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Moving pictures, #66

A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.

center_stageCenter Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.

before_revolutionBefore the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.

lady_trampLady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.

boys_fengkueiThe Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…

ghostbustersGhostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.

world_cinemaThe Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837

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Moving pictures, #17

Seems to be mostly US films this time, including a few populist ones. I don’t know what came over me.

ant_menAnt-Man, Peyton Reed (2015, USA). Superhero films are monumentally stupid and pretty much awful. Putting comics up on screen and investing billions of dollars in state-of-the-art CGI has not made them any cleverer or less juvenile. And yet Ant-Man is one of the few which, we’re told, transcends the genre. Which, when you think about it, is a backhand way of saying, “yes, we know superhero films are dumb and low art”. Of course, it does no such thing. Its hero is a bit grey, inasmuch as he’s no boy scout in tights; but neither is he a villain. As for the plot: nasty executive takes over noble inventor’s company, exploits’magical maguffin invention for typically capitalist reasons, or at least tries to… Yawn. We’ve seen it a zillion times before. The only difference is that in SuperheroWorld, said executive gets his comeuppance; in the real world, he gets a seven-figure bonus. Paul Rudd makes a good fist of the title role, although Michael Douglas these days feels more like a caricature of an actor than an actor. But the story was the usual superhero bobbins, and figuring out whether a superhero film is a good film per se is a bit like counting angels on the head of a pin – ie, you have to believe in angels in the first place. Best just walk away.

atlantisAtlantis – The Lost Empire, Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise (2001, USA). And if superhero movies are for people who haven’t grown-up, then Hollywood animated movies are for people who have yet to grow up. (When I wrote that sentence it seemed to make perfect sense to me, but coming back to it a couple of days later, I’m having trouble figuring out what I meant. Ah well.) There’s no reason why such films have to be like that, of course – just look at Japan’s anime industry; or indeed animated films from Europe, such as René Laloux’s La Planète Sauvage, or anything by Jan Svankmajer. (We’ll ignore Heavy Metal for the time-being, if you don’t mind.) Atlantis – The Lost Empire is a kids’ film, but the design is quite effective and the story is sufficiently oddball to appeal to me. Its performance at the box office was apparently “lacklustre”, so much so that Disney cancelled a planned television series and an underwater attraction at Disneyland. It’s by no means a great film, although it has become something of a “cult favourite”. There’s a sequel, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, which was cobbled together from three episodes of the cancelled television series, and it’s pretty damn poor. Atlantis – The Lost Empire doesn’t hold a candle to either Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, but it’s still better than about half of Disney’s feature film output.

spySpy, Paul Feig (2015, USA). Every now and again I throw a Hollywood blockbuster onto my rental list (er, okay, perhaps more than one, given the above), so I can spend at least one night with my brain turned off (shut up at the back); and while I never have especially high hopes of such films I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t for Ant-Man, but Spy was a comedy and… Oh dear. Tonally, it was all over the place. Humour one minute, over-the-top violence the next. And the improv… Seriously, whoever decided that improv was a good way to make comedy movies “better” was clearly a fucking idiot. Remember those films with sharpy witty dialogue? They were written like that. Now we have witless burblings spontaneously vomited up by comedians who think that not filtering their verbiage is the way to generate laughter. It’s not. Spy had its moment, not least the set-up, in which a field agent’s support officer takes his place in the, er, field… but they just had to over-egg the cake and make her some sort of combat expert despite the fact her career had been spent behind a desk. And the dialogue bounced from the inane to the embarrassing, without doing much to advance the plot. Spy could have been a good film, but giving the cast free rein was a big mistake – this is a movie that needed to be tightly controlled to work. In its present incarnation, it doesn’t.

beyondBeyond, Joseph Baker & Tom Large (2014, UK). This was a charity shop find, and I’m not entirely what it was I actually found. Earth has been attacked by aliens, who have pretty much defeated humanity. There’s a couple, they meet at a fancy dress party. They get together, I think they marry, they have a baby. They argue about the baby. The film jumps back and forth chronologically. And I have to admit that after a while I started to lose interest. Beyond is one of those independent films in which pretty much everything is implied and all that remains on the screen is the bickering between the two leads. In and of itself, this is not necessarily bad, but Beyond does feel more like it should be a short film, rather than a 84-minute feature film. I’ll give the movie a rewatch, because I feel it ought to be more interesting than it proved – but we’ll, er, see…

evangelion_111Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, Hideaki Anno (2007, Japan). I am not a big fan of anime, although people continue to recommend various anime films and/or OAV to me. But it’s worth doing so, because sometimes it sticks. Usually it takes a while after I’ve watched it, however. (I am, incidentally, defining “big fan” based on those anime fans I know, who have watched absolute tons of the stuff.) For example, I watched and enjoyed Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, and then later decided to pick up a copy of it for myself. And I’m sort of feeling the same for Evangelion 1.11, except… Well, this film, and its sequels, is a reworking of the OAV Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I’m wondering if I might be better off watching the OAV. Especially since, according to Wikipedia, the OAV goes into more detail on the background – Evangelion 1.11 more or less throws you right into the middle of the story, and it’s only some way into the film that some background needed to follow the story is revealed. And yet, the art is of a high quality, the story is certainly intriguing, and I actually find the refusal to explain makes me like the film more. It’s set in, er, 2015, after aliens – called Angels – have wiped out much of the Earth’s population. Secret scientific organisation NERV has invented giant cyborg mecha to fight the Angels, and this film is about the first of those to go into combat, and its pilot’s relationship with the wounded pilot of the prototype mecha. I can’t get excited about men and women in giant robot suits – I really didn’t like Pacific Rim – but there’s enough going on in the story of Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, for me, to offset the fact it’s about men and women in giant robot suits. Incidentally, Neon Genesis Evangelion comprised twenty-six, but there are only four feature-film reboots – this one, Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance, Evangelion 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo, and an unmade final film.

shadowsShadows*, John Cassavetes (1959, USA). Cassvetes appears four times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he was certainly an important figure in US independent cinema, but, in terms of cinema as a whole, was he more important than, say, Varda, Wajda, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Sturges, Resnais, Kiarostami, Haneke, or Ophüls… to name a few? I can understand why Shadows is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not just because if its importance in terms of indie cinema, but also because of its subject matter. But according to Wikipedia, its genesis was a bit fraught. Originally shot with improvised dialogue, Cassavetes ended up remaking great chunks of it using a script. As documentation of a particular time and place – New York, the late 1950s – and a particular sector of society, Shadows works well; but the improvisational nature of the story tells against it, and it often seems a little too chaotic – but that’s something all of Cassavetes’s films have in common, and probably explains why I’m not a fan of his work. Yes, Shadows belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, moreso perhaps than some of Cassavetes’s other movies; and at least I can now cross it off.

stradaLa strada*, Federico Fellini (1954, Italy). Fellini is a popular director in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, with seven films – one of which is La strada. I have to date seen all but one of those films, and I liked pretty much straightaway, and grew to love Fellini Satyricon as I watched it. The rest were a bit meh. To be fair, I like Italian Neo-realism as an idea more than I’ve liked those films which are labelled as such – not that all, or indeed many, of Fellini’s movies have been classified as Italian Neo-realist. La strada has Giuletta Masina as a naïf who is sold to an abusive Anthony Quinn to perform as assistant (and clown) to his travelling strong man act. She runs away, he finds her, there’s a rivalry with trapeze artist Richard Basehart. The rivalry intensifies, partly driven by the two men’s relationships with Masina… and it all ends badly, in a sort of all-too-predictable-but-gently-ironic way, not that Fellini is a director who does irony especially well. I would rate some of Fellini’s films highly, but not this one. I’m glad I saw it, and I can cross it off the list, but that’s about it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 750