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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941

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Moving pictures 2017, #48

I’ve managed to knock the percentage of films I’ve watched since 2001 that are from the US down to 50.9%, but I’m still trying to get it below half. So far in 2017 alone, the percentage is much lower – only 26%, with the UK at 12%, China at 8%, France at 7% and so on… I’ve also watched movies from 52 different countries to date in 2017.

Into the Sea, Marion Poizeau (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, an hour-long documentary about an Irish surfboarder’s attempt to introduce the sport to Iran, specifically to Baluchistan, and, being female, using female contacts in Iran. I’ve watched a bunch of Iranian films, I’ve even visited the country (although it was back in the days of the Shah), so I have some knowledge of the country. And many of the obstacles met by Easkey as she tries to surf on the Baluchistani coast, with the help of snowboarder Mona and diver Shalha – and okay, I’d always thought Baluchistan was a part of Pakistan not Iran – came as no real surprise. However, the way the three women won over the local male authorities was a done really well, and the scenes of them teaching some of the area’s male youth to surf promised a brighter future. (Much as the young women of the local villages would have liked to surf, their families would not let them.) Surfing is not a sport, or a pasttime, I find interesting – like many sports, it’s more fun to do than to watch – and while Easkey’s mission may have been born out of a selfish desire to surf a coast no one has surfed before, what she actually achieved is so much more. In these days of normalised fascism and overt racism by world leaders, it’s nice to know that some people still believe in, and are successful in creating, bridges between different cultures. No matter what prompted it, or what the “bridge” is made from.

The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1952, Japan). I found this box set on eBay and bought it because it includes an Ozu film that is not otherwise available. It classifies only two directors as “Japanese masters” – Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi… and while it’s hard to deny them their master status, it’s surely a title that should apply to more directors. The Ozu I couldn’t otherwise find is The End of Summer, which the BFI doesn’t appear to have released yet in the lovely dual format editions they have of Ozu’s other films (of course, now I’ve tracked down a copy, they’ll go and release it…). But The Life of Oharu is Mizoguchi, a director I do not esteem as I do Ozu, although David Tallerman repeatedly tells me he is very good and insists I watch his films… And having now seen The Life of Oharu (or O-haru), I can sort of see what he means. This wasn’t an especially good print, far too dark in places, and with a muddy soundtrack. One of the things I like most about Ozu’s films is that they’re ensemble pieces, where as Mizoguchi’s, if the titles are any indication, are not. And that’s certainly true of The Life of Oharu, which tells the story of its title character from the moment she’s exiled from her liege lord’s land for falling in love with a man of a much lower class (he gets beheaded). She’s then chosen to be the mother of another lord’s heir, but is sent home afterwards with a pittance. Her father had run up debts in expectation of her reward, and so sells her to a house of courtesans. But she fails at that too. There’s a heartbreaking scene near the end where Oharu is taken to meet her son, who has now taken over as lord on the death of his father. But all she’s allowed to do is watch him as he walks past with his entourage, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that her history is too embarrassing for him to ever acknowledge her as his mother. A depressingly grim film in places, but a good one.

The Hustler*, Robert Rossen (1961, USA). I’m not a Paul Newman fan, I’d much sooner watch Rock Hudson or Cary Grant or William Hurt, but The Hustler is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and there was a box set of four Newman films going for a couple of quid in an Amazon Prime Day or something a few months ago… so I bought it. And… meh. US critics seem to like films about working class types who try to better themselves, appear to succeed, but walk away with nothing more than their dignity battered. Because, of course, actually prospering would show up the American Dream for the hollow lie that it is. Newman plays the title role, a pool shark who meets his match in Jackie Gleason, but then goes away to improve his game and… well, the path to riches can never run smooth in the American Dream. Because it only really exists in cultural artefacts whose sole purpose seems to be to prove its existence by documenting its failures. If that makes sense. In a way, it helps mythologise those who do succeed in the real world – all the while helpfully obscuring just how much of an evil shit, or how bafflingly lucky, they were to succeed in the first place. None of which is especially relevant. Newman is beaten, he goes way, gets better, comes back, and humiliates Gleason. Along the way, some shit happens. There was apparently a Tom Cruise vehicle sequel a couple of decades later. I won’t be watching it.

Joi Baba Felunath, Satyajit Ray (1979, India). I mistakenly bought this thinking it was unavailable in the UK, only to then discover it’s in Artificial Eye’s Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2, which is readily available. Oh well. I hope that version is a better transfer than this one. It didn’t help that the subtitles were often out of synch with the dialogue – and disappeared altogether in some parts of the film – so I was never really sure who was saying what (in one scene, you have to remember the subtitles from a dialogue-free scene some thirty seconds earlier to figure out what’s going on). And the movie had been encoded onto the disc as two films, one of 82 minutes and another of 23 minutes that began immediately after the first. Which was confusing. Joi Baba Felunath is an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Ray featuring his private investigator character Feluda. In Joi Baba Felunath, he is asked while visiting Benares to look into the theft of a valuable Ganesha figurine made of gold and jewels. The owner has a good idea who the thief is – a wealthy merchant who has asked several times to buy it – but he’s not sure. Feluda, with his cousin and a friend who writes detective novels, investigates. It’s not a convoluted mystery, and there’s no real urgency to Feluda’s quest – although a showdown with the villain does get threatening, and a murder later follows. It’s also a wholly male film, and there’s no soundtrack – although there are a couple of musical set-pieces. Joi Baba Felunath seems to be quite well-regarded in Ray’s oeuvre, but I thought it played more like a drama than the thriller its plot demanded.

Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough (1969, UK). The title rang a vague bell, and I stumbled across this in a charity shop so it was doubtless worth a punt… The title refers to WWI and the film is an anti-war musical that tries to make palatable its points but instead makes light of them. The dialogue is, a pre-credit title card helpfully informs, taken entirely from published commentary by the historical characters depicted. Hindsight renders this somewhat less than shocking – we know WWI was a clusterfuck, and we know it was because of the clueless generals. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tackles the same subject but far better. Oh! What a Lovely War, however, does have a fascinating cast list – pretty much everyone who was anyone in UK acting circles in 1969. And quite a few whose stars would not rise for several years, such as Ian Holm. It’s a typical Attenborough movie: big bold statement, colourfully presented, top-drawer cast, sentiments the audience have long since assimilated, and just enough whimsy in the staging to be eligible for an award… It was entertaining enough, but horror stories about WWI no longer have the shock value they did half a century ago, and frankly if anyone these days is shocked by Oh! What a Lovely War they must be a fucking idiot. Not a bad film, by any means, just one whose time has come and gone.

The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri (1965, Italy). I must admit, these Shameless releases are actually quite good. Well, perhaps “good” is not exactly the right word… But, you can’t go wrong with a well-made giallo, and the Italians certainly made enough of them for one or two to stand out. I was so taken with Footsteps on the Moon, also released on DVD by Shameless, that I bought my own copy. The Tenth Victim is famously based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, ‘The Ninth Victim’, and he later went and wrote two sequels to the film titled Victim Prime and Hunter/Victim. Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni are contestants in a televised game in which the contestants try to stalk and kill each other. The hunter and victim are picked by computer. Andress has come up with an interesting spin: she will kill her victim on live television during a commercial by her sponsor. Which means it all has to be just right, and the repeated opportunities to kill Mastronianni which she fails to take persuade him she is not his hunter… It’s all complete tosh, of course, but it’s one of those movies which tries to project the future by filming in Brutalist/Modernist buildings of the time. It doesn’t always get it right – or even get it remotely close sometimes. But the misses are pretty cool, anyway. Mastroianni sleepwalks through his role, Andress is Andress. There’s not much in the way of surprises in the plot. This is a film that’s all about the look and the setting. And in that it’s pretty entertaining. I might try a few more of these Shameless releases…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880