Had a fun weekend not so long ago. The Royal Mail managed to lose my address, they somehow managed to not find the place they’d been delivering my mail to for the past ten years. The mail in this case being my rental DVDs from Amazon. On receiving the returned DVDs, Amazon marked my account so no new films would be dispatched until I’d confirmed my address. Which I did. But this managed to break things, so my account got stuck in “do not dispatch”. I contacted Amazon’s help desk, and they apologised and immediately put 3 DVDs from my list in the post. And they added a fourth to make up for the hassle. The help desk person also raised a note to Amazon’s engineering department about the fact my account was stuck. And they fixed it. Which meant their system immediately despatched the next 3 DVDs from my rental list. With the two discs a week I get from Cinema Paradiso… I ended up with nine DVDs to watch that weekend.
Gold Diggers of 1933, Mervyn LeRoy (1933, USA). There is, it has to be said, something of a formula to the films in this Busby Berkeley Collection. A producer wants put on a show, but for some reason can’t. Then everyone rallies round… and it happens. Here, it’s a lack of money but once that hurdle is overcome, the show goes on. The story focuses on four actresses – the “gold diggers” of the title – played by Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers (all three of whom appear in several of the other films) and Aline McMahon. Of course, it’s the Berkeley routines for which these movies are remembered – and with good reason. (Although, to be honest, I also think Ginger Rogers is great.) In this one, Rogers sings ‘We’re in the Money’, which probably everyone knows – although they probably don’t know it’s from this movie, I certainly didn’t – including a verse in pig Latin. Another routine features dwarf Billy Barty as a baby in a pram, who later gives Dick Powell a can opener so he can get through the metal lingerie (yes, actual metal) worn by dancers. Er, right. I’ll admit I bought the Busby Berkeley Collection so I could watch a couple of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list that were not available on rental (or indeed in UK editions). But I’ve really enjoyed the movies and, unlike some other DVDs I’ve bought just because they’re on the list, I’ll be keeping this box set. Well worth the money (sung to the tune of ‘We’re in the Money’, of course).
Christ Stopped at Eboli*, Francesco Rosi (1979, Italy). This is another one of those Italian Neorealist films that was new to me and which I found myself impressed by. Admittedly, one of the reasons I started watching the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list was to expand the range of films I was watching. It’s not that my viewing was limited to Hollywood films – I’ve been a fan of a number of non-Anglophone directors for many years, such as Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kieślowski, Suleiman, Haneke, Antonioni… among others. But the list seemed like an excellent source of titles I’d not seen and would probably like… and it subsequently introduced me to Italian neorealism as a film movement I’d not previously been aware of or explored. All of which is probably irrelevant as Christ Stopped at Eboli is not classifed as Italian neorealism – but it is Italian and it is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s also a film I likely would never have seen otherwise. Which would have been a shame, as it’s very good. In 1935, painter and writer Carlo Levi is exiled to a village in southern Italy for his anti-fascist activities. Since he studied to be a doctor, he ends up practicing medicine for the peasants (the local doctors aren’t interested in treating the peasantry). His politicial sensibilities also result in a rocky relationship with his putative “warden”, the local mayor; and he also forms a relationship with the local priest, also an exile, whom the mayor hates. Christ Stopped at Eboli is an odd film – it was filmed in 1979 but set 44 years earler… and from the looks of it horribly little set dressing was required. The pace is languid, content to let the relationships between the characters slowly be revealed and the scenery to speak for itself. The end result is a movie which is slow to start but slowly drags you in. So much so, in fact, that by halfway through the film I was very much impressed. Worth seeing.
Calvary, John Michael McDonagh (2014, Ireland). Several people recommended this film to me, and I’d heard good things of it, so I bunged it on the rental list and lo it dropped through onto the doormat one day… It’s set in present-day Ireland, a man gives his confession to his local priest and tells him he will kill the priest because the man giving confession was abused as a boy. The priest knows who it is, but there’s nothing he can do about it. However, the priest has a week to get his affairs in order – and so he does. Sort of. He goes to the bishop, but the bishop tells him he should go to the Garda (the bishop comes across more like a politician or middle manager than a man of God). At one point, someone sets fire to the church. Calvary is sort of a gentle black comedy, if such a thing exists, and very much based on its characters – none of which, it must be said, are especially sympathetic, with the exception of the priest, played by Brendan Gleeson, who has been threatened with murder. His assistant (verger?) is an idiot; one of the locals is a doctor and a nasty snide piece of work; another is innocent to the point of stupidity… At times, some of the characters teeter on the edge of caricature, and I suspect it’s only the presence of Gleeson anchoring the film which keeps them from doing so. A film worth seeing, but not I think a great film.
Weekend*, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I was convinced my Godard theory held water – colour films good, black-and-white films not good. True, it was based solely on the fact that the two Godard films I really like – Le mépris and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her – are both colour films. It wasn’t much of a theory, it has to be said – for a start, I’ve only seen nine of Godard’s films, the most recent of which is, er, Weekend, and which is also a colour film. On the one hand, I didn’t like Weekend as much the other two films, but I did like more than the black-and-white films I’ve seen. It’s a less pretentious movie than Godard’s others, but it’s also more… chaotic. A bourgeois couple drive out to the country to visit the wife’s dying father. Each has decided to murder the other, so their relationship is somewhat fraught. As they drive through the country they become involved in various violent events. An odd film, and plainly deliberately so. That sort of appeals to me – although it did, in places, do that Godard thing I’m less fond of, where characters talk at each other. And the scenes set in the wood were dubious at best. I guess, on reflection, my Godard theory still holds, although I think Weekend probably requires another watch.
I’m So Excited!, Pedro Almodóvar (2013, Spain). I spotted this one in a charity shop, and I’ve always enjoyed Almodóvar’s films… albeit not as much as I once did… but I thought it worth a quid and… Oh dear. Talk about light and frothy – I’m So Excited! (original title Los amantes pasajeros translates as “the fleeting lovers or “the passenger lovers”, according to Wikipedia; and seems better suited) is set aboard a flight to Mexico, and it’s probably only the frothiness of the script that keeps the aircraft in the air. A cock-up on the ground, perpertrated by Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in cameos, results in one of the aeroplane’s undercarriage not folding away properly, which means the aircraft will not be able to land when it reaches Mexico City. So they go into a holding pattern above the airport they departed from while things are figured out. The economy class passengers and cabin crew are put to sleep with tranquilisers, leaving only the dozen or so first class passengers, four cabin crew and the two pilots awake. All of whom, it transpires, have some sort of known or unknown relationship with each other. It’s not that I’m So Excited! isn’t a fun film – because it is. It just feels like a somewhat OTT comedy-drama sketch stretched to feature-film length. The brightly-coloured production design, and the fact much of the movies takes place in the aircraft’s first class section, only heightens this resemblance. One for fans, probably.
Dames, Ray Enright (1934, USA). This is the one with the Berkeley routine with giant Ruby Keeler heads which freaked me out. Not because they were Ruby Keeler, just the sight of loads of giant heads dancing about it. (Not real heads, of course; they were actually giant cut-outs.) In pretty much all other respects, Dames follows the pattern as followed in the other films in the Busby Berkeley Collection. Well, almost. In this one, an eccentric millionaire promises to leave his fortune to a relative, providing said relative can prove he leads a moral life. Unfortunately, the relative’s daughter is a dancer in a musical show, and the millionaire thinks muscial shows are the height of immorality. Dames is more of an outright comedy than the other films in the box set, but the Berkeley routines – in all their shark-jumping glory – are all present and correct. Not just the previously-mentioned one with the giant heads, but also one in which Joan Blondell sings to washing hanging on a line and the various garments start dancing. (Sadly, no Ginger Rogers in this one.) Again, a good box set to get. I’ve really enjoyed the movies in it.
Some Came Running*, Vincent Minelli (1958, USA). There are quite a few movie adaptations of Great American Novels on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and this is the second by author James Jones (his other is From Here to Eternity). An Army veteran, Sinatra, wakes on a bus on his way to his home town, having been put on it while drunk. He doesn’t really want to go, but he’s there now. The vetervan was a published writer and is estranged from his brother, who put him in an orphanage when their parents died, even though the brother had just married. This brother tries to patch things up, but Sinatra is not interested – although he is friendly to his niece, and falls in love with a friend of his brother, an English teacher. Then there’s Shirley Maclaine, who had been as drunk as Sinatra and joined him on the bus – but sober, he’s not interested in her, although she has fallen in love with him. Meanwhile, the teacher persuades Sinatra to start writing again. And he’s also fallen in with a group of gamblers, headed by Dean Martin. Some Came Running is very much a Great American Novel film – it’s all there: the romantic triangle, the class commentary, academia, the military, writing, small town America… If there were a checklist, Some Came Running could probably manage a good 75%. Sinatra is good in the lead, Maclaine was nominated for an Oscar (but lost to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!), and Martin plays Martin… I suppose your appreciation of this movie depends on how you feel about Great American Novels. I enjoyed it, but I’m not entirely sure why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 737