I watch on average two films a night. I’ve pretty much given up on broadcast and cable television, which is a shame as there are programmes on there I’d like to see. But with 200-odd channels, it’s almost impossible to find when and where they might be. I used to buy a newspaper every Saturday so I had a TV guide, but it was a piss-poor guide and only included about a tenth of the channels. I tried buying one of those TV guide magazines, the one that’s only about 65p and seems to be mostly about soap stars (oh wait, they’re all mostly about soap stars)… Anyway, they have schedules for far more channels than I have access to, so finding what I wanted to watch was no easier. I’ve also tried using tvguide.co.uk, but it’s horribly designed and never seems to remember my settings. I suppose these days people use Tivos and YouView boxes and such, and they have the facility to calendar and/or record programmes… but Virginmedia refuse to give me a Tivo and I even had to wait until my old set top box broken before I was given a HD one. Bah, technology.
On the other hand, I do get to watch a large number of (mostly) great films, with a much greater variety in topics, locations and languages. So it’s not like I’m losing out.
To Catch A Thief, Alfred Hitchcock (1954, USA). Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors, I have about eighty percent of the films he made – and he made a lot of films. As far as Hitchcock movies go, To Catch A Thief is a bit of fluff, which has been over the years its chief appeal. It’s the Hitch equivalent of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” – although that would presuppose Hitch made other films of the same ilk, and it’s hard to think of which might qualify – The Trouble with Harry, perhaps? Nonetheless, To Catch A Thief is so much lighter than his usual fare, which is probably why it’s great fun. Cary Grant, at his most teabag-tannish, is a retired cat burglar living on the French Riviera. But someone has been stealing the jewellery of wealthy guests to the region and everyone assumes Grant has come out of retirement. He’s determined to prove his innocence. So he teams up with an agent of an insurance company, and gets to know a rich US widow and her nubile daughter (Grace Kelly). Grant is at his most oleaginous, but it actually feels a little creepy in this, which is not something I’d noticed before. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many early Grant films since last watching To Catch A Thief. Kelly is great – it’s one of her three best roles, along with Rear Window and High Society – and the supporting cast are all top-notch. It’s all pure Hitchcock from start to finish, from the adept use of location shooting to studio close-ups, from the script full of misdirection to hints at a back-story. It’s the setting more than anything that makes it feel like fluff. I only mention this in this film post because I recently bought a Blu-ray copy of the film – it was only a fiver (but not anymore, I see) – and I have to admit it’s a very nice transfer. The richer colours don’t work in everyone’s favour – Grant looks like he’s been creosoted – but it’s a superior print to the one on my DVD. Well worth £5.
Tabu, Miguel Gomes (2012, Portugal). I think I stuck this on my rental list because it was a Portugese film, although apparently it was at some point one of the most internationally successful Portugese films of all time. And while it reminded me in several ways of another Portugese film I’d seen, Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (see here), so much so I wondered if the similarities were actually a characteristic of Portugese cinema, it also reminded me a great deal of Jauja (see here), which is from Argentina… Tabu opens with a prologue set in the nineteenth century in Africa – it doesn’t say where, but it’s implied it’s Lusophone… so Angola or Mozambique? – in which a man hunts a crocodile following the suicide of his wife, is killed by the crocodile, and henceforth there are sightings of a ghostly woman and a crocodile. The film abruptly shifts to present-day Lisbon and a trio of women. The oldest of these, Aurora, is eccentric, and when she goes into hospital and is near to death’s door, the other two women at her request track down a man called Gian-Luca… and the film flashes back to Aurora’s early twenties in Portugese Africa… where she married a local land-owner, but then had an affair with Gian-Luca, and nearly died in childbirth. The whole film is shown mostly with a voice-over standing in for dialogue. It gives the story a literary feel, but also distances the viewer, something I also noted about Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. The thing is, it’s so different to most popular narrative cinema that, if it is a peculiarity of Portugese cinema (and, admittedly, I don’t know that it is), then I have to wonder how Portugese film-goers actually, well, view films. Imagine someone who had been brought up on entirely on nineteenth-centiry literature being given a modern best-seller to read. It feels like that. Which is not to say that Tabu is a bad film. On the contrary, it’s very good indeed. And if the prologue never really quite justifies its place in the story, it’s well presented and entertaining. Otherwise, the present day sections are not so interesting, but the flashback is good – the actor playing the young Gian-Luca, Carloto Cotta, is especially good. I added Tabu to my rental list on a seeming whim, you can add it to yours knowing it was recommended. Worth seeing.
Daughter of the Nile, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1987, Taiwan). I’m a big fan of Hou’s films, and have been ever since stumbling across his name somewhere, ordering a box set of his DVDs from Korea on a whim, and watching them and discovering how bloody good they are. He’s made a lot of films, and their availability in the UK is… Random, at best. Perverse, possibly. Happily, eureka! have just released a dual edition of one of his films, so that’s one I can cross off the list. Daughter of the Nile is a very Hou film, amost emblematic of his style without being representative of his oeuvre – if that makes sense. Hou makes films about the disaffected, as do the Sixth Generation Chinese directors, although Hou is, obviously, Taiwanese not Chinese. But Daughter of the Nile is also about affluence and adulthood, and while Hou does his thing with static shots and long shots – and it’s a style I very much like myself – Daughter of the Nile does feel more… kinetic than others films by Hou I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the gangster sub-plot… The main story describes a young woman who works at KFC, attends night school, and must look after her younger brother and sister. He’s the gangster. And he provides the film’s few moment of real drama – a shooting touside a night-club being one. I’d forgotten while watching the film that it was released in 1987… until a character pulled out a pager and then rang someone on a dial telephone. The fashions weren’t especially eighties, and usually films made in the 1980s look very eighties. But that’s more of an observation than a criticism. I think I’ll have to watch Daughter of the Nile again some time. Happily, Hou’s films bear repeated watchings.
Goodbye Gemini, Alan Gibson (1970, UK). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD, Say Hello to Yesterday (see here), and thought it worth seeing… and luckily managed to find a copy on eBay for a few quid. And, well, it’s okay, I guess. It’s very much a film of its time. A pair of twins arrive in London from South America, immediately arrange for the – murder? I’m not sure – of their housekeeper/guardian, go out pubbing and run into an unsavoury crowd. Well, not really unsavoury. They’re movieland 1960s swinging Englanders, into Johnnie Walker, flares, sideburns, fatuous dialogue and a social scene in which all men over the age of thirty are depicted as camp chickenhawks but no one is actually gay… Anyway, it seems the twins like each other a bit too much, and when the female of the pair falls for a gambler and wastrel, who then tries blackmailing the male of the pair, it all ends badly. While Goodbye Gemini was every bit as 1970 as Say Hello to Yesterday, it didn’t have Minis or silver birches. In fact, it looked generic 1960s. It did well on ther fashions, but less well on the scenery. So-so.
Sia, The Dream of the Python, Dani Kouyaté (2001, Burkina Faso). There are, to date, four volumes of Great African Films, each containing a pair of movies, and I plan to get hold of copies of all four. But they’re not easy to find. Well, in the US they seemingly are, but the company responsible for them seems reluctant to sell outside North America… Which is a shame, as these are are Region 0 DVDs and well worth seeing. I tracked down a second-hand copy of the first volume – Haramuya by Drissa Toure (Burkina Faso) and Faraw: Mother of the Dunes by Abdoulaye Ascofaré (Mali) (see here and here) – and the raw potential of the two films more than justified the hassle and expense in finding copies. And while this second volume was no easier to find, although at least this one was new, the pure film-making story-telling of, at least, Sia, The Dream of the Python, proves it was another good purchase and well worth the expense. The story is relatively straightforward. It;s based on, apparently, a seventh-century myth, but there’s no real indication of when it is set. Some elements of it feel contemporary, some feel historical. Basically, a man’s daughter is earmarked for sacrifice to the python god, but she runs away the night before. The king’s troops fail to find her. Then her boyfriend, a powerful warrior, returns from the front, and overthrows the king and takes the throne. And it’s like watching half a dozen bog standard fantasies played out in their ur-version in a world that is richer and more real than the authors of said fantasies could ever conceive. It’s a not a perfect film, by any means. Some of its cast are plainly amateur, and it often promises more than it can deliver on its budget. But these Great African Films DVDs are definitely worth tracking down, and certainly belong in the library of self-respecting film fan.
Footprints on the Moon, Luigi Bazzoni (1975, Italy). Sometimes you see a film and you think, I’ll have a bit of that, and then when it arrives you wonder why you picked it in the first place. I’ve watched several giallo over the years – both those classified as thrillers and those classified as horror – and some I’ve enjoyed while others I’ve thought were trash. Footprints on the Moon certainly has arresting DVD cover art, and an opening credit sequence in which a black-and-white LM descends onto the lunar surface, so surely it has to appeal… And I’ve watched it twice now and I think goddamnit I’m going to buy myself a copy because it’s a hidden gem and bears rewatching. It’s a giallo, no doubt about that; but it’s one of those rare giallos that falls into no known genre. A woman who works as a translator discovers she has mysteriously lost three days. She finds a postcard from a holiday island that has fallen on hard times, and goes there. Where she is repeatedly mistaken for a woman who looks exactly like her but who was on the island several days previously. The plot resembles a psychological thriller with a twist in which the writer hadn’t quite thought everything through properly. But the decision to film the scenes on the “island” in Istanbul gives the whole film a sort of, well, Hav-ish feel, which, unintendedly, has made the place much more interesting. The invented island has become an even more so invented place. This is only confused further by the protagonist finding, and then wearing, a wig which makes her look precisely like the woman for whom everyone is confusing her. Add in a bizarre subplot, which gives the film its title, in which the woman dreams of a secret project where an astronaut is left to die on the Moon, and which is where top-billed star Klaus Kinski briefly appears… And, well, it’s completely insane. I can see I’ll be spending a lifetime defending this film, but I really do think it’s a forgotten classic. Go and rent it.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 872