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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.

 

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Moving pictures 2017, #53

I’m still trying to catch up on my Moving pictures posts. There have been a couple of weeks where I’ve watched as many as three movies in a single night.

Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse (1969, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz is I think a great film. Sweet Charity, his first movie behind the camera, flopped – and it’s not hard to see why. Shirley Maclaine plays an innocent in New York, a young woman who works as a hostess at a dance hall and has had a string of a bad boyfriends – the films opens with her latest pushing her off a bridge in Central Park and stealing all her money. In an effort to better herself, she visits an employment agency, but has no skills or qualifications. She ends up trapped in the lift on her way down with a claustrophobe, who then proves so taken with her he woos her. She’s never had a normal boyfriend before, so she revels in his courting. And even accepts his offer of marriage. But when he discovers what she does for a living, he jilts her. This is a Fosse movie, so it’s all about the musical numbers, and most of them are pretty good. Sammy Davis Jr as evangelist Big Daddy is definitely memorable. I hadn’t known ‘(Hey) Big Spender’ came from this musical, and Fosse’s version is a prime example of repressed, well, something. Not a great film, but certainly a Fosse film.

Their Finest, Lone Scherfig (2016, UK). I’d seen this advertised on the sides of buses and trams for months, so when I saw a copy of it in a charity shop I thought it might be worth a go despite not expecting much of it. Another jingoistic pre-Brexit comedy, I thought, using WWII and the Blitz to sway public opinion, as if the two situations in anyway map onto each other. But I was wrong on several counts. It’s not a comedy. And while it takes place during WWII and is about Dunkirk, it’s very clear on the differences between the reality and the political narrative. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to write “slop” (women’s dialogue, as the misogynistic screenwriter calls it) for a film unit put together to produce uplifting films for the British public. Her first project is the story of twin sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to take part in the Dunirk rescue. Except they didn’t. The boat broke down. But Arteron lies, and the project gets the greenlight… and Their Finest turns into a pitch-perfect depiction of film-making in the 1940s, given it all felt very Archers. I’d been expecting some horrible Richard Curtis rom com set during the Blitz, but this was a little gem of a film. It’s by no means the comedy it has been sold as, but instead a solid drama of WWII – more like that Berkof drama than the comparisons its marketing was keen to draw. I liked it. Worth seeing.

Law of the Border, Ömer Lütfi Akad (1966, Turkey). I bought the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. But it proved an excellent box set, so when a second volume was released I immediately bought it. Like the first, it’s a varied mix, not all of which I’d heard of before. Like this Turkish film which is as old as I am. It apparently had a profound affect on Turkish cinema, with its mix of pseudo-western action and sociopolitical commentary. It’s set in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border, and many of the villagers survive by smuggling things across the border. But the authorities have put down new minefields, and now the border is virtually impenetrable. Then a new police lieutenant arrives in town, and a young and attrative schoolteacher persuades the village to open a school. Meanwhile, one of the local farmers has found himself with a flock of 3,000 sheep trapped on the wrong side of the border. So he tries to get master smuggler Hidir to bring the sheep across. But Hidir’s father died in the border minefield and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him. So he tries to accept the new order – sharecropping the local landowner’s fields. But that flock of sheep still presents quick riches to anyone who can get them across the border… Law of the Border was apparently pretty much lost – only a single copy survived Turkey’s 1980 coup, and it was in a parlous state. But not it has been restored – although only to the best that could be done given the state of the surviving negative. The film has its charm – it does that declamatory thing so many sociopolitical dramas do, and that I like. But it also wears its western inspiration on its sleeve, and there are lots of shoot-outs. Which does tend to make the last third of the film a bit busy. Hidir’s not exactly well-drawn either, and his character arc is a bit muddled. But for a 51-year-olf film from Turkey, it holds up pretty well.

Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavan (2007, India). Five men invest large sums of money in a scheme which will double their money in a handful of days. It’s never directly said what the deal is, but it’s probably drugs. One of the five, Shiva, the biggest and strongest of the five, will take the train from Mumbai to Kolkata with the money, collect the goods, and then return with them. But Vikram has other ideas. He sets up an alibi, and then attempts to rob Shiva on the train – but it goes horribly wrong and he ends up killing Shiva. And that’s how it goes. As each member of the five discovers the truth, so Vikram is forced to kill them in order to protect himself. Except for the detective investigating the whole thing on behalf of the leader of syndicate, who is murdered by someone else in an act of self-defence. It’s all very cleverly done, and while Vikram was obviously a bad sort right from the start – and his opening murder, meaning the rest of the film was flashback, seemed a forced start, it did leave a mystery right to the end that provided quite satisfying. This was an entertaining comedy/thriller. As far as I’m concerned, modern Bollywood needs to get equal rating in my watching with modern Hollywood – although I do need to watch more classical Bollywood, having loved Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam and everything by Guru Dutt – and I shall adjust my rental list accordingly.

The Crimson Pirate, Robert Siodmak (1952, USA). You can blame Hal Duncan for this one. There was a discussion on Twitter about best pirate movies and he insisted this was the one. So I bunged it on my rental list, and they actually sent it a week later. And… I’m prepared to entertain it as a candidate. I’m not an expert on pirate films by any means, and the high point of Hollywood swashbuckling to my mind is probably The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is, er, not a pirate film… But The Crimson Pirate is certainly a viable candidate. I’m not entirely convinced – it tries to be clever, by introducing anachronistic technology, which is indeed amusing, but it gets it wrong, which kind of spoils the intended effect. And Burt Lancaster in the title role is a just way too much a goody two shoes to convince as a pirate in the first place. His bo’sun, a dour Brit, is great. Nick Cravat, as Lancaster’s silent sidekick, provides some excellent physical comedy. But the villains are paper-thin clichés, and the grand finale is a triumph of spectacle over plausibility. A hot air balloon that goes where directed? Yeah, right. Bonus points for getting the ballast thing right, but in a balloon you’re pretty much in the hands of the wind. Best pirate movie? Not convinced. On the other hand, I can’t think of any reasonable candidates for the top spot.

Céline and Julia Go Boating*, Jacques Rivette (1974, France). Rivette is a singular talent. When a limited edition box set (3,000 copies) of some of his films came out last year, I bought it – back in January 2016. I notice it’s still available. It’s worth buying. Céline and Julie Go Boating is one of his best-known films, but the title is a complete misnomer. It’s a literal transalation ofthe French title, which is better translated as “get caught in a shaggy dog story”. Um, yes. The original phrase has no such connotations in English. Which is unfortunate, because the film is all about two young women who find themselves in a story and discover they can affect its narrative. Julie is sitting in a park reading a park when Céline wanders past and inadvertently drops her sunglasses. So Julie picks up the sunglasses and follows Céline, with the intent of returning them… which turns into a weird sort of voyeurism into her life… before the two end up sharing an apartment… At which point the story jumps the rails when the two visit an abandoned house in which Céline once worked as a nanny… and they find themselves in the house’s past, but able to change what happened… Which they subsequently set out to do. This is where the title is of relevance. I like Rivette’s films. I’ve no idea what they’re about, but I find much in them that is appealing. I bought the aforementioned box set, and it was a worthwhile purchase. I suspect I may end up getting my own copy of Céline and Julia Go Boating. I’ve a feeling the movie requires a few more watchings…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 882


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Moving pictures 2017, #52

My viewing of late has been partly dictated by LoveFilm’s imminent demise and a desire to watch as many films on my list that only it offers for rental. I can guess why it’s shutting down: there’s more money to be made in streaming. Let’s charge someone £2.49 to watch a film once instead of allowing them to rent up to twelve DVDs for £9.99 a month. Although, of course, you can pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services. And I would… if their selections weren’t so shit. There are now apparently dedicated streaming services – for Curzon, for Mubi, etc – which show the sort of films I want to watch. But I have to pay for each of them. Technology: finding more ways to separate you from your money for things that were cheaper, or even free, in the past…

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA). Another recommendation from David Tallerman. Johnson is a documentary director, and Cameraperson is excerpts from the films she has made, assembled as a testament to her life and career to date. Er, that’s it. There is footage of Johnson’s children, or footage from, for example, her documentary about bin Laden’s driver… I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work, I admit; in fact, I really should watch more documentaries. I tend to watch only those on topics which interest me, like James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep, or the Apollo missions, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… But documentaries, of course, cover a vast range of subjects, and I should know this because I live in a city that has an annual documentary festival (at which, incidentally, Cameraperson won the Grand Jury Award in 2016), and Johnson’s body of work covers some important topics. For the last year or two, I’ve split my rental DVDs between US/UK films and movies from the rest of the planet. But since I receive three at a time, perhaps I should introduce a third category for documentaries, and take one from each for each mailing. That sounds like a good plan, actually.

The Thin Man*, WS Van Dyke (1934, USA). William Powell plays an ex-private eye, married to wealthy socialite Myrna Loy. While visiting New York, a man they know disappears, and then his secretary is murdered. The disappeared man is assumed to be the murderer. The press repeatedly asks Powell if he’s investigating the case, but he points out time and again that he’s retired. But, of course, he starts looking into it, and, of course, he figures out what happened… resulting in a dinner party to which all the suspects are invited, and at which he reveals the murderer. Both leads were cast against type, but have real on-screen chemistry – although Powell does seem like he’s had a few too many throughout the film. But the way Loy and Powell actively take the piss out of each other is entertaining to watch. Loy is especially good. Apparently, director Van Dyke pushed Loy into a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party to see how she would react before casting her. Which is a pretty mean trick. Incidentally, the title refers to the disappeared man, not Powell’s character, but was mistakenly believed to be the latter – so much so, it led to five Powell and Loy sequels, all featuring the phrase “the Thin Man”. Not to mention a TV series that aired from 1957 to 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I’m not entirely sure why The Thin Man is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was certainly entertaining, but not I’d have thought an important film. True, it spawned a legacy that lasted a quarter of a century – but it’s mostly forgotten now.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax, Alexandre Aja (2016, Canada). I rented this because I’d read the book – it’s not one of Liz Jensen’s best, but she’s always worth reading. In fact, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a higher profile. Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy who is in a deep coma after falling off a cliff at a family picnic. His father has disappeared, and it’s not clear if Louis’s fall was accidental or deliberate. Louis, who narrates the film, considers himself accident-prone, and several such incidents are shown in flashback. Actually, much of the film takes place in flashback. Louis was actually pronounced dead after his fall, but came back to life on the mortuary slab – but is now in a coma. A pediatrician who specialises in comatose children becomes interested in Louis’s case and has him moved to his clinic. Louis’s mother starts to take an interest in the handsome doctor. Meanwhile, Louis meets with a rock monster in his coma dreams, and in the real world threats are made against his mother. I’d forgotten the novel’s plot when I watched the film, but it wasn’t difficult to see where it was going. It was one of those films where everything felt a little fake, the outside scenes more like a studio set plus CGI than open air, the ward in which comatose Louis is kept not looking anything like a hospital… A triumph of set-design over actual realistic surroundings. But not a bad film.

Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969, Italy). There are two types of Pasolini film: one I like a great deal, one I’m less keen on. Pigsty does both. It has two seemingly unrelated narratives. In one, a young man wanders naked across a volcanic landscape (last seen in Pasolini’s Theorem), before finding a sword and armour. And then it’s a series of fights, as he meets up with other soldiers, kills them, builds his own army, and so on. But there’s nothing in the blasted landscape to eat, so he turns to cannibalism, but is eventually arrested. The other narrative is set in the 1960s, and features a German industrialist who is clearly intended to be Hitler, even down to the toothbrush moustache and virulent anti-semitism. But his wife would sooner breed pigs, which later come in useful in getting rid of a rival. The problem with Pigsty is that the Hitler narrative is too silly to have much bite, and while the one set in ancient times is effective and looks pretty damn good, it takes too long to get to its point. This year has been the Year of Pasolini for me (well, among a couple of other directors), and from knowing nothing about him and his films I’ve worked my way through at least two-thirds of his oeuvre in around twelve months. And I like it. Some more than others, it has to be said. But I don’t doubt his importance as a director, or the uniqueness of his vision. I suppose in some respects I find him a bit like Fellini, another Italian director whose importance is beyond doubt but whose oeuvre I personally find a bit hit and miss – I love Fellini’s more self-indulgent films and find his Neorealist ones a bit meh, but that’s just me.

Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard (1987, France). Godard’s films from the 1980s and 1990s, that I’ve seen, seem to be structured in parts, which I suppose is little more than more overtly delineated acts. Soigne ta droite has several, er, parts. It opens with a man instructed to carry a film can to another city, but he’s abused by another man, and left to fend for himself. And then there are several scenes set on a small prop airliner, in which the passengers behave like children. There are musicians rehearsing, discussing music, and performing it. There are some aerial shots of the (Swiss, I think) countryside. And there’s a voice-over narration for much of the film, which explains little and confuses more. Some of the dialogue is declamatory, and tries to be philosophical but doesn’t always make the grade. Unlike in, say, Miklós Jancsó’s films, the dialogue in the scenes often feels unlinked, a sequence of non sequiturs – in one scene, some passengers are haranguing a ticket agent at an airport, but what they say to her does not match what is being acted out in the scene. Despite watching this film two or three times, I’ve yet to work out what it’s about. Godard apparently described it as “a fantasy for actor, camera and tape recorder”, which is not very helpful. I shall probably have to watch it again.

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss (1945, UK). For some reason I do not recall, I added a couple of Margaret Lockwood films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “quota quickie”, although it displays all the attributes – including James Mason in a leading role (as a Quaker and pacifist, he did not fight during WWII). (Um, it seems “quota quickies” only lasted from 1928 until 1938, so British films made during WWII don’t qualify – although Mason did make a lot of films during the period.) Lockwood plays the title character, an adventuress who steals her friend’s beau, only to find herself in a dull marriage… which she enlivens by taking up highway robbery, eventually teaming up with the infamous Captain Jackson (Mason). In many respects, it’s the dictionary definition of a bodice-ripper – apparently, it was considered very racy at the time. I would have thought the concept of a female leading lady who not only has agency, but pretty much breaks every rule of acceptable female behaviour for the time the film was set and also the time it was made (although the war would have changed some of those attitudes)… that I’d have thought more notable. And yet, for all that, the film is bit, well, dull. I think maybe the pacing is off or something. Certainly the plot is entirely predictable. And Lockwood makes a good leading lady, although somewhat bland at times. Mason is, well, Mason. The rest of the cast are your usual 1940s British actors with either cut-glass accents or put-on random regional accents. So, a bit meh, really.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 881