Onward with the movie posts…
Queen Christina*, Rouben Mamoulian (1933, USA). You know that thing about “Garbo laughs” and they used it as the tagline for Ninotchka, which was released six years after this one, but Garbo, who plays the title role in Queen Christina, does quite a good impression of laughter on a couple of occasions in this film. The title character is a real historical figure, queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, and she did indeed abdicate and convert to Roman Catholicism. But not, as the film would have it, for love. In the film, she’s out hunting one day when she comes across the Spanish envoy, whose carriage is stuck in a snow drift. She gives his servants advice on how to extricate the coach. Since she dresses as a man, the envoy mistakes her for one. And does the same later, when they meet at a nearby inn. Queen Christina, who is now actively pretending to be male, has taken the last room. The envoy demands “he” vacate it. They end up sharing and the queen reveals her gender – but not her identity. She saves that little surprise for when the envoy is officially introduced to her at the royal palace. The real Queen Christina was raised as a boy and was in a long-term lesbian relationship. She’d also been fascinated with the Roman Catholic Church from a young age. But when has Hollywood ever let history get in the way of a good story? Or their marketing, for that matter. I’m not entirely sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I didn’t see anything that was technicially or cinematically ahead of its time, and though it was enormously successful and popular in 1933, it doesn’t seem like anything particularly special these days.
Fantastic Four, Josh Trank (2015, USA). Given the success of the MCU films, it can hardly be a surprise that Hollywood is rebooting every superhero franchise it can in a desperate effort to keep the rights and find a moneyspinner. Spider-Man is about to see its fourth incarnation, and here’s the Fantastic Four, another iconic Marvel property, on its third incarnation (although the first was never actually released). Like the Spider-Man reboot, they’ve rolled back the ages of the heroes to high school, because twentysomething heroes were apparently fine for twentieth-century kids but in the twenty-first century it’s got to be totally about the kids. And if that wasn’t enough of a change, this film has completely rewritten the Fantastic Four’s origin story. True, the original, er, origin story – four rich twentysomethings build a rocket, go into space, get bombarded by cosmic rays and develop superpowers – was pretty daft, but try naming an origin story that isn’t completely ridiculous. In this new version, Reed Richards spends years developing a teleportation machine, is then recruited by the Baxter Foundation, and with the help of studly Latverian genius Victor von Doom, builds a full-scale model… except it’s not a teleporter, it’s a portal to another dimension. And it’s on a drunken trip there that the four get their fantastic powers… and Doom is left behind and turns into a metal man with awesome mental powers. The military weaponizes the four – except for Richards, who goes on the run. But eventually he is brought into the fold. This is a completely charmless affair, with a charisma-free cast. And where previously the Fantastic Four spent most of their time saving the world, here they’re just “military assets”, tools of US imperialism – and while superheroes are often just as destructive as the supervillains they fight, that change in mission is just downright offensive. Marvel adopts manifest destiny. If superheroes had always seemed a little fascist before, with this film they’ve openly embraced it. Happily, Fantastic Four tanked at the box office. Avoid.
Antonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha (1969, Brazil). This is the third of Rocha’s Anotonio das Mortes trilogy (its origin title is actually O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerriro, “The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior”), following on from Black God, White Devil (see here) and Entranced Earth (see here). Unlike the preceding film, this one is set in Brazil and not an invented country. The north-east of the country was once controlled by bandits called cangaceiros, the greatest of whom was Lampião, who died in 1938. But a new cangaceiro has appeared, accompanied by a young woman believed to be a saint, and a host of peasants. The blind coronel, the landowner of the town of Jardim de Piranhas, sends for Antonio das Mortes to kill the cangaceiro. Antonio fatally wounds the cangaceiro in a duel, but then suffers a change of heart and demands the coronel hand out his food reserves to the poor. The coronel refuses and orders Antonio killed… Antonio das Mortes is the only film of the three in colour, and Mr Bongo have done another slipshod job on it – the print is far from perfect, and the many folk songs on the soundtrack have French translations of their lyrics burned in. It’s also a less declamatory film than Entranced Earth, although not by much – the cangaceiro, for example, introduces himself by speaking in rhyme to the camera. And even much of Antonio’s dialogue is self-reflective. A lot of the violence is staged almost like a dance, which works well with the local folk songs on the soundtrack. The landscape appears much stranger in colour than it does in black and white, with some effective landscape photography that demonstrates just how huge and featurless is the region. I’ll admit I bought these films while under the influence after watching Entranced Earth, but I don’t regret the purchase. Not only are they very political films – the coronel in Antonio das Mortes is portrayed as over-entitled and completely lacking in compassion, and the stories of all three films centre on the common people fighting the ruling classes – but the tactic of playing the political elements flat and affectless and the cultural elements full of sound and colour is especially effective. Not to mention the over-the-top and hammed up violence. These films are very much folk-tales, but they’re colourful and political folk-tales. And I really like movies like that. Recommended. It’s a shame more of Rocha’s films aren’t available on DVD. 
La femme publique, Andrzej Żuławski (1984, France). I am, I admit, slightly puzzled by Żuławski’s success. After fleeing Poland in the early 1980s, the only place he could go and still make films was France. It’s unlikely he’d have fitted in to the film traditions of any other country. Because his films really are quite strange. Even La femme publique, which is an adaption of an autobiography by Dominique Garnier, in which she describes her arrival in Paris and attempt to break into cinema acting, and her subsequent domination by the director who hires her. In most hands, this would be enough for a story, but Żuławski, with Garnier’s help, decided to add in a subplot about plot to assassinate a Lithuanian archbishop… The end result is an intense drama that might or might not be a somewhat bonkers thriller, which manages not to lose sight of its story. Valérie Kaprisky plays the young actress who, despite having no experience, is cast by enfant terrible Czech director Francis Huster in his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Through Huster, Kaprisky meets fellow Czech emigré Lambert Wilson, whose wife has recently disappeared (and proves to have been murdered). Kaprisky is convinced Wilson is the murderer, so she pretends to be his wife (his grasp on reality is shaky to begin with, and visibly deteriorates). Huster meanwhile seems to be involved in some sort of plot to brainwash Wilson into assassinating the archbishop. It sort of makes sense when laid out so baldly, but this is a Żuławski movie so the reality is somewhat different. The performances are intense to a degree that’s rarely seen in Hollywood films, and the story’s focus on the psychology of the major characters is also something not often seen in plot-driven Hollywood movies (never mind Hollywood’s mindless adherence to various screenwriting techniques, such as the three-act structure, McKee’s Story or Snyder’s Save the Cat!). I don’t know that I’d call La femme publique Żuławski’s best film as I still like Na srebrnym globie a lot – but it’s certainly the best-presented film on DVD. This Mondo Vision Signature edition comes in a fancy box, with a soundtrack CD, publicity photos and a booklet. Recommended. 
Khartoum, Basil Dearden (1966, UK). Remember when they used to open films with ten minutes of music, so you had time to buy your ice cream from the usher down at the front, and then they’d have an intermission so you could buy another ice cream or a box of
Treets Poppets… or was that just in the UK? As the title of this film no doubt makes clear, it’s about the siege of Khartoum in 1884, when the forces of the Mahdi tried to capture the city from General Gordon, who’d been sent there by the British to evacuate the British and Egyptian population before the Mahdi attacked. The film is a typical historical epic of the period – not just that ten-minute entr’acte and a ten-minute intermission, but also a cast of thousands and big names playing the major roles no matter how inappropriately cast. I mean, Charlton Heston as Gordon is one thing (although apparently it was meant to be Burt Lancaster), and he at least attempts a British accent (albeit not very well); but Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi is just blackface. Khartoum was apparently filmed in Egypt and makes much of its locations – this is big-screen entertainment, and it makes sure you get what you paid for. And yet… it’s all a bit bland and unexciting – despite the battle scenes. Gordon was, by all accounts, an odd bloke – a drunkard, possibly queer, but also a gifted leader and tactician. He actually sounds quite interesting. He was lionised following his death in Khartoum, and it wasn’t until several decades later that his actions, or indeed his character, were questioned. Khartoum is pretty much the dictionary definition of a Sunday afternoon film – at least it was a decade or two ago – and that’s about its level. As history, it’s perhaps a little more reliable than the typical Hollywood movie; and as entertainment it’s very much of its time.
Fires Were Started*, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK). This is the only Jennings film on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, despite him being called one of Britain’s greatest film-makers. And he made thirty-two films, although most were documentary shorts. The BFI DVD case shown here contains five films, all from 1941 or 1943. Fires Were Started is about a London fire brigade, beginning with a new arrival to the watch, and following the watch members as they go about their duties. Although some of the film is reconstruction, and filmed at Pinewood Studios, it all looks very real (the fires, I think, are real fires – certainly the cast were actual firemen and not actors). I do remember that the firemen had their own bar and drank beer… until called out by an alarm. The technology also seemed surprisingly crude, especially when compared to the military technology of the time. But Jennings had a really good eye, and was especially effective at making his subjects seem likeable and sympathetic. The new member of the watch, for example, is university-educated, whereas the the current members are all working-class… but Jennings shows how accomodating both are toward each other and how well they work together. Fires Were Started is one of three collections of Jennings film released by the BFI. I quite fancy getting all three – um, maybe I should just wait until I’ve had some wine and do as I did for Glauber Rocha…
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 764