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Moving pictures 2019, #21

Slowly getting up to date with these. Chiefly by bingeing on box sets.

Vault, Tom DeNucci (2019, USA). Hollywood has been glamourising crime – more than that, violent crime – since its beginnings, and while there’s no causal link between violence on the screen and violence in the real world, it doesn’t take a genius to spot that a constant diet of violent entertainment both normalises it and helps desensitise the audience. People will happily consume crime drama, and perhaps even admire the criminals it depicts… up until the moment they’re mugged or burgled. Vault is another film in that long line of gangster dramas Hollywood has churned out. A pair of small-time crooks decide to hold up two banks on the same day, but it goes awry and they end up in prison. Where they come into the orbit of Don Johnson, who has a bone to pick with a mafia don also incarcerated in the same prison. Once Johnson and the two crooks are released, they put together a plan to rob a mafia vault hidden in a fur storage facility. This is all based on a true story. Vault is one of those 1970s-set films, and it’s not the first like it I’ve seen, that makes its depiction of the decade seem more like a parody than a realistic depiction. I was around in the 1970s and although my memories of that time may not be all that sharp – I was a kid during the decade – I remember it as a lot more, well, ordinary than Hollywood has depicted it in movies this century. Which is only one of many things about Vault that doesn’t work. The characters are too dim to be sympathetic, the whole escapade is clearly doomed to failure, and the direction is flat at best. Vault can’t decide if it’s a “smart” thriller or just an action thriller, and fails at both. Not worth it.

The Abominable Snowman, Val Guest (1957, UK). I’m not a horror fan – too squeamish. I don’t find it entertaining to see people chopped up into bits, especially in modern films with realistic-looking CGI. I don’t mind films with monsters, providing the movies are old enough that it all looks fake. Like Hammer films. Amazon Prime has added a bunch of 1950s horror movies – not all Hammer, but mostly British – so I’ve watched a few of them. The Abominable Snowman is about, well, the Abominable Snowman. Like other Hammer films, such as the Quatermass ones, it was written by Nigel Kneale, based on a television play broadcast by the BBC in 1955 and also written by Neale. Rather than present the Yeti as a mindless creature, or even a primitive subspecies of human, The Abominable Snowman shows them to be advanced beings living hidden in the Himalayas. Peter Cushing is in Tibet to search for botanical specimens but joins an expedition to capture a Yeti led by an American, Forrest Tucker (most Hammer films feature US actors in lead roles to help sell them to the parochial US market). The expedition meets with a degree of success, but there are consequences. The film doesn’t do a very good job of presenting its setting – obviously it wasn’t filmed on location, but the sets are pretty unconvincing. It’s all very, well, British. Particularly British of the 1950s. The accents are all cut-glass, except the American, and the acting is that sort of stiff, stage-like acting you see in many UK films of the period. But it’s all kind of hokey fun, and Kneale’s take on the Yeti is notable.

Almost Saw the Sunshine, Leon Lopez (2016, UK). This is a thirty-minute drama starring Munroe Bergdorf, a transgender model and activist probably best-known for being dropped by L’Oréal after pointing out on social media, quite rightly, that white people are racist. Bergdorf is outspoken, which has made her a target for certain groups, and most of the British media, and that’s meant she’s lost a number of positions on trumped-up excuses. Almost Saw the Sunshine is a relatively straightforward drama short, filmed on the cheap in London, in which girl meets boy, girl decides to drop boy for reasons, and things happen. Bergdorf has real screen presence. The acting is perhaps a bit rough and ready in places, but Bergdorf seems assured in front of the camera, so much so she casts the rest of the cast into the shade. Worth seeking out.

Girl, Lukas Dhont (2018, Belgium). Another film based on a true story, although it has received heavy criticism from the community to which its protagonist belongs. The title refers to a teenage transgender girl who has joined a ballet school but is suffering because of the demands the dancing is having on her body and the changes her body is undergoing as part of her treatment. It’s all very low-key, and well, Belgian. Lara is fifteen years old and transgender. She also wants to be a ballet dancer and has been accepted by a good school. But her gender reassignment is not progressing fast enough for her, and the punishing regime she puts herself through in order to qualify for the school has consequences. The damage she does to her body results in her surgery being delayed, and while she secures a place at the school she is too ill to dance in a class performance. The rest of her class treat her as just another member of the class… until at a pyjama party one of the girls eggs the others on to demand Lara show them her genitals. The next day, Lara takes matters into her own hand… I’m in no position to validate Girl‘s presentation of its subject, but it is based on a true story, and the person who inspired the film has said it’s a fairly true depiction of what happened to her. But, again, I don’t have the background to praise or criticise that aspect of the film. I enjoyed it, and I thought it well acted and well shot. But it may also be problematical.

The Mummy, Terence Fisher (1959, UK). another Hammer film, also starring Peter Cushing. And this time, also Christopher Lee. In the title role. I don’t know if this film originated many of the tropes now associated with mummies – there are plenty of earlier appearances by mummies, in film, on stage, and in serial magazines – but it follows the template we all know and love. Archaeologists break into new tomb, find sarcophogus. They come down with mysterious ailment. Years pass. They come out of their coma, and reveal that an evil high priest had been mummified for trying to bring the princess in the tomb back to life, and he’s now a mummy and bent on killing everyone who desecrated the princess’s tomb. It’s all pure hokum, but the cast are far too professional – and British – to reveal they’re having fun, or actually despise the material. Some Hammer films are better than others. This was definitely one of the cheesiest ones.

Chiriakhana, Satyajit Ray (1967, India). Ray is probably the best known of India’s “parallel cinema” directors, a movement chiefly based in Kolkata which made realist films in opposition to the song and dance extravaganzas of Bollywood. Ritwik Ghatak, a favourite director, and Mrinal Sen were also parallel cinema, but the ready availability of Ray’s films in the Anglophone world is likely a result of his championing by Ismail Merchant, who he had helped early in his career. Which is not to say that Ray’s films are not good – but I’d like to see Ghatak get the same treatment. (And as for his Sen, his films are only available from Indian DVD labels, and few of them at that.) Chiriakhana was not well received on release as it’s a complex thriller, almost a pulp story in fact. A retired judge has opened his nursery to a group of misfits, criminals and social outcasts. He hires a detective to search among them for an actress who disappeared years before. The detective, disguised as a Japanese horticulturalist (not every convincingly, it must be said), is given a guided tour of the nursery. Soon after, the judge is murdered… Unfortunately, on the copy of this I watched the subtitles ran about 10 seconds ahead of the dialogue. To male matters worse, the cast occasionally code-switched into English. So it made things a bit difficult to follow. The convoluted plot didn’t help either. I’ve watched a  number of Ray’s films, and some I found more engrossing than others. Chiriakhana is one of the better ones, and manages to be especially atmospheric in places. If Indian noir were a thing, this would be the exemplar. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940

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Moving pictures 2019, #14

Since moving to Sweden, I’ve pretty much had access only to Amazon Prime. I bought my Blu-ray player with me, and a bunch of discs, but I’ve yet to set it up. Funnily enough, they don’t sell 3-pin to 2-pin electrical plug adaptors here, only the reverse…

A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy (1989, USA). This is based on a novel by noted Afrikaner author André Brink, originally published in 1979, and apparently banned in South Africa. Which is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the book was around for over a decade before apartheid was ended, and the film for three or four years. And while apartheid was rightly reviled and condemned internationally, I’m surprised books and films which showed its true horror, such as A Dry White Season, weren’t more widely known. Which hardly normalises apartheid, but certainly makes international resistance to it by individuals entirely passive and ineffective. Of course, it doesn’t help when your government – for me at that time, that would be Thatcher’s – cosy up to these vile regimes, or even worse, like Pinochet’s, which more or less much makes them criminals by association. So no, Thatcher does not deserve a statue. Anyway, A Dry White Season. A black teenage boy is rounded up by the police during a schoolboy protest, even though he wasn’t involved in it. His father, the gardener at a posh Afrikaner school, tries to have his son’s criminal record wiped as he was innocent. But then is himself arrested as a “black activist” and tortured. He dies during interrogation. One of the school’s teachers, a famous ex-rugby player and “friend” of the gardener, tries to help out and gets embroiled in the whole thing. He decides to get justice for the dead man, which involves taking the state security police to court for his death. He loses the case. Soon afterwards, he is murdered by a state security police officer. This is grim stuff, and all the ore so for being set in a real world regime that behaved pretty much exactly as depicted. Apartheid was an abomination. A Dry White Season makes an excellent fist of its story, and Donald Sutherland, despite a somewhat wobbly accent, is good in the lead role. Worth seeing.

Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India). A successful engineer spots a young woman he fancies on his commute to work – in fact, she works in the same building. He tries asking her out, she plays hard to get, but eventually she agrees. The two are very happy together. But then she heads off to a distant city for a celebration of some kind and is never seen again. Rumour has it she ran off with another man. Some time later, a man is brutally murdered in his apartment. The investigating police find a video taken on a phone from the balcony of a neighouring flat during a party – and it clearly shows the engineer on the balcony of the murdered man’s apartment around the time of the murder. He is arrested, but it seems he has an alibi. Meanwhile, it also transpires the engineer has a doppelgänger, who works as a con man and gambler on the streets. He turns up at the police station where the engineer is being held, after being arrested for drunk-driving. So now the police have two identical men, one of whom murdered the victim, but both have alibis. It turns out the pair are twins, who separated when their parents divorced and the two now hate each other. But one of them must have committed the murder, even though both have alibis. The court reluctantly lets them go. This is a clever thriller, and while it’s pretty long by Western standards, it never flags. It kept me guessing for much of its length, although the resolution is hardly a surprise. But if you’re going to watch a polished thriller, why not watch an Indian one?

The Way Ahead, Carol Reed (1944, UK). Given when this film was made, and its topic, I suspect it was partly, if not wholly, intended to encourage more people to sign up to fight. And yet it shows the British armed forces are just as shit and incompetent as Evelyn Waugh’s novels make them out to be – as indeed does their record in both WWI and WWII. (The modern British Army, however, is a highly effective and professional fighting force, often hamstrung by poor equipment bought by politicians.) Anyway, a number of men from various walks of 1940s UK life are conscripted. En route to their barracks, they have an encounter with an army sergeant that does not go well. Lo and behold, he turns out to be their platoon sergeant when they finally reach barracks. And they’re all convinced he – William Hartnell – has it in for them. In fact, the opposite is true: he thinks they’ll make good soldiers. The film follows them through their training, including all their whinging and attempts to shirk, and ends up with them being sent to fight, only to be re-assigned elsewhere before the battle… but their ship is torpedoed and they have to fight to for their lives. This is a surprisingly honest depiction of British conscription during the war, and of some of the characters are closer to caricature that’s hardly unexpected given the broad strokes with which they’re drawn. As WWII films go, it makes a good antidote to the bombastic crap both the UK and Hollywood churned out in the decades immediately following the WWII.

Animal Farm, John Halas & Joy Batchelor (1954, UK). Orwell’s novella seems an obvious candidate to turn into an animated film, but it took nearly a decade before it reached the screen. Perhaps it was too political for Hollywood – this adaptation is British, after all. Except… Hollywood has made plenty of political films, even ones that directly criticised Hitler. The story of Animal Farm, unfortunately, lends itself too well to animation, and what is clearly a political parable becomes something that feels more like a cartoon without jokes. There’s some good animation here, but I suspect afficionados of the artform are going to be the only ones who really appreciate it. To my eye, nothing especially stood out, and Orwell’s message felt like it was tacked on than the actual point of the piece. Worth seeing almost certainly, but be prepared to be disappointed.

Silence, Martin Scorsese (2016, USA). In the seventeenth century, the Japanese shogunate cracks down on Christianity and imprisons, or executes, all the Christian priests and missionaries in the country. Two Jesuits are sent to Japan from Portugal a few years later to search for a priest who chose to renounce Christianity rather than be executed. After all, who wouldn’t? Seriously, if you’re that invested in an idea you’d give your life for it, chances are it’s not a good idea. And religion, particularly Christianity, is not a good idea. It’s caused far more harm and destruction than atheism. Funnily enough. Anyway, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, a pair of naive young Jesuits, are smuggled into Japan, where they discover Christianity flourishing underground despite being outlawed. Yay for risking execution and torture in service to a promise of an afterlife. Like you’ll ever fucking know whether it exists or not. Show me someone who’s  come back. With proof. Heaven is one of the biggest marketing scams in history of humanity. Up there with the divine right of kings, capitalism, trickle-down theory and white supremacy. Anyway… Scorsese is an experienced and accomplished film-maker, so it’s comes as no surprise that Silence is a well-made film. Although it does still feel like a series of longeurs stitched together by brief moments of drama. In part, that’s the nature of the story Scorsese is telling – it’s spread across years, for one thing. The cast all give good performances, but in places there’s just so much open emotion up there on the screen it feels like a wet Sunday in winter. I’ve never been a Scorsese fan – at least not of his films, but very much so of his World Cinema Project and his work to restore and promote non-Anglophone cinema. That’s always made me feel like I should like his movies more than I do. Silence is by no means a disappointing film, and it ticks all the boxes as an historical drama, but it’s not a film I can have strong feelings about.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher (1957, UK). This was apparently the film which established Hammer as a maker of horror films – and they made some classic, if somewhat cheap, horror films during their time. Melvyn Hayes – better known to Brits of my generation as the female impersonator from the sticom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, plays a young Victor Frankenstein who engages Robert Uruquhart, a disgraced scientist, as his tutor. Hayes grows up to be Peter Cushing. And he and Uruquhart manage to recreate life. But Cushing takes it further and creates a human – his monster, played by Christopher Lee. The film takes a number of liberties with the novel, mostly by almost entirely ditching Shelley’s plot. Th end result is pretty much archetypal Hammer Horror material, almost a template for their later movies. The Curse of Frankenstein grossed more than seventy times its production cost during its release, according to Wikipedia, and spawned a number of sequels. It was not especially well-received by critics. It’s not a very good film, and it would take some real mental gymnastics to try to claim it as one. But it’s certainly germinal, and while none of the film it led to ever be classified as works of cinematic art, they did what they did well and with a welcome sensibility. I don’t like modern horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But I’d happily work my way through Hammer Horror’s back-catalogue, and consider myself richer for having done so.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 939