My first Vietnamese film is in this post. I was sure I’d seen a movie from that country, but if I have I’d never recorded it. So The Lady Assassin earns the dubious distinction of being my first film from Vietnam. Otherwise, six films equals six countries.
The Last Day of Summer, Tadeusz Konwicki (1958, Poland). Despite having seen a number of Polish films, and being a fan of several Polish directors – although not so much Kieślowski these days, who I recently decided is somewhat middle-brow – I don’t know all that much about the cinema of the country. Konwicki’s name, for example, is completely new to me. And the place he occupies, and the place this film occupies, in Polish cinema is also unknown to me. So I’ve no real idea why it’s in the second box set of Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is not something I could have said of several of the films in the set. Anyway, A MiG fighter dives on a beach, a man and a woman meet on a beach, and, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t really get this film, to be honest. It felt experimental, in the way many Polish films of the 1950s and 1960s were experimental (and in a way the resolutely commercial cinemas of the US, UK and France, for example, of the time – other than in their independent or avant garde cinema traditions – were not). The Last Day of Summer bears rewatching, perhaps even demands it, so the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema sets have proven smart purchases in that respect – and these days, my main criterion when purchasing films on DVD or Blu-ray is whether I will want to, or need to, watch it a number of times. The Last Day of Summer is perhaps in the bottom half of the eight films in this box set, but it’s a strong box set so that’s no bad thing.
Cosmos, Andrzej, Żuławski (2015, France). This was Żuławski’s last film – he died in February 2016 – and while it’s clearly a film only he could have made, it doesn’t seem quite as intensely bonkers as some of his others. It’s still OTT, at least in comparison to other films of its type, but that’s hardly unexpected. It just seems tame as a Żuławski film… Which does not mean it’s not worth watching. To be fair, Żuławski was a singular talent who made singular films, most of which are probably not to everyone’s taste. I find him a bit hit and miss, but I appreciate his misses as much as I adore his hits. I think, for example, that Na srebrnym globie is actually improved by the random footage of shopping centres, added to cover the gaps Żuławski never managed to film a decade before. And L’amour bracque is the most 1980s film ever made, which makes your eyes water, but that has to earn respect. Cosmos doesn’t feel like a film to end a career on, n0t that it was ever intended to be, but sadly that’s what we must take it as. Żuławski was always technically excellent, and it shows here – more so, in fact, because the technology allows him to better realise his vision. The story has the vague shape of a French cinema standard, but Żuławski makes of it something that is uniquely his own, and does it in a way that is both technically superior to his other films but not quite as emblematic of his career as those earlier films were. Worth seeing, although Żuławski fans will get more mileage from it. I’m a fan.
The Lady Assassin, Quang Dung Nguyen (2013, Vietnam). I’m not sure why I bunged this on the rental list – perhaps after watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, its title persuaded me it might be similar. It isn’t. But neither was it as bad as it could have been. Which feels a bit like damning it with faint praise, or at least a faint insult… when it actual fact it proved quite entertaining. The film opens with a funeral party in mediaeval Vietnam coming across a remote inn staffed by four young women. The women initially refuse them hospitality, but eventually agree to let them stay. Midway through their meal, the women attack and prove to be accomplished assassins (who do tricks with a ball on a long ribbon, which they kick). It turns out the inn is a trap, and the women kill all those who stay there. But this time, they discover a woman hiding in the funeral party. She is fleeing a plot against her family, of which sh’es the only survivor. She is offered the opportunity to stay on at the inn, train as an assassin and thus have revenge on her family’s killers. She accepts the offer. And, er, that’s about it. There’s a strange sort of volleyball game, where they have to kick the ball not punch it. There are lessons on cleaning the inn by rolling up and down ropes. It’s all hugely implausible but still entertaining. The pulpy cover art doesn’t do the film any favours, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.
Track 29, Nicolas Roeg (1988, UK). Having watched the three Roeg films ninety-nine percent of film-watchers can name – ie, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout – I decided to explore his oeuvre a little more. (Yes, okay, some people might also know of Roeg’s debut, Performance, but I’ve not actually watched that yet.) Anyway, the first Roeg rental off the list was this one, Track 29, and… it’s an odd piece. It’s like a cross between David Lynch and Ken Russell. Which is just as unpalatable as it sounds. Gary Oldman plays a young Brit looking for his birth mother, Theresa Russell, an American, who turns out to be married to Christopher Lloyd, a doctor who spends more time with his train set than his wife. Except perhaps Gary Oldman is not real, and Russell’s relationship with him is just a fantasy of hers… Whatever ambivalence Roeg might have initially tried for he quickly drops in favour of Russell-seque (Ken, that is) excess. So we see Lloyd’s train set, and home, destroyed in a number of impressive ways, but none of them are real. It’s all a bit hyper-dramatic. I remember the performances in Walkabout being quite laid back, but everyone in Track 29 gurns like a Carry On star. Oldman’s OTT performance in this is matched only by his performance in Besson’s The Fifth Element. After seeing Roeg’s three best-known films, I ‘d expected more of him. I’ll try some more of his films, but I’ve no idea what happened here, that the man who directed The Man Who Fell to Earth could produce a piece of sub-Russell-esque nonsense. Um, I see his film just prior to this was Castaway, which I seem to remember didn’t do very well…
Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg (2016, USA). My fascination with deep sea exploration, such as using saturation diving (which is, to be fair, almost entirely commercial these days), has extended a little to the design of offshore structures. I find oil rigs and their like interesting – although I didn’t especially enjoy my one visit to an offshore supercomplex back in 2001, as I’m not fond of heights… Anyway, Deepwater Horizon is a dramatisation of the events of April 2010, when the titular rig exploded and caused a massive oil spill that posioned much of the Gulf of Mexico and cost BP billions of dollars in fines. The film pretty much recounts the events leading up to the explosion, and ignores all the political shenanigans which followed. The thing to remember about BP is that it was originally called Anglo-Iranian Oil and is reponsible for two regime changes in that country. So this is a company with a history of putting profit before people. As it is, Deepwater Horizon the film is populated by gruff everyman oil riggers who try to do their jobs to the best of their abilities in a solwly-worsening situation that management seems to content to ignore. This is neither unique to the oil industry, nor uncommon. But for the oil industry, the consequences of failure are much higher. And much more expensive. Not that the film makes much of this aspect. It’s a workmanlike piece – it stars Mark Wahlberg, so of course it is – and the special effects are done well (Berg is usually good with sfx), but making a hero out of John Q Public during a preventable disaster is a good way of deflecting criticism from those who could have prevented it. Deepwater Horizon makes a show of finger-pointing, but it’s feeble at best. I enjoyed the film because I’m interested in oil rigs, but that’s about all it has going for it. After all, this is a director whose most interesting film to date has been Battleship, a piece of sf nonsense based on a boardgame, but which managed to do more interesting things genre-wise than Michael Bay’s entire output…
Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, Kunihiko Ikuhara (1999, Japan). I’d asked David Tallerman if I could borrow a couple of his anime DVDs, particularly the Makoto Shinkai ones, and for reasons best known to himself he threw in Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (or Adolescence of Utena, as Wikipedia has it). After I’d finished the film, I texted him: “WTF have I just watched?” There’s a line in Wikipedia’s plot summary for the movie which perfectly sums it up: “Utena is then inexplicably swallowed by a sporadic car wash, and, inside, she is metamorphosed into a pink car”. Um, yes. It started well enough, although I wasn’t too keen on the stylised art – pointy noses, big eyes, long writhing hair in a variety of implausible colours, tiny torsos and long skinny legs – but hey, that’s like such a popular style it’s become part of the iconography. And the story too throws you straight in at the deep-end, with princes and fencing and a Rose Bride, and just enough not-exactly-subtle exposition to further confuse… But just when the pieces start slotting together, it goes completely batshit insane. Not just the aforementioned “sporadic [sic] car wash” and the ensuing Death Race, but the castle on wheels which tries to crush the pink car, and all of it enfolded in the sort of metaphysical/philosophical framework that you dare not think about too hard in case it comes crashing down about your ears. And yet… the film lingers. It’s not only dramatic, or even melodramatic, it’s two-dimensional animated characters actually chewing the scenery like the shark in Jaws, Jaws 2 and even Jaws 3D. Just when the story starts to add up… it veers away into babble. It makes for an interesting, and memorable, viewing experience. I don’t think I’ll ever become a fan of this sort of anime – sorry, David; I prefer my anime more like Only Yesterday – but I’m still glad I got to see Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie.
1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 863