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Moving pictures 2019, #26

Just when I was getting close to being up to date with my film posts, I stop posting for a while and get a bit behind…

Ek Hasina Thi, Sriram Raghavan (2004, India). I’ve been watching quite a few Indian films these last few weeks. There’s loads of them available on Amazon Prime, both classic and twenty-first century. Annoyingly, not all of them have English subtitles. I think I’ve moaned about this before. Anyway, Ek Hasina Thi is a neo-noir thriller set in Mumbai. A young woman meets a man, whirlwind romance, they get married. He asks her to fly a parcel to another city. The parcel contains drugs, she’s caught, sentenced and imprisoned. She discovers her husband had set her up… so when she is finally released, she goes all out for revenge. In Hollywood, the story would make a taut thriller of around 100 minutes, but this is Bollywood so it comes as a surprise that Ek Hasina Thi is only 120 minutes long. Nor do I remember any musical numbers. I do recall the acting was a bit OTT and the plot had more than its fair share of moments that were a little hard to swallow. But if you’re going to watch a thriller, you might as well watch one from India than from the US.

I Am Mother, Grant Sputore (2019, Australia). A colleague at work recommended this film, and I admit I’d initially passed it by as probably not worth seeing. But after the recommendation I decided to give it a go. And… It looks good, but its ideas are not new and the plot twists are piss-easy to guess. Worse than that, however, it’s one of those films – and this is also true of novels – which uses genre as a delivery vehicle for some really dodgy philosophy. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t make a big deal of its message, using it more as a “twist” than a raison d’être. A young woman is born artificially and raised by a robot she calls “Mother” in a vast underground complex containing millions of embryos intended to repopulate an earth in which humanity were pretty much wiped out some forty years earlier. The young woman begins to wonder about the outside, especially when Hillary Swank starts banging on the bunker’s main entrance. On the one hand, the film doesn’t go for the obvious twist here, but goes for a later reveal on which is  actually going on… and it’s not all that much more original an idea. But it all looks very pretty, and Mother – a man in a robot suit – is pretty convincing. Unfortunately, some of the stuff Mother teachers the young woman – and it’s some of this which does drive the plot – is the sort of sophomoric philosophy far too many science fiction writers seem to think worthy of commentary. While pushing this commentary into the background may have saved the intelligence of the film’s viewers, it does make the movie a bit of a slog as very little happens for much of its length. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, the production design is impressive, so it might be slow but it’s also good-looking and slow.

Game, Abhinay Deo (2011, India). Oh look, another Bollywood film. The plot of Game reminded me of another film, but for the life I can’t remember which. A billionaire invites four people to his exclusive Mediterranean island hideaway: a nightclub owner and druglord from Istanbul, a (ethnic Indian) prime ministerial candidate from Thailand, an Anglo-Indian journalist, and a Bollywood leading man. None of them know why they’ve been invited. He explains that three of them were instrumental in the degradation and death of his long-lost daughter. The Thai politician ran the child-sex ring that bought the daughter when she was very young. The nightclub owner introduced her to drugs, and the Bollywood actor hit and killed her while driving drunk and then hid the body. The journalist is the billionaire’s other long-lost daughter. The next morning, the billionaire is found dead, apparently from suicide. A detective is called in from an international police organisation based in London, and she determines – with the help of the nightclub owner, who it transpires is an undercover police agent – that it was actually murder. But by whom? The politician? The actor? Perhaps even the daughter, who now stands to inherit… Game certainly made a four-course meal of its premise, with flashbacks explaining the backstory of each of the major characters, and people flying back and forth in order to make sense of the murder. The whole thing was very slick and polished, although the nightclub owner’s transformation from sleazy druglord to leading man was asking a bit much. And the sleazy politician was even sleazier than a roomful of Tories MPs, which probably would have been a little hard to swallow prior to this year. But it’s a flashy thriller, so never mind. Worth seeing.

Madame Bovary, Sophie Barthes (2014, Germany). There are some works which have such high standing in the canon of European literature that adapting them for film often feels like some sort of initiation rite for ambitious directors. I’ve not read Flaubert’s novel, but I do know it’s been adapted for the cinema at least a dozen times, first in 1932, and including a Bollywood version, and even one by my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov. And while it’s all very high drama, it’s very much about interiority – as Wikipedia puts it, the novel “exemplifies the tendency of realism, over the course of the nineteenth century, to become increasingly psychological, concerned with the accurate representation of thoughts and emotions rather than of external things” – which doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting of plots. Woman starved of affection by her husband, a country doctor, invests emotionally in buying nice things, which she can’t pay for, and having affairs with unsuitable men, and not being very subtle about it. And then it all comes crashing down. I’d have said it was a role to die for, but the biggest name I can find who has played the title role is Isabelle Huppert (in Chabrol’s 1991 adaptation). Several adaptations seem to describe Emma Bovary as “child-like” – explicitly so in David Lean’s very loose adaptation Ryan’s Daughter – but the books seems not to. And in Barthes’s Madame Bovary, Mia Wasikowska plays the title character as more ambitious and calculating than anything else, sort of like Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp. It does make of the film a more traditional period drama, but fortunately it does a good job of presenting the time and place. Which pretty much means that if you like period dramas, particularly nineteenth-century ones, then you’ll like this adaptation of Madame Bovary. Personally, I preferred Sokurov’s.

The Amazing Adventure, Alfred Zeisler (1936, UK). This is one of those stories that probably started out as a fairy tale but has been told so many times since its iterations have lost all sense of individuality. Given The Amazing Adventure was released in 1936, that makes it one of the earliest cinematic outings for the story, although probably not the actual first. Basically, rich man who wants for nothing suffers from crippling ennui and accepts a bet to go undercover and earn his own living for a year. Where he meets a young woman and falls in love. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Along the way, Grant lands his employer a huge contract, gets his revenge on a nasty garage-owner, and meets a bunch of people he later helps out financially when he returns to his riches. This version is probably notable for Grant, working as a chauffeur, being hired by a con man who has  been sublet Grant’s luxury apartment by his butler, because Grant-the-chauffeur resembles Grant-the-playboy (of course) and the con man wants him to pretend to be Grant-the-playboy and cash some forged cheques. Which ends up with an extended fist fight, during which Grant and the con man pretty much trash the apartment. A light-hearted comedy which documents life in 1930s UK quite well, although the message – rich people are nice people too – is a bit fucking much.

Yesterday, Danny Boyle (2019, UK). Failed pop star is hit by a bus and when he wakes up in hospital it seems he is the only person who remembers the Beatles. In other words, he’s in some sort of alternate reality in which the Beatles disappeared without trace before becoming famous. So he writes their songs from memory and presents them as his own… and becomes a global pop star. If I said the script was by Richard Curtis, you’d have a pretty good idea how fucking horrible this film is. For a start, the Beatles were a huge pop sensation seventy years ago. Pop has changed a lot since then; the world has changed a lot since then. And to suggest their songs possessed some magical quality which means they would be global hits in 2019 is fatuous and insulting to every songwriter who has ever lived. Then, of course, there’s the fact the failed songwriter, while presented as a fan of the Beatles’ songs, apparently knows most of the band’s oeuvre by heart (bar a few lapses of memory played for laughs), certainly well enough to faithfully reproduce them. All this is wrapped around the most obvious boy-doesn’t-realise-girl-loves-him boy-gets-girl plot in existence, the one they probably teach in the first lesson of Rom Com 101, and then explain Bollywood has probably rung every conceivable change on it so only a fucking idiot would bother using it… Yesterday is just… bland. Its cast is bland, its story is bland, it renders the music of the Beatles bland (well, even more bland than decades of being played in supermarkets and elevators has already rendered it). The digs at the recording industry are obvious and trite, the depiction of the UK is the usual twenty-first century slightly-battered chocolate box England, and the climax is so cringe-inducing it causes actual pain. Avoid.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941

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Moving pictures 2017, #53

I’m still trying to catch up on my Moving pictures posts. There have been a couple of weeks where I’ve watched as many as three movies in a single night.

Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse (1969, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz is I think a great film. Sweet Charity, his first movie behind the camera, flopped – and it’s not hard to see why. Shirley Maclaine plays an innocent in New York, a young woman who works as a hostess at a dance hall and has had a string of a bad boyfriends – the films opens with her latest pushing her off a bridge in Central Park and stealing all her money. In an effort to better herself, she visits an employment agency, but has no skills or qualifications. She ends up trapped in the lift on her way down with a claustrophobe, who then proves so taken with her he woos her. She’s never had a normal boyfriend before, so she revels in his courting. And even accepts his offer of marriage. But when he discovers what she does for a living, he jilts her. This is a Fosse movie, so it’s all about the musical numbers, and most of them are pretty good. Sammy Davis Jr as evangelist Big Daddy is definitely memorable. I hadn’t known ‘(Hey) Big Spender’ came from this musical, and Fosse’s version is a prime example of repressed, well, something. Not a great film, but certainly a Fosse film.

Their Finest, Lone Scherfig (2016, UK). I’d seen this advertised on the sides of buses and trams for months, so when I saw a copy of it in a charity shop I thought it might be worth a go despite not expecting much of it. Another jingoistic pre-Brexit comedy, I thought, using WWII and the Blitz to sway public opinion, as if the two situations in anyway map onto each other. But I was wrong on several counts. It’s not a comedy. And while it takes place during WWII and is about Dunkirk, it’s very clear on the differences between the reality and the political narrative. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to write “slop” (women’s dialogue, as the misogynistic screenwriter calls it) for a film unit put together to produce uplifting films for the British public. Her first project is the story of twin sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to take part in the Dunirk rescue. Except they didn’t. The boat broke down. But Arteron lies, and the project gets the greenlight… and Their Finest turns into a pitch-perfect depiction of film-making in the 1940s, given it all felt very Archers. I’d been expecting some horrible Richard Curtis rom com set during the Blitz, but this was a little gem of a film. It’s by no means the comedy it has been sold as, but instead a solid drama of WWII – more like that Berkof drama than the comparisons its marketing was keen to draw. I liked it. Worth seeing.

Law of the Border, Ömer Lütfi Akad (1966, Turkey). I bought the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. But it proved an excellent box set, so when a second volume was released I immediately bought it. Like the first, it’s a varied mix, not all of which I’d heard of before. Like this Turkish film which is as old as I am. It apparently had a profound affect on Turkish cinema, with its mix of pseudo-western action and sociopolitical commentary. It’s set in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border, and many of the villagers survive by smuggling things across the border. But the authorities have put down new minefields, and now the border is virtually impenetrable. Then a new police lieutenant arrives in town, and a young and attrative schoolteacher persuades the village to open a school. Meanwhile, one of the local farmers has found himself with a flock of 3,000 sheep trapped on the wrong side of the border. So he tries to get master smuggler Hidir to bring the sheep across. But Hidir’s father died in the border minefield and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him. So he tries to accept the new order – sharecropping the local landowner’s fields. But that flock of sheep still presents quick riches to anyone who can get them across the border… Law of the Border was apparently pretty much lost – only a single copy survived Turkey’s 1980 coup, and it was in a parlous state. But not it has been restored – although only to the best that could be done given the state of the surviving negative. The film has its charm – it does that declamatory thing so many sociopolitical dramas do, and that I like. But it also wears its western inspiration on its sleeve, and there are lots of shoot-outs. Which does tend to make the last third of the film a bit busy. Hidir’s not exactly well-drawn either, and his character arc is a bit muddled. But for a 51-year-olf film from Turkey, it holds up pretty well.

Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavan (2007, India). Five men invest large sums of money in a scheme which will double their money in a handful of days. It’s never directly said what the deal is, but it’s probably drugs. One of the five, Shiva, the biggest and strongest of the five, will take the train from Mumbai to Kolkata with the money, collect the goods, and then return with them. But Vikram has other ideas. He sets up an alibi, and then attempts to rob Shiva on the train – but it goes horribly wrong and he ends up killing Shiva. And that’s how it goes. As each member of the five discovers the truth, so Vikram is forced to kill them in order to protect himself. Except for the detective investigating the whole thing on behalf of the leader of syndicate, who is murdered by someone else in an act of self-defence. It’s all very cleverly done, and while Vikram was obviously a bad sort right from the start – and his opening murder, meaning the rest of the film was flashback, seemed a forced start, it did leave a mystery right to the end that provided quite satisfying. This was an entertaining comedy/thriller. As far as I’m concerned, modern Bollywood needs to get equal rating in my watching with modern Hollywood – although I do need to watch more classical Bollywood, having loved Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam and everything by Guru Dutt – and I shall adjust my rental list accordingly.

The Crimson Pirate, Robert Siodmak (1952, USA). You can blame Hal Duncan for this one. There was a discussion on Twitter about best pirate movies and he insisted this was the one. So I bunged it on my rental list, and they actually sent it a week later. And… I’m prepared to entertain it as a candidate. I’m not an expert on pirate films by any means, and the high point of Hollywood swashbuckling to my mind is probably The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is, er, not a pirate film… But The Crimson Pirate is certainly a viable candidate. I’m not entirely convinced – it tries to be clever, by introducing anachronistic technology, which is indeed amusing, but it gets it wrong, which kind of spoils the intended effect. And Burt Lancaster in the title role is a just way too much a goody two shoes to convince as a pirate in the first place. His bo’sun, a dour Brit, is great. Nick Cravat, as Lancaster’s silent sidekick, provides some excellent physical comedy. But the villains are paper-thin clichés, and the grand finale is a triumph of spectacle over plausibility. A hot air balloon that goes where directed? Yeah, right. Bonus points for getting the ballast thing right, but in a balloon you’re pretty much in the hands of the wind. Best pirate movie? Not convinced. On the other hand, I can’t think of any reasonable candidates for the top spot.

Céline and Julia Go Boating*, Jacques Rivette (1974, France). Rivette is a singular talent. When a limited edition box set (3,000 copies) of some of his films came out last year, I bought it – back in January 2016. I notice it’s still available. It’s worth buying. Céline and Julie Go Boating is one of his best-known films, but the title is a complete misnomer. It’s a literal transalation ofthe French title, which is better translated as “get caught in a shaggy dog story”. Um, yes. The original phrase has no such connotations in English. Which is unfortunate, because the film is all about two young women who find themselves in a story and discover they can affect its narrative. Julie is sitting in a park reading a park when Céline wanders past and inadvertently drops her sunglasses. So Julie picks up the sunglasses and follows Céline, with the intent of returning them… which turns into a weird sort of voyeurism into her life… before the two end up sharing an apartment… At which point the story jumps the rails when the two visit an abandoned house in which Céline once worked as a nanny… and they find themselves in the house’s past, but able to change what happened… Which they subsequently set out to do. This is where the title is of relevance. I like Rivette’s films. I’ve no idea what they’re about, but I find much in them that is appealing. I bought the aforementioned box set, and it was a worthwhile purchase. I suspect I may end up getting my own copy of Céline and Julia Go Boating. I’ve a feeling the movie requires a few more watchings…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 882