Another eclectic bunch of movies in this post. Six films and four countries, half of which are Anglophone. I’ve seen films by four of the directors – Greengrass makes good action films, but they’re not my thing, and I’ve never been a fan of Bresson’s work, for all his critical acclaim. Anyway, see below…
United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006, USA). I was living in Abu Dhabi when the World Trade Center was attacked. From what I remember, I was at home – I’d finished work a couple of hours earlier – when I heard on the radio that a plane had hit one of the towers. I turned on CNN and watched as the second plane hit the South Tower. The world changed on that day – and not for the better. And now, seventeen years later, there’s little doubt who has done more damage in the years since: the US. The Middle East is pretty much fucked up completely, and even the Arab Spring seems to have failed to improve things. Which is not to say the UK does not deserve its fair share of the blame. Wars will continue to be fought as long as people are willing to sell the combatants weapons – and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that many of the ultra-rich are pretty much war criminals in that regard. Anyway, United 93 is the most celebrated film about the events of 9/11 (an event which has been treated surprisingly rarely in film and television, although it’s far from uncommon in literature). United 93 is named for the one flight of the four hijacked which failed to hits its target, and that was because the passengers aboard fought back against the hijackers and managed to overpower them, albeit too late to prevent them from crashing the aeroplane. United 93 uses a lot of the actual people who were part of events, and a cast of relatively unknown faces in other roles. I don’t have a problem with non-professional actors, particularly in films that are trying for a documentary feel, as this one is. In fact, often dramatisation through the use of actors robs the depicted events of their authenticity. Greengrass, however, successfully keeps everything very real. But what had not occurred to me before watching this film, and which surprised me, was quite how brutal it was. It’s not just the raw emotion of the scenes aboard the eponymous flight, but also the violence when the passengers take back control. United 93 is on one or the other of the 1001 Movies list, although I don’t recall offhand which one. I think it belongs on the list, and not just because of its subject matter. True, such an important event in world history should be represented, but United 93 does it in a way that successfully evokes the emotional turmoil of 9/11. Which is why it should be on the list.
Lancelot du Lac, Robert Bresson (1974, France). Bresson is a highly-regarded director – he’s a favourite of my favourite director Aleksandr Sokurov, for example – but even after seeing some of his most celebrated films I’m not entirely sure I “get” his work. And yet, he does things I like in other directors’ films. In Lancelot du Lac, for example, he uses a mostly non-professional cast. He’s not the first French director to do that – I’ve a feeling Jacques Rivette did, but looking up his films apparently not – but I’m pretty sure some French director, beside Bresson, made extensive use of non-professional actors. Which is, to be fair, a comment more on my bad memory than it is this movie. The film covers the main points of the Lancelot / Arthur / Guinevere legend, focusing particularly on the Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere. A bad thing, obviously, as she was Arthur’s wife at the time, and a part of the mythos that feels more invented than the rest of it, if only because an adulterous queen feels like imposed commentary (and misogynistic commentary at that, given Guinevere is just about the only woman mentioned in the mythos). The setting doesn’t really convince – if anything, the cast look more like Larpers in a French wood than actual knights of the Round Table. King Arthur also appears a little too saturnine, and more resembles a villain than Mordred. There have been plenty of films made about the Matter of Britain, from musicals to Roman re-imaginings to Guy Ritchie’s mockney mediaeval fantasy. I don’t think any of them have been any good, or presented interesting treatments of the mythos. I think perhaps the most interesting one that comes to mind is a book, and that’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Maybe someday someone will make a good King Arthur film. This one certainly isn’t it.
Battle for Sevastopol, Sergey Mokritskiy (2015, Russia). I’d tried half a dozen films on Amazon Prime but given up on each after ten minutes as they were either really bad or I wasn’t in the mood to watch them. But Battle for Sevastopol pretty much dragged me in from the opening minutes, and I find it slightly worrying that I should find a war film more engrossing than the other films I tried watching. Although perhaps that says more about those other films… Anyway, Battle for Sevastopol is based on the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet army sniper who killed over 300 men and survived the siege of Sevastopol. The film opens in 1957, with Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the USSR and asking her minder to let he visit an old friend. The film then flashes back to 1942where Pavlichenko is being introduced to an audience in the US. She is there to drum up support (financial, of course; also armaments) for the USSR – this is after the siege, incidentally. Eleanor Roosevelt, on meeting Pavlichenko, takes a shine to her and invites her to stay in the White House. The film then flashes back again, this time to just before the war. Pavlichenko is studying history at university. Annoyed when some male friends are trying to show off on a rifle range, she insists on having a go herself. She proves to be a crack shot. She is sent off to sniper school – even though war has yet to break out. War breaks out. She serves on the Eastern Front as a sniper. The battle scenes are done extremely well. The film flips between Pavlichenko’s wartime experiences – including the loss of her lover, and the loss of a second lover – and her time in the US. I’m not a big fan of war films, although I’ve probably seen all the big WWII ones over the years – it was a popular subject in the 1950s and 1960s… Not only is Battle for Sevastopol told from a perspective not often seen in Anglophone cinema – if at all – although it’s a little sanitised, after all Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler did, but it also tells its story from an interesting viewpoint: a female sniper. The special effects are pretty much what you would expect for a big budget of the second decade of the twenty-first century; and if the Americans in the film mostly have weird accents, that’s hardly a deal breaker. Worth seeing.
Bright Star, Jane Campion (2009, UK). I remember years ago – back in the 1980s some time – reading a Tim Powers novel and discovering that the Romantic poets were quite fascinating people. I certainly hadn’t learnt that at school when I’d studied Wordsworth’s The Prelude for O Level. I’m not sure who led the most interesting life of them, Byron probably, or the Shelleys perhaps. But Keats is a possibility, a doctor who was also a lauded poet, and who died young, at the age of twenty-five, of tuberculosis. Literature, especially poetry, venerates creators who die young. I’ll admit I know little of Keats’s poetry – I vaguely remember ‘To Autumn’ from school – and what I read after seeing this film I thought pretty awful. I didn’t, to be honest, think much of the film either. It recounts Keats’s betrothal to Fanny Brawne, the daughter of his neighbours in Hampstead Heath. Unfortunately, Brawne is played by Abbie Cornish, who has a noticeable Australian accent. And Keats’s housemate, Charles Brown, is played by an American actor who puts on a Scottish accent, despite Brown apparently being from Lambeth. Keats, incidentally, is played by Ben Whishaw, who is of course the voice of Paddington. While Bright Star does a good job of presenting early nineteenth-century England, the cast aren’t entirely convincing, and the story is extremely dull. Meh.
French Cancan, Jean Renoir (1955, France). Jean Renoir, he made films like La grande illusion, Boudu saved from Drowning, La Règle du jeu… The last thing I’d have expected him to make is this over-colourised fluffy French mid-fifties musical. The title pretty much says it all. It’s 1890s Paris and a nightclub owner’s business is failing, and his main attraction, a belly dancer, is not pulling in the punters. But then he discovers that the cancan is still being performed in Montmartre, so he decides a cancan chorus is just what he needs. As is usually the case in these sorts of films, he manages to magic up the cash for a new nightclub – he calls it the Moulin Rouge – plus costumes and props for a chorus of cancan dancers. One of which proves to be a star and draws in the punters. It’s based on a true story, of course, but it does seem the bulk of the problems he encountered were emotional. I’m not even sure if this is one for fans of Renoir or French musicals. It’s definitely colourful, very colourful. Meh.
Letters from Baghdad, Sabine Krayenbühl (2016, UK). A few weeks ago I watched Werner Herzog’s biopic of Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert (see here), and was not impressed. I knew of Bell, but thought Herzog had been indulging in artistic licence when he showed Bell visiting Bedouin tribes in what is now Saudi Arabia. But, as I discovered in this documentary about Bell’s life, she did indeed go there. To Ha’il, a town in the Nejd, ruled by the House of Rashid (later deposed by ibn Saud). Letters from Baghdad has Tilda Swinton reading out Bell’s correspondence to her parents, interspersed with talking heads acting people who knew her and some archive footage of her or representative of what she experienced. It’s fascinating stuff, and a clever technique that prevents the film from being too dry. But then Bell led a fascinating life. She graduated from Oxford with a first in history, which was not awarded as women could not earn degrees, and was sent out to Baghdad to stay with her uncle, a British minister there. She fell in love with the country and travelled around it extensively. She learnt Arabic and made friends among the tribal leaders. She was not, however, the first foreign woman to visit Ha’il, as Lady Anne Blunt had done so a couple of decades earlier. Bell was one in a long line of British Arabists during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of them, like Bell, provided instrumental in creating the nations which now exist there. Letters from Baghdad is an excellent film about a fascinating person.
1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 931