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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 2018, #17

After a month of watching mostly television series – the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, a season of Rebecka Martinsson, the latest series of Endeavour and Shetland… – I had expected my movie consumption to slow down a bit. But it doesn’t appear to have done so. So I’ve got three or four of these to post before I’m caught up. I know, I know… I promised this year wouldn’t be repeat of last year, with just posts about the movies I’d watched – it was even a New Year’s Resolution, FFS – but I still find myself consuming lots of films… On the plus side, SF Mistressworks is up and running again, and I’m back reviewing for Interzone. Now I just have to start writing some critical posts, and maybe even write some of that made-up stuff, you know, fiction

Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, USA). I read Vandermeer’s novel last year, but never bothered with the two sequels, even though they made a nice set. To be honest, it’s not a novel I would have thought open to a film adaptation, so when news that it was indeed being turned into a movie surfaced, I was surprised. And… it’s turned out to be a bit of a Marmite movie. It’s not the book, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It dials back on the much of the strangeness, which is also not necessarily a bad thing. It remains strange, and its “Shimmer”, the film’s version the book’s “Area X”, does much the same job. There’s something about it all which reminds me a little of Apocalypse Now or Embrace of the Serpent, but that may be just the fact it’s an exploration story. On the plus-side, Annihilation has an all-female cast, and it’s presented as perfectly normal, and more films should be like that.

The Fencer, Klaus Härö (2015, Estonia). This was apparently based on a true story, a teacher who upset the authorities in Leningrad and so moved to Estonia, where he ended up teaching kids, many of them orphaned by the Nazi occupation, how to fence. So it’s a bit like Dead Poets Society (I still cringe every time I hear “O Captain! My Captain!” after that film), which I suspect is just one version of a story that goes back considerably farther – Goodbye, Mr Chips, anyone? – perhaps even to ancient Athens or Rome. Anyway, by teaching these kids in 1950s Estonia how to fence, the hero gives them self-respect and ambition, and also jeopardises his own freedom. Because they want to enter a competition in Leningrad, but if he returns there he’s likely to be arrested by the secret police. You can guess what happens. It’s apparently based on a true story, an Estonian hero from the days of Soviet occupation. Not a bad film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts (2017, USA). Spider-Man, Spider-Man, just as annoying as a teenager can, er, be… It was certainly refreshing to see a Spider-Man re-re-re-reboot aimed at the actual demographic matching Peter Parker’s rather than that of the people who remember reading him when he debuted in a Marvel comic… Peter Parker has been on a mission with Iron Man, but now it’s back to school and he can’t wait to be called up again to help out the Avengers. Except they never call. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton sees his lucrative contract to clean up alien tech after The Avengers (AKA Avengers Assemble!) taken over by a shadowy government department. So he becomes the Green Goblin. I think. He flies, and he’s sort of evil. Oh, and he’s the father of the girl Peter Parker really fancies and wants to take to the prom. I hate that: when the girl you fancy has a supervillain for a dad. Total bummer. To tell the truth, I hated the selfie video opening of Spider-Man : Homecoming, but really enjoyed it once the film had settled down into its story. The third act, unfortunately, was the usual MCU bollocks, which was a shame. But overall I enjoyed it and I hadn’t really expected to.

Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA). See there on the DVD cover where it quotes from a review, “his funniest film by far”… because of course it’s fucking hilarious pointing out that the US is a completely fucked-up country run for the benefit of a rich handful on the misery of millions – which is pretty much also what the Tories want here, and have been driving the UK toward. Moore visits half a dozen European (and one African) countries and investigates one of their social policies, interviewing ordinary people and asking how they feel about it. He does this as part of a running joke about “invading” the country, because the US military hasn’t actually won a war since WWII. The countries he visits are: Italy, to learn about paid holidays and maternity leave; France, for school dinners; Germany, employee rights; Portugal, decriminalisation of drugs and abolition of the death penalty; Norway, the prison system and rehabilitation; Slovenia, free university education; Finland, which has the best pupils in Europe; Tunisia, women’s rights, free healthcare and abortions for women; and Iceland, the role of women in business and government. None of this stuff is difficult to understand, but apparently Michael Moore had to make a film about it so that Americans would get it. I remember some moron from the US tweeting something like “hate speech laws are immoral and public healthcare is imprudent”. FFS, it’s the twenty-first century.

Anna Boleyn, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). The title alone should be enough to indicate what this film is about. Lubitsch does a silent version of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. (Why “Anna”? I don’t know.) Emil Jannings plays the king and Henny Porten the title role. The story seems to stick reasonably closely to the historical record, although the depiction of Henry VIII follows the usual bullshit portrayal of a carousing fat man, who enjoyed wine, women and hunting, and not the despot he really was. They say he killed more people during his reign than any other English monarch. Much as we Brits – well, English, but I don’t really think of myself as either – like to think well of Henry VIII for breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, let’s not forget he only did it because he was a serial adulterer. Although, to be fair, the Roman Catholic Church has hardly been a force for good throughout the centuries, so booting them out was a good thing. A shame Henry VIII didn’t go the all the way and ban religion altogether.

Attraction, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2017, Russia). Commercial cinema in Russia has been churning out some solid sf blockbusters in recent years – not to mention films about its space programme – and Bondarchuk is a name known to me. His The 9th Company from 2005 was a good film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan; and 2008/2009 Dark Planet (AKA, The Inhabited Island) was an interesting adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Prisoners of Power, which was annoyingly cut by almost half in its English-language sell-through release. Attraction has been described as YA, and perhaps it is, although it doesn’t feel much like YA properties such as Divergent or Maze Runner. An alien spaceship crashlands in a suburb of Moscow, the local youth take advantage of the alien tech thrown off during the crash, while the military tries to control the situation. One of the aliens – they only look alien in their armour, they’re really human underneath – is attacked on a scouting mission, escapes, and is helped by a young woman (it stands to reason he’s a cute guy). And, ho hum. The alien ship rebuilds itself – it attracts water to itself, for, I think fuel. See what they did there… attraction. The film looks good, the sfx are impressive, the cast are, er, attractive, and it’s all very Russian. You could watch worse. But I hope Bondarchuk’s next movie is better than this.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896