How about that? A single Hollywood movie… and it was a rewatch (although, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I last watched Westworld – sometime during the early 1980s, I suspect). Meanwhile, we have just one film on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list too, and that was a rewatch as well (another Tarkovsky on Blu-ray, in fact). But, on the whole, it’s a pretty good half-dozen movies – and some of them are very good indeed.
Kandahar, Mohsen Makhalbaf (2001, Iran). Although one of the first Iranian directors to come to international prominence, I know Makhalbaf best from his appearance in Kiarostami’s Close-Up. So Kandahar was sort of but not quite new territory for me in more ways than one, as it’s also set in Afghanistan (although I’ve seen Osama, also set in Afghanistan). I certainly had very little idea what to expect since it’s not a film that seems to be discussed, or mentioned, much in reference to “best of” lists. Which is a shame. It’s very well-made, has an appealing streak of black humour a mile wide, and makes a series of important points about the world in which it’s set. An Afghani expat now resident in Canada returns to Afghanistan to see her sister. She’s smuggled over the border in a Red Cross helicopter, but has to travel by foot to the titular city to find her sibling. En route she runs into Red Cross workers who deal with Afghanis injured by mines and who need prosthetic limbs… leading to a scene in which a horde of one-legged Afghanis chase after false legs dropped by parachute from Red Cross helicopters. There’s a simplicity to Makhalbaf’s direction that’s a refreshing change to Kiarostami’s films, although the black humour is of a different order too. (To be fair, I’m not sure why I’m comparing the two directors as their shared nationality is not enough to do so.) Kandahar is also noted for featuring Dawud Salahuddin, an American who converted to Islam and then murdered an Iranian dissident. I can’t quite figure how that it supposed to affect my viewing of this film, because I thought it very good, and I thought it him effective in his role. Recommended.
Victoria, Sebastian Schipper (2015, Germany). Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first – Victoria was shot as a single take. The other famous single-take movie is Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and I am a huge fan of Sokurov’s films. In both, that single-take is a gimmick (and, it must be admitted, was considerably harder to accomplish in 2002 than in 2015), but… To be honest, it’s not actually all that noticeable in Victoria. I remember the first time I watched Russian Ark back in 2004 and I felt almost light-headed watching it, almost as if I could only breathe when there were cuts (of which, of course, there were none). And this despite having seen, several times, Hitchcock’s Rope, which famously he tried to film with as few cuts as possible. But I had none of that watching Victoria. Perhaps it was because the story flowed more organically than Russian Ark‘s – whatever the cause, Victoria‘s gimmick seemed much less of an issue. The title refers to a young woman from Spain who is working as a waitress in Berlin. At a Berlin night-club, she falls in with a quartet of young male Berliners and so is sucked into their plot to rob a bank to appease a ganglord who protected one of their number during a recent stint in prison. It’s a very good film and there are some blinding moments – such as when Berliner Sonne mucks about on the piano at the café where Victoria works and she responds by playing ten or so minutes of hideously difficult classical music (one of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, apparently). Recommended.
Pépé le Moko*, Julien Duvivier (1937, France). The title character is a gangster who lives in the Casbah in Algiers, and is wanted by the French police, who have sent an inspecteur from France to arrest him. But first, they have to entice him out of the Casbah. Which they do using his attraction for socialite Mireille Balin. I’ve said before I have a blind spot for early French cinema (actually, I think it spreads across quite a few decades…), and while I can see that Pépé le Moko presages noir film in many respects, I enjoyed it most for its depiction of the Casbah, a part of the world I know only from The Battle of Algiers. I can understand why the film was regarded so highly in its time, and perhaps for a decade or two afterwards, but there’s little enough there to wow a twenty-first century viewer. On the one hand, it feels like an historical document; on the other, its notability as a historical document is not immediately obvious. It’s a fun thriller, in French, set in Algiers. But it’s hard to see it as more than that because whatever importance it may have once had is no longer true. Worth seeing at least once, I suppose, but I’m not sure why it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list as its appeal doesn’t seem abiding.
April and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci (2015, France). I know Tardi’s work, in fact I have all of the English translations of his bandes dessinées as published by Fantagraphics, and I’m keen to get more when they eventually appear. But I didn’t know about this film – although I did know about, and have watched (twice), Besson’s adaptation of Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec… So stumbling across this on Amazon Prime one weekend was a happy moment. And the film did not disappoint. The DVD’s cover art says it all: a pair of Eiffel Towers, serving as the main Paris station for a monorail to Berlin. Science-fiction-wise, the film is crude: a voice-over describes the world and how it came to be. In this case, WWI never happened, steam power was not replaced by internal combustion, and April grows up in a world denuded of trees. Her grandfather was trying to create an invincibility forum, and her parents continued the hunt – in a hidden laboratory, because scientists had been disappearing, and those remaining were being co-opted by the government. When the cops raid their lab, April manages to escape, and goes into hiding in Paris, where she continues parents’ researches. Years later, a street urchin hired by a disgraced police inspector tracks down April and so kicks off an adventure that sees her eventually reunited with her parents at a secret installation run by… well, that would be giving it away. Bits of the film, despite the Tardi graphics, reminded me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film I really like, but April and the Extraordinary World had the advantage of a bande dessinée narrative rather than a pulp one. I shouldn’t have been suprised how good this was, but then even French cinema can screw up a property when adapting it for the screen sometimes (tries hard to think of an example; fails). Definitely worth seeing.
Westworld, Michael Crichton (1973, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before, but it was clearly so long ago that I’d long forgotten details and what I did remember may well have been from what I’d read about the film. In other words, I might actually have never seen it before and only known of it from writings about it. It’s possible. It may also be true of other sf films. But now I have a date against my viewing of the film, a date when I actually watched it from start to finish. Of course, I already knew what to expect: expensive and sophisticated theme-park with mostly android staff, one goes rogue and shoots all the guests. The same scenario was used in the sequel, Futureworld, which I’d seen a few weeks before. But Westworld was the first and, more than that, the first film directed by Michael Crichton. Many might not see the relevance of that, but Crichton was an odd figure – a right-wing anti-science polemicist who created a series of pro-science properties that continue to resonate, and a man who abused his privilege to convince political figures of complete bollocks. Obviously, there’s an anti-science message to Westworld – robots bad! – although, to be fair, the “capitalism will make money out of absolutely anything” message comes across a lot louder. I was surprised at the quality of the print Amazon Prime streamed, and although the reference to an ekranoplan as a “hovercraft” (seriously, how can anyone make mistake like that?) did not bode too well, it was all looking quite good… But it didn’t take long to fall apart. Okay, so Mediaeval World bore more resemblance to The Adventures of Robin Hood (a great film) than it did actual history, and even the dumbest ass knows the Romans did more than eat to excess and have orgies… And yet, perversely, the Hollywood version of the Wild West seemed perfectly acceptable (perhaps because it’s that version you’d expect tourists to want to visit). I actually enjoyed Westworld more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly a better film than Futureworld, but it was still no classic. I’ve seen it now, so no need to ever watch it again.
Andrei Rublev*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Andrei Rublev is a series of excellent short films that are, ostensibly, episodes from the life of a famous painter of ikons strung into one 205-minute movie. Except a lot if it is invented because little is actually known about Rublev’s life. So what we have is, essentially, a drama anthology, comprising a series of high-quality vignettes – and high-quality not only in terms of cinematography, such as, for example, the balloon ride prologue, which does something pretty clever with a camera pointing down from the gondola. Then there’s the sequence about bell-making, which actually ends the film, and has nothing to do with Rublev’s life but is still astonishing. In fact, all things considered, Andrei Rublev is a hard film to write about, because it consists of multiple episodes. I’ve said before that part of Tarkovsky’s genius was the ability to lend coherence to disparate incidents – and while the life of the title character is about as concrete a link as you can get, Tarkovsky takes it more as a guideline than a plot in Andrei Rublev. There are eight chapters, not all of which feature Rublev, each of which illustrates some characteristic Tarkovsky has chosen to apply to Rublev. Some are amusing, such as when the Tatars mock the Christian paintings in a chruch; some are horrible, like when the Grand Prince has his men waylay the masons who worked on his palace and has them blinded. (This is one thing about history I’ve never understood – given how easy it was to kill people, why did such brutal rulers ever last more than five minutes?). Watching Andrei Rublev is an ordeal – it’s three hours long and your brain is fully engaged for the entire length (okay, yes, I have fallen asleep watching it on at least one occasion), and while it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky film I certainly consider a film that belongs in any self-respecting cineaste’s collection.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805