It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2018, #67

I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…

Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.

Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.

Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose  trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.

The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.

Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933

Advertisements


2 Comments

Moving pictures 2018, #61

And another eclectic – or should that be catholic?-  half-dozen films, albeit not so geographically varied as half of them are from China…

Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón (2001, Mexico). I’ve known of this film for years, and that it was highly regarded, but until I came to watch it I hadn’t realised it was by Cuarón, or that he made it after some of his better-known films. Or indeed that Cuarón was Mexican. I had thought he was Spanish. Anyway, Y Tu Mamá También is one of those back-to-basics film projects successful directors make every now and again, and which occasionally end up as the best film in their oeuvre. Which doesn’t seem to be entirely true of Cuarón, although this is certainly one of his better pieces of work. Two teenagers agree to take a young woman to a beach they invented… a day or two drive south of Mexico City. Each have their reasons for making the road trip– and that’s what this is, a road trip movie. The young woman has just left her husband after learning he is having an affair. The two teenagers have the hots for her… and it turns out there is more at stake than initially seems. Surprisingly, it turns out the made-up beach actually exists, and the three spend an idyllic few days camping there. But the woman has cancer and not long to live, and when they decide to return to the city, she remains behind with a local family. I was under the impression this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but it’s not, or at least not the 2013 version, which is the one I’m using. It probably deserves to be on the list. I think it was this film which made Gael García Bernal an international star.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Henry King (1952, USA). The story from which this was adapted is generally considered to be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best. I am not, I must admit, much of a Hemingway fan – or much of a fan of the many film adaptations made of his fiction. Even so, he was ill-served by this one. Gregory Peck plays a writer who is dying of a gangrenous wound while on safari. There are a couple of flashbacks explaining how he injured himself, but much of the story is in the extended flashbacks which detail the writer’s career. How he started out feeling sorry for himself, lived off his wife – Ava Gardner – in a poor quarter of Paris, became successful but then Gardner becomes an alcoholic after a miscarriage and leaves him. He takes up with a countess, but she dumps him when she realises he still loves Gardner. So he heads off to Spain to find her, gets embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, finds Gardner driving an ambulance on the front mere moments before she’s killed by an enemy shell… Back in Paris, he meets the woman he’s on safari with. Apparently, in the story he dies, but Hollywood went for the happy ending and he’s rescued in time. I can understand why people consider this one of Hemingway’s best stories – it has all his favourite things in it, well, except for bull-fighting, I don’t remember any bull-fighting but Peck spends time in Spain so maybe there was. Missable.

Under the Shadow, Babak Anvari (2016, UK). A horror film made by an Iranian director with an Iranian cast who speak Farsi and which is set in Tehran… but turns out to be a UK production filmed in Jordan? Such is the nature of twenty-first century film financing. None of which should be taken as a criticism of Under the Shadow as a film qua film. It is enormously effective. I’m a big fan of Iranian cinema and happy to slot this one in it, for all that it didn’t even get within shouting distance of the country. The story is relatively simple – a married couple with a young daughter find their flat haunted by a djinn, but the husband, who is sent away to serve on the front, is sceptical of his wife’s complaints. Once he’s away things gets worse, and it’s a battle between the woman and the evil spirit that seems to have occupied their building. For much of its length, Under the Shadow is like a domestic Iranian drama by Kiarostami or Farhadi, which is high praise indeed. But then it shifts into a horror register, and while the scares are relatively tame by current standards they’re effective – and I for one appreciate scares that are just that, scares, not gruesome dismemberings or something. Definitely worth seeing.

To My Wife, Wang Xiaolie (2012, China). So, for a variety of reasons, mainly involving an upgrade that actually made an app almost entirely useless, but such is the way of techbros and their reading too much into bad science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s (seriously, as fans of the genre we have a lot to fucking answer for), but anyway the film I’d planned to watch was unavailable. And I found myself unwilling to watch another episode of one of the many box sets my mother has lent me, so I went hunting on Amazon Prime. And found this. A solid Chinese drama that doesn’t even have a complete IMDB entry. It opens with two men about to be executed on, er, the seashore. It’s all to do with a woman and the last days of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912. The scene cuts to a young woman in a sports car on an empty road, she turns a corner out of sight, and we hear her crash. Now she’s in the past, in the years leading up to 1912, with a patron who supports the Qing dynasty and a brother and a fiancé who both support the end of the empire but in different ways. There are scenes of her after the car crash, now in a coma… But the she wakes and is discharged, and her husband is identical to the man who plays the admiral representing imperial forces in the scenes set in the past. And it all seems relatively straightforward, if somewhat confusing, with the past being a coma dream of the woman in the present, based on a testament from the time she had been reading… Except the film ends with the opening scene of  the executions, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s for a film being made by the woman’s husband and starring herself. It’s an interesting historical story, but the ham-fisted attempt to make it a time-slip romance – a well-established sub-genre in written romance fiction – actually makes it a more interesting film. As far as I can determine, given it has no real IMDB entry, and there’s almost no information about it available on the English-language internet, this is not a tentpole Chinese release, and either a straight to DVD or streaming-only movie. But I thought it quite good. The cast were good, the historical scenes convincing, and if the time-slip element was a little confusing it can’t be faulted for trying. Better than expected.

Detective Chinatown, Chen Sicheng (2015, China). And after watching the above, I stumbled on this – which at least has a Wikipedia entry – and since I was in the mood for Chinese cinema, and coincidentally eating Chinese food – although that later proved less than successful but we won’t go into that – and the thing about Chinese films is not so much that they’re Chinese but that they can have a Chinese approach to well-established film genres… And so their take on them can be just as entertaining as the film’s actual story. Here we have the “reluctant buddies” movie, with an incompetent cop teamed up with a brilliant assistant to solve a crime and, for added shits and giggles, the detective is trying to solve the crime of which he has himself been accused. It’s hardly a new story, it’s pretty much a universal one in fact. In this instance, failed police academy candidate and nerd Qin Feng has been sent to visit his successful uncle Tang Ren, a top detective in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Except Tang is nothing of the sort, but a low-life who works for a corrupt police sergeant. Except now he’s number one suspect for the murder of a member of a gold robbery gang. And the gold is still missing. So while Tang’s incompetent police sergeant is competing with a go-getter rival to solve the crime, Tang needs to clear his name and only geeky nephew Qin can do it. The film doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a thriller, which means the thriller elements are quite good but the comedy aspects feel forced. Which is a shame because Tang, played by Wang Biaoqang, is a good comedic character – so much so, the film often feels like a vehicle for him, which it isn’t. The final twist is unexpected but doesn’t substantially alter what’s gone before. If Detective Chinatown had been made in Hollywood, it would probably be typical Hollywood product, but the fact it’s Chinese and set in Bangkok, and its plot plays on elements of Chinese culture and society, makes it much more interesting than typical Hollywood product. There was a sequel titled, obviously, Detective Chinatown 2, this time set in New York.

Blind Mountain, Li Yang (1999, China). And yet another Chinese film, but a much more serious movie than the one above. Li is often lumped in with the Sixth Generation directors, but he doesn’t include himself in the group. Certainly, the topic, and approach to filming, of Blind Mountain has elements in common with some Sixth Generation directors’ movies. It covers a serious problem in China: the kidnap of women and their sale to remote villages as wives for single men. Huang Lu is offered a job in the north of China, which she accepts as her family has debts. But when she reaches a small village in the Qin Mountains, she is held captive and told by a man she is now married to his son. When she tries to run away, they beat her and then chain her leg to the bed. Her “husband” rapes her. She tries to escape several times, but each time is caught and beaten. One time, she even makes it as far as the nearest town, but is dragged off the bus to the city by her “husband” and no one intervenes, not even the police – because it is domestic. Eventually, she gets a message out and the police arrive. But even they prove mostly powerless against the ranked villagers… With the exception of Huang, the cast are non-professionals, in fact many are villagers from the villages in the area where the film was made. There are also two version to the movie – the international release, and the Chinese government-approved version which has a much “happier” ending. (I saw the former.) There is a great deal of astonishing scenery in China – including urban scenery – and Fifth and Sixth Generation directors make excellent use of it. As does Li here. The copy I saw wasn’t a great transfer, but the landscape cinematography was stunningly beautiful in places. The performances, despite being a mostly amateur cast, are strong, and the story is certainly one that needs to be told. Blind Mountain is the second in a loose trilogy. I’ve not seen the first, Blind Shaft, but I now plan to. And the third film, Blind Way, was supposed to be released last year but doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through or streaming yet. Li Yang is definitely a director whose career is worth following.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933