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Movie roundup 2020, #2

It’s been a while since my last post. I have no excuses. And now the world is falling apart – and if I was glad I moved to Sweden last year, I’m profoundly grateful now given all that’s going down. Still, social distancing doesn’t mean I can’t write blog posts. If anything, it should result in more opportunities to write them. And maybe even some fiction. We shall see. For now, another quick run-through of my recent viewing.

Glitterbug, Derek Jarman (1994, UK). Yet more Jarman. Often described as his final film, it’s a compilation of shorts – home movies, pretty much – shot by Jarman but put together by others for a BBC2 programme and broadcast after Jarman’s death. There’s a sort of narrative, given that the shorts document Jarman’s life and travels and friendships, especially that with Tilda Swinton, who appears in several of the films. It’s definitely one for fans, although by its very nature it could hardly not be.

Song of the South, Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson (1946, USA). A Disney mix of animation and live-action that has almost achieved cult status for being so racist. It’s based on the Uncle Remus stories, which are not themselves racist although the presentation of them, and the black culture of the time, relied overmuch on racist stereotypes. It’s clear Disney were not making an explicitly racist film and just screwed up big time. But… the US is the world leader in racism, so it’s no surprise Disney made such a bad job despite relatively benign intentions. Given the amount of time that’s passed since the film’s release, it’s perhaps safest to view it as an historical document – it’s still racist, and still offensive, but structurally, and production-wise, it’s also very much a Disney film of its time. It’s not a bad movie per se, but I’m glad it’s a movie that’s considered offensive – because a world in which it was not considered offensive would not be a very nice world. This is not an opinion I will share on Twitter…

Color Out of Space, Richard Stanley (2019, USA). Stanley comes out of retirement for a pet-project adaptation of a favourite Lovecraft short story – and not the first time the story has been adapted. This version stars Nicolas Cage in “slightly unhinged” mode, which actually works really well with the material, but does unfortunately throw the rest of the cast into the, ahem, shade. The presentation of the alien colour – a weird violet shade – also works well. But despite all that, this is just a grade a tad higher than B-movie.

The Goldfinch, John Crowley (2019, USA). Literary bestseller from a couple of years ago from a literary sensation who has managed to publish three novels in nearly thirty years, all of which have been hugely successful. How does that work? Especially when their stories are so dull. I’m told the novel is good, but this movie has very little to recommend it. Dull New York literary stereotypes in some sort of dull New York stereotype plot kickstarted by an atrocity – an entirely implausible bombing of an art museum – that leads to a secret no one really cares about that apparently blights a number of dull New York literary stereotype lives. Literary fiction has a bad name because of films like this. Avoid.

I worked my way through the Harry Potter movies over a couple of weeks. I’ll not bother listing the titles. There’s an interesting transformation that takes place as the series progresses. Initially, it’s all Jenkinson Goes to Wizard School and jolly magical public school japes. I’m completely mystified by how popular the series – the books, that is – became. They’re not very well written, not very well constructed, and entirely ignorant in their uncritical borrowing of children’s fantasy tropes. By about the fourth film, however, it’s all turned into a bit of a generic high fantasy, with its Peasant Saviour and Dark Lord and Wise Mentor and back-story and mythos. Rowling’s completely tone-deaf approach to appropriating tropes and world-building from a variety of sources throws up a few interesting variations, and some of the characters do start to develop real pathos. But then it all turns into wannabe Star Wars, and then the bad guys are outed as complete Nazis, and you have to wonder how anyone could see the last two films, or read the final book, and not see the somewhat thumpingly obvious allegory. Sigh.

The Singing Ringing Tree, Francesco Stefani (1957, Germany). I’ve been told this movie has psychologically scarred a generation of German children, and it’s easy to understand why. I only survived unscathed thanks to the fortifying effects of a bottle of wine – not fortified wine, I hasted to add, although that might have proven more effective. The Singing Ringing Tree is a fairy tale of some sort, turned into a feature film. But, well, weird.

The Silence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1998, Iran). A blind boy in Tajikistan is forced to support his family. His blindness has given the boy super astute hearing and he hires himself out as a musical instrument tuner. Unfortunately, whenever he hears music, he forgets whatever it is he is supposed to be doing. Makhmalbaf had always been somewhat elliptical when ti comes to plot and this film is no exception. But it looks great and tells a good story, so worth seeing.

Aliens, James Cameron (1986, USA). Many people think this is the best of the Alien films. They’re wrong. While Cameron did an amazing job of world-building, he turned the Gothic horror of the first film into just another Vietnam War movie. Thirty-five years later, a lot of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad, although the special effects, world-building and plot have stood the test of time. The whole Vietnam soldier thing just doesn’t play these days, and certainly not outside the US, even if it ever did. A polished addition to the franchise, but only looks good when its sequels are considered.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, Surender Reddy (2019, India). Tollywood historical epic, three hours of over-the-top resistance to East India Company depredations of Andhra Pradesh. The title character tries to unite all the feuding warlords to fight the British but even being some sort of super-duper paragon isn’t enough to win their support. There’s been a bunch of these films in recent years, although none, of course, end happily – the British weren’t kicked out until 1947, as any fule kno. Bloody entertaining films, though.

Alien 3, David Fincher (1992, USA). A famously difficult production that has few fans even today. I was surprised at how, well, good-looking a movie it was. I’d also forgotten how English too. None of the sequels are a patch on the original, but this was surprisingly better than I’d remembered.

Alien: Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1997). I loved the movies Jeunet made with Caro, so putting the pair of them on the next entry in the Alien franchise should have produced cinematic gold. But, oh dear… I’d remembered the film as being pretty bad, but this rewatch did not go well. The dialogue was appalling, even worse than Aliens, and Ron Perlman’s character was a walking cliché and hugely offensive. A few nice set-pieces could not rescue a plot that makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

Dishonored Lady, Robert Stevenson (1947, USA). Hedy Lamarr was great. Very clever woman, led a fascinating life. Not, it has to be said, a brilliant actress, although she’s very watchable in this star vehicle. Successful art editor under pressure from various men in her life has a breakdown, chucks it all away, downsizes, takes a new identity and becomes a painter. Hunky pathologist lives next door, romance ensues, but past returns to haunt her. They churned these out by the Swedish mile (that’s 10 km, by the way) back in the 1940s.

The Garden, Derek Jarman (1990, UK). Experimental film from one of the UK’s best experimental directors. The effects are a little crude, even for 1990, although the film was made with a small budget, and the “subjective musings” which form the bulk of the film are hardly subtle… but then Jarman was reacting to a far-from-subtle attack on gay culture. Jarman had an excellent eye and there is some stunning imagery here. It sometimes obscures the plot – but the experimental nature of the movie more or less blends it all together into something greater than the sum of its parts. Still a huge fan of Jarman’s films, which would have come as a complete surprise to twenty-year-old me.

Parasite, Bong Joon-ho (2019, South Korea). Surprising winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture (and other Oscars), the first non-English film to ever win it. It’s a bafflingly non-safe choice for the awards, and claiming it won because it was the best of the nominated films is to ignore the entire history of the Oscars. I liked how it made the house a character in the film, although the final act was all a bit OTT and violent, no doubt deliberately so.

The Palace, Pan Anzi (2013, China). Star-crossed lovers meets palace intrigue in Qing Dynasty China, during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1661 – 1722). Girls are taken at a young age and trained to be palace servants. Some years later, servant woman A and prince X fall in love, but prince X mistakes servant woman B for his love, but servant woman B is having an affair with prince Y, and both X and Y are involved in separate plots for the throne, so Y stitches up X and gets him thrown into prison, where A visits him, but he’s blind so he thinks it is B, but then Y makes his move but he’s backing the crown prince, who fails and so Y is imprisoned and X is released, and X discovers it’s A all along that he’s loved. It’s a fairly standard romance plot, if somewhat convoluted. Well handled with good period detail. Apparently panned by Chinese critics, though.


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Moving pictures, #10

Here we go again, more movies watched by yours truly. Only two from the list this time around.

drugstoreDrugstore Cowboy*, Gus Van Sant (1989, USA). Even if you show how degrading junkie culture is in a movie, the very fact it is in a movie is in some way celebrating it. And there is seriously nothing to celebrate about junkie culture. Drugstore Cowboy is apparently based on a memoir, and depicts how a drug addict, and habitual robber of pharmacies, tries to go straight after one of his gang ODs. Matthew Dillon is a good-looking bloke; both Kelly Lynch and Heather Grahame are extremely attractive – a junkie might look in the mirror and see a Hollywood star, but that’s not what everyone else will see. Not only do films like Drugstore Cowboy sanitise and beautify their subject, but they also legitimise the lifestyle. I have no problem with people taking drugs, of whatever class (the drug, that is) – it’s their body and they’re free to abuse it how they like, using whatever substance they choose. But, short of legalising all non-ethical pharmaceuticals, which will likely never happen as long as governments remain broadly right-wing, the culture that illegality has created, not to mention the industry and power-structure, is not a fit subject for celebration in movies. Which sort of renders any criticism about this film as a film per se sort of moot. Nevertheless, its presence on the list didn’t seem justified.

bedknobsBedknobs And Broomsticks, Robert Stevenson (1971, USA). Disney have apparently allowed a whole bunch of their films to be streamed free via Amazon Prime, so I’ve been working my way through the ones I’d never actually seen before. I didn’t mention my watches of Pinocchio or The Love Bug as I’d seen both as a kid, and besides I wasn’t impressed enough with them to want to write about them. I thought I might have seen Bedknobs And Broomsticks before, but as soon as I started watching it I realised it was all new to me… Except, well, it wasn’t. The animated section, set on the Island of Naboombu, I’d certainly see before. I even remembered the undersea sequence and the song ‘The Beautiful Briny’. So I must have seen that at some point. The rest – Angela Lansbury as a witch, the evacuee kids, the whole Portobello Road dance routine, even Bruce Forsyth as a spiv, never mind the actual story in which they hunt for the final parts of the spell for “substitutiary locomotion” – well, that was all completely new to me. Apparently, the film had been planned as an epic to capitalise on the success of Mary Poppins – I’d watched Saving Mr Banks over Christmas, but I don’t recall ever sitting all the way through Mary Poppins, although I probably have done – but was cut down from its planned 3-hour length, and eventually released as 117 minutes long. There’s currently a 139-minute “reconstructed” version available on DVD. I watched the theatrical release version on Amazon Prime. It was all a bit Hollywood England, and very nineteen-seventies (even though it was set during WWII), but better than I’d expected – but if I had to pick ten best Disney films… I could probably manage about three or four… this wouldn’t be one of them.

demyLa naissance du jour, Jacques Demy (1980, France). And so continues my journey through Demy’s oeuvre, as represented by the intègrale Jacques Demy DVD collection I bought earlier this year. La naissance du jour is a television movie adaptation of the novel of the same name by Colette. Watching it, I found myself wanting to read the novel – which, to me, a sign of the success of an adaptation. The main character, Colette herself, is living alone in a house and the film depicts her relationship with her neighbour, Vial, a a studly young man she sort of fancies, as well as her friends in the area. It’s set in the 1920s, roughly at the time of writing, and appears to be autobiographical – indeed, Colette spends a lot of time writing something in longhand, which might well be the novel La naissance du jour. It’s one of those typically French films in which the cast sit around a table outside eating their dinner and pontificating on love – and if that’s not the entire film, it ‘s certainly a pivotal scene. I hadn’t expected to enjoy La naissance du jour, and it didn’t feel especially Demy to be honest, but I did like it – and I suspect that was more a consequence of the source material than Demy’s adaptation. Nonetheless, I’m still glad I bought the collection.

justineJustine, George Cukor (1969, USA). The Alexandria Quartet is one of my favourite novels – as the title indicates, it’s properly four novels but is most often found these days in an omnibus edition… and Durrell rewrote chunks of it for the omnibus edition anyway. Only one attempt has ever been to adapt the quartet for cinema or television – it would make an excellent television mini-series, it must be said – and that was this one, Cukor’s 1969 movie, which sort of munges together the plot of all four books into the first and uses its title. The end result is hugely unsatisfying – and not just for the casting of Michael York, who could be out-acted by a plank of well-seasoned oak – but for a series of casting decisions, and a script, that does neither the film nor the book any favours. And yet… in Anouk Aimée, they managed to find the perfect Justine. Go figure. And speaking of casting… John Vernon as Nessim Hosnani and Robert Forster as Narouz Hosnani is just plain indefensible white-for-black casting. But Dirk Bogarde, much as I love him, is totally the wrong person to play Pursewarden – he’s just not dissolute enough. George Baker, on the other hand, while he’s far too bluff for Mountolive, it sort of works in the movie. Having said all that, the major character in The Alexandria Quartet has always been the eponymous city. I have never visited Egypt – although I’ve always wanted to – but the city as revealed in the film certainly resembled the Alexandria I had imagined from Durrell’s novels. It’s a shame so little else in the movie did.

cinderellaCinderella, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1950, USA). Cinderella is generally reckoned to be one of Disney’s best animated feature films, and being a fan of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, I was keen to watch it. Happily, Disney have made a whole bunch of films available on Amazon Prime – a situation of which I have taken advantage of, so to speak. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Cinderella before – familiarity with Perrault’s story is not enough to explain memories of the Disney mice… Which is not to say I ‘d remembered everything from the movie. I had, in fact, been expecting not to like it much, having almost convinced myself that Sleeping Beauty was some sort of weird Disney aberration… except, well, it has to be said… okay, the mice are really irritating… but the animation in Cinderella is really quite lovely. I’d discussed Disney animated feature films earlier that day with David Tallerman, and texted him that night while watching the movie to say how much I was enjoying it. (He, incidentally, was watching Pinocchio that night, and enjoyed it a great deal more than I had.) I have by no means seen all of Disney’s best-known animated feature films, but I have seen a number of them. And so far, to my mind, Sleeping Beauty is easily the best, by quite a long way. But Cinderella is in second place. Fantasia holds a tentative third – albeit based on last watching it a couple of decades ago. A few years ago, Pornokitsch posted a “year of Disney” series of posts by Dreampunk.me – and while I’ve no desire to embark on anything remotely similar, I ‘ve seen a number of the films covered in the posts and… I was surprised at the lack of love for both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. And I hated Frozen. But I’d otherwise agree that Treasure Planet (a recent watch – see above re Disney films free on Amazon Prime – but not mentioned on this blog) is a lovely-looking animated film, but that’s about all it has going for it. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I may at some point – thanks to Disney and Amazon’s “generosity” – end up in a situation where I have watched more Disney feature films than I ever thought likely; and, given my love of lists, I will likely order them according to some criteria or other which makes perfect sense to myself… But at this point in time, I can recommend both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella as excellent films. Later, I may do the same for others from Disney.

cinema_paradisoCinema Paradiso*, Giuseppe Tornatore (1988, Italy). My mother admitted to me this was one of her favourite films. so I bought her a copy for Christmas – and she lent to me and now I’ve seen it and… Yes, it’s a good film, but I doubt it will ever become one of my own favourites. This is no way different to my comments above regarding Disney films. To think a film is good is one thing, but to think a film is great requires you to love it in a way that can’t be explained as you would explain a film you think good. It’s the point where objectivity and subjectivity battle it out and subjectivity beats off all comers (while it sits on objectivity’s shoulders, of course). There are movies I love, and I can think of no rational reason why I love them. None of which is relevant. Cinema Paradiso is about the cinema in a small town in Sicily. A young boy becomes an unofficial apprentice to the projectionist, and when the latter is injured during a fire which guts the cinema, he becomes the projectionist in the newly-rebuilt cinema. The film is framed as the boy’s reminiscences, now that he is a grown man and a successful film-maker, which leads to some odd scenes set outside what is essentially a very long flashback. It’s a good film, and one that likely belongs on the list, perhaps more for revitalising Italy’s film industry than for the film itself – though I’d likely think that, given I’m more of a fan of Italian Neorealism than I am sentimental films like this. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 730