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Moving pictures 2018, #56

Another eccentric half dozen movies – well, okay, maybe Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t eccentric. And one of these days I’ll figure out why I  still bother to watch MCU movies, although to be fair to it, Ant-Man and the Wasp was far less annoying than most of its ilk. The rest are… two directors whose films I like, an interesting documentary, some meh Oscar bait, and the third in a trilogy of Swedish films I have yet to really get a handle on…

Star 80, Bob Fosse (1983, USA). I’m a big fan of Fosse’s All That Jazz, which is why I decided to work my way through his oeuvre. He’s also a difficult director to get handle on – not a crowd-pleaser, despite the big dance numbers; with a willingness to push the boundaries of cinematic narrative. Which he certainly does in this, his last film (he died in 1987). It’s a dramatisation of the life and death of Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy model, who was murdered by her husband at the height of her fame. Sf fans may known Stratten from her role as the title character in Galaxina (a dreadful low-budget sf film) or as the “most genetically perfect woman in the galaxy” in an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Or perhaps even from Playboy – well, the magazine did publish science fiction stories by some very well-known names. The film jumps about chronologically, with the narrative mostly being driven by the husband’s self-aggrandising account of events. He’s played by Eric Roberts, who should have been nominated for an Oscar but the character was such a creep it likely turned the Academy off. Plot-wise, there’s little to tell. Cliff Robertson seems a little too charming as Hugh Hefner – I’ve seen footage of the real man and he comes across as a bit creepy, to be honest. Mariel Hemingway is a bit vacuous as Dorothy Stratten – but then it’s clear Fosse was in love with the character played by Roberts. The fractured chronology works well, and while there’s nothing stand-out about the cinematography – and no trademark choreography either – Star 80 does look more like a feature film than a made-for-TV movie, which is what the material suggests. Not his best, although Roberts’s turn is worth seeing.

A Successful Man, Humberto Solás (1985, Cuba). I really need to find a way to explore more of Solás’s oeuvre as the few films I’ve seen by him have been very good – and, in fact, his Lucía I count among my top ten favourite films. But all I have by him is Lucía from the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution DVD box set and the three films in this box set – which I am profoundly glad I managed to find for a reasonable price as it’s now going for silly money; the transfers are not great, but every serious cineaste should own a copy of it. Anyway, A Successful Man is about two brothers over thirty years of Cuban history, from 1932 to the revolution in 1959. To be honest, I found this a little confusing initially – it wasn’t entirely clear which of the two brothers, Darío or Javier, was the successful one, at least not until around an hour in when their father makes it clear which of the two he considers the black sheep of the family. And yet, Javier, the rebel, didn’t appear to have done all that much that was rebellious. Granted, the film seems to be more about the two brothers’ relationships than it is manning the barricades or anything; but even so while Darío reaps the rewards of his adaptability to the winds of political change, Javier’s situation doesn’t seem all that deprived. Having said that, A Successful Man does well what Solás has done well in his other films (that I’ve seen). The period setting is excellently presented and, while the cinematography would have benefited from a better transfer, it was clearly good. Solás likes his close-ups, especially of women’s faces, and he gets performances out of his cast that justify such close-ups. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the musical cues – there was an electric bass clearly audible in background music played during a scene set in the 1930s… Of course, it all comes down to politics – the film covers Cuba’s turbulent history from Machado in 1932 to Torrado in 1959… And I admit I know only the very broad strokes of Cuban history. But movies are a good way to learn more, and Cuban movies are, I have found, both excellent films in their own right and also very informative on the history of the island – either that or they send you down a rabbit-hole of Wikipedia research… Which is, it must be admitted, more than can be said of Hollywood movies. But that’s by the bye. I’ve now seen four films by Solás and I’ve liked what I’ve seen. He made 24 films between 1958 and 2005 (he died in 2008). And those films by him I’ve seen are quality stuff. One is even a favourite. He’s an excellent candidate for a box set of restored movies.

The Pianist, Roman Polanski (2002, France). I know, I shouldn’t watch Polanski films, no matter how celebrated; and to be honest, I hadn’t known The Pianist was by him when I started watching it. I only knew it was yet another in that long line of Holocaust porn movies Hollywood churns out every so often in order to bolster its liberal credentials. And, as in this case, they’re usually adapted from books. The Pianist is based on the autobiography by the same name by Władysław Szpilman. He was a pianist for Polish Radio who, with the rest of his family, was consigned to the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis. When they came to round everyone up and send them to the death camps, he managed to escape. He eked out an existence in Warsaw, staying in bombed-out buildings, and relying on friends and, eventually, a sympathetic Wehrmacht officer who appreciated his piano-playing. When you watch films like this, and know that what they depict absolutely fucking really happened, then it makes you want to punch Nazis all the more. Because the Nazis murdered six million Jews. That’s a stone cold historical fact. It is not “up for debate”. Condemning the Holocaust is not a view that requires “balance”. And if we had a press that actually did its job in such matters, we’d not be in the situation we are now. Polanski may be a rapist shitbag, but Szpilman’s experiences are as important now as they have ever been. Perhaps turning them into “entertainment” – well, Oscar bait – does them a disservice and cheapens them, makes light of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Except, well, you’d have to be spectacularly stupid, or shallow, to consider light of a systematic effort by one nation to wipe out an entire race. So go ahead, punch a Nazi; and if you can’t find a handy one, punch a Trump supporter or a Brexiteer instead, it’s the next best thing.

Ice and the Sky, Luc Jacquet (2015, France). The Anglophone world, and some other parts of the Western world, and maybe a few other places like India, are all a bit of a dumpster fire at the moment. The right wingers are taking over, and where they’re not the press is bigging them up as if they were. How we treat refugees is the defining characteristic of our age, and we are all mostly failing. The call for stricter border controls is based on a complete fallacy – there is no need for border controls in the first place, they are a late Victorian invention. So with all that going on, is global warming such a bad thing? I mean, wouldn’t the world be a better place if nature culled the population a bit? Of course, any natural disasters brought on by global warming would disproportionately hit those parts of the world who have done the least to cause it, and/or the least deserve its effects… And I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. This is relevant because… Ice and the Sky is a documentary about polar scientist Claude Lorius, who was the first person to raise concerns about global warming. That was back in 1965. It’s said the oil companies knew of its likely effects by the 1970s, but chose to pursue profits instead. In fact, the bulk of global warming has been caused by around a dozen companies – and they’re the usual suspects: Chevron, BP, Aramco, Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell… Future centuries – assuming we survive – will wonder why we didn’t prosecute corporations or people for crimes against the environment (not to mention crimes against the economy). Ice and the Sky is interesting inasmuch as it covers the career of Lorius, as well as because he spent a lot of time in the Antarctic. And this was back in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was considerably more dangerous than it is now. In one memorable sequence, two Lockheed C-130s crash, one after the other, on attempting take-off, and it is only because the third is successful that the scientists manage to escape. Fascinating stuff.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, Peyton Reed (2018, USA). I’m not a fan of superhero movies and I’m certainly not a fan of the MCU. But it has produced the occasional entertaining movie and Ant-Man was borderline that. While Ant-Man and the Wasp ups the silliness, and cuts down the improv (thank fuck), it is also a marginally more entertaining and better film. Scott Lang, Ant-Man, is nearing the end of two years of house arrest, his punishment for the events of Captain America: Civil War, when he has a weird dream about Janet van Dyne, the original Wasp, the scientist wife of scientist Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, who has been lost in the “quantum realm” for thirty years. When he lets Pym, and his daughter Hope, know about the message, they kidnap him… and the race is on to rescue Janet from the quantum realm, while prevent matter-phasing villain Ghost from stealing their quantum technology, not to mention a black market dealer from also stealing the tech… So you have Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly (which was a bit weird as I’ve only just started watching Lost for the first time) and Michael Douglas running around San Francisco, trying to outwit a bunch of several different groups of not very smart people who nonetheless manage to outsmart them, all the while trying to visit the realm of mad CGI in order to rescue Michelle Pfeiffer who has been lost there for thirty fucking years but still remembers who everyone is. It’s all complete nonsense and entirely risible, but it manages a lightness of tone that mitigates the nonsense which other MCU movies don’t. I enjoyed it, I freely admit it. But it’s not a good film, and it only counts as “well-made” when judged against other MCU movies. If one day someone were to put together a list of top ten MCU films… then they really should fucking watch some other movies.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Roy Andersson (2014, Sweden). This is the third of  a trilogy, which includes Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, and which are not especially easy to describe. They all share a unique approach to film-making, as they comprise a series of vignettes, some linked and some not, in which the production design and the cast are deliberately made to look more depressing than they actually are. If that makes sense. Usually, there is a linking mechanism. In this film, it is a pair of lugubrious salesmen who are trying to sell Halloween masks to reluctant buyers. Andersson films are hard to describe, if not just because they don’t have a plot per se. It’s more about the bits that stand out. And in this film it’s a sequence in which a mediaeval king of Sweden, and his army, stop off in a modern-day coffee shop on their way to a battle. The king expects to be treated like, well, a king, despite the fact the meaning of royalty has changed considerably in the centuries since. And yet, when he needs to go to the toilet, he goes off to the loo as if it were perfectly normal. It’s in that impedance mismatch between the present day and the world Andersson presents that much of Andersson’s black humour lies, but in this film you have an extra layer inasmuch as Andersson imposes historical events on the present day. It is surprisingly effective and, bizarrely, actually quite funny. I don’t know how well Andersson reflects Swedish humour, and given the few Swedes I personally know, I suspect he’s not entirely typical, and yet still seen by most Swedes as funny; which one might well say of a lot of Brits and British humour. Andersson’s trilogy is definitely worth seeing, even if its humour is more likely to raise eyebrows than it is guffaws.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932

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6 Comments

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