It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Moving pictures 2018, #54

Some well-known names in this movie post – I’m referring to the directors, of course, although a couple of the titles are probably also well known. A bit of a mixed bunch. Some were better than expected, others weren’t. Oh well.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ron Howard (2018, USA). Let’s get the good news out of the way first: I enjoyed this. Yes, I actually enjoyed watching it. But. It didn’t feel like a Star Wars film; and this Han Solo is pretty much an entirely different character to the one played by Harrison Ford. It is, in other words, a fun space opera set in a well-realised space opera universe, that happens to share a lot of commonality with Star Wars films. So, like Rogue One then. Which I liked too. Although that film did at least manage to slot itself into current SW history (which Disney are busy rewriting and retconnning faster than Trump is the history of his disastrous presidency). But, Solo… It’s about, er, Han Solo. Who grows up as a member of a criminal gang on Corellia, but manages to escape (and chooses the name “Solo” because he’s alone – do you see what they did there?). Anyway he ends up in the Imperial infantry, but deserts and joins Woody Harrelson’s gang of thieves, bullshits his way into jobs he has no real hope of completing, fails to complete them, bullshits his way out of it, and somehow or other ends up with Lando Calrissian’s ship, the  Millennium Falcon. It’s all great fun, but all drawn with very broad strokes. There’s no complicated structure here, no weird story arcs, to fuel deep analyses of the film-maker’s intentions (if you find what you’re looking for in a Hollywood film written by committee and rewritten by a director whose strings are being pulled by a studio… what you’re finding probably only exists in your head). Star Wars has gone all diverse, and not before time, and Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3-37 (who is not at all leet, but more L7 – but perhaps the band weren’t so keen on her being called just L7), is presented as one of the highlights and deserves the role. Harrelson and his gang are entirely forgettable. Bettany puts in a quality turn as the villain, but then he’s good at his job and people seem to forget that. He played fucking Vision, FFS. To be honest, I gave up on the plot about 30 minutes in. It didn’t matter. The entire film is set-up. And minor redemption too, of course. All of Star Wars is redemption, of one form or another. But at least Solo, or Rogue One, isn’t the portentous crap George Lucas made of the prequels and Disney is now making of the sequels. It’s not like Solo/Rogue One are ignoring important subjects, like slavery or terrorism, though it’s “commentary lite” on both; but then this is space opera and when it comes to human issues and relevance, space opera has always been light on payload. Solo goes for “character and colour and cosmos” (ie, worldbuilding), which is a wise decision as those three Cs are about all that works in cinematic space opera. I enjoyed Solo. Not a great film, not a great science fiction film, but fun all the same. And not a good Star Wars film. Which is entirely in its favour.

Il Postino, Michael Radford & Massimo Troisi (1994, Italy). From the ridiculous to the, er, mawkish. I should schedule these films better, then I could actually write from “the ridiculous to the sublime” and it might even be true. Il Postino is, as far as I can tell, and I may be mistaken, one of those awful mawkish Italian films that seemed to do really well on the international circuit during the 1990s. Like Life is Beautiful and Cinema Paradiso. It’s not restricted to Italy, of course. French versions include Jean de Florette and La gloire de mon père and no doubt many others, for other nations. The central premise of Il Postino is that the local postman, an aspiring poet, becomes friends with a mystery visitor to a small Italian island, who turns out to be exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The two form an unlikely friendship. Neruda was indeed famous, but not so much outside the Hispanic-speaking world. He was also equally well-known, in the same world, as a political dissident in a far right regime. Yes, once poets were actually exiled, or worse, for their public commentary against authoritarian governments. They didn’t just write cute advertising copy for building societies. But then the UK has never had a society of intellectuals similar to that of Spanish-, French- or Italian-speaking countries. We’ve been far too class-ridden. Our intellectuals were focused on social climbing – by all accounts, Waugh was a terrible snob; and on professing a desire to write a novel, Fleming was told by some dowager duchess, “Don’t do it, Ian. You’re not clever enough.” The joke being, of course, that the British aristocracy couldn’t muster a working brain cell between the lot of them. And the chances of a British intellectual from the arts running afoul of the establishment are pretty remote because the establishment simply co-opts them. In fact, the idea of art as political seems to be fiercely opposed by the Anglophone world. We saw it in science fiction with the Sad Puppies, who were, ironically, entirely political. But in the English-speaking world satire and commentary are toothless, and we’re all the poorer for it, even it means our so-called intellectuals are unlikely to ever be exiled. And, I suppose, there’s an advantage to that inasmuch no one will make mawkish films about them. Well, not about their exile. There are plenty of mawkish UK films about recent historical figures, like the one about Stephen Hawking. Which is, now I think about it, probably worse. Fuck them all.

King of New York*, Abel Ferrara (1990, USA). I always get this film a bit confused with Scorsese’s King of Comedy – and it doesn’t help that both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s the titles, of course, because that’s about the only resemblance between the two. I had also thought I’d seen King of New York many years before, but having now watched it, I’m not so sure. It’s a straight-up mobster movie, perhaps more violent than was common in the late eighties, but it seems a bit tame when compared to twenty-first century Hollywood cinema. Walken plays a gangster who finishes his prison sentence and returns to New York determined to take over everything. Which is what he does. He shoots anyone who disagrees with him. He also mixes in posh circles because his girlfriend is a DA or something. I’m not sure. I didn’t really care. This film has fuck-all to recommend it. Walken plays Walken, the rest of the cast are forgettable, and if it had any historical impact in 1990, that has long since dissipated. It’s by no means the only film to follow the same formula, and if they’re trying to capture a point in time I have to wonder how they saw that particular point… Missable.

A Closed Book, Raúl Ruiz (2010, UK). Ruiz was a highly-regarded director from Chile, although this film was made in the UK, and based on a novel by UK author Gilbert Adair, which he adapted himself. It’s a two-hander – mostly – and a pretty odd one. I don’t think it works, and I’m not sure if that’s because the story is just silly or because the two leads, Tom Conti and Darryl Hannah, struggle to carry it. Conti, a reclusive art critic who lives in a stately pile recruits Hannah to be his amanuensis. He reveals he was blinded in a car crash a few years earlier and has decided it is time he wrote his autobiography. Hannah, however, plays it sneaky and gaslights Conti… and it’s all because her history is linked to his car crash, and… Yawn. This has been done a million times before. Make both of the leads female and they’d call it “grip-lit”. Not that it would make much difference as the two leads here are terrible. Ruiz apparently took a hands-off approach and then they edited the shit out of the film… But it’s hard to see how it could have been improved. The material just isn’t strong enough. Avoid.

Rhapsody in August, Akira Kurosawa (1991, Japan). Kurosawa is, of course, best known for historical samurai films like, er, Seven Samurai, or Throne of Blood or Yojimbo… But he also did other stuff, like the excellent Dersu Uzala, and this one, Rhapsody in August, which I kept on thinking as “Kirosawa does Bergman”, and it sort of fits… A family have left their children with their grandmother, a survivor of Nagasaki, while they visit a dying relative in Hawaii. The grandmother was supposed to go, but refused because she has not seen the relative – her brother – since the war. So you have the culture shock of a Japanese visitor to the US, handled through video letters to the grandmother, and Japanese kids learning about Nagasaki and the very real effect the nuclear bomb had on the country. It’s all good stuff… until Richard Gere appears on the screen. He plays an American, a member of the family by marriage, and he speaks Japanese (and convincingly haltingly), but he just seems out of place. He’s clearly important to the film, and he’s certainly been used to promote it – and it’s true his character’s perspective is important to the story, an American viewing the impact of Nagasaki – but to a Western viewer he brings too much baggage, and not of a good sort. True, Japanese actors bring baggage to their roles, and Kurosawa certainly had his favourites, so Toshiro Mifune, for example, no doubt dragged around a shedload of past performances whenever he appeared in a movie (over 150, apparently, and I’ve probably seen around ten percent of them). Despite all that, the overriding impression I have of Rhapsody in August is Bergman lite. It seems the sort of story he did so much better.

Red Line 7000, Howard Hawks (1965, USA). This is not one of Hawks’s best-known films, and for good reason. It’s all very formulaic, and while it’s set among race car drivers I doubt would many recognise the sport depicted as it’s changed so much since 1965. James Caan plays one of two drivers for an owner. The other had decided to retire and get married and, as is usual for these sorts of films, is killed in a crash in his last race. The hunt is on for a new team member to drive alongside Caan. Which ends up being: a young American man who appears to have no experience or qualifications, but some talent, and fancies the owner’s “masculine” sister (she rides a motorbike!); and a celebrated driver from Europe, who has a French girlfriend in tow. Yawn. The footage of the races uses actual real races – and accidents – which gives it all more of a patina of reality than you usually get with Hollywood films that repeatedly cut to close-ups of the stars in what are patently sets filmed against moving backdrops. And the cars are so crude! They’re just souped-up Plymouths and the like. When they crash, they burst into flames. And kill the driver. It’s watching a dangerous sport in the days when it was outright fucking lethal. And dramatising that lethality. I suspect there are good reasons why Red Line 7000 is not lauded as one of Hawks’s best. It doesn’t help that Caan mumbles his way through his part, far too many of the scenes are studio sets, the female characters are stereotypes, and the plot goes round in circles just like the race cars. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932


Moving pictures 2018, #31

Fifty-fifty this time around – three Anglophone films, and three non-Anglophone. Plus two from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

In the Year of the Pig*, Emilio de Antonio (1968, USA). There are several war documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I think this is the only anti-war documentary on it. It is ostensibly about the Vietnam War – which is sort of like the American equivalent of the British Empire: if you meet someone who approves of it, then they’re a right-wing fascist moron and best avoided. In the Year of the Pig is both experimental and a traditional documentary. It features a lot of archival footage and talking heads; but that’s juxtaposed with poetic imagery and loud atonal music. But it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: which is demonstrate that the US should not have been in Viet Nam. Nor indeed should the French have been. It is, despite its reliance on found footage, a good-looking film, although shots of French troops in pith helmets marching past and in which the faces have been blurred out looks weirder than was probably intended. I don’t necessarily agree with the film – it’s Western commentators on an Eastern country, and for all their claims of expertise they’re not Vietnamese. On the other hand, many of the interviewees discuss the US’s failure to treat Ho Chi Minh as “the George Washington of his country”. In other words, the US’s orientalists (for lack of a better term) all felt Ho Chi Minh should be accorded the same respect as any other national leader. But the French had already fucked up, so the US stepped in to “help”. Ha. It would be interesting to see a poll asking if people in the US thought the US won the Vietnam War. I suspect these day the majority might think they did. Fake news! One commentator states that “colonialism created communism”, which is an interesting, if ahistorical, opinion. Communism was already over 100 years old by 1968, and when you have empire looming over you and no prospect of independent local rule, then subsidised communism looks like an attractive alternative… but that’s not a bad take for 1968. Recommended.

Hellzapoppin’, HC Potter (1941, USA). Sometimes you stumble across a film, and even though it’s not the sort of thing you normally watch, it sounds interesting enough to bung it on your rental list. Actually, now I think about it, I do that a lot. Anyway, Hellzapoppin’ was described as a “ground-breaking comedy classic” and “Way ahead of its time, it’s been described as ‘Pythonesque’ and has influenced generations of comedians”. That’ll do for me, I thought. Okay, it was made in 1941, so we’re looking more at Abbott and Costello, or the Three Stooges, than we are Monty Python, but I can live with that. And… it was fun. It was clever, snappy, meta, had some memorable set-pieces, some real groaner lines, and actually reminded me more of the Busby Berkeley musicals from the decade prior than it did Python. It opens in a version of hell, but then the camera pulls back to reveal it’s a set. The director approaches the two comic leads and tells them he has a problem with a movie he’s working on, and they sit down in front of a screen… which begins to display the main narrative of the film, with commentary from the director, but then opens out to fill the frame. A rich family are staging a musical in the gardens of their mansion, because their daughter fancies a playwright but he won’t offer until he is a success. Midway through the play, the two comic leads discover the play should not succeed, so they sabotage it, only for it to become a comic hit. If this sounds familiar, stop me. It’s fun, it’s very much of its time, and to be honest I had no idea who any of the stars in it were.

The Machine, Caradog James (2013,UK). One day, a film-maker will, er, make a film about AI which a) treats the subject intelligently, and b) does not depend on a sexy female robot. But that day has yet to come – and may indeed never come. I tweeted not so long ago that I rarely watch sf television series as I’m not the target audience, and I suspect that is also true of sf films. Although there are a handful of sf films I love dearly. But, let’s face it, most of them are shit. As in, really shit. The Machine tries hard not to be Ex Machina, which it actually predates by a year, which is a point in its favour; and both Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz are quite good in their roles. But there’s a lot going on in The Machine and the director chose foolishly to tell the wrong story. Stephens plays a scientists working for the MoD on advanced prostheses for wounded soldiers, including brain implants to repair brain damage. But the implants haven’t been entirely successful. He brings on board Lotz, an AI researcher, in order to push forward on producing a robot soldier. But she is murdered by a Chinese agent – the UK and China are at war, btw – and then becomes the model for the first AI soldier. Of course. The Machine did well with its low budget, but it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before – Metropolis, anyone? – and it’s time the film world really came up with a fresh spin on it. On the other hand, it was less annoying than Ex Machina. Which, from me, the director should take as praise.

Three Lives and One Death*, Raùl Ruiz (1996, France). Some films make it onto the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because they are bona fide classics, and it’s obvious as soon as you watch them. Others are seminal works. Some had fascinating production histories, and the fact they exist at all is likely what’s being celebrated. And some of them… I’ve no fucking idea why the 70 film critics and commentators who put together the list chose some of the titles. Three Lives and One Death is not an obvious one – it’s French, although Ruiz is Chilean… but is probably best-known in France, where he settled in 1973 after Pinochet (you know, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite fascist dictator) seized power in Chile. Ruiz’s works are not easy to find in English-language releases, and he made over 100 films. He directed the only film adaptation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I really must read one of these days, Time Regained, which I have seen. Anyway, Trois vies et une seule mort has Marcello Mastroianni trapped in an apartment for decades by fairies – he’s allowed out, but he cannot leave unless he finds a replacement. And one day, he does: the husband of the woman he left years before when he became trapped in the apartment. I’m not entirely sure what this film is about, which I suspect is par for the course for films by Ruiz, and I’m not especially convinced everyone else is. It may well have made the list because of the scene where Mastroianni buries a hammer in the head of the other man. Which would be a shame. I suspect Ruiz belongs on the list, but I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to determine whether this film is the best representative. It’s certainly slightly off-the-wall, and Mastroianni is always watchable.

The Laundryman, Lee Chung (2015, Taiwan). This was another of the films, most starring Regina Wan, a Taiwanese distributor seems to have dumped on Amazon Prime. Not that I’m complaining, as the ones I’ve seen – The Village of No Return (see here), this one and Threads of Time (confusingly uploaded under the title Contact of Time) – were all pretty good. The latter is an historical epic about the life of Ming dynasty concubine Liu Rushi, although it seems to miss out many of the events of her life. But The Laundryman is set in the present-day and is about a hit man who is haunted by the victims of his hits – to the extent that it is interfering with his work. His boss gives him the name of a medium to consult – the boss is not entirely convinced by his problem – but with the medium’s help he discovers that the haunting is a consequence of his own background. Which involves his upbringing in a care home in which a doctor experimented on the violent tendencies of the children consigned to it. This was a good-looking film, and surprisingly good. I’ve seen comments complaining that the fight scenes weren’t so good, given they used slo-mo and repeated the same actions from different viewpoints. It’s true they slowed the pace, but I wasn’t expecting an action film so I wasn’t that upset by them. Fun.

Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). The title character is a young woman from a strict religious background who moves to Oslo to attend university. One day in the university library, she has what appears to be a grand mal seizure. She undergoes a variety of tests – including an induced epileptic fit – but no cause can be found. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a fellow student, but it conflicts with her upbringing (the student is female). The film then cleverly reveals through flashbacks to Thelma’s childhood that she has the ability make whatever she wants happen – just like in ‘It’s a Good Life’. Sometimes with fatal consequences for others. Some critics have suggested Thelma is little more than a carbon copy of Carrie, and there are indeed similarities. But I think Thelma treat its premise with much more subtlety than the film of King’s novel. It is, for one thing, not overtly horrific. There are some quite horrible bits in it, but no buckets of blood, no torture porn. And it is so much better for their lack. Elli Harboe in the title role is really very good, an award-winning performance in a fairer world. I loved this film. I want my own copy.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 914