Bit of an odd bunch, this. Nothing from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A few rentals, a couple from my own collection, a charity shop find, and one I found on Amazon Prime and initially thought was bloody awful but found myself enjoying by the end of it.
Nebraska, Alexander Payne (2013, USA). Bruce Dern is a crotchety old man, not entirely all there, who receives a letter telling him he’s been entered into a draw for $1 million and he thinks it means he’s won the prize. So he heads south to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Billings, Montana… Or rather, he tries to, as he can’t drive. After several attempts to walk south to Lincoln, Dern’s youngest son reluctantly agrees to drive him to collect his “winnings”. The family all know there’s no prize money, but all they can do is humour Dern. En route, the pair stop off in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Dern’s home town. Once his family and old friends discover Dern is rich, they all want a piece of the money. Which doesn’t exist, of course. Dern is great in the lead role, and Will Forte – also responsible for the fucking awful MacGruber – puts in a good turn as his son. But it’s Dern’s film, and he’s more than up to the job. It’s filmed in black and white, which initially feels like an affectation, but soon seems to suit the material. Payne is not a director I especially rate – his previous movies I’ve seen have all been lightweight Hollywood comedies – but Nebraska is actually not bad. Like many films which show working-class white Americans, it demonstrates they can be not very nice people – while also suggesting they’re worse than depicted. The same might be said of working-class Brits, of course; or indeed those of any nation. But there is a particular mix of wilful ignorance and uncritical patriotism which seems characteristic of the white American working-class which is really unpalatable.
Ship of Fools, Stanley Kramer (1965, USA). A group of assorted characters are crossing the Atlantic just prior to World War II, hoping for Oscars in what they hope might be, in 1965, an Oscar-bait movie. The star-studded cast says so, the weighty themes say so, filmed in black and white says so, the 149 minutes running time says so… In the event, Ship of Fools was nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, but won only for Best Art Direction – Set Direction Black and White and Best Cinematography Black and White. Having now seen the film, I’m not surprised. It’s so full of itself, it’s astonishing the ship didn’t sink the second the director shouted “Action!”. As is the case in most ensemble films, there are a variety of interlocking plots being worked out. They’re supposed to have added weight because the voyage takes place just before the outbreak of WWII and José Ferrer’s character is a straight-up German Nazi. Then there’s the Jew, with the mordant sense of humour, whose misplaced optimism seems somewhat tasteless. And Vivien Leigh was apparently suffering full-blown paranoia, but managed to put in a passable performance. Oskar Werner plays the good German – on the one hand, he’s trying to improve the conditions of the passengers in steerage; on the other, he’s feeding La Condesa’s drug habit. The film was apparently adapted from a 1962 novel by Katharine Anne Porter, who based it on a journey she actually took across the Atlantic in 1931. It took her 22 years to write the book. Porter was apparently disappointed with the film. I’m tempted to try the novel, but I can’t recommend the movie.
Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman (1963, Sweden). A married couple live happily in a small Swedish village, and the local vicar is their very good friend. They consult him on all manner of things, and he sets their hearts at rest every time… Of course not. This is a Bergman film. It’s not cheerful. It’s as miserable as the most miserable-looking git caught without an umbrella in a cold and miserable thunderstorm. I don’t think cheerful was in Bergman’s cinematic vocabulary. What Winter Light is, is the study of a married couple who are suffering existential qualms due to China’s development of an atomic bomb, and who are not comforted by their local vicar’s words of reassurance. But then the vicar has his own problems, chief among which is an ex-lover he no longer loves… And then the husband of the couple shoots himself and… I’m reminded to some extent of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, which also has a plot enabled by the threat of atomic bombs (the phrase “atomic bomb” sounds so much better than “nuclear bomb” – the former sounds like a wonder of science, the latter just another war toy). In The Sacrifice, the threat of nuclear war persuades Joseph Erlandsson – a member of Bergman’s stock conmpany at one point – to bargain with God: he will give up everything he owns if the holocaust is averted. It does, of course, somewhat depend on believing in a god. Winter Light plays the same existential game with the implied threat, but rather than apply it to a man’s possessions it makes play with his religious convictions instead. Of the three films in the The Faith Trilogy, I enjoyed The Silence the most, perhaps because it seemed most recognisably experimental in format; but on reflection, I wonder if Winter Light, being a much weightier story, is not the better one. 
Black Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud (2011, Qatar). Also known as Day of the Falcon, which is just as vague a title. It’s basically the life of ibn Saud, but with oil as the cause of the war between the two royal houses. The film was panned on release, chiefly because of its casting – Antonio Banderas plays one emir, Mark Strong the other; Frieda Pinto plays the love interest, and Liya Kebede the other major female character. The star, the young prince who becomes an ibn Saud-like leader, is played by Tahar Rahim (which was weird as I’d watched him in A Prophet only a week or so before). Banderas, the sultan of Hobeika, and Strong, the sultan of Salmaah, have just signed a peace treaty, and have agreed to keep the “Yellow Belt” as a buffer zone between their two sultanates (I assumed this is taking place somewhere in Nejd). Salmaah also has to hand over two of his young sons to Hobeika to ensure the peace. (I’m not sure whether Banderas or Strong are sultans or emirs, the two terms seemed to be used interchangably during the film – probably they were ra’ees, usually translated as “ruler”). Anyway, some years later Americans discover oil in the Yellow Belt. Salmaah rejects them, but Hobeika is happy to profit from the “black gold”. But then the elder of Salmaah’s two sons who is living with Hobeika tries to escape and is killed. The younger, Auda, played by Rahim, who is a bookish sort, is sent to his father as peace envoy. His father persuades Auda to help in his plan to conquer Hobeika and shut down the oil wells. Auda must lead a diversionary force into the Yellow Belt, while Salmaah himself leads another force right up to the gates of Hobeika. Except librarian Auda proves to have real tactical genius, and defeats Hobeika’s armoured cars with a force of prisoners on camels. And when he then attacks the Bani Sirri and frees their slaves, he earns the loyalty of all the other desert tribes… And so turns up to Hobeika with an enormous army at his back. There are a few elements here taken from the life of ibn Saud – such as his attack on Riyadh and defeat of the House of Rashid – but the Hijaz is ignored, Mecca is ignored, and the history of oil in Saudi didn’t start until later (see Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and sequels). But despite its fancification of the real history of the interior of the Arabian peninsula (and did the Bedu tribes really dress that colourfully?), and the failure to cast appropriately (Strong at least manages an Arabic accent; Banderas doesn’t even try), I sort of found myself enjoying Black Gold. It was daft, but it was colourful and the references to ibn Saud’s life added an extra dimension.
Szamanka, Andrzej Żuławski (1996, Poland). Gosh, what to say. There is something about Żuławski’s films which… er, defies explanation. They are completely bonkers, but bonkers in such an emotionally intense and intensely watchable way that’s it’s hard not to feel something for them. The sight of Valérie Kaprisky burning up the screen in La femme publique had burned itself into my memory, and now Iwona Petry, as the (titular) heroine of Szamanka, who throws such an idiosyncratic performance at the screen it’s hard to forget it. She’s a student who rents a flat from an academic, but right from the moment they meet it’s l’amour fou. And it gets more fou as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the acadmic has discovered the well-preserved body of a two-thousand year-old shaman. The historical investigation and the affair become confused, so much so that the academic hallucinates the shaman telling him he was killed by his mistress. And so, as often happens in Żuławski films, the plot echoes the psychological dimension. Petry’s performance treads a fine line between plausible and outright weird, and the fact it works is more down to the tense atmosphere Żuławski manages to keep going for the length of the film – despite the lack of an obvious thriller plot. There are moments when it all feels like OTT posturing… but then something sort of clicks into place, and the film’s trajectory toward its tragic end is once again on course. As with La femme publique, I bought the Mondo Vision special edition DVD, which comes in a fancy box, with included OST CD, booklet and collectible bits and pieces. The presentation suits the material – I can think of many directors who deserve such releases, but Żuławski is certainly on that list. Worth buying. 
Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn (2014, UK). A couple of weeks after watching this and I still haven’t decided if this is a clever satire of 007 and other British secret agent movies, or a horrible affirmation of their worst aspects. The title refers to a private intelligence service which cleaves to an image of stereotypical British upper class manhood from about sixty years ago. And then they meet a stereotype of 1990s British working class manhood… But, of course, the establishment eventually assimilates him. En route, we have a dumb plot to kill off 90% of the global population via free SIM cards in their phones (so, er, not really 90% then) as planned by squeamish lisping zillionnaire Samuel L Jackson. Tonally, Kinsgman is all over the place – it can’t decide what values it should be promoting, and as a result ends up saying very little that makes sense. The Bond-ish villain is presented as a spoof without actually being much of a commentary, which renders it toothless as satire. Firth is even stiffer than usual in the lead role, Taron Egerton is forgettable as the everyman bruv, and the supporting cast are more noticeable for who they actually are rather than the parts they’re playing. Kingsman will kill a Satruday evening if accompanied pizza and beer, but it’s never going to make any list celebrating the best of cinema.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 776