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Movie roundup 2020, #17

Once again, I’ve been mostly binge watching TV series the last few weeks. This time it was Wire in the Blood, a UK crime series based on characters created by Val McDermid. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and thought them quite good. I also saw her interview Sara Paretsky (a favourite author) at a Harrogate Crime Festival programme item – my mother bought tickets for myself and her as my birthday present that year. It was an excellent present. Anyway, Wire in the Blood is okay, but seriously jumps the shark in the fifth season. I also watched Murder Call, an Australian police procedural from the 1990s built around detective Tessa Vance, who solves murders by putting together all of the clues subcobscuously three-quarters of the way through each episode. It was easy viewing.

I also watched Raised by Wolves, the new high-profile science fiction TV series partly produced (and directed) by Ridley Scott, and… It looks good – but that means only that a lot of money has been thrown at it. In terms of world-building and story… Oh dear. Nasty atheists versus nice Mithracists (who bizarrely quote the Bible). Pro-religious bollocks. I shall probably writing about it in more detail in another post.

Meanwhile, some movies…

No Man’s Woman, Franklin Adreon (1955, USA). Minor US noir in which the owner of a small gallery whose profitable, if not entirely ethical (or indeed legal), business is about to end, and so sets out to destroy the lives of all those around her. So, of course, someone murders her. Everyone has a motive, and none of the alibis stand up to scrutiny. But the detective figures it out, and it’s the nasty one wot dunnit. As I said, minor US noir. Interesting that it’s a female-led film – it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but the central character is a bit of a misogynistic stereotype.

Plot of Fear, Paolo Cavara (1976, Italy). One of those films that straddles the line between giallo and poliziottesco, which is why I end up lumping the two genres into one. A serial killer leaves illustrations from a kids’ book at the scenes of his crimes – which somehow justifies an erotic animated sequence mid-film. The victims are all members of a high society sex club, but the biggest mystery here is why anyone would care why such people are being murdered. Meanwhile, the detective in charge has sex a lot – with his girlfriend and with one of the witnesses – but doesn’t seem to make much headway in solving the crimes. Tom Skerrit makes a bizarre dubbed cameo as a senior police officer. I do like me some giallo, but it’s not a genre that’s known for its quality. I guess that makes it more of a guilty pleasure. Even so, there are occasions when you still feel like you’ve been had…

Island of Fire, Kevin Chu (1990, China). I watched this because it’s a Jackie Chan film, but it isn’t really. He plays a minor character. I’m not sure what the title refers to – the film is set in a prison, mostly, but the prison is not on an island. Or on fire. Anyway. There’s this sort of gang leader in the prison, played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (who had helped Chan in a dispute on another film and so Chan repaid him by appearing in this movies(, but he finds himself up against the warden, who has this neat little scheme going. The warden sentences inmates to death, but fakes their executions and employs them as assassins. Chinese prison wardens obviously have more power than Western ones. It’s the sort of premise that would make only sense in a Hong Kong movie. Sammo Hung plays an inmate who repeatedly tries to escape, and fails, often comically. There’s lots more going on, of course – corrupt cops, gangsters, gladiatorial fights inside the prison, etc. The film has its moments, but its link to Chan has been oversold.

Invasion, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2020, Russia). Although not marketed as such, the full title, Attraction 2: Invasion, makes it clears this is the sequel to Attraction, and the opening credits retell that earlier film’s story in an animated sequence… Even so, there’s a lot in Invasion that references Attraction, and I should probably have rewatched the first film before watching its sequel. Basically, in Attraction, an alien scoutship crashed in Moscow, and a young woman and its pilot fell in love (while the military was fighting off alien robots around them). The young woman – whose father was the general in charge of Russia’s defence against the aliens – apparently now has near-magical powers. The scoutship was from a much bigger spaceship, which has now been taken over by an EVEN MOAR BIGGA alien spaceship, and the Earth – well, Russia (but hey, makes a change from the US being the whole planet)- is under attack, and the young woman and the scoutship pilot have to find a way to call off the attack… Invasion looks good but is somewhat short on narrative logic. I suspect that’s mostly down to the fact it feels like an episode in a franchise that’s been thoroughly explored in other installments, which, other than the first film is, as far as I know, not the case.

The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli (1964, Italy). This is an Italian adaptation of a Belgian play, and while it seems like a good fit for Italian drama, it does play in parts like a transplanted story. Happily, it looks very chic, that sort of Sixties style that came so effortlessly to the Italians and which the Nouvelle Vague tried to hard to emulate, with mixed success. (Happily, the Nouvelle Vague directors were equally interested in US noir, and were much more successful in appropriating that.) A successful business man with a beautiful wife has a one-off fling and, as a result, begins to suspect his wife of being unfaithful. And he interprets everything she says and does in that light. She is, of course, entirely faithful. But his treatment of her results in her having an affair… This is a 1960s Italian movie, so along with the stylishness you have some pretty heavy everyday sexism, signalled pretty early in a scene in which the husband invites another man to ogle his wife’s legs. There are better films, by better directors, from Italy during the decade, and while this one looks good, it’s pretty disposable.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson (2012 – 2014, New Zealand). The Lord of the Rings films became a sort of family ritual. Back in 2001, we wanted to go see a film as a family on Christmas Eve. The Fellowship of the Ring had just been released, with a massive marketing campaign, and while myself and my UK-resident sister had read Tolkien, neither of my parents had. But they were willing to watch the film. The next year, The Two Towers was released at Christmas. And we went to watch it in the cinema. The year after that, it was The Return of the King. And so it became a tradition to watch a tentpole Christmas release at the cinema the day before Christmas. It wasn’t always genre – it depended on what was available. We saw The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also Avatar and Australia. Later, when we started celebrating Christmas in Denmark, we still went to the cinema – for the most recent Star Wars trilogy, the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which, even though I’m in danger of being deported for saying it, I still like more than the original Swedish version), and, er, Aquaman. Which is a somewhat long-winded way of saying I made no effort to watch the Hobbit films and, until all three appeared on Amazon Prime, was not especially bothered about missing them. In hindsight, I made the right call. The problem is the films expand so much on the book, they might as well be a different story. True, Tolkien spent decades working on his legendarium, and seeing more of it up there on the screen might well appeal to Tolkien fans… Middle-Earth is a major artistic achievement, but I’m not convinced it’s well-served by this film trilogy. It doesn’t help that parts of it come across more like a videogame than a film narrative, or that the physics of the final battle – which makes up around, er, three-quarters of the third film – is just wrong all the time. Gandalf is a powerful wizard, so why does he only fight usibg his staff? Zap the fuckers with a fireball, FFS. Orcs swing massive heavy weapons that seem to do little damage, but are felled by one blow from a puny human. It’s bobbins. It’s Hollywood’s sliding scale of power for dramatic effect, as seen in every superhero movie. Objects in the mirror may be nearer than they appear, as the saying has it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually physically bigger than they appear. Except in fantasy and superhero films…

Killing Cars, Michael Verhoeven (1986, Germany). This is a serious contender for the most 1980s film ever. It opens with Jürgen Prochnow in shades and a white suit, driving a Porsche, being challenged to a street race by a blonde in a Jaguar. He wins the race, drives to a bar, enters the bar, which falls silent when he walks in, crosses to a table, sits down and… starts playing backgammon. Prochnow is the designer of the “worldcar”, an electric-powered speedster, so sort of like Tesla, but corporate shenanigans means the project is likely to be cancelled. Nextdoor to the factory, an anarchist commune has taken over an abandoned building, but the car company wants them out so it can flatten the building and expand. Verhoeven – no relation to the Dutch director – was big on social commentary, and he squeezes it into Killing Cars, for all that the movie is supposed to be a semi-sf corporate thriller. It’s mildly interesting, it’s just that it’s all so very eighties.

Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK). A popular comedian – ie, he appeared on a few comedy shows – has pissed off his agent and found himself playing a small pub in Selby. Which is in North Yorkshire. But, weirdly, a few of the cast of this film had Lancashire accents, and one was doing a bad job of hiding a Scouse accent… Anyway, the comedian dies on stage and is heckled by a local woman, who works at a supermarket – actually a Premier Store, which I thought were mostly found at petrol stations, but this is deepest darkest Yorkshire, so who knows. So the woman gets up on stage and does an off-the-cuff routine that impresses the comedian enough he offers to help her apply for the local heat of a national stand-up comedy competition. This is a resolutely local low-budget film, with a no-name cast, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. The script relies a little too much on cliché, and the acting wasn’t always one hundred percent, but the characters were relatable and the story worked. I liked it. More than I’d expected to.

Dr M, Claude Chabrol (1990, Germany). I’ve never been a big fan of Chabrol’s film but I may have to rethink that. A Story of Women I rated very highly, and if his others films weren’t always especially good they were at least somewhat out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary certainly appeals to me. Dr M is a remake of the Fritz Lang film Dr Mabuse the Gambler from 1922, but it doesn’t use its plot. It’s set in the near future – although US critics complained the Berlin Wall still exists in the film, and while the Wall did indeed fall in 1990, albeit not until after the film was made, if Americans assumed the Wall would fall in any future they could imagine that says more about their narrow-mindedness than it does German, or European, history. Imagine thinking the Berlin Wall would not exist in the future, but not predicting 9/11… Anyway, Alan Bates plays the title character, a media mogul. There have been a spate of inexplicable suicides across Berlin and the police are baffled. The detective in charge is convinced Jennifer Beals – whose face is plastered across the city as part of a campaign for a holiday resort called, a thumpingly obvious reference, Thanatos – is involved and, lo and behold, the two of them end up in a realtionship. And in Thanatos. There’s a fascinating aesthetic on display here, very much a future we used to have, and the film’s intellectual payload is a great deal heavier than is common… but the movie never quite gels, and in the latter stages starts to fall to pieces before your very eyes. A noble failure, I think, although it was apparently several years in the making.


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Moving pictures 2016, #4

Yet more movies, some from the list, some not. I’m not entirely sure what criteria I use when picking non-list films, but it seems to work as often as not. I’ve got a bit behind with these posts, so there’ll be a several of these appearing on the blog in quick succession.

gambitGambit, Ronald Neame (1966, USA). A 1960s thriller with a twist in the tail, starring Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine. Caine plays a shady type who plans to rob reclusive zillionaire Herbert Lom, and to do so he recruits Maclaine, a Hong Kong nightclub hostess who’s the spitting image of Lom’s dead wife. The plan is, the two travel to the Arab city of Dammuz, Lom’s home, as an English baronet and wife, Lom’s goons spot Maclaine’s resemblance, and so she and Caine are invited to dine with Lom in his private apartment… and then Caine steals Lom’s priceless Chinese statuette. Except things don’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Maclaine, for a start, proves more of a hindrance than a help, Lom quickly sees through Caine’s disguise, and the eventual robbery only succeeds more by luck than anything else. Not that any of it really matters, as that wasn’t the point of it all… Sadly, an interesting structure – a flawless run-through (ie, Caine’s explanation of the plan) followed by what actually happens – isn’t really enough to make this mostly charmless thriller stand out. There were a number of similar movies made in the 1960s and set in North Africa – Our Man in Marrakesh and Maroc 7 spring to mind – which also blithely trampled over local sensibilities in a bid for “local colour”, but they were more fun than this one. Caine’s po-face pretty much echoed my own as I watched this – but he at least was paid for his.

ten _commandmentsThe Ten Commandments*, Cecil B DeMille (1956, USA). You know the story of Moses from the Bible, right? As a baby sent down a river in a basket, rescued by Egyptian royals, who raised him as one of their own, but he sided with the Hebrew slaves (being Hebrew himself), and led them to safety by parting the Red Sea. and then there was something about a burning bush – WTF? I mean, I AM GOD AND I SHALL APPEAR IN A FORM WHICH WILL STRIKE AWE INTO MOSES, I SHALL APPEAR AS… A SHRUB ON FIRE! – and, of course, the Ten Commandments, zapped by God onto a giant piece of rock which proves handily portable. It’s a story so over-the-top it could only exist in a religious text or a Hollywood film. And here we have both. Super-entitled white man NRA spokesman Charlton Heston plays Moses, a Jew; Yul Brynner, a Russian, plays Rameses II, Moses’s Egyptian “brother” and later enemy. The story is blithering nonsense from start to finish and the characters are drawn with all the subtlety of a kids’ cartoon – but the sets are pretty impressive. Back when I was kid at school in Qatar, I was sent to Sunday School. It took place in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School, where I was a pupil. As far as I remember, all we did was colour in pictures depicting scenes from the Bible – my bright orange Jesus looked quite fetching. The Ten Commandments, well, it’s that. Pretty much.

la_roueLa roue*, Abel Gance (1923, France). Gance is perhaps best known for his 5½ hour epic movie about Napoleon – soon to be made available on DVD/Blu-ray by the BFI… and yes, it’s on my wants list. At 273 minutes, La roue is also an exercise in viewing endurance. The wheel of the title is that of a train, and while the story – told in a variety of silent movie presentations, with differently-shaped views, dissolves and even colour washes – is a fairly standard family melodrama set on and about the French railways, what’s most notable is the number of cinematic techniques Gance makes use of which subsequently became part of cinema’s common language. Like many of the more sophisticated silent movies of the period – the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, for example – La roue is very talky, or, rather, there are a lot of intertitles, and a lot of story to get across in narrative text. Hollywood, at least, knew to minimise the text and let the moving pictures tell as much of the story as possible – and if that led to films consisting of little more than crudely-linked sight gags, they were at least entertaining. Which is not to say La roue is not – but European silent cinema, from my somewhat limited viewing experience, seemed to focus on narratives rather than pictures (although European cinema also had a strong tradition of strikingly designed sets, unlike Hollywood). Perhaps that’s unfair, perhaps it was simply a different approach to film-making – certainly the visuals in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc are impressive and arresting; but watching La roue is very much like watching someone create a new cinematic language, much of which you know will become universal. I had to buy a US import of this as no UK edition exists. A shame. Mind you, the same could be said of many of the more interesting films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

black_bellyThe Black Belly of the Tarantula, Paolo Cavara (1971, Italy). A serial killer injects his victims with the venom of the tarantula, paralysing them before he cuts out their heart. The tarantula is indeed venomous, but its venom causes hallucinations or muscle spasms (hence the tarantella), not paralysis. But never mind. The film basically comprises a series of murders of beautiful young women (of course), all by the same man, while a harried detective tries to figure out what’s going on. Eventually he finds a suspect… which leads to a chase up onto the roof of a quite impressive Brutalist office block. It’s all tied into a blackmail conspiracy based around a massage parlour, and a murderer who so obviously can’t be the murderer that he has to be the murderer. If that makes sense. Italian giallo can be fun, but they’re also usually rampantly sexist.

redsReds*, Warren Beatty (1981, USA). When actors direct films they’re usually vanity projects. True, there are actors who have gone on to have distinguished directorial careers, such as Ida Lupino. But most actor-directed films are usually pretty bad. Except Reds isn’t. The film is a biopic of John Reed, the US author who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, about the Russian Revolution (adapted shortly afterwards by Sergei Eisenstein). Beatty plays Reed, and Diane Keaton is his long-suffering partner, Louise Bryant, who he charms away from her marriage, fails to encourag in her writing career, and then mostly neglects. Bryant ends up in an affair with Eugene O’Neill (played by Jack Nicholson at his most oleaginous), and then leaves for Europe to become a correspondent during WWI. Reed follows, the two rekindle their relationship and head to Russia, where they join in the revolution. After returning to the US, Reed writes his book and tries to build up the communist movement. But the various communists groups are all locked in internecine fighting – leading to a frankly bizarre party meeting which leads to a schism, and further inter-party fighting. Throughout the film, Beatty breaks away from his narrative to interview talking heads, real-life friends and acquaintances of Reed and Bryant, not all of whom thought highly of the pair or their relationship. I’ll admit I knew of the film prior to renting it, but had never seen it – it is, to be fair, 194 minutes long – and I wasn’t expecting much (see earlier comment re actors who direct). While the direction was efficient more than anything else, the story didn’t feel as though it were longer than it needed to be, and the use of the talking heads was inspired. I hadn’t expected Reds to be a movie that belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, even though I knew it was generally well-regarded by critics. But, you know what, it does belong there. Worth seeing.

jeanne_dielmanJeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles*, Chantal Akerman (1975, France). This was my first Akerman. It was her first too. And, I have to admit, a hugely impressive debut. The film is three days in the life of Dielman and shows her, in unadorned detail, going about her daily activites. The camera remains mostly static, there is very little dialogue, and no incidental music. And yet it’s compelling viewing. There is a story there, but it comes out of Dielman’s actions, not from a narrative stringing together events or cause and effect. I bought the Criterion DVD of this, which is the only edition available. That’s surprising – you’d think it’d be available here. Admittedly, it took me a while before I got round to watching it… But I’ll be trying more of Akerman’s films, that’s for sure.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 713