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Movie roundup 2020. #10

No US films, as promised in my last Movie roundup post.

The Five Deadly Venoms, Chang Cheh (1978, China). The title refers to five masked kung fu masters, who each base their style on one of Chinese folklore’s poisonous creatures – the centipede, the snake, the scorpion, the lizard and the toad. A pupil has to figure out the identity of the masters before they join up and rob the clan of its riches. Unfortunately, the two good masters are easy to spot – although film drags out the identity of one them long past time – and the two evil ones are even more obvious. The fifth is not revealed right until the very end, and it doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. An odd film – a treasure hunt but it all takes place on three sets, and the fighting is so mannered it’s just not that exciting. I’m surprised this is considered a classic, to be honest.

The Killer, John Woo (1989, China). Whenever I see this film on best of lists, I have a feeling I’ve seen it. But I can’t actually remember the story. Nor have I recorded it on my list of films I’ve watched. And now I’ve watched it… and I still think I might have seen it before but I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s very very 1980s. Chow Yun Fat plays a hitman who’s had enough. He promises to do one last job, during which he accidentally blinds a nightclub singer while returning fire with one of his target’s goons. He feels sorry for her, and later starts seeing her romantically. She, of course, doesn’t know who he is. You can probably guess the rest.

Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate, Stanley Long (1978, UK). The third and final film in the series, with Christopher Neil still as the lead, but this time he’s a, well, a plumber’s mate. Actually, he seems to be an actual plumber, who works under contract for a plumbing company run by Stephen Lewis, you know, that bloke from On the Buses who used to say, “I’ll get you, Butler!”. Neil is asked to replace the toilet seat in a well-off woman’s house, which leads to the expected sexual shenanigans. However, it turns out her husband has just been released from prison after serving time for a gold robbery. The proceeds were never found. Neil sells the toilet-seat to a junk shop. He thinks it’s brass. It’s the gold from the robbery, of course, melted down into a toilet seat. Comedy ensues. Not great films by any means, but this was probably the best of three, perhaps because it had the most coherent plot.

Wheels on Meals, Sammo Hung (1984, China). And speaking of very 1980s films, here’s another one with Jackie Chan. He and Yuan Biao operate a food van in Barcelona. They become involved with a young woman who proves to be a pickpocket. But there are men after her, and not because of her light fingers. It turns out she’s the heir to a large fortune and the next in line wants her gone. This is easily one of the best Jackie Chan films, with an excellent car chase, and a final fight, against Benny Urquidez, which is generally considered Chan’s best.

Balgandharva, Ravi Jadhav (2011, India). In the nineteenth century in India – or perhaps only parts of India – women were banned from the stage, much as in Elizabethan England. The title refers to one such male actress who became hugely successful. Unfortunately, it went to his head and he insisted on ever bigger spectacles and eventually ended up broke. But his career greatly influenced Bollywood (although it’s Marathi cinema and not Bollywood which made this film). Not a bad film, although the actor playing the lead had a disconcerting resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio.

High Hopes, Mike Leigh (1988, UK). It’s Thatcher’s Britain and a working-class couple in Camden have to deal with his aged mother, who lives in the only council house in a gentrified street, and whose neighbours are Hooray Henries, and a self-centred social-climbing sister who’s married to a used-car salesman. The central couple, and the mother, are well-drawn, but the rest of the cast are caricatures. Still worth seeing, though.

The Bad Education Movie, Elliot Hegarty (2015, UK). Jake Whitehall plays a teacher who has never grown up, tells stories about his salad days at public school, and takes his class on inappropriate school trips. His latest plan to take them Las Vegas is scuppered by the school, and he has to take them to Cornwall instead. Where Whitehall inadvertently hooks up with the “Cornwall Liberation Army”, who then occupy a local tourist spot castle. The humour is a bit hit and miss, and a lot of it is comedy of shame with Whitehall the butt of the joke. The film has its moments, but it’s hard to really like a film that paints everyone outside London as some sort of intellectually-challenged yokel. Those sort of jokes weren’t funny in the 1970s, and they really haven’t aged well.

In Love with Alma Cogan, Tony Britten (2011, UK). Roger Lloyd-Pack plays the manager of Cromer’s pier-end theatre, which is losing money and the Council are threatening to sell off. The reason it’s losing money is because Lloyd-Pack has kept ticket prices low so the townsfolk can afford them. And it’s the low-key battle between the two that forms the plot of the film. The title refers to a tribute act hired to boost ticket sales at the theatre and, to be honest, while the I know the name Alma Cogan I have no real who she was. So I’m not really sure what this film’s intended audience was – because the story seemed quite contemporary, but anyone who remembers Alma Cogan is going to 70+…

Tracker, Ian Sharp (2011, New Zealand). Shortly after the Boer War, a Boer arrives in New Zealand, hoping to begin a new life. But then a Maori is accused of murder and goes on the run, and the Boer is asked by the local garrison commander, who knew him from the war, to track the runaway. (The Maori is innocent, of course.) The Boer, played by Ray Winstone, eventually captures the Maori, played by Temuera Morrison, and they earn each other’s respect. Some lovely landscape cinematography, solid turns by both Winstone and Morrison, and yet another story that shows the British Empire as it really was.

Five Fingers for Marseilles, Michael Matthews (2017, South Africa). Marseilles is a shanty town in South Africa. A teenager, one of a group of five friends, shoots and kills three police officers who are demanding protection money from the local stores. He runs away. Many years later, he returns, after spending time in prison, and discovers the town has grown, one of his friends is now mayor, and a mysterious gangster now runs everything. It’s all framed explicitly as a Western, although the setting bears no resemblance to the Wild West. An excellent film.


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Movie roundup 2020, #9

More recent watchings. I’ve been trying to avoid consuming popular US culture for a number of years, but given the current situation in that country, I see even less reason to contribute to the bottom line of some American media conglomerate. Of course, it’s not easy in these days of international financing for movies, and a film made in a European nation, for example, may well have been financed partly by US money. I can’t do much about that. I can certainly avoid Hollywood films, and the only US film among the ones below is Darren Aronofosky’s first, which was financed by donations from family and friends. US films by non-white film-makers, of course, I will happily watch.

And speaking of historical films, I record the country of origin of the films I watch. It is, as mentioned above, not always easy. But I’ve decided to record all Hong Kong-made films as “China”, even if Hong Kong was a British colony at the time the film was made. Likewise USSR movies are documented as “Russia” unless explicitly from a Soviet republic which later gained independence – in which case, I use the republic’s current name.

Disciples of the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1985, China). The third of the Shaolin Chamber films, although there were no doubt countless spin-offs, and even now the Chinese film industry is churning out shaolin-related action comedies. But these were the first. Hard to believe one studio, Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers, pretty much defined an entire film genre. Perhaps even more than one. An over-age schoolboy, who is gifted at kung fu and entirely the opposite at schoolwork, provokes trouble once too often between Han and Manchurians and is sent to a Shaolin temple for his safety. But even there, he causes trouble. I didn’t think the story of this one as coherent as the previous two, and the protagonist’s naivete soon wore thin, especially as he never seemed to suffer its consequences. It’s a fun film – a fun trilogy! – but this is the weakest of the three.

Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, Jonathan Newman (2014, UK). Not sure what possessed me to watch this although it’s pretty obvious what possessed its makers to make it. They were hoping for another lucrative franchise. And this despite the failure of The Golden Compass in 2007, or the slow fizzling out of the Chronicles of Narnia movie adaptations after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. For twenty years now, Hollywood – and an equally desperate UK film industry – has been mining children’s and teenage genre properties for hit franchises, even though the YA genre has long since lost its box office shine. For this particular film, they chose GP Taylor’s Mariah Mundi series, and while I’ve never read anything by Taylor, nor have I heard anything good about his YA novels. And having now seen Adventurer: Curse of the Midas Box, I can see they deserve their reputation. Mundi is the teenage son of two important members of the Bureau of Antiquities, a Victorian government department which hunts down and safeguards magical artefacts. One of which is the Midas Box – which allegedly does exactly what it says on the, er, box – but evil grave-robber Otto Luger (named for a Nazi gun, so he must be bad) is hot on the box’s trail. He kidnaps and kills Mundi’s parents, then kidnaps Mundi and his younger brother… Throughout the entire film, Mundi is completely useless. He gets caught by the baddies and has to be rescued half a dozen times. He seems neither clever nor resourceful, and is played with all the expressiveness of a rabbit caught in headlights by Aneurin Barnard. The world-building is quite good, but the story is a derivative mishmash of YA steampunk and fantasy tropes, and the cast almost entirely stereotypes. I can understand why the film flopped.

Dogora, Ishirō Honda (1964, Japan). Honda directed a number of batshit weird sf films during the 1960s. Some of them were actually quite good. Weird. But good. This one, sadly, qualifies only for the first of those two terms. Satellites in orbit disappear after colliding with a weird protoplasmic mass. Meanwhile a diamond robbery in Tokyo goes horribly wrong  and the diamonds vanish. A police inspector, a scientist, the scientist’s nubile assistant and an undercover insurance agent (played by an ex-USMC who was stationed in Japan, decided to stay there, learnt Japanese, and had quite a successful career in Japanese movies). Anyway, like most of Honda’s movies, it’s almost complete nonsense, something to do with a weird space jellyfish which feeds on carbon, in all its forms, and which they eventually manage to kill. This is sf B-movie territory, it just happens to be Japanese rather than American.

Adventures of a Private Eye, Stanley Long (1977, UK). The second in a trilogy of British sex comedies, apparently intended to rival the much more successful novel-based Confessions series, which numbered four films, and the first of which, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, was the highest grossing British film of 1974. I have a vague memory of reading one of these sorts of novels back in the early 1980s while at school, but I seem to remember it involved competitive cycling. I also seem to remember it was terrible. Anyway, the lead is no longer Barry Evans but Christopher Neil, who is left in charge when his boss Jon Pertwee goes off on holiday. Enter the femme fatale. You can probably guess the rest. I’m not sure why I watched this film, and its predecessor, except perhaps to remind me that for all the cool iconography and design that came out of the 1970s, it was still a pretty shit decade to live through – outside toilets and nylon sheets and hotel rooms without en suite bathrooms and racist sitcoms… Thank fuck I spent most of it abroad.

Pi, Darren Aronofsky (1998, USA). I’ve seen this film mentioned numerous times, and I’ve watched most of Aronofsky’s other films, with varying degrees of enjoyment and appreciation. But, despite his reputation, he’s never been a director whose films I rush to see, or whose back-catalogue I hunt down to watch. Pi has lots of fun ideas in it, but is so resolutely experimental it often prevents enjoyment. A paranoid number theorist gets dragged into some weird plot when introduced to the Kabbalah by a Hasidic Jew, and meanwhile has to fight off the attentions of a brokerage house who want to purchase a program he wrote which seems to accurately predict stock prices. And there’s something about a 216-digit number, which is important in several mathematical fields and Judaism. The movie is filmed in stark black and white, although not as starkly as Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir, but certainly with a great deal more contrast than in commercial film-making. This is very much an art house film, with all of an art house film’s look and feel and concerns. It was clear from this movie that Aronofsky was going to have an… interesting career, and that’s certainly been the case. Worth seeing.

The Man from Hong Kong, Brian Trenchard-Smith (1975, Australia). This was apparently the first ever Australia-Hong Kong international co-production, and led to many others. So it’s a bit of a shame it’s so shit. Sammo Hung meets with an Australian contact for a drug deal at Uluru, but there are detectives on the tour bus and Hung is arrested after a bit of a chase up the side of Uluru. He won’t talk, and an inspector is sent from Hong Kong to take him back to face charges there. But the inspector – popular Shaw Brothers lead Jimmy Wang Yu – is determined to take down the Australian end of the drug pipeline, the head of which is George Lazenby. Rumour has it Wang directed part of the film as he was unhappy, and I’m guessing it was the sex scenes. Because there are a lot of them. Wang seems uncommonly successful with the ladies. Unfortunately, the fight scenes are not very good – poorly choreographed and not very inventive. Lazenby, however, gives a good showing in the final, er, showdown, even if he loses. If you like kung fu thrillers, there are plenty of better ones out there. This is, at best, a curiosity.

Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon). A twelve-year-old boy is escorted into court and declares to the judge he wants to sue his parents for being born. The film tells his story in flashback. Born in the slums of Beirut to poor parents with too many kids, he doted on his sister, who was sold at the age of eleven to a local shop owner to be his bride. He ran away, and fell in with a Somali illegal immigrant who was trying to hide the fact she had a young baby. But then she’s rounded up by the authorities. He does his best to look after the baby, but is eventually forced to arrange to have himself smuggled to Europe (Sweden). But for that he needs his papers, so he returns home. And discovers his sister died in childbirth, as did the baby. He stabs the “husband” (seriously, you cannot be a husband of an eleven-year-old girl, you’re a paedophile). He is arrested and sentenced to prison. He then learns his mother is pregnant again. This is a heart-breaking film. Everything that happens in it is not only entirely plausible, it is still happening now. Because a handful of Western nations insist on dropping bombs on Arab towns and villages. The so-called Migrant Crisis was created by Western war-mongering. Every nation involved should accept a number of refugees proportional to the number of bombs they dropped. They won’t, of course, because they’re ruled by sociopaths. The US doesn’t have a Middle East foreign policy, only a policy to keep the region so destabilised through war the Russians can’t make any gains. That’s effectively a war crime, and the country’s administration should be held accountable.  As should their lapdogs, the UK. Watch this film. It is excellent.

The Impersonator, Alfred Shaughnessy (1961, UK). I can’t decide if the title to this film is misleading or a spoiler. A USAF base somewhere in England – the cast seem to have generic put-on Northern accents, so it could be anywhere north of Leicester – decides to improve relations with the nearby town. So a sergeant is sent to a local school to offer to take the kids to see a pantomime, Mother Goose. He is attracted to the teacher and they arrange a date. But he misses the bus from the base, and she’s gone home by the time he eventually arrives at the tea-room. He stays for a bit and then, on a whim, invites the tea-room’s owner to be his date at the base dance party. She agrees. On the way home, she is murdered. He is the chief suspect. Because the victim’s young son remembers speaking to an American in the tea-room. This is actually not a bad little murder-mystery. While it’s clear the male lead is innocent, the identity of the murderer is kept cleverly hidden for much of the movie. This may be a British B-movie, but it’s not a bad one.

Prova d’orchestra, Federico Fellini (1978, Italy). Fellini was at his best when he was being indulgent. His earlier films are interesting, but his later ones are pure spectacle and amazing to watch. Prova d’orchestra (AKA Orchestra Rehearsal) is a 70-minute feature film that amply demonstrates Fellini’s humour while reigning back on the cinematic excess. Mostly. As  the title suggests, this is ostensibly a documentary about an orchestra rehearsing for a performance. But as they play so the excesses of the score come to life, and everything descends into anarchy and chaos. It’s about as pure Fellini as you can get. I’d say it was one for fans, but I think everyone should be a fan of Fellini’s films.


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Movie roundup 2020, #8

Another in the current batch of Movie round-up posts. Two more and I should be up to date with, or at least not too far behind, my actual viewing.

Love on the Run, François Truffaut (1979, France). Truffaut’s final film about Antoine Doinel, and it makes it no clearer what Truffaut was trying to achieve with these movies. Especially since this last one is partly a clip-show of scenes from the earlier movies. Featuring the many women in Doinel’s life. And that’s pretty much the plot of Love on the Run, Doinel having a string of affairs, and flashbacks showing his past affairs. He is, of course, married for much of this. Perhaps it’s a French thing, but I find Doinel thoroughly unlikable and not in the least bit charming or sympathetic. I like many of Truffaut’s films a great deal, but I really did not take to this series. I suppose I should have guessed this would be the case as I watched The 400 Blows in, I think, the 1990s, and didn’t watch another Truffaut film for over ten years. But as I explored his oeuvre so I found films I liked.

Domino, Brian De Palma (2019, Denmark). Two Danish cops in Copenhagen, played by Danish actors, but speaking in English, respond to a domestic violence call, but surprise the murderer of an immigrant grocer… who proves to have lots of explosives and weaponry stashed in his flat. The murderer kills one of the cops and escapes, but is then picked up by the CIA. The grocer was a member of ISIS, and the murderer is out for revenge on the ISIS chief who executed his father. The surviving cop goes rogue and follows the killer, now controlled by the CIA because they want the ISIS chief dead too, to Spain, where he manages to foil a bomb plot. De Palma has always been a poor man’s Hitchcock, but some of his films haven’t been too bad. This one, unfortunately, is terrible. Not content pretending the Danes all speak English, it also characterises all brown immigrants as either terrorists or killers. The evil CIA man also feels like a cliché too far. Avoid.

Tomboy, Walter Hill (2016, USA). This one of those films you’re surprised ever got made because its premise is such a bad idea. A hit man kills a playboy with a gambling debt on contract. The playboy’s sister is a self-confessed genius renegade doctor, who specialises in plastic surgery and gender reassignment. And runs an underground clinic after losing her licence for experimenting on people. Where she is found, mutilated and surrounded by her dead staff, by the police. The film is told in in flashback as the doctor is interviewed in an asylum over what happened. It transpires she located the hitman, had him kidnapped, and performed gender reassignment surgery on him. Now a woman, the hitman is trying to figure who did it to her. This such a bad take, I’m amazed no one said to any of those involved – and though the film is B-list, there are some big names in it –  that perhaps this was a film they shouldn’t make. It’s not like without the dodgy central premise it’s any great shakes as a thriller. Sigourney Weaver chews major scenery as the mad doctor. Tony Shalhoub is running on autopilot as the psychiatrist interviewing Weaver. And Michelle Rodriguez tries her best with a role that fails to convince in all its aspects. Avoid.

Enter the Fat Dragon, Kenji Tanagaki & Wong Jing (2020, China). A Hong Kong policeman interrupts a bank robbery while on the way to his wedding photographs, which causes his starlet fiancée to break off with him. And gets him demoted to the evidence locker. He puts on lots of weight. He is then tasked with taking a Japanese film-maker back to Japan. Unfortunately, the film-maker has amnesia after an accident. Equally unfortunately, he fled Tokyo after accidentally filming some Yakuza demonstrating how they’re using fresh fish to smuggle drugs. And they saw him. And the Tokyo police (according to the film) are all corrupt. Oh, and his ex-fiancée is also in Tokyo, fronting some business celebration for the semi-senile head of the selfsame Yakuza clan. As plots go, it’s pretty standard for the genre, although surprisingly anti-Japanese. However, the fight choreography is excellent. In places, it’s a mix of parkour and kung fu, and it’s all highly entertaining. The opening sequence, in which the cop fights the bank robbers inside the van they’ve stolen as their getaway vehicle, is brilliant. Watch it.

Return to the 36th Chamber, Lau Kar Leung (1980, China). The second of a loose trilogy from the Shaw Brothers. The boss of a Cantonese dye works employs some Manchurians and cuts his workforce’s wages to pay for them. The workers object, so he has them beaten up. They persuade the con-man brother of one of the dyers to impersonate a Shaolin monk to scare off the Manchurians. It doesn’t work. So the con-man tries to infiltrate the Shaolin temple, and fails. The abbot makes him re-roof the temple as penance. It takes him a year, but during that period he more or less trains as a Shaolin monk, so when he returns to his brother he uses his new-found skills to defeat the dye works owner and the Manchurians. This was pretty much what it said on the tin, but it was more entertaining than a lot of Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen. One for fans of the genre, but a good example of it.

Drunken Master, Yuen Woo-ping (1978, China). A Jackie Chan vehicle, although he’s the student and not the eponymous master. The plot is inconsequential, it’s all about the fight sequences – and they’re done really well. It even popularised a style of kung fu. A young man keeps on getting into trouble, and after being rescued by a drunkard in a restaurant, becomes his student. Meanwhile, a business rival sends a kung fu fighter to beat up the student’s father, but the student arrives in time for a climactic fight. Apparently, it was after this film that Chan began to give his movies generic titles in order not to give away the plots. Although there was a Drunken Master II (AKA The Legend of Drunken Master) and the not entirely related Drunken Master III.

Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Stanley Long (1976, UK). The first of a trilogy of British sex comedies, three words which should strike fear into the heart of any cineaste. Barry Evans, the teacher from Mind Your Language, stars as a black cab driver in London, and the film recounts his – mostly sexual – adventures. It’s pure mid-seventies British comedy, with sex scenes, with all the cringe-inducing elements that entails. Interestingly, Ingmar Bergman’s daughter, Anna, has a minor role as a stripper, and it seems her entire acting career involved British sex comedies in the seventies. Entirely missable. There were two sequels: Adventures of a Private Eye and Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate.

Swallows and Amazons, Claude Whatham (1974, UK). Watching this, it occurred to me that the worldview of the upper middle classes is pretty much constructed from works such as Swallows and Amazons, which is set in the 1930s, and that’s been pretty much true right up to the end of the twentieth century. Their whole identity is ninety years out of date. It would explain much, especially the UK’s political scene. In Swallows and Amazons, it is 1929, and a family of posh kids are on holiday in the Lake District. Their father is a RN officer on a destroyer in the Far East. Their mother allows them to use a dinghy and sail about the lake and camp on a small island in the middle of the lake. They get embroiled in a “war” with two girls who also have a dinghy, and they’re all naively patronising to everyone not of their class. The girls’ uncle lives on a houseboat and is targeted by local burglars. He thinks the kids did it, but they manage to prove otherwise, and help the uncle retrieve his property. And everyone has ice cream and plays jolly games. I was surprised to discover Ransome wrote another eleven books in the series.

Thale, Aleksander Nordaas (2012, Norway). Two guys work for a services that cleans up after dearths. They’re sent into one property, find a Cold War bunker in the garden, and in it a strange young woman with a tail who cannot speak. They investigate further and discover the man whose bunker it was experimented on the woman. Soldiers turn up, and then these weird creatures appear from the forest and kill the soldiers. The creatures are apparently hulder, which Wikipedia describes as “a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore”, although it’s not clear from the entry if there’s only one of them or an entire race. Thale was an entertainingly weird horror film, although the opening scenes are a bit grim.

Gloria, Sebastián Lelio (2013, Chile). A divorcee with grown-up children in Santiago starts going to bars to find companionship and takes up with a divorced man with grown-up children. They get on well together. But he seems to have a habit of disappearing on her, especially one of his daughters rings, which culminates with the woman throwing his mobile phone in the soup while they are staying for the weekend in a luxury hotel on the coast. He goes off and doesn’t come back. She goes off on the piss and falls asleep on the beach. When she returns to the hotel, he’s checked out and taken all her things. You don’t see many films centred on middle-aged women, and even less that treat their subjects with sympathy. Gloria not only manages both, it shows that its eponymous character, and people like her, can define their own happiness. Good film, worth seeing.