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Movie roundup 2020, #24

Just working my way through the last few films I watched last year. A very mixed bunch, from all over the world.

Mariam’s Day Off, Arshak Amirbekyan (2017, Armenia). This is apparently the second film I’ve seen by this director, and the first one was also just over an hour long. Mariam is a sex worker, who turns up to her patch one day to find it occupied by an old man. They get talking, and he reveals he has a friend who’s an artist, and would she like to model for him? There is nothing salacious in their discussion, nothing suspicious, so she agrees. And experiences an entirely different world, in which two old men in the arts enjoy each other’s company and treat Mariam with respect and courtesy. The next day, she returns to her patch, and she tells her fellow sex workers she did something different yesterday. Filmed in black and white, with a small cast, and only two locations – the sex workers’ patch, a stretch of fence outside a park; and the artist’s studio. Enjoyed it.

Inferno, Ron Howard (2016, USA). Who remembers Dan Brown, and his series of novels about a “symbologist” (sic), which were not only badly written but also managed to be badly researched? They were best-sellers, big enough in fact to justify a film series. True, the first book to hit the big time, The da Vinci Code, which was not Brown’s first novel, actually prompted the film series, and none of the sequels, or prequels, matched it in sales. But they still made films of them. And, really, it’s easy to like Tom Hanks, who plays the symbologist (sic). He’s a nice guy (and a huge space nut, which I think is great), but his involvement in these films really does make me wonder about him… I forget the plot of Inferno – it was something to do with Dante Alghieri, and I’m all up for popular culture being used as a vector for complex ideas, sort of like Sophie’s Choice. But Brown’s fiction is not that. It’s a dumbing-down of the complex ideas it robs wholesale from other sources. Which it freely mixes with complete fiction and downright distortions of history. And the films are no better. They replace Brown’s lumpen prose with polished visuals. Avoid.

The Third Wife, Ash Mayfair (2018, Vietnam). A fourteen-year-old girl is given in arranged marriage to a man with two wives in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Her status in the family depends on her providing her husband with a son. She is soon pregnant, but unfortunately gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, the second wife is having an affair with the son of the first wife. And when he is married off in turn, he reuses to accept his new child bride and she commits suicide. Meanwhile, the fourteen-year-old wife contemplates poisoning her daughter… I recognise this is real historical practice, but why turn it into drama? While sex trafficking and child brides still exists in some parts of the world, the former much more so than the latter, The Third Wife is an historical movie. It evokes its period impressively, at least to my untutored eye, but I’m not sure how its story maps onto the present day, and without that I don’t understand what the point of the film was. I mean, it’s not entertainment. This is no brainless popcorn action flick. It’s a commentary-free period drama.

Slave Widow, Mamoru Watanabe (1967, Japan). This is a “pink film”, which is a term used in Japanese cinema for films that contain sexual content. The title is… a pretty good summary of the plot, although the film is more of a domestic drama than anything salacious. A businessman dies unexpectedly, and it transpires his business was failing and he was massively in debt. His largest creditor offers to cover the debts if his widow will stay on in their house and sexual service the creditor when he desires. But the creditor’s eldest son, who is in training to take over the business, falls in love with the widow. It’s presented in a very mundane style, almost like Yasujiro Ozu, although without his eye for detail or elegiac quality. But the trap in which the widow is caught is laid out clearly, and she eventually takes the only way out. A  bit slow in places, and a bit obvious in others, but better than expected, or its title might suggest.

Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland). A man receives a fraught telephone call from an ex-boyfriend who has retired to a remote cottage and, scared the ex-boyfriend might be thinking of taking life, he goes to see him. Something weird is definitely going on – a strange figure haunts the exterior of the cabin, one of the neighbours has been behaving oddly, and something peculiar happens in a nearby rift, a fissure no more than a metre or so deep, when they visit it. Any Icelandic film and your eye is mostly on the scenery, because it’s so distinctive and bizarre, and Rift scores pretty highly in that respect. But despite being a two-hander film, Rift also does a really good job of maintaining the suspense and fear throughout its 111-minute length. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, although unexpected. Worth seeing.

The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola (1974, USA). Gene Hackman plays an expert surveillance expert who slowly discovers that a conversation he recorded of a woman and her lover doesn’t mean quite what he thought it did. Much is made of the fact Hackman’s character is generally considered the best in his field, although he despises self-promotion – as demonstrated by his reactions during a local surveillance tech expo and his treatment of a rival whose reputation rests more on promotion than results. There are a few inconsistencies – Hackman’s growing paranoia is fed by his privacy in his apartment being breached, but there’s nothing in the story to justify or explain those breaches. Hackman has taken precautions, and they’re not trivial precautions. The Conversation is generally recognised to be a classic New Hollywood thriller, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s slow and takes its time to reveal its twist, but it also makes a character out of Hackman’s surveillance expert, rather than just the usual stereotype or archetype you get in most thriller films. Recommended.

Tam Cam: the Untold Story, Ngo Thanh Van (2016, Vietnam). It’s astonishing how much the early parts of this story resemble that of Cinderella, although the Vietnamese predates the French version by, I believe, several centuries. It’s also considerably more gruesome. A prince encounters a young village woman while riding back to his palace. He thinks little of it, but then the king dies, he takes the throne, is persuaded he needs to find a wife. So he invites all the unmarried women in the kingdom, high-born and low-born, to a ball. The young village woman, Tam, has two stepsisters and an evil stepmother (played by the director), and they conspire to prevent from attending. But with the help of a fairy godfather-type, well, fairy, she makes it to the ball, charms the prince, loses her shoe and so on. But then the stepmother kills Tam, and one of the stepsisters, Cam, takes her place. And tries to poison the king. But Tam reincarnates as a bird and saves the king from the poisoning attempt. Cam kills the bird and eats it. Tam reincarnates as two trees. Cam chops down the two trees and burns them. But the ashes are blown away on the wind and where they settle a golden apple tree grows. An old woman takes an apple from the tree home, and it turns into Tam. The king passes by, meets Tam, and the two are back together. Not part of the original legend, as far as I can discover, is a subplot about a demon who has disguised himself as human and acts as chancellor to the new king. He’s done a deal with a neighbouring state, so they invade and the demon gets the throne. So the king is off fighting a war, which he loses, and then his best friend turns on him and tries to kill him… Tam Cam: the Untold Story gets through a lot of story in 116 minutes, and in laces it feels more like fantasy than Vietnamese legend.


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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