More catching up on my viewing. Despite the death of the DVD-player, and a few hiccups from the Blu-ray player, I’ve still managed to watch around two films a night for the past few weeks. Actually, quite a few of the ones mentioned below are rewatches…
Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). It should be obvious by now I’m a complete Sokurov fanboi, but it’s films like Elegy of a Voyage I admire most from his oeuvre. The imdb plot summary is is a model of unhelpfulness: “From a misty night into the dark exposition rooms of a museum to ponder philosophically at paintings by Pieter Jansz Saenredam, Hercules Pieterszoon Seghers, Hendrikus van de Sande Bakhuyzen, Andreas Schelfhout, Vincent van Gogh, Pieter Bruegel, Charles Henri Joseph Leickert” – and quite possibly misinformation (I also think they mean “exhibition” and not “exposition”, but never mind.) . Because while Elegy of a Voyage – a documentary, with a voice-over by Sokurov himself – does indeed describe a voyage from a Russian city to a German city and then onto a museum where, among other paintings, the narrator muses on Bruegel’s ‘The “Little” Tower of Babel’, there’s so much more to the film than that. It is, as you’d expect from Sokurov, beautifully photographed, and some of the cinematography is quite breathtaking. The voice-over is also both literate and philosophical – if watching Ingmar Bergman is like watching literary fiction adapted for the cinema, watching Sokurov is like watching the cinematic equivalent of literary fiction. I think this is another film that hovers between ten to twenty in my list of favourite films – which gives Sokurov three spots in my top twenty… And yet many of his films are still not available with English subtitles. I think the BFI should do something about that. They did an excellent job with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, so why not for Aleksandr Sokurov’s?
Saving Private Ryan*, Steven Spielberg (1998, USA). I’d never actually seen this, and being a Spielberg film I probably would never have bothered… but it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s actually held in reasonably high regard… So when I saw a copy in a charity shop for 99p, I bought it. And, to be fair, if I were going to put together a top ten list of WWII films only – and I’m not much of a fan of WWII films – then, yes, I think I’d put Saving Private Ryan in that top ten. The opening scenes depicting the Normandy landings are worth the price of entry alone. The story which follows, in which Tom Hanks tries to find the eponymous private because his three brothers have been killed in combat (in different theatres) and he needs to be shipped home before he enjoys the same fate and leaves the Ryan family with no male heirs… is both faintly ridiculous and a bit dull. Worse than that, however, is the film’s suggestion that WWII was fought entirely by the US. The Germans and Japanese are mentioned as the enemy, but watching this film you’d never know the Allies included a whole raft of nations beside the USA, many of which had been fighting the Nazis for several years before the Americans deigned to get involved. I firmly believe if you teach people lies, they’ll start to treat them like the truth – and Hollywood is one of the greatest liars on the planet. For all its strengths as a war film, it’s astonishing how Saving Private Ryan manages to incorporate something that might offend or upset every other nationality on the planet.
Alexandra, Aleksandr Sokurov (2007, Russia). This was a rewatch – I think I originally watched it on a rental, but having started building up my own collection of Sokurov DVDs, I rewatched it. The title refers to the grandmother of a Russian army officer currently stationed in Chechnya. She goes to visit him, travelling by troop train, and stays in his camp. He, however, is sent away on a mission shortly after her arrival, so she has to look after herself. She wanders about the camp, making friends with the soldiers – they’re all conscripts – and even visits the local market… where she meets some of the local Chechens, and strikes up an acquaintance with a local woman of her own age. Alexandra comments on the Russian invasion of Chechnya simply by documenting it. You see the conscripts in the camp, and it’s clear they don’t really understand what they’re doing; you see the damage the war has wrought on the town. And there’s the commentary of the grandson of Alexandra, who has to maintain discipline using violence (in an incident he explains to his grandmother). Yet what Sokurov depicts is the aftermath and cost of war – the soldiers are innocents, the Chechnyans have survived in spite of the war, Alexandra’s grandson treats his military service like a job… Sokurov apparently is not a believer in plot: “If the film is based on the principle of the story, the narrative, it is not art.” This probably explains my love of his work.
Space Battleship Yamato, Takashi Yamazaki (2010, Japan). This is a live action version of a long-running anime property and, while I’ve been aware of the anime version, anime’s not really my thing so I’ve not made an effort to watch it. But the cover art to the live action version’s DVD sort of appealed to me (I like battleships), so I picked up a copy to watch. And… Well, it starts out like Battlestar Galactica and finishes up like Starship Troopers. The surface of the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable during a war with aliens, but when the hero stumbles across a beacon from crashed alien spaceship it proves to include blueprints for a new intergalactic drive, a powerful weapon, and a set of coordinates in another galaxy. So they fit the Yamato with the drive and a “wave gun” and send it off to the Andromeda Galaxy where, according to the beacon, there is a world which has the technology to return the Earth to its previous state, before it became a radiation-blasted wasteland. It’s not enough that the first two-thirds feel like Battlestar Galactica distilled down until it’s no more than a string of clichés, stereotypes and archetypes, the film then turns into the sort of Vietnam War in Spaaace film, with a bit of Iwo Jima thrown in, as typified by Starship Troopers and Aliens. There’s a vague hand-wave in the direction of a twist, when it transpires the good aliens are just another facet of the bad aliens… but it’s too little too late. The viewer’s brain has already been pummelled into mush by the constant battering of clichés. The CGI is very pretty, though.
52 Pick-up, John Frankenheimer (1986, USA). A charity shop find this one, which I bought as I have soft spot for bad 1970s and early 1980s thrillers. Except this one turned out to be okay, if a little sweary and with somewhat too much gratuitous nudity. Roy Scheider plays a successful businessman – he owns a foundry which makes some special patented alloy for NASA. He has an affair, but is then blackmailed by three hooded men (the young woman proves to have been in on it). Initially, Scheider plays ball, but then he decides to get his own back on the blackmailers – he tracks them down, one by one, and confronts them. But this doesn’t go well. In that respect, the plot is almost text-book. The NASA connection adds a little flavour, and wife Ann-Margret’s incipient political career is a nice touch; but in most other respects this is a standard victim-turns-tables thriller, and Hollywood churned out an uncountable number of those during the 1970s and early 1980s. There must have been something in the water at the time…
Moloch, Aleksandr Sokurov (1999, Russia). From what I’ve read, Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) was extremely well received (and it is indeed excellent), but Sokurov’s following film, Moloch, completely flummoxed his admirers. And it’s easy to see why. It’s not just that its subject is Hitler, but also its deliberate flouting of historical record. The Berghof of Moloch is not the airy Bavarian chalet of history but a Gothic mountain-top castle. But it’s the ahistoricity of Moloch which makes it more interesting. It’s not, like Downfall, an attempt at an accurate record of an incident during WWII, it’s more of an allegory told using Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun. He visits Eva at the Berghof, with the Goebbels and Martin Borman. There are several dinners, Hitler watches some newsreels, and even pretends to conduct an orchestra shown on a film. The party go for a picnic – and here the cinematography resembles the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and the like, and though the party act about like children – there’s a very infantile cast to much of their behaviour throughout the film – it makes for an affecting juxtaposition against the scenery. (Which is only made more so when Hitler goes for a shit among the rocks.) Moloch is plainly a more ambitious film than Mother and Son, and it has a lot more going on under the surface. The visuals are not so striking, and the casting of the Berghof as some sort of castle from a cheap horror film is initially off-putting. But as the film progresses and Sokurov’s take on Hitler is built up layer by layer, so Moloch becomes a stronger film than Mother and Son (although it is never as emotionally affecting as that earlier film). Sokurov made three movies about men and power – the first was Moloch, the third was The Sun (2004), about Emperor Hirohito. The second, Taurus (2001), was about Lenin… and it has never been made available in an edition with English subtitles. Argh.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Harald Zwart (2013, USA). I started watching this thinking it was Divergent, another derivative but highly successful YA property adapted for film, which explains my initial confusion, not to mention my complete puzzlement, as to why the studio would open the DVD with an extended trailer for the film of the DVD… To make it clear, there is nothing odd about opening a DVD of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones with an extended trailer for Divergent, but there is – as I thought was the case – in opening a DVD of Divergent with an extended trailer for Divergent. Anyway, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones… Young woman witnesses mother attacked by demon, and subsequently falls in with Goth type at some Goth type night club. This really was shite, badly acted, badly scripted, and it managed to hit every cliché in the genre, with an astonishing lack of charm. I ended up taking the piss out of the film on Twitter as I watched it because actually watching it was making my brain hurt.
The Kid Brother*, Ted Wilde (1927, USA). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the Harold Lloyd which features that iconic image of him hanging from the clock-face – as shown on the DVD cover left – but I’ve seen nothing else by him. This one is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is why I rented it. Lloyd plays the youngest son of a sheriff, a real man’s man, with a pair of older manly brothers. Lloyd is ineffectual, clumsy, and usually gets it wrong. He’s mucking about at home and pretending to be sheriff, when a travelling fair passes by. Taken with the fair’s dancing girl, he gives them permission to set up in the town. But his father, the real sheriff, is not impressed and tells Lloyd he must go and tell the fair to pack up and leave. In the ensuing chaos, thieves from the fair steal the money the town has collected to build a dam, and which was being held for safe-keeping at the sheriff’s house. Lloyd decides to prove himself – and win the girl – by retrieving the money… It may be a pretty well-worn story, but you don’t watch Harold Lloyd for insights or human truths, you watch it for the slapstick. And there’s plenty of excellent slapstick in The Kid Brother. Worth seeing.
Epidemic, Lars von Trier (1987, Denmark). The second film in the E-Trilogy set, but the last one I watched – chiefly because the plot summary didn’t much appeal. It is, like the other films in the set, somewhat experimental in form. It documents a pair of scriptwriters’ attempt to make a film titled The Policeman and the Whore (one of the scriptwriters is von Trier himself), but instead decide to write a script about an outbreak of a plague-like disease. And then real life starts to mimic their script, as people are taken ill in an actual epidemic. Then it all goes a bit weird. I’m in no doubt that von Trier is an important film-maker (strange that Denmark, such a small country, should have produced two: Dreyer and von Trier; but the UK has, er, Hitchock, the Archers*…), but I find many of his films problematic. I like the black box theatre of Dogville, but the story eventually descends into misogynism and OTT violence. Melancholia looked beautiful but was wildly implausible. Breaking the Waves only succeeded because its cast managed to make their roles seem believable. I like that von Trier pushes the boundaries of cinema, I admire him for it, and he is clearly superb technically, but I also think his choice of material never quite fits. There is, for me, something a little bit off about each of von Trier’s films, but I’ve yet to decide if that is a weakness or a strength.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 573
* I’m being disingenous, of course. The UK has produced a number of important directors, although who would appear on that list is no doubt debatable. But given Denmark’s 5 million population, you’d expect the UK to have, proportionally, at least two dozen important directors… and I don’t think that’s the case.