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Moving pictures 2018, #25

A mixed bag, this time around. When it comes to choosing films to watch of an evening, there are several factors to consider: rentals DVDs that I need to send back if I want to get another three for next weekend, the growing to-be-watched pile, the growing pile of DVDs lent to me by my mother, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the sort of day I’ve had at work, whether there’s anything I need to get done that evening, whether I have a Moving picture post to write and I’ve forgotten the details of one of the films in it…

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton’s films and have managed to avoid them for the past decade or so, but this one sounded like it might be worth a go and… well, I actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t massively whimsical, and Burton’s treatment seemed to suit the material. Okay, so Eva Green was as mad as a bucket of spanners in it, but then she is in everything she does – and still she’s eminently watchable. A young man’s grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances – found dead in nearby woods, his eyes missing – and so the young man follows up on stories he was told as a child of a children’s home on  an island off the coast of Wales. He travels there with his father, and discovers that the home was bombed in 1941 and no one knows what became of the children. But then he meets some of them and discovers they still exist, living in an endlessly-repeated day in 1941 (the day, in fact, which ends with the home’s destruction by a German bomb). There are lots of “peculiar children”, although only a dozen or so at the school, and they’re under threat from a group of people led by Samuel L Jackson. He and his group performed an experiment to give themselves immortality early in the twentieth century, but it has slowly been turning them into invisible monsters – unless they eat the eyes of peculiar children, which keeps them human and ageless. And the young man, it turns out he’s peculiar because he can see the monsters… Okay, so it all looked a bit more Cornish than it did Welsh, but the cast were generally good and the villains were pretty effective. A solid effort.

A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies (2016, UK). This is a biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously odd and who this film shows to be very odd indeed. Reading up on her afterwards, I don’t think the film quite does her justice. American actress Cynthia Nixon, perhaps better-known for Sex and the City, which is no doubt doing her a grave disservice as she can’t obviously chose which of her work becomes best-known, plays the title role, with a supporting cast of Brits who mostly seem to have trouble with a US accent. Which means that despite a great deal of care over costumes and setting, this film doesn’t always convince. It doesn’t help that Emily Dickinson was barking, so she’s a hard character to sympathise with in the first place. But this is a Terence Davies film, so it looks great and the performances are top-notch (accents notwithstanding). It certainly inspired me to look up Dickinson’s poetry, which I discovered left me completely cold. She was a… singular talent, with a poetic sensibility very much not of her time. These days, her poetry reads like a cross between doggerel and greeting card, and while her refusal to follow the poetic tradition of her time, and her sheer prolificity are admirable (although she only saw a handful of poems in print during her lifetime), I can’t really defend lines like:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

An interesting film about an interesting person, but don’t expect me to start admiring her poetry as a result.

Submergence, Wim Wenders (2017, USA). I had not known this was a Wenders film until I started watching it. It was the link to diving in submersibles that persuaded me to put it on my watch list. And, after all that, it was a bit meh. It didn’t even feel like a Wim Wenders film, and I wouldn’t have known it was if I hadn’t looked it up. Alicia Vikander is a marine biologist specialising in the hadal zone, on holiday in France. Where she meets James McAvoy, who claims to be a water engineer but is actually a MI6 operative en route to Somalia to meet a contact in a jihadist group. A brief romance ensues. Shortly after arrival in Somalia, McAvoy is captured and held captive. Meanwhile, Vikander visits in the ocean floor off Greenland in a submersible. Both flashback to their romance at the French pension. The only interesting thing about the film was its even-handed treatment of the jihadists, whereas in US films they’re immediately painted as totally evil and fully deserving of extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without due process, making up laws after their capture in order to find them guilty of something, and, of course, illegally invading sovereign nations… Funny how that works…

A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands). Three women are arrested for the murder of a man, and while being interviewed by the police it transpires they do not know each other… The film starts ordinarily enough, introducing the three women as they go about their daily business. One runs a café, another is a secretary in an office, and the third is a housewife, who does not speak. Each of the women are arrested and then interviewed by a police officer. They are accused of beating a man to death in a clothes shop. Nothing up until that point has suggested the women capable of committing such an act. It is only when the crime is shown in flashback, that the motive becomes apparent. The housewife had shoplifted a garment, and the shop owner had insisted she return the garment. The three women attacked the shop owner. The other women in the shop just stood and watched them. A court-appointed psychiatrist tries to understand why the women committed the murder, but they refuse to discuss it. In court, the prosecutor suggests the crime would still have occurred if the shop owner had been female. Every woman in the court room starts laughing. This film definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It certainly does not deserve to be so difficult to find. There are plenty of Dutch films available on sell-through in the UK – most of Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre, for example – and, of course, many Dutch films released in the Netherlands have English subtitles available. But A Question of Silence really was a hard film to track down, and it definitely doesn’t deserve to be. That’s a shame.

Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog (2015, USA). I had not known this was a Herzog film until– well, no, I had known it was a Herzog film but I found it hard to believe it as I watched it. It seemed more like a Kidman star vehicle. She plays Gertrude Bell, one of a number of British female explorers of the Middle East. Another is Frey Stark. Bell graduated from Oxford with a first in History, the first woman to do so, but was not awarded a degree as women were not awarded degrees at the time. Bored with the life planned for her, Bell travelled to Tehran to join her uncle, a diplomat there. She learns Farsi and studies Persian poetry. She falls in love with a member of the embassy staff – played, bafflingly, by an American with a US accent, who’s a made-up character anyway. But her family deem him unsuitable (her real life lover was married), and he commits suicide. So she throws herself into her work, travelling about the region, doing archaeological and philological work. I got the impression from the film that she was involved with Saudis – I distinctly remember mention of the House of Rashid, the original rulers of the Nejd region of the Arabian peninsula – but Bell’s biography on Wikipedia states she mostly travelled and worked in the region now occupied by Syria and Iraq. True, the House of Saud was based in Kuwait at one point, I seem to recall, and that borders Iraq – in fact, the British drew the Iraqi borders, and I think Bell was one of those involved. She also met TE Lawrence several times, and spent WWI working with him in Cairo for British military intelligence. Given I have a long personal connection to the Middle East, it’s no surprise I find the history of the region interesting. But nothing in this film quite rang true. And nothing about seemed very, well, Herzogian. A disappointment on both counts.

La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel (2001, Argentina). I watched Martel’s last but one film, The Headless Woman, last July (see here), and thought it very good. But it wasn’t until I saw a review of her latest, Zama, on Alternate Ending, that I added her other available films to my rental list. This was her first movie. Apparently, the script won a prize at Sundance, but the jury suggested she change it to a more straightforward narrative with clear lead characters. She refused. And so she should have done. Unlike The Headless Woman, which does have a (relatively) straightforward narrative, but – and this is what makes that film so good – it then begins to unravel its own story, until not only the characters but also the viewer begisn to doubt what has actually happened… Unlike that movie, La Ciénaga has no real plot or story. Things happen. And, er, that’s it. There’s no forward momentum. A family have escaped the humid weather in the city by removing themselves to their country house. The mother slips and bashes her head at the side of the pool. She takes to her bed, while her children run riot. The servants take liberties, and she accuses one of theft. Her sister visits with her own children. Martel has made four feature films to date and she really is very good. In fact, Argentina has produced some excellent films by female directors. Lucía Puenzo is another name from the country to watch. It’s not just Argentina – there’s also Claudia Llosa from Peru. And no doubt others from other South or Central American countries I’ve yet to stumble across. The more I see of the cinema of the continent – and it’s not just recent films, but also older ones, such as those by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, of whom I’m a fan – the ‘more I want to explore it. I guess my rental list will be expanding a bit over the next few weeks…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908

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Moving pictures 2018, #21

I promised 2018 wouldn’t be all film posts, but we’re less than four months into the year and I’m on my twenty-first film post. That’s like three a week. And not much else, except posts on the books I’ve bought and the books I’ve read. While I’ve started reviewing again for Interzone, and SF Mistressworks is back up and running, I still need to start writing criticism again. I suspect I’m better at ranting than sustained arguments, and since the “reviews” in these film posts have a tendency to turn into mini-rants, I’m letting it out in dribs and drabs instead of holding it back for one long piece on science fiction… On the other hand, I’ve found it harder to engage with online sf fandom this last year or so, chiefly because I’m usually not interested in the books and authors under discussion.

Speaking of mini-rants… We have an Oscar-winner in this post. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the Hugo this year. I hated it.

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro (2017, USA). I’m not really sure how to write about this film. Del Toro has been widely praised over many years, and not just in genre circles, and of course The Shape of Water won the Oscar. Now I’m not so foolish as to believe the Oscar is any real indication of quality, and often as not the Academy’s choice of winner is baffling to everyone (as is their choice of shortlist). But that’s awards for you. The Shape of Water, in which a captured amphibian human, an experimental subject in  a secret government research programme, enters into a relationship with a mute woman (mute, but not deaf), has been seen by many as a sensitive treatment of the disability. I can’t speak to that, it’s not my experience to discuss. But I can certainly discuss the film I watched. Which opened with an acknowledgement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and then proved to be a complete rip-off in mise en scène and lighting and the whole look of the film to the oeuvre of Jeunet and Caro, so much so it went beyond homage. Then there’s the fact the amphibian human is basically Abe Sapiens from the Hellboy films, and even played by the same actor, Doug Jones, under the prosthetics. Meanwhile, one of the scientists in the lab is a Soviet mole, and he fancies the mute woman, but his KGB handler is after him to kill the creature. The mute woman helps the amphibian human to escape and hides him out in her apartment. The two start having sex. But the chief US scientist is after them, as is the KGB handler, and it all comes to a violent end. The film is set in the 1950s, and I thought it horribly misogynistic. Yes, the times were misogynistic – and I’ve seen a lot of 1950s films; my favourite film was released in 1955 – but del Toro’s depiction of it felt excessive. It made a film, which felt like a rip-off of better films, quite horrible to watch. Why it won the Oscar is a mystery. I thought it was rubbish. Plus, at one point the amphibian bites the head off a cat, which is not going to endear a film to me at all…

Z*, Costa-Gavras (1969, Algeria). I didn’t bother to look this one up before watching – I mean, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list, so I was going to watch it whatever. Which meant I cam to it completely cold… and, unlike some of the films from the list I’ve come to cold, I was actually pleasantly surprised and, by the end, very much impressed. The title refers indirectly to the military junta which seized power in Greece in the early 1960s. Among the many things the right-wing military dictatorship outlawed was the letter “Z”. The film is thinly-disguised retelling of events surrounding the assassination in 1963 of the Opposition Deputy after he had given a speech on nuclear disarmament to an audience opposed to the right-wing government in power. The government try to cover up the assassination, but put no real effort into making it plausible. And the investigating magistrate put on the case soon develops a case against senior military officers linked to the government. But this is not the result the government want. After various failed attempts to make it go away, they eventually let the investigation and court case run its course. Several senior military officers are charged and found guilty. A few months later, the army seizes power, the sentences from the court case are quietly forgotten, and the military dictatorship bans, among other things, the Opposition, demonstrations and the letter “Z”, zeta, because it was used by the Opposition to mean “he lives”, in reference to the assassinated Deputy. The story is told in an economical style, which feels very French – and it’s a French language film – for all that it’s set in Greece. There’s a refreshing lack of clutter to the story, which moves through its plot like it’s on rails – and even attempts to, er, derail it, such as the alternative theories to the assassination given by the authorities, which are shown in flashback as if they were true, fail to shift the story from its intended ending. So fake news doesn’t always win. A lot of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have been new to me. Some of them have proven not very good at all; others have surprised me, and I’ve been greatly impressed, despite them not being ones I’d expected to like or enjoy. This one definitely falls into the latter category.

Same Old Song, Alain Resnais (1997, France). This film opens with an acknowledgement to Dennis Potter, and as well it should as it borrows a conceit from Potter’s Pennies from Heaven: the characters break into song at intervals, but they actually lipsynch to the original versions of tracks. I don’t remember much of the Potter TV series, or the later Hollywood adaptation for that matter, although I do vaguely remember seeing the series back in the 1980s. Same Old Song is an ensemble piece. Camille bumps into Nicolas, a man her sister Odile was once close to but who has been away from Paris for many years. Odile is now married to Claude. She is also looking for a bigger apartment, using estate agent Marc. Camille runs historical walking tours of Paris. A regular on these tours is Simon, who fancies Camille but only irritates her by expanding on her lecturettes to the others in each group. He claims to write radio plays, but he actually works for Marc – and he is useless at is job and only kept on out of loyalty to Marc’s father. Camille meanwhile fancies Marc, and enters into an affair with him. Nicolas is also looking for an apartment, so he can bring his family back to Paris. Later, he admits he is estranged from his wife and child. At points throughout the film, members of the cast begin singing– well, no, they don’t, they lipsynch. To popular songs performed by the original artist. In several cases, they lipsynch to songs performed by artists of a different gender. I didn’t at first think the gimmick added anything to what was essentially a fairly common type of French relationship drama, but it actually started to grow on me. It helped that the cast were uniformly very good. I liked the film. On the other hand, it all felt a bit lightweight for the director of Muriel or Hiroshima Mon Amour

WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia). I joked on Twitter while watching this that I had persistently misread “Mysteries of the Organism” as “Mysteries of the Orgasm” only to discover that my misread was closer to the truth. Which is not entirely fair. But, to be honest, I have no idea what this film was about. Well, I know what it was about, but I don’t… It’s about Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, and is partly a documentary about Reich and his “Orgonon”, his lab in Maine, USA, but it also includes shots of Jackie Curtis eating an ice cream on Broadway, a story about a woman in Communist Yugoslavia who is forced out of her flat because her room-mate is having sex and so lectures on sex and politics to the rest of her apartment block and later enters into a relationship with a People’s Artist ice skater, an interview with a woman who paints people while they masturbate, a man who dresses like a homeless soldier and stalks well-off New Yorkers with a plastic rifle, and several others bits of found footage, interviews and drama… It’s pretty much impossible to summarise the plot, or the various sections. It’s also completely mad. But in a good way. I loved the bits set in Yugoslavia – it was that sort of declamatory film-making I really like. The documentary bits were less interesting, perhaps because Reich’s theories are so off-the-wall they’re hard to take seriously. It’s an odd choice for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I can see how it might have become a cult favourite, but it does several things that other films do perhaps better – bits and pieces, for example, from the oeuvres of Miklós Jancsó or Sergei Parajanov – although they don’t use the collage (if that’s the right word) technique used here. It’s an interesting film, but I’m not sure if WR: Mysteries of the Organism belongs on the list. If the list includes this, it might as well include Anthony Balch’s Secrets of Sex

Pina, Wim Wenders (2011, Germany). I have watched many films by Wenders, and some of them I have liked a great deal. I have a box set of his works somewhere. Though at one time Wenders may have had the same stature internationally, I suspect Herzog has since outstripped him. Possibly because Herzog has made a couple of movies for Hollywood. It can’t be because Wenders makes documentaries on obscure subjects as well as feature films, because Herzog does that too. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d classify Pina Bausch and Tanztheater as an obscure subject. The weird thing is, there are several films in which a completely off-the-wall dance routine bumps the movie from very good to borderline genius – and one of them is even by Herzog – and yet I’m not a fan of dancing. (Watching, or doing.) Or Tanztheater. So much of this documentary was wasted on me. It was interesting, inasmuch as it was something I’d not seen before. And the footage shot in  Wuppertal, especially of the city’s unique Schwebebahn, was fascinating. But Tanztheater didn’t strike me as an artform I feel inspired to explore further. Apparently, Bausch died during the filming of Pina, and Wenders planned to abandon the project. But all those who knew Bausch persuaded him to continue, and the film became a memorial to her. In that respect, I think it succeeds extremely well.

The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA). This is the second film this year I’ve watched with this title. The first was a good thriller from Iceland (see here). This one is a documentary about two men who were involved with al-Qa’eda during the 1990s. And, like any documentary about the War on Terror, the US comes out of it looking like the biggest villains. At one point, a military lawyer representing the US in a case against one of the two guys mentions “crimes against humanity” – and this from a state which has imprisoned people without due process, without a trial, has secretly abducted them from sovereign nations and smuggled them to their illegal prison, breaking no end of international law, tortured them (in direct defiance of international law and a treaty to which the USA was a signatory), and, in this case, even manufactured a crime they could find the defendant guilty of because he plainly wasn’t guilty of the one for which he was arrested. Anyway, Abu Jandal was a bodyguard for bin Laden but left al-Qa’eda shortly before 9/11 after a difference of opinion over the organisation’s tactics. When he saw 9/11 on the news, he was so disgusted he gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities. And after a couple of years in prison was rehabilitated via the National Dialogue Conference. He then fed intelligence to the US regarding al-Qa’eda, and now talks regularly to young Yemeni men – and has been interviewed on Arabic television – about his history, about what al-Qa’eda means, and about how best to fight US hegemony in the Arab world. Abu Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was bin Laden’s driver. He was not a combatant, he was not privy to tactical or strategic information. But the US arrested him, renditioned him to Guantanamo, tortured him, and then put him in front of a military court. But Hamdan’s lawyer challenged the verdict as unconstitutional (now there’s a joke!) and it went to the Supreme Court. So the US government quickly invented a crime – “giving material aid and support to terrorists” – that they knew they could make a case for, and he was duly found innocent of all charges except for two of the five charges of giving material aid. This is a fascinating documentary, and tells you more about how the US has prosecuted the War on Terror – like a bunch of war criminals, basically – than it does on the War on Terror itself. When those who fight terrorists employ even more immoral and illegal tactics than the terrorists, then they need to be brought down too. Once, history may have been written by the winners, as they say; but now, with the internet, so many narratives spring up around every event it’s no wonder the authorities have to resort to accusations of “fake news!” in order to get their version of events accepted…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 904


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Moving pictures 2018, #1

I’ve no plans to give up writing about the films I’ve watched – and I still plan to chase completing the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list 2013 edition, and to watch films from as many countries as I can. But I’m not intending to write another seventy of these posts in 2018 as I’m going to try and read more books this year.

The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (2014, France). I don’t know if I stuck this on my rental list because it was by Wim Wenders or because it was a documentary that looked interesting. But it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the excellent 1954 social drama about a strike at a US mine, whose title lacks the definite article. The Salt of the Earth is about photographer Sebastião Salgado. Born in Brazil, Salgado was originally an economist. While living and working in Paris, his wife bought him a camera. He began using it on his trips to other countries. Eventually, he gave up his career to focus on photography. His photographic work tends to stark black and white photographs of people in extreme situations – refugees, famine victims, war, workers at a vast open gold mine… It’s fascinating stuff, and Salgado’s work is both beautiful and harrowing, some of it perhaps too harrowing. Although Salgado has been exhibited all over the world, I’ve never seen any of his exhibitions – but then it’s only the last five or six that I’ve started visiting art museums, and I usually go to the modern art ones… but I did discover the work of Richard Mosse at one such. (Although this Christmas, I visited the David Collection‘s exhibition of Islamic Art, which was cool; and I liked their exhibition of paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916).) Anyway, The Salt of the Earth is worth seeing.

Logan, James Mangold (2017, USA). Professor X says “fuck”! He says it a lot! I mean, okay, you expect that from Wolverine, but Professor X dropping the f-bomb is just weird. One day, someone will decide Logan is a post-superhero film, when in fact it’s just a straight-up superhero film, and if it does something new in MCU terms, I’m pretty sure the comics have covered similar ground many times in the past. Logan works as a limo driver, he is ageing and his powers are waning. He lives just over the border in Mexico, in an old industrial plant, where he and Caliban look after a doped-up Professor X. Who is doped-up because he had some sort of mental fit which killed a lot of people and they’re medicating him to prevent a re-occurrence. And then a woman turns up with a young girl in tow and begs for Wolverine’s help. It turns out Nasty Corp has tried to weaponise mutants by breeding kids with superpowers – come on, who wants to play in a universe in which scientists experiment on children? Are you sick? – and the girl is one of them, in fact she has Wolverine-like powers and is a pretty mean fighter to boot. So snarky cyborg enforcer, with private army at his back, and Mengele-like scientist played by Richard E Grant, go mano a mano against Logan, who has gone on the run with the Prof and the girl… And that’s about it. Yawn. It’s a chase movie, the baddies are tooled up, the good guys are either old or young but still not massively outmatched… It’s a definite improvement on the usual dreadful superhero films with their cartoon characters, who cause as much damage as the supervillains, and cartoon violence and cartoon morality. They don’t even have the saving grace of cartoon wit. It might well be that Logan is the superhero film growing up, but it’s got a long way to go yet.

The Sense of an Ending, Ritesh Batra (2017, UK). I read Julian Barnes’s novel of the same title during Bloodstock last year. I seem to remember it being a bit of a damp squib. A very nicely written novel, but it just sort of petered out, and its concerns were so trivial I really couldn’t care about any of its cast. And the same is, unsurprisingly, true for the film. Jim Broadbent plays a very Jim Broadbent character, who has his past rudely thrust in his face when he’s willed a diary by the mother of a woman he used to see when he was at university thirty-plus years earlier. Except he doesn’t have the diary. Because the woman, played by Charlotte Rampling, won’t give it to him. In fact, she tells him she destroyed it. So he stalks her, and discovers she has a mentally disabled son called Adrian… which is also the name of Broadbent’s best mate at school, who went on to marry Rampling after she and Broadbent drifted apart. Prompting a really shitty letter to them on his part. However, Adrian junior is not Rampling’s son, but her half-brother. And Broadbent sort of remembers an afternoon alone with Rampling’s mother… Yawn. We all confabulate, it’s a fact of life. It seemed a really feeble point to a story that didn’t appear to be going anywhere – no matter how well-acted, or -written, it was. Missable.

Suntan, Argyris Papadimitropoulos (2016, Greece). You know that story in The New Yorker that went viral the other week, and the writer ended up with a $1.2 million advance for her short story collection? There’s no logic behind why one thing goes viral and another doesn’t, although the story clearly described a situation many women had experienced. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of it happening on social media myself. It’s the same premise which drives Suntan. Kostis is hired as a doctor on a small holiday island. He keeps mostly to himself, but one day he treats a twenty-one-year-old female tourist, Anna, who flirts with him and invites him to the beach with her friends. So, after work, he heads down there, and sees Anna and her friends sunbathing nude or in skimpy outfits. They recognise him and he joins them… and over the space of several days, he spends his time after work hanging out with them. One evening, the two have sex on the beach. But then Anna disappears for several days, and when she returns Kostis is furious she left without telling him. She saw no reason to tell him, and is put off by his behaviour. He does the male thing, and stalks her. The film ends with a drunk Kostis, who has been fired from his job for his bad behaviour, kidnapping Anna… I have not watched much Greek cinema, only four films in fact, by Angelopoulos, Lanthimos, Tsangari and now Papadimitropoulos; but what I’ve seen has been very good. Recommended.

Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). There’s no doubt Shinkai has produced some of the best feature-film anime to have come out of Japan this century – Your Name‘s home box office is only second for anime to Spirited Away (and Spirited Away holds the record for highest-grossing film in Japan). Mitsuha lives in a small town in central Japan. She has dreams about a boy in Tokyo. One day, she finds the words “Who are you?” written in her exercise book, and her friends remark on her weird behaviour the day before. It turns out she and the boy, Taki, have been swapping bodies. They help each other with other’s lives, communicating via notes or text messages they leave each other. Taki tries to track Mitsuha down, but all he has is a sketch of her town. He eventually discovers the town was destroyed by a meteorite, a piece of a passing comet, three years earlier. Their body-swapping time-slipped. So Taki tries to tell Mitsuha she must persuade the town to evacuate on that night… As you would expect from Shinkai, the animation in Your Name is gorgeous. It takes a moment before the story starts to pick up and it’s clear what’s going on – the viewer is initially just as confused as Mitsuha. But as the plot unfolds – as it’s clever how it works out – so you’re drawn into, first, the mystery, then the rush to warn Mitsuha, and, finally, the race to change the past. Good stuff. I suspect this may be an early runner for by top five of the year.

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson (2017, USA). So let’s talk about The Last Jedi. It is, I think, the dumbest of the Star Wars films yet, and that’s not an especially high bar to clear. It does some things well and it makes some interesting choices, but in its headlong rush to reset the universe back to what it was when the franchise kicked off, it runs a series of set-pieces which make zero sense either in relation to the world-building, the characters, or the warped physics that pertain in space opera movies. I liked that the Resistance is now run by women, older women, and I can’t help but wonder what the film might have looked like had Carrie Fisher completed filming. I liked Laura Dern’s character and I thought she was used well. But. Poe Dameron is not only a liability, he was pretty much responsible for the destruction of the Resistance. I realise the story template needed to have the Resistance reduced to a small band of heroes (which is a blatant retcon of the original trilogy, anyway; but never mind), but Dameron should have been booted out of the airlock after his first stupid stunt with the space bombers. (“I like him,” says General Organa… even though his dumb plan just resulted in the deaths of around 90% of the Resistance? Huh.) And… space bombers. WWII in space is one thing, but… space bombers. Bombs don’t fall in space… because there’s no gravity. It’s one thing to send a squadron of really slow spaceships on a suicidal mission – stupid, but it fits Dameron’s character and the Resistance’s clear military incompetence – but making them bombers is… Ugh. Next, there’s the central narrative of the film: the First Order’s big fuck off superstardestroyers are chasing the ragtag fugitive fleet of the Resistance… who can’t go very fast, only just fast enough to keep out of range of the First Order’s big fuck off superstardestroyers’s guns. I mean, really? Was that the best they could think up? Hugely powerful stardestroyers can’t catch up to a medical frigate? And they used to have a gun that could fire across the entire fucking galaxy in an instant? But now their superstardestroyers’ guns have an effective range of a few thousand kilometres? It’s such blatantly manufactured jeopardy, it feels like it’s treating the audience with contempt. Yes, yes, the General Organa blasted into space thing was silly, but made more sense within the universe than the space bombers did. On the other hand, I did like the sections set on Skellig Michael, and I thought the bit with the mirrors was especially good. Rey, in fact, makes a really good hero, much more so here than in The Force Awakens, where she seemed overwhelmed by the story. Kylo Ren, however, is still a petulant blank, whose characterisation and motivation bounce all over the place. (Having said that, the fight scene in the throne room was a proper bit of action sf cinema.) The Last Jedi also muffed its major villain – we don’t know where Snoke came from, and he dies without us learning. All that build-up for… zip. But then I still don’t understand how the First Order managed to pay for, build and staff a fleet of big fuck off superstardestroyers, while the actual government of the galaxy, the New Republic, ends up stuck with the pieces of crap it had when it destroyed the Death Star. That’s the big problem with this new Star Wars trilogy – it wants to go back to the plucky band of heroes versus the big bad empire, but it can’t plausibly get there within the lifetimes of its heroes. So the film-makers just went, ah fuck it, let’s have a new evil empire that’s more powerful than the Republic which defeated the old evil empire hiding out somewhere all along, just in case, you know, the old evil empire was defeated… Or something. And we’re supposed to swallow it. Can you imagine if the Fourth Reich turned up from nowhere in the 1970s, and it was better-equipped than the USA and USSR combined? Having said all that, lots of people have been finding positive things in The Last Jedi that were sadly lacking earlier Star Wars films. If we can just add intelligence to that list, then the next one might turn out alright…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2017, #9

A mix of the usual suspects this time around, and it sounds good to say that and mean cinema from countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and China. It seems I’m actually sticking to one of my New Year resolutions.

man_movie_cameraEnthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov (1931, Russia). If there are two words which are likely make me buy something I had not otherwise considered purchasing, they are “limited edition”. I’d seen Vertov’s astonishing Man With a Movie Camera a couple of years ago, but hadn’t been that bothered about owning a copy… and then Eureka! decided to release a limited edition dual-format box set of Man With a Movie Camera plus some of Vertov’s other works. So, of course, I had to buy it. On the other hand, it’s also true I treasure the sort of films in this box set, ie, documentaries of other times and other places… and yes, that’s probably a consequence of my love of Sokurov’s films. But I’m also fascinated by films which see cinema as more than just brainless spectacle, and Vertov was a vocal proponent of cinema as a social tool. And of the films in this box set, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donblass is a prime example of the type. It’s pure Stakhanovism – a coal mine in the Don region is determined to beat its quota, and Vertov is there to film them doing it. And, er, that’s it. It’s not a silent film, although the others in the set are. It’s also quite astonishing how crude coal-mining techniques were back in 1930s USSR. Men wielded picks against the coal face, ponies pulled carts of coal from the face to the pit-head. I come from a mining background – my grandfathers all worked down the pit, and although my father joined the Electricity Board when he left school, my uncles all went to work for the NCB. Despite all that, I know little about the actual work of extracting coal from underground, and what little I know of early twentieth-century UK coal-mining comes from, er, DH Lawrence. I suspect Soviet techniques were not all that different, and it’s interesting actually seeing them on the screen. All told, this limited edition box set has proven to be a wise purchase.

lisbon_storyLisbon Story, Wim Wenders (1994, Germany). I stuck this one my rental list thinking it was by Manoel de Oliveira, but it’s actually by Wim Wenders, whose films I’m also happy to watch (although I’ve seen considerably more by Wenders than de Oliveira). But de Oliveira does appear in the film, so blame Amazon rental’s search facility… Although, having said all that, I did enjoy the film. Wenders I find a bit variable, but this was one of his better ones. A German director – the same one, in fact, from Wender’s The State of Things (1982) – asks the sound man from that film to make his way to Lisbon. Which he promptly does. But the director is not there. So the sound man wanders about the city, recording ambient sounds, making friends with the director’s friends (a bunch of kids, mostly, and a string group with a female singer). The philosophy underlying the film, as proposed by the missing director, when he appears, is bollocks… but the film is a mostly sympathetic portrait of its titular city and the characters it finds there, and for that reason it’s watchable and sort of successful. I like many of Wenders’s films, and I’d certainly put him in a list of “100 most interesting directors of the twentieth century”, but… The Million Dollar Hotel? Really? It was so bad. Having said that, it’s a bit unfair to write Wenders off on the basis of one film – and I see from Wikipedia, he’s made nearly 20 films since the aforementioned, none of which I’ve seen. So perhaps it’s time I rectified that. Because Lisbon Story, despite being rented under false pretences, is an enjoyable film.

chungking_expressChungking Express*, Wong Kar-wai (1994, China). This was Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film, and, according to Wikipedia was shot in six weeks as if it were a student film. And it shows. Admittedly, I say that having come to Wong’s films first through In the Mood for Love and loving it, and so I can’t help but compare Chungking Express to it. And while I found it a good film, I did wonder why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. Wong deserves to be represented but this isn’t his best film. It’s important in as much as it signals his new direction and aesthetic, but then why not pick a film that is a better representantive of that new aesthetic, such as In the Mood for Love? Chungking Express comprises two stories, both of which revolve around unnamed Hong Kong police officers and their lack of a love life – or rather, the consequences of their lack of a partner and the efforts they go to in order to find one. In the first story, a cop buys a tin of expired pineapple chunks, as you do, on the anniversary of his break-up with his girlfriend, and falls in with a mule for a drug lord. In the second, a cop falls for a young woman who temporarily takes over the fast food outlet from which he buys a “chef’s salad” every night. The film looks like a mix of rushed shots and carefully-framed shots, an aesthetic Wong honed to excellent effect in his later films. The oblique approach to plotting also stood him in good stead in his later films – compare it with Ashes of Time (or even Ashes of Time Redux). Wong is a singular talent, and as such belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but you sometimes have to wonder at the choices from a director’s oeuvre they’ve picked for the list.

late_springLate Spring, Yasujiro Ozu (1949, Japan). Ozu gets to you slowly. You watch one film and then you start watching another, and before you know it you watch more and you become a fan. And yet each film follows a similar plot: a daughter who must be married, and then a slow parade of the reasons why this cannot happen or must happen. And the beauty of Ozu’s films, of the way they are constructed, is that the viewer sympathises with each and every viewpoint. Perhaps it’s just that he builds strong characters on screen, to such an extent you realise how many characters in commercial cinema are little more than ciphers or tags. There’s no point in describing the plot of Late Spring, or indeed any Ozu film, because that’s not the point. They’re not just domestic dramas, they are ur-domestic dramas. They are so rich with detail, they actually transcend drama. Getting lost in an Ozu film is not getting lost in the story but getting lost in the lives of the characters. And that’s not something you can say about many movies. I came to Ozu late, but I’ve come to love his ability to generate drama from the prosaic, the quotidian. The differences between UK society and Japanese society become irrelevant, because Ozu manages to make the viewer care about the situation from the Japanese point of view. And that makes these rare films. I’m collecting all the BFI releases, why aren’t you?

robin_hoodRobin Hood, Wolfgang Reitherman (1973, USA). I’ve seen this named as one of the best, if not the best, of Disney’s animated feature films. So my hopes were high when I slid it into the player. And the opening credits are really quite well done. But I much prefer the Disney films with the clean lines, rather than the more sketched sort of lines of the 1960s and later. But even with that, Robin Hood just seemed… so small a story, with Nottingham depicted as a village, and everything just too small scale for the story as it purported to be. There was some impressive voice talent – or rather, well-known names – in some of the parts, such as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, and they were good. But it all felt a bit like an unrelated story that had borrowed the trappings of the Robin Hood legend, without bothering to be all that faithful. So far – and I’ve not seen all of the Disney animated feature films yet – I’d rate them as follows: 1 Sleeping Beauty, 2 Cinderella, 3 101 Dalmatians… and er, I need to watch, or rewatch, more Disney animated features to build up that top five. And no, I don’t count the Pixar films. I’ve still got a number of the classics to watch (or re-watch, albeit the last time I saw them was decades ago as a kid), before I can produce a definitive list. All the same, I’m not expecting Robin Hood to score as highly for me as it does for others. Did I mention that I was born in a town that used to be part of Sherwood Forest, so this legend has always felt like part of my heritage? No? Well, it does. Although that’s only a minor part of the problem. I liked the animal characters, even if it was a little worrying that both Robin and Maid Marion were both foxes (no trans-species love affairs in Disney), and some of the non-native species present in the film didn’t really have much reason for being present. And framing the over-arching narrative as some sort of good-ole-boy southern-USA story felt like appropriation. Not one of Walt’s best.

zhao_liangCrime and Punishment, Zhao Liang (2007, China). I loved Zhao’s Behemoth, which is an astonishing documentary that deserves to be seen by everyone. And, one night, having imbibed a certain amount, I decided I wanted to see more by Zhao but the only films available I could find were in a French-released box set. It had English subtitles, so I bought it. And… it’s pretty grim stuff. There are three films, and none of them makes for cheerful viewing. Crime and Punishment follows a small group of police officers in an impoverished town in north-east China. The people they deal with are poor, often not especially smart, and several are habitual criminals. The police officers are, by turns, arrogant, corrupt, violent, naive and not very smart. There’s a lot of shouting in this film, and several instances where the police openly beat up a suspect they’ve apprehended. But it’s the opening sequence to the film which sticks most in memory, a silent sequence in which the police officers fold up their bedding with military precision until each bed contains only a perfectly-formed cube of duvet. With all the guff you see in the press about China’s powerhouse economy and industrial and technological might, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the country’s population live in poverty – as is amply displayed in Crime and Punishment – and those who don’t are pretty much indentured labour – as seen in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and A Touch of Sin (which are, admittedly, not documentaries). I may not have been entirely sober when I clicked “buy” for the Zhao Liang box set, but it proved a worthwhile purchase. Which neatly brings my words on this last film in this post back to my words on the first film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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Cyberpunk film challenge

Shaun Duke challenged me on Twitter to name “5 great cyberpunk movies that most people have never heard of” and while no great fan of cyberpunk – books or films – I decided to take up the challenge. Although, to be fair, I can’t in all honesty describe any of the following films as “great”… And their categorisation as cyberpunk might be a bit wobbly too. But I’m pretty confident Shaun hasn’t heard of them…

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain). Aka La mujer más fea del mundo. A near-future thriller, but set in a world which would be familiar to cyberpunk fans. A young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which makes her beautiful, she then murders a contestant in a beauty pageant in order to take her place… and then proceeds to kill the other contestants. It’s not a cyberpunk plot, true enough, but the technology used by the detective sort of qualifies.

avalonAvalon, Mamoru Oshii (2001, Japan/Poland). In a sepia-tinted Poland, a woman jacks into VR to play a combat game, and which rumour has it contains a special level. Which she eventually reaches. The look of this film is absolutely gorgeous – not just the parts set in the “real world”, but also those in the VR combat game. It’s one of my favourite movies.

Natural City, Byung-chun Min (2003, South Korea). It’s been a while since I last watched this – I lent my copy to a friend and never saw it again. I remember it as being a polished sf film set some sixty years in the future, with visuals reminiscent of Blade Runner but a way more action-packed story.

renaissanceRenaissance, Christian Volckman (2006, France/UK). A black-and-white animated film which was definitely going for a noir look, although the story and Paris of 2054 is pure cyberpunk. A genius young scientist is kidnapped and a hard-boiled police captain looks into the matter for the scientist’s corporate masters.

Black Heaven, Gilles Marchand (2010, France) AKA L’autre mond. A young man obsesses over a young woman, and discovers she is a frequent visitor to an on-line VR world. So he buys himself a copy of the game, and goes hunting for her. A reasonably stylish French thriller sadly let down by somewhat clunky CGI for the VR world.

I did think of a few more films, even though Shaun only asked for five. While Demonlover, Olivier Assayas (2002, France), probably qualifies – and Assayas has made many good films – the copy I bought proved to have Italian audio and Italian subtitles… so I’ve not seen it. Until The End Of The World, Wim Wenders (1991, Germany), AKA Bis ans Ende der Welt, is a film I like a lot but it may be stretching a point to describe it as cyberpunk. But back when it was released, the near-future it depicted was pretty cyberpunk-ish. As for Memory Run, Allan A Goldstein (1995, Canada), its corporate-controlled world probably qualifies as cyberpunk, even if its plot doesn’t (it’s apparently loosely based on Jean Stine’s novel of sex-change judicial punishment, Season Of The Witch).

So, Shaun, how did I do?