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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, #11

This is the first post of films watched after my move to Sweden. I brought my Blu-ray player and my Amazon FireStick with me, but unfortunately the television in the hotel apartment I’m renting has no HDMI slot, so I can’t use them. I’ve been watching films on Amazon Prime on my laptop. Which has somewhat limited my ability to write blog posts or, well, fiction. Both of which I planned to do more often when I got here. Ah well. Perhaps when I find somewhere more permanent to live…

The Quatermass Xperiment, Val Guest (1955, UK). I’m pretty sure I saw this many years ago. If so, it was before I started documenting the movies I watched. Certain scenes felt very familiar… but there are number of British films from the same period which are quite similar… so maybe I have seen it before, maybe I haven’t. The Quatermass Xperiment is a film adaptation of a television series, originally broadcast in 1953 by the BBC. A British scientist, played in the film by an American, with no attempt at sounding British, but played by Brits on television, sends three astronauts on an experimental rocket into space. They lose contact… and the rocket later crashes in a field in the country. Only one astronaut has survived – in fact, there’s no trace of the other two. But that one astronaut seems to have caught some sort of space germ, which slowly turns him into a monster and sends him on a murdering spree. The film ends with Quatermass and flunkeys cornering the monster in Westminster Abbey, which has been closed for renovations. I’d like to see the TV series on which this film was based, because the film is a straight up monster movie and though it tries hard to be thoughtful its story is just too B-movie. Meh.

Quatermass II, Val Guest (1957, UK). It doesn’t take a genius like, er, Quatermass, to spot that this movie is a sequel to the one above. And like The Quatermass Xperiment, it was also adapted from a television series from 1955. Quatermass is once again played by American Brian Donlevy (although two different British actors had played the role in the two TV series). This time, small missile-shaped meteorites have been landing in Essex, and nearby is a secret government project researching new sources of food. Except it’s not researching that. Not anymore. As Quatermass soon discovers. The meteorites contain some sort of organism, which takes people, leaving them with a telltale scar, and these alien-inhabited people are using the government project as a bridgehead to take over the Earth. By growing a giant alien inside an oil tank. Or something. Apparently, The Quatermass Xperiment was extremely successful, so makers Hammer Film were keen to capitalise on it. Unfortunately, Quatermass II was outperformed at the box office by another Hammer movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, and so Hammer decided to focus on making horror movies. (They returned to Quatermass in 1967, with Quatermass played by Andrew Keir, a Scot.) Quatermass II is a much better film than its predecessor, although like the earlier film it climaxes with a giant monster. Both are very much films of their time, and while they resemble B-movies they’re generally better thought-through and smarter than US B-movies. But I’d still like to see the original TV series. Incidentally, when searching on Amazon Prime for these films, be careful. There are free versions available and pay-to-play versions. I’ve seen that a few times on Amazon Prime. Streaming, eh?

Mahler, Ken Russell (1974, UK). You’re never entirely sure what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a Ken Russell film. Some of them are really quite bad, and yet others are absolutely brilliant. Mahler falls somewhere between the two. It looks cheap – despite being set in Mahler’s native Austria, it was clearly filmed in the UK – but there are some impressively-staged scenes. And some outright bonkers ones. It is not, after all, every day that you watch a movie featuring a dream sequence in which a dominatrix in SS uniform whips the protagonist on a mountain-top while he is tied to a giant sword… Robert Powell plays the title role, and the film opens with Mahler returning to Austria on a train, a famous composer and conductor – “I live to compose, I conduct to live,” he tells a reporter. His life story is told in a series of flashbacks – the antisemitism he experienced as a child, his later conversion to Catholicism (for, it is suggested, chiefly professional reasons), the death of his daughter… I know nothing of Mahler’s music and, to be honest, the film has not made me a fan of it. But I am a fan of Russell’s films – well, many of them – and while Mahler apparently, according to Wikipedia, “by 1985 the film had recorded a net loss of £14,000”, I actually liked it a lot. It’s bonkers, but in a good way. Powell is okay, but Georgina Hale as Mahler’s wife is better. There is some lovely photography of the Lake District – okay, it’s supposed to be Austria, but it’s still very nicely shot. I’d been in two minds about Russell’s films about composers, since they’re not people that really interest me, but if the others are like Mahler then I’m quite keen to see them.

Tycoon, Pavel Lungin (2002, Russia). The first film by Lungin I watched was The Island, AKA Остров, which was released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. That was back in 2015. Since then, I’ve watched Tsar (see here), a later film, and now Tycoon, AKA Олигарх, an earlier film. And, to be honest, they don’t much feel like all three were made by the same director. True, those first two are both about faith, although the stories they tell are very different – although Tsar is a lavish historical re-enactment. Tycoon, however, feels like a made-for-TV movie, and it’s somewhat surprising it was allowed to be made, given how critical it is of Russian oligarchs and the government corruption which created, fostered and profited from them. And still does. The film opens with the police seizing the offices of Infocar, the holding company of billionaire oligarch Platon Makovski. On his way home, Makovski is killed by a rocket attack on his car. The film then jumps back to 1985, when four childhood friends attended an economic symposium.. Shortly afterwards, they decide to go into business together, selling jeans they’ve stonewashed. And from there, it’s one business scheme after another, until a Georgian who manages a Lada factory joins then and they become automobile dealers. The film doesn’t really explain how Makovski and his friends became so powerful and rich. The business deals they do on-screen, often put together with the help of underworld contacts, or abetted by the Kremlin, don’t seem the sort to lead to a personal wealth of $5 billion, as mentioned at the start of the film. Through a series of flashbacks, Tycoon shows Makovski’s rise through its flashbacks, while the present-day narrative continues after his death as some of the old guard in the Kremlin move in on the company, with the help of one of the friends. It’s apparently based on a true story, but some of the details are too vague to convince, and the present-day events are a little too byzantine to be realistic. Still worth seeing, however.

Just Another Love Story, Ole Bornedal (2007, Denmark). There are not many films that start with the protagonist lying dead on the street, while he explains that he’s dead. It’s been used plenty of times in written fiction, but I’m fairly sure it’s not all that common in cinema – although I’ve a vague feeling I’ve seen a 1940s noir film that used something similar. Anyway, protagonist Jonas is married with two kids and a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. On the road one day with his family, he narrowly avoids an accident – but the woman in the other car was not so lucky and is seriously injured. Jonas goes to see her in the hospital, where he learns she has lost her memory. They won’t let him see her, so he lies and says he is the woman’s boyfriend, Sebastian. But all her family are there in her hospital room, and they’ve never met Sebastian – the woman met him while on holiday in Thailand, and had only just returned to Denmark. They take Jonas at his word. So he begins a double-life: Jonas with his family, Sebastian with the injured woman. But then Sebastian turns up… And it seems he’s being chased by Chinese gangsters because he stole some diamonds from them. Just Another Love Story is a feeble title, but this is a smart modern thriller, with a contemporary twist on a noir-ish story. Worth seeing.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet, Stanislav Rototsky (1972, Russia). During WWII, a detachment of Soviets soldiers who man an anti-aircraft gun in Karelia are spending too much drinking and womanising, and the sergeant in charge complains to his superior officer. So the troop are re-assigned and the sergeant is sent an all-female platoon. Things go well for a while, until early one morning one of the soldiers spots a pair of German paratroopers. So the sergeant picks five of the female soldiers, and they go out to kill the Germans. Except, it turns out there’s a whole platoon of them. But they still have to stopped. And while reinforcements have been sent for, it’s going to be a while be they reach Karelia. The bulk of the film is the cat and mouse game, shot entirely from the Soviet point of view, as the sergeant and five young women try to get themselves into a position where they can ambush the paratroopers, which involves taking a path through a swamp known only to the sergeant, and eventually ends up with a running firefight in which the Soviets are badly out-numbered. For some reason, The Dawns Here Are Quiet has been presented on Amazon Prime as a two-parter, which proved confusing as I hadn’t noticed and the film ended up very abruptly. But it was definitely worth hunting down the second part as this is an excellent film. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972, but lost out to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and I’m not entirely sure that film is actually better, or not so much better it would not be a difficult decision to choose between the two. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939