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Moving pictures, #12

Time to catch up on films again…

carnalCarnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols (1971, USA). According to imdb.com, this is a sexual satire but I couldn’t see much that was satirical in a film that unironically treats women like objects. At one point, Jack Nicholson even gives a slide show of his girlfriends, giving a running commentary on each woman’s appearance and sexual prowess. You see Nicholson and Art Garfunkel were at college together, and they both fell in love with Candice Bergen, but Nicholson ended up marrying Ann-Margret… and years later both men treat the women in their lives like shit, and I seriously have to wonder why this is classified as entertainment. There are a lot of classic films that have never been released on DVD, there are a lot of foreign films that have never been released in English-language editions on DVD… So you have to wonder why they bothered to waste non-biodegradable plastic on crap like Carnal Knowledge.

sokurov_earlyWhispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994, Russia). And speaking of foreign languages films not release in– ah wait, I’ve said this before about Sokurov. Whispering Pages is only available as part of a US-only release, Early Masterworks, on Blu-ray and DVD. The films opens with a distorted image of a riverside block of flats in St Petersburg, before eventually focusing on a series of pillars which distortion have rendered almost two-dimensional, and then a man sitting on some steps at the side of the river. He wanders through a series of buildings, a sort of enclosed city, on some sort of quest. I’ve watched the film three times now I’m no clearer as to what’s going on. I’m guessing it’s Limbo or Purgatory, existence as a struggle with some lesson to be learnt, but Sokurov is so allusive and the references so opaque – according to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, the film borrows from both Dostoevsky and Gogol, the works of neither of whom I’m familiar with (although I should be grateful for small mercies in that I didn’t wake up the morning after watching the film and learn I’d ordered their books from Amazon…). But all this, of course, is part of the appeal. The film defies easy understanding, and the beauty and strangeness of the cinematography – it’s weird shifts from sepia-tinted to washed out blues and greys to black and white – sucks you into a world in which there is clearly a pattern but it requires work to discern. I will be watching this again; eventually, I will figure out what it’s about.

guysanddollsGuys and Dolls*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1955, USA). If I added up all my pet hates, I’d have a respectable zoo. Well, a small petting one. Probably full of hamsters. And maybe a goat or two. But one of my pet hates is surely that stupid formalised language like that what is used by the writer Damon Runyan in the speech of his gangster characters in the stories that he wrote. Which is what’s used in Guys and Dolls – likely because the stage show, and so the film, were both based on a pair of stories by Runyan. As it is, Sinatra seems peculiarly charisma-free, Marlon Brando is actually less annoying than usual (although not at first), and Jean Simmons provides a surprisingly common-sensical romantic lead. I didn’t think the songs especially memorable, although one or two of the set-pieces were amusingly done. I am not, it has to be admitted, a fan of musical films, and though I have watched many of them – for reasons I have yet to figure out – I thought this one middling at best.

sonataviolaSonata For Viola, Aleksandr Sokurov (1981, Russia). And here’s another film that features music, that is actually about music – or rather, a composer. I know very little about classical music, it just isn’t my thing; so the appeal here is likely to be limited. And so it proves. Sokurov puts together a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich based on archive footage. It’s an early work, so the voice-over tends to be more factual and less philosophical than later documentaries; and while it does a good job of laying out Shostakovich’s life, and setting it in context, it’s not likely to attract viewers unless they’re interested in the topic or the director. One for the collection, without a doubt. But no, not a favourite in Sokurov’s oeuvre.

pickpocketPickpocket*, Robert Bresson (1959, France). Bresson is a highly regarded director, and several of his films appear on various lists of great or top 100 or films to see before you die lists. Which is why I’ve seen several… despite not actually taking to any of them. Such as Pickpocket. Non-professional actor Martin LaSalle plays a young man who drifts into thievery, initially for kicks but later as a means to make a living. He meets various other pickpockets and thieves, learns the tricks of the trade, has metaphysical discussions with assorted people, finds himself in a battle of wits with a police inspector… but it’s all played so flat, so affect-less, that’s it’s hard to give much of a shit. LaSalle is a cipher, the remainder of the cast are mouth-pieces, and the story’s only saving grace is its irony. But for irony to really bite, you have to care about its victims. And Bresson does a piss-poor job of making LaSalle, or indeed anyone in the film, sympathetic. He can do it for a donkey, but apparently not for a criminal. Disappointing.

shock_aweNymphomaniac, Volume I and II, Lars von Trier (2013, Denmark). I remember seeing posters for this all over Copenhagen when I was there for Christmas in 2013. And since catching a film at the cinema is an sort on-and-off family tradition over the holiday, I did briefly consider this as a possible contender… But it’s 241 minutes long in total, and I suspected it wasn’t really suitable family viewing… Both facts I can now confirm, having watched it on Blu-ray – although I saw the version bundled in the Shock & Awe von Trier box set, which is not the 325 minute director’s cut. So beware. Stellan Skarsgård finds a badly-beaten Charlotte Gainsbourg one night, takes her home and sees to her injuries. Once recovered, she explains she is a nymphomaniac and tells him her life-story – which is shown in flashback, with Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg. It begins with teenage sexual games, moves onto unhealthy relationships, and finally a marriage which slowly disintegrates, in part because Martin is now visiting sadist Jamie Bell on a regular basis. Skarsgård tries to explain Gainsbourg’s stories by relating them to fly-fishing, as he later admits to having never experienced sex himself. Both parts of Nymphomaniac are pretty much typical von Trier, that unhappy mix of beautiful cinematography, keen observation of the banal, and an almost schoolboyish desire to shock. He also does that thing where a line of genuine insight is often followed by a banal cliché – because he’s at his best when he’s observing and at his worst when he fails to resist the temptation to let his story jump the rails. I still think von Trier is an important director, and the Shock & Awe box set was certainly worth purchasing… but of the von Trier films I’ve seen so far I think Antichrist is the best in this collection – it’s the most emblematic of his later work, not to mention the least misogynistic. It often feels as though von Trier considers himself the enfant terrible of cinema – and tries just a little bit too hard to live up to the label.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 589


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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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