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Moving pictures 2018, #13

It’s been one of those months where I’ve not felt like being too choosy of a night when I get home from work and plop myself down in front of the telly. The advantage of rental DVDs is that I’ve thought about what to rent, and when it arrives I’ve no choice but to watch it. Which is not true of streaming. Then, it’s usually watch ten minutes of a film, decides it’s shit, do the same to another, and another, and another… and eventually end up watching something that is only a degree above shit. Or watching something that won’t be too taxing brain-wise. Which usually ends up generating ire, and so taxing the brain anyway…

The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci (2017, UK). If Ianucci’s comedy has usually been amusing, his targets have also been a bit, well, obvious. And who is the most obvious target for political satire on the planet? Er, after Trump, that is. And, er, Putin. And maybe Thatcher. And maybe the last half-dozen US presidents. Okay, historical political figures. That are not Hitler. Well, that would be Stalin. Obviously. A figure who was praised, then revered, then feared (most right-wingers think this is the same thing), and in recent years is becoming bafflingly revered again. The Death of Stalin covers the days up to  Stalin’s death, the handover of power to Malenkov, and the subsequent struggle for supremacy among the Central Committe members, which eventually saw Khrushchev prevail. The committee members – Beria, Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, as well as those previously mentioned – are played like foul-mouthed, well, children, almost. And General Zhukov comes across like a cross between Flashheart and Roy Chubby Brown. Which means that in among the back-stabbing and brutality, there’s some good humour. Admittedly, most of it you’re embarrassed to be amused by, because, well, there’s political satire and then there’s depicting politics as schoolyard bullying games. Although, to be fair, that’s pretty much what Tory politics in the UK is these days. And the difference between the Central Committee as shown in this film and the Tories are little more than: better suits, a lack of firing squads, and plummy accents. Worth seeing.

Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh (2017, UK). Of all the things the world needed, another remake of Murder on the Orient Express was not at the top of the list, or indeed anywhere on the list. It’s a hugely contrived novel, in which racist caricature Belgian Hercule Poirot, tries to solve a murder on a train with a limited cast of suspects, only to discover they were all guilty. It’s by no means Christie’s best novel, and the story is so well-known it’s impossible to ring changes on it without destroying it. But director Kenneth Branagh found a way to make it different. CGI! He creates an Orient Express that is almost cartoonish in its hyper-reality. The train on which Poirot is travelling is derailed by an avalanche in a giant mountain range in Croatia. While waiting to be rescued, a first-class passenger is brutally murdered, and Poirot is persuaded to solve the crime. Everyone else in first class has a secret, and it all links to the kidnap and murder of an American industrialist’s daughter years before – a crime plainly modelled on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Branagh has trouble playing a Poirot distinctive from Suchet’s, and plumps for a Kaiser moustache to distinguish his take on the character. The rest of the cast are drawn broadly, which is no real surprise as they’re just mannequins to pin motivations for the crime onto. And everywhere there is CGI. Lashings of it. More CGI than the remastered Star Wars trilogy. And it ruins the entire film. A plot so ludicrously contrived needs realism to anchor it and lend it plausibility, not Middle-Earth scenery  and a Belgian detective with the martial skills of Captain America. One to avoid.

The Battle of San Pietro*, John Huston (1945, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s a wartime documentary, made by a famous Hollywood director, which may be surprisingly honest for a wartime documentary… but I can think of no good reason why this one should lauded above others. Is it fair to overlook other directors for creating wartime propaganda, no matter how well made – such as the Archers’ The Volunteer (starring Ralph Richardson!), or however many WWII propaganda films Frank Capra made – or must they be brutally honest to be acclaimed? On the other hand, you have films like Rossellini’s Paisà, which is a dramatic retelling, but no doubt far more accurate than any government documentary film. Not to mention the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (see here), in which a mother attempts to save her child in war-torn Italy. The Battle of San Pietro comprises battle footage, interviews with soldiers, fly-on-the-wall footage of soldiers relaxing, and crude animation intended to explain the course of the battle. Despite being real, it was all a bit dull, to be honest. I much preferred The Volunteer, even if it was shot to recruit people for the Fleet Air Arm…

World without End, Edward Bernds (1956. USA). After Satellite in the Sky (see here), I had expected similar of this film which shares the same disc. It shares only its year of release, and its, er, science-fiction-ness. It’s a US film, for one thing. A trip to Mars, the first every spaceflight (yeah right). goes awry when the rocket is accelerated to great velocity, but not apparently at sufficiently high G to squish them, and the crew blackout and wake up in… the future. The year 2508, to be precise. Two hundred years after a nuclear war devastated the earth and mutated spiders so they’re now huge monsters. The astronauts stumble across an underground city of human survivors – if this sounds a little familar, Beneath the Planet of the apes was released 14 years after this one. The underground men are all impotent wimps, but the women are attractive and more than happy to find themselves being visited by real men. Satellite in the Sky had its flaws, but it was so much better than World without End. True, World without End is a B-movie, and quality sort of didn’t go with the territory. I’ve seen a bunch of them in my time, and while this one was better made than most, it was just as rubbish. Bad science fiction, with no Avro Vulcans.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, SS Rajamouli (2017, India). Baahubali was an experience. The film was so epic it was released in two parts, and it makes Lord of the Rings looks like a soap opera. There is twisting the material to suit the refashioned story, or even the director’s agenda, but Baahubali provides more moments of laugh-out-loud OTT action for the sake of sheer action than any other film I have ever come across. There’s the scene where the cows with their horns on fire stamped through the bandit army. Or the scene where Baahubali’s army is catapulted over the walls of Mahishmati using palm trees. I kid you not. The title character has been named heir apparent to Mahismati, a declaration that is unpopular with his stepbrother, Bhallaladeva, and his mother, the Rajamata Sivagami. Baahubali is sent off to tour the kingdom undercover with master-at-arms slave Kattappa. They witness an attack by the princess of a neighbouring kingdom. Baahubali falls in love with her, and follows her back to her kingdom of Kuntala. He pretends to be mentally challenged, although his cover is blown when bandits attack the kingdom and he fights to defend it. Then there’s the confusion over which prince of Mahismati will marry the princess of Kuntala… which leads to Baahubali being demoted from heir apparent, and then exiled. Which is why he and Bhallaladeva end up going to war. The ending neatly leads back into the beginning of the film – ie, the framing narrative in which Baahubali’s son, played by the same actor, defeats Bhallaldeva – by having Sivagami see the error of her ways and run from Mahishmati, but dies saving the life of the son. Both Baahubali films were entertainment turned up to eleven. I’ve never seen aything like them. But then, when you take the OTT action of a fantasy film and marry it with the OTT drama of a Bollywood film – well, Tollywood film, in this case – well, then you’ve got… something like this. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m tempted to get my own copy.

The Man Who Saved the World, Peter Anthony (2014, Denmark). Back in the twentieth century, there was this thing called the Cold War. The USSR and the USA wanted to bomb the shit out of each other with nuclear bombs, but never did because it was all a plot to keep their military-industrial (or, in the case of the USSR, military-political) complexes in profit. But the technology was clunky and not entirely reliable. Which is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the system should break in such a way that it appeared to be displaying a US nuclear missile attack on the USSR. Fortunately, the military officer in charge disbelieved the evidence presented by all the high technology of which he was in charge, and chose to disregard the indicated attack. Which proved to be a glitch. And so WWIII was averted and, post-glasnost, said officer travelled to the US and met a bunch of celebs – including Kevin Costner! – as “the man who save the world”. I don’t believe a word of it. It’s not how computer systems operate. The documentary includes a re-enactment of the fake nuclear missile attack, and you have to wonder how a bogus signal from one, or more, radar stations translated into such a convincing report of an attack that a Soviet officer had to actively distrust the systems for which he was responsible. The film is not helped by the feeling that the bulk of the encounters in the US are set up. The man who allegedly saved the world is probably really no more than a footnote in the history books, and what is most interesting is how it happened rather the man who made the right decision, or his subsequent attempts – or attempts by others – to capitalise on his one moment of common sense. I wanted to like The Man Who Saved the World more than I did, but it never quite convinced me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896

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Moving pictures, #21

And back to more films from the US than elsewhere. Given that only half the films described below are rentals, I can’t claim the vagaries of their service as an excuse. Oh well.

cindrelac2Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh (2015, USA). I bought a Blu-ray of the animated Disney Cinderella and the cheapest version available was a double Blu-ray box set with the 2015 live-action version of the film, because, probably, the live-action needs a bit of extra help to sell. I mean, whoever heard of a live-action Cinderella? Okay, it was directed by Branagh, and it’s got stars like Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgård and Derek Jacobi in it… but given the number of princess films Disney churns out, my expectations were understandably quite low. And yes, the film takes a few liberties with Perrault’s story, chiefly in order to give the characters more of a background. The two leads – Lily James and Richard Madden – are also a bit bland. But… there were some quite clever references to the Disney animated version, Bonham Carter’s absent-minded Fairy Godmother was fun, and Blanchett was on good form. However, the choreography during the ball scene just looked silly, and spoiled for me what had been up until then good family entertainment. A better film than I’d expected, but nowhere near as good as the animated version (although in its favour, its mice are considerably less annoying). [ABC]

rescuersThe Rescuers, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens (1977, USA). I have a vague memory of this film’s original theatrical release. I can’t remember if I went to see it at the cinema, or if on a trip to the cinema my sisters saw it and I watched some other film. Watching it this time, 38 years later, very little seemed all that familiar. The seagull I sort of remembered, and Madame Medusa I think I remembered… But nothing else. Apparently, The Rescuers was instrumental in turning around Disney’s fortunes – they had not a successful film since The Jungle Book in 1967. I’m not sure I understand why – I can’t think of a weirder pairing for the main characters as Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. And the animation looked a little crude and not very crisp when compared to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. I wasn’t that impressed. Amusingly, in 1999 Disney had to recall 3.4 million videocassettes of the second home video release because someone had spotted a photo of a topless women in the background of one of the shots.

hard_to_be_a_godHard to be a God, Aleksey German (2013, Russia). I’d heard a great deal about this film, and everything I’d heard led me to think I’d be much impressed by it. Not just that it was made by a Russian director, and made in that sort of very Russian style; or that it’s an adaptation of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky… Anyway, I bought the Blu-ray when it was released… and it sort of sat on the pile of films to be watched for six months or so before I finally decided to stick it in the player… An agent from Earth has infiltrated the society of another planet. The humans of the planet are anti-intellectual, and so are mired in the Middle Ages. The agent has taken the place of a local baron, and the local populace treat their nobles as god. On Blu-ray, the filth and squalour of the world German has created is visceral and obvious.  The film sort of meanders about, revelling in the awful conditions in which everyone lives, and the dumb laws under which they must survive (an old man is drowned upside down in shit, for example, for writing poetry – and being what the subtitles call a “smartypants”). It’s all very grim and very cheerless, but in a sort of weirdly unbelievable and implausible way. The cinematography is fantastic, the film’s commitment to its world is astonishing… but, even though I like slow cinema, this is not a film in which things happen at a particularly fast pace. I thought I’d like it more than I did, so in that respect it’s disappointing. But it’s definitely a film that stands numerous viewings, so I’m glad I bought a copy. [ABC]

black_godBlack God, White Devil*, Glauber Rocha (1964, Brazil). So I’d watched Rocha’s Entranced Earth – because it was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, it was a rental, see here – and I really enjoyed it and I was a bit drunk, so I went and bought DVDs of Rocha’s three films, of which Entranced Earth forms the middle part of the trilogy. Black God, White Devil is the first of the three. Obviously, I was interested to see what I made of it. And… well, it’s not a very good transfer. I like that Mr Bongo are releasing hard-to-find non-Anglophone movies, but they don’t seem to put much effort into it. Happily, Black God, White Devil is a good film. A really good film. It has a bit of the Jodorowsky about it, and it works really well. A poor farmer has to flee when he kills his boss (after his boss insists the farmer carry the cost of the loss of the two cattle which died of snake bites en route to market). The farmer and his wife join St Sebastian, an apocalyptic preacher who suggests violence is necessary for redemption. Meanwhile, the government is getting worried about St Sebastian and his growing influence. So they hire bandit Antonio das Mortes to kill the preacher and his followers. Two are left alive to spread the word – yes, the farmer and his wife. And they in turn become bandits. I now want more of Rocha’s films, but the three I have appear to be the only ones that are available. Bah. [0]

nobodoy_knowsNobody Knows, Hirokazu Koreeda (2004, Japan). This was recommended to me by David Tallerman, who has previously recommended anime films, but this is live action… although “action” may not be the right word. It’s a dramatisation of a true story. A woman with a twelve-year-old son moves into a new apartment. However, she actually has four kids – two are very young and are smuggled into the building inside suitcases, the other is eleven and turns up later. The woman continues to pretend she only has the one kid to her landlord. One day, she heads off to work… and never returns. She has abandoned her children. The oldest boy tries to keep the other children safe and fed, although what little money the mother left soon runs out. Then the utilities are cut off since the bills haven’t been paid. When the youngest girl falls from a stool, hits her head and dies, the three children bury her in a field near the airport. The film is played very flat, like a documentary, which has the odd side-effect of making the mother appear merely flighty instead of criminally negligent. Apparently, the real-life case was somewhat more gruesome – there were five children, not four; the youngest died after being assaulted  by friends of the eldest; and all were badly malnourished when discovered by the authorities (after a tip-off from the landlord). Another of the children also died – Wikipedia does not give the cause – and the body was found with the three survivors. The mother gave herself up when the case hit the news. Astonishingly, after she’d served her three year jail sentence, the mother was given custody of the two surviving girls.

olvidadosLos Olvidados*, Luis Buñuel (1950, Mexico). The title refers to the forgotten kids and teenagers who live on the streets of Mexico City – although this is not a documentary. The teenage leader of a street gang escapes from juvenile jail, tracks down the kid who supposedly grassed him up, then beats him to death with a rock. A younger kid is witness but promises to say nothing. His mother persuades the kid to go straight and he gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. But then the gang leader turns up and steals a knife. The kid is accused of the theft and sent to a progressive rehabilitation centre where, after a dodgy start, he seems to settle down. But then up pops the gang leader again, and he steals some money from the kid. They fight. During the fight, the kid tells everyone the gang leader is a murderer. The gang leader runs away. Later, he tracks down the kid and kills him. But the police are now after him – and they find him and gun him down. Shot in black and white, and in a social realist style, this is anything but a cheerful film. In fact, it’s really grim. To be honest, it didn’t much feel like a Buñuel movie, despite a bizarre dream sequence. To date, I’ve seen eight of Buñuel’s thirty-two films and only really liked two of them – The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, neither of which have that much in common. Much is made of Buñuel’s surrealism, or the surrealist elements of his films, and certainly the surrealism of the two I like is their major draw. But then I don’t see where Tristana, Belle du jour or Viridiana are especially surreal – and Un chien andalou and L’age d’or felt more like experimental films than anything else. An important director, undoubtedly, and one whose movies I will continue to watch – but I can’t say he’d make my top ten, or even top twenty…

kidThe Kid, Charlie Chaplin (1921, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, I can’t think why I put it on my rental list otherwise, but it’s not. Strange. Anyway, I watched it. The Kid is one of Chaplin’s most famous movies, and probably because of the title character. A woman has her baby stolen, it’s then left in an alleyway, where Chaplin finds it. He tries to get rid of the child, but fails… and so takes it home with him. The film then jumps forward five years, and the baby has grown into a little gamin, whom Chaplin’s tramp uses in his various cons. The kid throws rocks through windows, then Chaplin turns up with a pane of glass and is paid to replace the broken pane. There’s a scene where Chaplin is beaten up by a tough who’s wearing a bizarrely-padded jumper, and lots of Chaplin-like visual jokes… and a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Chaplin imagines himself as an angel, the kid too, and everyone else who has appeared in the film, and the two of them fly along the street set… and then Chaplin wakes up.  He decides to track down the kid’s mother, and return him to his rightful home. Which he does suspiciously easily – mother and son are re-united as if it had been five weeks and not five years, and everyone lives happily ever after. I actually prefer the other Chaplin films I’ve seen to this one, yes, even Monsieur Verdoux.

african_queenThe African Queen*, John Huston (1951, USA). Katherine Hepburn is the sister of a British missionary (Robert Morley) in German East Africa in 1914. Humph is the captain of the eponymous steam-powered river boat which regularly delivers supplies. WWI breaks out, the Germans burn down the missionaries’ village, Morley is killed, so Hepburn and Humph escape on the African Queen. They plan to follow the river to the lake at its end, and there destroy the German gunboat which is preventing the British from attacking. Along the way, they fall in love, sneak past a German fort which commands an excellent view of the river, fix a broken propellor, survive a trip through some fierce rapids… It’s all very adventuresome – but then it is adapted from a CS Forester novel. Hepburn and Bogart forever hover on the edge of parody; and half the time they feel like impressionists playing the actors playing their roles. It’s all very silly, and amazingly lightweight for a film that’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. In fact, I’m surprised it actually made the list. Huston is on there eight times, and some of the choices are baffling – Prizzi’s Honour? WTF? After early classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (both also starring Humph), you have to wonder what happened…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 761