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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?