Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dogs and sons of bitches

The Go-Between: Takes two hours to tell a plot which could be summarised in one line: Noblewoman has affair with farmer, is found out, farmer shoots self, noblewoman has trouble telling the offspring of the union about it. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, which just goes to show that even genius surrealists can have off days. Between this and "Darling," I'm beginning to think that anything that stars Julie Christie and won a BAFTA is guaranteed to be terrible.

Heaven's Fall: Telemovie about the Scottsboro trials. Ok but straightforward; my own understanding of the situation was that the lawyer knew there was no way he was going to get his black client acquitted of the charge of raping two white women, not in 1930s Alabama, and was consequently going for the Saddam Hussein option of making it so utterly obvious that the trial was a trumped-up sham that at the very least the government would be embarrassed about it, but unfortunately the director has the cast play it as if they think they really can get an acquittal. There are worse ways to spend an evening but there are also a lot of better ones.

Crimson Tide: The opening scenes were worryingly contrived and simplistic (I suspect the movie had spent a while in development hell, and "Russians attack us! Bush Sr. calls out the army!" had to be hastily rejigged as "Post-Soviets attack us! Clinton is forced to bow to the wisdom of the neocons and call out the army!"). Once you get past those and into the story, though, it's a great drama about the sort of tensions which emerge under pressure. The crew of a nuclear sub get an order to fire missiles, followed by what might be an order to stand down, but the latter is cut off in transmission: Gene Hackman, a Commander Cain-style eccentric wardog whose instincts never let him down, wants to fire, Denzel Washington, his strait-laced by-the-book XO who has never seen a battle but knows right from wrong, wants to hold off till they get confirmation. The situation deteriorates as the crew take sides in a complicated mutiny and counter-mutiny. The ending, not to spoiler it, concludes that both men acted rightly, but one more rightly than the other. Hugely influential on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

Hachi, A Dog's Story: Based on the Japanese movie Hatchiko Monogatori. Massively cute and massively sad; you have to be totally insensitive not to find the titular dog irresistably darling and not to cry at the ending. Richard Gere is officially forgiven for "The Cotton Club" for this, and I'm now deeply tempted to look into owning an akita.

Movie count for 2010: 27

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cry havoc

Slumdog Millionaire: Subtextually, a story about the rise of the developing-world information service sector. No, seriously, bear with me. From a 1980/90s childhood in abject poverty, picking rags, fleecing tourists and trying to steer clear of beggar lords who would scare the hell out of Charles Dickens, young Jamal finds himself in the post-milennial information world, in legitimate if poorly-paid employment in a call centre catering to the UK (in which the employees have to familiarise themselves with continuous streams of trivia about British culture in order to pass as locals), and, finally, is able to use his encyclopedic knowledge of global information to strike it rich on a programme with a format imported from the UK and sold all over the world, as the police and his local gangster brother both realise that India's place in the global information sphere is bigger than them, give up hindering him and help him to win. The mobile phone runs through it as a symbol of globalisation, information and social connectedness, enabling him in the end to win the girl and gain the confidence to win the game.

Movie count for 2010: 23

Friday, March 12, 2010

Going West

My Darling Clementine: Engaging retelling of the gunfight at the OK corrall, though they really have to twist themselves in knots to make the title fit (and even then, it doesn't; the Clementine of the film, a nurse from Massachusets who goes West in pursuit of a man who doesn't want her, is nothing like the girl in the song). Its main point of interest is actually a strong homoerotic subtext between Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and Doc Holliday (Victor Mature); forget all the gay-cowboy cliches, this one really does read like a Forties tale of forbidden love between men. Watch the director's cut if you can get it; the studio cut's not so interesting.

Once Upon a Time in the West: Actually, what impressed me most this time around was the sound design. The way whole minutes can go by without a single word of dialogue, but with meaning and atmosphere fully conveyed in the background noise. Also the sheer grimness and squalor of it all; Leone did more than most to stamp firmly on the myth of the West as a beautiful land full of beautiful heroes bent on taming it, and showing it instead as a strange, eerie place full of criminals and desperate people, whose heroism is achieved through their sheer determination to survive.

The Wild Bunch: Redemptive religious allegory disguised as an ultraviolent "Western" (the quotes are because it's set in 1917, reminding the viewer that life went on after the West was supposedly won). A gang of outlaws are forced to leave one of their own (tellingly named Angel) in the hands of an evil bandit; they can take their lives and money and leave him, but instead choose to go back and save him, knowing it will be at the cost of their own lives, and take down the corrupt bandit forces as they do so. Obviously it's a lot more complicated than that, but what I'm saying is, watch it with your "allegory" hat on rather than your "straight drama" hat on and you get more out of it.

Young Guns: A Brat-Pack take on the Western genre, and surprisingly good at that; OK, the characterisation and storylines are based on Western archetypes rather than deep character explorations and innovations, but the film is self-aware enough to play around with these, turning the Hero-Finds-Himself storyline into a lunatic drug trip and making it plain precisely how out of their depth the young gunslingers are against more experienced criminals. Mainly let down by the now-horribly-dated thrash-guitar soundtrack.

The Magnificent Ambersons: Orson Welles' complicated portrait of a selfish man who sets out to ruin his widowed mother's chance at a happy relationship, and, in doing so, winds up ruining his own life and those of everyone around him. One of these films that bears repeated rewatching, though it's blatantly obvious that the "happy ending" was tacked on against Welles' wishes.

The Hours: A story about same-sex relationships and suicide. Virginia Woolf has incestuous feelings for her own sister, and kills herself; Julianne Moore, a 50s housewife, has feelings for her own neighbour, contemplates suicide, and instead kills herself socially, fleeing to Canada and rejecting her own family; Meryl Streep, an out lesbian in 2000s New York, obsesses over a gay male ex-lover who commits suicide, reversing the sexual and gender taboos of the earlier iterations of the story.

In the Loop: Basically a triple-length edition of The Thick of It; if you like the sitcom, you'll like the movie. The message was essentially that British politicians become all obsessive and starry-eyed over Washington, but that Washington is really just a better-funded version of Whitehall, with all the same petty rivalries and nastinesses. The best Malcolm Tucker moment for me was the pornographic rant on the subject of costume drama, but there are plenty of great Tucker lines throughout.

Movie count for 2010: 22