It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Moving pictures 2019, #8

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Only one more of these and I’ll be up to date, but I’ll not be able to get that post done before I leave the UK. Still, I expect I’ll have plenty of time to catch up once I’m living in Sweden…

The Hills Have Eyes*, Wes Craven (1977, USA). I’m not a horror fan, especially modern horror. Too squeamish. I can watch 1970s and earlier horror because the special effects look like special effects. Once they started using CGI, they lost me as a viewer. Having said that, I wouldn’t normally have bothered with The Hills Have Eyes, although I’ve watched a number of Wes Craven movies over the years, except it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And, like a number of other US movies on that list, I can’t honestly say I understand why it’s there. It made a star of Michael Berryman, but there’s not much about the film that suggests it’s a classic. A dysfunctional family are stranded in the Nevada desert and fall prey to a family of cannibals who live in the hills (it’s never entirely explained how they managed to survive there for two generations, but never mind). The Hills Have Eyes is apparently a cult classic, which I can totally see… but that doesn’t make it either a good film or one you must see before dying. Ah well, at least I’ve crossed it off the list.

Prospect, Zeek Earl (2018, USA). A man and his teenage daughter, desperate for one last big strike, take a chance at prospecting for organic jewels on a world just before all contact with the world is lost. But it all goes horribly wrong – of course – and the father dies and the daughter is forced to ally herself with a smooth-talking criminal in order to escape the world and the brutal tribe of people trapped there. It all started quite well, with an interesting vision of interstellar travel; and then the prospecting in spacesuits in a forest because the air is poisonous, that looked quite good… But somewhere in the first half hour, the writer decided all the characters should talk like rejects from Firefly, and that stupidly mannered artificial way of speaking, like a cowboy who thinks he’s in a Jane Austen novel, got very tiring very quickly. It didn’t help that the story went a bit Mad Max, while looking like the 1980s Doctor Who gravel pit, and its early promise was pretty much pissed away. Worth a punt, but don’t expect much.

Sylvia Scarlett, George Cukor (1935, USA). This is the film that saw Katherine Hepburn labelled as “box office poison” until her career revived with The Philadelphia Story. It’s not entirely clear why contemporary audiences took against Sylvia Scarlett, or Hepburn in it. She’s just as annoying as she is in her other films, and the movie’s conceit of having her masquerade as male for much of its length is handled quite well. Co-star Cary Grant comes across as a bit of an odd fish. Everyone remembers him as the tea-bag-tanned urbane, if not louch, playboy of his later career, but in his earlier films he’s a bit of a galumph and in this one he even tries on a Cockney accent. It’s middling successful, but good enough for a US audience (mind you, Strine would make an acceptable Cockney accent to most Americans; and then there are those US films set in Eire where the cast all have Belfast accents…). Anyway, Hepburn et père flee France ahead of an embezzlement charge, and bump into grifter Grant on the ferry to the UK. And they, well, have sort of adventures around a 1930s Hollywood vision of England, where minor gentry have estates the size of the Isle of Wight and everyone drives on the right. I can see why the film was unsuccessful: it’s not very interesting. A pair of lovable rogues do lovable-roguish things. And then romance blossoms once the obvious subterfuge is seen through. But I don’t think it was so bad it should have blighted Hepburn’s career for over a decade. Meh.

A Moment of Innocence, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). A US film blogger I regularly read recently went on about Iranian directors doing European cinema and his surprise at such a thing proving both popular and sustainable – not just Makhmalbaf, but also Kiarostami, Farhadi, Panahi, Payami, Ghobadi… although Farhadi is probably the closest to European cinema and has made films in France – indeed, his latest is set entirely in Spain. But then Kiarostami also made movies in Italy and Japan. I’ve been watching Iranian films for over a decade now, and I certainly count it as one of the world’s best cinemas. Makhmalbaf has always been highly regarded in Iranian cinema, but his films have not been as readily available in the UK as those by Kiarostami or Farhadi (and even then it’s a bit hit and miss with Kiarostami). Hopefully, that will change with the UK release last August of Makhmalbaf’s Poetic Trilogy, containing the astonishingly good Gabbeh (and yes, yes, I’ve bought myself a copy to take to Sweden). Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll see Makhmalbaf’s back-catalogue appear in Region B Blu-rays. One of the appealing qualities of Iranian cinema is its willingness to push the boundaries of cinematic narrative. In A Moment of Innocence, a director called Makhmalbaf, who never appears on screen, is casting for a movie about when, as a seventeen year old, he stabbed a policeman at a protest. He tracks down the policeman and auditions him for that role, but then has him involved in the casting process to find an actor to play a younger him during the protest. And so you have Makhmalbaf commenting on his past, while exploring how films are made and how they represent real stories, using real people playing the parts of actors and actors playing the parts of real people. It all feels like a companion piece to Kiarostami’s Close-up (1990), made six years earlier and featuring Makhmalbalf as a major offscreen character – much as he is offscreen in this film. And, well, the reason why I thought this film is really good is the reason why I think much Iranian cinema is good: it makes smart films that flout Hollywood cinema narrative conventions. And they look bloody good too. Everyone should watch Iranian films.

Crumb*, Terry Zwigoff (1994, USA). This is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It is a biopic of US underground comic artist R. Crumb. Starring Crumb, his friends and family, admirers and fans. So its appeal is pretty much wholly linked to the interest a viewer might have in its subject. Which, for me, was pretty much zero. I admit I like some late Sixties west coast US music, and Crumb was briefly linked with it by virtue of drawing an album cover for Big Brother & the Holding Company’s 1968 album Cheap Thrills (ie, Janis Joplin’s band), but I’m mostly ignorant of Crumb’s various works. I much prefer French bandes dessinées to US underground comics, anyway. Which is no doubt why I found a biopic about one of the latter’s leading lights a bit of a bore. And I could see no reason why it should be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although that’s hardly untypical of most of the US films on the list. If the film made a splash at its time of release, it doesn’t now. There are other more important people in comic art who deserve to have films made about them. Those films might even prove more interesting.

The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies (1992, UK). Davies is one of those directors whose films I like in theory but not in practice. If you know what I mean. He makes gorgeously-shot films with an amazing attention to detail, and yet they tell stories that are so mundane and forgettable that you wonder what you watched a day after the movie finished. It doesn’t help that many of his films depict an impoverished northern England during the middle years of last century, and very little has changed since then – or rather, communities, society as a whole, has changed a great deal since then, but the impoverishment has returned, thanks to criminal Tory austerity policies, except there’s no community to help share the burden. So Davies’s films feel like paeans to a world that never existed, even though they patently did exist. And that’s another problem: what exactly is the point of documenting them? I can understand the personal urge to document one’s own past, and though each person’s past is unique there’s often enough commonality to find an audience… But things are as bad now as they were then – and we don’t have the excuse of paying for a global war, or at least paying the US’s bill for their help in defending ourselves from a more powerful enemy during a global war (the US fucked the UK over, much more than Germany did, make no mistake about that. The US calls itself “the Land of the Free” but it doesn’t say “free” at the bottom of the invoice they issue for services needed when invaded by a foreign power… I digress. I am apparently known for it. My last manager complained of it – at least, I think he was complaining…) Anyway, I would recommend any Terence Davies film because they’re worth seeing. I don’t agree with, or even particularly enjoy, most of them, but I admire them and they’re one hundred percent worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 937

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