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…
The 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.
Deewaar, 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: 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.
Automata, 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.
Dangerous 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 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