Definitely a mixed bag this time around. Perhaps a few too many from the US, but a couple from India as well. Plus Korea and Italy.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Jee-woon (2008, Korea). The title of this film pretty much clues you into its story – yes, it’s a Western, but a weird one, and very much Korean. And, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of fun and pretty good to boot. There’s a treasure map, which a Japanese official is carrying from China to Japan. But while crossing a Manchurian desert, his train is attacked by the Bad, who has been sent by the map’s owners to retrieve it. However, also attacking the train is the Weird, who manages to get the map first – although he doesn’t realise what it is or its value. Then the Good, a bounty hunter, turns up to kill the Bad, but instead gets caught up with the Weird as he escapes the Bad’s goons. And so it goes, as the Bad catches up, they have shoot-outs and fights, before the two manage to escape yet again… and eventually decide to make for the treasure. En route, the Good reveals that he’s after the Bad because he’s the “Finger Chopper”, a notorious criminal back in Korea. Eventually, the three of them arrive alone at the treasure… except the treasure is not what they’d expected. The fight choreography is done well – and there’s plenty of it – and the story has a somewhat off-kilter sensibility that plays entertainingly. I’d forgotten I’d put this on my rental list, and when it popped through the letter-box I was expecting it to be a bit meh, but I really enjoyed it. A better-than-average popcorn movie.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance*, John Ford (1962, USA). There are a lot of westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and I’m not an especially big fan of the genre. A few I’ve enjoyed, one or two I’ve even bought copies for myself. But most are, for me, Sunday afternoon viewing, enjoyable enough to watch but you’ve forgotten them ten minutes after the credits rolled. I get that they’re US mythology, that they’re predicated on tales of strong manly men being strong manly men and winning against all odds, but to be honest I find that Hollywood macho bullshit tiresome at best. I do, however, love the landscape in which these stories take place, and I value films which make a proper meal of it. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sadly does anything but – it was shot entirely on a soundstage. But it does offer an interesting spin on the whole idea of Wild West mythology… although it pretty much reduces it to a single line, and then spends the entire film justifying that line. Which is, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Jimmy Stewart plays a lawyer who travels west and settles in the rough town of Shinbone. En route he is waylaid by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the local gunslinging hoodlum. Stewart vows justice – but legal justice. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the local stand-offish hard man, warns Stewart that law books are not going to do it. And so it proves. Marvin continues his reign of terror, Stewart teaches literacy to many of the towns folk (including love interest Vera Miles), and Wayne pines after Miles and gets angry with Stewart for stealing her heart. Then Stewart goes into politics, upsetting Marvin who engineers a shoot-out. But Stewart shoots and kills Marvin. Or does he? There’s little to admire in the story of this film, with its tale of rule by strength and politics corrupted by money. By all accounts, it was also a horrible shoot. Ford constantly belittled Wayne, and at one point even turned on Stewart. It sometimes astonishes me that little of the hardships of making some films comes through in the final product, which is, I guess, a testament to the professionalism of those involved. You can’t tell watching a film whether it was a happy shoot or an absolutely miserable one. And, to be honest, I think we viewers should know. The end does not justify the means. The fact that Ford made a bunch of people’s lives a misery so someone else could make pot loads of money is, when you think about it, pretty offensive. Film is a far more collaborative medium than writing… but the various media all take care to hide the tribulations of the creative process… because, of course, they’re selling product. Still, that’s capitalism for you…
1900, Bernardo Bertolucci (1976, Italy). I think I saw this on one of the alternative 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lists – ie, not the 2013 edition – so it was either dropped before, or added later… and I’m not entirely sure why it was there in the first place (I seem to say that a lot about the films I’ve watched). It’s certainly epically long, 317 minutes in fact, and was originally released in two parts. It tells the story of two men, the son of a padrone and the son of one of his workers, from the late nineteenth century through to the end of the Second World War. The padrone, Robert De Niro, comes to an uneasy alliance with the fascists, but the worker’s son, Gerard Depardieu, becomes a communist and fights them. Donald Sutherland plays the foreman hired by De Niro who becomes a full-fledged fascist, black uniform and everything. The film mixes the historical with the personal, sometimes to good effect, but often the focus is too tight on unlikeable characters and the relationship of the scene to the grander sweep of the narrative seems lost. One example is a sequence in which Sutherland accidentally kills the young nephew of the padrone… and the death, subsequent hunt for the “missing” boy and discovery of his body is used to illustrate the ignorance, ruthlessness and expediency of the fascists without actually making them any more villanous than they already had appeared to be. Having said all that, I wasn’t especially convinced by the three leads’ performances, although Depardieu seemed the best of the trio. And there were far too many moments when it all seemed a bit overwrought, everything turned up to eleven… only for the narrative to move on and dial things down to something more appropriate. As far as I could determine, the point of the movie was the move from the old system of landed aristocracy – the padrones – to something
more equitable, in which the people owned the land they worked – with a somewhat violent diversion via the fascists, who picked up on the general malaise and incorporated it into their rhetoric but actually did very little to address it (UKIP voters, take note: this is how fascism operates). As a result, the ending, in which De Niro is cast down, and Depardieu uplifted, doesn’t really feel like a consequence of the preceding five hours… This is not helped by the film opening with a scene from near the end, so that the movie is actually one long flashback sequence. Meh.
A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I watched it back in November 2014; and so too is his The Golden Thread, but that’s apparently – annoyingly – not available on DVD. Anyway, I’d thought The Cloud-Capped Star good enough to want to see more by Ghatak and, in the fullness of time, A River Called Titas was sent to me by one of my rental services. The film is one of those which comprises many interlocking stories (Wikipedia claims it was one of the first to do so – in 1973? Really?), all based around life in the villages on the banks of the eponymous river. One main narrative thread tells of a young woman kidnapped on her wedding night, but after she escapes from her captors she realises she has no idea who her husband is or where he lives. The movie takes a while to get started, and the quality of the original black and white stock was plainly quite poor – as is the audio quality – but the various weaving in and out of people’s stories soon proves captivating. I seem to rememember The Cloud-Capped Star being quite grim, and so is this in places, but the overall effect felt far more cheerful. There was also some excellent cinematography, especially of the river, as there was in the earlier film. I liked this so much, I’m considering getting copies of both of Ghatak’s films released by the BFI (except, WTF, copies of The Cloud-Capped Star are now £80…*); and I also fancy reading the source novel of the same title by Bengali writer Adwaita Mallabarman.
Aar Paar, Shakti Samanta (1985, India). After being impressed by Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (see here) and Kagaz Ke Phool (see here), I decided to buy a copy of his Aar Paar… but the seller screwed up and sent me this 1985 film of the same title instead. When I pointed out their mistake, they told me to keep the DVD sent in error and they also sent me the correct one. As for Samanta’s Aar Paar… it’s pretty much what you’d expect a not very good Bollywood film to be like. True, the Bollywood films I’ve seen so far have been considered good ones, and I’ve enjoyed them; but Aar Paar was definitely like a cheap version of them. I can’t even remember the story – in fact, I think there were several of them, I’m not sure. I remember a number of really badly choreographed fight scenes in which it sounded like they were fighting with exploding fists. There were, of course, several song and dance numbers, one of which I seem to recall took place on a boat. And there was a villain with greased-back hair. And the hero was not only fighting for the love interest but also for social justice – something to do with the fishing industry, in this case. This is one of those films that goes in one eye and out the other, and also goes reasonably well with popcorn and beer because it doesn’t much matter if you’re not following it. Miss ten minutes and you can pick up what’s going on within thirty seconds. It was fun, kinda, but if I hadn’t been sent it by mistake I’d never have bothered to seek it out to watch. 
Rosemary’s Baby*, Roman Polanski (1968, USA). Polanski’s actions leading to his current legal status in the US aside, I’ve never really understood why he’s held in such a high regard as a director. Okay, Repulsion was good, and Chinatown is a classic – but the latter at least is a result more of its script than its direction. And so to Rosemary’s Baby of which… I can remember very little and it’s only been a week or so since I watched it. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, and John Cassavetes her husband (which is a little odd as I know him primarily as a director), and the two have this weird friendship with an older couple (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) after they move to a new apartment… Rosemary gets pregnant, but it doesn’t go well, and her doctor is somewhat horrified to learn that the weird neighbours have been feeding her “tannis root” and… I must have fallen asleep or something because apparently there was all this Satanic stuff and I missed it. I suspect I’m going to have to watch this film again, but I really don’t want to. What I do remember hardly endeared it to me, or persuaded me it was worth greater study. Perhaps if I stumble across a copy for 99p in a charity shop, I might buy it and watch it again, but otherwise it’s Polanski and… Meh.
Pickup on South Street*, Samuel Fuller (1953, USA). A year or so ago, I’d never even heard of Samuel Fuller, and now I find myself something of a fan of his films – albeit only on the strength of having seen five of them. This one is noir, and pretty typical in its following of the forms, except… it’s all about secrets stolen to sell to the communists. Cold war noir. It’s a pretty typical Fuller film (and I say that despite my limited experience) inasmuch as he wrote and directed it, and it feels like he banged it out much as a pulp fiction writer would bang out simplistic moral tales which hooked onto the current Zeitgeist. There’s no denying Fuller’s technical proficiency (or indeed technical creativity – cf The Big Red One), amd his ability to craft taut and well-plotted noir stories certainly seems to deserve more credit than it gets – although, to be fair, this is the third film by Fuller to be given the Masters of Cinema treatment, so perhaps that last comment is unfair. But there is something impressively hermetic about Fuller’s plots, they’re not just ur-noir, they’re pretty much ur-cinema. They are without indulgence, just pure dialogue and tight visuals in service to a self-contained story. Truth to tell, the actual story feels almost incidental – in this particular movie, the microfilm of top-secret information is no more than a maguffin. But that matters not a jot. I mean, there’s solid entertainment, and then there’s a film which is so tightly-packed it’s like neutronium or something. I bought this, rather than rented it, and it was a fine purchase. [dual]
1001 Movies You Miust See Before You Die count: 779
* Not wanting to miss out on A River Called Titas, given the price now asked for The Cloud-Capped Star, I went and bought it. But then I did a bit of hunting and discovered copies of The Cloud-Capped Star were still available from the BFI shop for the RRP, so I ordered one. It’s annoying, but apparently my tastes are so fringe I need to buy stuff I want straight away, because once it’s deleted/out-of-print it’s going to cost ten or twenty times more. Gah.