Home

Knockabout (1979) & Dreadnaught (1981)

Leave a comment

This week, a look at a couple of new Eureka Classics Blu-rays that are released today. First up is Knockabout, an early example of Hong Kong’s kung fu comedy craze, and the first film to star Sammo Hung (who also directed it) and Yuen Biao together.

Bryan Leung Kar-Yan is Dai Pao, while Yuen Biao, in his first leading role, is his brother Yi Pao. They’re are a pair of low-grade grifters who would happily rip each other off if the chance arose. They do enjoy the odd success – like conning a gold dealer who is equally greedy and gullible, but they pick the wrong mark in Old Fox (played by Lau Kar-Wing in a not terribly convincing grey wig).

Outwitted by the older man, they seek revenge by attempting to beat him up. This is another bad idea and results in him giving them both black eyes. Sensing that learning a mastery of kung fu could come in handy whenever their scams fail, they offer to become his students. Old Fox is reluctant but eventually relents, enlisting the brothers to help him in his struggle against some longstanding enemies.

Old Fox really is far from the kindly and virtuous master that we usually meet in kung fu movies, as the brothers will soon discover to their cost.

The balance between comedy and martial arts tips in favour of the former for much of the movie with Yuen Biao and Leung Kar-yan making for a highly likeable double act.

The role of Yi Pao was intended to launch Yuen Biao into the kind of stardom that his fellow Peking Opera School pals Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were already experiencing after box office hits like Drunken Master and Enter the Fat Dragon.

Biao did go on to enjoy a long and successful career, without ever reaching the heights of his two ‘brothers’. His acrobatic cartwheels, kicks and backflips are a true joy to watch here, and Sammo Hung’s Beggar putting him through his paces with a skipping rope is one of the great martial arts training sequences. Sammo, incidentally, is predictably good in the role of the jovial beggar, a man with a pet monkey and some kiss ass monkey kung fu moves. As for ‘Beardy’ Leung, despite having never studied any martial arts, he looks pretty accomplished in his fight scenes.

The cast are all in good form actually, Karl Maka’s memorable cameo as Captain Baldy being only one of many highlights. The movie is a delight which keeps getting better and better. Its ferocious finale is one of the longest in Hong Kong action movie history and entirely justifies its length.

Next up, another kung fu cult favourite, this time one directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary action choreographer of The Matrix, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Yuen Woo-ping plunges us straight into the action here with an eruption of mayhem in a teahouse, which leaves a number of police officers and the wife of a fearsome criminal dead.

That criminal, known as White-Fronted Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee), seeks out an old pal who lets him hide out with a theatrical troupe he is involved with. It’s here his path crosses with Little Gueng (Yuen Biao), a laundry worker who is scared of dogs; scared of the men who refuse to pay their laundry bills; and even more than a little scared of his domineering big sister – who beats him up because he’s so hopeless at collecting debts. Needless to say, even though he doesn’t know the true identity of the troupe’s newcomer, he’s terrified of White-Fronted Tiger. Worse still, the psychotic wrongdoer takes an immediate dislike to him.

Maybe Gueng’s best pal Leung Foon (Bryan Leung Kar-yan) can persuade his master Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) to teach the fearful young man the fighting skills required to take on the man that Gueng calls Painted Face.

Nobody could ever accuse Yuen Woo-ping of being scared to shift tone. Dreadnaught begins like a Chinese version of a spaghetti western, then switches into slapstick mode soon after. There is some superb physical comedy on display, such as Gueng demonstrating his unorthodox kung fu method of drying laundry – later referenced by Joel Schumacher in Batman Forever – and also some less amusing broad Hong Kong humour, although I did laugh at one visual gag involving some incompetent police officers drawing the wrong conclusion about a dead man covered by a blanket.

There are also elements of the buddy movie, while the final third of the film strays into serial killer territory – and it is bizarre that a movie with cross-eyed cops and men with weird hair sprouting from unsightly facial warts also manages to feature a genuinely unsettling scene when Leung Foon clashes with White-Fronted Tiger.

Consistently entertaining, Dreadnaught also marked the final time that Kwan Tak-hing portrayed Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung – a man also portrayed onscreen by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The actor bowed out on a high on what is said to have been his 77th time in the role. No, that’s not a typo.

Tak-hing, who was in his mid-seventies during filming, even features prominently in the film’s standout scene, a long brawl between two Lion Dance teams that brilliantly showcases Woo-ping’s virtuoso choreography skills.

This Eureka Classics releases of Knockabout and Dreadnaught are their UK debuts on Blu-ray, both in brand new 2K restorations.

Special features on both include limited edition O-Card slipcases featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]; reversible sleeve design featuring original poster artwork; new feature length audio commentaries by Frank Djeng & Michael Worth, and new feature length audio commentaries by Mike Leeder & Arne Venema, plus collector’s booklets featuring new writing by James Oliver.

For more on Knockabout, click here.

For more on Dreadnaught, click here.

Donbass

Leave a comment

This week, a review written two and a half years ago for Louder Than War on an award-winning film from 2018 that examined the conflict in Ukraine at that point. It’s been described as ‘a sprawling black comedy’ but if you’re looking for laughs, then best avoid this one. Donbass, though, might give at least some insights into the horror of what we’ve been seeing on our TV screens in recent days.

*

Named after a region in Eastern Ukraine, Donbass is a film about what is going on there and how it affects the people living there on both sides of the divide. The Ukrainian regular army and volunteers fight separatist gangs, supported by Putin’s Russia. Corruption and criminality of all kinds are rife. Humiliation is commonplace. Violence can flare at any moment.


Each of the thirteen segments that make up the film is based on a real event and are loosely linked. Most characters only feature in one section, although some feature in more.


Born in Belarus, when that country was part of the Soviet Union, writer/director Sergei Loznitsa has been dubbed the ‘maestro of miserablism’ and ‘art cinema’s ultimate bad time merchant.’ Watching Donbass, it doesn’t take very long to figure out why.


It’s like a series of thirteen nightmares, which when taken together, offers a damning critique of this part of the world.


As Donbass opens, we see a group of actors and extras getting their make-up applied in the back of a trailer. A production assistant orders them to get out, presumably to film their scene. But this isn’t a feature film or TV drama that they’re taking part in. This is propaganda, a fake news story with controlled explosions in the background and a burnt-out bus. A woman who moments earlier was complaining to a makeup artist about not enjoying her job is suddenly acting like a stunned witness to bombings. ‘It’s impossible to live like this,’ she complains. ‘Every morning I wake up full of fear.’


Later, we see a snippet of the incident being viewed as authentic reportage.


A looter is made to walk a gauntlet where he is beaten by around twenty soldiers with long sticks. A German journalist is repeatedly branded a fascist, without a shred of evidence. ‘If you aren’t a fascist,’ one Russian soldier taunts him, ‘then your grandfather was.’ A news reporter is given a guided tour of an overcrowded bomb shelter that is now home to city-dwellers seeking safety. The poverty is Dickensian, several inhabitants lie on beds obviously very ill. There is no electricity and little food or medicine. The sole toilet isn’t working. ‘It’s as if we’re living in the Stone Age,’ one of the inhabitants observes.


The most memorable scene, though, is where a Ukrainian man with his hands cuffed, is forced to stand by a lamp-post in Russia’s proxy Donetsk People’s Republic. The intention here being that passers-by can abuse him verbally or physically. It sounds medieval but some young men who blow smoke into his face record events on their smartphones to give the punishment a modern twist.


A hate mob soon assembles, with one old woman squashing a tomato into his face. It’s gruelling to watch as the barbarism only gets worse.

Donbass lasts just over two hours long but never feels like it. With one possible exception, a raucous wedding ceremony, the vignettes don’t overstay their welcome.


The story ends where it began. In the trailer with some of the actors glimpsed in the opening scene. It’s the longest sequence in the film and its final ten minutes or so is filmed in one long take with the camera static and focussing on characters who we can hear in the middle distance but not identify. It’s a chilling finale to an often compulsively mesmerising film.


Sergei Loznitsa won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and he fully merited the recognition.


For more on the film, click here .

Best of the Year (Part Two): Censor, Our Ladies, The Card Counter & More

Leave a comment

Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor must be one of the most promising debuts of 2021.

The film takes us back to the mid-1980s, when following on from muggings, punk rock and football hooligans, a new moral panic emerged in the shape of video nasties. Encouraged by newspapers like The Daily Mail and Christian conservatives like Mary Whitehouse, some films eventually ended up being prosecuted, many were cut and a list of ‘video nasties’ was drawn up. Many making their way on to the list were worthless trash. Others like Tenebrae, Suspiria and Scanners are today available uncut and critically acclaimed.

Of course, as usually happens with this kind of crusade, many were alerted and attracted to something they might otherwise never have been aware of, some becoming intent on tracking down as many as they could get their paws on.

Here, one of the country’s moral guardians is Enid Baines, played by Niamh Algar. Uptight, everything is far from alright with Enid. She works in a drab warren like environment for a version of the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) and believes utterly that she’s ‘protecting people’ in her role.

Enid suffers from the fallout of a traumatic incident in her past when her younger sister Nina mysteriously disappeared in a local wood while out with her. She clings on to the hope that Nina is still somehow alive and while assessing a B-movie chiller by director Frederick North, she convinces herself that the low-rent scream queen onscreen might indeed be her long-lost sister.

Niamh Algar is a revelation here, managing always to ensure that we empathise with her cold and prudish character even when disagreeing absolutely with what she says and does. Censor looks striking too, with shades of Italian masters like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, as well as British documentary photographer Martin Parr. As for the ending, I think I better watch it again.

The unluckiest film to be given a general release in 2021 must be Our Ladies. It’s based on Alan Warner’s 1998 novel, which on publication was optioned almost immediately. The fact that the novel was titled The Sopranos necessitated a switch of names once the American classic TV of the same name came to our screens the following year. By the time it had finally been filmed, comparisons with Derry Girls, a sitcom also about a bunch of pals attending a Catholic all-girls school in the 1990s became inevitable. There are even some comments on IMDB suggesting it’s a rip-off of the Channel 4 show.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is our-ladies.jpg

Our Ladies eventually premiered at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival and was then screened at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival on 28 February, just prior to what was scheduled to be its cinematic release in Britain that March. Then COVID-19 struck, and a string of delays gradually put its general release back to August 2021 in Britain. Good things come to those who wait, though.

The plot concerns a group of Fort William schoolgirls who travel to Edinburgh to take part in a choir competition. In the big city, the girls are more interested in boys, booze, boots and the only singing they’re interested in is at an all-day Northern Soul karaoke session, where they even perform a surprisingly enjoyable version of Tainted Love.

I’m sure some of the faces here will become much better known in years to come.

Look out too for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning body horror Titane, and Parallel Mothers, the latest melodramatic marvel by Pedro Almodóvar starring Penélope Cruz.

Best film of the year? I couldn’t claim to have watched enough new dramas over the past twelve months to make any definitive judgement – I’m still catching up hence the belated nature of this post – but The Card Counter was certainly a standout.

Paul Schrader specialises in bleak films about intense loners facing existential problems. Still delivering the goods in his seventies, his latest focuses on a man known as William Tell (Oscar Isaac), who teaches himself the art of card counting while in prison.

I love my Cincinnati Kids, Mississippi Grinds and California Splits. In an average year it’s about three to one on that I’ll see a new gambling film that hooks me in. The Card Counter did just that. Not that’s it’s really about poker.

William doesn’t like to draw attention to himself and possesses the self-discipline to bet small and leave a casino with more money than he entered with but not the kind of money that will change lives. Winning big would counterproductive. If casinos pick up on his card counting skills he’d be banned.

Despite himself, his expertise is spotted by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a ‘people person’ who runs a stable of gamblers bankrolled by a wealthy syndicate and judges he’s ready to hit the big time.

This tempts William, as by winning big money, he could pay off the debts of Cirk (Sheridan), the son of an Abu Ghraib guard who worked with William and who later committed suicide. They go on the road, with Tell hoping to win enough cash to rid the younger man of his debts and impart some much-needed wisdom to him too.

The three central performers share an impressive chemistry, and Willem Dafoe is very good too. As always.

An Oscar for Oscar Isaac? He might deserve it, but Will Smith would be a better bet for that Best Actor gong. As for Paul Schrader gaining even a nomination for his script or directing, here’s another tip: keep your money in your pocket. Overlooked in the past for his screenplays for films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Schrader’s sole nomination came via First Reformed and he pissed off Hollywood by admitting that he was conflicted as ‘I have never really respected the Academy for their choices.’ This won’t be forgotten any time soon.

A million miles from Hollywood is Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist (my favourite title of the year) written and directed by Brett Gregory. This is a microbudget independent shot in Manchester on a Sony A7R III. Consisting of a series of extended monologues, which might be better suited to a theatrical piece, it tells the harrowing story of a man going through a emotional and psychological breakdown. That man Jack is played by David Howell. His searing performance won’t be seen by the millions sat in multiplexes but it will lodge in the memories of those who do take a chance to see the film.

Finally, there were some impressive physical releases in 2021 too. BFI gave us Dennis Hopper’s nihilistic Out of the Blue, Mike Leigh’sfinest drama Naked, and Chris Petit’s underappreciated post-punk road movie Radio On.

Eureka Masters of Cinema, meanwhile issued Spaghetti Western classic and Tarantino favourite The Great Silence, and VIY, a legendary 1969 film made in the Soviet Union based on Nikolai Gogol’s novella of the same name. It’s said to be the only real horror movie made during the Communist era and only allowed to be made as Stalin had been a fan of Gogol.

And if anyone has ever wondered who the witchy female on the left of my header is, that’s Natalya Varley, who plays Pannochka here.

Best of the Year (One): The Velvet Underground & The Sparks Brothers

Leave a comment

For obvious reasons, 2021 was a year when my visits to cinemas were few and far between. As in, you could count them on one hand. With three fingers to spare.

The most hyped movie of the year was No Time To Die which I felt No Desire To See – the last time I paid in to see a Bond was back when Roger Moore was regularly arching an eyebrow as if to acknowledge the silliness of the scripts he was being saddled with. The publicity machine around Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back was also great, arguably unprecedented for a music documentary. Whether it was justified, I can’t say. Disney+, no thanks.

Anyway, here’s some words on the two films – both music docs – that I did make sure to see on the big screen. First up, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground.

The young Lou Reed adores doo-wop and rockabilly. He plays in bands from a young age and even records a single as a member of The Jades, which gets a spin on the radio. ‘We got a royalty cheque for two dollars and seventy-nine cents,’ he notes dryly. ‘Which, in fact, turned out to be a lot more than I made in The Velvet Underground.’

He is prone to temper tantrums and is generally disagreeable – although this trait is common in many talented artists musicians and too much niceness can lead to becoming Travis. Lou’s younger sister Merrell debunks talk of their parents forcing him to undergo electric shock therapy to rid him of any homosexual tendencies as ‘simplistic and cartoonish’, which his old pal Allan Hyman, who knew the family, agrees with. His father was certainly distant but far from the ogre he has sometimes been presented as.

John Cale’s granny, though, comes across a bigoted old tyrant. A fearsome Welsh nationalist, she bans the use of English in her home, where Cale’s mum and English father reside after marrying. As his father isn’t a Welsh speaker and John hasn’t been taught English, they can’t properly communicate for years.

After a spell studying music in London, Cale heads to New York in 1964. It’s a hotbed of experimental cinema, avant-garde music and pop art. He teams up with La Monte Young, who’s being seen as a successor to John Cage and joins his Theatre of Eternal Music. He practices drones on his viola every day, while developing a taste for Muddy Waters, The Everly Brothers and beat music.

Accommodation is found in an apartment where Jack Smith of Flaming Creatures fame lives. Smith is one of the leading lights in the city’s underground movie scene, along with Jonas Mekas, Andy Warhol and Barbara Rubin. I say underground but as a young Mekas puts it: ‘We are not part really of any subculture, we are the culture.’

Meanwhile, Reed lands a job with Pickwick Records as their in-house songsmith and is paid to churn out sets of songs from nine to five for themed albums sold in Woolworths, ‘twelve surfing songs or twelve breakup songs,’ he explains as examples. It sounds like a not so Brill Building.

Pickwick then persuade John Cale and his pal Tony Conrad to back Lou on a track called The Ostrich. This fails to launch a new dance craze but is a great listen with a whole lotta whooping and a guitar riff borrowed from Then He Kissed Me. Merrill Reed even demonstrates how to do the Ostrich and it’s a delightful moment.

The Primitives are not destined to last long, and neither is Lou’s association with the label, who won’t let him record any of his more personal compositions. A literate live wire, his dark lyrics are influenced by various Beats, Baudelaire, Hubert Selby Jr. and his former tutor Delmore Schwartz.

Enter Sterling Morrison, a university pal of Lou’s with a sinuous yet precise guitar style, who isn’t wearing any shoes when Lou recruits him one day in winter and then enter Maureen Tucker, whose basic but inventive drum style will perfectly anchor their sound together and who is presumably wearing shoes when she’s invited to join.

Barbara Rubin witnesses an early performance at the Café Bizarre and persuades Warhol to see them too. Warhol agrees to sponsor them. They dress in black and wear Ray-Bans indoors at night. They sing about scoring heroin and sado-masochism. Warhol films and a light show are projected onto them and Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov dance with them onstage, brandishing whips. Herman’s Hermits, this bunch are not.

Enter Nico, a German who is conventionally beautiful and who intones her vocals with a very unconventional voice. She becomes a temporary member at the insistence of Warhol. They’re like no other group: High Art/Low Art. American/European. Male/Female. Gentile/Jewish. Straight/Not so Straight.

Moves are made to build a reputation outside their Manhattan milieu. On the West Coast, the gang hit Venice Beach to work on their suntans, with Reed especially keen to fit in some surfing after all those tracks on the subject he’d penned at Pickwick. No, I’m joking. California in 1967 is not a natural habitat for the Velvets. ‘We hated hippies,’ Mary Woronov sneers. ‘I mean, flower power? Burning bras? What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Maureen Tucker also rails against the ‘love and peace crap.’ As she explains: ‘You cannot change minds by handing a flower to some bozo who wants to shoot you.’

The most creative acts tend to have high levels of conflict with their ranks – remember too much niceness can lead to becoming Travis – but when Cale and Reed go to war, the conflict is just too excessive. ‘I really didn’t know how to please him, Cale admits, still astonished by Lou’s vituperative nature five decades later. ‘Try and be nice and he’d hate you more.’

Haynes doesn’t shy away from this abrasiveness and he also lets Amy Taubin take a swipe at the Factory, complaining about women being judged by their looks there. So she likely won’t like me saying that she resembles an angel during her Warhol screentest. The director also limits talking heads to those who were there at the time, so thankfully no bores like Bono or Chris Martin gabbering on about how important Reed & Co were to U2 or Coldplay.

The documentary speeds up. Nico leaves. Lou fires Andy. Andy is shot. Lou sacks John. Doug joins. They stop wearing black but continue to craft some superb music. Pale Blue Eyes is one of the most beautiful tracks ever committed to vinyl, as is Candy Says, which Doug Yule sings.

Many hated them but nobody could deny their versatility. Their previous album had ended with the avant-garage rock squall of Sister Ray. This time round, the final track was a slice of hipster vaudeville with a quirky vocal by Moe.

Album #4, Loaded, is even further removed from their revolutionary beginnings. For Joseph Freeman, they become ‘a regular rock and roll band,’ but what a remarkably good regular rock and roll band they become. Success, though, continues to elude them. Sterling Morrison drops out to return to his studies and Lou goes to live with his parents for a spell. End of band.

Only, a version in name only led by Yule did continue on. They even toured Britain and played in Glasgow at Strathclyde Uni. There was another new album Squeeze credited to The Velvet Underground with no original members involved. None of this is mentioned here, though. Perhaps wisely.

Instead, we get a frenetic montage of photos of what the Velvets got up to next flashing before our eyes, accompanied by Ocean (the drums thundering gloriously around the cinema) which morphs into a tamer version played by the reunited Velvets in 1993. This is followed by a clip of Lou in, I’d guess 1975, on the phone discussing Cale and Tucker and showing a frail looking Warhol a picture of the band in Guy Peellaert’s book Rock Dreams. An acoustic take on Heroin from the 1972 Paris show that reunited Cale, Reed and Nico, then leads us into the end credits, a curious choice as it moved the story backwards and left out two key players.

Rolling Stone claim the documentary is ‘as radical, daring and brilliant as the band itself,’ but that would be an impossibility. Haynes mimics the split screen technique that Warhol utilized in movies like Outer and Inner Space and Chelsea Girls, which is appropriate (and must have been a nightmare to edit together) and the story is told in a largely linear fashion with talking heads, archive footage and photos.

The effect is kaleidoscopic, the screen bursting with a dizzying array of rapidfire imagery – sometimes you wish it could be slowed down like Warhol’s Kiss movies so you could take in more. With so many of the central figures of the story now dead, it’s as near to a definitive take on the band that we’re likely to ever get and a fine tribute to the most innovative band that has ever existed. I could happily have watched even more, much more, maybe even the near eight hours runtime of Get Back.

Hopefully, a physical release crammed with extras appears soon, including a commentary from Haynes.

The Sparks Brothers is already out on DVD and Blu-ray with an extra disc containing a 22-song live show from London and over two hours of deleted scenes and more.

Edgar Wright is a self-confessed fanboy, which he jokes about in the documentary. His idiosyncratic take on the idiosyncratic cult pop duo is two hours and fifteen minutes long and most of that time is a joy, although I would question if we really needed the gushing thoughts of so many of their enthusiasts like Jack Antonoff and DJ Lance Rock, whoever they are. Some of these clips would have been better suited to being extras. Ron and Russell are very droll though, as is Steve Jones, and it’s incredible that during their fifty-year career they’ve somehow managed to reinvent their music so many times. Ron’s look, on the other hand, never really changes.

This might be the Wright film I’ve enjoyed most since Shaun of the Dead.

As for Annette, the musical drama conceived by the Mael brothers, I’ll just say that I preferred Rollercoaster, the 1977 B-movie they appeared in.

White Bird in A Blizzard (Soundtrack Sundays)

Leave a comment

Last week saw the release of the Mockingbird Love EP, four new tracks by former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. They’re all predictably good and conjure up many of those adjectives that critics love to use to describe his former band’s music. Celestial, spellbinding and ethereal for starters.

By a wee coincidence, I finally got round to watching Gregg Araki’s White Bird in A Blizzard from 2014 on the night before I became aware of the Guthrie release.

Sometimes the right piece of music can really set you up for a film. And Sea, Swallow Me by The Cocteau Twins and Harold Budd worked the trick for me here. A perfect mood setter, with Budd’s exquisite soft pedal piano complementing the band perfectly.

You can always rely on Araki for some solid soundtrack choices. He’s one of those American directors like Richard Kelly with a thing for what might loosely be described as British alternative music of the 1980s. It’s easy to imagine rows of shoegaze albums in his record collection, together with everything ever released by New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain and, of course, The Cocteau Twins. In White Bird in a Blizzard, those three acts are joined by The Psychedelic Furs, Talk Talk, Echo and The Bunnymen, Everything But The Girl and others, while Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd also provide some incidental music.

Unfortunately, after having my hopes built up, it turned out that the music is much better than the film as a whole.

Set in suburban America from 1988 to the early 1990s, White Bird in a Blizzard is the story of 17-year-old Kat, played by Shailene Woodley, who comes home from school one afternoon to be told by a pensive father (Christopher Meloni) that her mother Eve (Eva Green) has gone. She’s been threatening to leave him for years, and he doesn’t reckon she will be coming back any time soon.

This isn’t the devastating blow that you might assume for Kat. Through a series of voice-overs and flashbacks, we learn that Eve was never mother of the year material. Or wife of the year material either. Once, her parents had been ‘the quintessential American couple’ – although Eve’s accent is more Paris than Paris, Texas – but it didn’t take long for their marriage to turn sour, with Eve treating her husband like a doormat and Kat not much better. In one particularly disturbing episode a raging Eve wakes her in the middle of the night to grill her on her sex life.

Kat is said to physically resemble her mother, and Eve is becoming inordinately jealous of her daughter’s youthfulness and potential future. She also doesn’t make much of an effort to disguise her sexual interest in Kat’s boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and her behaviour becomes increasingly irrational and her skirts progressively shorter, the longer Kat dates him.

‘Not bad for 42,’ a boozed-up Eve boasts one night to the young couple as she stumbles down into the cellar wearing a skimpy outfit. And yep, she certainly hadn’t scrubbed up too badly.

Like Eve, the film gets a little irrational too. Looking like the sort of thing you might expect to see on some porno website where a young man is employed to deliver pizzas (not that I watch that type of thing, honestly!), the scene featuring a barechested Phil in shorts searching for his mother’s cat as Eve sunbathes in her swimsuit is unintentionally funny.

With Eve still untraceable and Phil showing more interest in gaming and ganja than in having sex with her, Kat’s suspicions about the two maybe having had a thing surface, though not to that great an extent, with Kat maintaining a kind of ‘whatever’ attitude to her mother’s disappearance for much of the movie. And if she doesn’t give a shit about the vanishing act, why should we?

Despite this, she agrees to her dad’s idea that she sees a therapist, played by Angela ‘right here, right now’ Bassett. Kat’s voice-over reveals that she feels ‘feels like an actress playing myself’, while Dr. Thaler reminds her ‘of an actress playing a therapist.’ Bassett reminded me of an actress that deserved a better role.

Lines of dialogue might be clunky and draw attention to themselves, but there are pluses. With some striking dream sequences, the film strays into David Lynch territory and Laura Palmer herself (Sheryl Lee) appears briefly as the new woman in Kat’s father’s life. Of course, Kat has no problems with this turn of events. Initially at least.

Shailene Woodley and Christopher Meloni both put in impressive enough performances and Eva Green does a great line in unhinged, although that accent of hers really should have been explained. Ultimately, the film is a disappointment but one that was still worth a watch.

One huge revelation late on, which is difficult to buy into, is delivered by a voice-over (Araki obviously isn’t a believer in the old screenwriting maxim ‘show don’t tell’) and this is immediately followed by a flashback, though not a flashback of Kat’s, which explains the disappearance with a twist ending that was even more difficult to buy into due to a lack of any real clues given. Not only that but the fact that it was never revealed whether Kat was aware of these events did niggle at me.

*

Here’s another of those inspired Araki soundtrack choices. Sung by Gordon (now Cindy) Sharp, formerly of The Freeze and an old pal of The Cocteaus, this is Fond Affections from This Mortal Coil’s 1984 collection It’ll End in Tears (the video is unofficial in case you’re wondering):

Finally, back to Robin Guthrie, whose new album Pearldiving should be out next month on Soleil Après Minuit. For the time being, here’s Copper, the opening track on the aforementioned Mockingbird Love EP:

For more on Robin Guthrie:

https://www.facebook.com/robinguthrieofficial/

https://robinguthrie.bandcamp.com/

Shoplifters of the World (2021)

1 Comment

This week Stephen Kijak’s Shoplifters of the World, a new Smiths related comedy drama set in Denver, that tells the story of a bunch of Smiths devotees in the wake of the announcement of the band’s 1987 breakup.

The Smiths were far from the most original band of the 1980s, but with his startling wordplay and unique take on life, Morrissey would have to loom large in any discussions of the most adroit lyricist of that decade, while I would struggle to name a more gifted or versatile guitarist than Johnny Marr. Yes, I was a big fan but never an obsessive uberfan. No gladioli waving and no cardie, quiff or NHS specs for me in any attempt to resemble Morrissey, thankfully. That kind of thing always struck me as more than a little sad.

The main characters in Shoplifters of the World have no such qualms about hero worship. They adore The Smiths and in particular Morrissey. The man is pretty much the perfect human being and whatever he says goes. Remember, this is 1987.

Cleo (Helena Howard) is the first of this group of outsiders to discover that the band have split up – via one of the least convincing news bulletins in cinematic history. Luckily, she has gathered up some beer cans left by her dipso mum on the living room floor, so she we can see the severity of her shock as she drops them in sheer disbelief, before letting out one almighty scream, although, as the report mentioned, there had been months of speculation in the music press about the possibility of the band calling it quits.

She drives straight out to her local independent record store to discuss the bombshell with Dean, a Morrissey lookalike behind the counter, who is clearly smitten by her, and is reading about the news in Melody Maker. Impressively, in the short time since Cleo left her home, the British music press has already arrived in Colorado with Johnny Marr’s version of events making front page news in NME.

‘Our music died today and nobody even cares,’ Cleo sulks. ‘I wish there was a way to get all the posers in this town to take notice.’

What good this would achieve, I have no idea but Dean might just have a solution. ‘Something that would go down in musical history.’ But he’s keeping schtum about the details of his plan.

We soon meet more of Cleo’s pals. There’s Billy, who’s joining ‘Reagan’s army’ mainly to please his parents, and there’s Shelia (yes, really) and Patrick (honestly), a couple who are planning to visit England. Sex isn’t featuring in their relationship because Patrick wants to emulate Stephen Patrick’s celibacy. Or because he is obviously gay and looking for a convenient excuse not to have to take his frustrated partner to bed.

Like Dean, Cleo, Billy, Sheila and Patrick all love endlessly punctuating their conversations with Smiths lyrics and song titles to the extent that Morrissey – who liked to swipe the odd snatch of film and theatre dialogue into his lyrics himself – ought to have been given a screenplay credit. For a bit of variety, though, they also like to quote anybody who ever inspired their Mozziah: Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and even Saturday Night and Sunday Morning‘s Arthur Seaton for starters.

This barrage of references quickly begins to grate.

As they attempt to find a party, a lovestruck Dean, presumably in an attempt to impress Cleo, makes his way over to local radio station Kiss 101 with a bunch of Smiths albums. There, he points a loaded gun at macho deejay Full Metal Mickey, interrupting his monthly Metal Marathon, and ordering him to play Smiths records back-to-back all night long.

Full Metal Mickey is no fan of ‘depressive haircut bullshit’ and when told that The Smiths were the only band that mattered, he gives Dean an incredulous look and sneers: ‘You’ve clearly never listened to Twisted fucking Sister!’ But he does what he is told, although there’s never any sense that Dean would shoot him even if he continued to play Sabbath and Slayer.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mickey-dean-shoplifters-of-the-world.jpg

Ironically, it’s the metalhead who is easily the movie’s most rounded and likeable character. He’s the only one with any real sense of humour or genuine insight. ‘One day, your heroes are gonna grow old,’ he warns the younger man. ‘They’re gonna change. They’re gonna put out shitty music. They’re gonna say stupid things that betray the past.’

Amen to that, dude.

If you’re wondering about the inspiration behind this part of the story, a depressed young Smiths fan did once drive to a radio station in Denver, carrying a rifle and planning to force the station to air his Smiths mixtape although he failed to carry out this plan of action.

The soundtrack – and there are twenty Smiths tracks included on it – is undoubtedly magnificent, albeit it’s used with as much imagination as an episode of Heartbeat. When Cleo makes her way out of the record shop and throws a pile freshly stolen cassette tapes into her car, she does so to the sound of Shoplifters of the World Unite and when the Sally Ann brass band strikes up the introduction to Sheila Take A Bow, you won’t need me to tell you who the camera focusses on. She even takes a bow.

The film begins to flip between Cleo and her pals out on the razz and Dean and Mickey in the radio booth, where the pair learn that they might have more in common with one another than they first assumed.

Shoplifters of the World is not an entire stinker but neither is it a film that I’ll likely ever be tempted to watch again. None of the performances really stood out bar Joe Manganiello as Mickey. Kijak often demonstrates a good eye for a shot, and while I found his script mediocre at best, I did like the fact that not everything is magically resolved for all the characters as the closing credits beckon. The way he weaved archival Smiths footage into the film was skilfully handled too.

My main problem is that I failed to find any of this bunch very interesting. Just because they see themselves in opposition to the awful one-dimensional jocks who surround them doesn’t automatically make them likeable. 

We’re especially supposed to admire Cleo’s feistiness although she oozes a snobbish sense of superiority over anyone with a different taste in music. She pretends to her pals that she’s a student with a boyfriend when neither is true. She’s a petty thief, and she complains about posers and yet smokes in the most incredibly affected way, using a long cigarette holder. She also lacks self-awareness. She criticises Molly Ringwald’s character in Pretty in Pink, thinking she was ‘kind of a bitch’ by refusing to get together with her ‘cool’ friend just because he dotes on her, while Cleo refuses to get together with a guy who would leap in front of a flying bullet for her.

He did actually say that, and I almost screamed with the same ferocity as Cleo had earlier.

And speaking of flying bullets, she loves the idea of someone threatening another person’s life with a gun just so she can get to hear her favourite music. Yep, I much preferred Molly Ringwald’s Andie, and for all its faults, Pretty In Pink is a much better film than this.

For more on the movie click here.

Goodbye, Ennio Morricone

Leave a comment

Ennio Morricone Trumpet

Today, a repost from exactly two years ago in tribute to Ennio Morricone, who died aged 91 today in Rome. The man was an absolute colossus in the field of soundtrack composition and what a magnificent legacy he has left behind.

*

If you don’t already know this obscure little gem then you’re in for a real treat. Honestly, don’t even think about leaving this page without reading on!

Ennio Morricone is the maestro behind the music of such films as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West through to The Untouchables and The Hateful Eight. His work has been sampled by a long list of acts from Big Audio Dynamite, Goldfrapp to The Prodigy and, of course, Stereolab.

He is also one of the rare musicians that I would firmly class in the category of genius.

Even so, I’ve still seen less than half the 500 plus films that he’s supplied the scores to and I can’t claim to have seen Vergogna Schifosi (or Dirty Angels, to give it its English translation) apart from some poor quality clips on YouTube.

It doesn’t seem to be available to buy from eBay or to download anywhere so Mauro Severino’s 1969 movie might be an underappreciated masterpiece or, alternatively, utterly awful, but even if it is a dud there’s still an exquisite Morricone soundtrack to enjoy.

According to someone commenting on YouTube, the opening track Matto, Caldo, Soldi, Morto… Girotondo sounds like a ‘satanic erotic mantra’ and I can see where they’re coming from but from the little I can glean from the internet, the song has some kind of connection to Giro Giro Tondo, an Italian nursery rhyme that is the equivalent to something like Ring Around the Rosie.

Featuring the honey-saturated soprano of Edda Dell’orso, whose voice here conjures up visions of earthly paradises, I’ll go for a Capri beach with golden sands, inhabited by Monica Vitti lookalikes in bikinis and the most intensely coloured rainbow you’ve ever seen in the sky.

Glorioso!

PS. I only very recently came across Dirty Angels on YouTube although it’s in Italian with no subtitles. Despite living with an Italian in the 1990s, I sadly only know a handful of words and phrases in that language but I do still intend to watch it soon.

Finally, some more Morricone magic. A Fistful of Dynamite, to give it the title it’s known as in Britain, is an entertaining spaghetti western featuring James Coburn’s never terribly convincing Irish accent, Rod Steigers’s never terribly convincing Mexican accent and explosions galore.

The soundtrack is superb throughout and here is its main theme – and, yes, Coburn’s character is called Sean.

Ennio Morricone: 10 November 1928 – 6 July 2020

The Horror of Isolation (& Pulse)

Leave a comment

Pulse 2001
 
For a metropolis, the highways and roads are peculiarly empty. So are the streets, factories and shops. A sense of existential dread oozes over the inhabitants of this deserted cityscape.

No, not my recent trip to London as COVID-19 was starting to strike panic into the nation but a description of the Tokyo of the second half of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t the corona virus that made me think of Pulse, rather it was reviewing the 1964 Japanese horror classic Kwaidan for Louder Than War.

Watching that striking anthology movie inevitably made me think of some of the J-Horror successes of more recent years like Ring, Ju-on: The Grudge and Pulse. That latter movie although released in 2001 seems strangely relevant in the world of the corona virus.

Pulse

Pulse – or Kairo to give it its Japanese title – was made at a time when Japan was experiencing what became known as Hikikomori, an extreme form of social withdrawal. In the run-up to the Millennium, this phenomenon was proving an increasing concern in Japan with maybe a million or so young people shutting themselves off from the outside world, sometimes for very extended periods of time, decades even. Doctors and psychologists struggle to precisely understand why and after being pretty much cooped up for a couple of weeks now I have even less idea why anybody would choose to live in this way.

What is clear is that technology has played a big part in the problem. Often those affected spend long hours wired up to an internet connection with mobile phones and video games also taking the place of real social interaction. It’s appropriate that Pulse opens to the sound of the stuttering screech and crackle of a dial-up modem.

Like Ring, this is a technology based chiller. In a 2016 interview included in the Arrow dual format release of Pulse, Kurosawa even claimed that it was ‘totally a copy of Ring.’ I think he was joking as he smiled while saying: ‘In Ring, the ghost came out of the television set. So we thought, “What else could be similar but different to that?”‘

His answer was the internet with ghosts somehow entering via the world wide web.

Pulse 2

Pulse runs two parallel storylines which eventually converge. The first concerns some co-workers at a rooftop plant nursery who are worried about their colleague Taguchi. He’s been doing some unspecified work for a computer disc but even with a deadline looming, he has stopped coming into work and hasn’t been answering his phone.

Michi (Kumiko Aso) feels the need to investigate. Taguchi won’t even answer his door. But he has hidden a key on his doorstep so Michi enters using that. She calls out his name, but he doesn’t answer. When she sees him, he is emotionless. He points her in the direction of the disc and steps into an adjacent room. The next time she sees him he’s hanging from a noose, dead.

When the disc is retrieved and viewed, it reveals an unsettling image of a spectral Taguchi staring blankly into his own computer monitor. Soon his friend Yabe is ignoring his co-workers. He hides in a storage room, repeating the reclusiveness of his dead friend.

Meanwhile economics student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Katô) is beginning to take an interest in the internet. He signs up to a service provider and immeditely encounters some eerie images online. When a mysterious website asks ‘Do you want to meet a ghost?’, he shuts down his computer and goes to bed. But as he sleeps, it connects itself to the web and displays some more alarming imagery.

The next day he hotfoots it to the computer room of his university and makes enquiries. Computer science major Harue takes an interest and they strike up what looks likely to blossom into something more than just a friendship.

Don’t look for any romance here, though. Harue soon begins to display a severe streak of pessimism and becomes steadily more detached. ‘I’ve always wondered what it’s like to die,’ she admits and talks about her childhood where she was often left alone. ‘You might be all alone after death, too.’

She might just have a point. ‘Death is eternal loneliness,’ one otherworldly apparition later tells Kawashima.

Pulse 3

Dialogue is sparse in Pulse. The score is unnerving. The colour palette is greyish and seldom does any colour make an impact, one exception being the red tape used to seal shut the windows and doors of ‘forbidden rooms’. Why is the tape always red? Sorry, no idea. Kiyoshi Kurosawa isn’t a director who likes to spell everything out to audiences.

Is Pulse scary? I wouldn’t say so. A couple of scenes are undoubtedly creepy, especially one where a female phantom moves slowly towards Yabe with a highly erratic gait. Faces and bodies merge into shadows in darkened rooms and sometimes bodies transmute into smudged stains on walls. There’s also a spate of suicides that might be disturbing for some viewers to watch.

It’s a slow-burner but mesmerizing. It’s thought provoking too – predicting a world where new technologies which promised to connect people paradoxically instead only create more isolation.

It might be a little too long and some of the special effects look fairly primitive by today’s CGI standards but I’d take it any time over your average gorefest, slasher or found footage horror.

Pulse was shot in 2000, a time when the internet for me meant Netscape Navigator, Altavista and free web hosts like Tripod. The world wide web was booming but my time online up to about 2000 was spent out and about in cybercafes like the Java at the end of Park Road in Glasgow. No shutting myself away for years on end for me.

I’ve been online for 25 years now, but it’s only been very recently that for the first time I’m relying on the internet as my chief form of entertainment and contact with others.

Despite many reservations about social media, I’ve never been so glad that it exists.

 

A New Leaf & The Return of Elaine May

Leave a comment

A New Leaf

In 2020, Elaine May is to direct her first new drama since 1983. Nothing much is yet known about this new project other than it’s called Crackpot and it is to star Dakota Johnson.

Here’s a slightly updated review of her finest work, A New Leaf, which originally mourned the fact that May’s directing career had been cut short. Assumptions. Assumptions.

A New Leaf was one of the most critically acclaimed American comedies of the 1970s, but over the years it mysteriously fell out of favour.

Based on the short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie, the film was adapted for the screen and directed by Elaine May, who also gave herself the role of Henrietta Lowell, a complete klutz with owl-like glasses that are almost permanently are on the brink of falling off her face and who needs ‘to be vacuumed every time she eats.’ Despite these eccentricities, she somehow also manages to hold down a job as a professor of botany.

Her co-star here is Walter Matthau, who plays Henry Graham, a dirty rotten scoundrel who has blown his entire inheritance and is desperate to continue in the bone idle yet extravagant manner to which he has become accustomed.

Aloof, irresponsible and filled with self-pity, he has managed to avoid responsibility at all costs throughout his life and with no business acumen, no real skills and a serious aversion to any kind of gainful employment, there seems only one solution to his problems and that is the one suggested by his English butler Harold – marrying an enormously wealthy woman who can subsidise his wasteful ways.

Cap in hand, he visits his Uncle Harry to beg for a $50,000 loan, so he can keep up appearances while he woos the unsuspecting female. Harry realises in all likelihood the money will never be paid back although an agreement is reached to give his nephew the loan for a period of six weeks with Henry forfeiting his home and valuables if he doesn’t repay the cash on the dot, meaning that he’s in danger of losing his swanky city apartment, cool modern art and Ferrari if his plan goes awry.

This looks likely after a series of failures but then he stumbles across the bumbling Henrietta.

A New Leaf (1971)

This becomes a true love–hate relationship. She adores him. He detests everything about her, even her spectacular gullibility which allows him the chance to prey on her. Henry certainly likes her wealth, though, the bulk of which comes from her heiress status.

So, he turns on the charm and makes his move on her. Oh, and I should also probably tell you here that he decides that bumping her off might just be an equally good idea, so screwball comedy moves into the territory of black comedy.

There are some very funny scenes here such as when Henry reads Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology while, in the background, she is on the edge of a cliff, seeking out an as yet unrecognised species of fern leaf, and there’s also a great slapstickish routine where he becomes involved in the epic task of helping a flustered Henrietta fit into her toga-style dress after she inadvertently manages to stick her head through the armhole of the outfit. I did tell you she was a klutz, didn’t I?

As well as being a hoot, the scene is also rather touching and Henry’s patience with her is actually rather admirable. Her ineptitude does somehow bring out the best in him and, of course, this seemingly very odd couple do have more in common with one another than Henry initially suspected. He might find her mightily kooky but he insists on driving his car wearing a motorbike crash helmet, to name only one of his own peculiarities.

With his hangdog expressions and flawless comic timing, Matthau is brilliantly cast here, and May in her only starring role in a film she directed herself is every bit as good and the perfect foil.

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf

Matthau made two other films in 1971, Plaza Suite, which was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and Kotch, which saw him being nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor but it’s A New Leaf that is the pick of the trio. The whole film from beginning to end really is a lot of fun and ranks up there with Harold and Maude, Annie Hall, Slap Shot and Paper Moon as one of the finest American comedies of the 1970s. All these years later it’s still definitely worth seeking out and with the promise of Crackpot being shot soon, this is the perfect time to see it if you haven’t already.

Why you might ask is the film not better known?

My theory would be the fact that Elaine May was entirely dissatisfied with the version of the film that was released, having been removed from the project by Paramount head honcho Robert Evans, who set about drastically chopping out over an hour of her cut himself, mainly by excising a subplot that involved Henry killing Henrietta’s crooked attorney.

May attempted to have the film shelved, and then when this failed, she also failed to have her name removed from the credits before publicly disowning the film.

Whether her cut would be an improvement on the studio release I have no idea but after watching the movie I’m certainly glad she was unsuccessful in having A New Leaf suppressed.

Like her directorial debut, May’s career seemed to be cut short after the critical and box office failure of her fourth film Ishtar. I haven’t ever seen this one, maybe because critics like to dub it ‘The Heaven’s Gate of comedy’ and ‘One of the grossest miscalculations of the blockbuster era.’

May did continue to work in Hollywood, most significantly penning the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors but on the evidence of A New Leaf (and to a lesser extent The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky), it’s a real pity that she didn’t get the chance to direct more movies.

Hopefully, Crackpot recaptures the form of her first three directorial efforts and let’s face it, you’ve got to root for any 87 year woman given the chance to sit in a director’s chair, haven’t you?

Best Films of 2019 (Part Two)

Leave a comment

Best Films of 2019 pt2

10. The Farewell
Beijing born writer/director Lulu Wang’s film immediately announces that it’s ‘based on an actual lie’. This lie took place when Wang’s own grandmother was dying in China and her family decided not to inform her of her impending death. As we learn during the course of The Farewell, this is commonplace in the Far East and doctors are prepared to go along with it, the lie intended to prevent terminally ill loved ones from living in fear throughout the remaining days of their lives.

How to avoid arousing the dying gran’s suspicions when the whole family want to see her for one last time? Plan a lavish wedding as an excuse for a joyous get together.

Amazingly enough, The Farewell largely avoids mawkishness until veering in that direction right at the end when some of the music verges on boke-inducing. Nevertheless, it’s a triumph.

9. Joker
‘The most disappointing film of the year,’ according to the Guardian and ‘a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness,’ if the New York Times is to be believed, negative reviews of Joker weren’t hard to find in the media. Indiewire did say some nice things about it but also branded it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’.

No, it’s not as good as the two films that influenced it most – Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy but how many films are? And speaking of those two classics, I had long ago given up hope of Bob De Niro ever appearing in two of the best movies of any year, but 2019 proved that just occasionally his performances nowadays aren’t always dialled in. Even better is Joachim Phoenix, who is now American cinema’s nearest equivalent to the 1970s/80s De Niro.

8. Donbass
Named after a region in Eastern Ukraine, Donbass is a film about what is going on there and how it affects the people living on both sides of the divide. The Ukrainian regular army and volunteers fight separatist gangs, supported by Putin’s Russia. Corruption and criminality of all kinds are rife. Humiliation is commonplace. Violence can flare at any moment.

Each of the thirteen segments that make up the film is based on a real event and are loosely linked. It’s like a series of nightmares, which when taken together, offers a damning critique of what is going on in this part of the world.

7. The Favourite
The film premiered at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Its release date in Britain was on the very first day of 2019, hence its inclusion on this list.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ love/power triangle tragicomedy featured not one, not two, but three outstanding performances: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman, who deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Anne, a woman who is infantile, idiosyncratic and utterly incompetent. Fantastic bawdy fun.

6. The Third Wife
You might not guess it from the name but Ash Mayfair, the director of The Third Wife, is Vietnamese. Born in Ho Chi Minh City, she is currently based in America. The inspiration for her debut feature comes from real-life stories of her grandparents and great-grandparents and the ordeals they lived through that have been passed down through the generations.

She shows great promise here. Her tale of a girl coerced into a forced marriage is a quiet film – which reflects its late 19th century rural setting. Its dialogue is sparse and its pace meditative. Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s performance as May deserves great credit too. Twelve when cast, she was thirteen during the shoot and is pretty much pitch-perfect throughout.

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I did set out to see the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino without reading any reviews, features or interviews about it. Inevitably I did learn of the criticism of his portrayal of Bruce Lee, in particular the fact that the Hong Kong kung fu legend wasn’t able to get the better of Brad Pitt’s character in one fight scene.

This perplexed me. Tarantino is a big Bruce Lee fan and a highly vocal fan of martial arts movies in general.

I also became aware that this was another Tarantino film that embraced a revisionist-history fantasy. Obviously the fate of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would be very different to that of the real-life Tate.

This provided a possible solution as to Quentin’s depiction of Lee. It was surely included to give audiences a little nudge in the direction that they shouldn’t be looking for historical accuracy with regard to the real-life characters on-screen.

But this theory appears to have been wrong. Tarantino based Cliff Booth on a notoriously tough stuntman who had a rumble with Lee on the set of TV show The Green Hornet, which you can read about here.

I still don’t think the scene worked, although the movie as a whole is a great way to spend two and a half hours. I’m even already looking forward to seeing the four hour cut that Tarantino has recently mentioned possibly coming out next year.

4. Shadow
‘Chinese kings have always feared assassination in times of turmoil. To survive, they secretly employed surrogates known as ‘shadows’. Absent from the annals of history, they lived their lives in obscurity and vanished without a trace.’

This is the story of one such shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou, a man with an impeccable wuxia CV. He gave the world Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower and this definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those epics.

Although shot in a metallic greyish pallette, Shadow looks stunning throughout and the action is incredible too. I’ve seen umbrellas utilised as weapons before in Asian movies but never umbrellas as lethal as the ones used here.

3. The Irishman
In the run up to the release of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese kickstarted an almighty media stooshie when asked about Marvel movies.

‘I’ve tried to watch a few of them and they’re not for me,’ the director replied, before going on to explain that: ‘They seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.’

As is the norm in the 21st century, a backlash began immediately with Marvel brand loyalists and others deriding America’s greatest living director as old, out of touch and even elitist.

He is certainly old but out of touch? I’d guess some of the most out of touch individuals I’ve come across in recent years have been obsessional Marvel fanboys and fangirls. Some of these Marvelistas have even persuaded themselves that they’re some kind of modern-day rebels, determined to hit out at any old farts who dare to voice any criticism of films made by a company that is owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate.

Yes, Disney – who as the Guardian revealed just over a year ago – employ hundreds of women in sweatshop factories who work in pathetically poor conditions and are forced to work monstrously long shifts and astonishing amounts of overtime while making Disney’s Ariel doll. When the costs of this toy – which retails in Britain at £34.99 – were broken down each of the women on a factory production line in China were receiving just 1p for every one they helped to make.

Presumably virtue signalling Marvel star Brie Larson has no idea that sweatshops like this exist or she would surely speak out strongly against these practices as she jets around the globe talking up her part in the mega success of the MCU. Nevermind, I’m sure these Chinese women will still find Captain Marvel an absolutely empowering watch.

Personally I’d rather go on a theme park ride myself. And I’d rather watch a single minute of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Joe Pesci in The Irishman than the entire 2010s output of Disney.

And yes, I did enjoy some of Ricky Gervais’ gags as he hosted his fifth Golden Globes.

2. Parasite
Wonky sci-fi environmental parable Okja made it to #7 in my Best Of List two years ago. Bong Joon-ho’s latest film is even better.

Dazzling, unpredictable and downright funny at times, this takes a look at class and inequality but in the kind of cinematic fashion that Ken Loach couldn’t even begin to imagine. Crucially, Joon-ho’s characters all have their share of good and bad traits and you care for them all.

A wildly inventive satire set in Seoul, this must surely be the strangest upstairs/downstairs movie ever made and with it, Bong Joon-ho has truly established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers working anywhere in the world today.

1. Ash is Purest White
A saga about power and money, love and loyalty set across a China that is modernizing at a truly staggering rate.

This is the story of Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan) a ‘jianghu’ gangster on the rise, which is brought to a sudden end when one of them is imprisoned after using a gun to stop a spectacularly brutal streetside brawl. It’s an action that will not unsurprisingly carry profound consequences for both.

Director Jia Zhangke’s films really are must-see events and his wife and regular leading lady Zhao Tao puts in the best female performance of 2019 here.

Finally, the year’s biggest disappointment. This has to be Danny Boyle’s decision to follow up to T2 Trainspotting by collaborating with Britain’s blandest screenwriter Richard Curtis, whose scripts over the years have displayed as much bite as a cuddly toy dog.

A high-concept romantic comedy with a load of woeful Beatles covers and Ed Sheeran and James Corden playing versions of themselves, the premise behind Yesterday wasn’t even original. A French graphic novel created in 2011 by David Blot and Jérémie Royer, also titled Yesterday, shared a very similar premise. Even Goodnight Sweetheart (a mediocre at best 1990s British sitcom) had an episode that apparently bore strong similarities to the central concept behind Boyle’s film.

There is nothing that I could recommend about Yesterday. It is to Trainspotting, what Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre was to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

Choose life, Danny. Choose to direct something that isn’t so completely mind numbing next time around.

Older Entries