Fifty-fifty this time around – three Anglophone films, and three non-Anglophone. Plus two from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
In the Year of the Pig*, Emilio de Antonio (1968, USA). There are several war documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I think this is the only anti-war documentary on it. It is ostensibly about the Vietnam War – which is sort of like the American equivalent of the British Empire: if you meet someone who approves of it, then they’re a right-wing fascist moron and best avoided. In the Year of the Pig is both experimental and a traditional documentary. It features a lot of archival footage and talking heads; but that’s juxtaposed with poetic imagery and loud atonal music. But it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: which is demonstrate that the US should not have been in Viet Nam. Nor indeed should the French have been. It is, despite its reliance on found footage, a good-looking film, although shots of French troops in pith helmets marching past and in which the faces have been blurred out looks weirder than was probably intended. I don’t necessarily agree with the film – it’s Western commentators on an Eastern country, and for all their claims of expertise they’re not Vietnamese. On the other hand, many of the interviewees discuss the US’s failure to treat Ho Chi Minh as “the George Washington of his country”. In other words, the US’s orientalists (for lack of a better term) all felt Ho Chi Minh should be accorded the same respect as any other national leader. But the French had already fucked up, so the US stepped in to “help”. Ha. It would be interesting to see a poll asking if people in the US thought the US won the Vietnam War. I suspect these day the majority might think they did. Fake news! One commentator states that “colonialism created communism”, which is an interesting, if ahistorical, opinion. Communism was already over 100 years old by 1968, and when you have empire looming over you and no prospect of independent local rule, then subsidised communism looks like an attractive alternative… but that’s not a bad take for 1968. Recommended.
Hellzapoppin’, HC Potter (1941, USA). Sometimes you stumble across a film, and even though it’s not the sort of thing you normally watch, it sounds interesting enough to bung it on your rental list. Actually, now I think about it, I do that a lot. Anyway, Hellzapoppin’ was described as a “ground-breaking comedy classic” and “Way ahead of its time, it’s been described as ‘Pythonesque’ and has influenced generations of comedians”. That’ll do for me, I thought. Okay, it was made in 1941, so we’re looking more at Abbott and Costello, or the Three Stooges, than we are Monty Python, but I can live with that. And… it was fun. It was clever, snappy, meta, had some memorable set-pieces, some real groaner lines, and actually reminded me more of the Busby Berkeley musicals from the decade prior than it did Python. It opens in a version of hell, but then the camera pulls back to reveal it’s a set. The director approaches the two comic leads and tells them he has a problem with a movie he’s working on, and they sit down in front of a screen… which begins to display the main narrative of the film, with commentary from the director, but then opens out to fill the frame. A rich family are staging a musical in the gardens of their mansion, because their daughter fancies a playwright but he won’t offer until he is a success. Midway through the play, the two comic leads discover the play should not succeed, so they sabotage it, only for it to become a comic hit. If this sounds familiar, stop me. It’s fun, it’s very much of its time, and to be honest I had no idea who any of the stars in it were.
The Machine, Caradog James (2013,UK). One day, a film-maker will, er, make a film about AI which a) treats the subject intelligently, and b) does not depend on a sexy female robot. But that day has yet to come – and may indeed never come. I tweeted not so long ago that I rarely watch sf television series as I’m not the target audience, and I suspect that is also true of sf films. Although there are a handful of sf films I love dearly. But, let’s face it, most of them are shit. As in, really shit. The Machine tries hard not to be Ex Machina, which it actually predates by a year, which is a point in its favour; and both Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz are quite good in their roles. But there’s a lot going on in The Machine and the director chose foolishly to tell the wrong story. Stephens plays a scientists working for the MoD on advanced prostheses for wounded soldiers, including brain implants to repair brain damage. But the implants haven’t been entirely successful. He brings on board Lotz, an AI researcher, in order to push forward on producing a robot soldier. But she is murdered by a Chinese agent – the UK and China are at war, btw – and then becomes the model for the first AI soldier. Of course. The Machine did well with its low budget, but it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before – Metropolis, anyone? – and it’s time the film world really came up with a fresh spin on it. On the other hand, it was less annoying than Ex Machina. Which, from me, the director should take as praise.
Three Lives and One Death*, Raùl Ruiz (1996, France). Some films make it onto the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because they are bona fide classics, and it’s obvious as soon as you watch them. Others are seminal works. Some had fascinating production histories, and the fact they exist at all is likely what’s being celebrated. And some of them… I’ve no fucking idea why the 70 film critics and commentators who put together the list chose some of the titles. Three Lives and One Death is not an obvious one – it’s French, although Ruiz is Chilean… but is probably best-known in France, where he settled in 1973 after Pinochet (you know, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite fascist dictator) seized power in Chile. Ruiz’s works are not easy to find in English-language releases, and he made over 100 films. He directed the only film adaptation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I really must read one of these days, Time Regained, which I have seen. Anyway, Trois vies et une seule mort has Marcello Mastroianni trapped in an apartment for decades by fairies – he’s allowed out, but he cannot leave unless he finds a replacement. And one day, he does: the husband of the woman he left years before when he became trapped in the apartment. I’m not entirely sure what this film is about, which I suspect is par for the course for films by Ruiz, and I’m not especially convinced everyone else is. It may well have made the list because of the scene where Mastroianni buries a hammer in the head of the other man. Which would be a shame. I suspect Ruiz belongs on the list, but I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to determine whether this film is the best representative. It’s certainly slightly off-the-wall, and Mastroianni is always watchable.
The Laundryman, Lee Chung (2015, Taiwan). This was another of the films, most starring Regina Wan, a Taiwanese distributor seems to have dumped on Amazon Prime. Not that I’m complaining, as the ones I’ve seen – The Village of No Return (see here), this one and Threads of Time (confusingly uploaded under the title Contact of Time) – were all pretty good. The latter is an historical epic about the life of Ming dynasty concubine Liu Rushi, although it seems to miss out many of the events of her life. But The Laundryman is set in the present-day and is about a hit man who is haunted by the victims of his hits – to the extent that it is interfering with his work. His boss gives him the name of a medium to consult – the boss is not entirely convinced by his problem – but with the medium’s help he discovers that the haunting is a consequence of his own background. Which involves his upbringing in a care home in which a doctor experimented on the violent tendencies of the children consigned to it. This was a good-looking film, and surprisingly good. I’ve seen comments complaining that the fight scenes weren’t so good, given they used slo-mo and repeated the same actions from different viewpoints. It’s true they slowed the pace, but I wasn’t expecting an action film so I wasn’t that upset by them. Fun.
Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). The title character is a young woman from a strict religious background who moves to Oslo to attend university. One day in the university library, she has what appears to be a grand mal seizure. She undergoes a variety of tests – including an induced epileptic fit – but no cause can be found. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a fellow student, but it conflicts with her upbringing (the student is female). The film then cleverly reveals through flashbacks to Thelma’s childhood that she has the ability make whatever she wants happen – just like in ‘It’s a Good Life’. Sometimes with fatal consequences for others. Some critics have suggested Thelma is little more than a carbon copy of Carrie, and there are indeed similarities. But I think Thelma treat its premise with much more subtlety than the film of King’s novel. It is, for one thing, not overtly horrific. There are some quite horrible bits in it, but no buckets of blood, no torture porn. And it is so much better for their lack. Elli Harboe in the title role is really very good, an award-winning performance in a fairer world. I loved this film. I want my own copy.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 914