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Moving pictures 2018, #20

I know most of the films I watch are blindingly obscure, and only of interest to a limited group of people, but occasionally I watch – or, at least, write about – popular films. Not always, it has to be said, approvingly. And there’s a glaring example in this post: Blade Runner 2049. There’s a tendency among genre fans to love movies because they’re respectful of genre, whether or not they’re good films. Throw in good visuals – or even ersatz art house visuals – and said fans are pretty much wetting themselves. If you judge a film by fan service, you’re doing it wrong. On the other hand, I do have a somewhat idiosyncratic taste in films. As is evidenced by my DVD collection…

Paradox Alice, Erika Dapkewicz (2012, USA) I forget where I saw mention of this, but the premise sounded intriguing. A routine flight to Europa to harvest ice returns to Earth, only to witness the planet being destroyed. The one female member of the four crew is murdered. A remaining member of the crew (now all male) then inexplicably transforms into a female. Which means there are now only two male crew-members left: an old sensible one, and a young nutjob who thinks he’s some sort of Waco messiah. And that last tells you as much as you need to know about this film. In other words, it was fucking awful. The CGI was shit, but never mind, it seemed to be doing its job… but then the three of them were left the only humans alive and the quality nosedived very quickly. The nutjob messiah character was played one-note, and the female character immediately started acting like a victim. And was then tortured and raped. I had thought the film was recent, but after watching it I was surprised it hadn’t been made forty years ago. The sexual politics were offensive and a generation old at least. Do yourself a favour: avoid.

Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve (2017, USA). This and Arrival, another Villeneuve film I did not like, have received much love from the genre community. The first might be partly due to the fact the film was an adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang; and, okay, Blade Runner 2049 is plainly a sequel to the much-loved Blade Runner from 1982, as the title clearly indicates, so that’s going to get it some love from the genre community straight off. Because when it comes to movies, the genre community – AKA fandom – has pretty poor taste, or rather, its critical faculties completely desert it. “Woo, Hollywood made a film of a book we like… Quick! Give it a Hugo!”. Which is not to say that only fandom has fallen for Villeneuve’s superficial charms. He has been lauded by the film community too. Blade Runner 2049, I will freely admit, looks gorgeous. But it is still a bad film. It is deeply misogynistic: only one female character survives to the end. It is needlessly violent. In the original, the only people killed by Deckard were replicants he had been authorised to “retire”. In this version, the protagonist kills far more people, and often for no good reason. There is one scene, which does not advance the plot, in which the protagonist’s vehicle crashes in an area outside the city and he has to kill a number of people who attack him. Because that’s what people do in the future obvs. They attack people who have car accidents. And, I don’t know, maybe they eat them. Then there’s Jared Leto’s character, Niander Wallace, who is clearly meant to be the new Tyrell, but Tyrell was proud of his accomplishments while Wallace is mostly contemptuous. The more I think about it, the more I think Blade Runner 2049 is a deeply offensive film, and I wonder what that says about twenty-first century science fiction and twenty-first cinema. Villeneuve is like Winding Refn, a director lauded for their visuals by critics who are happy to overlook their misogyny and violence. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. A good film is more than just pretty pictures.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Watiti (2016, New Zealand). I had never heard of Watiti until I watched Thor: Ragnarok. And then, having learnt who he was, I wondered about Disney’s wisdom in putting him in charge of a MCU film. But he pulled it off. More than that, he made probably the most entertaining MCU film so far. And since that film pleasantly surprised me, I decided to give some of his earlier work a go. It has been horribly mis-sold. I hate whimsical shit. I cannot stand the films of Wes Anderson. Someone has tried to sell Watiti as New Zealand’s answer to Anderson. For me, this is a massive turn-off. Fortunately, it is complete bollocks. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a straightforward drama told with a slightly sideways dead-pan comic point-of-view. It is, thankfully, not at all fucking whimsical. A kid in care is dumped on a well-meaning, but none too bright, couple on a smallholding outside the city. The kid tries to run away several times, but he’s overweight and knows nothing about the bush. Eventually, the wife’s kindness wins him over. The husband is a gruff type who doesn’t want him there. But then the wife dies unexpectedly, and the kid runs away because he doesn’t want to go back into care. The husband tracks him down, but injures himself in the process, so the two end up staying in the bush for weeks while he recovers. Meanwhile, everyone thinks the husband has kidnapped the kid… Sam Neill plays the husband, and he gives it his best, but his career tells against him – he’s played too many scientists and urbane types to convince as a taciturn bushman. The kid, in, I think, his first professional role, is really good. I think what makes the film is that all the characters are well-meaning but really dim. Often, they’re comically stupid. And that played well against the seriousness of the story. I’m told Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a bit of a Marmite film, and I generally find myself on the hating side of such films. But I really liked it. And it wasn’t at all whimsical, thank god.

Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle, Paul Sng (2017, UK). Maggie’s great sell-off of council houses was the most financially successful of all the Tory policies. It brought in more money than any other sell-off. And in itself, it was no bad thing. Except. The social housing that was sold was never replaced. Sheffield is currently doing the same with its trees: cutting them down, but not always planting new ones. (They cut down two on my street… and replaced only one of them.) And that’s what happened to social housing in the UK. The number of council houses plummetted. So now we have people living on the street. And in London, land once occupied by social housing has been developed and turned into luxury apartments which the rich use as investments and never actually occupy. Empty flats should be taxed 90%. More. It is absolutely fucking disgusting that people are left homeless just so some one-percenter can park money in property. One story repeatedly told in this film, which should be watched by everyone, is that of people who had bought their council house/flat, but their estate was now being developed, so they were offered £150k for their home, but the market price of an equivalent property in the area was £600k or more. Much of the impetus for redevelopment comes from the poor condition of the estates, where maintenance has been neglected for decades. In some cases, the neglect is deliberate in order to justify a sell-off to a developer; in other cases, it’s the result of central government cutting back funding to local authorities. Tory central government, of course. They used council houses to pay a ton into the Treasury to offset the tax cuts they’d given their mates, to make up for the shrinking of the economy caused by policies such as Austerity… And yet the claim to be the party that’s good for business! On what planet? Dispossession mostly covers estates in London, but does also film in the Gorbals and at Red Road and other locations in Glasgow. I seem to remember it also covering Sheffield’s Hyde Park. This film should be require viewing in schools – although the scumbags at Eton and the like will probably think it’s a comedy. But that’s doesn’t matter because there are more of us, and we can vote them out of office. and then ensure that they are charged for their crimes.

Underwater Love, Shinji Imaoko (2011, Japan). This was a birthday present from David Tallerman. After mentioning that I’d loved The Lure (see here), he told me I’d probably like this too. And he was right. Although not as much as I loved The Lure. A woman who works in a fish factory and is engaged to the boss. But then she bumps into a kappa, a Japanese water sprite, sort of half-man half-turtle, who proves to be a past boyfriend who drowned when they were both seventeen. She sorts of befriends him – and there is some comedy around her trying to hide him from her fiancé – and through the kappa she meets other water sprites. Oh, and every now and again, they all break into song. It’s sort of eighties music, but not really – and I’m not sure if that’s because it’s Japanese… Comparisons with The Lure are, I’m afraid, inevitable – and not only because I watched the two within a short period of time. The Polish film is the more visual of the two, and, it must be said, the more musical. But Underwater Love is a romance, not horror, and so entirely different in tone. The protagonist in Underwater Love is, of course, a great deal more sympathetic – slightly ditzy, slightly harassed, but generally happy. The protagonists in The Lure are, er, carnivorous mermaids. And the more I think about it, the harder it is to compare the two films. Underwater Love was fun, if lightweight, and I’ve seen enough Japanese cinema to be reasonably familiar with its conventions. The comedy didn’t always works for me, the frank depictions of sex were a surprise but seemed to fit, and I can’t really complain: it was a good present.

The Mother and the Whore*, Jean Eustache (1973, France). This was the first feature film by Eustache, previously known for shorts and documentaries, and it is highly regarded – not just featuring on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but praised by many critics both inside and outside France. It is also 219 minutes long, and shot in black and white. It is about a self-obsessed twenty-something Parisian, his girlfriend, and a woman he meets with whom he has an affair. Much of the film takes place in cafés and bars, and consists of the man talking at women. Sometimes, there is even a conversation. I read the Wikipedia entry, and it sounded interesting. Not Nouvelle Vague, which I find a bit hit and miss, but very French. And it was clearly highly-regarded. But such films… sometimes it’s hard to see what their reputation rests upon. Over three hours of bullshit uttered by a young man trying to carry on affairs with two women? Maybe I missed something, maybe there’s more to this film than appeared on the screen. It felt… glib, and far too common a scenario. Especially in French cinema. And length is not always a sign of deeper exploration. I shall probably give it another go sometime, but I honestly could not understand why it was so praised. I like French cinema, I like a lot of Nouvelle Vague films (which, to be fair, this wasn’t), I even like some long films by French directors (well, mostly by Jacques Rivette…). I feel like I missed something with this film, but perhaps it just wasn’t for me. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 902

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Moving pictures 2018, #6

I don’t seem to have been making much traction with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list recently. True, there’s a film from the list – Alphaville – in this half-dozen, but it was a rewatch as I first saw the film many years ago.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, Alain Resnais (2012, France). It had never occurred to me the director of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour had made films into the twenty-first century, but after stumbling across Muriel (see here), I looked further, discovered Resnais’s last film was released in 2014… and added a bunch of those available to my rental list. And the first to be sent proved to his last-but-one film, Vous n’avez encore rien vu, with its dumb Bachman Turner Overdrive title. Happily, the title is the only dumb thing about it. A famous playwright invites a dozen or so actors with whom he has worked during his career to his funeral. The actors are all billed as themselves. On arrival at the late man’s house, they are sat in front of a screen and asked to watch a performance of the playwright’s most famous play, Eurydice, put on by a young theatre collective. And as the collective act out the play, so those at the wake begin to act out the parts they took in past celebrated stagings of the play. For some of these scenes, Resnais lays in CGI scenery, intended I think to represent the scenery of the play when those actors were in it. The play-within-a-play has been around for a long time – Shakespeare even used it in Hamlet – but making the cast of the main play complicit in the staging of the embedded play is a new twist. And it’s cleverly done. Resnais apparently had another person direct the version of Eurydice watched by the cast, so that it would be different in style to his own direction. Having only seen three films by Resnais prior to this one, the distinction was lost on me. But never mind. A good film, worth seeing.

Level Five, Chris Marker (1997, France). Marker these days is probably best known for La jetée, an experimental film from 1962 which was freely adapted as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in 1995. Marker actually made a shitload of films, most of them short and most of them experimental. Level Five is feature-length, at 106 minutes, but very much experimental. It has a single cast member, Catherine Belkhodja, who views the world through a variety of computer screens. The Wikipedia plot summary refers to these last as “virtual reality”, but they’re not. And even for 1997, the computer graphics are crude. If anything, they remind me a little of Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World from 1991, which I first saw in 1992 or 1993 and thought a good presentation of the future at the time. Viewed from the twenty-first century, it’s not, of course. And Level Five feels somewhat similar in that regard. It’s not just the software or the hardware on display, but also the geopolitics, the social concerns… For all that it’s trying to be prophetic – deliberately so, it makes a feature of its analyses – Level Five seems to miss far more often than it hits. And having the film consist solely of either close-ups on Belkhodja or the computer graphics she is either watching or discussing doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama. I suspect this film needed another watch or two, but unfortunately it wasa rental and it’s gone back. Ah well.

McLintock!, Andrew V McLaglen (1963, USA). Yes, that really is John Wayne spanking Maureen O’Hara on the cover art. And while art like that, and the offensive tagline, “He tamed the Wild West… but could he tame her?” might have been acceptable in 1963 (in some parts of society), they are no longer (Presidents Club notwithstanding). Even worse, a quick google shows that the film posters of the time used the same image, along with equally offensive taglines like “He’s a tender loving guy!” and “Wallops the daylight out of every Western you’ve ever seen!”. The sad thing is, is that for half of its length, McLintock! is actually an amusing comedy Western. McLintock! was a Wayne project, the first of many movies he used to promote his conservative Republicans values – although present-day Republicans may consider those values dangerously liberal in some respects. Wayne developed the script, he hand-picked the director, one of his sons played the young male lead, another son produced, and he insisted on a supporting role for Yvonne De Carlo because her husband had been injured filming How The West Was Won. The film is set in the town of McLintock, named for Wayne’s character, a local cattle baron, who owns pretty much everything in sight. His wife, Maureen O’Hara, left him two years earlier to live in New York, but now she is back – because their daughter, Stefanie Powers, is about to return from college. Meanwhile, homesteaders have arrived in McLintock, ready to settle land they’ve been given on nearby Mesa Verde. The US government has also released the chiefs of the local Comanche tribe, only for a locally-held commission to tell the tribe they must leave their land. All this is good drama, and Wayne’s character is even-handed, if overly paternalistic, and keen to see everyone is treated equally, Comanche or homesteader. But not the women. Twice in McLintock! women are spanked using coal scuttles, and on both occasions such disciplining is seen as both normal and required. In fact, Wayne and O’Hara are at loggerheads for much of the film, until he spanks her. And then she turns all loving and decides not to return to New York. Bah.

Alphaville*, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). Although I’d seen ten of the thirteen films in this collection before, for some reason I saved Alphaville to watch last – despite working my way through the others chronologically. I think perhaps it was because I’d last seen it nearly  a decade ago and perhaps felt I’d not appreciated it as much as I should have done… I don’t know. But I do know, however, that I liked it a great deal more this time. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent posing as a jurnalist who visits Alphaville from the “Outer Countries”. It takes a while before his purpose there is clear, but he has been sent to bring back Professor Nosferatu, now known as Professor von Braun, the inventor of Alphaville and the Alpha-60 computer which rules it (it was not unusual in 1950s and early 1960s sf to assign AI-like capabilities to very large computers). Constantine meets up with Anna Karenina, von Braun’s daughter, and she gives him entry to the sections of Alphaville society his (fake) journalistic credentials cannot provide. None of Alphaville is filmed on sets. Godard made no effort to build a future city – and Alphaville‘s universe is implied to be galactic and not just planetary. Contemporary Paris provides the backdrop. At the time, some of the buildings used may have appeared futuristic, but now they appear mostly otherworldly, which has more or less the same effect. Some parts of the film haven’t aged so well. The seductresses, for example. Or the execution scene in the swimming pool with the sycnchronised swimmers. But there’s a lot that remains impressive. I especially liked a tracking shot following Constantine and Karenina as they travelled down in a lift, which continued in one take from them entering the lift cabin until they exited the hotel. An excellent film.

Tartuffe, FW Murnau (1925, Germany). I don’t know how many silent films I’ve watched, but I learn something new about cinematic narrative each time I watch one. I suppose I expected silent dramas to be completely different to films with sound, as if the use of intertitles laid a constraint on cinematic narrative which sound had removed from movie-making. And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But it didn’t mean silent cinema was completely unadventurous narratively. As Tartuffe demonstrates. It opens with a venal housekeeper gaslighting her employer so that he leaves his fortune to her and not to his actor grandson. Which the grandson learns on a visit to his grandfather. After being thrown out of the house, the grandson addresses the camera and insists he is not giving up. He returns to the house disguised as an impresario and puts on a private cinema screening for his grandfather and the housekeeper of… Tartuffe, the play by Molière. It’s a simplified version of the play, but the cut-down story is more than adequate to make the grandson’s point. In the film-within-a-film (explicitly so, unlike the Resnais above), Orgon returns from a trip and brings with him a religious man whom he greatly admires: Tartuffe. In fact, he admires him so much he changes every aspect of his life to accommodate Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire, however, suspects Tartuffe is a fraud, and sets out to entrap him by seducing him. And she succeeds… I’ve seen several of Murnau’s films, and liked them, so this box set of his early works was a good buy. And a bargain too, as it was cheaper than the individual versions of the films in it.

Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi (2017, USA). I am not a fan of superhero movies. The ones everyone praises, I generally think are terrible. I mean, I’d always liked the Guardians of the Galaxy since first reading them in an Marvel anthology comic back in the 1970s, but the movie wasn’t even based on those Guardians of the Galaxy but a later reboot, and, for all its hype, it was pants. And the sequel was worse. So I had pretty low expectations for Thor: Ragnarok, especially given how forgettable the two previous Thor films were… And yes, I was aware Thor: Ragnarok had been directed by Taika Waititi, a leftfield choice for a MCU film, but I wasn’t convinced the addition of Kiwi humour to MCU bombast would work. But. I was actually entertained. Which was unexpected. Thor: Ragnarok is not a great film by any means, and it’s not entirely sure what it should have been. You have the pure Kirby-vision of the Asgard sections, but the part set on Sakaar feels more like a reject from a Star wars prequel. But the film has a number of good lines and some entertaining comic set-pieces. For example, when Thor is about to leave Dr Strange’s mansion and puts out his hand for Mjolnir and you hear the sound of glass breaking, I laughed out loud. I wasn’t convinced Waititi’s rock-creature deadpan humour worked all the time, but Cate Blanchett did make an excellent villain. I could live without most of the plot, and the final battle on Bifrost went on far too long. I’d certainly describe Thor: Ragnarok as one of the better films in the MCU, although that’s not a hard bar to clear. Perhaps its success might lead Disney to experiment a little more with who they choose to direct their films… What am I thinking? It’s Disney. They’re as corporate as you can get. They’ll either flog their new formula to death, or strangle whatever creativity their chosen director tries to put into their film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895