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Moving pictures, #14

Yet more films, some of which are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (asterisked). And there’s another Sokurov in there too. I’ve kept the number mentioned in this post lower than usual, perhaps in the hope I’ll write something a bit more critically insightful than I usually do. Oh well.

mockingjayThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, Francis Lawrence (2014, USA). I seem to have missed this off an earlier Moving pictures post, so I thought I’d better include it here. I have not read the books – I don’t read YA as I am not a Young Adult, but I’m happy to watch the movie adaptations… even if, 99 times out of 100, I’ll not be impressed. And so it is with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence is an excellent actress – see her in Winter’s Bone to see just how good (and it’s a bloody good film too) – but she seems wasted in this series. It’s all about, well, it’s all a bit obvious. I’ve been told that the book is different because Katniss is a reluctant figurehead for the resistance to Capitol (which throughout the film is shown as the capital of Panem, and that’s not what “capitol” means). Anyway, this comes to a head when Katniss is taken to District 13, which is fighting against Capitol and… it’s about as subtle as a mackerel in the face, not to mention weirdly-paced. While Lawrence stands out, as does Donald Sutherland’s broad-brush evil president, the rest of the cast tend to fade into the background, which is a surprise given the calibre of the talent. I’ll watch the final film of this “trilogy”, but I don’t hold a high opinion of them.

steamboatbillSteamboat Bill, Jr*, Charles Reisner (1928, USA). Buster Keaton’s last film with United Artists, before he moved to MGM and later lost creative control of his films. Keaton plays the college-educated son of a paddle-steamer owner and captain, whose ship is decrepit and losing business to a rival. And it turns out that Keaton is is planning to marry the daughter of said rival. Various hijinks ensue, but it’s the extended sequence where a cyclone hits the town that really shows comic genius. Keaton’s stories do tend to overuse his underdog status and, yes, he always comes out top in the end – with much comical slapstick along the way – but it’s hard to begrudge him the formulaic construction of his films as they are quite funny – and, in parts, really funny.

predestinationPredestination, Michael & Peter Spierig (2014, Australia). There are many science fiction works crying out to be adapted for the cinema, and while Robert Heinlein’s ‘All You Zombies’ might seem like a good example, it’s difficult to see how a decent feature-length film might be made of it. But the Spierigs had a go. And they actually made quite a good fist of it. The story is basically a piece of Heinlein fluff – he never understood its popularity, and complained about it frequently in his letters, as published in Grumbles from the Grave – involving a time traveller who turns out to be both his own mother and father. The film expands this by adding in some sort of apocalyptic terrorist, and an additional character (played by Ethan Hawke, see DVD cover) to whom the narrator of the original Heinlein story tells their story. I told a friend after seeing Predestination that it wasn’t as twisty-turny as Primer (a film I like) but more twisty-turny than Looper (a film I didn’t like). But yes, I did like this one.

sokurov_earlyAn Example of Intonation, Aleksandr Sokurov (1991, Russia). If memory serves me aright, I watched this after yet another rewatch of Whispering Pages. Which I think makes the Early Masterworks Blu-ray/DVD set (as pictured) the most re-watched DVD box set I own. An Example of Intonation is basically an interview with Boris Yeltsin – and it’s one of the few documentaries Sokurov has made in which he actually appears as himself on-camera. It opens with several minutes of static footage of a snow-covered woodland, while a choral piece plays over the top. It then cuts to two figures walking along a path in a residential estate. Their footstpes are loud on the snow and ice, but their voices are muffled (I would not be surprised to learn that the Russian version is subtitled during this part of the film). The two figures are Boris Yeltsin and Sokurov. The film is a surprisingly frank portrait of the former, and astonishingly personal. Yeltsin is no matinee idol, and though his face often fills the entire frame, it’s a face which humanises a man whom the West has chosen to depict as… if not a villain, certainly one of the architects of the USSR’s fall (and perversely, while the collapse of the USSR is seen as a good thing, those who brought it about from within are seen as having failed at… something – yet more Western political hypocrisy). After the interview, Sokurov joins the family for a meal. The documentary finishes with a dashboard cam recording a journey by a limousine and police escort. It is because of artistic decisions such as this that I think Sokurov is perhaps the greatest director currently making films.

anouslaliberteÀ nous la liberté*, René Clair (1931, France). There is something both Renoir-ish and early Hollywood about the plot of this film, and something very Tati about its implementation. A pair of convicts put together a plan to escape from prison, but one of them fails to make it. The one that does, however, while on the run steals bicycle… and is subsequently mistaken for the winner of the bike race. He uses the prize money and builds up a business selling, and then manufacturing, gramophones, and so becomes a rich industrialist. At which point, the other convict is released as he’s finished his sentence. He goes to work in the gramophone factory, learns the boss is his old mucker from inside, and the two pick up their friendship. But then gangsters learn of the industrialist’s past and demand money. There’s an extended comic sequence in which they try to rob the plant, with the help and hindrance of the two ex-cons… The film ends with the pair as tramps, penniless and on the run. I must admit I wasn’t particularly taken with this for the first twenty or thirty minutes, but as the film progressed it got a lot more interesting and entertaining. There are some good jokes about assembly lines, and an amusing running joke about the woman one of the convicts fancies. A good movie, worth seeing.

robinhoddThe Adventures of Robin Hood*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). I’m really not sure what to make of this. It was filmed in glorious Technicolor, and I mean glorious. It looked beautiful – and some of the outfits worn by the cast, I remember one in an orange and purple tunic with purple tights, for example… But the story was complete Hollywood flim-flam, and not even remotely historical. And I don’t just mean Friar Tuck apparently knowing how to fight with a sword (an edged weapon!). Or Will Scarlet managing to keep his eye-searingly red outfit clean while living in Sherwood Forest… Having said that, the films possesses bags of classic Hollywood charm, as does Errol Flynn. The dialogue was pure cheese, and the cast mostly pure ham. But for all its faults, it’s Technicolor and it looks fantastic. I was born in Sherwood Forest – well, I was born in the town which stands in what used to be the centre of Sherwood Forest (there’s even a plaque to commemorate it), so Robin Hood has been part of my world since I was old enough to understand my surroundings. While The Adventures of Robin Hood hits the main points of the legend as it’s commonly known, it’s probably better considered a piece of Hollywood history than Nottinghamshire history. I quite fancy a copy myself – I’ll have to see if I can find one going cheap on eBay…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 594


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Moving pictures, #7

If it weren’t for rental DVDs, I’d have been in a cultural vacuum this past couple of months. All that sportsing on television. Just when one ended, another began. And it’s still going on. It’s interminable. And, truth be told, so were some of the films I’ve watched over the past few weeks. But not all of them.

There’s books too, of course; though obviously I don’t get through as many of those per month. And I’m reluctant to write about every book I’ve read because a) I’m not a book blogger, b) not all of them are worth writing about, and c) quite a few of them are for review anyway – either for SF Mistressworks or for Interzone. Having said that, I really ought to write about books that have blown me away… except they seem to have been in somewhat short supply this year.

But, films. Movies. Moving pictures. Cinema. I continue to get my money’s worth from Amazon rental (Lovefilm as was), and if I chuck the occasional twenty-first century Hollywood blockbuster on my rental list because everyone’s talking about them, I usually end up wondering what all the fuss was about. But then, I do have an odd taste in movies. I recently had another look at my ten favourite films and made a few changes to it – and now it looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA), 2 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA), 3 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA) 4 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia), 5 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland), 6 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany), 7 Dune, David Lynch (1985, USA), 8 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine), 9 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Robert Wise (1979, USA), 10 Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks (1959, USA)… but it’ll likely change. It seems to do so every year or two anyway. Which is, I guess, a sign of a healthy list of favourites…

Anyway, on with the last few weeks’ worth of viewing:

Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor (2013, USA) Perhaps they should have just called it Thor: The Dark Film, because this is not a film to watch on a television on a summer evening. There were these dark shapes doing something in darkness, and it was all to do with Christopher Ecclestone in trollish make-up being evil. Or something. I don’t know, I couldn’t honestly give a shit. Marvel have mangled Norse mythology so much it’s frankly embarrassing they continue to use names like Thor and Loki. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a huge step backwards in terms of both comic rigour (not hugely adhered to, in the first place) and blockbuster cinema. Comic fans, they have taken something you admire and made something dumb of it. Do not celebrate that.

bogart_barefoot

The Barefoot Contessa, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1954, USA) An archetypal rags-to-riches story, told after the fact by laconic screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, who was there at the start and also there at the end. Ava Gardner plays a flamenco dancer who catches the eye of a Wall Street millionaire (that’s all they were back in those days, millionaires) who dabbles in movies. Turns out she’s photogenic and she becomes an international film star… and then marries an Italian count. But it all ends very badly. A Hollywood melodrama, with a nice voice-over by the Humph but very little substance.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence (2013, USA) This series baffles me. The games themselves are clearly the core of the story, and the dystopian world exists to justify their existence… but the obvious plot – that Katniss becomes some sort of rebel figurehead due to her success in the games (and no, I’ve not read the books) – seems to be taking so long to get moving you spend most of the time waiting for a whole marching band’s worth of shoes to drop. Instead you get a bunch of caricatures carefully plodding through a plot which refuses to engage with its central theme. But then, when the most memorable thing in a film is, ooh! Her dress is on fire!, it seems churlish to complain about thematic depth…

Nights Of Cabiria, Frederico Fellini (1957, Italy) Truth be told, the best parts of this film are the beginning and the end. It opens with Cabiria, a Roman prostitute, being pushed into a river and then being saved from drowning; and finishes with her stumbling onto a group of happy young people playing music after her fiancé has admitted to trying to kill her for her money. And yet, despite that, this is not a dour movie. Cabiria, played by Giulietta Masina, is irrepressibly optimistic, and it rubs off. It feels like a happy film, like a corner is forever about to be turned… even though it never does, even though Nights Of Cabiria is never as grim as Cabiria’s profession would suggest. This could be Fellini having his cake and eating it, but I prefer to think it’s the character of Cabiria rising above the material. Not my favourite Fellini film, but a good one.

Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes (2011, USA) This is actually a five-part mini-series, adapted from the James M Cain novel of the same name, as was the 1945 Joan Crawford film also of the same name. I’ve always wanted to like Haynes’ films more than I end up doing, but this one proved excellent from start to finish. Kate Winslet plays the title character, and she’s very good in the role. Haynes also manages to portray a convincing 1940s Los Angeles, and it’s certainly a less glamorous one than in the Crawford film. Recommended.

Mrs Miniver, William Wyler (1942, USA) Despite being an American film, this is set in the UK. Although Mr Mininver is American (Walter Pidgeon). It’s about a housewife during WWII, played by Greer Garson, and to be honest I remember almost nothing about it. Garson was, I seem to remember, very good, if somewhat terribly terribly… but I have zero memory of the plot. I think their house got bombed? If you’re looking for cinema verité about the Second World War, this is not the film to get.

the-act-of-killing

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012, Denmark) The “elevator pitch” for this did not deserve to work – or rather, in the real world it should not have worked. But it did. The director took a team to Indonesia and interviewed those responsible for the huge numbers of killings of “communists” (over half a million) between 1965 and 1966, and asked them to re-enact those killings. The film starts by interviewing one of the gang leaders during that time, Anwar Congo, before exploring the Indonesian paramilitary organisations known as “preman”, especially the largest one, Pancasila Youth. The scenes acted out by Congo and his associates turn increasingly strange as they explore through cinema conventions what they did and how it affected them. That Congo at the end has an epiphany as a direct result of his re-enactments – what he did, he now realises, was bad – feels like too neat an ending, almost a cliché, and yet the murders committed by the preman back in the 1960s, and the stuff they get up to even now, are anything but trite and should not be forgotten.

Stranded, Roger Christian (2013, Canada) You see a crap straight-to-DVD sf film these days, and chances are it was made in Canada. Most are best avoided. Like this one. Christian Slater – whose career is clearly no longer what it once was – stars as the commander of a base on the Moon. A meteor strike damages the base shortly before the crew of four are about to rotate out. One of the meteorites contained some alien gunk, which impregnates the sole female character and overnight she becomes nine months pregnant. Then whatever it was she was carrying vanishes, I think it was an alien which was impersonating another member of the crew but by that point my brain was dribbling out of my ears.

The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia) This was a rewatch, and it’s probably my favourite Sokurov film (and, of course, one of my ten favourite films). The subject matter and cinematography perfectly complement each other, which is not always true of his movies (another in which it does is Confession, but that’s also incredibly slow and long). A young man travels to Siberia to bury his father, and he has to deal with his loss as he deals with the local bureaucracy. I’ve tried to work out why this film appeals to me so strongly – I have an aversion to films with father-son narratives as I find Hollywood’s use of the trope typically stretches from the banal to the inane. But The Second Circle seems to me to give due emotional weight to its topic – it’s a father-son narrative that’s about grief and loss, not disappointment or approval. It is, in other words, real. Too many Hollywood films by male directors feel like they can be reduced to the director (or perhaps the writer) acting out in disguised form the issues they had with their own fathers; but this is one of the few movies that tackles the subject head-on and does it with intelligence. Oh, and why aren’t all of Sokurov’s films available in UK editions, eh? For example, he’s made a quartet of films about “the corrupting effects of power”, and one of them, the third, has never been released in this country.

goldencoach

The Golden Coach, Jean Renoir (1952, France) This was unexpected; I mean, I’ve seen several of Renoir’s films and they’re excellent – La Règle du jeu, La Grande Illusion, Partie de campagne… So I had high expectations for The Golden Coach. But it turned out to be a dodgy Hollywood-style historical film, with none of Renoir’s wit, a mostly wooden cast, and the only real touch of Renoir was the start, which was framed as the beginning of a play on a stage, but as the camera moved onto the stage, so it all opened out into a cinematic world. Avoidable.

Le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès (1902, France) I was surprised to discover this was only around fifteen minutes long, and that its story is quite mad. Though, to be honest, the documentary about Méliès also on the DVD was more interesting than the film. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it (and you can too, in fact, as there’s loads of versions of it on YouTube).

The Lego Movie, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (2014, USA) I’d heard lots of good things about this, even from normally sensibly people – so, despite it not being my thing at all, I borrowed it from a friend. There were a couple of laugh out loud moments, and more references to sf films than you could shake a reasonably-sized stick at… but in places it felt a bit by-the-numbers and, sigh, it all boiled down to a son and his relationship with his father. Even bloody toys can’t escape the father-son Hollywood narrative. Mildly entertaining.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I watch some of the films I’ve written about, it’s because I’m working my way through this list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It’s not an especially good list – lots of spelling mistakes, for a start – and I’m finding many of films that I don’t think belong on it, and some not on it that I believe should be. To date, I’ve seen 494 of them – most of them as rental DVDs, but some of them are proving hard to source…

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