of musical numbers, but they are uncharacteristically restrained – just lots of singing and very little dancing. But then it is a POW film. Despite not planning to watch it, I quite enjoyed Deewaar – so much so, I went and stuck a dozen or so Bollywood films on my DVD rental list. But it looks like if I want to see the 1975 Deewaar I’m going to have to buy a copy. Oh well.

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterStar Wars: The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams (2015, USA). Criticising The Force Awakens is starting to feel like spitting on Mother Teresa, but let’s face it, Abrams is a piss-poor director and The Force Awakens is a well-produced piece of fan service that does little more than reboot the Star Wars franchise (completely trashing SWEU in the process) while nonetheless making not the slightest bit of sense from start to finish. My twelve-year-old nephew, of course, loved it. I loved the original Star Wars film when I was eleven – but that film was a thousand times better than this one. So… there’s the First Order, which is supposed to be some sort provincical fascist troop, except they can afford Star Destroyers and even have enough money to convert an entire world into Starkiller Base, which is sort of like the Deathstar only MOAR BIGGAH. Then there’s the Republic, which beat the Empire – as in the original trilogy – except it doesn’t seem to care much about the First Order because it just sits around and waits to get blown up (in one of the most undramatic planet-blowing-up scenes in cinema history). And then there’s the Resistance, which is… resisting whom exactly? And it only has a handful of X-Wing fighters, so it’s not like it’s much of a threat against the Star Destroyer-equipped First Order anyway. I’ll not bother reiterating the plot, which pretty much hits all the beats of the original Star Wars film, though I welcomed both Rey and Finn as protagonists (and decry Disney’s failure to include Rey in most of their merchandising). There are a couple of really annoying plot holes, however. First, the Millennium Falcon sits there unlocked and fuelled, ready for Rey to steal it. As if. And where did she learn to pilot starships anyway? Poe Dameron’s reappearance, having been thought dead for two-thirds of the film, is handled really badly. Abrams does the amazingly fucking stupid thing he does in his films where a character sees a planet thousands of light years away explode in the sky above him. FFS. Actually, that’s not even stupidity, that’s contempt for his audience. The Millennium Falcon gets through the shield around Starkiller Base by approaching the planet at lightspeed. So why don’t the X-Wings? Why do they need the shield dropping? Finn was a “sanitation engineer” on Starkiller Base. Seriously? They use stormtroopers to empty the bins? Isn’t that a bit of a waste of all that combat training? Not that it seems to have been much use with Finn. Now, I enjoyed The Force Awakens, and I’ll likely watch it again some time. But it is not a good film, and adds almost nothing to the Star Wars franchise (although it certainly removes a lot: the entire SWEU, in fact). The most interesting thing about The Force Awakens has been the cultural phenomenon it has generated. All that crap about spoilers, all that rubbish about criticising it being a heinous crime. It’s not a patch on the 1977 Star Wars and, dare I say it, is a good deal less inventive than The Phantom Menace. Disney have taken a much loved intellectual property, which had been product from a week after its release, and turned it into twenty-first century product. And that’s not a compliment.

automataAutomata, Gabe Ibáñez (2014, Bulgaria). What an odd film. It starts out like Blade Runner, but then keeps the plot but changes tack to become a robot-hunter flick. Antonio Banderas plays the Deckard role, a cop who stumbles across a robot that proves to be a little more than it should be – it can break the “Second Protocol” (only the first and third of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics make an appearance in this) and so repair itself. He ends up getting abducted by one of these robots, and taken out into the desert surrounding the city – the result of climate crash or nuclear war is not made clear, but certainly it’s radioactive. The film doesn’t seem to know what self-awareness is, and confuses it with heuristic programming. Melanie Griffith plays a “clocksmith”, someone who modifies robots, and she is terrible, some of the worst acting I’ve seen in a long time. The film is also over-lit, often badly so (and so lights reflect off Banderas’s sweaty face where light sources are not supposed to exist), and filmed in DV so the image is sharp and clear and pretty unforgiving under the over-lighting. The robots, however, at least look like robots and not sexy women modelled in chicken-wire, and although the background makes very little sense and seems to over-rely on over-used cyberpunk tropes, the plot mostly hangs together. The supporting cast are all British (despite the Bulgarian money and locations and Spanish director), many doing bad to middling American accents. For some reason, Automata reminded me of Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitem, and while less inventive than that film it is more convincing.

dangerouslDangerous Liaisons*, Stephen Frears (1988, USA). I’ve known of this film for years, decades even, but never actually watched it. But, as the asterisk indicates, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list so I bunged it on my rental list and lo and behold it arrived. And… meh. I really didn’t take to it. Glenn Close plays a manipulating marquise, John Malkovich plays a scheming vicomte, and both Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer play the vicitms of their sexual machinations. There’s lots of walking around in period costume – 1780s France, that is – and Malkovich issuing protestations of his undying love to Pfeiffer and she rebuffing him because, well, because he’s a sociopathic sexual adventurer, and then he explains himself to Close and… But, of course, Pfeiffer eventually succumbs to his blandishment. Amd Thurman too falls from grace. And Close gets her revenge. And… yawn. Keanu Reeves is there too, and he still can’t bloody act. He’s more wooden than a bloody wooden spoon. Bit dull this, and yet another inexplicable entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_killerThe Killer*, John Woo (1989, Hong Kong). Back when I lived in Abu Dhabi, DVDs weren’t that easy to come by – mostly thanks to censorship – but VCDs were readily available. And most of the latter were Hong Kong films. It seems that city had adopted the format with a vengeance (unlike Europe and the US). As a result, I bought a number of VCDs of Hong Kong action films, including quite a lot by Jackie Chan. And it’s those films The Killer reminded me of. Chow Yun Fat plays a gentleman assassin. On one of his jobs, he inadvertently blinds a night-club singer. So, hiding his identity, he returns to her, pays for treatment, and slowly falls in love with her. Meanwhile, the police are after him, as are a bunch of gangsters. Which means lots of slo-mo shoot-outs, although perhaps not with so much of the signature Woo, two guns, both held horizontal, while the shooter leaps in slow-motion for cover. It is amazing, however, that Fat never gets hit by those firing at him, at least not until the end of the film when the plot requires it. As Hong Kong actioners go, this is a superior example, but Hong Kong is such a huge cinema people are likely to find something more to their taste than this random sample from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (Woo’s later success in Hollywood notwithstanding… um, or perhaps that’s responsible for his appearance on the list).

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 699