It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


7 Comments

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


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #29

Still trying to catch up. An even more mixed bunch than usual. If that’s possible.

Tschick, Fatih Akın (2016, Germany). The title is the nickname of a new boy who joins fourteen year old Maik’s class at school. Tschick is a Russian immigrant, with less than fluent German, and what appears to be a drink problem. Maik is the class misfit – he lusts after the most popular girl in the class, but she completely ignores his existence, so much so she throws a party and invites everyone in the class except Maik. On the night of the party, Tschick turns up in a stolen Lada 4WD and the two decide to head south to Walachia to visit Tschick’s grandmother. So you have a road movie, in which the two protagonists are fourteen years old but end up in escapades little different to those experienced by older characters in similar films, except perhaps for the lack of alcohol. And it works. The book on which it’s based is a YA novel and critically acclaimed. Its author was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2010 and committed suicide three years later. He was 48. None of which is especially relevant, particularly since the film does not come across as YA material. This is not like The Hunger Games. The two leads are good in their roles, and their adventures are believable. Definitely worth seeing.

Circus of Horrors, Sidney Hayers (1960, UK). I have of late been sampling many mid-twentieth century British horror films. I’m not a fan of horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But old school horror I quite enjoy, if only because its effects are so obviously effects. And old British ones – especially Hammer – I also find appealing because, well, they’re so British. Circus of Horrors is not a Hammer film, although it’s much like their output of the time (which may tell you something about the success of their formula). A plastic surgeon is forced to flee after his operation on a famous actress goes wrong. He stumbles across a travelling circus in France. The owner’s daughter is badly scarred on the face, so the surgeon operates, and consequently joins the circus as part-owner, as he believes it to be a perfect cover for his continued explorations into plastic surgery. Except, when you think about it, it’s not. How can you move a sophisticated surgical suite around with a circus? It’s not like circuses are known for their cleanliness and hygiene. Anyway, everything seems to be going well, but then the circus crosses the Channel, and then someone recognises the plastic surgeon… Circus of Horrors is not really a horror film, although it does feature a circus. I’d say it was more thriller territory, unless you consider facial scars horrific – although this is a 1960s British film – but as a thriller its story is a bit, well, silly. It is in fact altogether a bit silly, but it keeps a straight face throughout and its commitment to its premise is quite impressive. I enjoyed it, but I suspect its appeal is limited.

The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China). The story is based on a novella by the first Chinese author to win the Hugo Award (Cixin Liu, in 2015 for The Three Body Problem), although it makes a number of changes. There was a big thing in US science fiction a couple of years ago for Chinese authors, and despite Chinese authors having written genre fiction for many years, and occasional novels being translated into English, although not always published by genre imprints, not to mention Chinese-made genre films from both Hong Kong and mainland China being not especially hard to find in the West for at least three or four decades, some of which were science fiction… I mean, the Chinese language science fiction world is bigger than the English language one but some people seemed to think they were doing Chinese authors a favour by giving them the red carpet treatment in the West. And this film is a perfect illustration of how dumb those people were. It’s a big budget Chinese science fiction movie designed partly to ape Western science fiction movies – and its financing was difficult at best – but even then China has been busy investing in Western genre movies like The Meg, so much so “trans-Pacific” is almost becoming a genre of its own, when it all means nothing because The Wandering Earth will be judged by most of its viewers as a science fiction movie (except for those fuckwits too dumb to watch a movie that has subtitles, of course). And, as a science fiction movie, The Wandering Earth looks amazing but doesn’t really make much sense. So, just like a Hollywood big budget sf movie, then. Scientists discover the Sun is about to turn into a red giant, which forces the nations of Earth to unite – a long-running wet dream of science fiction – and  build thousands of giant fusion engines to push Earth out of its orbit and on a trip to Alpha Centauri, 4.2 light years away (and probably not a good choice for a destination anyway but never mind). One of the engines breaks, the planet doesn’t have enough power to escape Jupiter’s gravitational pull (and it would take decades to reach Jupiter but never mind), and everyone runs around frantically try to fix shit (and it all seems weirdly manual but never mind). It’s all completely manufactured jeopardy because we’re following the rules set by the writer, whether or not they make sense, and that may well be a defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre, but as far as cinema goes at least eighty percent of the appeal lies in the visuals, and in that department The Wandering Earth scores highly. For all its production problems, this is a good-looking state of the art science fiction cinema as practiced both in the East and the West. It wouldn’t surprise me if it appears on a few genre award lists next year – and it might actually deserve nomination.

In the Shadow of the Moon, Jim Mickle (2019, USA). There is a film, a British documentary, with the same title, which is about the Apollo astronauts. This is not that film. It is, in fact, a US high concept sf thriller. In 1988, a Philadelphia cop with ambitions to become a detective becomes interested in a series of seeming accidents in which those who caused the accidents apparently had their brains turn to liquid. A mysterious young woman in a hoodie is seen in the vicinity. Similar events occur at nine-year intervals, each time investigated by the cop as he rises up the ranks. It turns out the accidents are murders, perpetrated by an assassin from the future, who is actually travelling backwards in time, so her future is the policeman’s past (this is not a spoiler). The science behind this is the usual movieland technobollocks, but the concept is handled well, and there are several twists which are well-placed and still surprising. The film seems to take a while to get where it’s going, when anyone familiar with sf will figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. True, it might seem obvious to the viewer – but that’s because the viewer knows it’s fiction and somewhat different rules apply, but if the characters are being true to their world they’re hardly going to spot that their murderer is a time traveller. You know what I mean. In the Shadow of the Moon would have benefited with a little more pace, and a faster approach to its central premise, but it was still well-handled and well-played. Worth seeing.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, Anthony Mann (1964, USA). This movie is often named as one of Hollywood’s greatest historical epics, from that time when Hollywood churned out more historical epics than you could shake a reasonably-sized, well, historian at. Although a box office flop on its release, it now enjoys a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. True, as Hollywood historical epics go, it’s as Hollywood historical, er, epic-al as you can get. It still holds the record for the largest set ever built. The most bizarre thing about watching it, however, is that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which pretty much everyone has seen, is more or less a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire – mostly unacknowledged – and that lends the latter a weird sense of déjà vu despite it being the earlier film. (This may not be true for people now in their seventies or above.) Anyway, both cover the same period of Roman history, ie the death of Marcus Aurelius at the hands of a cabal of plotters, and the ascension of his dissolute son Commodus, instead of his chosen heir, the general Gaius Livius. Commodus promptly goes full-on batshit crazy Roman emperor and has himself declared a god, leading to what was the first of many raids on the empire by the Goths, the last of which a century or two later eventually brought it down. They say those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while the UK may well have been a Roman province at one point, the history of the Roman Empire is hardly the islands’ history… but it’s tempting to point at the shit going down these days and wonder if one or two senior politicians have not got a touch of the Commodus. But, the movie… It’s very much what it says on the tin: mid-twentieth century big budget historical epic, peppered with big names and familiar faces, a glib if not irresponsible retelling of historical events, and an example of pure Hollywood spectacle that proudly displays every dollar of its massive budget onscreen. They do not, as they say, make them like that any more. And more’s the pity. The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a great film – Gladiator makes a better fist of the same material – but it is a great viewing experience. Worth seeing.

All the Colours of the Dark, Sergio Martino (1972, Italy). I do like me some giallo, and Shameless Video have done an excellent job of making them available on DVD or Blu-ray, and even on Amazon Prime. True, most of the giallo films are not very good, although the genre has thrown up the odd gem, such as Footprints on the Moon (still a favourite). The Shameless releases on Amazon Prime are mostly those films starring Edwige Fenech, who was undoubtedly watchable, but I would prefer their choice to be driven by plot rather than actress. But no matter. In All the Colours of the Dark, Fenech playsa young woman who is haunted by a stalker, and somehow finds herself joining a Satanic cult, initially to protect herself from the stalker but then it turns out he’s one of them, but what is real and what is nightmare is very much left for the viewer to decide. The film has its moments, but it does often feel like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror – a favourite TV series from the 1980s; get the DVD collection if you can – chiefly because it was filmed in the UK. As an episode of a Hammer House of Horror-like TV series, despite its feature-film length, it succeeds quite well. It is, naturally, very seventies. Almost definingly so. Which was part of its charm. The plot spends much of its time trying to present occult happenings only to fall back on a quotidian explanation, which is not a criticism and might well be a characteristic of the genre. It works for me. The low production values, the often-poor script… these are part of giallo’s appeal, and All the Colours of the Dark has it to a notable degree. I like these films, and among them this does indeed stand out as a good one (among the admittedly few I’ve seen). Set your expectations accordingly, and you will enjoy and appreciate this movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941