The Saragossa Manuscript*, Wojciech Has (1965, Poland). Imagine the Arabian Nights set in eighteenth-century Spain but with a Polish cast speaking Polish throughout, and you might get some of the flavour of The Saragossa Manuscript. The film is based on an actual book, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, allegedly by Count Jan Potocki, originally published in 1805, although the book was added to in later years, bits were lost, and even the complete contents are not entirely certain. A plot summary would take up a lot of bandwidth, chiefly because it consists of stories nested within stories nested within stories, to such an extent it’s no longer clear which is the framing narrative. Mostly it’s based on the adventures of a Spanish nobleman in the eighteenth century, as written down in the aforementioned manuscript, which is discovered by a pair of officers from opposite sides in Zaragoza during the Napoleonic Wars. The first half of the film seems to consist of the hero of the story, an ancestor of one of the officers, being enchanted by ghosts and then waking up under a set of gallows; but in the second half, the stories become even more inter-nested, and the film begins to get much more interesting. So much so that by the end of it, I quite fancied having a copy of it. Wikipedia claims “multiple viewings of the film are recommended in order to comprehend the plot”, although I didn’t find it that hard to follow (once, that is, I’d realised it aped the Arabian Nights’ structure), but I’d still like to watch it again. Recommended.
First Man into Space, Robert Day (1959, UK). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list – I’m guessing it’s because of the title. I’m not sure I’d describe it as “Best of British” as the cover claims, given that it’s set in the US, was filmed partly in the US, and features a mostly US cast hardly makes it especially British. But it was produced by a UK company and filmed by a British director. An astronaut pilots a rocket-plane into space, encounters some weird cosmic storm, and crashes back on Earth transformed into a monster… and promptly goes on a rampage. It’s fairly typical B-movie nonsense of the period, of course, although interesting inasmuch as the rocket-plane was the very real X-1, and stock footage of X-1 flights was used (at least for the in-atmosphere bits). True, the cockpit as depicted in the film bore no resemblance to the real X-1’s, and the X-1 never reached Mach 2.5 or flew out of the atmosphere (it wasn’t until the X-15 that either of those happened – and it held speed and altitude records for decades). I think the actual last flight of the X-1 captured on film was an appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot from 1957 as a Soviet “parasite fighter”, and actually flown by Chuck Yeager for the production. Filming for Jet Pilot took place between 1949 and 1953, but the film wasn’t released until four years later.
Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier (2000, Denmark). This was a “lucky” charity shop find, and I say “lucky” because I’m still not sure if von Trier is a genius or a complete charlatan. And I’m no nearer knowing after watching this… although I am starting to incline toward to the former. Dancer in the Dark is an unholy mix of made-for-TV true-crime drama and late twentieth-century music video. It’s a musical, but its star is Björk, which means every musical number (and she’s in them all) bears more resemblance to her music than it does musical film or theatre of the time. Now, I still consider Björks’s Post from 1995 a classic pop album – although I no longer own a copy (whereas Chapterhouse’s Blood Music, from 1993, I still own and think is the best shoegazer album ever made). Anyway, Dancer in the Dark… Björk plays a Czech emigré to the US who works in a factory. She is steadily losing her sight, but is saving up her wages to pay for an operation so her son will not suffer the same fate (plots like this DO NOT WORK in the UK, because we have the NHS – THIS IS A GOOD THING, DO NOT KILL THE NHS). Anyway, her boss finds out, she loses her job, she kills her landlord (at his request) and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s arrested and charged with his murder. Then there’s a court case, which owes more to The Thin Blue Line than it does Law & Order. The supporting cast is surprisingly high-powered – and in one notable scene, Björj plays against Catherine Deneuve in a prison visiting booth… and though Björk isn’t actually acting she somehow or other manages to hold her own against Deneuve. Unfortunately, that’s not true of every scene she’s in, and her gauche artlessness often works against the others’ much more polished performances. Still, von Trier is not a director who follows the rules, and you watch his film for that reason as much as for any other. 
Once Upon a Time in China*, Tsui Hark (1991, China). Well, there’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and even Once Upon a Time in Mumbai… not to mention many other variations, or the fact that Once Upon a Time in China is actually a series of films, comprising Once Upon a Time in China, Once Upon a Time in China II, Once Upon a Time in China III, Once Upon a Time in China IV, Once Upon a Time in China V, Once Upon a Time in China VI and Once Upon a Time in China and America. I think I’ve seen that last one too. I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something like Hero or even Hark’s later Seven Swords. But Once Upon a Time in China felt very small-scale, more like those Hong Kong films I used to watch on VCD back in the 1990s. Jet Li plays a martial arts instructor and apothecary who finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between the local milita and a criminal gang, while Americans are trying to move into the country, looking for
slave cheap labour to use back home. Some of the fight scenes are cleverly done, particularly the final one in the godown, with the combatants on huge ladders. Of the twenty Chinese films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I’ve now I’ve seen around half. One or two I loved, but most, like this one, seemed little better than those VCDs I used to watch. Oh well.
The Descendants, Alexander Payne (2011, USA). This is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the combined list given on listchallenge.com, so it must have appeared on an earlier, or later, edition of the list. I’m baffled as to why. Clooney plays a laid-back Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma aftet a boating accident. According to the terms of her living will, it’s time to turn off her life-support, so he gathers in their two daughters (and the older one’s dim-witted boyfriend). Also at stake is a large parcel of land on the island – Oahu, I think – which the family wants to sell for a huge amount to a developer. Clooney is not against the sale, but when he learns his wife was having an affair it sort of complicates matters. And… they put this on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list? Seriously? It’s a not very interesting family drama about a bunch of unlikeable characters – Clooney is not very good at playing unlikeable, obviously, but he’s so passive in this he’s not very sympathetic. Not worth seeing.
101 Dalmatians, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman (1961, USA). I’m not sure why I’ve been watching so many Disney films recently. Some are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I found myself admiring a couple of them enough to buy copies for myself… but several have also appeared on Amazon Prime and so I thought I might as well give them a go. I suspect I saw 101 Dalmatians way back in the 1970s when I was a kid, but I have no memory of doing so (much as I didn’t for The Rescuers – see here), and it’s impossible to tell if what I do know of the film is from having seen it or just simply picked up from more than five decades of commentary on it. Anyway, I spent a Sunday afternoon watching 101 Dalmatians… and was surprised to find it a considerably more charming film than I’d expected. I hadn’t known it was set in the UK, although I should have guessed since I sort of knew that Dodie Smith was a British author. And, of course, a lot of successful Disney properties of the 1960s were based on UK books and set in the UK. Rod Taylor (an Australian) was an odd choice for Pongo, the male lead, but he was good in it. Cruella De Vil was somewhat OTT and, while the rest of the cast were standard Disney types, the dogs were good and surprisingly not annoying. And the art was good too. Better than I had expected.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 769