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Movie roundup 2020, #1

This year, I’ve decided not to continue with my previous years’ practice of writing a few hundred words about half a dozen films in a post. Instead, I’ll keep it to a sentence or two per film, and post my Movie roundups less frequently. Hopefully, that’ll force me not to rely on easy content and actually write blog posts that are a little meatier, like, you know, actual criticism. I used to do it once, you know. But about science fiction, not movies. And I’d like to do it again.

Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I make no apology for it: Alien is one of my favourite films and one of the best movies, to my mind, the genre has produced. Forty years on, and the film still holds up really well, although some of the physical effects looks a bit cheap by modern CGI standards. But still a ground-breaking film.

Tag, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Extremely weird Japanese film about a schoolgirl who finds herself in a series of violent encounters, like a high school massacre, and it’s all to do with levels in a video game – which is not spoilery as it’s pretty easy to guess. Quite gory in places, and sort of fun when it’s not being too weird.

Heroes of the East, Lau Kar Leung (1978, China). Not really China as this is a Shaw Brothers movie, from Hong Kong, which in 1978 was a British protectorate. It’s notable for pitting Japanese martial arts against Chinese ones, but it’s pretty clear where the film-makers’ sympathies lie (clue: it was made in Hong Kong). As a 40 year old kung fu movie, it’s not bad; as a wu xia movie, bearing in mind the current state of the genre, it leaves a lot to be desired. Still worth seeing, but with the right expectations.

Shelter, Eran Riklis (2017, Israel). Taut thriller in which a Mossad agent babysits a Lebanese informant undergoing plastic surgery in Germany. The US and UK press and governments are happy to parrot the propaganda of the Israeli regime but there are plenty of Israeli – and Palestinian – creators in cinema and literature who give much more nuanced, and accurate, views on the situation. Worth seeking out.

Terminator: Dark Fate, Tim Miller (2019, USA). In which the protagonists of a 1984 cult film – that’s 36 years ago, by the way – are dragged out of retirement, as are the actors who played them, in service to a plot that retcons the retcons of the franchise. And possibly the retcons of the retcons of the rectons too. If this were a book they would say, “trees died for this”. Arnie displays surprising gravitas but he still can’t fucking act.

Lost and Found, Melvin Frank (1979, USA). Dreadful seventies “lit fic” movie in which neurotic US academic marries forceful UK secretary after they have a series of semi-humorous encounters while holidaying in the Alps. Marriage does not go as expected. No shit. There are thousands of novels written on this same subject, one or two of them might even be worth reading. The same is likely true for movies.

Cider with Rosie, Philippa Lowthorpe (2015, UK). Surprisingly late adaptation of a 1959 book, which I studied at school. Which makes me sound older than I am. I read it in the late 1970s, okay? It’s all West Country post-WWI bucolicism, which proves to be less a celebration of a lost way of life than an elegy to it. Surprisingly effective and affective.

Hustlers, Lorene Scafaria (2019, USA). Not intended as a J.Lo vehicle, but she plays a major role and steals the film. After the 2008 financial crisis shrinks their client base, a group of lap dancers start rolling brokers. It’s basically criminal but I’ve no sympathy for the brokers, they’re the scum who impoverished everyone and still walked away with seven-figure bonuses. They belong in jail. Certainly more than the women in this film who stole from them. Smart thriller.

Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans, Dominic Brigstocke (2019, UK). The Horrible Histories schtick – jokey versions of UK history for kids, with jokes and songs – has been going now for a while and quite successfully. This is their first try at a feature film and it’s well, more of what they do. It’s pretty much the legend of Boudicca, centred around a useless Roman teenager who upsets Nero and finds himself posted to Brittanica and the daughter of a Celtic chieftain whose father has been ripped off big-time by the Romans. The relationship is a children’s TV staple, there’s plenty of comedy through the use of anachronisms, and it all climaxes with the Battle of Watling Street. Not that much is known about Boudicca – no one knows how or when she died, for example – but the film makes a feature of its research. For all that it’s a comedy, this is smartly-told actual history.

Shoot First, Die Later, Fernando DiLeo (1974, Italy). Typical giallo police procedural from the title right through to the story’s climax. Corrupt detective discovers there’s a line he won’t cross – drugs, of course – but it’s too late, they have him by the short and curlies. Bodies start to turn up, and the detective gets increasingly desperate as he tries to hide his complicity. But his father, a tough old police sergeant, becomes suspicious… I’ve said before that gialli are an acquired taste, and some stand out more than others… but many are little more than Italian takes on US B-movies. Which, sadly, this one is.

Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I remember when this film was released and the idea of screen that displayed a single colour for 79 minutes, while voices told the story of the film… struck me as unreasonably pretentious and a waste of whatever government money was involved in the making of it. Having since, to my surprise, become an enormous fan of Jarman’s works. and having now watched Blue – several times, it must be said – I love it. I could listen to Nigel Terry’s voice all day. And the shade of blue on the screen – International Klein Blue – is weirdly relaxing. It’s a bit like listening to an audio book in bed with the lights off, but the blue is more peaceful than a darkened room. The more Jarman I see, the more I think he can do no wrong.

The Designated Victim, Maurizio Lucidi (1971, Italy). Giallo take on Strangers on a Train. Ad exec wants to sell out (and head for South America with his mistress) but wife refuses to sell their share. In Venice, he meets a louche aristocrat who proposes a deal: he will kill the wife if ad exec will murder aristocrat’s brother. And when ad exec refuses, aristocrat murders his wife anyway and frames ad exec. Very much a 1970s Italian thriller, not helped by the aristocrat’s uncanny resemblance to Russell Brand.

El Angel, Luis Ortega (2018, Argentina). Borderline accurate treatment of twenty-something serial killer Carlo Robledo Puch, active in Argetina in the early 1970s, and played with an impressive lack of affect by Lorrenzo Ferro. Puch and his fellows were petty criminals, who robbed shops and nightclubs, but Puch was clearly a psychopath and was eventually indicted for eleven murders and seventeen robberies. Plus assisted rape and attempted rape. These were not nice people, and the film is very clear about that.

Bedelia, Lance Comfort (1946, UK). US novel about a woman with a succession of husbands who died suspicious deaths, by the author of the novel from which classic noir Laura was adapted, transplanted to the UK thanks to the author’s poor treatment by Hollywood over her previous novel. Those were the days. The transplant works fine, although the Yorkshire accents are suspect, and Margaret Lockwood shows she should have had a much bigger career; but it’s all a bit clichéd and the thin gloss of Englishness can’t save a standard noir plot.

1917, Sam Mendes (2016. UK). “Fake single take is remarkable achievement”. Which is sort of what all the reviews said. Which is a bit like praising Tobey Maguire for his building-swinging abilities in Spider-Man. Not a patch on Dunkirk, and everyone comes out of it a bit too, well, nice. I mean, we all know most of the officers were inbred halfwits with about as much military sense as the Empress of Blandings. That’s what most of the poetry says, that’s what most of the novels set during WWI says. 1917 feels a bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Jessie Pope poem, and given the current situation in the UK its timing, and possible motive, is somewhat suspicious.

Draug, Klas Persson & Karin Engman (2018, Sweden). Low budget horror film set in eleventh century Sweden, in which a member of the king’s guard and his adopted daughter, a shield maiden, head for the deep forest to track down a missing missionary. They suspect pagan rebels, but the culprit is far less earthly. Atmospheric, and good turns by most of the cast. The final twist isn’t much of a surprise but the trip there more than pays off. Worth seeing.


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Moving pictures 2018, #34

Not a single US film in this bunch, although two are still Anglophone – British and Australian.

Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou (1990, China). Although I’m a big fan of films by Chinese Sixth Generation directors, such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in earlier generations – and I don’t just mean early classics like Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934, see here) or Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948, see here). There was also – obviously – a Fifth Generation, to which Zhang Yimou belonged, and those films of his I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. He also has two entries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: Red Sorghum (see here) and Raise the Red Lantern (not currently available on DVD). Ju Dou is Zhang’s third film (he’s better known these days for films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall), and had I not read in the movie’s Wikipedia entry that it was filmed in Technicolor – in 1990! – I’d not have known it from the copy I watched. So can we have a restored edition, please? Because this is an excellent film, irrespective of the motion picture process used. The title refers to a young woman, played by Zhang favourite Gong Li, who is married to a cruel dyer. The dyer’s adopted nephew returns after a weeks-long trip to discover his uncle has remarried… and he begins to obsess over Ju Dou, who is being abused by her husband. It doesn’t end well, these things never end well, especially when Ju Dou has a son, and the dyer is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke and learns the son is not his own… It was clear watching this that colour had been uppermost in Zhang’s mind, and yet the DVD transfer had made a mockery of the Technicolor, washing out many of the colours and, in some scenes, giving the whole frame a faint tint. Now I love Technicolor, especially Technicolor landscapes – the New England autumnal landscape of All That Heaven Allows, the wide open spaces of Shane – and since much of Ju Dou took place in a dye works, there was no shortage of colour. Which, sadly, wasn’t especially obvious on this transfer. A good film, but I’d like to see a restored copy.

Outskirts, Boris Barnet (1933, Russia). I forget where I came across mention of this, and having now seen it I’m surprised it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A Soviet film from 1933 that covers the period prior to the October Revolution via the lives of ordinary Russian villagers? Barnet made several early Soviet films, but only Eisenstein, Vertov and Vsevelod make the list. Which is not to say they shouldn’t. But Barnet belongs on there too. More so than some early Hollywood films anyway. It’s not just that Outskirts documents the lives of villagers in early twentieth-century Russia, which it does very effectively, but also that it is dramatically impressive too. Part of it is set at the front during WWI, or Second Patriotic War, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it’s the equal of any other WWI movie of the time, if not better. Barnet, by all accounts, was in the top rank of Soviet directors, but seems to be pretty much forgotten these days. Eisenstein’s oeuvre is readily available, but I can find only three of Barnet’s twenty-seven films, including this one, on DVD. A shame. On the strength of Outskirts, I’d say his films are definitely worth seeing.

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short*, André Delvaux (1966, Belgium). Govert Miereveld is hired to replace a departing teacher at a school. He begins to obsess over a female student, played by Polish actress Beata Tyszkiewicz (dubbed into Flemish?). He leaves the school and enters the law. Some years later, he accompanies a colleague who needs to attend an autopsy of a body washed ashore in another town. They suspect the body of being a suspect in a case, but in the event it turns out to be a completely different man. At the hotel, Miereveld bumps into the student he had obsessed over, who is now a famous opera singer. She remembers him from school and is surprisingly open to his, er, overtures. He spends time with her and she admits she knew of his obsession at school. She also admits the teacher he replaced had been asked to leave because he had been in a relationship with her. And her father, who had disappeared shortly after she left school, well, his description matches that of the body in the autopsy… The first time I watched this, I liked its focus on its protagonist – including the scene which lends the films its title – but I hadn’t realised how vital to the plot that focus was. Because Miereveld is badly affected by what he learns, and the final third of the film shows the aftermath. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s not entirely clear for much of its length what sort of film it is. It opens as an introspective drama, turns into a thriller, and then becomes something completely different. I liked it so much on second viewing, I considered picking up a copy of the book from which it was adapted… which is, of course, almost fucking impossible to find…

Brick Lane, Sarah Gavron (2007, UK). This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Monica Ali, set among the Bangladeshi community in London on, er, Brick Lane. I’ve not read the book, so I’ve no idea how the film differs from it. Nazneen is the wife of Chanu Ahmed, a man who seems convinced he can succeed in the UK, and is equally blind to the country’s racism – the film opens with him convinced he is about to be promoted, only to learn he has been fired. He’s keen on improving himself, and is evidently a voracious reader, but his wife is not happy, and his two kids seem to have little in common with him. Except Brick Lane is not about him, it’s about Nazneen, who has an affair with an Anglo-Bangladeshi (ie, born and bred in the UK, unlike Nazneen) who is part of a local group agitating for Muslim solidarity. And this is around the time of the 9/11 attacks. I was resident in the UAE when 9/11 happened, and working for a government-owned oil company… so the only version of events I heard was that told by Arabs who had been affected. So I can sympathise with the Bangladeshis depicted in Brick Lane and even understand the drivers which lead to the film’s more dramatic elements. White people are racist. That’s a simple fact. Sometimes it’s ameliorated by experience, sometimes by education, and sometimes by both. I like to think I fall into that last category, thanks to my years in the Gulf. But I also accept that all white people are racist, it’s merely a matter of degree and constant self-policing. And I try my best to self-police. So films like Brick Lane are important, if not the most compelling drama ever. On the one hand, Tannishtha Chatterjee is compelling in the lead role and Satish Kaushik makes her husband seem a lot more sympathetic than he deserves to be… But not much of it feels like it connects with Islam, despite an impassioned speech by Chanu Ahmed; and Nazneen’s lover, Christopher Simpson, comes across more as a paper-thin wide boy than anything else… I don’t know; maybe I was expecting more than the film was prepared to deliver, than the original novel was prepared to deliver. But it all felt a bit shallow and glib to me.

The Last Wave*, Peter Weir (1977, Australia). Richard Chamberlain is a corporate lawyer in Australia – the reason for his American accent is never explained, although his parents are introduced as his adoptive parents – who is assigned by legal aid to defend an Aboriginal man from the charge of murdering his friend. Something about the Aboriginal man Chamberlain finds striking, an inexplicable connection the two seem to have. The crime itself remains a mystery – five men in a bar, they’re thrown out for being Aboriginal, one ends up dead. The barrister assigned to the defence resents Chamberlain’s naivete – he can’t claim tribal murder for non-tribal Aboriginal people, ie, those living in the city. But Chamberlain is convinced it’s tribal murder, and through his dreams becomes swept up in the life  of his defendant, and the crime for which he was charged. There’s an obvious use of Dreamtime here, and Aboriginal beliefs, and perhaps the framing narrative is somewhat banal – it even has the “strange black man” outside the house, which was never an acceptable trope – but Weir handles the way Chamberlain gets sucked into the Aboriginal world-view quite effectively, so much so in fact that the final scene, to which the title refers, remains ambiguous. The Last Wave feels like a film with good intentions that has not aged well. It’s overlong, it’s choice of Chamberlain as the protagonist weakens its story, and its borderline positioning of Aboriginal people as “magical negros” only just manages not to be racist. The fact it has subsequently proven hard to find seems almost fitting. I’d say it was worth seeing, but only for those willing to track it down.

The Whispering Star, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Another random film that looked interesting so I bunged it on my rental list. I suspect I may have thought it was anime and, from the title, sf anime, like 2001 Nights or Voices of a Distant Star. It’s sf, alright, but it’s not anime. It’s filmed in black and white. The director’s partner, Megumi Kagurazaka, plays an interstellar delivery person, although it’s not clear how real this is. Her spaceship resembles a house from the outside, and the opening scenes feature her repeating both a number of simple household tasks and her dialogue. It turns out she is delivering items to survivors of the Fukushima nuclear incident, played in the film by real life survivors. I don’t know if The Whispering Star was filmed in the areas abandoned as a consequence of the nuclear meltdown, but it certainly looks like it. To add to the strangeness, all the dialogue is looped, and delivered in whispered tones. Almost as if it were intended to represent telepathy. There’s no plot as such. The end result is an experimental film that overstays its welcome, and reminds me in many respects of Lukas Moodysson’s Container (there is also something container-like about Kagurazaka’s spaceship), but nonetheless makes a number of valid points about Fukushima. As a result of seeing The Whispering Star, I looked into Sono’s other films, and it looks like he has an oeuvre worth exploring…

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 918