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Moving pictures 2019, #34

This is it, the last Moving pictures post for 2019. Only #34, compared to #69 in 2018 and #70 for 2017. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino (2019, USA). This is apparently Tarantino’s last film as he’s said he won’t make anymore. Many have also called it the best movie he has ever made – or at least a triumphant return to form. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tarantino or his work. He chooses excellent cinematographers, but his stories are cobbled together from strings of clichés, often with bizarre swerves in the final act. His dialogue can be good, however. Anyway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about an ex-TV cowboy looking to restart his moribund career, which involves various parodic encounters with Hollywood archetypes. He is driven around town by his old stunt double, who now acts his chauffeur and dogsbody. Both characters are well-drawn, the only well-drawn ones in the entire film, in fact. The important element in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is that the TV cowboy lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate, of course, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. And this is where Tarantino introduces his swerve: the TV cowboy foils the murder. What I don’t understand, however, is the point of the film. It’s alternate history, but alternate history introduces a change in order to explore the consequences and ramifications of that change. Tarantino doesn’t do that. His change, his “jonbar point” (a horrible coinage), is meaningless. It comes at the end of the movie – a long movie – and its trivial impact is quickly dispatched with some voice-over narration. I mean, if you’re going to do alternate history, at least do it. Here it’s just a cheap gimmick, and that detracts from what has gone before.

La Chiesa, Michele Soavi (1989, Italy). The film opens with a troop of Teutonic knights slaughtering a village and burying the bodies, not all of which were dead, in a mass grave. Supposedly because they were devil-worshippers. They then build a massive cathedral on the site. As you do. Cut to the 1980s and the cathedral is now apparently in the centre of a bustling European city. It’s the new librarian’s first day at work – and who knew cathedrals have libraries? somewhat ironic for institutions that have spent much of their existence suppressing knowledge – and down in the catacombs he meets an artist restoring the cathedral’s frescoes. Which sets in motion a chain of events that results in various mediaeval technology mechanisms sealing the cathedral and trapping all those inside it, after the librarian finds a seal in the floor in the catacombs, manages to open it, and releases all that mediaeval evil (ugh, not a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue). Which promptly causes everyone locked inside to go mad and see demons, and engage in sex or violence or both. For a piece of schlocky Italian horror from the 1980s, this was considerably better than expected. According to Wikipedia, the film had quite a convoluted genesis, and the director was keen to make something “more sophisticated” than the usual run of giallo horror. I’m not sure that he succeeded in doing that but La Chiesa is a pretty good horror movie of its time and reminded me in places of the Hammer House of Horror TV series. Worth seeing.

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2017, Norway). The Ash Lad is like Cinderella, but male. And stupid. Mostly. Basically, everything he touches he fucks up. But he’s also incredibly lucky, and amiable with it, so everything turns out right for him in the end. He picks things up, mostly rubbish, and hangs onto it because he doesn’t understand why people would have thrown it away. And it proves to be just what he needs to get past various obstacles thrown in his path. In the invented fantasy country of the film – I don’t think it’s supposed to be an historical representation of a real Nordic country, as it all looks a bit identikit West European high fantasy… Anyway, the kingdom is cursed: if the princess is not betrothed by her eighteenth birthday, bad things will happen. An arrogant prince from Denmark turns up to ask for her hand – the Swedes and Norwegians have an… interesting opinion of the Danish – so she runs away. Meanwhile, Ash Lad has accidentally burnt down the home he shares with his father and two brothers, and so has gone off to make his fortune in order to make good on the destruction he has wreaked. His brothers follow to keep him from harm. But he ends up rescuing them from various fantasy encounters. And also rescuing the princess. Of course. The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King looked good, although perhaps a little too CGI-dependent, and it was all very amiable and the story ran along well-established rails. The characterisation of the Danish prince was amusing. It was perhaps a bit generic, although that wasn’t helped by the version I watched being dubbed into American English rather than keeping the original Norwegian soundtrack and providing subtitles. But if you like films that straddle the line between Western European high fantasy and fairy-tale… this is way better than anything by Uwe Boll.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Sergio Martino (1971, Italy). Edwege Fenech, a French-Algerian actress, made a number of giallo films, and was probably as popular a leading lady in that genre as Barbara Bouchet, if not more so. True, gialli were not known for the calibre of their acting, but certainly Fenech (and Bouchet) had more screen presence than many other giallo leading ladies of the time. Fenech plays the title role in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – the “h” apparently added after a threatened lawsuit by a real Mrs Ward (hm, maybe I should try the same every January…) – the wife of a US diplomat in Vienna sent a series of blackmail letters by a serial killer. Wardh is afraid her ex-lover is the killer, and turns to her new lover to help her. You can guess where this is going… Well, perhaps not, as there are twists within twists. Like many giallo films, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh treads a fine line between sexploitation and female agency – although Fenech’s character triumphs here, and all the male characters are revealed as either venal or stupid. There are several dream sequences, however, each a sort of cross between soft porn and horror, which seem designed more to titillate than present Wardh as a kick-ass heroine. And a party sequence which seems like it comes straight from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Giallo is an acquired taste, although the more you’re exposed to it, the more you begin to appreciate and enjoy it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a stylish thriller, albeit very much of its time, and if the level of acting is not all that impressive – although Fenech is generally worth watching – and the dialogue often cringe-worthy, it’s well-framed and well-shot. A good example of its type.

Ad Astra, James Gray (2019, USA). I’ve heard so much bad press about this film, I’m tempted to like it just to be contrary. Which is sort of how I went into it. And there are things to like… but also things to dislike. But the hate the film has received seems odd given its content. It presents a convincing portrait of its world, which is not so unusual in these days of CGI – but it’s a hard sf world and it sticks to it pretty much throughout. Okay, so the lawlessness of the Moon is the usual libertarian sf bollocks but that’s hardly a blocker as people have been writing stupid shit like that since the 1940s. The opening scenes set on the space antenna are visually spectacular, although I’m not entirely sure such a structure could actually exist, you know, a tower stretching into the upper atmosphere, or perhaps hanging from orbit. But then protagonist Brad Pitt is pushed from pillar to post by Space Command when it turns out his father, who disappeared decades before during a Grand Tour, may be responsible for the “power-surge” (er, what?) which caused lots of damage in the inner Solar system. Space Command sends Pitt to the Moon, then Mars, and along the way he learns more about his father’s mission. There’s a flatness to Pitt’s character – literalised in his ability to maintain a low heartbeat even under stress – that’s echoed in the presentation of his world, a sort of distant but realistic portrayal of an inhabited Solar system a century or so hence (although I think the film is set only a few decades from now). I accept that a well-realised hard sf world will likely blind me to deficiencies in plot, but when sf cinema (Hollywood’s version of it, at least) seems to be dominated by movies that display little or no rigour in world-building and nonsensical plots (see below), I see no problem with my opinion. Ad Astra may be your usual “daddy issues” movie – although expecting Hollywood to produce anything else these days seems to be more of a fantasy than much of its output. I hate “daddy issues” films but Ad Astra worked quite well for me – perhaps because of my aforementioned blind spot – and while it’s by no means a great film, it does make me wonder at all the hate that’s been directed at it. I think it’s a better movie than that suggests.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams (2019, USA). That’s it, the end of Star Wars. Until the next trilogy. Because I don’t see Disney giving up on such an enormous cash cow, not until they’ve absolutely milked it to death, or fucked it up so bad its fandom has turned completely toxic and the latter seems to be already happening to some degree. I’m not a Star Wars fan, or even a SWEU fan, although I have fond memories of the original trilogy and have enjoyed some of the tie-in movies. But this “final” trilogy is a poor thing indeed, especially its last installment. The whole thing reeks of bits and pieces cobbled together, inspired by visuals which actually fail willing suspension of disbelief. That last is, of course, pretty much Abrams’s career in a nutshell: he makes movies that look good but the eyeball kicks do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. And in the case of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker neither does the plot. There’s this secret planet of a race that’s supposed to have died out – the Sith – which has a fleet of millions of star battleships, with no indication of how and where they were constructed or indeed where their crews came from. And the planet can only be reached if a person is in possession of one of two navigation maguffins – Sith wayfinders – because of course a conspiracy to control the galaxy, which has already succeeded at least once before, would only have two navigation maguffins to reach its secret home world. Which is also a profound misunderstanding of how physics or cosmology work, FFS – and proves to be pretty much meaningless anyway because everyone ends up there for the final big battle. Gah. Why bother? It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker because the material is not actually up to it. The hand-wavy relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that seems to ignore time and space is the only thing that works in the movie, because – and no, “love” is not some magical force that transcends space and time, and anyone who believes that should not be put in charge of a ride-on mower, never mind a billion-dollar franchise – because the presentation of their Force-linked relationship in the trilogy actually works quite consistently and fits within the universe. There are some nice set-pieces in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and the light sabre battle between Ren and Rey on the wreck of Death Star 2 is impressively spectacular, if over-long. But movies are more than a series of eyeball kicks – perhaps someone should tell Abrams – and Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker fails on every other movie metric. It retcons some of the incidents in The Force Awakens. Badly. Carrie Fisher’s CGI “performance” is actually distracting – she deserved to be there as much as anyone, if not more so than most of the cast, but the footage they used makes her comes across as flat and unconnected to the story. Hollywood proved its point: it can place deceased actors in movies… but it also proved the results are unsatisfactory. At present. (Star Wars is a safe laboratory to test it out because fan service. This is not a good thing.) A blow-by-blow account of the deficiencies of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker would be as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, one thing this new trilogy has revealed is that fandom is happy to find the things it wants in the films whether they exist or not. And that includes sophistication. These are commercial space opera movies, made it would seem with an eye chiefly on the visuals, “what looks good”. Whether or not anything in it a) fits in the universe, or b) makes fucking sense, is of no consequence. Writers working in the SWEU were given a bible; it seems the directors of this new trilogy should have been given one too.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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Moving pictures, #47

At least half of my movie-watching is not from the US, but I still need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch. (To be fair, the bulk of those I actually purchase these days are non-Anglophone; in fact, it’s been a couple of years since I last bought a Hollywood film on DVD or Blu-ray… at least to keep, rather than a £1 purchase from a charity shop to watch and then take back afterwards…). Anyway, a typical mix this time around: three from the US (although one is silent), and one apiece from Argentine, Germany and Japan.

hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015, USA). Tarantino is a bit of a Hollywood darling, not to mention completely full of himself. His films are hardly typical Hollywood product – although their stories are very much set in those spaces colonised by Hollywood stories – but they still get major releases, with massive marketing campaigns and countless column-inches of approving reviews. The Hateful Eight is apparently a “revisionist Western”, although whether that means revisionist in respect to actual history or Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West I’ve no idea. Because, let’s face it, Shane or Rio Bravo can hardly be considered historically accurate, much as I love them. The Hateful Eight is basically Tarantino showing off about Westerns – all of his films are about him showing off in some respect – which in this case means a bunch of people trapped at a remote trading post during a fierce Wyoming winter, some years after the American Civil War, while en route to a nearby town. Two are bounty hunters, one is a prisoner of one of the bounty hunters, another is a newbie sheriff on his way to take up his silver star, one is an old Confederate general, one is a gruff cowboy, one is an English hangman, and the last is the Mexican assistant who has been left in charge of the trading post by its owner (he claims…). There then follows lots of dialogue, a deal of which is expositional, a minor mystery which is quickly disposed of, and a good deal of gory gunfighting. For a movie that’s 168 minutes long and mostly in a single indoor set, The Hateful Eight proved surprisingly gripping. Some of the photography was also very nice indeed, which is just as well since the characters are mostly stereotypes, and the story goes into this lengthy narrated flashback sequence to explain the entire plot of the movie which is dumb. Tarantino carries his films with wit, which is just as well as he can’t plot for shit and he’s just about capable of handling archetypes rather than real characters. But archetypes are very Hollywood – more than that, they’re classy Hollywood (stereotypes are just commercial Hollywood). A Tarantino film is never less than entertaining; and as Hollywood auteurs go (it should be an oxymoron, to be fair), he’s among the top rank. I just wish everything he did wasn’t polluted by that air of insufferable smugness he carries around with him.

official_storyThe Official Story*, Luis Puenzo (1985, Argentina). One of the joys of having your viewing directed by a list is sitting down to watch a film you know nothing about it and discovering it’s really good. And, it has to be said, of late I’ve found myself more drawn to documentary dramas than I have sfx-heavy fantastical bullshit. The Official Story hints at, but does not plainly state, its topic, although the country of origin and year should be some clue. It’s about the Disappeared. (For an excellent documentary on a similar topic, I recommend Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light.) A well-off couple – he’s something high up in the junta’s government, she’s a teacher – welcome a friend who fled the country shortly after the military seized power. She e’plains why she left – an ex-boyfriend was considered anti-junta and, although she’d not seen him for two or more years, she was arrested and tortured – but the teacher seems unconvinced, while the husband has his own cross to bear in the form of the deals he’s made to prosper during an oppressive regime. There’s a classic scene where the wives – all well-off, all untouched by the regime’s excesses – meet for lunch and the returned woman lays into one of them with an impressive savagery. Driving the plot is the dawning realisation that the teacher’s adopted daughter may be the child of a Disappeared woman, and when she starts looking into it she somes across a woman who may be the grandmother of the adopted daughter. The husband is far from happy when the wife tries to introduce the woman to the daughter, because the guilt of having another woman’s child, of having prospered, child-wise, at the expense of the real mother, and of the mothers’ movement to which the biological mother and grandmother belonged is anathema to him but is also… something new and uncomfortable for her, as mediated partly through her experiences in the classroom as a history teacher for rebellious teen boys, and also informed by the history of her friend who has recently returned. While this is an excellent film, and tells a story that needs to be told, the astonishing thing about it is that it was planned while the junta was in power – but the junta fell just as the screenplay was completed. Nonetheless, to plan a film so critical during the regime… Recommended.

scream_stoneScream of Stone, Werner Herzog (1991, Germany). Apparently Herzog himself disowns this one, and it’s certainly true that it doesn’t feel 100% like a Herzog film. Which is weird, because he directed it, he just didn’t write the script. Which, to be honest, seems to sit pretty much in the same space as most of Herzog’s films. There’s a mountain in Patagonia called Cerro Torre which is notoriously difficult to climb because it is both needle-shaped and its top features a mushroom of ice. A mountain climber challenges a championship indoor climber to accompany him on a climb to the top of Cerro Torre. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Donald Sutherland plays a television producer who kicks off the rivalry, and then cynically feeds it, in order to get something he can make a TV programme about. The script isn’t great, much of the story is a bit cliché, but there’s some lovely photography… and while it’s easy enough to declare it second-string Herzog, it’s still Herzog and so superior to many other directors’ output. So, not a great film, and not one for the Herzog collection, but, I think, still worth seeing.

queen_earthQueen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry (2015, USA). I must have seen a positive mention of this somewhere, which is why, I assume, I added it to my rental list. In the event… there’s a type of American independent movie which seems to rub me up the wrong way. Uusually, they’re talky, and trying to be clever, and mostly reliant on the acting chops of the central cast. I’ve seen a number of films which fit this description and can think of only a handful which make the grade (and most of those starred Brit Marling, who’s definitely going to be something big one day). But. Queen of Earth. Which stars Elisabeth Moss, who I know chiefly from Mad Men. I watched it from start to finish, and there were lots of close-ups in cars; and Wikipedia describes it as a “psychological thriller” but I’m buggered if I can remember an actual story never mind anything as crass as a plot. It’s one of those films where the dullness of the script is not enlivened by some nice landscape cinematography because remains tightly focused on the cast and the no doubt bon mots they are so artfully enuniciating. The movie was, unfortunately, a rental, so I can’t watch it again and re-evaluate it; but on the one showing, I was less than impressed- although that, I suspect, may be due to it more being a type of film I don’t like rather than the film itself. (It’s an entirely different matter, for example, when a film covers a type of story I like but does it badly – it so much easier to a) see that it’s bad and b) that I don’t like it.) So, when all’s said and done, there’s a definite element of YMMV to Queen of Earth

good_morningGood Morning, Yasujiro Ozu (1959, Japan). And speaking of YMMV, I do like these Ozu films and I’d never really expected too. Perhaps it’s that his stories seem to work for me in colour so much more than they do in black and white. I don’t know; I’ll have to re-watch Tokyo Story, or some other early film, to find out. And I probably will… since I seem to be in the habit of buying these excellent BFI editions of Ozu’s films. Good Morning is, like the other Ozus I’ve enjoyed, a domestic drama, and in this case centres around a neighbourhood club in which some funds have apparently gone missing. But it’s just as much about the Hatashi family, who are sort of at the centre of the missing funds mystery and have problematic relationships with their neighbours for a number of different reasons. It is, I suspect, pointless to relate the plot of an Ozu film, because they’re chiefly a series of domestic observations strung together and ostensibly applied to a single family, And that’s just as much the case here, especially the whole sequence in which the two young boys spend time at their neighbour’s house because they have a television. But there’ a clarity to Ozu’s framing and a stark simplicity to his blocking which reminds me more of Hergé’s ligne claire style of artwork than it does any cinema movement. It works beautifully well and, as I’ve said before, it frames uchi and soto in such a clear an unambiguous way that when it re-styles one as the other, it actually suggests an additional dimension to the scene which is not stated but still subtley changes its import (I’m thinking of the framing of the street shots as interior shots in An Autumn Afternoon here, which manages to beautifully define the character dynamics despite the dialogue only baldly stating the relationships). I’ve never been a big fan of Far Eastern cinema, although I’ve watched and enjoyed lots of Hong Kong action movies over the years. But – despite not liking Tokyo Story when I watched it several years ago – I’ve found myself becoming a bit of an Ozu convert. More, please.

eagleThe Eagle*, Clarence Brown (1925, USA). I have in other posts about my movie watching remarked that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to excellent films I might otherwise have missed – and not just silent films since I already had a few in my collection… But it’s not an area of cinema I’d choose to explore without prompting… Although having done so, I’ve seen some excellent movies made before sound… Sadly, this is not one of them. I’m not sure what The Eagle‘s actual claim to fame is. It’s not Rudolph Valentino’s most popular film, because that would The Son of the Sheik (and it’s pronounced shay-kh, with a “kh” like a softer version of the “ch” in loch; and not sheek, which is an entirely different word from another language altogether). Anyway, Valentino plays a lieutentant in Czarina Catherine the Great’s Imperial Guard. After rescuing a runaway coach – inadvertently taking the empress’s horse in the process – he comes to the czarina’s notice. She offers him a general’s rank, but he’s not willing to pay the price (sexual favours, basically). So he runs away with a price on his head. And ends up as a Robin Hood-type outlaw, the Black Eagle of the, er, title… and he bumps into the nubile young woman from the runaway carriage earlier, who it is the daughter of the local grandee who tricked Valentino’s father out of his estate, and so he pretends to be a French tutor in order to get close to her and win her love as well as conduct his Robin-Hood-ish campaign against her father… Yes, only in a silent film, but it sort of works… even if California makes a piss-poor stand-in for central Russia, and assorted Hollywood mansions make for unconvincing Russian castles. There are silent films that are still astonishingly good even now in 2016, but this isn’t one of them. It may well be the first appearance of a number of heavily-soiled tropes and clichés, but that’s not enough in my book to make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list… especially when it doesn’t appear to be genuinely new at the time it was made. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 802