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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.


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Moving pictures, #44

More viewing, only one from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list this time, and it’s an American film… although, once again, half of the films below are from the US. I need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch.

idahoMy Own Private Idaho*, Gus Van Sant (1991, USA). The only thing I knew about Gus Van Sant prior to deciding to work my way through the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list was that he’d made a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Which sounds like an interesting exercise, except, well, that’s pretty much what a play is, the same story with a different cast. And since I’d seen Hitchock’s film a number of times and was familiar with it, Van Sant’s experiment proved even more disappointing. Van Sant’s most-famous film, however, is My Own Private Idaho, which, okay, I may have heard of before, but knew nothing about. And it turns it’s about a pair of street hustlers, played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, except Phoenix has narcolepsy, and Reeves’s father is rich and the mayor of Portland. Oh, and the story is roughly based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays… which is fine as far as it goes, but when Van Sant starts using Shakespeare’s dialogue it really doesn’t work. Having Reeves call the Falstaff figure, Bob Pigeon, “a horseback-breaker, a mountainous tub of lard”, just sounds really silly in 1990s Oregon. In fact, it’s the Shakespeare-isms which spoil My Own Private Idaho. Okay, so Reeves’s character is not entirely believable (make him actual royalty, though, as Shakespeare did, and it weirdly seems okay), although it does make for an effective ending. But it’s that mix of Rechy’s City of Night and old Bill’s Henry IV Part 1, etc, which doesn’t gel. It’s like oil and water, or even a lava lamp. It’s just too obvious when Reeves et al start spouting the Bard’s couplets, and it upsets the balance of the film. I can see how My Own Private Idaho might appeal to some, but it wasn’t a movie I rated highly.

holidayHoliday, George Cukor (1938, USA). An early screwball romance starring Cary Grant and “box-office poison” (as she was at the time) Katharine Hepburn? What’s not to like? Quite a bit, according to audiences when it was released. Grant plays a man who plans to quit his job as soon as he can afford to and do nothing, and Hepburn plays the sister of his fiancée, who is stinking rich. This was during the Great Depression. Hollywood: super-sensitive, as usual. Grant meets Doris Nolan while on holiday in Lake Placid, and the two get engaged. He doesn’t realise she is filthy rich and the youngest daughter of an eminent New York banker. He turns up to the family home, learns the truth, but manages to charm the father and so get permission to marry. But it seems Nolan is a bit of a stuffed shirt, and it’s her libertine sister, Hepburn, who’s a better match for Grant. This one is early in Grant’s career, so he hasn’t got the polished urbanity of later films. If anything, he’s a bit of a galumpher, more of a tail-wagging puppy. Hepburn is Hepburn – did she ever change? – and it’s hard to believe she was ever box-office poison. By all accounts, this film did much to rehabilitate her. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon provide excellent comic relief as Grant’s best friends, a pair of cycnical academics. Both stars, and director, made much better films, but Holiday has its moments. It’s not great, but if you’re into films from the era, it’s probably worth seeing. But I can understand why it flopped at the box office.

rivetteMerry-Go-Round, Jacques Rivette (1983, France). I watched Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, because it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it very good; and then Arrow Academy released a limited edition Blu-ray collection of some of Rivette’s films, none of which I knew anything about… but the collection was a limited edition, and I’ve learnt to my cost previously it’s best to buy things like this straight away because when you finally come to realise you want a copy they’re either not available or cost silly money. So I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection. On the basis of having seen a single film by the director. So it goes. And yet there’s nothing in Rivette’s movies that immediately appeals to me. They’re well-crafted, certainly; and very French. And, er, very long. Especially the centre-piece of this collection Out 1 – 12 hours and forty minutes! fucking hell – which I admit I have yet to watch. In fact, I’m working my way through the the collection in installments, beginning with Merry-Go-Round, which clocks in at a mere 2 hrs and 40 mins. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A woman sends a telegram to her sister in Rome, Léo, and an ex-boyfriend in New York, Ben, asking them to meet her at a hotel in Paris. But when they turn up, she’s not there. They follow a series of clues and end up at her old home, where she tells them that her father, who died two years previously after embezzling $4 million, isn’t dead. And then she’s kidnapped and taken away in an ambulance. There then follows an almost dream-like quest, in which Ben and Léo try to track down the not-dead father and his millions. Much of this involves running through woods. Including being chased by a knight on horseback. Or exploring empty houses, particularly ones where doors give onto different landscapes – breaking that compact between director and viewer in which the spaces depicted on screen connect in a logical and plausible manner. (Sokurov does something similar in Faust, by having characters enter the frame from parts of the space the camera has already shown do not have entrances.) So the world of Merry-Go-Round doesn’t quite follow the “rules”, but then neither does the quest narrative. There are long extended scenes which do nothing to advance the plot. There are also plot-holes. And interludes in which two odd-looking blokes play noodley jazz on double bass and bassoon. In parts, Merry-Go-Round feels like an early-1980s L’Avventura – or rather, it sets up an expectation of being a 1980s L’Avventura, perhaps on little more than its lack of plot momentum. I am, on balance, glad I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection (it’s still in stock! Get it now while you can! Only 3,000 copies!), and I think they’re films which will bear rewatching, if not demand it; but I’ve a way to go yet before I call myself a Rivette fan.

ladyThe Lady, Luc Besson (2011, France). Of all the subjects about which Luc Besson might make a film, I must admit a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is not one I’d ever have guessed. But then, in many respects, The Lady doesn’t feel much like a Besson film. There’s a moment of almost cartoon-like violence when paramilitaries of the former prime minister assassinate the Executive Council (ie, the government-in-waiting for when the British withdraw), including Suu Kyi’s father. But in most other respects, The Lady is pretty restrained. Michelle Yeoh is especially good in the title role, and if David Thewlis was a bit too thespian as her husband, it didn’t detract overly much from the film. I will admit to knowing only the broadest details about Suu Kyi and Myanmar, and so films such as The Lady are eye-openers. Seriously, military juntas are not governments. The UN could surely make a legal, ethical and moral case for overthrowing such governments. But, of course, military juntas are excellent customers for arms dealers, and selling weapons is what it’s all about in the twenty-first century. The UK is now second only to the US as a seller of armaments. Mostly to the same countries we bomb or which have created the current refugee crisis. If you truly did reap what you sow, this country would neck-deep in salt.

streets_of_fireStreets of Fire, Walter Hill (1984, USA). I had vaguely fond memories of this, after seeing it back in the 1980s, so despite its somewhat negative reputation I thought it might be worth watching. And having now seen it… I think my memories were a little imprecise. It looks great, mostly, no doubt about that; and the music, while of its time, is quite listenable. But that script. It’s fucking awful. It’s totally misogynistic, and it puts words in the mouths of its cast – Rick Moranis, especially – they should have been embarrassed, if not fucking offended, to speak. Diane Lane plays a rock star who is kidnapped by a bike gang led by Willem Dafoe. A young woman persuades her ex-soldier brother, Michael Paré, an ex-boyfriend of Lane’s, to come home and rescue the rock star. And it pretty much goes as you’d expect. I’d hoped time had been kind to Streets of Fire, that it’s 1980s macho posturing might seem more like kitsch thirty years later. It hasn’t. Rick Moranis snarling misogynistic comments at the camera is still a horrible thing to see. Paré does his best with a bad part, Dafoe does even better with a worse part, but Lane does nothing with a nothing part. Visually, the film still scores, and its influence on later films is easy to see. But the reasons why it flopped it 1984 are also obvious, and not even thirty years is going to make it a cult hit.

mr55Mr & Mrs 55, Guru Dutt (1955, India). The more of Dutt’s films I watch, the more I appreciate them. Admittedly, this was not a good transfer – BFI, why are you not all over Dutt’s films? – and the plot was pretty much a Hollywood staple (never mind a Bollywood staple), but even so… Rich playgirl Anita is living the high life but then discovers she has to marry before the age of 21 in order to inherit seven million rupees. And she only has a month to do it. She approaches her friend, tennis pro Ramesh, but he’s off to Wimbledon. In desperation, her mother pays cartoonist Dutt Rs 10,000 to marry Anita, with the promise of a quickie divorce soon after. Of course, the two fall in love after the ceremony. But then careful lying by the mother ensures each thinks the other doesn’t really love them, so the divorce goes through… But they get together and realise they do actually love each other after all. It’s all keyed off American signifiers of success – not just Anita hanging around a posh tennis club and worshipping pro Ramesh at the beginning – but also the trappings of wealth enjoyed by Anita’s family are familiar to Western audiences. And yet, there’s also something indefinably Indian about it – and I don’t mean the fact it breaks into song at assorted moments. It feels like an Indian film based on a Hollywood template, by someone who was quite aware of, and more than capable of using, the story patterns of both Indian and Hollywood cinema. Dutt makes good films. He really needs transfers worthy of his work.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 795