Bit of an odd mix this time.
Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Philip Sgriccia (1999, USA). A while ago I put together a list of all films that featured deep sea diving, and this was on it. I knew nothing about it, other than that. I didn’t know it was a private project by a star of Baywatch, Parker Stevenson. I didn’t know it was released straight-to-video. I didn’t know it was pretty bad. Stevenson plays an oceanographer who is called in when an island mysteriously explodes and creates a “black tide – a “harmful algae bloom” or “HAB”, because, of course, world-killing events always have acronyms. But apparently it’s all to do with a Mayan god, who threatens extinction every 5,000 years… or is it? A diver disappears in the deeps, and when he reappears he’s different, like alternate world version of himself different. Oh, and there’s a big hole, with an “intense magnetic field”, in the ocean bed. So maybe not Mayan gods after all. Surprisingly, Stevenson managed to get use of some pretty state-of-the-art diving hardware for his film – not just a diving support ship and a ROV, but also an actual DSV (which never gets used) and an atmospheric diving suit (which does). This film apparently never made of it off VHS, which is a bit of a shame given much worse films have had DVD, and even Blu-ray, releases. It is perhaps a bit too much of a cut-price The Abyss, and Stevenson probably found his level when he appeared in Baywatch… but there’s some nice hardware on display and some pretty good underwater photography (but also some bad CGI).
The Steamroller and the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Prior to the release of his first feature film, Andrei Tarkovsky made four short films, the last of which, The Steamroller and the Violin, was his diploma film at VGIK. It’s a simple enough story: a seven-year-old music student is bullied by the other boys in his apaprtment block, and is one day saved by the driver of a steamroller working on the road outside. The two become friends. They spend the day wandering around Moscow, and agree to meet up to see a film that afternoon. But the boy’s mother won’t let him out because she doesn’t know the steamroller driver. Who insteads goes to the cinema with his female driver colleague who has completely by coincidence of course turned up. The one thing that’s noticeable about The Steamroller and the Violin is all the camera tricks Tarkovsky managed to squeeze into it. On his way to music school, the boy looks at the mirrors in a shop window, and we’re treated to a montage of split-screen fractured moving images, as if reflected in multiple mirrors. When the boy and the driver watch a house being demolished, the camera follows the path of the wrecking ball. And when the boy plays his violen for the driver, the camera is placed near the floor looking up at the boy as he plays. Given it was a diploma film – it was awared “excellent”, apparently – then I suppose it’s good to display technical proficiency, but it all does seem a bit… imposed, a bit too much for the story to carry. Worth seeing, however.
Interlude, Douglas Sirk (1957, USA). My admiration for Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” know no bounds, and not only is All That Heaven Allows my absolute favourite film but I also love Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. But not every film made during that period by Sirk worked quite so well. On paper, Interlude should have done. A young American woman, hungry for adventure, gets a job in post-war Germany with a cultural organisation. Through her job, she meets a tortured genius German conductor, whose wife is mentally ill. She has an affair with him. But eventually realises the error of her ways and returns to the US. It has all the ingredients, and the cast were certainly up to the job – June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi. It even had European locations. And yet… I note that the three films I like had Russell Metty as cinematographer, but Interlude has William H Daniels. Is that all it is? The cinematography? Because Interlude has its moments, but doesn’t enthral to same extent as those other films. Perhaps it’s because Allyson’s character is too nice – Wyman in All That Heaven Allows at least stands up for herself – or perhaps it’s that Brazzi never quite convinces as the tortured maestro, although he does make a good romantic lead. Interlude feels like a film that could have been a pure slice of Americana, with an entirely US cast, but was made in Europe for no other reason than to show American audiences that such a place existed. It’s by no means the worst film Sirk ever made – some of his early Hollywood films are clearly “work for hire” – but it lacks something that lifts up among the best of his “women’s pictures”.
Forbidden Kingdom, Oleg Stepchenko (2014, Russia). It wasn’t until I was about thirty minutes into this film that I realised it was a remake if Viy (see here). It didn’t help that the opening was completely different – Jason Flemyng is a cartographer in eighteenth-century England, who is a caught in flagrante delicto with Charles Dance’s nubile daughter, and so forced to flee the country. He heads east in his steampunk carriage, and so finds himself in the Ukraine… Which is where he ends up in a village currently being haunted by a young woman who died at the hands of a demon. Her body is lying in state in the local churchm and people who spend the night in the church witness all manner of demonic activity. But then it begins to spread into the village. Flemyng is at a dinner where all the other guests turn into monsters. There are sightings of a horned demon. It’s all very OTT and CGI, and while bits of it certainly reminded of Viy there was so much more of it. It didn’t help that the actors who dubbed into English all sounded like they were acting in a bad TV advert. In the end, it all turns out to be some sort of weird mass hallucination, and then there’s a rational explanation for everything, although I must have blinked and missed the point where the film turned from fantastical horror to historical drama. There’s also a framing narrative, in which Flemyng writes to Dance’s daughter – the implication being that the story is told through his letters, which might at least explain the change from horror to drama, but is spoiled by the fact we see it visually on-screen. It was an entertaining enough film, but the original is much better.
The Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1982, Taiwan). This is the second film Hou prefers not to remember, and also a vehicle for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee. In this film, Bee plays a substitute teacher sent to a provincial town, who falls in love with a fellow teacher. It’s not all smooth-sailing, as his girlfriend form Taipei turns up and he’s too much of a coward to tell her his attentions now lie elsewhere. He also has to get permission from the woman’s father. And then there’s the class he’s teaching, particularly three young lads he refers to as the “Three Musketeers” (or at least the subtitles do, and I have to wonder what cultural referent the actual dialogue uses). The Green, Green Grass of Home at least doesn’t have the horrible ear-wormy song of Cute Girl, although it does have a song which is repeated throughout the film – on several occasions it’s even sung by the schoolkids. But it’s still lightweight stuff, and it’s easy to see why Hou would sooner it was forgotten.
Cairo Station*, Youssef Chahine (1958, Egypt). The Egyptian film industry is, more or less, the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world. It churns out endless dramas, almost none of which – or perhaps even none – ever get released in the Anglophone film world. The only Egyptian film I’d seen prior to this one was The Yacoubian Building, which was also a best-selling novel in the UK. Cairo Station, AKA Bab al-hadid or The Iron Gate (a literal translation of the Arabic title), is an early neorealist film in an industry which hasn’t much gone in for neorealism. The story is straightforward enough – it’s a day in the life among the workers at Cairo’s railway station, focusing particularly on the porters and the women who sell soft drinks to passengers. The porters are attempting to unionise because they’re sick of the gang master who controls all the porter jobs. And the soft-drink sellers don’t have a licence and so are continually running away from the police. Also living at the station is Qinawi, a disabled man who does odd jobs and is nominally looked after by the newspaper seller. But he fancies Hannuma, but she is betrothed to the man trying to unionise the porters. And it all comes to a violent head. All of the action takes place in the station, and mostly on the tracks. The plot didn’t hold any real surprises, but I was surprised at how well the film hung together. The cast were variable, but the lead characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, and the story managed to keep its different threads running along together. I think I’d have to see more Egyptian films to decide whether or not it should represents the country’s cinema in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it’s certainly a good film.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 924