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Moving pictures 2017, #14

I’ve done it again – not a single US film in this half-dozen, well, seven, to be precise. In fact, not a single Anglophone movie. Instead, we have Romanian, Schweizerdeutsch, Polish, Russian, Mandarin/Taiwanese, and Kurdish.

californiaCalifornia Dreamin’, Cristian Nemescu (2007, Romania). When I asked some Romanian friends for films from their country to watch, this was one of the titles they suggested (unlike Nemuritorii – see here). And having now seen it, I can see it reflects well on the Romanian film industry but perhaps not so well on the Romanian people. I’ve visited the country and can think of nothing bad to say about the people I met there… but this film is not entirely flattering. Of course, there’s no requirement a film should be. Although US films do tend to show US culture in a flattering light, even while a US character is committing genocide. But US films are notoriously mendacious, and will promote the “American Dream” even in situations where it has plainly failed – which is, in part, germane to the plot of this film, as it is the riches of the US, and its treatment of other places, which leads to the situation the film depicts. A NATO detachment of US soldiers is accompanying a radar unit to Kosovo, and it travels by train through Romania. But when it reaches a small village in the middle of nowhere, the station master, who is corrupt as they come, decides to play the bastard and halts the trains because it lacks the necessary papers. This is all based on a true story, incidentally. The presence of the American soldiers understandably disrupts the village, so much so that the US commander eventually persuades the villagers to riot against the corrupt station master and police chief. The riot turns violent, and the Americans sneak away during the fighting. There’s a running joke throughout about a Romanian soldier seconded to the US company, and so wears their uniform, who pretends to be American to a pretty village girl who does not speak English. But if some of the Romanians come across as venal and corrupt, the majority are just ordinary people struggling to survive in a failing system. The Americans are worse – arrogant, ignorant, and unwilling to make the effort to understand another culture. The US commander is played by Armand Assante, an odd piece of casting, but it turns out he does a “officer with a stick up his ass” quite well. As an advert for Romania, California Dreamin’ fails; as a film, it succeeds really well. Fortunately, films should not be adverts or tourist brochures.

aloysAloys, Tobias Nölle (2016, Switzerland). This was a freebie, thrown in by the seller when I bought half a dozen other DVDs – most of which have appeared in previous Moving picture posts. So I knew nothing about it, but since the seller has chucked in a freebie on previous orders and they’ve proved to be good, interesting films, I had no doubts Aloys would prove the same. And so it did. The title refers to a young man who works as a private detective. He had been the junior partner in the firm with his father, and the film opens with his father’s funeral. Aloys is a loner, preferring to avoid people, and perform his assignments by filming his targets from a distance. He films other people too. After his father’s cremation, he gets drunk, falls asleep on the bus, and wakes up in the depot to discover his video camera and tapes have been stolen. There is one videotape in his pocket. On it, a woman’s voice admits she took the tapes and camera and that she disagrees with what he does. The two of them begin “phone walking”: one describes a place, imaginary or real, over the phone in such a way that the listener can imagine themselves there. When one of Aloys’s neighbours tries to commit suicide, he realises she was the thief and telephone caller. They continue their relationship, she from her hospital bed, leading to a quite wonderful party scene in which the pair play a duet on an electric organ to an audience of their neighbours – but it’s all in his imagination. The realisation of his imaginary walks and meetings is really well done – it makes the film, in fact. Worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Jump (Salto), Tadeusz Konwicki (1965, Poland). While watching this, I couldn’t help be reminded of Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s for the slimmest of reasons: in both films the protagonist continuously wears sunglasses. A man – in sunglasses – jumps from a train as it passes through the countryside, and makes his way to a nearby village. Once there, he claims to know people from having spent time there during WW2, but he tells a different story to everyone he speaks to. And eventually they figure out these contradictory stories cast everything he said in doubt, and so they turn on him. It’s never entirely clear if he’s a total con man, or just a chancer imposing on past acquaintance… and in a country like Poland, with its troubled history during World War 2 and immediately afterward (as documented in films such as, er, Ashes and Diamonds), treading such a fine line is sure to eventually end in disaster. As it does. The townspeople run the man out of town  – a dog even chases after him and tries to bite him as he flees down the road – and then the film presents a nice circularity in having the man run through a field and catch a passing train in a sort of reverse of the sequence which opened the film. This wasn’t one of the best films in this box set, although the restoration and transfer were excellent. I’m glad I bought the box set, despite the price, and even more pleased I chose to shell out for all three box sets. Expect lots of Polish films to appear in these posts over the next few months.

man_movie_cameraThree Songs for Lenin & Kino Pravda #21, Dziga Vertov (1934/1925, Russia). There are two types of utopian vision – those that include everyone, and those that include only those people like the person having the vision. Which is as good a description of left-wing and right-wing as any. And while the USSR turned increasingly totalitarian in the decades after the October Revolution, so much so that I suspect any utopian revolution’s ideals are unlikely to last longer than a generation, Vertov was there at the beginning of the USSR and he filmed it. So while there’s actual footage here of Lenin giving speeches, or meeting and greeting fellow Russians, all silent, of course, given the time, there is also footage of citizens of the USSR celebrating Lenin’s achievement… and it’s mostly from the south, from places like Azerbaijan, with women in burkas and men in dashikis. No one bats an eye at this – they are all comrades. True, this is early Soviet propaganda, although I think Vertov was more guilty of seeing the good cinema could do than of consciously using it as a government tool. But when we live in a world in which Daily Mail readers actually regret the Nazis not winning World War 2, I can only point to these films and say despite all the reasons the USSR was a bad thing, what they show is a good thing. When Soviet art was optimistic, it was a great and wonderful thing; when it was pessimistic, it was a sharp-edged tool. And what do we in the UK, or even the US, have to set against that? An industry which produces commercial product which has perpetuated the greed-is-good narrative so successfully that people would sooner have slavery than multiculturalism! How is that acceptable? There’s no point in being generous about it: if you voted Leave, you are either a racist or ignorant, or both. Likewise if you voted for Trump. You have fucked up the future. And watching Three Songs for Lenin and Kino Pravda #21, I envy the optimism of the people in the films. They had built a new world order and it was a fair one. They couldn’t know it wouldn’t last, but that failure in no way invalidates the attempt to set it up. Perhaps it’s time for a new revolution.

yi_yiA One and a Two (Yi Yi)*, Edward Yang (2000, Taiwan). This is a family saga, covering three generations, although not the entire length of those generations. And while it’s a well-observed drama, I could see no good reason why it made the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list. A good film, yes – but a great film? The film opens with a woman infiltrating the preparations for a wedding banquet and making a scene with the bride’s mother. And then it sort of follows around members of the family… and I honestly can’t remember if there was a plot or not. I seem to recall that at times it felt like a documentary and at other times like a family drama, but that none of it really quite gelled for me. And it was long, too: 173 minutes. I think I should have given it a second go, but it was a rental DVD and I sent it back before I could rewatch it. Having said that, I seem to have made a habit of buying films I’d previously watched on rental, although this one does appear to have been deleted, or at least I’m sure I saw an Artificial Eye edition at some point but can no longer find it online. I think I’d like to see it again, because I remember it being good even if I can’t remember the details of the story.

blackboardsBlackboards, Samira Makhmalbaf (2000, Iran). Samira Makhmalbaf is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daughter, but if this film is any indication she has a singular vision all her own. A group of men carry blackboards on their backs across the mountains to teach literacy to the children of the valleys. But there is a war on, and they must avoid being shot at or strafed by jet fighters. And when they do meet up with a bunch of boys from the valley villages, none of them are interested in learning to write. One of the men perseveres, and follows the boys along mountain tracks, trying to persuade them of the benefits of reading and writing. There’s not much in the way of plot here, just the presentation of people in a deplorable situation. The film’s cast appear to be mostly non-professional, but as I’ve learnt over the past year or two that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Makhmalbaf captures their plight well, and keeps sympathy with both those who carry the blackboards on their backs and those into whose lives they intrude. Iran has produced a number of excellent directors of the past few decades, and has a cinema better than many other nations of equivalent size. Some of its directors seem to have their films released in the UK (and US) more often than others – Asghar Farhadi, for example; or Abbas Kiarostami – but then not all of Kiarostami’s films have seen UK DVD releases, and others such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf are woefully under-represented. Nonetheless, Iran has one of the strongest cinemas of any non-Anglophone nation, and it’s always worth watching one of its films.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 856


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Moving pictures 2017, #13

The New Year’s resolution is still working. I seem to be averaging one US film per Moving pictures blog post. The films in this post were half-rented and half-owned, and two were rewatches (albeit one of them not since many years).

herzogHeart of Glass, Werner Herzog (1976, Germany). I first saw this many years ago, after buying a Herzog DVD box set in a sale. And of that initial watch, all I  could really remember was the fact the cast were hypnotised before shooting began, and the really weird way they performed on-screen as a result. Which pretty much meant I’d categorised the film as “weird Herzog that’s probably pretty good but still weird”. What I’d forgotten were the parts of the film where the camera focuses on some part of the landscape, like some Caspar David Friedrich painting, lacking only the figure of a man, while some strange German prog rock plays… for ten minutes. I love stuff like that. When the actual story kicks off – a master glass blower at a factory in an eighteenth-century town and takes the secret of the glassworks’s unique ruby glass with him – it feels a bit like the film has landed badly in the proasic after some flight of fancy. The local baron is desperate to find the secret, so much so failure drives him mad. And the rest of the town go made too. While I’d remembered how odd the casts’ performances were, since they’d been hypnotised, they actually proved considerably stranger than I’d thought. In many cases, it was like they weren’t there, their faces seemed completely blank. At other times, they over-reacted as if whatever they saw or felt just got stuck. It was… very weird. And I really did like the musical interludes. Bits of Heart of Glass are among my favourite bits of Herzog.

my_brilliant_careerMy Brilliant Career*, Gillian Armstrong (1979, Australia). I was perhaps unfair in dismissing this as a “dull Australian historical drama”, as I did on Facebook shortly after watching it, yet I really did find it over-long and uninteresting. The title refers to the boast uttered by an independent young woman in late nineteenth-century Australia. She is convinced she will become a much-lauded writer – and given that the film is based on an important Australian novel, it might well be said she did just that. A young woman is sent from the family farm to live with her grandmother in order to calm her down and teach her how to behave like a proper young woman. She meets two men, and she falls for the one with the money. She spends time at his estate. He proposes. She rejects him. His fortune then collapses. She takes a job as a governess in order to support herself, but is sent home because the family mistakenly think she is seducing the oldest son. Her boyfriend proposes again. She rejects him again. And says she wants to become a writer. (Not that writing and marriage are incompatible, as a great many female writers can attest – even in the late nineteenth century… although perhaps not so much in Australia.) My Brilliant Career pretty much stands or falls on how you take to the lead character, Sybylla, the Miles Franklin stand-in. While the film was put together well, and the two leads, Judy Davis and Sam Neill, put in excellent performances, I really didn’t take to Sybylla, which is why I didn’t take to the film. Some films like that, I might decide a second chance is warranted, and so watch them again. But this was a rental and I didn’t get a chance before sending the disc back. So it’ll have stay as a “meh” from me.

astronautAstronaut: The Last Push, Eric Hayden (2012, USA). I have a great idea for a film, it’s it like the plot of my 2011 story, ‘Barker’, about the first man in space, who dies; but in this version it’s a British space programme, because we nearly had one, you know (actually, no, we didn’t, that’s implausible make-believe). Anyway, someone made that film, it was called Capsule, and it was very dull. Astronaut: The Last Push takes that idea one step further. Two US astronauts are being set to Europa, but the most efficient course is a slingshot by Venus, and then a second by Earth. Since this will take several years, the crew of two are put into hibernation. But then the spacecraft is hit by a micrometeoroid en route to Venus, which wakes up one astronaut and kills the other. So the surviving astronaut has to stay awake, and sane, during the remaining weeks of the trip from Venus back to Earth. As does the viewer. Because once the accident is over, the only drama remaining centres on the continued sanity of the surviving astronaut. And his coping mechanisms. And that’s neither dramatic not interesting enough to fill 85 minutes. I’m a sucker for space movies, but so many of them look better on paper than they do realised on the silver screen. Usually because the story isn’t really fit for 90 minutes. But I’ll keep on watching them, in the hope I find a good one.

far_pavilionsThe Far Pavilions (1984, UK). As far as I remember, I read MM Kaye’s novel The Far Pavilions one Christmas or Easter holiday while staying in the Middle East with my parents because there was nothing else to read. It was not my usual choice of book. But I really liked it – so much so, I went on to read Kaye’s other historical novels and, years later, tracked down copies of her crime novels. A later reread of The Far Pavilions reminded me why I had loved it so much the first time I read it. So I was keen to see the television adaptation… and so I did, within a year of two of its release. But I also remember being disappointed with the adaptation, but despite that I was pleased when I stumbled across a DVD of The Far Pavilions in a charity shop for 99p (as indeed were the rest of the family, who’ll be borrowing it from me). The story is simple enough. An English boy, Ash, survives the Indian Mutiny and successfully masquerades as the son of his Indian nurse until the age of eleven. At which age, he makes himself known at the Corp of Guides garrison in Mardan in North-West India. He is sent off to England to be educated, and to grow up, as a proper Englishman, and then returns to India on his majority to take up a place as an officer in the Corps of Guides. The book makes much of Ash’s childhood as Ashok, but the TV series leaves it as off-screen back-history. Which means that Ash’s ability to pass as a “native” (Urdu-speaker? Pushtu-speaker?) has to be taken as dramatic licence in the TV series – especially since all the dialogue is in English and there are no indicators the characters have changed language. (Actually speaking, say,  Urdu, and having English subtitles would be unacceptable on UK and US television in 1984, more’s the pity.) Ash was best friends with a young princess when a kid, but now he’s a pukka sahib he ends up meeting her, only she’s being married off to a nasty piece of work and he has to escort her to her wedding. They reconnect, are horrified by her future, but both have roles to play. There’s some fine landscape in The Far Pavilions, and some good dramatic moments, but the casting is iffy at best. Ben Cross never really convinces as Ashok, a blacked-up Amy Irving makes a poor Anjuli, and Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee as Pathans is just taking the piss. The storming of the Residence in Kabul is effectively staged, and the pomp and circumstance during the princesses’ trip south, and subsequent marriage, looks good. But the miniseries never matches up to the book – which I really must reread one of these days – and, thirty-two years later, feels like a too-thin adaptation that traded on a low-grade celebrity cast and Indian scenery. True, it was the first miniseries HBO were ever involved in, so early days for the format (and kudos to them for actually going to India to film it), but I’d really liked the novel and had hoped to like this just as much.

vagabondVagabond*, Agnès Varda (1985, France). The film opens with the discovery by a vineyard worker of a young woman dead in a ditch, from what appears to be exposure. From the voiceover, it appears this might be a documentary, and a series of interviews with those involved in finding the body, and the authorities and emergency services who turn up, only increases the documentary feel. But then Vagabond abruptly shifts back in time to the earliest appearance of the young woman the narrator admits she has uncovered… and the moves forward with a combination of dramatisation of the young woman’s life – she is a drop-out, travelling about France with a tent on her back and picking up casual jobs to pay for food – and interviews with those she interacted with along the way. Vagabond doesn’t blend fiction and fact as it’s entirely fctional, but it does blend the typical modes of presentation of fiction and fact. In itself, the story isn’t all that interesting – in attempting to track back the young woman’s life and discover who she was, the narrator, and so the viewer, discovers she was perfectly ordinary. She admits at one point to having been a well-paid secretary in Paris, but decided she had had enough of that life and so took to the road. The people she meets are perfectly ordinary, lending yet more of a documentary feel to the film. The only other Varda film films I’d seen prior to this were Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which I thought okay, and Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved. Vagabond I thought good. So I really should add me some more Varda to my rental list. Happily, there are two box sets of four of her films each available in the UK.

masterpieces_1Camouflage, Krzysztof Zanussi (1977, Poland). I had a moment of weirdness when watching this when I realised that one of the characters had an English accent when speaking Polish. I don’t speak Polish… but I’ve apparently heard enough of it in films to to recognise some Polish words being pronounced with an English accent. Weird. It turned out the actress was bi-lingual, but brought up in the UK, and in this film was playing a Polish-speaking Brit. She is one of several students at a university summer camp. She is also having an affair with one of the lecturers. And that lecturer is one of the young ones, who has different ideas to how students should be treated than the older lecturers. This comes to a head over the summer camp’s competition, in which each student stands up before the class and gives a a talk on a topic. (The summer camp is specifically for students studying linguistics, incidentally.) The young lecturer favours one student to take the prize, one of the older lecturers disagrees. It causes problems. To be honest, I thought the talk the young lecturer felt deserved the price, or at least what little of it appeared in the film, based on a fallacy and not especially good. But never mind. Camouflage is another one of those television dramas writ large that the Poles did so well in the 1970s. It doesn’t feel like a feature film but an entire series edited together and, in hindsight, I have to wonder if this is because these films take the time to build their characters. They don’t create ones that fall neatly into well-known types. The Polish-speaking English actress mentioned earlier is a good example. Why have someone like her in the film? Her background doesn’t impact the story, is not relevant to the resolution. But the fact she exists makes every character in the film feel more rounded. And when the story revolves around the conflict between two lecturers, of different generations and sensibilities, then well-drawn characters are a must. Camouflage also looks wonderfully 1970s. Not the horribly over-egged 1970s of twenty-first-century attempts at recreating the 1970s, like American Hustle, but the real 1970s, with daft pointy collars, tank tops, and shirts and ties and jackets in different unaplatable shades of brown. A good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 855


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Moving pictures 2017, #12

More movies from around the world. Two were from the first of the three Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought (I can’t find these box sets for sale anywhere online, so I’ve linked the title to website promoting the original Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema‘s tour of, er, cinemas.)

beijing_bikeBeijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai (2001, China). As a fan of both Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, I was keen to see more films by modern Chinese directors, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s name cropped up as another of the “Sixth Generation”, which includes Jia. So I stuck one of his films on my rental list… Having cottoned onto Wang through Jia and Zhao, the director this film most reminds me of is Hou Hsiao Hsien, who is Taiwanese, although it does have the documentary feel Jia manages to give his films. Four teenagers from the provinces land a job at a bicycle courier company. They are each given a new mountain bike, the cost of which is taken out of their wages for the first six months. One of them is a week or two away from paying for his bike when it is stolen. So he fails to deliver the package that had been given to him – there’s an excellent sequence in which he turns up to a posh spa and gives the name of his contact, only for the brainless receptionist to assume he means a guest of the same name, and so he has to have a shower to enter the spa and afterwards is told he must pay for the shower – and is subsequently fired. He vows to find his stolen bike, and the company manager tells him that if he does, then he can have his job back. And he finds it. It had been sold to a schoolboy who fancies a girl in his class and has been accompanying her on her ride to school (but he stole the money from his parents to buy the bike). Unfortunately, the rest of the story rests on a fallacy – that the purchaser of stolen property owns the stolen property because they bought it in good faith. The moment the courier turned up and identified his bike, the schoolboy should have handed it over and demanded his 500 yuan back from the person who’d sold him the bike. But these are schoolkids, I suppose, and allowed to get it wrong – so wrong, in fact, that the courier and the schoolboy end up agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, the one so he can keep his job, the other so he can get closer to the girl he fancies. Who has already started going out with someone else anyway. This is not a cheerful film. (Does China even make cheerful films these days?) But it is a good one.

gods_egyptGods of Egypt, Alex Proyas (2016, USA). I knew this was going to be complete nonsense – I remember when the film was released last year, and what people were saying about it. But it was a Saturday night, I had a bottle of wine, and it couldn’t be that bad, could it, surely? Um, yes. Worse, in fact. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the whitecasting (especially since it’s equally troubling in the film following, although that at least has a more understandable excuse). So, skipping over the fact the film has a pretty much uniformly white cast playing the actual gods of Ancient Egypt from, er, Egypt, in North Africa… Even ignoring such a colossal failure, Gods of Egypt fails in so many other ways. For a start, it takes that mythology and turns it into a fantasy film. True, there is, as far as I know, no organised church of Isis, Horus, etc, to take religious offence at this appropriation; and Hollywood has done pretty much the same for Greek mythology since someone hand-cranked a camera in California for the first time. But neither past custom nor lack of a lobby group makes it acceptable in this day and age. And, as well as all that, Gods of Egypt is just, well, a shit film. The acting is terrible, the plot is nonsense, the production design looks wholly generic, and who really gives a shit about a bunch of super-powerful over-entitled people and their abuse of the population they rule? It might have flown forty years ago, but not now. Okay, so the way they made the gods all bigger than actual people was sort of cool… for about five minutes. But, to be honest, the entire film you just wanted them to put themselves out of your misery. Not only did Gods of Egypt make any random MCU movie look good, it also made it look positively left-wing. Avoid.

masterpieces_1Pharaoh, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1966, Poland). And from the ridiculous to the sublime. Well, not quite. But it was obviously perversity which made me put on another film about Ancient Egypt immediately after sitting through Gods of Egypt. Pharaoh, however, is an earnest historical drama, shot in the Uzbekistani desert with a blacked-up cast. A cast – and that’s pretty much all the speaking parts – in dark skin make-up so they resemble Ancient Egyptians is never going to be acceptable… although this movie was made fifty years ago and is Polish-language. Suitable Polish-speaking actors were likely impossible to find (in which case, the best answer: make a different film), but we have what we have. Fifty years ago, Kawalerowicz went ahead and made Pharaoh. And, to be fair to him, he made more of an effort at verisimilitude under much more constrained circumstances, than Hollywood ever did. As it is, Pharaoh is pure historical epic but, despite opening with a huge battle sequence, still feels somehow small-scale. Perhaps it’s because the two main exterior locations, the palace and the temple, appear to exist in an empty desert wasteland. I don’t recall seeing a city, or even a camp for the slaves working on the various monuments. The story centres on the power struggle between a pharaoh and his priests, with lots of intense scenes set in darkened chambers in either building. I’m not entirely sure what to make of Pharaoh – it’s well-made, although its sensibilities are no longer acceptable, but in many ways it’s a good old-fashioned Sunday afternoon movie. It’s worth noting, however, that DI Factory have done a lovely job with this Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. The packaging looks great, and the restored film’s transfer looks excellent. Happily, I have seven films in this box set yet to watch, and another two box sets in the series as well.

francofoniaFrancofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). There is a Curzon cinema here in Sheffield but, for reasons best known to themselves, Curzon chose to screen Francofonia only at their Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and not in a city which has an annual documentary film festival. Bastards. So I had to wait for the Blu-ray. I’d first heard about Francofonia some three years ago, and had expected it to appear in 2015. I had also been expecting something in a similar vein to Russian Ark, only this time about French history and the Louvre, albeit mostly focusing on the Nazi occupation of Paris. But I should have known better. Because Francofonia is actually closer to Sokurov’s “elegy” documentaries, especially Elegy of a Voyage, as well as bafflingly meta-fictional, like Mournful Unconcern (which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and features documentary footage of Shaw himself), not to mention Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, in which Sokurov discusses the writer’s oeuvre and then interviews him on several occasions (including during a walk through some woods near Solzhenitsyn’s home). It’s not that Francofonia distils Sokurov’s career, more that it feels like a film that makes use of more of the techniques he has employed in other films than any other. Part of Francofonia is a dramatic reconstruction of the Germans taking over the Louvre, part is a history of the Louvre and of its director at that time. Another part is Sokurov himself trying to hold a video conversation with an agent aboard a ship in mid-Atlantic, during a severe storm, about a container of items destined for the museum and which might be lost. Every now and again, Luftwaffe planes fly over Paris. There is also archive footage of Hitler arriving in Paris. Sokurov is, in many respects, a product of his career. Early documentaries stitched together from archive footage led to his ability to build narratives from snippets of historical film, as well as provide a philosophical voiceover to pin it all together; his early problems with the authorities rejecting his films led to a more elliptical way of making his points; and his often precarious funding resulted in him having to edit a finished product together out of an unfinished project, so much so the enigmatic narratives were often more pragmatic than deliberate. Add to that a tendency to lard his films with references to literature and art – such as Dostoevsky in Whispering Pages, Caspar David Friedrich in Moloch – to an extent that sometimes the reference overwhelms its role in the narrative. This is, after all, the director whose first episode of a five-episode series about soldiers in Afghanistan consists entirely of a filmed snowscape while a voiceover discusses the life and career of Mozart. Francofonia, more than any other film I’ve seen by Sokurov, including Russian Ark, shows the advantages of modern film-making technology. It is a gorgeous piece of work and seamlessly assembled. It probably looked fantastic on a cinema screen. (Bastards.) But it also showcases Sokurov’s genius to an extent I’d not previously witnessed – the things I love his work for? They’re all in here. I’d always thought it a crime Sokurov was best-known for the technical achievement of Russian Ark, ie, a single take of 99 minutes; but with Francofonia I think his genius might become more widely known for what it truly is. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s work for many years and have most – but not quite all – of the feature films and documentaries he has made. I consider him the most interesting film-maker currently alive, and I’m hugely glad that not only is Francofonia seemingly doing well but also that is so much more emblematic of his work than I’d expected. It is an astonishing piece of work, go see it.

eleneaElena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia). I’ve now seen all four of Zvyagintsev’s films (a fifth is due for release this year), and I think I rate Elena second-best after The Return. The title refers to the working-class wife of a rich Muscovite. They met when he was in hospital and she was a nurse. The husband has a daughter by his dead first wife, Elena has an unemployed brother with a growing family. Elena wants to provide for here relatives, who live in a tiny flat in a block in a Moscow suburb, but her husband refuses to fund her brother’s indolence. Then the husband has a heart attack while swimming, and is once again in hospital. When he returns to their penthouse flat, Elena nurses him… but when he reveals he is going to write a will in which his daughter gets everything and Elena only an annual allowance, she poisons him. Since he died intestate, she gets half of everything. Zvyagintsev typically takes his tme over telling his stories, and Elena is no exception. The first five or so minutes of the film are a silent tracking shot through the penthouse. And then, the introduction of the couple”s domestic life takes another thirty or so minutes before the dramatic tension which is at the heart of the story is revealed. If you like your 5-second jump-cuts, this is not the film for you – indeed, Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre is not for you. But well-drawn character studies with an eye for detail and insight? Then he mostly definitely is. All of Zvyagintsev’s films are worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Provincial Actors, Agnieska Holland (1979, Poland). I’ve seen Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), and thought it very good, so I was not expecting to be disappointed by Provincial Actors (AKA Aktorzy prowincjonalni), an earlier film. The title is an apt description of its story. A provincial theatre is putting on an important play, but the director is “modern” and some of his artistic decisions don’t sit well with the cast, especially the older members who have been in productions of the play before. I will admit I know nothing about the play – ‘Liberation‘ by Stanisław Wyspiański from 1903 (he appears to have been an impressively accomplished Renaissance man) – but it is clear it’s an important play in Polish theatre. I think where Provincial Actors really works is that it’s not entirely about the play and the young director’s re-interpretation of it – this is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong – but that the lives of the actors, and the history they have together, is just as important. There’s an astonishing moment set in the apartment of one member of the cast, who is ironing a dress when a body plummets past the window behind her. It is another member of the cast. There are external factors to the play which explain, and determine, how the various members of the cast behave, and their attitude to the play and its direction. It’s an accomplished piece of ensemble acting, shot with that sort of television docudrama conviction that Polish films of the 1970s and 1980s seem to do so well. I’d like to see more films by Holland. Happily, she has made a lot; not so happily, I don’t think all that many of her early works are available in the UK…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures 2017, #11

An even odder selection than usual. Two US films that are on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, another film by a favourite director, and a film I knew nothing about but which blew me away when I came to watch it…

nemuritoriiNemuritorii, Sergui Nicolaescu (1974, Romania). I had thought this was a science fiction film, although I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the translation of the title, which means “The Immortals”. It is, in fact, an historical drama, set during the Middle Ages, and about a group of mercenaries who return to their homeland, Romania, and attempt to oust its current ruler. And, er, that’s it. There’s a running joke about a wooden chest which carries a great treasure, and which all their enemies are keen to possess… but the chest proves to be empty. In places, Nemuritorii reminded me of Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood – it has that same earthy and violent approach to Middle Ages history – and Nicolaescu’s reputation as a good filmer of battle scenes is amply demonstrated. But Nicolaescu’s relationship with the Ceaușescu regime was problematic at best, and though he entered politics after the 1989 revolution, I’m told he’s not held in especially high regard by modern Romanians. I can’t say that Nemuritorii struck me as a great film, although it was entertaining enough and shot well enough. That earlier mention of Flesh and Blood was not entirely unwarranted – this film felt much the same: an entertaining Middle Ages adventure, with numerous battles, a cast of near-stereotypes, and a carry-through gimmick. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it’s a good film.

shes_gottShe’s Gotta Have It*, Spike Lee (1986, USA). I don’t think I’d actually watched any Spike Lee films until this watching this one, his debut, although I knew full well who he is and am aware of some of the films he has made. and while I can’t say the film appealed to me a great deal, I can see why it belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – so I’m glad I saw it. It’s not just that’s it’s an entirely African-American film, made wholly within the African-American culture of the US, but that it also takes a nicely meta-cinematic approach to its story and plays around with cinematic narratives and conventions. For a debut film, that’s pretty ballsy. And it works. The title refers to Tracy Camilla Johns, a young African-American woman living in Brookyln. She has three suitors (all three of which she regularly has sex with), but she cannot decide which one would be best-suited as her permanent partner – and, to tell the truth, she likes having three boyfriends. Characters in the film frequently talk directly to camera, there’s plenty of character assassination, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The acting is not great – John Canada Terrell is especially bad – and the artificiality of the narrative structure is occasionally pushed a bit too much in the viewer’s face… but for a debut piece of work this is an astonishingly ambitious movie and its success rate is amazingly high. On top of that, She’s Gotta Have It was also one of the films that led to the resurgence of US indie films in the 1990s. I suspect its narrative experiments have been overlooked because of its importance as an African-American film and an indie film (and Lee’s character’s later appearances in Nike adverts), but She’s Gotta Have It has a lot to recommended it. Worth seeing.

reasonReason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India). This was Ghatak’s last film – he died in 1976… although according to the University of California Press edition of A River Called Titash, Ghatak’s adaptation, A River Called Titas, an earlier film, was not released until after his death, although Wikipedia claims otherwise. Whatever the truth, Ghatak made only eight feature films, and I’ve now seen half of them. And though they’re black and white and mostly exist only in bad transfers or prints, and were probably produced and shot on tiny budgets, I find them fascinating. Not just because they depict life in India – or rather, Bengal, and now Bangladesh – in a fashion not commonly seen in Indian films… but also because they were as much political and sociological essays about Indian life as they were dramatic stories. A River Called Titash, the book, has been described as an ethnological account as much as it is a novel, and that’s equally true of the film. Reason, Debate and a Story is not an historical film, although it is in parts ethnographical, particularly when it documents the dances by Bengali villagers. Ghatak himself plays a drunkard writer who has been critical of the partition of Bengal – and I suspect he was pissed in several of the scenes (he was an acoholic, after all). His wife leaves him so he decides to leave Kolkata, and as he wanders out of the city he picks up assorted waifs and strays. There’s his brother-in-law, who is educated but cannot get a job; an extremely handsome young woman; and a teacher of Sanskirt teased as “mad” by his pupils. The woman is, I think, a metaphor for Bangladesh, which desires reunification with West Bengal (and later does one of the worst lip synchs of a playback singer I’ve seen in a film). The Sanskrit tracher is obviously the history of India. And later, when they meet up with a villager who makes masks for dances, you have literate suburban India versus uneducated rural India. Ghatak doesn’t disguise his arguments, and as avatars his characters are hardly subtle. But there is also some very nice landscape cinematography (badly served by the poor quality film stock used), and I will admit to having thought Bangladesh was chiefly delta and alluvial plain before seeing this film. The aforementioned dances, which appear to be based on mythology, with dancers in masks dressed as Hanuman, Durga, Ganesh, etc., are fascinating. Ghatak’s message on the reunification of Bengal gets a little lost, although I’m doubtless missing lots of references as my knowledge of the area is quite poor. Weirdly, the film opens with a trio of dancers in black zentai outfits dancing on a set meant to represent a desert. They reappear two-thirds of the way through the film, and at the end. I have no idea what they’re intended to signify. But I still think Ghatak is a genius director.

broadcast_newsBroadcast News*, James L Brooks (1987, USA). Nope, don’t get it. This is an average drama, well played by its cast – although with Hurt and Hunter, that’s a pretty high-powered cast – but I have no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s just not that interesting. Hurt plays a sports anchor from a regional station who has landed a job as news anchor of a national station. (It’s probably worth pointing out that no other country has the US’s bizarre regional/national broadcasting set-up, and we non-USians have no fucking idea how it works.) Hunter is a top news producer, and Albert Brooks a gifted TV journalist. Hurt wants to pick Hunter’s brains to make himself a better anchor, but she won’t have it.  Brooks wants his try in front of the camera. It’s all completely boring and trivial, and Brooks’s career as an actor continues to mystify me. Hurt and Hunter are both good, but they’re in the top rank of Hollywood talent (not that they can draw salaries commensurate with their ability; that’s not how Hollywood works). But even so top talent needs a story more interesting than this. Broadcast News is a Sunday-afternoon film, or maybe a Saturday-afternoon-instrad-of-football film, it’s not 1001 of the top films ever made.

asthenic_syndromeThe Asthenic Syndrome*, Kira Muratova (1990, Russia). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still not sure what it’s about, or indeed if it’s any good. It’s two films with unconnected stories. The first is black-and-white (well, more of a sepia colour) and opens at a funeral. The widow is grief-stricken, and, it seems, slightly unhinged. She attacks a man at a bus-stop, she bumps into people, she shouts and rants at no one in her flat, she drops wineglasses on the floor and breaks them… As if that weren’t baffling enough, the dialogue is completely bizarre. People shout at each other, and over each other’s voices, and what they say usually has no relevance to what’s happening in the story. Halfway through The Asthenic Syndrome‘s 153 minutes, the film appears to end, and the camera pulls back to reveal a man on a stage in front of a cinema screen in an auditorium. He introduces the actress who played the widow in the black-and-white film, but the audience are uninterested and file out noisily. One man remains after the others. He’s a teacher and the protagonist of the second film, which is in colour. The dialogue in this film is much like it is in the first. The teacher has narcolepsy – in fact, he fell asleep during the film-within-a-film (Wikipedia mistakenly implies the title refers to his narcolepsy, but asthenia is just a medical term for “weakness”). The Soviet Union depicted in the film is a grim and run-down place – I like the phrase someone used to describe The Asthenic Syndrome, “the last Soviet film and the first post-Soviet film” – but I  find it more interesting as a contrast to earlier optimistic Soviet films such as, say, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, made only a decade earlier. The Asthenic Syndrome‘s avant-garde approach does wear a bit thin over two and a half hours, although there’s some quite arresting imagery, and there’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the dialogue. I’m going to have watch The Asthenic Syndrome again, I think, to get a proper handle on it, but I sort of fell on balance that it belongs in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. And I’d like to see more of Muratova’s films.

50_cubanI Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the Mr Bongo 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because it included Lucía and Memories of Underdevelopment, and I knew little or nothing of the other two films. Well, one was by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed Memories of Underdevelopment; but I knew nothing about I Am Cuba (AKA Soy Cuba). So late one night I stuck it in the player, expecting an earnest documentary of communist Cuba, likely something of a chore to watch… but I loved it. And I don’t understand why it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s one of the most technically innovative films I have ever seen. It is a documentary about Cuba, but it uses some of the most astonishing camera techniques I’ve seen since first watching Eisenstein or Vertov. Obviously, some of the shots are almost routine these days, and done using CGI, but back in the early 1960s, they didn’t have that – and there are several where you have to wonder how the hell Kalatozov managed it. There’s one where the camera swoops from the street up the side of a building, then from the rooftop through windows and down to the street, that is quite astonishing. I Am Cuba is not a documentary in the usual sense of the word – there’s no earnest voiceover explaining what’s shown on the screen, just people and events in Cuba being filmed almost fly-on-the-wall. Apparently, the film didn’t go down very well when it was made, and was pretty much forgotten for thirty years, and only rediscovered in the early 1990s – and championed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution turned out to be an excellent buy – three excellent films and one very good one.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures 2017, #10

Another good spread of films. The sole US one is actually a documentary about the making of a German film, and is included in the Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection.

herzogBurden of Dreams, Les Blank (1982, USA). There are several famously difficult pieces of film-making, and perhaps the two best-known are Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Coppola’s film was documented in Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper and Eleanor Coppola (see here), so it should come as no surprise to learn there’s an equivalent documentary made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo. A comparison between the two documentaries in inevitable – both films were made in remote locations, with productions that spiralled out of control, a difficult marquee name, and a director with a far from firm grip on the production. Yet in Burden of Dreams Herzog comes across as jolly and mostly sanguine. There’s none of the expected despair. Kinski’s antics also don’t figure largely in the documentary, despite stories that the film crew offered to murder the star because of his outrageous demands and behaviour. Much of Burden of Dreams focuses on the logistics of the shoot, and the difficulties of dragging the riverboat up over the hill (they actually had three copies of the boat, by the way). Of course, there were also other problems – Fitzcarraldo originally starred Jason Robards in the title role, but he took ill and had to pull out. Watching him in the part, it’s clear it was better-suited to Kinski. Mick Jagger also played a supporting role, but when the shoot was delayed as they recast the title role, Jagger had to leave due to other commitments. They didn’t bother to recast, just wrote his part out of the film. Which was just as well as he was terrible. Of the two documentaries, I think Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is better, but that may simply be because Apocalypse Now is a more epic movie than Fitzcarraldo.

signale1Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, Gottfried Koldtiz (1970, Germany). Back in the 1960s and 1970s, DEFA, the East German national film studio, made four big budget science fiction films. Three were made available in the US in a DVD box set around a decade ago – Der Schweigende Stern, Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea. I think the box set is deleted now, so it’s hard to find. But if you see a copy, snap it up. However, one of those four films, Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer, often described as East Germany’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has never been released on DVD (except perhaps in Germany… but the copy I watched was actually from a German television broadcast, so perhaps not). Anyway, a friend came round one  Saturday evening – a German, as it happens – to watch some films, and I put Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer on. I’d been expecting good things of the film, as I like the other DEFA sf films, especially Eolomea, although I’d been told Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer wasn’t that good… And, er, it wasn’t. The spacecraft Ikaros is exploring near Jupiter when it’s hit by meteorites and suffers catastrophic damage. The crew survive, but they have no radio. A search for their wreck is unsuccessful, and they are presumed dead. But Commander Veikko is convinced they’re still alive and wants to try using his spacecraft, Laika. But he’s forbidden from doing so, and so uses a routine mission to service some satellites or space probes (it wasn’t clear which) to surreptitiously hunt for the lost spacecraft. Which he finds. And they rescue the stranded crew in the nick of time. What little plot there is in the film occurs in the last thirty minutes, the rest of it is just over-extended set-up. Including several scenes on a beach. I think there must have been a rule in East German sf film-making that required at least one beach-scene. And if the cast were riding horses, that was even better. A future party scene is also mandatory – although the one aboard Laika, to celebrate a crewmember’s anniversary, is cut short and seems entirely pointless. Also, confusingly, during the party the blonde wears a brunette wig and the brunette wears a blonde wig. Oh, and also apparently de rigeur in Warsaw Pact sf movies is a crap robot. And the one in Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer is only beaten by the one in Через тернии к звёздам. Despite all that, I’m glad I found a copy of Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, and I’m glad I watched it. I might even rewatch it one day.

nebo_zovyotНебо зовет, Mikhail Karyukov & Aleksandr Kozry (1959, Russia). And after Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer, we settled down to watch Небо зовет, a Soviet sf film I’d been wanting to see for ages, but had never managed to find a copy on DVD. And… It turned out to have an almost identical plot to Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer: one spacecraft has to rescue another. Even worse than that, I have a copy of Battle Beyond the Sun, which is pretty much an edit of Небо зовет dubbed into Engish and with additional monsters. So it made for an odd viewing experience. Небо зовет opens with a journalist being shown around an office where Soviet scientists are designing rockets and spacecraft. Inspired by the models he is shown in a museum at the office, he dreams of a future in which the USSR has an extensive space presence. And the screen goes all fuzzy… and we’re in that very future. The Soviets are about to send a spacecraft to Mars, but the Americans are determined to beat them (the US mission seems to be a private enterprise). The Americans steal a march on the Soviets, but come a cropper when their rocket encounters a meteorite storm. So the Soviets divert to rescue them, but this ends up with both crews being stranded on an asteroid, Icarus. An automated rescue mission is sent but spectacularly blows up. A second, crewed, is successful, but the crew die. However, the crew of the Soviet and the US rockets both survive, and are given a hero’s welcome when they return to Earth. The model work and production design in Небо зовет is excellent, and while the space station design, which resembles an aircraft carrier, seems a bit odd (their spacesuits have magnetic boots, so they won’t just float away), as do the giant clamps with which the rockets dock. But this is a 1959 film, and the Soviet space programme was very secretive (they didn’t even admit Korolyev’s existence until after glasnost). Небо зовет is fun in a dated sort of way, and certainly a great deal better than its butchered US edit, Battle Beyond the Stars.

broodThe Brood, David Cronenberg (1979, Canada). I’m not sure why I stuck this on my rental list. It’s not like I’m a big fan of Cronenberg’s work, although I’ve liked many of his films. But he does horror, mostly, and I don’t like horror films. I’m okay with older ones, before CGI, when the special effects are obviously special effects. As is the case with The Brood. The story in this film, on the other hand, is completely bonkers, and despite a good cast – Ollie Reed! – never really rises above the completely silly. Reed plays a psychiatrist whose treatment causes patients to physically manifest their mental pathologies. Yes, actually physically manifest them. Meanwhile, a husband suspects his ex-wife, who is a patient, of abusing their young daughter and he’s trying to win custody as a result. At which point, a weird child in a snowsuit appears and starts beating people to death with hammers. When the husband stumbles across the weird child hiding in his mother’s house and it attacks him, he kills it in self-defence. At the autopsy, the police discover the child has no belly button, no genitals, no teeth, and is not entirely human. It turns out there are lots of these weird children – a group of them later appear and beat a teacher to death with hammers in front of her class of young kids (yes, seriously – how on earth was Cronenberg allowed to film that?) – and they are all parthogenically generated by the ex-wife in response to her anger, and they go out and attack the objects of her anger. It doesn’t… really work. It’s all played with a straight face, and is pretty convincing in parts, but as it progesses the dafter it gets… until the whole edifice is moments way from collapsing into a heap… Which it doesn’t quite managed to do. Not a good film, but a better one than its plot suggests.

zhao_liangPetition: The Court of Complainants, Zhao Liang (2009, China). In China, those who feel they have been abused by local government and the local justice system can petition the government in Beijing. But it’s a long drawn-out process and riddled with corruption. The petitioners live in a shanty town outside the city, and can spend years, even decades, there. Starting in 1996, Zhao filmed some of these petitioners as they tried to get justice from a government that plainly didn’t care about them. Some of the stories, you wonder why the government has not stepped in – a tax collector who demands more grain from some farmers, and less from others. One petitioner is killed by a train after running from “retrievers”, goons hired to force the petitioners to return home, and the camera shows the bits of her body strewn along the track. In the end, everything is razed – “Petition City” is completely demolished, as is the local train station, in order to make room for facilities for the 2008 Olympics. I’ll admit to being surprised Zhao has been able to make his films – although by all accounts it was far from easy – and if they’re not overtly critical of the current Chinese regime, they certainly are by implication. It is horrifying what the people in the film have had to put up with in order to redress injustices, and even scarier that by the time the Olympics opened – and there is a deeply corrupt institution, if ever there was one – any trace of Petition City and the people who lived there had vanished. Zhao’s Crime and Punishment is set in a provincial town and the authorities it depicts seem more incompetent than anything else – or, at least, corrupt in small and human ways. But Petition is set in Beijing, the seat of government, and the people interviewed by Zhao in the film are all from the provinces, showing just how little the government cares about its people. This is, of course, not unique to China. Every capital gets the lion’s share of finance and resources. And as wealth gravitates to the capital to take advantage of that fact, so the equity gap widens and those in the provinces find them increasingly poorer and increasingly powerless… Until they end up in a similar situation to those depicted in this film. There is apparently a five-hour director’s cut of Petition: The Court of Complainants, but I’m not sure I could have sat through it. The box set I bought includes the 120 minute cut. If I’ve not said it before, Zhao Liang is definitely a name to add to your list of directors to watch – Behemoth first, then this one.

ek_din_achanakEk Din Achanak, Mrinal Sen (1989, India). Three names usually crop up in articles on Bengali cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I’ve seen a number of films by the first and plan to watch more, I’m already a fan of the second, but I’ve never seen anything by the third. Until now. And Sen’s movies are even harder to find than Ghatak’s. In fact, Ek Din Achanak is the only one available from a large online retailer of books and films and other stuff. There’s another one, Antareen, I’ve managed to track down… Both were released by NFDC Cinemas of India, who have also released two 20-DVD box sets of restored films from various parts of India. WANT WANT WANT. They’re bloody expensive, though, and I’ve yet to find a UK-based seller. Anyway, Ek Din Achanak was a well-played drama about a family whose father, a university professor, disappears one day. They try to carry on without him, and eventually become so accepting of their situation that they blame their present troubles of their own making on him. Despite the plot, and the focus on the family, Ek Din Achanak doesn’t feel as theatrical as Ray’s films. It feels like a movie. Which does sort of feed into my glib description of Ray as India’s “Ingmar Bergman”, although I haven’t quite figured who that makes Mrinal Sen… as if I could do that anyway after watching a single Sen film… But in Ek Din Achanak I found a well-played drama about a situation that felt real, but also unreal enough to be the sort of story you would expect in a literary-style drama. I’d like to see more by Mrinal Sen; I suspect I might have trouble finding more to do so.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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Moving pictures 2017, #9

A mix of the usual suspects this time around, and it sounds good to say that and mean cinema from countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and China. It seems I’m actually sticking to one of my New Year resolutions.

man_movie_cameraEnthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov (1931, Russia). If there are two words which are likely make me buy something I had not otherwise considered purchasing, they are “limited edition”. I’d seen Vertov’s astonishing Man With a Movie Camera a couple of years ago, but hadn’t been that bothered about owning a copy… and then Eureka! decided to release a limited edition dual-format box set of Man With a Movie Camera plus some of Vertov’s other works. So, of course, I had to buy it. On the other hand, it’s also true I treasure the sort of films in this box set, ie, documentaries of other times and other places… and yes, that’s probably a consequence of my love of Sokurov’s films. But I’m also fascinated by films which see cinema as more than just brainless spectacle, and Vertov was a vocal proponent of cinema as a social tool. And of the films in this box set, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donblass is a prime example of the type. It’s pure Stakhanovism – a coal mine in the Don region is determined to beat its quota, and Vertov is there to film them doing it. And, er, that’s it. It’s not a silent film, although the others in the set are. It’s also quite astonishing how crude coal-mining techniques were back in 1930s USSR. Men wielded picks against the coal face, ponies pulled carts of coal from the face to the pit-head. I come from a mining background – my grandfathers all worked down the pit, and although my father joined the Electricity Board when he left school, my uncles all went to work for the NCB. Despite all that, I know little about the actual work of extracting coal from underground, and what little I know of early twentieth-century UK coal-mining comes from, er, DH Lawrence. I suspect Soviet techniques were not all that different, and it’s interesting actually seeing them on the screen. All told, this limited edition box set has proven to be a wise purchase.

lisbon_storyLisbon Story, Wim Wenders (1994, Germany). I stuck this one my rental list thinking it was by Manoel de Oliveira, but it’s actually by Wim Wenders, whose films I’m also happy to watch (although I’ve seen considerably more by Wenders than de Oliveira). But de Oliveira does appear in the film, so blame Amazon rental’s search facility… Although, having said all that, I did enjoy the film. Wenders I find a bit variable, but this was one of his better ones. A German director – the same one, in fact, from Wender’s The State of Things (1982) – asks the sound man from that film to make his way to Lisbon. Which he promptly does. But the director is not there. So the sound man wanders about the city, recording ambient sounds, making friends with the director’s friends (a bunch of kids, mostly, and a string group with a female singer). The philosophy underlying the film, as proposed by the missing director, when he appears, is bollocks… but the film is a mostly sympathetic portrait of its titular city and the characters it finds there, and for that reason it’s watchable and sort of successful. I like many of Wenders’s films, and I’d certainly put him in a list of “100 most interesting directors of the twentieth century”, but… The Million Dollar Hotel? Really? It was so bad. Having said that, it’s a bit unfair to write Wenders off on the basis of one film – and I see from Wikipedia, he’s made nearly 20 films since the aforementioned, none of which I’ve seen. So perhaps it’s time I rectified that. Because Lisbon Story, despite being rented under false pretences, is an enjoyable film.

chungking_expressChungking Express*, Wong Kar-wai (1994, China). This was Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film, and, according to Wikipedia was shot in six weeks as if it were a student film. And it shows. Admittedly, I say that having come to Wong’s films first through In the Mood for Love and loving it, and so I can’t help but compare Chungking Express to it. And while I found it a good film, I did wonder why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. Wong deserves to be represented but this isn’t his best film. It’s important in as much as it signals his new direction and aesthetic, but then why not pick a film that is a better representantive of that new aesthetic, such as In the Mood for Love? Chungking Express comprises two stories, both of which revolve around unnamed Hong Kong police officers and their lack of a love life – or rather, the consequences of their lack of a partner and the efforts they go to in order to find one. In the first story, a cop buys a tin of expired pineapple chunks, as you do, on the anniversary of his break-up with his girlfriend, and falls in with a mule for a drug lord. In the second, a cop falls for a young woman who temporarily takes over the fast food outlet from which he buys a “chef’s salad” every night. The film looks like a mix of rushed shots and carefully-framed shots, an aesthetic Wong honed to excellent effect in his later films. The oblique approach to plotting also stood him in good stead in his later films – compare it with Ashes of Time (or even Ashes of Time Redux). Wong is a singular talent, and as such belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but you sometimes have to wonder at the choices from a director’s oeuvre they’ve picked for the list.

late_springLate Spring, Yasujiro Ozu (1949, Japan). Ozu gets to you slowly. You watch one film and then you start watching another, and before you know it you watch more and you become a fan. And yet each film follows a similar plot: a daughter who must be married, and then a slow parade of the reasons why this cannot happen or must happen. And the beauty of Ozu’s films, of the way they are constructed, is that the viewer sympathises with each and every viewpoint. Perhaps it’s just that he builds strong characters on screen, to such an extent you realise how many characters in commercial cinema are little more than ciphers or tags. There’s no point in describing the plot of Late Spring, or indeed any Ozu film, because that’s not the point. They’re not just domestic dramas, they are ur-domestic dramas. They are so rich with detail, they actually transcend drama. Getting lost in an Ozu film is not getting lost in the story but getting lost in the lives of the characters. And that’s not something you can say about many movies. I came to Ozu late, but I’ve come to love his ability to generate drama from the prosaic, the quotidian. The differences between UK society and Japanese society become irrelevant, because Ozu manages to make the viewer care about the situation from the Japanese point of view. And that makes these rare films. I’m collecting all the BFI releases, why aren’t you?

robin_hoodRobin Hood, Wolfgang Reitherman (1973, USA). I’ve seen this named as one of the best, if not the best, of Disney’s animated feature films. So my hopes were high when I slid it into the player. And the opening credits are really quite well done. But I much prefer the Disney films with the clean lines, rather than the more sketched sort of lines of the 1960s and later. But even with that, Robin Hood just seemed… so small a story, with Nottingham depicted as a village, and everything just too small scale for the story as it purported to be. There was some impressive voice talent – or rather, well-known names – in some of the parts, such as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, and they were good. But it all felt a bit like an unrelated story that had borrowed the trappings of the Robin Hood legend, without bothering to be all that faithful. So far – and I’ve not seen all of the Disney animated feature films yet – I’d rate them as follows: 1 Sleeping Beauty, 2 Cinderella, 3 101 Dalmatians… and er, I need to watch, or rewatch, more Disney animated features to build up that top five. And no, I don’t count the Pixar films. I’ve still got a number of the classics to watch (or re-watch, albeit the last time I saw them was decades ago as a kid), before I can produce a definitive list. All the same, I’m not expecting Robin Hood to score as highly for me as it does for others. Did I mention that I was born in a town that used to be part of Sherwood Forest, so this legend has always felt like part of my heritage? No? Well, it does. Although that’s only a minor part of the problem. I liked the animal characters, even if it was a little worrying that both Robin and Maid Marion were both foxes (no trans-species love affairs in Disney), and some of the non-native species present in the film didn’t really have much reason for being present. And framing the over-arching narrative as some sort of good-ole-boy southern-USA story felt like appropriation. Not one of Walt’s best.

zhao_liangCrime and Punishment, Zhao Liang (2007, China). I loved Zhao’s Behemoth, which is an astonishing documentary that deserves to be seen by everyone. And, one night, having imbibed a certain amount, I decided I wanted to see more by Zhao but the only films available I could find were in a French-released box set. It had English subtitles, so I bought it. And… it’s pretty grim stuff. There are three films, and none of them makes for cheerful viewing. Crime and Punishment follows a small group of police officers in an impoverished town in north-east China. The people they deal with are poor, often not especially smart, and several are habitual criminals. The police officers are, by turns, arrogant, corrupt, violent, naive and not very smart. There’s a lot of shouting in this film, and several instances where the police openly beat up a suspect they’ve apprehended. But it’s the opening sequence to the film which sticks most in memory, a silent sequence in which the police officers fold up their bedding with military precision until each bed contains only a perfectly-formed cube of duvet. With all the guff you see in the press about China’s powerhouse economy and industrial and technological might, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the country’s population live in poverty – as is amply displayed in Crime and Punishment – and those who don’t are pretty much indentured labour – as seen in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and A Touch of Sin (which are, admittedly, not documentaries). I may not have been entirely sober when I clicked “buy” for the Zhao Liang box set, but it proved a worthwhile purchase. Which neatly brings my words on this last film in this post back to my words on the first film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


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Moving pictures 2017, #8

This seems to be a mostly classic film post, except for a recent Swedish TV series. One movie is a rewatch (the Herzog), the rest proved not as expected…

adviseAdvise & Consent, Otto Preminger (1962, USA). In the week in which a White Supremacist installed himself in the White House, and his meat puppet president signed whatever Executive Order was put in front of him, well, that probably wasn’t a good week to watch this film, which shows how US democracy works, or doesn’t work. The president has put forward a candidate for secretary of state, Henry Fonda, but it’s an unpopular pick with some of the senators, especially good old boy the senator for North Carolina, Charles Laughton. So Laughton sets out to sabotage Fonda’s acceptance by the Senate. The Party Whip, on the other hand, wants to push it through. So they convene a subcommittee of friendly faces to lightly grill Fonda before accepting his apointment. But Laughton pulls a fast one and introduces a witness who claims Fonda was a communist when at college. Fonda denies it and makes the witness look like a lying fool. He later admits to the president it was true. One of Fonda’s allies subsequently turns on him because Fonda lied under oath, but he’s already being blackmailed over a homosexual affair when in the army. Winston Churchill reputedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones”, and there’s also that famous poll run by sf editor Donald A wollheim back in the 1960s in which the government of choice of sf fans was “benevolent dictatorship”. In other words, after more than ten thousand years of civilisation we humans still have no fucking idea how to run a society fairly. And despite repeated attempts at utopia – and I consider there to be two great historical attempts at utopia, neither of which remained utopian beyond a single generation – such experiments only work with small communities. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe total devolution to the lowest possible level, say a couple of hundred people, is the answer. There are those, after all who swear by Athenian democracy, as practised in small village town halls across the US during the first half of the twentieth century. But, Advise and Consent… I watched it because I’m trying to work my way through Preminger’s films, but I wouldn’t otherwise recommend it unless you’re interested in historical treatments of Washington politics.

herzogCobra Verde, Werner Herzog (1987, Germany). If I had to pick the most bonkers of Herzog’s feature films, I’d be hard-pressed to settle on just one. Cobra Verde has its moments, but despite having Klaus Kinski in the lead role, is saner than many of Herzog’s other movies. Cobra Verde is, however, a bigger spectacle than many of Herzog’s other movies. Kinski plays a rancher in nineteenth-century Brazil who loses his property to drought, works at a silver mine but murders his boss when he discovers the workers are being exploited, goes on the run as the eponymous bandit (Green Cobra! Sounds like a superhero), before eventually becoming the slave overseer of a sympathetic sugar baron. When Kinski gets all three of the sugar baron’s daughters pregnant, the baron decides as punishment to send Kinski to west Africa to re-open the slave route (and hoping, of course, that he’ll get killed in the process). But Kinski manages to persuade the king of Dahomey to accept rifles for slaves, sets himself up in a local abandoned castle, and all I can pretty much remember is Kinski doing his thing (apparently to such an extent the cinematographer quit, and Kinski and Herzog’s friendship finally bit the dust). There are massive set-pieces, with what appears to be the populations of small towns running around or dancing or fighting. Despite Kinski’s presence, and the over-the-top staging of some of the scenes, Cobra Verde does feel more sane than many of Herzog’s other films. Not dialled back, by any means, just less insane than what Herzog actually went through to realise some of his other movies. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Cobra Verde, and I suspect Herzog’s films are immune to criticism to some degree. Cobra Verde is a good one, but perhaps not a great one, and I’d rate some of his documentaries above it. But if you call yourself a film fan, you should have all of his movies and documentaries anyway.

goddessThe Goddess*, Wu Yonggang (1934, China). This was a lucky find on eBay. Doubly so. I’d ordered one copy I found there, only to be sent a CD of background music for Chinese restaurants. I complained, they sent me a freepost address label to return it, and gave me a full refund. Fortunately, a second copy popped up on eBay for sale, for two-thirds of the price I’d paid before. So I bought it. Annoyingly, the BFI now plan to release a new restoration in April ths year. Argh. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The Goddess is a well-regarded silent film from the early decades of China’s film industry. Wikipedia refers to that period as “China’s cinematic golden age”, but I’m pretty sure the country has been having another golden age for the last couple of decades – see Jia Zhangke, Zhao Liang, Wang Xiaoshuai and Diao Yinan, among many others. The Goddess is also known as one of the last films by Ruan Lingyu, one of the most popular actresses of her day (and who committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1935). I tracked down a copy of The Goddess because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I do like many silent films… but The Goddess, to be honest, felt much like the other silent films I’d seen. The setting and cast were, of course, Chinese, but the story itself was one that transcends nations. And the treatment of the story, and the way it was framed, seemed much in line with other silent dramas from other countries. There was no sense of vision, such as you’d get from directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer or FW Murnau – see The Passion of Joan of Arc or Nosferatu – although Ruan Lingyu’s talent was plain to see. I don’t know where The Goddess sits in the history of Chinese cinema – Ruan made over two dozen films before The Goddess, and Wu directed a further eleven films (his last in 1980) after The Goddess, his debut. I suspect there are more important films than The Goddess, but I also suspect  any better candidates have either been lost or are unknown in the US. Which is a shame.

seventh_victimThe Seventh Victim*, Mark Robson (1943, USA). There are some odd choices on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, and not just because they’re films I don’t care for, or, while good, don’t seem good enough to be one of the 1001 best films ever. But there are also those films which just aren’t all that good or innovative or important, so why are they on the list? Like The Seventh Victim. Which is a B-movie. A young woman at a residential school is told that her fees have not been paid for several months, and attempts to her contact her older sister, her guardian, in New York have failed. So the woman goes looking for her sister herself – and encounters a mystery. No one has seen her sister for weeks, her cosmetics business is now owned by an other woman, and the sister apparently rented a room above an Italian restaurant which she never used… and which contains only a noose hanging from the ceiling and a chair. It turns out that the sister had been recruited into a Satanic cult – although they’re presented more like Freemasons than the Hellfire Club – but told her husband about them and so broke one of the cult’s laws. Which is punishable by death. So she’s been hiding out, with the help of her psychiatrist. And that’s about it. It’s all very intense and earnest, but the Satanists aren’t in the slightest menacing. The sister’s disappearance adds a noir feel, but that collapses once the actual plot is revealed. There are a couple of earnest monologues on the sort of psychological claptrap Hollywood B-movies loved to lard their films with back in the 1940s and 1950s, but none of it is convincing or insightful. The Seventh Victim is entertaining enough, but it’s no more than a B-movie, and it certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

jordskottJordskott (2015, Sweden). I found this in a charity shop, misread its price tag and thought it an excellent bargain, but could hardly refuse to buy it when I got to the till. It was still cheap, however. And I’m glad I bought it, because it proved to be pretty good. It starts off as a Nordic crime series, and then turns into something more like Grimm. Eva is a crisis negotiator with the Piketen special operations police task force in Stockholm – in fact, the first episode opens with her trying to persuade a man armed with a shotgun to give up his hostage, his wife. Afterwards, she learns that her father has died, and so takes a leave of absence and heads to her home town of Silverhöjd. She has not returned there since her daughter, Josefina, disappeared in the forest surrounding the town seven years before. Eva was also estranged from her father. Shortly after her arrival, a young boy goes missing, and she sees a link between his disappearance and that of her daughter. Then another young child goes missing. Eva is heir to Thörnblad Cellulosa, a logging and mining company, which owns much of the forested land around Silverhöjd, and it is the company’s operations in the forests which has led to the kidnappings. It’s all to do with a pact signed in the eighteenth century between Eva’s ancestor and the mysteroious race which lived in the forest. But, Eva’s father, and now the acting CEO, want to mine the area because silver has been discovered underneath it. Eva’s daughter mysteriously returns, but has been infected with a parasite which is slowly taking over her body. It’s this parasite the title refers to – and when “fed” properly, it gives its host heightened senses and much greater strength and endurance. Because it seems there are group of people with this parasite who help protect the various creatures from Swedish folklore which live among humans. The plot lost it a bit toward the end, when a single character starts pushing everyone toward the worst possible end, and Eva’s decision to turn her back on it all felt out of character. I’d also liked to have learnt more about the secret society with the parasite, but perhaps they’re saving that for a sequel (although none has been made so far). The unexpected mix of Nordic crime and Swedish folklore went well together, despite the odd bit that was a little too hard to swallow. Good stuff. And if you see a copy going in a charity shop near you, it’s definitely worth shelling out for.

50_cubanStrawberry and Chocolate, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío (1994, Cuba). This is the second of two films on the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set by Gutiérrez, and the last-but-one film he made. Ill health forced him to enlist the help of a friend as co-director. Although released 1994, Strawberry and Chocolate is set in 1979. The lead character, David, is a student. He stops for an ice cream at a café, and is approached by a gay man, Diego, who tries to chat him up. When Diego reveals he has some hard-to-find foreign books at his apartment, David agrees to accompany him home. Diego is hoping for more, and the two become friends – but nothing more – and David learns about life after the revolution, as seen by someone on the fringes of society. David’s homophobic room-mate, on the other hand, sees the friendship as a chance to investigate Diego and his circle of anti-revolutionary friends, and so denounce them. There’s something astonishingly cheerful about this film, although it does quite emotional in places. The two main leads – and the female lead, Nancy, one of Diego’s neightbour, and who David ends up in a relationship with – are all likeable and well-played. Gutiérrez, known to his friends as Titón, was a film-maker in the New Latin American Cinema, which I think is a sort of umbrella term which includes Brazil’s Cinema Novo. New Latin American Cinema was, as Wikipedia put it, “largely concerned with the problems of neocolonialism and cultural identity”, and put the social usefulness of cinema ahead of artistic considerations such as cinematography or three-act stories or storybeats. It’s certainly true that cinema is a powerful tool in that respect; it’s equally true that most Western audiences appear to prefer brainless spectacle. But even then, there are ways of effecting social change without writing in-your-face social drama. Strawberry and Chocolate is a charming drama, and, to be fair, some of its social concerns are over my head as I’m unfamiliar with Cuban history and society – but it makes an effort. And so few Hollywood movies do. They just re-iterate and valourise and normalise the same old right-wing bullshit that has turned the second decade of the twenty-first century into a copy of the fourth decade of the twentieth century. Art has meaning and cinema is an art. And on the strength of Strawberry and Chocolate, and Guttiérrez’s earlier Memories of Underdevelopment, I’m going to try and see more of his films.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 849