Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott

So I previously mentioned the ongoing challenge at ICM forum for films of this decade, and now there’s one for films of the oughts, so I’m doing both in conjunction with that vague plan I have of finishing off the 1001 Movies list now I’ve got almost all the films on that… As such, I’ve finally got around to this, and OY do I have problems with it. I mean, it’s an OK film, albeit one that is vastly and unnecessarily overlong—nothing really justifies it being nearly three hours in length—and technically adequate, that sort of thing. It’s just… the history. And historical subjects almost always have some sort of problem with historical fact… you know, there’ll be anachronisms of some sort (which Gladiator is apparently full of), or else characters have been invented or maybe even created out of more than one actual person (which Shakespeare himself did), or events have been invented or otherwise distorted (cf. Matthew Hopkins getting killed in Witchfinder General as opposed to the actual Hopkins dying of TB at home). I’m not usually bothered by that sort of thing. A problem arises, though, when something like this film wants to sell itself as history but is basically predicated on something that never happened…

In this case, Russell Crowe and his variable accent play Roman general Maximus Meridius, fighting under the emperor Marcus Aurelius at Vienna in 180 AD; the venerable Marcus wants to appoint him his successor rather than his son Commodus, who he thinks is unworthy, and he wants Maximus to restore the old Rome. Commodus takes this… badly and kills the old boy, taking the purple before Maximus can; the latter escapes execution but gets captured into slavery, being trained as a gladiator and readying himself for revenge. In other words, it’s basically a modern knock-off of Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and that’s fair enough… except, like I said, it’s predicated on something that didn’t happen. Commodus was, well, a bit of a commode as emperor; I don’t know if he was the weaselly git with daddy (and sister) issues who just wanted people to love him that Joaquin Phoenix presents him as, but he wasn’t one of the great emperors. But he was already emperor before Marcus Aurelius’ death, co-emperor with his old man in fact, who he didn’t actually kill either. And that’s a bit of bad history that hangs over the entire film and made it difficult at best to fully get into it. Unfortunate, cos, apart from the sluggish first hour or so, it’s not too bad for the sort of thing it is; Crowe and Phoenix are outshone vastly as performers by some of the secondary cast (most notably Oliver Reed), but on the whole it’s OK, and by the end I think I liked it more than I’d initially expected. It’s just… the “history”.

Merantau (2009)

Director: Gareth (“G.H.”) Evans

Well, clearly I haven’t watched anywhere near as many films for this “smaller Asian countries” challenge at ICM, but at least I’m signing off on a fairly good note… since we have a while yet for the third Raid film to appear, this seemed like a good opportunity to finally pull this one off the watchlist. Having invoked the Raid films, of course, I should probably add that I might have enjoyed this a bit more had I not seen those films first, cos I now know what he’s capable of, and, well, he doesn’t quite pull it off here in the same way. That said, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it or anything (well, except for some of the post-synced sound, and I don’t think that was just my copy at fault), it’s just that it was Evans’ first film of this sort and it’s a bit more derivative and not as tightly controlled. The plot revolves around an old Sumatran tradition called merantau, where the young men go on a sort of walkabout (yes, way to mangle not exactly identical cultural references together, Russell) from their rural communities to the big city to prove themselves as adults; this is the situation our hero, Yuda, is in. Things kind of immediately turn to shit when he finds the place he’s supposed to stay in Jakarta doesn’t actually exist, but then a series of encounters leads him to brush up against a human trafficking ring. Like I said, not the most original narrative, but with the sort of action on show, who cares about that? I know bugger all about silat—the Indonesian martial art on display—but it looks amazing on screen, and the action choreography (really, Hollywood needs to make Iko Uwais a big star and I don’t know why they haven’t yet) is incredible at times… there’s a few particularly berserk bits of stunt action where I can’t believe the performers didn’t sustain serious injury, including some falls from heights onto… well, solid ground with nothing to stop them. There are some right “fucking hell” moments throughout. Like I said, not as good as what Evans and Uwais would pull off in The Raid, but a worthy enough bit of action entertainment in its own right nonetheless…

Ashes of Time (1994)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

This is, specifically, the “redux” version we’re dealing with, cos that seems to be the only one easily available; the original international version, to say nothing of the original original version from the Venice Film Festival, may still be out there in dodgy form, but this seems to be the one Wong himself wants out there. Apparently it came about because he got a call from the film lab storing the film materials, advising they were shutting down the very next day, so if he wanted his stuff, he’d better get it right there and then… and the materials were apparently in such a mess that a complete overhaul was the only way to go. Which involved recutting, making the seasonal structure clearer, new music, and a completely different colour grade (which, apparently cinematographer Christopher Doyle isn’t thrilled by). Bordwell has a whole piece on it, and on the connections between the film’s various characters. The film was notorious for baffling its original audiences, and I can see why; you actually can piece the relationships together, but Wong doesn’t make it terribly easy, and the loose, semi-episodic structure makes everything just that little bit more remote. It’s kind of an anti-wu xia film in some ways, determined to take the usual sword-slinging characters and make them more recognisably human than mythic… although the extent to which it succeeds at doing so is, I think, arguable, and the film’s general approach is a highly aesthetic and artificial one that kind of further undercuts that. It’s so self-conscious in its “artisticness”—a tendency I’ve always gathered was kind of frowned upon by the Hong Kong film industry at large in those days; Wong might’ve been playing with big stars but he was never really accepted at home as one himself the way foreign critics fawned over him—that it becomes quite teeth-grinding. I may find more in it on a second watch, but that might be a while in coming.

Revenge (1989)

Director: Ermek Shinarbaev

Well, wasn’t THAT awesomely difficult to love. When you boil Revenge (also known as The Red Flute for no reason that I can discern, since I don’t recall any such object even appearing in the film, let alone being relevant to the story) down to its basic plot—a rural teacher kills one of his students in a rage, the child’s father gives birth to another son so that he can take revenge for him—you do it a genuine and amazing injustice. I mean, yeah, that is what happens, and yet there’s more to it… Revenge occupies an odd place both as a story and a production, appearing near the end of the Soviet Union when perestroika was inspiring a new wave of sorts in Kazakhstan, set mostly in Korea and starring Kazakh actors speaking Russian. Which I suppose is not really different from, say, Hollywood films set in foreign lands where everyone speaks English, but it was weirdly disconcerting here… plus, although the film is actually concretely set between 1915 and the mid/late 1940s, there’s a strange abstractness to the film’s apparent temporal setting; indeed, almost the only thing I can remember that really grounds it in the 20th century is a scene near the end with a truck. Otherwise I can’t recall any mention of either war that took place in that timeframe; you’d almost swear it was meant to be some piece of timeless folklore or something. Revenge is far from immediately ingratiating, being more inclined to a sort of poetic indirectness—had the director not specifically stated the film is at least in part about the forced repatriation of the Korean population of Sakhalin after WW2 I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that fact—and a few moments of animal cruelty are wince-inducing. It is, however, frequently stunning to actually look at—it has one of the most astounding crane shots I’ve seen, and really beautiful use of natural light. I liked the film more than otherwise, I think, but I’m going to need at least one more viewing to get more from it, cos I’m sure there’s more to get.

Dry Summer (1963)

Director: Metin Erksan

Dry film, too. This film is known for having been an international success (Berlin Film Festival winner, actual US release—overseen by none other than David Durston, of all people—and Oscar nominee), and for having been buried at home almost immediately for the best part of half a century, on the grounds that, well, it was kind of sexy (there’s one scene of our villain perving on the female lead which is kind of eye-popping) and maybe a bit politically progressive (although the Masters of Cinema booklet essay by Phil Coldiron frets about it not being Marxist enough). What we have, basically, is a western of sorts set in what I presume was contemporary Turkey; the previously mentioned villain is the landowner, Osman, whose property contains a spring that irrigates his land and that of the surrounding village. When a particularly hot summer sets in and water is at a premium, he decides to dam up the spring so it only services him and not the neighbours. Needless to say, this goes badly with the latter, and things end in Osman shooting one of them, convincing his younger brother to be the fall guy for him while he stays free to tend the property… and the brother’s wife. This is all quite tedious, rendered with some admittedly striking visuals plus some irritatingly choppy story-telling and some really bad technical issues (bad dubbing and what looks like some very ill-advised sped-up motion at some points), plus some pointless animal cruelty, but the dullness of the characters is what sank it for me. The wife is quite nice, but the villagers are fucking hopeless, Osman is just a dreadful person without any evident charisma to make his sheer awfulness watchable, and the brother, Hasan, is not much better; he disagrees with Osman’s scheme but doesn’t really do much to oppose him cos he’s, frankly, kind of spineless. And that’s kind of the point, cos the end of the film is about him finally discovering that backbone, but it’s a bit late by then. Not feeling the love for this one at all.

The Living Corpse (1967)

Director: Khwaja Sarfraz

“Dracula in Pakistan!” the DVD cover art shrieks, and by God/dess that is precisely what we’re dealing with here. More precisely, although the opening credits cite the Bram Stoker novel (and the film does famously include a certain detail no previous Dracula film had done before), it’s more Hammer’s Horror of Dracula that this film leans upon… indeed, I think it’s not exaggerating too much to say that, basically, if you took that film, updated it to 1960s Pakistan (that’s a funky car Dracula drives), shot it in Urdu and in black and white with much reduced general production values, and added a few song and dance sequences, and then threw in some of James Bernard’s score for good measure (the hamfistedness of the soundtrack is a wonder), The Living Corpse is precisely the film that would result. Which is not to say that’s a bad thing, mind you; as avowed knockoffs of this sort go, it’s pretty entertaining (if mainly as a piece of exotica), and as comparatively crude as it might be, director Sarfraz actually summons up some nice atmospherics (particularly the vampire’s mansion). And, of course, there’s a certain twist, in that Pakistan apparently has no real tradition of the vampire in the way European countries do, so Pakula (sorry) is actually a scientist who’s created an elixir of immortality, which goes wrong for him in the way that these things are wont to do so he becomes the Christopher Lee of Lahore instead. This is why I love films like this, cos you get little cultural factoids like that… and I know next to nothing about Pakistan generally, never mind its cinema history (which seems to have been vexed), so a film like this presents me with various questions… you know, like just how does a Muslim country make a film with a traditionally Christian monster, how did the Hammer influence actually make its way there (cos Pakistan had no horror film tradition either; Rehan, the actor playing the vampire, had never even seen one before), even little things like, you know, people speaking in English every now and then (the Van Helsing guy always being called “Doctor” in English, not whatever the Urdu title would be, stuff like that—hangover from British rule?)… Anyway, hadn’t seen this for a few years, and a pleasing revisit tonight (and let’s have one last parenthesis for the hell of it).

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955)

Director: Thorold Dickinson

Interesting challenge this month at the ICM Forum, “smaller” Asian cinema, i.e. from Asian countries other than China, Japan and India. I’m not really sure how “smaller” is defined here, cos Hong Kong is OK for this challenge but I’d have thought its industry was pretty sizeable… same for South Korea, which is also eligible.Whatever. This means that, this month, I’m going to be looking at some areas of the world I don’t often (or ever) look at, including Israel, which is counted as part of “Asia” along with a few other places I’d consider mor “Middle East” than otherwise, but, again, whatever. It gave me a reason to finally scrub this, the first ever Israeli feature film, off the watchlist. (Tricky bastard to find a decent copy of, by the way; only today I found an actually fairly watchable version rather than the kind of shit one I’d had for a while.)

It almost feels like a cheat, though, calling it “Israeli”. I mean, it is, but the director was English, two of the main performers were Irish and American, and almost the entire film is in English. I somehow suspect it wasn’t aimed primarily at local audiences, though. The film acknowledges the controversial nature of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, but I can only remember one point where the possibility that the Arabs might have their own opinions about all these survivors of that other war that had recently finished suddenly getting their own country after Britain washed its hands of the lot of them. And that encounters ends with the Arab man pushing the American character (who’s rediscovered his Judaism while touring the area) into a swimming pool. Basically, Hill 24 is propaganda without much subtlety, and I have a feeling it was aimed more at international audiences than Israeli ones, trying to justify Israel’s battles for its own existence against those shifty Arabs who’ll push you into a swimming pool as soon as look at you. Told in the form of three flashbacks by three soldiers for the Israeli forces sent to capture a particular hill before the Arabs can claim it, two of them about how they came to be involved, and the third which, in its way, is the most interesting, cos it describes how the soldier had recently encountered an escaped Nazi now fighting for the Egyptians who begs for his life by asking him not to do what the Nazis did to the Jews. I know some people who are less friendly towards Israel than myself who would find that statement bitterly ironic. On the whole, it’s wartime melodrama whose interest is, I suspect, mainly historical (in 1955 I imagine it must’ve struck foreign audiences as somewhat exotic), and your enjoyment may depend on just how much propaganda you can handle.

Dark Intruder (1965)

Director: Harvey Hart

And so, to officially end this year’s month of horror, we turn to the small screen. Kind of. This was actually the pilot for a proposed TV series called The Black Cloak, which none of the American TV networks wanted to touch cos they considered it a bit… heavy or something. An occult detective chasing a sort of Jack the Ripper but with more demonic tendencies in fin-de-siècle San Francisco? That was too much for TV audiences to deal with. So Universal, somewhat grudgingly, put it out in cinemas as a supporting feature since they couldn’t do much else with it, and the networks were smug until, a few years later, The Night Stalker demonstrated TV audiences were actually perfectly fine watching that sort of thing… Anyway, I first heard about this years ago, read about it in a book about film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft; this isn’t actually one, but the passing reference to Azathoth (and, more obscurely, Nyogtha) demonstrates that author Barré Lyndon had at least a passing acquaintance with the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Sumerian business is kind of fascinating in light of the infamous “Simonomicon” over a decade later. (Wonder if this was an influence at all?) Basically, the plot is as I briefly described above, Leslie Nielsen plays Brett Kingsland, a bon vivant playboy in 1890 San Fran where a series of strange murders is taking place, which he finds have something to do with Sumerian demonology in some way; while the “film” is kind of evidently an episode of a TV show in its execution, the story’s actually pretty good and there are some decent things here. It’s hard to entirely disagree with this piece that calls Nielsen the weak link in the chain, though, even if only because of hindsight; this predates his “official” comedic coming-out in Flying High, but he rather notably plays Brett in a flippant, foppish style that kind of looks a bit weird. “Frank Drebin without the jokes” isn’t actually that far off. Still, this was just the pilot for the show, and I imagine certain things would’ve been fiddled with had a series been commissioned (remember how different Star Trek was in pilot form?). That one wasn’t is, I think, a great disappointment; Dark Intruder certainly looks like the potential was there.

Count Dracula (1970)

Director: Jess Franco

It’s only taken me just short of five years after seeing Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc vampir to finally watch the film associated with that one… There’s a really interesting comment by Christophe Gans in an interview on the Severin DVD of this film (which handily includes the Portabella film as an extra, evidently he got over his reluctance to let people see it), that Franco’s absurd work rate (especially in the 70s) meant what you got from his films was more of a “trance” than “a worked-out product”. Which, basically, sums this film right up. The idea for it seems to have really come from his producer Harry Alan Towers, who thought it would be a great idea to make an adaptation of Dracula that was actually faithful to the novel. On which level I’m not sure it fully succeeds (though it’s a damn sight more so than the 1931 Tod Browning film, to say nothing of Hammer’s version), but give it points for trying. Actually, what struck me more than anything was what I can only describe as the disorienting feel of the whole thing… I don’t know how else to describe it, there’s just something really strange at work that I can’t quite put into words. I’ve said before about some of Franco’s films that they don’t seem to fully take place in a recognisable world, but it’s not quite that here… It seems to be a mix of things, like the way it’s shot at 1.33 (unusual by 1970), the compositions within that frame, the camera angles, maybe even the camera lenses… things just seem slightly off somehow in a way I find hard to describe, as you can see… In the end Franco’s Dracula is what it is, i.e. a cheap European horror film made at the end of the 60s, and the slow pacing doesn’t help much, but the atmospherics are interesting and performances are actually decent; Christopher Lee in particular attacks his lines with some vigour, knowing Hammer would never give him the chance to speak actual Bram Stoker…

The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.