I have been bingeing on boxed sets recently, and not really ones I can in any way recommend. I worked my way through all five seasons of The Professionals, and it was all a bit crap but sort of fun. Then I watched three seasons of Hamish Macbeth, and I have no fucking idea what that was about. Ostensibly a murder-mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands, it was as daft as those fringe murder-mystery series the US churns out by the metre, but with added chocolate-box Scotland. Entertaining enough, but also baffling. I tried watching The Diplomat, an Australian miniseries set in the UK but gave up after ten minutes when it was clear the makers hadn’t bothered to research how the police operate in the UK. I watched one episode of Jack Taylor, a grizzled private eye in Galway, but when the second episode opened with him framed for murder in the most obvious framed-for-murder plot twist on the planet, I decided to give it a miss as I have a low threshold for clichés.
Happily, there are feature films. And I should watch more of them, instead of shit TV series.
War Requiem, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). I think it’s pretty obvious I have a somewhat eclectic taste in films, so it’s hardly a surprise I consider Jarman among the ten best directors the UK has produced. I find myself conflicted about War Requiem, chiefly because it’s a staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, and the War Requiem features nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve admired for many years. Interestingly, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, and I attended Coventry University, whose campus is right next to the cathedral, so I know the building well. Which reminds me – and this is an entirely true story – of a winter night in the early 1990s when I was returning home after some drinks in town and I passed between the new cathedral and the old one (which is little more than a roofless shell). As I walked past the entrance to the old cathedral, I glanced inside it… and saw a naked woman with long blonde hair sitting on a white horse. Lady Godiva, of course, lived hundreds of years ago. Happily, this was no ghost – as I walked on, lights and a camera crew came into view. I never learnt what was being filmed that night, but glancing into the old Coventry Cathedral and seeing Lady Godiva on her horse is not something you forget. But, War Requiem, which opens with Laurence Olivier in a wheelchair in the garden of a sanatorium, but is mostly black box theatre. The music is not to my taste – I’m into death metal not a “mass for the dead” – and while Owen’s poems lend themselves really well to being performed, I’m still more of a reader than a listener. In other words, I like the idea of Jarman’s War Requiem more than I liked the experience of watching it.
Where is the Friend’s House?, Abbas Kiarostami (1987, Iran). Kiarostami is an easy director to admire, even if his individual works are not all that likable. Where is the Friend’s House? is one of his Koker trilogy, along with And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in and around the village of Koker in northern Iran. A young boy realises he has accidentally taken his school friend’s notebook home, and his friend will be punished if he fails to complete his homework. After an abortive attempt to find his friend’s house, the boy ends up doing the homework himself, and earns his friend a commendation from the teacher. If you’ve seen a Kiarostami film before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s not one of his best – its story is too thin for a feature-length movie – and it’s hard to compare it to other, better, films by Kiarostami. On the other hand, if it didn’t exist there would be no blu-ray box set from Criterion called The Koker Trilogy, which I believe is the first appearance of this film and And Life Goes On on disc. So there’s that.
Venus in Furs, Massimo Dallamano (1969, Italy). Amazon Prime continues to recommend Shameless releases to me, and since I like some giallo, I continue to add them to my watch list. True, giallo is quite a wide genre, although mostly horror or erotic horror, and I tend to lump poliziotteschi films in with it. And, to be honest, it’s Shameless’s releases of Italian sf movies I like best, such as Footprints on the Moon or The Tenth Victim, and I’m not sure they really qualify as giallo. So perhaps I’m misusing, if not abusing, the term. Venus in Furs is straight up late-sixties erotic drama, and if it had a plot I failed to find it. It all seems over-egged, and it’s not hard to believe it’s based on a novel published in 1870 and written by the man whose name gave us the word “masochism”.
Atragon, Ishiro Honda (1963, Japan). We all know Honda’s work, and if not we can at least imagine it. He’s best-known for the original Godzilla movie, but he had a long career directing films that were, well, pretty much the same as Godzilla. Some were more overtly science-fictional than others, but they all featured monsters portrayed by men, and women, in rubber suits. Atragon refers to a submarine – that can fly and tunnel into the earth – invented and built by a submarine captain who disappeared in the last year of WWII. As is revealed when the Empress of the lost continent of Mu, which now exists at the bottom of the ocean, tries to abduct the captain’s daughter from Tokyo. It’s all complete bobbins and makes not the slightest jot of sense, but the model work is pretty cool and the film’s commentary on Japan’s war record is interesting and surprisingly honest (UK and USA, take note). I note that Honda’s film are undergoing a minor revival, with Eureka about to release several of them as limited edition Blu-rays. I am not complaining. They are good stuff.
Sputnik, Egor Abramenko (2020, Russia). I don’t understand why this movie wasn’t named Soyuz. A cosmonaut returns to Earth – aboard a Soyuz – with an unwelcome passenger, an alien parasite. Sputnik means “fellow traveller”, which is apt, but soyuz means “union” and that meaning plays to the plot, too. And, well, the film opens in an actual Soyuz spacecraft. Anyway, a cosmonaut is brought back to earth with an alien parasite and a psychiatrist is brought in to study him. She learns the military have already learnt quite a bit about the parasite, although she refuses to accept the price they paid. She decides to rescue the cosmonaut and rid him of his alien “fellow traveller”. In other words, what we have here is Alien set in 1980s USSR. Expect many reviews to refer to it as “Alienski”. It’s a good-looking film, but it’s covering ground that has been done better – and not just by Alien. It all feels a bit tired and predictable, despite its Soviet paint job. Meh.
Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ishiro Honda ((1965, Japan). This was the second of three Japanese-American collaborations, all three of which were directed by Honda. It’s more overtly science-fictional than the one mentioned above, but is still very much a monster movie. A joint US-Japan mission to a mysterious “dark planet” near Jupiter (sigh) encounters an advanced civilisation, the Xiliens, currently under attack by “Monster Zero”. Earth offers the use of Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Monster Zero, but the Xiliens kidnap those monsters and then use them to demand the earth submit to their rule. I think this is the most typically Honda movie I have seen – it has everything. Like most of his movies, the story trundles along, requiring no more than normal levels of suspension of disbelief… and then falls of a cliff. That, I suppose, is part of their charm. Nonetheless, I would be happy to watch high-quality restored editions of his films.
Bill & Ted Face the Music, Dean Parisot (2020, USA). There is likely no one who said what the world really needed in these troubled times was a third Bill and Ted film thirty years after the last one. But it got one. And, though it pains me to say it, I actually enjoyed it. Another review pointed out that the characters of Bill and Ted were nice and sincere, and that we have few heroes like that in the twenty-first century. Leaving aside the fact we had few like that in the twentieth century, it is still true. Bill and Ted, even in this film, are just gosh-darned likeable. They’re dim, but they’re well-meaning. And the way they explore their own future – including not-so-nice Bills and Teds – is cleverly done. A lot has been made of their daughters, but they only get something like a third of the screen-time, which – unpopular opinion – is just as well as they come across as a pair of young female actors doing impressions of Bill and Ted. The climax of the film sees the daughters put together a band of historically important musicians, and playing a song to save all space and time. The choices for “historically important musicians” are… interesting. Jimi Hendrix. Yup, totally agree. A young Louis Armstrong. Why young? Why not later, when he was at the height of his creativity? Mozart. Right, everybody’s choice for “musical genius” – totally lazy pick. Ling Lun. Who is the legendary founder of music in China (around 300 BCE). Good that the film makes Ling Lun female. Bad that they made her just a flautist. The final member of the group is a cave woman who likes banging things and so is the best drummer ever. I mean, let’s not even go there. Good that the drummer is female, bad that it ignores the entire fucking history of playing drums. Having said that, Bill & Ted Face the Music ends with a really shit song being performed to save the universe. There’s a lot to like in the film – basically, the characters of Bill and Ted, the careful plotting, its diversity – but there’s a lot of minor stuff here that gets a pass because it does right on some of the big stuff. It’s not that good a film, but it’s entertaining and it’s a surprisingly inoffensive sequel to the first two films.
The Kennel Murder Case, Michael Curtiz (1933, USA). William Powell played urbane sleuth Philo Vance in four films for Paramount, between 1929 and 1933, but he was one of nine actors who played the role over fifteen movies, the last of which, Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, was released in 1947. Vance seems to have been an odd character – sort of a New York version of an English aristocrat sleuth, and coded as gay. The books were best-sellers, but despised by Raymond Chandler. I might try reading one some day. Anyway, a rich capitalist and all-round nasty piece of work is found dead in his locked bedroom, seemingly of suicide. But he seems to have bashed himself across the head with a poker, and then knifed himself in the back, before shooting himself in the temple some time after he had actually died. And then man’s brother turns up dead in the hall closet. Vance solves the “how” pretty quickly – the door was locked from outside using some string and a bent pin – but everyone except those investigating the crime have a motive for seeing the man dead. So Vance plays a trick and forces the murderer to reveal themselves. The Kennel Murder Case is apparently considered the best of the Philo Vance films, which doesn’t say much for the others. I thought the Thin Man movies better, but if any more of the Vance ones pop up on Amazon Prime I’ll happily watch them.
Bleeding Steel, Leo Zhang (2017, China). I think I’ve seen around thirty of Jackie Chan’s films and this is easily the worst one I’ve watched. It’s one of those trans-Pacific near-future sf movies, like The Meg, with a Chinese and Australian cast, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics or plausibility. Jackie Chan plays an officer of the “United Nations Special Forces” who is asked to take a rogue scientist into custody, even though his young daughter, who is dying of leukaemia, has just taken a turn for the worse. While Chan battles some cyborg and his over-equipped troops, Chan’s daughter dies. But no! She doesn’t. The rogue scientist implants a mechanical heart and “bio-engineered blood” into her, and saves her life. Thirteen years later, the daughter, believing herself to be an orphan, is a student in Australia, and Chan has been keeping a surreptitious eye on her. But the murder of an author whose novels bear an uncanny resemblance to the life of Chan’s daughter kicks off a series of action sequences in which Chan fights off assorted baddies – including one fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Chan is his usual likeable self, and most of the fight scenes are creatively choreographed, but from start to finish this is piss-poor near-future sf and in a genre which takes care over its fight choreography not even a Jackie Chan film can stand out, other than by putting him front and centre. And Bleeding Steel – and what exactly does that title fucking mean? – does that, but it’s not enough. This is a bad film but, even more shamefully, it is a bad Jackie Chan film.