Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)


Today’s film is another one of those ones that just cropped up on Netflix and I thought I’d give a spin. At the risk of national stereotyping, my assumption before starting this is that it’s going to be a searching look at the extent of Dutch complicity with the Nazis in WWII — a theme that was famously explored in what (I think?) is the big-name Dutch war movie, Soldier of Orange. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Anyway, I guess my point is that a certain amount of uncomfortable ambiguity or outright condemnation is the norm in European films dealing with this era, which I have to say forms a refreshing contrast to the rah-rah-rah tone in a lot of the other foreign films I watch. But since this movie’s about an asshole who helped the Germans kill Dutch Jews and got away with it, I bet I’m not going to be super happy about the movie, no matter how refreshing it is. Let’s watch.

It’s an interesting approach — we see Riphagen at first as an ambiguous figure, resenting the Germans he works with and seeming to want to protect the hidden Jews he discovers in hiding. And outwardly this seems like a premise with which we’re familiar — a Schindler’s List kind of deal in which someone working within the Nazi system, morally compromised perhaps but ultimately trying to do some kind of good, is going to save some Jewish lives.

Thiiiiis … ain’t that kind of movie. And I almost feel bad about writing it up, because I think that if you went into it cold the twist could be very effective. But who does that? The summary of who Dries Riphagen was is in the Netflix description, and of course I always go and look things up when I’m writing a Movie Monday post (although I don’t speak Dutch, so I’m a bit limited in this case).

There’s a B-plot, as well, in which baby-faced goodie Jan (a cop by day, charged with rounding up Jews and so on) and his buddies in the Resistance try to outwit the Germans and so on. He’s romancing another young patriot, but she might not be all she seems — and perhaps he is not such a baby-faced goodie after all.

There’s a good deal of working the audience based on similarities to other film genres going on here, I think — so a lot of Riphagen’s style (and this seems to be historical) is very based on the kind of American mobster look, and the film plays on that as well; we’re used to seeing really bad, dangerous people as principled in some way or as romantic scoundrels, and the movie plays with that a bit.

But, as it turns out, Riphagen is only helping Jews hide from the Nazis as a means of getting money and valuables out of them for his supposed assistance; once the well is dry, or they start to get wise, they get fed to the Germans, and off strolls Riphagen, pocketing the cash and putting up his mistress in a hapless old Jewish lady’s comfy flat.

One of the Things I Always Say is that it’s a mistake to assume that police states are efficient; most of the time, they’re the same blend of venality, careerism, infighting and incompetence that characterises any human endeavour, but amplified by increased power and lack of oversight. This is a common misconception — perhaps because police states work so hard at presenting an image of ruthless efficiency, or perhaps because people assume that if you try harder at something you get better at it — and I think it’s quite a dangerous one, since it gives people mistaken ideas about public safety policy (to say the least). This isn’t to say police states aren’t dangerous, of course. That was one of the things about The Lives of Others that I really enjoyed: it portrayed the East German police state as a genuine threat without making it seem superhuman.

But actually, most of the film isn’t about Riphagen’s wartime activities: the Allies show up by the halfway mark. A lot of it is focused on Riphagen and his wife and their experiences as the Netherlands fall to the Allies, including his stint as a counter-insurgency type, looking for arms drops for the Resistance and that kind of thing. He keeps playing the double-agent card, and you keep hoping that he’s going to get caught up with, even though you know he won’t. The real people involved in his postwar pursuit and escape, Wim Sanders and Frits Kerkoven, also start to show up as larger characters. It also starts to get into the disorganisation of the late- and post-war Netherlands, including the usual division between Communist and pro-Western Resistance types, just in case you needed a reminder that the good guys aren’t necessarily any better organised.

They do a fine old job of making a city being liberated at the end of WWII — usually portrayed as a sort of joyous holiday — seem sinister and menacing.

So it’s a historical biopic, a crime movie and a spy thriller. It’s a useful corrective to some common notions about the war and at the same time a really frustrating and depressing film. It’s well-made, although to be perfectly honest I’m not sure it quite fills its two-hour-plus running time. Still, I’m glad I watched it, and to the best of my limited knowledge it seems like a reasonable and nuanced portrayal of the complexities and betrayals of wartime Holland.

And in the end, baby-faced goodie Jan comes up short. Virtue is punished, vice rewarded, and everything goes to cold, hard hell.

So … maybe not the ideal viewing choice for a guy like me.

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A few weeks ago I wrote about the recent TV version of Wolf Hall. This week we’re back in the 16th century with the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, a much more flattering portrayal of Thomas More.


And of course it’s a classic, with every son of a gun in the world in it: Orson Welles is Wolsey, Paul Scofield is More, and, well, I mean, just look at that poster up above.

It’s good, of course — won Best Picture, full of great actors, lush visuals, all that kind of thing. Robert Shaw shouts like anything. Leo McKern is a fantastic counterpoint to Wolf Hall‘s version of Cromwell; a real devious son of a bitch but without the motivating principle.

So what sort of picture of More are we painting here? Basically one that portrays him as an example of principle, principle writ large. And that naturally means glossing over all the stuff More did that, while it might very well have been an expression of his principles, rather clashes with ours (More burned heretics, but everyone burned heretics). In essence it builds up to the moments of principled defiance that characterised More’s end and made him famous. There is a fantastic line where the Duke of Norfolk calls his behaviour “disproportionate” as if it’s the worst thing he can think of.

And that’s not a bad eye on an aspect of 16th-century society that has some parallels in a lot of societies — the idea that “go along, get along” is actually a principle rather than a shameful compromise. Not that it’s an original observation, necessarily, but it’s expressed well.

Anyway, it’s a story about moral conflict where Wolf Hall is essentially a political story that presents the moral compromises that result from the political strategies used to serve moral agendas. It’s an interesting contrast between interpretations of a time that has become synonymous with moral conflict.

I’m impressed by the fact that claims to be “a motion picture entertainment for all times,” which is … I’m not sure about that. It’s a little bit of a historical pageant, and visually it doesn’t have much to distinguish itself other than lots of velvet. But this is the kind of thing they put on movie posters back i8n the day.

So I liked it, but you don’t need me to tell you that a movie that won Best Picture is good.

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Movie Monday: Rudhramadevi (2015)


OK, so this 2015 Telugu film about a famous 13th-century queen turned up on UK Netflix a while back and I added it to my list — but it’s two and a half hours long, so I never really sat down to watch it. On Saturday, though, it was rainy, so I watched this bad boy in my pyjamas while eating waffles and petting the neighbour cat and it was very enjoyable. I believe the version on Netflix is dubbed into Hindi (I think?), but I don’t speak either Hindi or Telugu so it doesn’t really make a difference to me.

I don’t know how many Indian historical epics you’ve watched, but just imagine if the people who made Chinese historical epics said “y’know, this is pretty good, but it could have a little more jingoism and sentiment and maybe a little less fidelity to historical fact. And some dance numbers.” That should give you a rough idea of how these things operate. It might not necessarily make a good movie, but it’s a pretty entertaining way to pass a rainy Saturday morning.

You get a lot for your money in two and a half hours: scheming villains, a fairytale story about a princess pretending to be a prince, elephant fights, battles, speeches, the aforementioned dance numbers, a lot of pageantry, a lot of religious allegories (a lot), a little feminism, a smidgen of history, lots and lots of costumes and some of the best moustaches ever committed to film. Also some very, very ropey CGI. Very.


But the moustaches are pretty great.

Have I mentioned that there’s a framing narrative in which Marco Polo explains the story to the … the king … of Italy? I guess? As a feminist parable? In a set that is very reassuring about the fact that goofy stereotypes of other cultures are not exclusively a western thing.


I feel like two and a half hours of inspirational historical glurge is a lot to get through, even though crazy stuff keeps happening, so it actually might be best to watch this thing in five thirty-minute chunks or similar.

So what about the history? Well, there certainly was a Rudrama Devi (“lady Rudrama,” more or less) who ruled the the Telugu-speaking Kakatiya kingdom in the mid-late 13th century. And she was crowned as co-ruler while her father was still alive in a move that displeased many of the local chiefs and stuff. And she did marry a guy who has the same name as her love interest in the movie, although I suspect the resemblance may end there.

I get the impression — and I am far from an expert — that she sort of represented herself with traditionally masculine aspects to lend her rule legitimacy, although I’m not sure that quite translates to being disguised as a boy like she is in the film. So basically this is a fairy tale that incorporates some elements of the history — the Kakatiya dynasty were apparently pretty apathetic about the caste system, for instance, which comes up in the film as another sign of the heroine’s personal virtue — and uses them as a springboard for a full-on fantasy adventure story. That may represent an existing folkloric tradition, in the same way that if you make a movie about Billy the Kid or Robert the Bruce you have a whole lot of not-historical-per-se material to draw on.

Quite a lot of the architectural detail, statues and so on comes from actual remains of Kakatiya dynasty art and architecture:


Like, there are a lot of these gateways in the movie. I do wonder if some of it is presented out of context. For instance, there’s a sculpture on what seems to be a bit of a ruin that I’m pretty sure is a ruin now — but was it a ruin then?

Irrigation is very important in the film, which I believe is pretty true to the concerns of medieval India.

Anyway, as I say, it’s pretty nuts throughout; bits of it look gorgeous, bits of it look stupid and a lot of it looks gorgeous and stupid. It’s very pageant-y, very much of an older school of filmmaking, and I probably wouldn’t sit down and watch the whole thing with undivided interest from start to finish, but it’s enjoyable.

Movie Monday: Rudhramadevi (2015)

Movie Monday: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

With this and last week’s TV Tuesday, it seems like I’m on a bit of a music-history kick at the moment. It’s just a coincidence, but it is an interesting one, since both The Get Down and Straight Outta Compton show some of the same traits — traits that are kind of universal in music movies.

Insofar as these traits are problems, they’re exaggerated because both Dr Dre and Ice Cube are credited as producers and other members of the group were involved in the production, as was Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. On the one hand, good for the musical side of things, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty rosy portrayal of the characters. My wife pointed out that some of the characters’ flaws sound like job interview answers — although everything I know suggests that Dr Dre is a workaholic perfectionist. Similarly, Ice Cube sometimes shouts and flies off the handle, which sounds like an older man acknowledging that he was a bit hot headed in his younger days.

And maybe that’s all it is, but the film did generate some controversy for its complete lack of anything related to Dre’s history of violence against women. In the movie, his girlfriend leaves him because he can’t support her and his child, which is the usual wife-doesn’t-believe-in-musician’s-artistic-dream plot. In reality, she alleges that he hit her. And of course Dee Barnes. Now, in real life Dre has apologised for all this, talked about his journey to maturity, and so on. But it’s just totally absent from the film. I guess there’s no good way they could have handled it, but still. And I gather Jerry Heller is not too pleased with how he was portrayed.

The other thing you always get in musical movies is compression and simplification. That’s got to suck if you’re left out of the story altogether (like the Arabian Prince) or forced into a villain/naysayer role (like Alonzo Williams). The compressed timeline also means that we see less of the members’ pre-NWA careers, although at least they’re discussed, something that really bugged me about Walk the Line. The musical story of it also highlights the police-brutality aspect: these are characters who live in a poor, violent neighbourhood where there is a lot of crime, but for the most part they themselves (except Eazy-E) aren’t criminals, except insofar as it’s unavoidable in that environment. In the film, Dre gets arrested for a brawl, but he was most often arrested for unpaid traffic tickets — i.e. for being broke. Suge Knight’s guys and Snoop nearly get into a fight over gang affiliations, which are just an unavoidable fact of life in that context. I wonder if that idea came home to people who are always complaining about thugs and criminals in hip-hop, but probably those guys aren’t watching an NWA biopic in the first place.

So the whole thing is enjoyable, but it’s more interesting than moving or exciting. Having been a teenager in the 90s, I got a lot of nostalgia moments and gained some context for some stuff I just casually learned about at that time. I was not a big gangster rap fan, but it was just so present in the culture at the time, and it was fascinating to see some reminders of another point of view. But it’s … y’know, it’s a music bio movie, and they are all more or less the same.

I said to Allison: “I was looking at the kid they have playing Ice Cube, and the resemblance was uncanny,” and she said, “his son?” And I said “yup.”

Movie Monday: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Movie Monday: Genghis Khan (1965)

I’ve done at least one previous Genghis Khan movie on this blog: the diabolical 1956 John Wayne vehicle The Conqueror. I haven’t done Sergei Bodrov’s 2007 Mongol, but I have seen it and it’s pretty entertaining, although it does kind of end just when things are getting good. Anyway, somehow I missed this one, directed by Henry Levin and starring Omar Sharif, but it’s on Netflix now, so let’s give it a look.


So, OK, it covers the sort of origin-story stuff you’d expect, beginning with young Temujin being enslaved following the death of his father and lots of horns going VWOOP VWOOP and whipping and stuff, and Michael Hordern being a wise old mentor to the lad. In fact, I wonder if this credits-sequence origin story wasn’t an inspiration for the relevant sections of Conan the Barbarian.

Anyway, Temujin catches the eye of Borte (Francoise Dorleac), who gazes beatifically at him while he gazes intently at her. I have to say that if you have a part that requires a lot of intent staring, Omar Sharif is probably your man. Borte looks about as white as she did when she was Susan Hayward, if not whiter. Jamuga (Stephen Boyd) is a sneering outright baddie and Borte is Temujin’s forbidden love; again, the historical Temujin and Borte were engaged from childhood.

Telly Savalas is the Telly Savalas character, Yvonne Mitchell is another sidekick, and there are lots of exciting adventures. Temujin makes a big speech about how women have to be respected and treated fairly, then kidnaps Borte from her tent and goes into the whole yer-beautiful-in-yer-wrath routine so familiar from many a previous Movie Monday. Fortunately it doesn’t last long, and soon Temujin and Borte are realising that niceness is better than meanness — although niceness expressed in lines like, er, “you talk too much, woman.” I guess he was kidding.

Meanwhile, Jamuga, to whom, if you recall, Borte was engaged, is all furious and, if possible, even greasier than he was before. And he was pretty goddamn greasy. Anyway, he goes and tries to recapture Borte, but danged if he doesn’t leave behind a clue that alerts Temujin’s faithful mute sidekick whatsisname. Yadda yadda, jilted lover, yadda yadda glare of defiance, yadda yadda daring rescue mission and I suddenly realised we’re only half an hour into this thing. Borte uglies him up pretty good with like a bear claw or maybe a marten or something, so that’s cool.

I don’t understand, 1965 Hollywood. Are you trying to make some kind of implication about people’s personalities and the colour of their skin? That’s crazy

Anyway, Temujin and his boys attack in one of those highly implausible tactical uses of fire you get in movies. But Borte has probably been raped and is all torn up about the implied shame and what not. But Temujin is cool, because true love. The tribe goes on the run into the east to look for some kind of advantage that will help them get back at Jamuga and also, y’know, to get away from Jamuga because that dude doesn’t play.

So they go to China and they meet … well … it’s pretty rough. I’m not too happy with what I’m seeing here.

Even the guy on the left is uncomfortably aware how racist this is. 

Yeah, it’s James Mason in yellowface. And he’s doing the voice, too. Anyway, by tactical niceness Omar Sharif befriends James Mason and together they go off. Also Borte is pregnant. Son is born and Temujin loves him as his own, etc. Anyway, they meet the emperor, who is another white dude (Robert Morley), and realise they have much to learn from Chinese culture, etc., etc. It turns out that the emperor has no intention of letting Temujin leave. But when disaster strikes, Temujin volunteers to help. There’s a bit of business with the emperor’s daughter (Susanne Hsiao, in wonder-of-wonders casting of an Asian actor to play an Asian role) and Borte’s brothers that is mainly distinguished for fantastic leaf placement.


Aaaanyway, the enemy leader turns out to be Jamuga himself, and Temujin fights him in a big set-piece battle with cavalry charges and bolt throwers and all sorts. Borte provides lessons in toughness and resolution, Temujin learns about gunpowder, Temujin, full of vengeance, refuses to kill Jamuga, blah blah blah. Seeing a threat from Temujin, the emperor conspires with Jamuga, and I swear there are still over 30 minutes left in this damn thing.

While Jamuga prowls the city lookin’ for vengeance, let’s go over the elements of the Genghis legend (they’re calling him Genghis by this point — with a soft G, no less!) they keep and the ones they discard. We have a rivalry between Temujin and Jamuga (or Jamukha or whatever), which is standard, and a love story with Borte, as well as the suspicion of Genghis’ son not being his. Some historical characters have script immunity — so for instance there’s a scene where Jamuga doesn’t kill Subutai because, you know, it’s Subutai and he has to live. Except the historical Subutai wasn’t Borte’s brother and this character has nothing in common with him. Perplexing.

So Genghis and the boys blow everybody up and ride off, apparently on special horses that don’t give a dang about just riding into a blazing inferno belching smoke and flame. The emperor is perturbed, but so what? It’s hey for the open steppe, but Jamuga is still at large. Regardless, Genghis plans world conquest in a scene that I assume never happened but is still pretty cool.


So while the whole thing plays out toward its inevitable final battle scene, let’s recap its strengths and weaknesses. First off, it is pretty racist. That’s hard to avoid. And the rape thing, which I have written about at length before. Just click on the movie Monday tag if you want an earful. Omar Sharif, of course, is a good actor, and even without a brilliant script he just turns up the charisma to 11 and glares intently at stuff. And of course, it’s full of 1965-vintage spectacle: sword fights, armies thundering past on horses, fireworks, people leaping off waterfalls, and lots of lovely landscapes (in Yugoslavia, I think?). It’s the kind of Hollywood big-budget spectacle that today would have a million identical CGI Mongols.

But overall, I mean … if it’s 1965 and you’re only gonna see one Omar Sharif movie this year, maybe Doctor Zhivago.

Eventually the preliminaries wrap up and Jamuga kills poor old James Mason, so it’s on. Clatter clatter hooves, boom boom cannons, kling clang swords. Wouldn’t you know it, Temujin and Jamuga end up facing off in single combat, in which, despite the fact that both of them have just been in a battle, only one of them is super greasy with sweat. Anyway, the final fight is good fun — and I take it back Omar Sharif is pretty greasy, must have been the lighting — but guess what? Our guy wins. But then he dies, which is a little premature, since in reality he lived over 20 years after uniting the Mongols and six or seven years after beating Khwarezm. Oh well.

I can’t believe I wrote 1200 words about this.

Movie Monday: Genghis Khan (1965)

Movie Monday: The Mighty Crusaders (1958)

We’ve run into this phenomenon before: the historical adventure movie based not on a historical incident but on a later story about that incident — in this case, the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099. Now, I like the First Crusade, so I know I’m in for some disappointment here, but let’s see what 1958’s Gerusalemme Liberata (released in English as The Mighty Crusaders) has to offer.


As you can maybe tell, it’s an Italian film, and it’s based on an Italian poem as well: a 16th-century epic by Torquato Tasso. The poem was pretty popular in its day, apparently, and was translated into other languages, inspired various works of art, and so on. It was even adapted into a silent film in 1918, although I can’t find it anywhere. If you know where I can watch it, hook me up.

Anyway, the poem is full of sorcery and weird romantic asides, most of which are not present in this film. The basic plot is that our hero, Tancred (vaguely related to the historical Tancred), meets a Persian warrior-princess, Clorinda. Although they are on opposite sides, they fall in love. This entails spending a lot of time looking passionate, or at least as passionate as a pompadoured douchebag (pompadouchebag?) can look.


Also, Clorinda is apparently cosplaying as three xylophones.

BUT! Not only does Tancred love Clorinda, soppy other-princess Erminia loves Tancred, moustachied villain Argante loves Clorinda, and Tancred’s excitable pal Rinaldo is tricked by the evil Arminda, who nonetheless (wait for it) falls in love with him. In the meantime, disguises are donned, swords are clanged harmlessly together, and both armies consist of a few dozen guys who aren’t quite sure what to do with their spears.


There are some good points: the soundtrack is all horns and booming during the attack on Jerusalem, then goes quiet apart from the lapping of water and clashing of tin swords during Tancred and Clorinda’s fateful duel. That’s not bad.

Also Godfrey says “I and my soldiers did not invade your homeland in search of conquest and riches,” which would have been news to a lot of his soldiers.

Anyway, it’s a dumbass chivalric pantomime, and if you look at it in those terms it’s sort of dimly enjoyable. Clorinda has some great outfits, and Argante has a good time going nyaaah! I can imagine that if you felt like going to the movies on a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1958 you’d be amused by an hour and a half of bright colours, pretty girls and horses galloping around. Certainly a lot happens, even if none of that lot is sensible or convincing.

But it goes without saying that it has nothing to do with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and indeed I suspect that some of its viewers (or the poem’s readers) would have been surprised to discover that Tancred was a real person.

Movie Monday: The Mighty Crusaders (1958)

Movie Monday: Dragon Blade (2015)


In 53 BC, the Parthians inflicted a major defeat on their Roman enemies at the Battle of Carrhae. Legend has it that some of the Roman captives wound up working as mercenaries for the Parthians and that they may even have made their way to China. Although there’s no concrete evidence for this theory, it keeps coming up. I think this is mainly because it’s a cool, romantic idea rather than because of any actual evidence, but it’s not my area or period.

Aaaaaanyhow, Dragon Blade claims to be inspired by true events, but only in the loosiest, goosiest manner. Jackie Chan plays Huo An, a Hun who was orphaned at a young age and raised by a Chinese army officer. Now he’s head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a band of tough but loveable blah blah blah. He runs into Lucius (John Cusack, presumably cashing a welcome paycheque), a Roman officer who is protecting a young Roman noble from his evil brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody).

From this point you can probably figure out how this goes. Although Lucius and Huo initially find themselves in opposition, they learn to respect one another and work together. In between, there’s montages, fight scenes, chases and a big old battle or two. You know how these things go.

So is it any good? Well … it’s certainly spectacular. Big armies, cool sets, fancy costumes and plenty of lively fight choreography (I believe Jackie Chan was action director on this one). But insofar as it has human elements, they manifest in that weird Chinese-cinema combination of sentimental glurge and cheerful bloodthirstiness. There’s also a certain corny propaganda-ness to it; one of the big messages is that peace is possible if all the nations on the Silk Road will work together — under Chinese leadership, of course. It’s not very subtle.

Historical nonsense allied to colourful pageantry and plenty of big, nonsensical fight scenes: it’s basically a 1950s Technicolour epic catapulted forward 60 years. It’s good fun, but I wouldn’t really think about it too hard if I were you. In fact, it’s so silly in its history that that becomes part of its charm, at least for me.

Movie Monday: Dragon Blade (2015)