It would appear I’m still watching Marx Brothers films, although my defence is the one below was already on my rental list and I’ve, er, not bothered to purge the list of their films. And I might as well watch the most famous ones, after all. Other than that, this post is fifty percent a UK-fest. I found a whole bunch of old British films on Amazon Prime – totally by accident, of course, because hey Amazon! Your search facility sucks donkey balls totally!
Otherwise, the usual mixed bag. Oh, and a really good Swedish film.
A Night at the Opera*, Sam Wood (1935, USA). Is this film famous on its own merits or because Queen used its title for the title of one of its best-selling albums? Is there any way to find out? Hollywood has a habit of over-stating its influence, so watch an old documentary that claims the Marx Brothers were massively influential and it’s more likely to be Hollywood bullshit than anything else. All part of the marketing machine. Because, in most respects, A Night at the Opera is not much different to earlier Marx Brothers films. The brothers play similar roles, this time centred around an opera company, which Groucho is hoping to use as a vehicle to defraud the fifth Marx Brother, Margaret Dumont, out of her fortune (seriously, she’s the best thing in these films). However, the final act, in which Harpo is chased around the theatre, and uses various tricks to escape capture is among the best physical comedy the Marx Brothers have put on film (that I’ve seen). I think you have to be a fan to truly appreciate these films, but I can understand why this one is held in higher regard than most of the others.
Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava (1970, Italy). So there was a sale on the Arrow website and a whole bunch of Blu-rays were going for £7 a pop, and this one was one of them… And while I do like me some giallo, I’m a bit picky about the ones I like and Mario Bava is hardly top of my list of giallo directors to watch even though I’ve seen several of his films… But you know how it is, finger slipped and all that, and I ended up with a copy of Five Dolls for a August Moon, which title conjures up much that sounds giallo but is not all that actually descriptive of the movie’s plot. However, it does have a great jazz rock score. Giallo films are generally quite good on soundtracks, but this is a superior example. Which, sadly, cannot be said of its plot. Five rich men meet on an island, with wives and partners, ostensibly to buy a formula from one of them, but he refuses to sell. Then people are murdered one by one. So it goes. Each of them tries to figure out who the killer is, but none of the clues add up. It’s all very 1970s, with the women in floaty pantsuits, the men in flares, suede and sideburns. Meh.
Mute, Duncan Jones (2018, UK). Gosh, this was bad. A Poundland Blade Runner married to a plot straight from some horribly regressive 1970s action movie. Women are routinely brutalised, one character is a paedophile and it’s only offensive when the plot requires it to be, and another character is taunted with being gay. Hey, Jones, it’s 2018, shit like that doesn’t fly anymore. What makes it worse is that Mute is, by all accounts, a personal project, one that Jones spent years trying to get funded. And that’s fair enough, there are many projects that take decades to get funded. But they should be revisited when the finance is in place to make sure they’re appropriate for their year of release. It would seem Mute was not. The title refers to a man who was injured as a kid and so can no longer speak. He works in a nightclub, and is very protective of one of the hostesses (I didn’t think they were in a relationship at first). Which gets him into a fight with a customer who gets a bit too friendly with her. So she’s fired. Then she disappears. He goes looking for her. There are also a pair of underground surgeons and some gangsters and a brothel and… Sigh. It’s all like something from the 1970s, and setting it in a Berlin of the near-future only underscores how anachronistic it all is. Avoid.
Passport to Pimlico, Henry Cornelius (1949, UK). This was one of the films I discovered on Amazon Prime, although the quality of the transfer was pretty bad. It’s one of the classic Ealing comedies, and while I’ve seen a number of them over the years, I seem to have missed seeing this one. Until now, that is. A treasure trove is found in Pimlico, and among all the gold is an ancient document which declares Pimlico had been given to the Duke of Burgundy centuries before. So, in order to hang onto the treasure, Pimlico declares its independence, and makes the young descendant of the Duke of Burgundy (which no longer exists, of course), their head of state. The British government isn’t happy about this state of affairs. So they put up barbed wire and try to starve out the “Burgundians”. But the rest of London thinks it’s all marvellous, and sends them food (there’s a good scene where they’re actually throwing items of food over the barbed wire). At that time, Pimlico was still pretty much a bomb-site, so you can understand why its inhabitants are reluctant to give up their treasure. Although it’s a comedy, Passport to Pimlico is a bit more barbed than just a comic story. The plucky Londoner bit is all somewhat self-congratulatory having survived the Blitz, but that’s pretty much baked into Londoners’ character, and for all the deprivations visible in Pimlico – rationing was still in place in 1949 – it doesn’t seem to prevent the food parcels. (A man with a barrow full of oranges even turns up at one point – were they available again by then?). Much as I enjoyed Passport to Pimlico, I think the other Ealing comedies I’ve seen were better.
Nineteen Eighty-four, Rudolph Cartier (1954, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime too, and it also was a poor quality transfer, but not so bad it was unwatchable. Winston Smith is played by Peter Cushing, in one of his first major roles, if not his first. Donald Pleasance appears as Symes. There are also several familiar faces in smaller parts. It pretty much follows the book. The production design, as you’d expect of 1950s BBC, is pretty much all sets, clean and unadorned when it’s in a ministry office, but like something out of Steptoe & Son when it’s a prole’s home. Given it was made only six years after the book was published, and less than a decade after the end of WWII, it’s no surprise the few outside scenes show a devastated London (but then it would be several decades before the last of the bomb damage disappeared), which, sadly, suits the story. But hey, just wait for 2084. After 66 years of Brexit. Maybe there won’t be a war, just 66 years of enforced neglect (outside the Foxconn enclaves, that is). It’s hard what to know what to make of Orwell’s classic these days, it’s like someone strafed it with a machine-gun firing irony bullets. Although it does render the central love-story a bit, well, banal. Ah well.
Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). I found this on Cinema Paradiso’s website and added it to my rental list because it sounded interesting. Three fourteen-year-old girls, Bella, Momo and Kim, are being horribly bullied at school. Bella is assaulted. The three are sent a strange seed through the post. They plant it and it grows overnight into a weird black flower. They drink some of its nectar and wake up as boys. The first time, it goes well – they’re welcomed into a pick-up game of football. No one recognises them. They’re invited to a party a few nights later – but they have to bring the beer. Of course, after that it doesn’t go so well. These things never do. Kim falls in with the local bad boy and joins him when he burgles a workshop, and of course fancies him. The girls’ transformations give them the confidence to stand up to their bullies at school, but Kim loves being male much more than Momo or Bella, and even thinks she might be trans. I had almost zero expectations when I slid this into the player – an indie Swedish/Finnish co-production, with a young and unknown cast… But I thought it excellent. The cast are very good indeed – and cleverly chosen so the male and female versions resemble each other. The friendship between the three girls is drawn really well, although some of the scenes where they stand up for themselves at school seem a bit too easy. The bullying, however, is far from subtle, and hard to take. One final point: I don’t normally mention soundtracks unless they’re a feature of the story. But one of the songs in Girls Lost – it plays a couple of times, but most noticeably during the film’s final few minutes – I thought very atmospheric. It was ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ by Fever Ray. Anyway, Girls Lost: recommended. It might well make my best of the year.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931