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Moving pictures, #34

Bit of a surprise this time round, a film I actually watched in a cinema. But before you get too excited – no, it’s not The Martian, it’s the latest 007, SPECTRE. And it was, well, it was…

spectreSPECTRE, Sam Mendes (2015, UK). The previous 007 film to this, Skyfall, was a massive international hit. I was less than enamoured of it – I laughed when I saw its open-air server farm, and I was flabbergasted, and deeply disappointed, when Skyfall itself turn out to be just a bloody house in Scotland. So my expectations – despite promotional advance notices – of SPECTRE were not high. And yet it still failed to meet them. The UK security services are being amalgamated under a super-technological super-surveillance organisation headed Andrew Scott (who seems to play the same character in every role), and whose technology was provided by a private contractor (plus much of its funding too). This is actually quite a pointed indictment of Tory politics and economics, but it’s unfortunately lost in the rest of the film’s crap plot. Which revolves around Oberhausen – later renaming himself Blofeld, er, for reasons – played by an unctuous Christoper Waltz, who is as threatening a villain as a week-old blancmange. Meanwhile, manly man Bond is totes old school and no one wants old school no more, so he’s persona non grata. Except totes old school is the only way to beat smiley villain Waltz and super-surveillance-state Scott. And the rest is all useless fat on a story already over-marbled with adipose tissue. The car chase through Rome in hypercars is superbly silly as there are no roads that allow the cars to reach the speeds they’re capable of. The family link between Oberhausen and Bond adds nothing. The female characters are paper-thin. Fiennes adds some much needed gravitas as M but is inconsistently written; and Wishart’s Q has yet to find a peg on which to hang his character. This is an underwhelming film. It has the big action sequences, it has the secret lair in the middle of nowhere, it even has the obligatory torture scene. But we’ve had more than half a century of Fleming’s hugely over-rated books, and it’s going to need more than state-of-the-art film-making to inject some much-needed life into the film franchise.

un_chien_andalouUn chien Andalou*/ L’Age d’or*, Luis Buñuel (1928/1930, France). I admit it, I looked away during the razor/eyeball scene. I’m squeamish, I won’t apologise for it. As for the rest of Un chien Andalou… er, um… Good question. It’s a surreal movie, and reputedly an early model for muscial promo videos, but to be honest I can’t remember what was part of Un chien Andalou, L’Age d’or or even Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet. They all seem to have merged in memory into one movie of bizarre cinematic non sequiturs. There was a man dressed as a nun, and a woman standing in the middle of street and then hit by a car, and, er… Nope, it’s gone. L’Age d’or at least boasted something approaching a plot, even if it was only a series of scenes of a pair of thwarted lovers. The opening sequence, however, seemed to bear no relationship to the rest of the film. And though it looked like a silent film (if that makes sense…), every now and again someone would speak. Meh. I’ve watched seven of Buñuel’s films so far, and I think I much prefer his later ones – although I did like The Exterminating Angel – and probably the one I’ve thought best so far is The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie. Oh well.

salt_earthSalt of the Earth*, Herbert J Biberman (1954, USA). I knew nothing about this film, other than it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and neither of the two rental services I used had copies. And then it appeared on Amazon Prime as a free-to-watch movie. So I watched it. Not the best quality, it has to be said – a cut above a rental VHS cassette, but about the same as a piss-poor DVD transfer. But. Amazing film. One that deserves to be restored and released on Blu-ray, that needs to be on every list of great films. Not because it is beautifully shot, or even amazingly acted, or fantastically scripted. It is, in most respects, a pretty ordinary drama of the early 1950s. But it is the reasons why it is not ordinary that make it stand out. Its story of a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine is based on real events. The US mining industry is notorious for its callous disregard of employees and environment. In Salt of the Earth, latino miners go on strike to demand equal pay to whites. But in order to get around an injunction against picketing their place of employment, it is their wives who actually picket. Leaving the men at home to look after kids and household. And the women are determined to win – so much so they continue despite being arrested repeatedly. And this is all based on true events. In fact, the bulk of the cast were not professional actors, but people actually involved in the strike which inspired the film. Go watch it.

out_of_africaOut Of Africa*, Sydney Pollack (1985, USA). I have yet to work out if I actually liked this film or not. As I watched it I sort of flipped from one state to the other. I liked the character played by Meryl Streep – Karen Blixen – but hated Streep’s weird accent. Robert Redford was a real charmer – but seemed too urbane for his part. The cinematograpy was mostly gorgeous – but still managed to hit every Africa cliché available. And yet… by the end I sort of found myself liking it. I think it’s possibly because it’s a dramatisation of Karen Blixen’s actual life, as documented in her book of the same title as the film, and that knowledge gave the film a much needed boost of credibility. The fact it’s a true story – it says so on the DVD cover – added an edge, more interest. I’m tempted to mention the cinematography, but it would be a piss-poor director who failed to find lovely visuals in Africa – and Pollack may not be an auteur, but he knows his craft and he’s been producing money-making films for decades. Not a great film, a borderline case perhaps, but I think I’m generally well-disposed toward it.

closely_observed_trainClosely Observed Trains*, Jirí Menzel (1966, Czech Republic). This is a title I’ve certainly seen mentioned a number of times in relation to classic films or recommended arthouse films or best world cinema. Despite all that, I knew little about it. It has, I now know, a typical Czech black humour, and its ingenu protagonist is a character Czech cinema has taken advantage of more than his fair share of times. In this case, the ingenu is a trainee station guard at a small country station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII. The remaining cast are… not grotesques, but certainly comic figures. And that’s about it. There’s a final sequence in which the ingenu places a bomb on a passing Nazi troop train, but the film is more a series of short character arcs than an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. Not a bad film, and probably deserving of its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not a great film.

tomorrowlandTomorrowland, Brad Bird (2015, USA). You know when you hear about a film and its premise sounds interesting and then you learn it was written by Damen Lindelof and you think oh fuck… Well, that’s Tomorrowland. On the plus-side, Disney have done an excellent job on the Blu-ray release. And the film does look quite lovely at times. On the other hand, it’s a complete hot mess that makes no sense and is about as rigourous as a bowl of strawberry jelly. Child Clooney visits the World Fair in 1964 and travels forward in time to a place called Tomorrowland. The film abruptly shifts to the present – except they’re taking apart Space Shuttle launch platforms and the last Space Shuttle mission was in 2011, so maybe not the present per se. Clooney is now a reclusive inventor after being thrown out of Tomorrowland – but Casey Newton, who has seen visions of Tomorrowland thanks to a special badge given to her – is determined to find her way there. And no, none of this actually makes any sense. The place Tomorrowland seems to be based more on magical technology rather than 1950s visions of the future (which was clearly the intent). And even in the so-called present-day, there’s the usual science fiction bobbins masquerading as plot – such as the robots with the shit-eating grins – but things really jump the shark when a wax exhibit on the Eiffel Tower proves to be the key to launching a secret steampunk rocket hidden under the edifice, which goes up into space, and, er, back down again but lands somewhere in Tomorrowland – because that’s how re-entry works obvs. And it’s all because the magic tech which keeps Tomorrowland together is slowly destroying our reality. Or something. The more you think about Tomorrowland, the less sense it makes. Which is pretty much Lindelof’s USP, I suppose. It doesn’t so much fail to suspend your disbelief as take your disbelief and throw it out of a fifty-storey window. I will no doubt watch this movie several times, and be even more confused by it – and not in a good way – with each subsequent viewing. A major disappointment.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 670

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Moving pictures, #33

It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.

thin_blue_lineThe Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.

being_thereBeing There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

asphalt_jungleThe Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.

last_metroThe Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the  mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.

shaftShaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…

she_done_him_wrongShe Done Him Wrong*, Sherman Lowell (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

shaneShane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…

wild_blue_yonderThe Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665

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Moving pictures, #32

The films I watch, and document in these moving pictures posts, are pretty much dictated by the rental services I use. While I might set the priorities for the various movies on my rental lists, it’s still random what actually gets sent to me. But then, of course, there are those DVDs and Blu-rays I’ve actually purchased for myself (usually because I want to see them and they’re not available for rental, like the, er, Benning DVDs). So, anyway, more films, of varying degrees of obscurity and/or classic status.

rrRR / casting a glance, James Benning (2007/2007, USA). RR stands for “railroad” and that’s pretty much what you get – 77 minutes of middle-distance shots of US locomotives travelling across the screen, some on urban railways (not “railroad”, because I am British) and some on tracks passing through some amazing landscapes. There is no voiceover, no scrolling text, just ambient noise. I now have some experience with Benning’s films, and while I can certainly sympathise with his desire not to compromise in art, RR is much harder film to watch than others by Benning I’ve seen. It follows in broad form his other works, but its lack of concessions to the viewer can make for difficult viewing. It is, like his other films, often mesmerising (I keep on using that word, I must find another one), and the landscape of the North American continent is in places absolutely stunning (yes, even with a railway track running through it). Benning’s films are an acquired taste, but totally worth it. And yet… casting a glance even manages to test a fan’s endurance. It is a series of shots over two years of Robert Smithson’s artwork ‘Spiral Jetty’. Which is exactly as its name says – a jetty made of stone, in spiral form, in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. What makes this film especially interesting is that although Bennig filmed the artwork over a two year period, he actually documents its lifetime since its creation in 1970 – as the sixteen shots of it depict “the historical water levels (mathematically reconstructed)”. The end result is more like a screensaver than any other Benning film I’ve seen, but still manages to keep interest. Narrative does intrude at one point, when the ambient noise is replaced by the song ‘Love Hurts’, a film released in the same year that Smithson died. I totally agree with making the viewer work to understand a film – culture is not babyfood, it should not be spoonfed – but Benning’s extra-textual references are often just too… extra. I still love his films – and the more about them I learn, the more I love them. But like Sokurov’s movies, there is a story taking place outside of the story on the screen, and knowledge of that totally changes the viewer’s perspective. I have maintained for years that X-Factor is a cross-platform event – the television show makes little sense unless you’ve been following the various dramas in the gutter press. I love the idea of cross-platform and extra-textual intellectual properties – a sort of implementation of Frank Zappa’s “interconnectedness of all things” – but it all needs to be available. Without the booklets in these Österreichisches Filmmuseum DVDs, I’m pretty sure I’d miss a lot of the commentary Benning embeds in his films. Which is a shame.

The-Blue-Angel-1930-Front-Cover-95283The Blue Angel*, Josef von Sternberg (1930, Germany). This is the film from which Marlene Dietrich’s public persona likely depends. It’s certainly the source of the most iconic presentation of her. The title refers to a nightclub in Weimar Republic Berlin, at which Dietrich’s character performs. However, the actual focus of the story is the schoolteacher who falls under Dietrich’s spell. Initially, he goes to the club to remonstrate with its star because naughty postcards of her (which she sells as souvenirs) are distracting his students. But he falls under her spell, and returns to watch her so often that he marries her, loses his job and ends up working as a clown in her show. The film was banned by the Nazis, which is obviously a point in its favour – but for all that it seems a fairly unexceptional film. I’ve no way of judging if it was more titillating than was the norm in the 1930, but there’s little enough in it that clearly signals it as belonging on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’ve seen a number of films from the same era that were clearly innovative, if not seminal, for the period, or that simply stood out for a variety of reasons. The Blue Angel, sadly, is not one of them.

labellenoiseuseLa belle noiseuse*, Jacques Rivette (1991, France). I suspect I may like the idea of Rivette’s films more than I like Rivette’s films – although that’s hardly fair as La belle noiseuse is the first film by Rivette I’ve ever seen, But it is also 237 minutes long – and not that much actually happens during it. A young artist and his girlfriend turn up at the rural retreat of a famous artist who has not produced any new work in years. The girlfriend is asked to model for the famous artist. We see the artist make lots of sketches of the girlfriend, as well as start but not finish a number of paintings. Eventually he does finish one, and everyone assures him it’s a masterpiece, but the viewer doesn’t get to see it. I liked the film, it is very French, and like many of the best French films it subjects its characters’ relationships to much intense analysis. But it did test my patience at times – we see each of the sketches the artist draws, line by line, and it’s not exactly exciting viewing. But I liked that Rivette chose to show us that, I liked that he decided this was the way his film would proceed. As has no doubt become obvious over these Moving pictures posts, I like films by those who do things differently… I see there’s a Rivette Blu-ray box set now available, and it’s definitely tempting me…

ex_machinaEx Machina, Alex Garland (2015, UK). I’d seen this film highly praised, and while I may be perverse, I’m not so perverse I’ll dislike a movie because it is popular – although certainly what I value in a film is not what most film audiences seem to. But ten minutes into Ex Machina, a movie I was expecting to be about AI, and all it appeared to be about was some ultra-rich knob who lived in the middle of nowhere (how did they supply his house?) and I was already thinking bad thoughts… only for it be pointed out on Twitter that this was the desired response. The person behind Ava, the AI robot (as seen on the DVD cover, because of course you’d give an AI a human face and a chicken-wire body), is meant to be an entitled prick. Because that then pushes the viewer’s emtional engagement onto Ava. The poor old programmer, Caleb, invited by Nathan to his billionaire hideway – and who has to be asked, “Do you know what the Turing Test is?” Of course, he does, he’s a programmer – finds himself a patsy for both Nathan and Ava by turns, and the fact he is emotionally engaged with the AI only makes you wonder why Garland chose to stack the deck so heavily in Ava’s favour. And having done that, the end of the film can hardly come as a surprise. I really didn’t like Ex Machina. I found it annoying, crude and a not very intelligent study of its premise. I much preferred the far less pretentious Chappie.

eisenstein_1October* Sergei Eisenstein (1927, Russia). I picked up a copy of Sergei Eisenstein Volume 2 at the end of last year – it contains Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 – but volume 1 proved much harder to find (since it had been deleted several years ago). Admittedly, I already owned a copy Battleship Potemkin and Strike, and October wasn’t exactly hard to find on DVD… but I wanted Volume 1 to go with my Volume 2, so I hung on until one popped up on eBay. Which it did. For a reasonable price. So I bought it. And I’ve now watched October twice and I’m still not sure what to make of it. For a start, it’s unashamed propaganda, a cinematic reconstruction of the October 1917 revolution, featuring many of the people who were involved in the actual event itself. Also, Eisenstein uses a surprisingly large number of modern cinematic techniques – or rather, techniques that have become standards in film-makers’ lexicons and are now used so unthinkingly that their origin is ignored. Anyone looking to put together a DVD collection of important films really should include both the Eisenstein collections (assuming they can find copies, that is).

sennaSenna*, Asif Kapadia (2010, UK). This was available on Amazon Prime and since it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I watched it, despite motor racing being a sport in which I have zero interest. (Not that there is in fact any sport in which I have a more-than-zero interest.) Unsurprisingly, I found much of Senna not especially interesting, although I’d known almost nothing about Ayrton Senna prior to watching the film and he at least did come across as an interesting person – although chiefly through his work to improve the safety of F1 Racing – a sport in which a handful of rich pricks risk the lives of drivers in order to further line their own pockets, which is frankly disgusting. In fact, F1 comes across as little more than a playset for billionaire regressives. It’s telling that since Senna died and the increased safety he campaigned for came into effect, there has been only a single death during a race – and that was last year, ten years after Senna’s death. Having said all that… I’m not really sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 658

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Moving pictures, #31

More movies! Some good, some bad – well, some good, some meh. But mostly good, I think. Perhaps a few too many from the US, but that seems to be how it worked out. I did actually put together my own list of 101 must-see films (rather than 1001) on – 101 Films for a Cineaste. Of course, I now realise there are films I’ve missed, so I’ll probably have to do a second list… And, no doubt, when I’ve seen yet more films, I’ll want to put together a third list…

paths_of_gloryPaths Of Glory*, Stanley Kubrick (1957, USA). I think I might have seen this before, on television or something back in the 1980s (I spent most of the 1990s in the Middle East, so it was unlikely to be there – UAE television was shit). Certainly, bits of it felt familiar, although it’s a story that, in general form, has been told a number of times in film, book and even bande dessinée. During World War I, a general orders a division to attack a German redoubt, even though the attack will certainly fail and result in high casualties. As indeed it does. The general is so enraged, he orders three men, chosen at random from the survivors, be tried for cowardice, pour encourager les autres. Cowardice was a capital crime. It’s worth bearing in mind that in the British Army less than thirty percent of battlefield executions were upheld once the war was over. That’s seven out of ten men shot by courts martial should not have been executed. In a civilised world, that would qualify as a war crime. And the same is true of General Mireau’s actions in Paths Of Glory. But, of course, the wealthy and influential can do wrong. As Kirk Douglas, playing the colonel who defends the three men, discovers. The film is actually based on a novel, which was loosely based on real events – apparently, the invented bit is the random picking of three men; the French Army shot lots of men for cowardice, but its victims were not randomly chosen. A pity they didn’t shoot the generals*.

californiaEl Valley Centro, Los and Sogobi, James Benning (1999/2001/2002, USA). After three films in which Benning imposes narrative on his trademark series of static shots through either voice-over or scrolling text, these three films are nothing but pure imagery. Which, unsurprisingly, renders them more like art installations than actual cinema – although I can’t really see someone standing in front of a screen in a gallery for 87 minutes (the length of each film). Each film comprises 35 shots of precisely 2.5 minutes’ duration each. The first is about LA’s Central Valley, with shots of farms, oil fields, even fighter jets taking off from a USAF air base. Los is the urban part of the trilogy, with street scenes from greater LA. And Sogobi (the Shoshone word for “earth”) is the California wilderness, consisting of shots of mountains, rivers, deserts and chaparral. In all three films, the shots are carefully composed – in the first, the screen is split horizontally, usually by the horizon, across which objects move; in the second, it is the vertical lines of the city, and the spaces that creates; and the third’s nature shots are increasingly encroached upon by humanity’s presence. The final credits also give the names of the corporate owners of all the locations shown in the films, pointing out just how “free” the Land of the Free really is. Unlike the other Benning films I’ve watched, these require a great deal of work on the viewer’s part – though they’re also completely mesmerising to watch – in working out the narrative. They tell a story, but they make no concessions – there are no clues, no handy voiceover, no scrolling text. I am enormously glad the Österreichisches Filmmuseum is releasing Benning’s work on DVD, or I might never have come across it.

boogie-nights-mysBoogie Nights*, Paul Thomas Anderson (1997, USA). I’m aware of Anderson’s standing as a director, and I’ve seen several of his films… but I’ve never really understand why he’s so lauded. Is it simply that he’s a bit of a maverick? Certainly I can understand the topic of Boogie Nights not being a, well, mainstream movie topic, given it’s about the porn industry in LA. Mark Wahlberg plays a young man with an impressively large todger, which is, of course, never actually seen on screen (this being neither a DH Lawrence adaptation nor a comic book movie). He comes to the attention of Burt Reynolds, a porn director, who then casts him in some of his films. As Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg becomes rich and famous, and lives the rock star lifestyle to excess. Which is pretty much what this film is, a typical rags-to-riches-to-drug-addled-decline story, the only difference is it’s porn rather than music. I’m not entirely sure why Boogie Nights is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (a sadly frequent complaint of these Moving pictures posts).

chappieChappie, Neil Blomkamp (2015, USA). I hadn’t really liked Blomkamp’s two earlier films, District 9 and Elysium, even though they were hugely popular. So I wasn’t expecting much of this one, especially since it hadn’t been all that well-received. So, of course, totally perversely, I actually enjoyed it and thought it rather good. The title refers to a police robot operated by the Johannesburg police force. After being damaged in a firefight with gangsters – its batteries have fused to its chassis, and so cannot be removed; in other words, it has five days of power left and then it’s irretrievably dead – the robot is pulled from the scrapheap by the inventor of the robots, Deon, for him to use on his home project: an AI. But on his way home with the dead robot, he’s hijacked by a trio of inept gangsters, who want him to reprogram a police robot to obey them. So he gives them his AI instead. But on booting up it has the mentality of a child, and though Deon tries to tech it morality, the gangsters trick it into committing crimes by the gangsters… It’s not the most original story on the planet. But Sharlto Copley gives Chappie real character, and the CGI robot itself is well done. It’s more of a comedy than a sf action/adventure film, but that I think is one of its strengths. The villains of the piece are a bit one-note; and the rival robot is plainly based on RoboCop‘s ED-209, and as far as homage it’s not exactly subtle. But I liked this one, it’s much better than Blomkamp’s earlier two films.

great_beautyThe Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013, Italy). I loved Sorrentino’s The Consequences Of Love when I saw it back in 2013, I even picked it as one of my five best of the year films. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me so long to watch The Great Beauty. Having said that, there’s now a Five Films by Sorrentino DVD box set available, so I might well get it… Anyway, The Great Beauty. I was not initially taken with this film as it took a while to settle into its story. The main character is a cultural commentator, skating by on the fame of a  highly-respected novel he wrote decades before, but now content to write newspaper columns and magazine articles. He wanders the streets of Rome at night, meets people and talks to them; he throws parties in his apartment – at one of which, he delivers a devastating takedown of a female friend who had called his bluff on “honesty” – and he has relationships with various women. The story seems to grow out of the film, rather than provide a structure for its narrative. Which means it does take you somewhat by surprise, as it pulls you in and then wins you over. I didn’t like it as much as The Consequences Of Love, but in channelling “faded glory” rather than “stylish” it makes for an interesting, if overly Fellini-esque, film (and there are several nods to Fellini throughout the film). On reflection, it might be worth waiting for that box set to appear on Blu-ray…

fassbinder1The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1972, Germany). The title character is a fashion designer and the entire film is restricted to her small apartment. It also has an all-female cast. The movies open with von Kant being awoken by her assistant, Marlene. Several visitors appear throughout the course of the film, one of whom, Karin, von Kant takes a shine too. They enter into a relationship. Six months pass. Nowe the relationship is not so loving. Karin admits to have slept with a man, and it then turns out she has been seeing her ex-husband and they plan to get back together. Von Kant feels betrayed. And, er, that’s about it. Fassbinder made a remarkable number of films during his relatively short career, and he had the artistic courage to experiment with cinematic formats and narratives (much as von Trier does). The result are not always successful. Admittedly, The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I think some of his other films are actually more interesting. But there’s certainly plenty ot chose from, and I’ve not watched all of his oeuvre. Yet.

my_man_godfreyMy Man Godfrey*, Gregory La Cava (1936, USA). A bunch of nincompoop socialites play a game, the prize going to whoever can find most unwanted thing. One woman tries to persuade a homeless man (Powell) to be her item, but he refuses. Her sister (Lombard), however, is sympathetic to his plight, so he decides to help her show up her sister and so volunteers to be her unwanted thing. They win. Lombard is so grateful and so full of philanthropic goodwill, she offers Powell a job as her family’s butler. This has in the past proven a hard position to fill, as the family are demanding, scatter-brained, and often partying a bit too hard. Powell is the perfect butler and a boon to the family. Lombard falls in love with him – but this film isn’t that transgressive, as it turns out Powell is a runaway son from a rich patrician Boston family. Having said that, he does use his money to develop the city dump where he had been living into a nightclub, with homes and jobs for the people who had been living there. But philanthopy is no alternative to social welfare, and any society that relies on it has no business calling itself civilised. Still, to be fair, My Man Godfrey does run a good line in witty banter, and for a 1930s screwball romance it’s a reasonably good example. That the happy ending encompasses more than just the lovebirds is commendable, as is the somewhat feeble attempt to show that poor people are really people too; but the classism is bad, and so too is the easy acceptance that the largesse of the rich is a viable way to run a society.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 654

* to wit:

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.

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Moving pictures, #30

A wider spread of films this week – in terms of years (five decades) and countries of origin (five nations). Only one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however. And another film that is really bad and I’ve no idea why I bothered buying it or watching it. Eh.

bulldogDeadlier Than The Male and Some Girls Do, Ralph Thomas (1967/1969, UK). There must have been something in the water back in the 1960s, with all the debonair spy movies that appeared – not just the early 007s, but Derek Flint, Matt Helm, Maroc 7, Our Man in Marrakesh and… these two starring Bulldog Drummond. Who, er, isn’t strictly speaking a spy. And he originally appeared in the 1930s. He’s some sort of man-about-town who acts as a troubleshooter for an uncle in insurance. Or something. But he does do battle with a megalomaniac. And there are plenty of daft gadgets and nubile women in bikinis. Deadlier Than The Male opens with Elke Sommer poisoning an oil baron aboard his private jet, and then parachuting to safety as the plane explodes behind her. It transpires she was paid to do this by a UK oil company, but the oil company decides not to pay her fee – at least not until one of the directors is killed. But now there’s another person standing in the way of the oil company’s expansion, this time the ruler of a small Arab sheikhdom, who Drummond just happened to go to school with. So Drummond heads off to visit his chum on the Italian Riviera, partly to protect the sheikh and partly to discover who is Sommer’s boss. The film ends with a shoot-out on a giant mechanical cheesboard. Bonkers. Some Girls Do is more of the same. This time it’s a UK project to build the world’s first supersonic airliner (hey, we did that for real!), but the project is being sabotaged. It turns out the saboteurs are nubile young women with “robot brains”. Or something. The science is complete nonsense. The villain, for example, uses a subsonic ray to take control of the supersonic airliner. Good luck with that. “Supersonic” means “faster than sound”. Your ray will never catch up with the plane. Even for its subgenre, this is pretty brainless entertainment, without either the silly humour of Matt Helm and Derek Flint, the po-facedness of Bond, or the colourful locations of Maroc 7 and Our Man in Marrakesh.

starship_apocStarship Apocalypse, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). This is the sequel to Starship Rising, a film that was so bad I, er, bought the sequel. Johnson specialises in low-budget genre films, which I guess sort of makes him the self-published Kindle genre writer of the movie world. The set dressing in the two films by him I’ve now watched is cheap and nasty, the acting is poor, the dialogue terrible, and the stories derivative. This one has a disfigured, allegedly immortal emperor, and a small group – the entire cast of the film probably numbers less than a dozen – of rebels, who have this fantastic starship, or something. The only way to watch this film is pissed, which does sort of make figuring out what’s going on a bit difficult. I’ll probably have to watch both films again, but I’m not sure I want to…

american dreamsAmerican Dreams (lost and found), James Benning (1984, USA). It probably comes as no surprise that Benning has become one of my favourite directors. He hasn’t knocked Sokurov off the top spot – their oeuvres are almost impossible to compare, but Sokurov has at least made several narrative films (or rather, not documentaries) – but I’d definitely put Benning in the top five. And it’s because of films like American Dreams (lost and found). I can see why Benning’s Deseret made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as it’s probably the most accessible of his films (that I’ve seen to date) – and even then it comprises static shots of scenery in Utah, countryside and towns, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1851 to 1995. American Dreams (lost and found) uses a much more interesting technique to tell its story. In fact, it uses three techniques. The images are of baseball cards and ephemera about Hank Aaron (apparently a great baseball star, although his fame is lost on me as I’ve never followed the sport). The soundtrack consists of a variety of spoken word excerpts, such Martin Luther King’s famous speech, or the first words spoken on the Moon, all iconographic moments in US recent history, alternating with popular music from the 1950s through to the very early 1970s. As well as both of these, a line of handwritten text scrolls across the bottom of the screen. This last is from the diary of a man who plans to murder Richard Nixon, and it reads exactly like the sort of thing written by someone who would plan such a thing – weird spelling mistakes, completely deluded, an oddly prurient but obscene fascination with women… As the film progresses, the story told by the diary deepens, until it is eventually revealed as the real diary of Arthur Bremer, who attempted to kill US presidental candidate George Wallace in 1972. Fascinating stuff.

close_upClose-Up*, Abbas Kiarostami (1990, Iran). I believe this is the film which brought Kiarostami to western critics’ notice, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a documentary in which the people involved re-enact the events of the film’s topic, intercut with footage of the actual court case which results. A man meets a woman in a bus and tells her he is the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The man visits the woman and her family several times, and tries to raise cash from them for his next film. A journalist meets the imposter, realises he is not Makhmalbaf, and the police are called in to arrest him. Kiarostami interviews the journalist, the imposter and the family, and also films them re-enacting the events which led to the arrest. After the court case, the real Makhmalbaf turns up and gives the imposter a lift on his motorbike to the family’s home so he can apologise for trying to con money out of them. It all adds up to a very clever film, which feels partly like a documentary and partly like fiction, and which plays games with the viewer compact, to the extent it’s not clear where the lines blur. Kiarostami is one of the most important directors currently making films, and this film gives ample reason why.

fassbinder1The Niklashausen Journey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). I have a soft spot for films which are little more than actors declaiming political arguments instead of dialogue in a story, such as Miklós Jancsó’s The Confrontation… And now this one. The story is based on a true story from the fifteenth century, about a shepherd who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a vision and promptly tried to start an uprising against the church and landowners. It didn’t succeed. Fassbinder uses a mix of contemporary and historical costumes, and has his actors discuss revolutions and historical forces while notionally acting out the life of the shepherd. It works surprisingly well. Most of the scenes are static, with the cast either standing or sitting still while they speak. And yes, I ended up buying the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection 69-72, Volume 1, so now I have both sets – and they’re worth it even if not every film in them is entirely successful.

rabidRabid, David Cronenberg (1977, Canada). A charity shop find. Sadly, it was the only early Croneneberg they had. It is, unsurprisingly, distinctively one of his. A young couple are involved in a motorbike accident. She is badly burned, but fortunately the accident took place near a famous plastic surgery clinic. The head of the clinic employs an experimental method to graft skin over the burned area, and as a result the young woman, er, grows an orifice in her armpit, yes really, which has a stinger inside, yes really. She uses this to feed. Her victims cannot remember afterwards what happened, and then some time later they turn into zombies. Whoever the zombies bite, also becomes a zombie. It turns into an epidemic, its cause completely flummoxing the Canadian authorities. It’s a bit too daft a premise to shock as horror, although it works quite well as a completely bonkers thriller. Porn actress Marilyn Chambers plays the young woman, in her first straight acting role. Not a bad film, although it’s clear not much money was thrown at it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 650

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Moving pictures, #29

A few too many US films this time, although the Benning is actually only available on a DVD published by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. But then the Satyajit Ray is a Criterion Collection DVD, and they’re only published in the US, so…

music_roomThe Music Room (Jalsaghar)*, Satyajit Ray (1958, India). I’ve been trying to watch more Ray as he’s an important director and to date I’ve only watched two-thirds of his Apu trilogy. The asterisk indicates this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and while Ray is quite well-served in terms of UK DVD releases (thanks to the inestimable Artificial Eye), I decided to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD of The Music Room. The story is a common one, perhaps even common to Indian cinema (it’s certainly one shared with Mother India in part), in that it’s about the death of old ways and the rise of the new. The main character of The Music Room is a Bengali zamindar, wealthy and indolent, but good-hearted and more fond of music than he is looking after the lands and people he is responsible for. His decline is contrasted with the rise of a commoner who beocmes rich through business. The film cleverly shifts sympathy from the zamindar to the commoner, especially given whatever defence might be mounted of the zamindar system the example portrayed in The Music Room is far from a good advert. The film also makes  a great deal of its music, and apparently it was the use of classical Indian music in The Music Room which contributed to its success in the West (it was intended to be a commercial success in India as Ray’s previous film had flopped). I’m reminded of a night I once spent in a Bengali nightclub in Abu Dhabi, when after listening to a fifteen-minute song I asked the person sitting at a nearby table to explain the lyrics. They were surprisingly banal. That’s not something which can be said of this film, which maintains an impressive elegiac tone throughout.

prizziPrizzi’s Honour*, John Huston (1985, USA). There are a number of films whose presence on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is, quite frankly, baffling. This is one of them. It’s a fairly ordinary comedy-drama about Hollywood’s version of the Mob, notable only for Jack Nicholson’s gormless expression throughout and his tortured Brooklyn accent (at least, I think it’s Brooklyn, a native New Yorker would probably know what particular district it’s intended to portray). Nicholson’s character is an enforcer for a Mob don, and he falls in love at first sight with Kathleen Turner at a family wedding. But she’s from out of town (LA, in fact), so he never finds out who she is… Until some time later, when he’s out in LA and it turns out she’s involved in the hit he’s making. The two enter into a relationship, it transpires Turner is a contract killer, and later that she has ripped off the Mob and… well, it’s about as twisty-turny as the first two minutes of your average twenty-first century thriller movie. Turner plays a femme fatale, a role which has defined much of her career; I’m not sure if Nicholson was doing a comedy turn, it’s hard to tell. This is light entertainment, it’s not classic cinema, and you can happily live your life without having never seen it.

around_the_worldAround The World Under The Sea, Andrew Marton (1966, USA). The threat of increased, and more powerful, earthquakes, persuades the UN to back a plan to install earthquake sensors at strategic points around the globe on the ocean bottom. The plan is Lloyd Bridges’s, so he gets to lead the mission – which will involve a globe-spanning trip in a large submersible. Also aboard are five other scientists – Shirley Eaton, Brian Kelly (who doesn’t think a woman should be on board), David McCallum, Keenan Wynan and Marshall Thompson. This film is… tosh. Complete tosh. Wynan initially refuses Bridges’s invite, so Bridges goes to visit him… in his undersea home more than 700 feet below the surface of the sea. And Bridges dives to it on air. It’s also remarkably light down there, in fact the sea bottom is the sort of pale sand you’d find around, say, twenty feet below the surface. There are also other episodes where the crew go diving at depths of greater than 20,000 feet – and it’s unlikely the submersible itself would survive such a depth – on air and without bothering to either compress before or decompress afterwards. There are films which make a reluctant nod in the direction of scientific accuracy, and are those which don’t give a shit. This falls into the latter camp – and it’s not improved by it. The actual premise is complete bollocks, and the presentation of submersibles and diving is complete and utter nonsense. Best avoided.

awful_truthThe Awful Truth*, Leo McCarey (1937, USA). There are films in which Cary Grant seems to glide through the proceedings, sliding along on charm and his perfect delivery of one-liners. Not every film, or even necessarily good films – he is better, for example in Operation Petticoat than he is in North by Northwest. But The Awful Truth is an early film – actually his thirtieth, if the filmography on Wikipedia is any guide – and his first attempt at the debonair leading man in a comedy-drama, a role which later came to define him. In this, he often seems a bit too eager to deliver the punch-line, and it gives him an earnestness which sits at odds with his later on-screen persona (but that’s what you get for watching an actor’s oeuvre in non-chronological order, which is I suspect the way most people end up seeing films starring a particular actor). The plot of The Awful Truth is typical screwball romance fodder: Grant and Irene Dunn are due to divorce, but by parading unsuitable new partners in front of each other, they eventually realise they belong together. Again. The script is witty, Dunne more than holds her own, and if Grant does smirk and gurn a little too often, it doesn’t detract all that much from the film’s essential charm.

american dreamsLandscape Suicide, James Benning (1986, USA). This is cinema as art installation, although Benning pushes the definition of that by including narrative. Yet his films are also documentaries – there is nothing fictional about the material he presents. Landscape Suicide is about two murder cases: one in Wisconsin, one in California; one in 1984, one in 1957. The earlier of the two is the capture of Ed Gein. Benning has an actor play Gein and act out his interrogation by the police. The second is Bernadotte Prott, who stabbed a high school friend to death, and is again portrayed by an actor who acts out her police interrogation. Landscape Suicide is built up from these static talking head shots and equally static shots of the areas in which the crimes were committed, in Wisconsin and California. Although there is nothing in this film which actually tells a story, Benning imposes narrative through his choice of images and his editing. I’ll admit he’s not to everyone’s taste: 90 minutes of static 16mm shots of three or so minutes duration, not always with narration or even people talking – both El Valley Centro and Los, for example, are images and ambient sound only – but it’s the actual procession of images which tells the story, and it’s very cleverly done. Quite meserising too.

scarfacerScarface*, Howard Hawks (1932, USA). I’ve seen about half of Hawks’s oeuvre to date, and some of them I’ve found very good – if very much of their time and very much a product of the Hollywood system (neither necessarily being a bad thing, of course). I will admit to not having high expectations of this movie, a thinly-disguised biopic of Al Capone, even down to re-staging the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Its opening ten or twenty minutes aren’t especially prepossessing, as Paul Muni moves in on deals other gangs have made with speakeasies for their supply of beer (not that the speakeasies had much choice). But then the violence escalates, and it’s all very realistic – so much so, it captures the attention and holds it. Admittedly, I missed the whole “X equals death” thing, although I did wonder why the camera lingered on the ceiling joists of the garage where the massacre took place. Muni seems a bit too much like his role in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to convince as a ruthless mobster, and Boris Karloff is far too lugubrious and, well, English, in a similar role. Despite that, the story speeds along at a breakneck, and accelerating, pace, and it’s not hard to understand why Scarface is considered a seminal film of its genre. Worth seeing.

no_mans_landNo Man’s Land*, Danis Tanović (2001, Bosnia). The only film by Tanović I’d seen previously was Hell, his film of a screenplay by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the second of a new trilogy they were working on just prior to Kieślowski’s death (the first, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer after Kieślowski’s death; the third has never been made). All of which is completely irrelevant as that later film bears little or no resemblance to this one, which takes place mostly between the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb frontlines during the Bosnian War. After a patrol gets lost in a heavy fog, and another patrol is sent out to look for them, two soldiers, one from each side, end up trapped in an abandoned trench in no man’s land. Neither can leave, at risk of getting shot by the opposite side. Just to make matters worse, Bosnian Serbs have boobytrapped a dead Bosniak by putting a bouncing mine under his body. Except he’s not dead. A French sergeant in the UN Peacekeeping Force gets involved, but his superiors veto any resolution of the situation. But then the media arrives on the scene, especially a tenacious British reporter for a news channel. The decision to help gets bounced up the chain of command to Simon Callow’s colonel, but it seems the mine can’t be disarmed. The Bosniak and Bosnia Serb end up shooting each other, and the UN Peacekeepers lie to the media and tell everyone the third man has been rescued, even though he hasn’t. This humour isn’t black, it’s stygian. Like proper humour of this type, everything in it is completely inevitable, including the stupidity and dishonesty of the people involved. It is also completely convincing. Definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 649

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Moving pictures, #28

More films. Just the one from the US, so a reasonable spread. And a few more from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, of course.

pressurePressure, Ron Scalpello (2015, UK). There are many deep sea films, but few of them are about saturation diving. And most of them are complete bollocks anyway. I watched Pioneer this time last year but that was more of land-based thriller than a diving film, although saturation diving did feature heavily in it (see here). But Pressure is very much a diving film. It’s set almost entirely in a diving bell 650 feet (that’s about 20 atmospheres) below the surface of the sea off the coast of Ethiopia. A severe storm strikes and sinks their support ship. So they’re stuck on the sea bed, with no way to decompress and only a limited supply of heliox. Rescue is almost undoubtedly on its way, but the storm may delay it and there’s no telling when it will arrive. Pressure gets most of the details right – it certainly looks like it’s using the right technology – although for obvious reasons it ignores the helium squeak. And toward the end it all gets a bit silly – one diver seems to explode while trying for the surface, but the same fate does not befall hero Danny Huston, even though he doesn’t apparently make any decompression stops en route. (And at that depth, decompression would be measured in days or weeks.) Still, it was good to see a film based on a topic that interests me, and I’ll take what it gets right and overlook what it gets wrong.

cleoCleo from 5 to 7*, Agnès Varda (1962, France). I am ambivalent about the Nouvelle Vague. Some of its films I love, some I simply don’t see the point of. I thought this might fall into the latter, given that it covers the titular hours of the, er, titular character, as she waits for the results of a medical test which she thinks will tell her she has cancer. The film opens, in colour, with Cleo at a tarot reading, but changes to black and white as she leaves and goes about the rest of the day. But, completely unexpectedly, I found myself really loving this film. It helps that Cleo, played by Corinne Marchant, is a likeable protagonist and centres the film; but more than that, there’s the final third in which Cleo meets soldier Antoine in a park and the two talk and mildly flirt – it works really well. The dialogue feels natural, though it covers topics totally in keeping with the film’s themes, and the two have a natural chemistry on screen that plays. It’s hard not to compare it to a pair of Godard films, both black and white – Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée (see here and here) – both of which chiefly comprise women and men in conversation (Godard, incidentally, appears in Cleo from 5 to 7, in a silent film-within-a-film shown to Cleo during the two hours). Neither, however, compares well to this film, which manages to make those conversations not sound like the pretentious twaddle you’d expect of Rive Gauche students but like the natural conversational topics two might people might accidentally fall into. I rather fancy getting a copy of this on DVD or Blu-ray…

shepitkoThe Ascent*, Larisa Shepitko (1976, Russia). Another director completely unknown to me, and one of her films is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but none are available for rental in the UK, so I ended up buying a Criterion Collection DVD containing two of her films, and… The Ascent is set during the Great Patriotic War (WWII to me and thee) during the German invasion of Russia. It is, of course, cold and the ground is heavy with snow. A pair of Russian soldiers are sent to fetch food from a sympathetic farmer, but are captured by Germans. They are interrogated, and one agrees to join the local police – ie, become a collaborator. The film has a stark simplicity, helped by the snowy landscape, that plays to the story’s strengths; and while there’s not that much that’s subtle about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the film’s verisimilitude gives its story a moral authority it might otherwise lack. To be honest, there’s not much about The Ascent that makes it stands out. It’s well-filmed, it treats its subject well, and it makes its points cleverly and with subtlety. It’s a good film, but I’m borderline on whether it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must SeeBefore You Die list, possibly because I suspect Shepitko made more interesting films or because “good” should not be sufficient reason for inclusion. Worth seeing, nonetheless.

warbirdsWarbirds, Kevin Gendreau (2008, USA). I knew this was trash just from the packaging alone, but it mentioned WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the US equivalent to the UK’s ATA (which was not actually a female-only organisation but just comprised mostly women pilots), so I thought it worth a go. That was a mistake. The WASP crew of a B-29 are ordered to deliver their aircraft, with important passengers, to an island in the Pacific, but they are shot down en route. If the WASPs are anything like the ATA, then the aircraft they flew had no guns fitted, and generally a single pilot was sufficient for the trip. Anyway, the WASPs and secret Army brass end up stuck on an island occupied by the Japanese – except the Japanese have almost all been killed by… giant pterodactyls. Yes, it’s that silly. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that this film had been made by the Global Asylum, but apparently not.

leni_riefenstahlOlympia, 2 Fest der Schönheit*, Leni Reifenstahl (1938, Germany). I watched this first half of this a few weeks ago, and though it covers the same subject – the 1936 Berlin Olympics – I suspect it was split into two films simply due to reasons of length. Like the first film, Fest der Volker (see here), it shows the various events. But it actually opens with some lovely shots of nature, followed by some naked men cavorting about – which would be less of a problem if you weren’t conscious of the fact the men in question were Nazis – before eventually returning to the Olympic Games. A variety of events are shown, including sailing, equestrian things and sprinting, but it’s the decathlon which proves the most interesting. There are fewer shots of the crowds, and none of Hitler, but many more of the athletes. The focus seems to be on the winners rather than the Germans, so even though it’s Americans who dominate the decathlon, we get to see them as they win each event. There’s a very real sense that what you’re seeing old, a true ddocument of the state of athletics in 1936, and so it’s easy to forget the political baggage. I happen to think that baggage is important, but neither should it detract from Riefenstahl’s achievement. Whether this holds true for her other movies remains to be seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 645


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