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Moving pictures 2019, #17

I am so behind on these. My lack of internet access for a couple of weeks didn’t stop my movie-watching, but it did prevent me from blogging about what I’d seen. Expect a few more of these before I’m up to date.

Asura: The City of Madness, Kim Sung-su (2016, South Korea). It’s been nearly two months since I watched this and, to be honest, all I can remember is it was a well-made Korean gangster film. There was an opening scene, I recall, in which the mayor of a city unveils a a new high-profile development, you know the sort, all skyscrapers for the rich, doesn’t really address any social or economic problems the city might be experiencing, but is supposed to attract investment, although no one says from whom… Anyway, the mayor is physically attacked by the city’s DA (or its Korean equivalent) and it’s made clear there’s some enmity there – and which side of the law the mayor is on. I also remember a fight between two police officers, one of whom was corrupt but I can’t remember which, and a guy falls off a rooftop and is impaled on some steel rods, and it was pretty damn realistic. But that’s about all I recall. A polished piece of work… I should really watch it again.

Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, Maneesh Sharma (2011, India). The daughter of a rich businessman is brought home drunk one night by her new boyfriend. The boyfriend impresses the father with his ambition and business acumen, and admits he comes from a family that fell on hard times when he lost his inheritance, a large villa worth millions, after the tenants took it over and he can’t afford to get them evicted. He does a deal with the father, who buys the villa at a knock-down price and sends in his own heavies… Except the villa never belonged to the boyfriend and he’s now vanished with the cash he was paid. A PA is tasked with buying a particular – and very expensive painting – for a client of her boss, and manages to do a shady deal with a gallery owner to get the painting… Only to be embarrassed in front of the client when it proves to be a fake. The boyfriend and the gallery owner are the same bloke – Ricky Bahl, obvs – and it turns out he has more victims. All young women. So they get together and plan to turn the tables on him. Which they do. Via an elaborate scam. Which doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Most Bollywood movies are fun, but this one I thought especially entertaining. The central conceit didn’t outstay its welcome over the typical Bollywood running time, and it was nice to see a film that privileged the women’s point of view (Bollywood films are good at that, by the way, much better than Hollywood). A good film to watch on a Saturday night with a pizza and beer instead of the latest MCU tosh.

The Colony, Florian Gallenberger (2015, UK). There’s a science fiction film, I think, with the same title, but this movie is based on a true story. The Chilean government, the one run by that evil monster Pinochet, you know, Margaret Thatcher was buddies with him, allowed a German paedophile to set up a “religious retreat” in the south of the country. And the Chilean government used it as a cover for a torture centre. It’s countries like that the US should be invading, but instead they support them. Of course they do. Because they’re all the same. Anyway, a German working for the opposition is taken by the secret police. His girlfriend, also German, tracks him down to the aforementioned cult headquarters, and enrols in the cult in order to rescue him. It’s films like The Colony which make you despise the ruling classes of every country – and with good reason. Pinochet and his regime committed countless crimes against humanity, and yet he was treated like royalty by the governments of most Western nations. He should have been carted off to the ICJ and imprisoned for life. And so should every government leader who treated him like a legitimate head of state. They were fine forcing regime changes in Iran, fucking up Central America and invading Iraq, but they bent over backwards to help a fascist dictator who used a convicted paedophile as cover for a torture centre. FFS. Good film, horrible story.

The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos (2018, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Lanthimos. Dogtooth was very strange but also very good. I wasn’t so taken with either Attenberg or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And now we have The Favourite, which on the one hand presents as straight-up historical drama, but on the other seems slightly off-kilter throughout. Which is, it has to be said, totally a Lanthimos thing. The story is about Queen Anne (1702 to 1707) and her relationship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, ancestor of that idol beloved of the right-wing, a supposed man-of-the-people who was aristocracy through and through, but let’s not stop actual facts get in the way of right-wing mythology. Anyway, the Churchills were just as perfidious back in the 1700s as they were in the 1900s, and this is starting to sound like I sympathise with an actual queen of England, which of course I don’t, but… I don’t give a shit about Anne, Elizabeth, Edward, George, whatever name they choose to take… and even less about those with access to royalty and the wit to manipulate that tribe of inbreds. Olivia Colman puts in a star, if not award-winning, turn as Queen Anne. But we’re still talking about a small, and diminishing, gene pool with unsupportable power over the general population based on self-serving myths and the so-called weight of history; and films such as The Favourite – which is indeed well-made – only show how unsupportable and irrelevant that situation increasingly is.

Dhoka, Pooja Bhatt (2007, India). There is a suicide bomber attack at a shopping mall, and a policeman’s wife is among the victims. But then it transpires she was the bomber. And he doesn’t understand this. He had thought he was happily married. He’s shut out of the investigation, obviously, but decides to look into matters on his own. He learns that a corrupt police inspector had arrested his father-in-law as a suspected terrorist and the father-in-law had died during torture. When the policeman’s wife insists on filing a complaint, she is stripped and photographed by the corrupt inspector, and then raped. So she and her brother begin visiting an imam who persuades them to become suicide bombers. The policeman is too late to save his wife, but perhaps he can save his dead wife’s brother. For all that Dhoka covers a sensitive topic – and you don’t see Hollywood making movies about domestic terrorism – it all felt a bit overly melodramatic. True, it is a Bollywood film and melodrama is baked into the formula; but the scenes with the corrupt police inspector were so OTT, it undermined the story. There are hundreds of Bollywood (not to mention Kollywood and Tollywood) free to watch on Amazon Prime, new and old, and more appearing seemingly every day. So there’s plenty to chose from. I’ve generally been lucky with my picks, but this was a rare duff one.

Mary Poppins Returns, Rob Marshall (2018, USA). Before watching this, I rewatched Mary Poppins. I say “rewatched” although it’s been three or four decades, I think, since I last saw it, so it was more like an actual “watch”. But Mary Poppins was a cultural touchstone when I was growing up, so it’s not like I needed to see the film to remind myself what happens in it. And so it proved. Then I watched the sequel. Which, to be honest, I didn’t expect to like. The son from the original film has grown up to become Ben Wishart. He was an artist but now he works as a clerk at the bank his father worked at. And he has two children, who are surprisingly well-behaved (and precocious), but he still ends up with the latest incarnation of Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt, And she’s bloody good. Blunt not only nails Poppins, she redefines it as her own. Jack, a lamplighter and once apprentice of the original film’s chimney-sweep, played of course by an American, although he makes a much better fist of his accent than Dick Van Dyke ever did, seems mostly out of his depth. Not to mention the musical number where Blunt puts on a cockney accent and blows him completely out of the water. There’s a cleverly-done animated sequence, although I seem to remember the one in the original film was pretty good too, but not as comic. Sadly the songs in the new film are nowhere near as memorable, although the fact I remember the original movie’s songs may be because we had a LP of Disney songs when I was a kid and played it repeatedly… I’m glad I took the time to watch Mary Poppins before watching Mary Poppins Returns. I think it definitely added to my enjoyment of the sequel. And I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 940

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Moving pictures 2018, #27

I could claim there’s a system to the films I choose to watch, but that would be a lie. It pretty much depends on what I feel like watching – plus a host of other factors, as outlined in a previous post. So I make no apologies for the somewhat scattershot results of my recent viewing…

Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2016, USA). I had this on my rental list, but I was so intrigued by the polarity of the reviews on Amazon that I decided to get a copy for myself. I may joke that these days books only receive 5-star or 1-star reviews, and I suppose that’s just as true of movies, but Kate Plays Christine actually had only 5-star or 1-star/2-star reviews. And the latter were quite uncomplimentary. But they struck me, as so many such reviews do, as having missed the point. Kate Plays Christine is not only an exploration of the real-life character Kate Lyn Shiel plays – Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide on air in 1974 – but also about the process of film-making, especially documentary-making. Shiel researches her role very carefully, and this involves interviewing people who knew Chubbock personally. That makes for uncomfortable interviews. More so when the topic of an alleged videotape of Chubbock’s on-air suicide is often raised. But the film also interrogates Chubbock and her life. Her suicide shows something was amiss, although Kate Plays Christine makes no attempt to analyse her motives. Not that they really could as there was little available information about her – back in 1974, people’s lives were not that well documented, people no longer wrote letters as extensively as they had done and the internet comprised a handful of servers accessible only to some academics and engineers… I thought the film fascinating and an interesting exploration of its subjects –  Chubbock, Chubbock’s story, and the presentation of her story to an audience forty years later. So that’s 5 stars from me.

You Were Never Lovelier, William A Seiter (1942, USA). Astaire has had enough of New York so he heads down to Brazil to join his chum, bandleader Xavier Cugat, played by, er, Xavier Cugat. But Astaire can’t get a job, in fact he can’t even get to see impresario Adolphe Menjou. Meanwhile, Menjou’s oldest unmarried daughter, Rita Hayworth, has no intention of getting married. So Menjou plays a Cyrano de Bergerac on her, and sends orchids and poems as if from a secret beau. Events conspire to make her think it’s Astaire. He goes along with it for a spot at Menjou’s club. It’s not the most original plot in the world, and Astaire is not as likeable as he usually is. But I hadn’t realised Hayworth was so good a dancer, and she more than holds her own with Astaire. Having said that, I much prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner for him. I mean, Hayworth is great, no doubt about that. But I see her more as a femme fatale, or in something like Gentleman Prefer Blondes, than I do as a comic foil and dancing partner to Fred Astaire. In which role, Ginger Rogers was excellent. Indeed she was excellent before that, as I learnt when I watched the films in the Busby Berkeley box sets I own. You Were Never Lovelier was good but, let’s face it, it’s a film for fans of Astaire, Hayworth, or 1940s movies.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos (2017, Ireland). The only other film by Lanthimos I’ve seen is Dogtooth (see here), and it was… odd. This is not necessarily a bad thing in my book, and I did think Dogtooth very good. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Lanthimos, a Greek director, working in the Hollywood system, Hollywood has a bad record of adapting, or attempting to co-opt, world or art house directors. Michael Haneke’s Hollywood remake of Funny Games is inferior to his Austrian original; George Sluizer’s Hollywood remake of The Vanishing is inferior to his Dutch original. And that’s when the original directors are involved! But then The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not actually Hollywood, as it’s an Irish production that happens to be filmed in the US with US characters (played by an Irish, Australian and American cast). But it is also quite clearly a Yanthimos film. It’s not just the batshit plot, which toys with genre without fully committing to it, but also the stilted way in which the cast play their parts. Colin Farell plays a heart surgeon who befriends a teenage boy whose father had died in a car accident. He introduces the boy to his family. But it transpires the father died on the operating table under Farrell’s knife, and the boy has engineered the friendship so he can get close to the family. And curse them. So Farrell’s son, the youngest, is mysteriously paralysed from the waist down. Then he refuses to eat. The last stage is bleeding from the eyes. Unless Farrell agrees to murder one of his family in reparation. It’s a bonkers story – inspired, apparently, by a play by Euripides – but the weird, almost hypnotised, way everyone plays their parts gives it a bizarre sense of authority. Perhaps the lack of naturalism suits the unnatural plot; I don’t know. A very good film, whatever the reason.

The Angelic Conversation, Derek Jarman (1985, UK). I thought I had a handle on Jarman’s films after seeing The Tempest and then Jubilee, and relying on vague memories of Caravaggio, but I’d forgotten he was an experimental film-maker, and his resolutely amateurish aesthetic was only one element of it. After all, there was Blue, which I may not have seen but knew about. (And, okay, Wittgenstein, doesn’t quite fit in there, but given that it’s the film that persuaded me to give Jarman another go I think that’s fair). Anyway, all of that and I come to The Angelic Conversation, which is mid-career Jarman, made after a six-year gap since The Tempest and contemporary with Caravaggio. It comprises 78 minutes of filtered footage of two men, or sometimes just one of them, in a sort of dreamlike landscape, while Dame Judi Dench reads sonnets by Shakespeare. And some mostly atonal music. And, er, that’s it. The combination proves effective – and the imagery is often quite beautiful – but at 78 minutes it does outstay its welcome somewhat. Most of the avant garde/experimental films I’ve seen to date have been short, between 3 and 30 minutes. Jarman clearly was not afraid of trying his audience’s patience, or pushing their willingness to spend time watching his films. I don’t know enough about his work to determine if that was a deliberate policy on his part or simply something that never occurred to him. Given there are another four films in this box set, not to mention a shitload of extras, I will no doubt find out. Despite only being a third of the way into this first collection, I must admit I have every intention of buying Volume 2 when it is released.

Anon, Andrew Niccol (2018, UK). Niccol’s Gattaca is generally regarded as one of the best sf films of the last 25 years, but I’ve never really been a fan of it. His subsequent genre films – S1m0ne and In Time, especially – may have been relatively successful but are not so well regarded. Nonetheless, he appears to be seen as a non-commercial genre director who has yet to produce a really great genre film. Some might consider Anon to be that film. I’m not so sure. It has a neat conceit at its core, but it feels a bit tired, a bit like an argument we want to be over because we already know what the conclusion should be. But then, “we” – ie, me – are genre fans, so this is shit we’ve been retreading for forty-plus years and perhaps it’s not so tired to to the general movie-seeing public. In the near-future of the film, people’s entire lives are uploaded to “the Ether” (this is science fiction, remember; we can’t call it by the name it has in the real world, “the cloud”), including everything they see and hear. The police – in the person of detective Clive Owen – have access to these records. So when a crime is committed, they just scroll back through the suspect’s record so they can see exactly what happened. But then a man is murdered, and his murderer remains invisible, because the murderer hacked the Ether so the victim sees his death through the murderer’s eyes. Owen discovers there are hackers who can make people’s records in the Ether disappear. He tracks one down – Chloe Sevigny – who apparently has no record of her own. It’s patently obvious she’s not the murderer, even though she’s linked to all the victims, because the film spends so much energy making every clue point her way. With the end result that the real identity of the killer falls completely flat when it’s revealed. Niccol also seems to think the future will be Brutalist. I’m a huge fan of Brutalist architecture, but it hasn’t signified the future since the 1970s. Putting up great slabs of concrete is time-consuming and expensive; the future will be steel frames and gypsum walls, cheap and easy to put up by immigrant labour– oh wait, we won’t have immigrant labour in the UK anymore, because it will take years to get a visa and three months to get through immigration control. Cheap and easy to put up by indentured local labour, then; because what else are you going to do when the welfare state has been dismantled… Anyway, Anon… Not a bad film. The central mystery was badly-handled, and the premise is not as original or shocking as it thinks it is, but the film did look very pretty.

Lightning Bolt, Antonio Margheriti (1966, Itay). Back in the 1960s, Italy and Spain collaborated on a bunch of cheap thrillers, often with cheap US stars thrown in as a draw. While some cheap Italian films of the period, gialli or otherwise – like Danger: Diabolik or Footprints on the Moon – have transcended their origins, it doesn’t seem like any of these Spanish-Italian co-productions did. Lightning Bolt, starring Anthony Eisley, star of US TV series Hawaiian Eye (1959 – 1963), as Harry Sennet, a pretty obvious take-off of James Bond. The plot is even a rip-off of Dr No. Having said that, Lightning Bolt uses real stock footage of Nasa launches, and does a much better job in that respect than Dr No. Anyway, Nasa’s last six launches have all failed, with the rockets not making much more than a couple of thousand feet from the launch pad. So Eisley, an agent for the Federal Security Investigation Commission, poses as a playboy while investigating the Florida keys just down-range of Nasa for likely causes. His boss is female… and it doesn’t help when she’s introduced as “Agent 36-22-36”. And her treatment is pretty standard for the treatment of women in this film. It’s not that the film makes 007 look feminist, which Trump certainly does, but it’s clearly closer to unreconstructed sexist pig than Bond. Anyway, it’s all because of a beer mogul who has a secret base at the bottom of the sea, and who plans to launch a laser cannon to the Moon which he can then use to blackmail the nations of Earth into ceding him control. FSIC’s playboy agent foils his plot. Of course. There’s a lot of noir-ish voiceover in this film, which is definitely not a characteristic of the genre; and I’m not really sure it works. I recently saw someone on FB post a list of “favourite spy parody films” and they had Derek Flint in their No. 1 spot. I think I’d nominate Matt Helm (but Flint would make my No. 2). Harry Sennet, however, is no spoof, even if at times he seems like one. A film for fans of spaghetti spy-fi only, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


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Moving pictures 2017, #26

Another six films and another six countries. Sadly, one of them is the US, and it wasn’t a film I would have watched otherwise – but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, although I’ve no idea why…

Rushmore*, Wes Anderson (1998, USA). I’ve seen a bunch of Anderson’s films and I’m not a fan. I hate whimsy. But Rushmore was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, so I watched it. And while it wasn’t as gratuitously whimsical as some of his later films, it was just as annoying. The title refers to the posh private school at which the lead character, Max Fischer, is a pupil. And he’s hugely unlikeable and annoying. He’s a poor student, but they can’t get rid of him because he’s far too good at defending himself. Then he meets a bored industrialist, the father of two meathead pupils at Rushmore, and the two become unlikely friends. Fischer persuades the industrialist, played by Bill Murray, in what was apparently a career-revitialising role, to fund an aquarium at Rushmore, an idea he’s conceived in order to win the affections of new teacher, Olivia Williams. Rushmore is entirely about Fischer, and he pissed me off from the moment he first appeared on-screen. I get that this is deliberate, but I don’t see the point of it.Why would I want to watch a film about an annoying little shit? Why would anyone? Why would they even think that was a good idea? Oh well, at least I can cross it off the list.

Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos (2009, Greece). I forget why I put this on my rental list, someone must have recommended it to me but I can’t think who. It was probably David Tallerman; he recommends weird films. A husband and wife have three grown-up children they’ve kept completely isolated from the outside world, even giving them fake meanings to words they stumble across, like “zombie”. The father pays for a security guard at his plant to come and have sex with his son, but the security guard is more interested in cunnilingus with the two daughters. It’s hard to describe quite how odd this film is. It works really well – the three children are cruel and naive, the parents’ motives for the deception are by turns both understandable and completely insane. Lanthimos filmed Dogtooth very simply, with static scenes and realistic dialogue, and it works really well. It’s not a film that bears rewatching – it’s just too damn unsettling – but it’s certainly a film worth seeing. There’s something very Haneke-ish about the story, and I’m a huge Haneke fan. Recommended.

Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski (1962, Poland). I hadn’t known Polanski – or Polański, as he’s given here – was in these box sets, although I suspect I’d have bought them anyway despite his presence. Because, let’s be fair, his is a career that should not be supported – he’s still wanted in the US for a sex crime, after all. Knife in the Water is actually his first feature film, and was the first Polish film nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Sadly, it’s a technically impressive film, but narratively feels like it owes far too many debts to far too many other films. Much of the action takes place aboard a sail boat on a lake, and the fact Polanski managed to film his cast of three out on the water is impressive. The story is less impressive. A well-off couple on their way to their boat for a weekend on the water, nearly run over a hitchhiker. They offer him a lift, and later invite him onboard their boat. It’s a chance for the husband to show off in front of his wife, because the young hitchhiker knows nothing about sailing. Later, the hitch-hiker jumps overboard and hides behind a buoy, faking his drowning. The husband swims to shore to fetch help. The hitchhiker then climbs aboard the yacht, witnesses the wife naked, seduces her… and when the boat returns to the dock and the waiting husband, the hitchhiker is long gone. On the drive home, the wife admits she had sex with the hitchhiker. The story is fairly humdrum, but the way the film is made is technically clever.

5 Centimetres per Second, Makoto Shinkai (2007, Japan). I borrowed this from David Tallerman after watching Shinkai’s The Garden of Words and wanting to see more by him. The title refers to, as the film helpfully explains early on, the speed at which cherry blossom falls to the ground. I’m not sure that’s true, but never mind. The film consists of three linked stories. In the first, a boy and a girl at school become friends, but their families move away from each other. In the second, a classmate becomes enamoured of the boy from the first part, but his heart still belongs to the girl of the first part. In the final section, the two characters lead unconnected lives, but still dream of each other. And then they seem to meet one another but do not connect. Like every Shinkai film I’ve seen, the animation is gorgeous, either photo-realistic or wonderfully painterly. There’s some particularly lovely animation when the two main characters witness a rocket launch, but it’s hard to pick a favourite moment as it all looks so fantastic. And yes, the story is low-key and not a fat lot happens in it – there are no mecha, no kaiju, no science fiction or fantasy elements… but that’s one of the reasons why I like Shinkai’s films so much. I’m tempted to get my own copies, in fact.

No, Pablo Larraín (2012, Chile). This is the third film in Larraín’s trilogy about Pinochet, and I’m guessing the two earlier films are Tony Manero and Post Mortem, as Wikipedia doesn’t make it clear that the films are linked. I guess I’ll have to watch them now as I thought this very good. Gael García Bernal plays an advertising man who is hired by the “No” side in the 1988 referendum in Chile over whether Pinochet should remain in power. Happily, the Chileans voted for an open election and not for more military dictatorship (see, Britain, it is possible to vote intelligently in a referendum). According to Wikipedia, “the “No” campaign, created by the majority of Chile’s artistic community, proved effective with a series of entertaining and insightful presentations that had an irresistible cross-demographic appeal. By contrast, the “Yes” campaign’s advertising, with only dry positive economic data in its favor” – which sounds uncomfortably familiar, although the No campaign didn’t resort to outright lies as both the Leave.eu and Vote Leave campaigns did here (but then racism always has “cross-demographic appeal”). No presents the campaign, and the government’s response to it, as dry drama – quite talky drama, in fact. Bernal is good in the lead role, unsurprisingly; but it did feel a little like the focus on the adverts used by either side in the referenderum undercut the importance of the vote and the horror of Pinochet’s regime. But perhaps the latter point is covered better in Tony Manero and Post Mortem. Happily, there is a box set of all three films – No to Pinochet: The Pablo Larraín Collection – and I’ve already stuck it on my wishlist.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kabir Khan (2015, India). I’m not sure which has surprised the Indian guys I work with the most – the fact I don’t like cricket, or that I watch Bollywood movies. Anyway, I’d put Bajrangi Bhaijaan on my rental list after seeing it on some list of good Bollywood movies, and they all approved it. And while I’ve enjoyed a number of Bollywood films I’ve seen, I thought this one was really quite good. A six-year-old girl born in Pakistani Kashmir is mute. Her mother takes her to Delhi to a shrine where all promises are realised, but on the train journey home the girl gets off the train and is left behind in India. She comes ascross Salman Khan, a simple but pathologically honest young man, who vows to reunite her with her family, even if it jeopardises his relationship with his fiancée. So he finds a way to sneak into Pakistan, via smuggler’s tunnel – but even then, he asks for permission from the Pakistani border patrol to enter the country… and when they refuse, he tries again until they accept. There’s an amusing scene where all three are performing ablutions in a river, and they ask the young girl if she had done a number one or two and she replies two… Khan is good as the well-intentioned but somewhat dim-witted title character, and while you know the film is going to end happily, it takes its time getting there. It’s worth the trip, though. The production values are astonishingly high, and there’s some excellent landscape photography. Although it didn’t follow the usual boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl plot of your typical Bollywood film, this is probably one of the best ones I’ve seen. Oh, and this is the first film I’ve ever seen which lists the production company’s tax counsel among the opening credits.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 864