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Moving pictures 2019, #24

I’ve been deliberately hanging back on watching movies of late, and mostly bingeing on box sets. This was mainly to catch up on these posts, because the box sets have been pretty, well, bad. On the other hand, I do have Twin Peaks on Blu-ray to watch, well, rewatch, and I still rate the series as one of the best television programmes ever made.

Alice in Wonderland, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1951, USA). My plan – although that may be too strong a word – to watch all of Disney’s films, but most especially the classic animated ones, continues in a somewhat erratic and haphazard manner. Disney has, of course, churned out a shitload of films in the last century or so, many of which have been forgotten for good reason. But there are a significant number, both animated and live-action, that have not only weathered the test of time but are still seen as important cinematic works. I don’t know that Alice in Wonderland is considered in the top rank of mid-twentieth-century Disney animated movies, and its story has been adapted numerous times, and is of course famous in its own right… but I thought it one of Disney’s better productions from that period. Disney relies on charm but it doesn’t always work, and with a story as well-known as Alice in Wonderland – the original book was first published in 1865, after all. But there is a noticeable look and feel to Disney animated movies, and for all their adherence to a formula, some films just seem to work better than others. I don’t know if it’s down to the source material. I doubt it. Although Alice in Wonderland certainly has a head start in that department. A lot of the movie has entered popular culture, so it’s slightly odd to watch it from start to finish. But it is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It’s a good Disney movie, one of the better classic animated ones I’ve seen. And much as is the case with the ones I didn’t take to, I’m not entirely sure why I liked this one. But I’d recommend watching it.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Shinji Aramaki (2013, Japan). I wrote in a Moving pictures post a couple of weeks ago that I’m not a big fan of anime – a point driven home to me when I saw a friend, who is into anime quite heavily, post on Facebook that he thought Alita: Battle Angel was one of the best films he had seen so far this year. I thought it was terrible. And yet, I actually liked Space Pirate Captain Harlock (even though I keep on wanting to call it Space Pirate Captain Haddock, which would be an entirely different film) and I have to wonder if it’s just that the movie reminded me a little of Star Fleet, a Japanese puppet series from the early 1980s I loved as a teenager. Perhaps I’m over-analysing. Like that’s a trap I never fall into… Space Pirate Captain Harlock is CGI but it’s Uncanny Valley CGI, with the characters presented as if they were live-action actors. Well, except for the alien character. Who is apparently often cosplayed, so not that far from the human template. (Pointy ears, a long wig, floaty clothes and contacts.) The plot is the usual anime tosh, in which a giant alien ship attacks some random polity based on Earth and it turns out Earth created its own enemy through some past act of thoughtlessness. Sigh. But the CGI here is quite beautiful, and if the characters and setting are straight out of Central Anime Casting, the film does look quite gorgeous. Even if it does feature smoke in space. I mean, WTF. Smoke? In space? Which, in hindsight, is slightly weird as it didn’t throw me out of the film but I’ve been thrown out of movies, live-action and anime, by less. It could be just that the production design appealed to me, which it did, but I suspect not. I think it may simply have been that that world-building displayed some rigour. It’s astonishing how rare that is. True, Space Pirate Captain Harlock is based on a long-running property, so it’s had plenty of time to get things right. Perhaps that’s all it takes. Perhaps the shiny new – unpopular opinion! – just isn’t that good.

Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough (1993, UK). I have read the Narnia books, CS Lewis’s most famous creations, although not of course all he wrote, but based on those if I had to cast an actor to play Lewis in a movie adaptation of part of his life… I don’t think I would have cast Anthony Hopkins. He just doesn’t seem to fit the character. I imagine Lewis as, well smaller, and more saturnine, and perhaps even a bit spiv-ish.  But certainly not the meaty and fruity Anthony Hopkins. Apparently, Lewis had an affair, or rather a relationship, with an American woman who visited him at his college in Oxford. She was a poet, although you wouldn’t know it from this film, which presents her as a just a woman. Nor was Lewis married. If Wikipedia is any indication the film seems to represent their relationship, although it was doubtlessly  more complicated than either suggests. Shadowlands is a solid drama, with a top-drawer cast, about a bunch of people I could not honestly give a shit about, and the fact one of them is the author of the Chronicles of Narnia seems almost incidental. If you like Richard Attenborough films, you will like this one. Because that’s all it is: a Richard Attenborough movie.

The Asphyx, Peter Newbrook (1972, UK). The Hammer House of Horror series from 1980 is a touchstone television programme for me because I remember those few episodes I saw back then quite vividly. In part, those episodes define the television of the time for me. It wasn’t until four or so years ago, when I bought the DVD box set and watched them all, that I got to catch up with that memory. And it seemed I hadn’t misremembered it – they were as good as I recalled. I’ve also seen the odd Hammer horror film over the years, albeit mostly the 1970s ones, and enjoyed them enough, in a sort of mildly ironic way, to want to see more. So it’s fortunate several of them have appeared on Amazon Prime. Not just the ones from the 1950s documented in previous Moving pictures posts, but also The Asphyx, which is from the period that interests me the most. And it proved to be exactly what I’d expected. In a good way. Sort of. In other words: complete nonsense, made on the cheap, with a British cast way better than their material, and a premise so off the wall it actually sort of worked. Except, it seems, The Asphyx isn’t actually a Hammer film. But if the Hammer films were sui generis, then The Asphyx certainly belongs to that genre. The title refers to some sort of aetheric creature which appears at the moment of death and steals people’s souls. A Victorian scientist finds a way to imprison this creature and thus render himself immortal. His son-in-law is keen to be involved in the experiment, but an attempt to apply the same to the scientist’s daughter goes horribly wrong – in a way that is more comic than horrible (although it should not be) – and, well, you can pretty much plot out the rest of the story for yourself. If you like 1970s British horror films, then this is a hit of the pure stuff. I happen to like them. Actual fans of actual horror films, especially twenty-first century horror films, may not be so impressed. Their loss.

Avengers: Endgame, Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2019, USA). I had to watch this twice, and the preceding film, Avengers: Infinity War, in order to figure out what was going on, or indeed why I even cared what was going on, because this was just complete bollocks from start to finish. And not even well-made bollocks. So super-baddy Thanos, he of the mighty chin, collected these magical stones and effectively controls the universe, and the Avengers are sucking their wounds back on earth, when Antman reappears from the Quantum Zone and kickstarts a plan to undo Thanos’s victory and save the earth. Which involves some sort of time travel, explained in dialogue in what has to be the biggest load of consecutive bollocks spoken by half a dozen actors in any motion picture since Hollywoodland became Hollywood. There is also a giant battle scene which features some really bad CGI, and a horrible fan-service moment in which all the female heroes line up behind Captain Marvel to kick some ass and are basically trashed in under ten seconds and that’s it. And then the whole thing turns into a Robert Downey Jr vanity project, and you start to wonder why you just wasted the last 90 or 120 or 1 million minutes watching this crap. I mean, Thor, an actual god, is not powerful to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones, Hulk is not strong enough to wear the gauntlet with the infinity stones… but in the heat of battle, Tony Stark can slip it on and snap his fingers and rewrite the entire universe. FUCK OFF. That’s the sort of shit a twelve year old would write. Marvel – and DC too, to be fair – has always had a problem with characters with wildly different levels of power that seem to change from one scene to the next. The films have not addressed this at all. When you think how the movie adaptations of Star Trek, from The Wrath of Khan onwards, actually nailed down the universe of the franchise, MCU’s failure to do so feels more like marketing cynicism than failure. I mean, Captain Marvel, the movie, demonstrates that Captain Marvel, the character, is more powerful than a god. But even she can’t prevail in Avengers: Endgame. Because plot reasons. It’s total bollocks. A failure of writing. Avengers: Endgame may have been one of the highest grossing films of all time, if not the highest grossing… but it’s an appalling piece of cinema, with little or no rigour, bad CGI, and a plot that confuses more than it explains. We don’t need, or want, the unholy tapestry MCU seem determined to stitch all the films into. We want good solid entertainment for 120 minutes. This is not it.

High Life, Claire Denis (2018, France). Denis’s Beau Travail is a great film and one that definitely belongs in my Top 100. And I seriously wanted  to like High Life, her first English-language movie, and not just because it was science fiction. But. I tried. I really did try. It opens with Robert Pattinson alone on a spacecraft, but for a baby. Flashbacks explain how convicts on death row were co-opted for a project to send spacecraft to other planets and colonise them. No explanation is given to how these journeys do not take centuries, although there is a line which explains they experience gravity due to constant acceleration (a bizarrely accurate statement in a film that has few nods to scientific accuracy). Anyway, the first hour of the film is Pattinson wandering around an empty spacecraft interspersed with grainy footage of his past. Which reminded me chiefly of video installations. If you want to see good video installations, check out Ed Atkins, Ben Rivers or Cécile B Evans. Anyway, High Life felt a lot like a non-genre person exploring genre, which is not in and of itself a bad thing and has in the past actually added to genre. But sometimes the smallest details can throw you, and in this case it was the fact the spacesuits were clearly not airtight and did not inflate in vacuum. It felt like such a trivial detail to not bother getting right. If the film-maker is going to throw in that line about constant acceleration, why fail so badly with the spacesuits? None of which meant that much, it must be said, when High Life dropped the video installation look and feel and went for “criminals in space do criminal things which mostly is rape”, and rape is not a fit subject for science fiction and certainly not a trope or plot point. Someone tell Denis this. My opinion of her took a beating after watching this film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941

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Moving pictures, #66

A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.

center_stageCenter Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.

before_revolutionBefore the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.

lady_trampLady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.

boys_fengkueiThe Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…

ghostbustersGhostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.

world_cinemaThe Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837