I should really get into the habit of reading a book in the evening. The TBR is shrinking far too slowly, and the DVD collection is growing far too quickly. And, sadly, not every film I’ve watched was worth the hour or two it took to sit through it. This is hardly a surprise, however. As some of the films described below might attest.
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas*, FW Murnau (1931, USA). I’m a big fan of Murnau’s Nosferatu, and I’ve been picking up copies of his other films – in the excellent Masters of Cinema series by eureka! – on DVD. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas was Murnau’s last film (he died a week before its opening) and, despite the year, it’s a silent film. The film apparently had a troubled gestation. Murnau joined forces with Robert J Flaherty, who had experience filming in Tahiti. Neithr could raise sufficient capital, so Murnau financed the bulk of the movie himself. In order to save money, Murnau trained locals as crew. He also rewrote the script, which caused problems with Flaherty – and their relationship subsequently worsened to the point where Flaherty no longer co-directed. The movie makes a point of its cast also being native to the region – an opening intertitle states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”, although the second half of the film is set at a French colony and features some French characters. A young woman of Bora Bora is is declared sacred to the gods, which somewhat upsets her boyfriend as she is now “tabu” (er, taboo). So they escape and settle at a nearby French colony. But, of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, not even in the South Seas. And so it proves here. There’s some remarkable photography, and I can only imagine its impact back in the 1930s when the nearest most movie-goers would get to Polynesia is a poster in a shipping office in their nearest port city. Worth seeing.
Moontrap, Robert Dyke (1989, USA). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list, but as soon as the film started and I saw it starred Walter Koenig, I knew I’d made a mistake. And Koenig’s hair looked almost real, so the film was a good deal older than I’d thought (that DVD cover makes it look a good deal more recent). There’s some nonsense about ancient astronauts, and one of their derelict spaceships drifts into Earth orbit, and a base on the Moon that was abandoned, as the DVD cover says, 14,000 years ago. But it all ends up as a really crap robot-type thing wreaking havoc in a secret base, and Koenig on the Moon – featuring scenes with model work more obvious even than Michael Bentine’s Potty Time – where he re-awakens a nubile ancient astronaut… leading to a later scene of lunar hanky-panky in an inflatable tent. This is a shit film, the sort of movie that its cast refuse to put on their cv’s, even Bruce Campbell who is a major cult actor. Except perhaps not the director, who probably still thinks it’s really good. He is very wrong.
Le souffle au cœur*, Louis Malle (1971, France). Malle is, I think, another one of those French directors, like Bresson, whose movies don’t really work for me. Others, such as Varda, Godard or Truffaut, I like some of their films but not others; and yet other French directors – Ozon, Rohmer, for example – I like pretty much everything of theirs I’ve seen. Anyway, Le souffle au cœur – better known among Anglophone film-watchers, perhaps, as Murmur of the Heart – is about a fifteen-year-old boy who, while at a sanatorium recovering from a bout of scarlet fever, has sex with his mother. The film is set during the 1950s, although there’s a very 1970s look and feel to it. The movie is apparently notable for its jazz score, but not being a jazz fan the thing that stood out for me was the juvenile objectification of women – which is, unfortunately, something all too common to commercial art of the 1970s and earlier. While the aforementioned fifteen-year-old is the film’s protagonist, and hence point-of-view, there’s no nuance to it – and, in fact, at the sanatorium a pair of teenage girls are presented as little more than targets to be conquered. Disappointing.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!*, Russ Meyer (1965, USA). Back in the 1980s, I remember staying at my aunt and uncle’s and watching Jonathan Ross’s The Incredibly Strange Film Show, an episode of which featured Russ Meyer. In the, er, decades since, I’ve seen Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was pretty crap; and I can’t honestly say I’d ever bother watching any of his other films, but Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is – bafflingly – on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list so I dutifully added it to my rental list. Much is made of the fact the film features three women as its protagonists, and they are indeed strong murderous women, especially the leader, the scenery-chewing Tura Satana. Three exotic dancers in fast cars head out into the Californian desert, challenge a young man to a race, beat him to death afterwards, then descend on a nearby farm whose owner apparently has lots of money hidden somewhere… where things start to go wrong. The film is shot in black and white, with a mostly unprofessional cast, and whatever energy it possesses is likely a result of financial constraints than artistic agenda. It’s mildly amusing… and somewhat scary that this film stands out because of its gender roles – because, to be honest, stuff like that should not be remarkable.
Ninotchka*, Ernst Lubitsch (1939, USA). “Garbo laughs!” At least so the posters for this movie claimed; and there she is, laughing, on the DVD cover – as if she had never laughed in a film before ever. But I suppose a film about wealthy White Russian aristocrats versus dour Red Russians, even if the latter are mostly comedic, probably didn’t make for an appealing tagline in pre-WWII USA. I know this movie better as its 1957 musical remake starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Silk Stockings, but other than the latter being filmed in colour, and featuring some singing and dancing, there’s not a fat lot of difference between the two. (Garbo’s Russian accent is, perhaps, a teensy-weensy bit less crap than Charisse’s.) Three Soviets head to Paris to sell off some jewellery for much-needed state cash, but the White Russian original owner of the baubles has other plans. When the title character is sent to learn what happened to the bumbling three, it gets all romantic and the icy Soviet envoy thaws. Meh.
Mortdecai, David Koepp (2015, UK). This is apparently based on a series of books by Kyril Bonfiglioli, originally published in the 1970s. I’m told the books are good. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the movie. You know when you watch something and even though it’s set in the present day (ie, the second decade of the twenty-first century) everything in its seems weirdly old-fashioned – like that Paddington film, for instance. And like this one. I suspect it would have felt old-fashioned if it had been made in the 1970s. Depp plays the title character, a louche art dealer who’s a little too fond of bending the law. One of his previous swindles comes back to bite him, and the plot of the film is basically him running around trying to run a con to save his own skin and his weird rockstar stately home. There are a couple of funny set-pieces, but Depp plays his role like Mortdecai is a grotesque and the whole 2015 mise en scène just doesn’t suit the story at all. You could try watching it pissed but I suspect it would be no better. In fact, it’s so meh I can’t even be arsed to try reading the books…
The Last Picture Show*, Peter Bogdanovich (1971, USA). This is one of those films which launched a number of careers, not just director Bogdanovich’s, but also Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges; and apparently had loads of Oscar nominations (but only two wins – for best supporting actress and best supporting actor). There must be something about the set-up which appeals to audiences but I can’t see it myself. Small US town, lives going nowhere, it’s been covered so many times in US films and books it’s gone beyond banal. I can’t even honestly day that Bogdanovich brings anything new to the cliché. There are a handful of small touches which work quite, most notably some of the character arcs, and the narrative flow through the film is smooth and builds well to the conclusion. I suppose there’s a point to be made in that I found this mostly dull but I love All That Heaven Allows, which is also set in small town USA during the 1950s. And both are, in their own way, tragedies. But Sirk’s film charts a downward trajectory, whereas Bogdanovich’s starts low and continues at that level before sinking even deeper. I also love Sirk’s Technicolor cinematography. The two films, to my mind, don’t really compare.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 634