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Moving pictures 2018, #28

My viewing of late has been a bit all over the place, as this post no doubt demonstrates. But at least I managed to cross a couple off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield (2012, USA). David Siegel made his money in timeshares, in fact his company was one of the largest timeshare companies in the world. And he chose to put some of that money into a new home for him, his wife and their eight children. The house was inspired by the Palace of Versailles, but they actually modelled it on the penthouse floors of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel – which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the family’s taste. Once finished, the Versailles House would be one of the largest private homes in the US (but not the largest, as some of the film’s marketing claims). Unfortunately, the market crash in 2008 wiped out Siegel’s company, and he went from having more money than he could spend to not having enough money to pay his bills. And one of the assets he tried to sell was the unfinished Versailles House. For $50 million. But no one would buy it. The Queen of Versailles is basically a film about a rich family trying hard to cope with having considerably less money. On the one hand, neither Siegel nor his wife, an ex-beauty queen who qualified and worked as a computer engineer before turning to modelling as it was more lucrative, and who is thirty years his junior, came from riches. On the other, they’ve become so used to wealth, their lifestyle epitomises senseless spending. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, despite the fact they’re utterly useless and stupid with their vast riches. The film ends with their future looking bleak. In fact, things did pick up for them afterwards. The economy recovered, Siegel’s company recovered, they never did manage to sell Versailles House but once their fortunes had recovered they restarted construction. It’s still not finished, but at least it now will be.

The Horse Thief*, Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986, China). The only film I’ve seen by Tian prior to this one was his remake of Springtime in a Small Town. I’m a big fan of the original, Spring in a Small Town, released in 1948 and directed by Mu Fei, but I couldn’t honestly see the point of the remake, much as I enjoyed it (see here). The Horse Thief is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and Tian has said he intended for it to be low on dialogue and more of an ethnographic film, a document of Buddhist rituals among the Tibetans. There’s not much in the way of plot – a viewpoint character, who opens the film as a horse thief but tries to change his ways – but lots of footage of landscape and rituals and people. It’s a fascinating film, and often looks quite beautiful. But its lack of a plot does tell against it somewhat, and even though only 88 minutes long, it palls a little in places. Unfortunately, the copy I watched wasn’t an especially good transfer, which tends to diminish the value of good cinematography. I think I’ll add some Tian to my rental list, and I suspect The Horse Thief does indeed belong on the 1001 Movies You See Before You Die list.

Secret défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France). I came to Rivette relatively late, only a few years ago, after watching a rental copy of La belle noiseuse, which prompted me to further explore his oeuvre. Which I initially did by buying the Blu-ray box from Arrow Academy which included Out 1, a 773-minute film – and which I have yet to watch. (at least that particular film).. But I added other of his films to my rental list, and this was  the first to arrive. And… it’s good. It’s not what I expected. It’s longer than it needs to be, although with Rivette that’s given, but it’s certainly a well-plotted thriller that manages several twists. Sandrine Bonnaire is a scientist, whose father committed suicide several years before. Her brother has come across evidence that it was murder: a photograph showing their father’s assistant, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, at the station where their father caught the train from which he fell to his death, despite Radziwilowicz claiming to have been miles away at the time. Radziwilowicz is now the head of their father’s company and a rich man. While confronting Radziwilowicz at what used to be their family estate, Bonnaire accidentally shoots his secretary and lover. Which is where things get complicated. Because then the twin sister of the murdered lover turns up. And Radziwilowicz admits he did kill the father, but for good reason… Rivette makes long films; he does not make “taut thrillers” – “baggy thrillers”, perhaps… There’s a good solid mystery in Secret défense central to the plot, with some satisfying twists and turns – did Radziwilowicz really kill Bonnaire’s father? Yes, he did, but why? And what does that motive tell Bonnaire about her own past? It’s padded out a bit, particularly by the sub-plot involving the twins, but it’s all resolutely mimetic, which is something I hadn’t expected, given the other films by Rivette I’ve seen. I liked it, I liked it a lot; which is something I’m finding myself doing with Rivette’s films. They’re definitely worth seeing.

Die Bergkatze, Ernst Lubitsch (1921, Germany). I enjoy early silent films, especially German, although they were, to be fair, pretty much the market leaders back in the day, unless you fancied slapstick comedy like the Keystone Kops or Buster Keaton, in which case Hollywood was the market leader… and certainly when it comes to humorous silent movies I suspect US ones have weathered the years better than German ones. I bought this Lubitsch collection – in a sale, I seem to recall – because one or two of its contents seemed intriguing. And one or two were. But there were other films on the three Blu-ray discs. And some of them have proven not so intriguing. On the one hand, there’s clearly very much a Lubitsch… thing – I hesitate to use the word “vision”, given the youth of the medium at the time – and he was equally clearly technically skilled. But I can’t say Die Bergkatze, subtitled “A Grotesque in Four Acts”, struck me as especially comical. A Lothario officer is assigned to a remote outpost in the mountains. En route he is attacked by bandits, but let go by the daughter of the bandit chief. At the fort, the officer is given a detachment to fight the bandits. They lose the fight but are believed to have won, so the fort commander gives his daughter’s hand in marriage to the officer… And somewhere around there, I lost the plot. Or the film did. There was a scene in which the officer and, I think, the bandit chief’s daughter, are played music by a group of snowman who actually looked more like Cybermen. And the entire film was shot through weirdly-shaped cut-outs, but if there was a pattern, or plan, to them, I couldn’t work it out. There is a documentary about Lubitsch’s work in Berlin in this collection, which I have yet to watch. Having recently seen one of Lubitsch’s Hollywood films – To Be or Not to Be from 1942 – I can’t say I’d ever have classified him as one of the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood, unlike some of his German compatriots; and I have to wonder if some of his later films are not held in higher regard than they deserve.

The Astronaut Wives Club (2015, USA). Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club, published in 2013, was one of the many books I used as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Koppel had done some of my work for me, but I found the book unsatisfactory in its somewhat superficial treatment of the titular women and their lives. Nonetheless, when I heard they were making a television series based on it – clearly to cash in on the success of Mad Men and the, er, failure of Pan Am – I was keen to see it. But it did not fare well and, like many such US television series, doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through. But I managed to see it anyway. The book covers the wives of several of the intakes of astronauts, but the TV series is all about the wives of the Sacred Seven, the original Mercury astronauts: Rene Carpenter, Trudy Cooper, Annie Glen, Betty Grissom, Jo Schirra, Louise Shepard and Marge Slayton. It takes some liberties with actual events – yes, Trudy Cooper was a pilot, the only astronaut wife to hold a pilot’s licence, but none of the Mercury 13 were friends of hers… but inventing such a relationship did at least allow the writers to devote an episode to the Mercury 13, congressional sub-committee and all, and I think bending history to include it was a good call. The astronauts were also painted as probably a good deal nicer than they actually were. The only reference to the “icy commander”, for example, is when Louise Shepard finds a sign reading that on her husband’s office door. In fact, everyone is so nice, it beggars belief. Even when Donn Eisele spends his time at the Cape living with another woman, everyone is very nice about his adultery. I don’t know if The Astronaut Wives Club was intended to last more than a season – certainly, the astronaut-related lives of the wives of the Sacred Seven are pretty much covered during the show’s ten episodes. (Um, I see from Wikipedia it was intended to complete in a single season. But had it been picked up for a second season, it would have shifted focus to the wives of another group of men.) I can see why it wasn’t picked up – put simply, it’s not very good. The astronauts and their wives were anything but bland people, and this series makes them bland. And yet they’re also all so good-looking! The astronauts were not chosen for their looks, and their wives were who they were. Rene Carpenter was known for her glamorous looks – and she capitalised on them, as well as her talent as a writer, by becoming a TV presenter – but the actress playing her is outshone by several of the other wives. In fact, they’re all so good at everything, absolute paragons, as if the writers of the programme had mistaken the time and effort the wives put into projecting the right image so their husbands would get flights was the actual reality. It wasn’t – as Mary Irwin’s autobiography clearly shows. Also, and I’ve no idea why the writers/producers chose to do this, but The Astronaut Wives Club uses present-day music, not music contemporary with when it was set. It feels… wrong. Disappointing.

Yol*, Yılmaz Güney & Şerif Gören (1982, Turkey). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, the only Turkish film on it. I’ve seen half a dozen Turkish films, most in the last decade, including a couple from the 1960s that were… interesting. The more recent stuff I’ve seen has been very good, and probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, films such as Uzak or Night of Silence – certainly more so than Yol, which probably made the cut because it was openly critical of Turkey’s military junta of the time. So much so, in fact, that Güney was in prison during the actual filming – Gören followed Güney’s instructions in directing – but later escaped, took the negatives to France, where he edited them. Yol follows five prisoners given week-long passes to visit home. One story is about honour killing, another is about a man taking responsibility for his brother’s family after his brother is killed. A third sees a husband and wife attacked by an angry mob after being caught having sex in a toilet on a train. It’s not that Yol is a bad film – but the sole representative of Turkish cinema on the list? AS one of three or four films, it would probably have made the cut. It’s a bit soap opera-ish in parts, and it’s hard not to suspect Güney’s dissidence was not a major factor in its selection. (Okay, so it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well – but even that was likely influenced by Güney’s situation.) The same is also true of the issues it covers, like honour killing. Which is not to say that films which cover important issues should not be lauded for doing so. But cinema is a visual medium, and features films are a narrative form, so it’s not unreasonable to expect excellence in both from an acclaimed film. Worth seeing, but it’s not the best ever film to come out of Turkey – and I can say despite having seen only half a dozen Turkish films.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 910

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Moving pictures 2018, #27

I could claim there’s a system to the films I choose to watch, but that would be a lie. It pretty much depends on what I feel like watching – plus a host of other factors, as outlined in a previous post. So I make no apologies for the somewhat scattershot results of my recent viewing…

Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2016, USA). I had this on my rental list, but I was so intrigued by the polarity of the reviews on Amazon that I decided to get a copy for myself. I may joke that these days books only receive 5-star or 1-star reviews, and I suppose that’s just as true of movies, but Kate Plays Christine actually had only 5-star or 1-star/2-star reviews. And the latter were quite uncomplimentary. But they struck me, as so many such reviews do, as having missed the point. Kate Plays Christine is not only an exploration of the real-life character Kate Lyn Shiel plays – Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor who committed suicide on air in 1974 – but also about the process of film-making, especially documentary-making. Shiel researches her role very carefully, and this involves interviewing people who knew Chubbock personally. That makes for uncomfortable interviews. More so when the topic of an alleged videotape of Chubbock’s on-air suicide is often raised. But the film also interrogates Chubbock and her life. Her suicide shows something was amiss, although Kate Plays Christine makes no attempt to analyse her motives. Not that they really could as there was little available information about her – back in 1974, people’s lives were not that well documented, people no longer wrote letters as extensively as they had done and the internet comprised a handful of servers accessible only to some academics and engineers… I thought the film fascinating and an interesting exploration of its subjects –  Chubbock, Chubbock’s story, and the presentation of her story to an audience forty years later. So that’s 5 stars from me.

You Were Never Lovelier, William A Seiter (1942, USA). Astaire has had enough of New York so he heads down to Brazil to join his chum, bandleader Xavier Cugat, played by, er, Xavier Cugat. But Astaire can’t get a job, in fact he can’t even get to see impresario Adolphe Menjou. Meanwhile, Menjou’s oldest unmarried daughter, Rita Hayworth, has no intention of getting married. So Menjou plays a Cyrano de Bergerac on her, and sends orchids and poems as if from a secret beau. Events conspire to make her think it’s Astaire. He goes along with it for a spot at Menjou’s club. It’s not the most original plot in the world, and Astaire is not as likeable as he usually is. But I hadn’t realised Hayworth was so good a dancer, and she more than holds her own with Astaire. Having said that, I much prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner for him. I mean, Hayworth is great, no doubt about that. But I see her more as a femme fatale, or in something like Gentleman Prefer Blondes, than I do as a comic foil and dancing partner to Fred Astaire. In which role, Ginger Rogers was excellent. Indeed she was excellent before that, as I learnt when I watched the films in the Busby Berkeley box sets I own. You Were Never Lovelier was good but, let’s face it, it’s a film for fans of Astaire, Hayworth, or 1940s movies.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos (2017, Ireland). The only other film by Lanthimos I’ve seen is Dogtooth (see here), and it was… odd. This is not necessarily a bad thing in my book, and I did think Dogtooth very good. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Lanthimos, a Greek director, working in the Hollywood system, Hollywood has a bad record of adapting, or attempting to co-opt, world or art house directors. Michael Haneke’s Hollywood remake of Funny Games is inferior to his Austrian original; George Sluizer’s Hollywood remake of The Vanishing is inferior to his Dutch original. And that’s when the original directors are involved! But then The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not actually Hollywood, as it’s an Irish production that happens to be filmed in the US with US characters (played by an Irish, Australian and American cast). But it is also quite clearly a Yanthimos film. It’s not just the batshit plot, which toys with genre without fully committing to it, but also the stilted way in which the cast play their parts. Colin Farell plays a heart surgeon who befriends a teenage boy whose father had died in a car accident. He introduces the boy to his family. But it transpires the father died on the operating table under Farrell’s knife, and the boy has engineered the friendship so he can get close to the family. And curse them. So Farrell’s son, the youngest, is mysteriously paralysed from the waist down. Then he refuses to eat. The last stage is bleeding from the eyes. Unless Farrell agrees to murder one of his family in reparation. It’s a bonkers story – inspired, apparently, by a play by Euripides – but the weird, almost hypnotised, way everyone plays their parts gives it a bizarre sense of authority. Perhaps the lack of naturalism suits the unnatural plot; I don’t know. A very good film, whatever the reason.

The Angelic Conversation, Derek Jarman (1985, UK). I thought I had a handle on Jarman’s films after seeing The Tempest and then Jubilee, and relying on vague memories of Caravaggio, but I’d forgotten he was an experimental film-maker, and his resolutely amateurish aesthetic was only one element of it. After all, there was Blue, which I may not have seen but knew about. (And, okay, Wittgenstein, doesn’t quite fit in there, but given that it’s the film that persuaded me to give Jarman another go I think that’s fair). Anyway, all of that and I come to The Angelic Conversation, which is mid-career Jarman, made after a six-year gap since The Tempest and contemporary with Caravaggio. It comprises 78 minutes of filtered footage of two men, or sometimes just one of them, in a sort of dreamlike landscape, while Dame Judi Dench reads sonnets by Shakespeare. And some mostly atonal music. And, er, that’s it. The combination proves effective – and the imagery is often quite beautiful – but at 78 minutes it does outstay its welcome somewhat. Most of the avant garde/experimental films I’ve seen to date have been short, between 3 and 30 minutes. Jarman clearly was not afraid of trying his audience’s patience, or pushing their willingness to spend time watching his films. I don’t know enough about his work to determine if that was a deliberate policy on his part or simply something that never occurred to him. Given there are another four films in this box set, not to mention a shitload of extras, I will no doubt find out. Despite only being a third of the way into this first collection, I must admit I have every intention of buying Volume 2 when it is released.

Anon, Andrew Niccol (2018, UK). Niccol’s Gattaca is generally regarded as one of the best sf films of the last 25 years, but I’ve never really been a fan of it. His subsequent genre films – S1m0ne and In Time, especially – may have been relatively successful but are not so well regarded. Nonetheless, he appears to be seen as a non-commercial genre director who has yet to produce a really great genre film. Some might consider Anon to be that film. I’m not so sure. It has a neat conceit at its core, but it feels a bit tired, a bit like an argument we want to be over because we already know what the conclusion should be. But then, “we” – ie, me – are genre fans, so this is shit we’ve been retreading for forty-plus years and perhaps it’s not so tired to to the general movie-seeing public. In the near-future of the film, people’s entire lives are uploaded to “the Ether” (this is science fiction, remember; we can’t call it by the name it has in the real world, “the cloud”), including everything they see and hear. The police – in the person of detective Clive Owen – have access to these records. So when a crime is committed, they just scroll back through the suspect’s record so they can see exactly what happened. But then a man is murdered, and his murderer remains invisible, because the murderer hacked the Ether so the victim sees his death through the murderer’s eyes. Owen discovers there are hackers who can make people’s records in the Ether disappear. He tracks one down – Chloe Sevigny – who apparently has no record of her own. It’s patently obvious she’s not the murderer, even though she’s linked to all the victims, because the film spends so much energy making every clue point her way. With the end result that the real identity of the killer falls completely flat when it’s revealed. Niccol also seems to think the future will be Brutalist. I’m a huge fan of Brutalist architecture, but it hasn’t signified the future since the 1970s. Putting up great slabs of concrete is time-consuming and expensive; the future will be steel frames and gypsum walls, cheap and easy to put up by immigrant labour– oh wait, we won’t have immigrant labour in the UK anymore, because it will take years to get a visa and three months to get through immigration control. Cheap and easy to put up by indentured local labour, then; because what else are you going to do when the welfare state has been dismantled… Anyway, Anon… Not a bad film. The central mystery was badly-handled, and the premise is not as original or shocking as it thinks it is, but the film did look very pretty.

Lightning Bolt, Antonio Margheriti (1966, Itay). Back in the 1960s, Italy and Spain collaborated on a bunch of cheap thrillers, often with cheap US stars thrown in as a draw. While some cheap Italian films of the period, gialli or otherwise – like Danger: Diabolik or Footprints on the Moon – have transcended their origins, it doesn’t seem like any of these Spanish-Italian co-productions did. Lightning Bolt, starring Anthony Eisley, star of US TV series Hawaiian Eye (1959 – 1963), as Harry Sennet, a pretty obvious take-off of James Bond. The plot is even a rip-off of Dr No. Having said that, Lightning Bolt uses real stock footage of Nasa launches, and does a much better job in that respect than Dr No. Anyway, Nasa’s last six launches have all failed, with the rockets not making much more than a couple of thousand feet from the launch pad. So Eisley, an agent for the Federal Security Investigation Commission, poses as a playboy while investigating the Florida keys just down-range of Nasa for likely causes. His boss is female… and it doesn’t help when she’s introduced as “Agent 36-22-36”. And her treatment is pretty standard for the treatment of women in this film. It’s not that the film makes 007 look feminist, which Trump certainly does, but it’s clearly closer to unreconstructed sexist pig than Bond. Anyway, it’s all because of a beer mogul who has a secret base at the bottom of the sea, and who plans to launch a laser cannon to the Moon which he can then use to blackmail the nations of Earth into ceding him control. FSIC’s playboy agent foils his plot. Of course. There’s a lot of noir-ish voiceover in this film, which is definitely not a characteristic of the genre; and I’m not really sure it works. I recently saw someone on FB post a list of “favourite spy parody films” and they had Derek Flint in their No. 1 spot. I think I’d nominate Matt Helm (but Flint would make my No. 2). Harry Sennet, however, is no spoof, even if at times he seems like one. A film for fans of spaghetti spy-fi only, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


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Moving pictures 2018, #26

I think this might be the most peculiar post of the series so far this year. Okay, it’s two-thirds Anglophone, but only two films of the six could ever qualify as, well, “normal”, and I’m not entirely sure that holds true for one of them – although part of the appeal of the films made by the Archers is their slightly off-kilter aspect…

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie (2017, USA). Okay, so anything Ritchie touches never survives the encounter intact, and I knew that was as likely to be true of the Matter of Britain as it was of the Man from UNCLE or the Sherlock Holmes canon. So why was I surprised that Ritchie’s Arthurian Britain features giant elephants, Cockneys and Himalayan mountains? It didn’t help that David Beckham appeared to have been cast in pretty much every role, except the one played by Jude Law. (It wasn’t Beckham, of course, just a bunch of male actors cut from the same cloth and styled the same way as him.) I can’t even remember the plot, only that it took considerable liberties with its source material, even though it managed to include most of the best-known elements. Sword in the stone: check. Merlin: check. Camelot: check. Uther Pendragon: check. Londinium: check. Um, that can’t be right – in the fifth century? Masked army of goons: check. Er, hang on. Ninjas: check. No, wait. Impromptu football match: check. What? Jude Law turning into a giant snake: check. Oh come on, this is just taking the piss. Although I may have dreamt the football match. Basically, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a Mockney fantasy film, and if that’s your bag then I suppose it does the job. But it’s not the Matter of Britain. In fact, it’s not even Britain. Bollocks.

Mr Skeffington, Vincent Sherman (1944, USA). I think I’ve always had a certain impression of Bette Davis and the parts she played, despite not following her career or making an effort to seek out her films. And having now seen several of them, I can’t honestly say my impression of her was all that different from the reality. She played brittle women who seemed to have trouble dealing with reality – or at least put on a pretence of being unable to do so, while often being considerably more capable than those around her suspected. So either she can’t cope, or she’s secretly coping. Usually, the story is tragic, and Davis’s character is the most tragic of them all. Despite the title, Mr Skeffington is definitely a Davis vehicle. She plays a socialite whose brother fritters away the family fortune, and so she marries the title character, played by Claude Rains, who is very rich. She never loves him, and she forever has a string of beaus in tow, but she’s never unfaithful. They have a girl, but Davis is not interested and does not bond with her. The two divorce, when Davis learns Rains has been squiring his secretaries about town. Rains and daughter move to Europe. Once she is grown, the daughter returns to the US, but does not get on with her mother, marries and moves to Seattle. The war happens. Davis loses first her fortune – Rains’s fortune was taken by the Nazis – and then her looks when she contracts diptheria. But then it transpires Rains did not die in the camps as previously thought, and has returned to the US… And he still loves Davis. Even better, he is now blind and can’t see her raddled features. Sigh. Davis’s character really is unlikable, right from the start; and her dim brother is even worse. Rains plays the title role with a look of constant silent suffering, which he does very well. But it all gets a bit much as the film moves into its final act, and the mawkishness is so thick you can cut it with a chainsaw. Astonishingly, both Davis and Rains were nominated for Oscars for the film, although Rains only as Best Supporting. One to avoid.

A Canterbury Tale, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1944, UK). I’m a big fan of the the Archers, and I’d put their Black Narcissus in my top twenty films (despite its somewhat problematic aspects), so naturally I’ve been keen to watch their entire oeuvre, and not just their most celebrated films. A Canterbury Tale is generally well-regarded, if not especially well-known. It’s a war-time piece, made during WWII and featuring soldiers. And actually starring a serving US Army soldier. But it’s also very much a film about England and its countryside. A young woman disembarks from a train in the fictitious Kentish town of Chillingbourne late one night. She is looking for farm work as a member of the Land Army. A British Army sergeant and a US Army sergeant also get down from the train, the latter by mistake. As they head off looking for digs, the woman is attacked by a man in uniform who pours glue into her hair. The police admit this has happened several times but they have no clues to the identity of the assailant. The three decide to team up to solve the mystery. Which involves the local landowner and the nearby Army camp. It’s a trivial mystery, when it comes down to it, and if the motives of the perpetrator prove somewhat confused they’re at least pure. And spectacularly ill-timed, even though the incidents are entirely the result of the Army camp having been built nearby. I was reminded while watching a film of a documentary I’d seen about hop-picking in Kent in the first half of last century. Hordes of East Enders used to head down there for a few weeks every year to pick the hops. They’d stay in crude huts and were paid a pittance, but for most of them it was the nearest they had to a holiday. Mechanisation completely killed off the practice. Anyway, A Canterbury Tale… the three leads are sympathetic and engaging, the mystery is resolved without anyone getting hurt, and each of the leads’ character arcs ends the film on a happy note – literally, in the case of one, who had always dreamt of playing a church organ and gets to play Canterbury Cathedral’s during a service to mark his division’s departure for the front. Worth seeing.

Demonlover, Olivier Assayas (2002, France). I’ve been following Assayas’s career since first watching his film Irma Vep back in 2000, but Demonlover has been a hard one to track down. It doesn’t appear to have ever been given a sell-through release in the UK, although DVD editions from other European nations are commonplace (and yes, the UK is part of Europe; and Brexiteers are fuckwits). Having now seen it, I can understand why a UK label might have been reluctant to issue it in this country, although, to be fair, it’s pretty tame and now, sadly, badly dated. Connie Nielsen plays the CEO of a French computer game company. She is trying to acquire the rights to a Japanese hentai series. The title refers to the US company she turns to for handling distribution in the US, which is run by Gina Gershon. But Demonlover, the company, are under threat from their main competitor, Mangatronics. Meanwhile, Nielsen finds evidence linking Demonlover to the Hellfire Club, an online BDSM website. At which point, as the Wikipedia plot summary has it, “the narrative structure of the film more or less breaks down”. It’s tempting to think Assayas was channelling David Lynch while making Demonlover, but it never quite manages Lynch’s levels of strangeness. And for all his utter weirdness, Lynch somehow managed to maintain narrative coherence in his films. If Demonlover feels like an exercise in pushing boundaries, it’s not narrative boundaries. The plot is built around online porn – not just of the animated variety, but also the fringe parts of BDSM – but it all feels very dated. Which it shouldn’t really, when you think about it: a film set in the first couple of years of the twenty-first century will no doubt look like a film set in the first couple of years of the twenty-first century, except… everything except the presentation of the Web in the film could be two, three, five or seven years old. Which makes the Internet parts of the film stand out. Nielsen is good in the title role, Gershon I’m not so sure about. Demonlover is a film, I think, that needs more than one watching, but I’d prefer a better quality transfer than the one I saw.

Dasepo Naughty Girls, E J-yong (2006, South Korea). I probably shouldn’t have to explain that this was recommended by David Tallerman. Five minutes in, and I texted him to say, “this film looks like someone on drugs tried remaking Grease“. Happily, it settled down a little after that, although it was still completely bonkers. It takes place in the Useless High School, among the students of one class. The main character is “Poor Girl”, who carries a stuffed toy on her back called “Poverty”. Another student, called Cyclops, has, er, only a single eye. Poor Girl’s mother has invested heavily in a pyramid-selling scheme – literally, the product is a plastic pyramid – and so to make ends meet Poor Girl becomes a prostitute. One of her clients is a mobster who enjoys dressing up as a schoolgirl, and the two become friends. Meanwhile, Anthony, a rich boy in the class, falls in love with Cyclops’s sister, Double Eyes, who is transgender. Anthony and Poor Girl become friends. She fancies him, but he doesn’t return the sentiment. He also has a secret in his background. There are a couple of musical numbers, including the opening credits, but it’s not really a musical. And not really like Grease at all. It is completely mad, however, and a lot of fun. Worth seeing.

The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland). I was browsing for documentaries on Cinema Paradiso to add to my documentaries list, when I stumbled on this one. Its subject matter is something that interests me: space probes. In this case, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. I used to think space probes were boring and much preferred reading about crewed space exploration – and it’s true that the engineering required to keep human beings alive in space I find fascinating… But space probes hold a fascination all their own too. They are machines built to operate in an inimical environment for decades, and for which our ability to direct and control becomes subject to greater and greater time lags, such that operating them becomes totally divorced from reality. The two Voyager probes are, of course, the furthest – or even farthest – travelled human-made objects. And one of them will come back a few centuries from now as a giant fuck-off spacecraft and threaten the Earth. But not to save the whales, that was a different giant fuck-off spacecraft. Anyway, The Farthest consists of lots of talking heads, archival footage and some very pretty CGI. And it really is fascinating stuff. It must be really weird discovering something completely unknown millions of kilometres and many hours after the actual moment of discovery, almost vicarious, but The Farthest manages to evoke something not so very different. Excellent stuff.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


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Moving pictures 2018, #25

A mixed bag, this time around. When it comes to choosing films to watch of an evening, there are several factors to consider: rentals DVDs that I need to send back if I want to get another three for next weekend, the growing to-be-watched pile, the growing pile of DVDs lent to me by my mother, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the sort of day I’ve had at work, whether there’s anything I need to get done that evening, whether I have a Moving picture post to write and I’ve forgotten the details of one of the films in it…

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton’s films and have managed to avoid them for the past decade or so, but this one sounded like it might be worth a go and… well, I actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t massively whimsical, and Burton’s treatment seemed to suit the material. Okay, so Eva Green was as mad as a bucket of spanners in it, but then she is in everything she does – and still she’s eminently watchable. A young man’s grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances – found dead in nearby woods, his eyes missing – and so the young man follows up on stories he was told as a child of a children’s home on  an island off the coast of Wales. He travels there with his father, and discovers that the home was bombed in 1941 and no one knows what became of the children. But then he meets some of them and discovers they still exist, living in an endlessly-repeated day in 1941 (the day, in fact, which ends with the home’s destruction by a German bomb). There are lots of “peculiar children”, although only a dozen or so at the school, and they’re under threat from a group of people led by Samuel L Jackson. He and his group performed an experiment to give themselves immortality early in the twentieth century, but it has slowly been turning them into invisible monsters – unless they eat the eyes of peculiar children, which keeps them human and ageless. And the young man, it turns out he’s peculiar because he can see the monsters… Okay, so it all looked a bit more Cornish than it did Welsh, but the cast were generally good and the villains were pretty effective. A solid effort.

A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies (2016, UK). This is a biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously odd and who this film shows to be very odd indeed. Reading up on her afterwards, I don’t think the film quite does her justice. American actress Cynthia Nixon, perhaps better-known for Sex and the City, which is no doubt doing her a grave disservice as she can’t obviously chose which of her work becomes best-known, plays the title role, with a supporting cast of Brits who mostly seem to have trouble with a US accent. Which means that despite a great deal of care over costumes and setting, this film doesn’t always convince. It doesn’t help that Emily Dickinson was barking, so she’s a hard character to sympathise with in the first place. But this is a Terence Davies film, so it looks great and the performances are top-notch (accents notwithstanding). It certainly inspired me to look up Dickinson’s poetry, which I discovered left me completely cold. She was a… singular talent, with a poetic sensibility very much not of her time. These days, her poetry reads like a cross between doggerel and greeting card, and while her refusal to follow the poetic tradition of her time, and her sheer prolificity are admirable (although she only saw a handful of poems in print during her lifetime), I can’t really defend lines like:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

An interesting film about an interesting person, but don’t expect me to start admiring her poetry as a result.

Submergence, Wim Wenders (2017, USA). I had not known this was a Wenders film until I started watching it. It was the link to diving in submersibles that persuaded me to put it on my watch list. And, after all that, it was a bit meh. It didn’t even feel like a Wim Wenders film, and I wouldn’t have known it was if I hadn’t looked it up. Alicia Vikander is a marine biologist specialising in the hadal zone, on holiday in France. Where she meets James McAvoy, who claims to be a water engineer but is actually a MI6 operative en route to Somalia to meet a contact in a jihadist group. A brief romance ensues. Shortly after arrival in Somalia, McAvoy is captured and held captive. Meanwhile, Vikander visits in the ocean floor off Greenland in a submersible. Both flashback to their romance at the French pension. The only interesting thing about the film was its even-handed treatment of the jihadists, whereas in US films they’re immediately painted as totally evil and fully deserving of extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without due process, making up laws after their capture in order to find them guilty of something, and, of course, illegally invading sovereign nations… Funny how that works…

A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands). Three women are arrested for the murder of a man, and while being interviewed by the police it transpires they do not know each other… The film starts ordinarily enough, introducing the three women as they go about their daily business. One runs a café, another is a secretary in an office, and the third is a housewife, who does not speak. Each of the women are arrested and then interviewed by a police officer. They are accused of beating a man to death in a clothes shop. Nothing up until that point has suggested the women capable of committing such an act. It is only when the crime is shown in flashback, that the motive becomes apparent. The housewife had shoplifted a garment, and the shop owner had insisted she return the garment. The three women attacked the shop owner. The other women in the shop just stood and watched them. A court-appointed psychiatrist tries to understand why the women committed the murder, but they refuse to discuss it. In court, the prosecutor suggests the crime would still have occurred if the shop owner had been female. Every woman in the court room starts laughing. This film definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It certainly does not deserve to be so difficult to find. There are plenty of Dutch films available on sell-through in the UK – most of Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre, for example – and, of course, many Dutch films released in the Netherlands have English subtitles available. But A Question of Silence really was a hard film to track down, and it definitely doesn’t deserve to be. That’s a shame.

Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog (2015, USA). I had not known this was a Herzog film until– well, no, I had known it was a Herzog film but I found it hard to believe it as I watched it. It seemed more like a Kidman star vehicle. She plays Gertrude Bell, one of a number of British female explorers of the Middle East. Another is Frey Stark. Bell graduated from Oxford with a first in History, the first woman to do so, but was not awarded a degree as women were not awarded degrees at the time. Bored with the life planned for her, Bell travelled to Tehran to join her uncle, a diplomat there. She learns Farsi and studies Persian poetry. She falls in love with a member of the embassy staff – played, bafflingly, by an American with a US accent, who’s a made-up character anyway. But her family deem him unsuitable (her real life lover was married), and he commits suicide. So she throws herself into her work, travelling about the region, doing archaeological and philological work. I got the impression from the film that she was involved with Saudis – I distinctly remember mention of the House of Rashid, the original rulers of the Nejd region of the Arabian peninsula – but Bell’s biography on Wikipedia states she mostly travelled and worked in the region now occupied by Syria and Iraq. True, the House of Saud was based in Kuwait at one point, I seem to recall, and that borders Iraq – in fact, the British drew the Iraqi borders, and I think Bell was one of those involved. She also met TE Lawrence several times, and spent WWI working with him in Cairo for British military intelligence. Given I have a long personal connection to the Middle East, it’s no surprise I find the history of the region interesting. But nothing in this film quite rang true. And nothing about seemed very, well, Herzogian. A disappointment on both counts.

La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel (2001, Argentina). I watched Martel’s last but one film, The Headless Woman, last July (see here), and thought it very good. But it wasn’t until I saw a review of her latest, Zama, on Alternate Ending, that I added her other available films to my rental list. This was her first movie. Apparently, the script won a prize at Sundance, but the jury suggested she change it to a more straightforward narrative with clear lead characters. She refused. And so she should have done. Unlike The Headless Woman, which does have a (relatively) straightforward narrative, but – and this is what makes that film so good – it then begins to unravel its own story, until not only the characters but also the viewer begisn to doubt what has actually happened… Unlike that movie, La Ciénaga has no real plot or story. Things happen. And, er, that’s it. There’s no forward momentum. A family have escaped the humid weather in the city by removing themselves to their country house. The mother slips and bashes her head at the side of the pool. She takes to her bed, while her children run riot. The servants take liberties, and she accuses one of theft. Her sister visits with her own children. Martel has made four feature films to date and she really is very good. In fact, Argentina has produced some excellent films by female directors. Lucía Puenzo is another name from the country to watch. It’s not just Argentina – there’s also Claudia Llosa from Peru. And no doubt others from other South or Central American countries I’ve yet to stumble across. The more I see of the cinema of the continent – and it’s not just recent films, but also older ones, such as those by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, of whom I’m a fan – the ‘more I want to explore it. I guess my rental list will be expanding a bit over the next few weeks…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


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Moving pictures 2018, #24

After the last post’s diversity, it’s swung the opposite way here, with a mostly Anglophone half dozen films…

Supersonic Saucer, Kadoyng, The Glitterball, Guy Fergusson, Ian Shand, Harley Cokeliss (1956, 1972, 1977, UK). These three films were packaged as “Outer Space”, which is a  bit of a phiz as they all take place on Earth. In the south of England, in fact. In the first, an inhabitant of Venus, all of whom can transform themselves into flying saucers, is a bit of a late starter, and when he – or perhaps it – finally transforms, he makes his way to Earth, where he is befriended by two girls spending half-term at their school in the care of the headmaster’s know-it-all son. Since said alien has the power to make things vanish and then re-appear, much typical 1950s moralising then ensues, with a raid on the local cake shop reluctantly undone before the pesky kids, and alien/flying saucer, foil a bank robbery by some comedy villains. Very much of its time. Kadoyng, on the other hand, is the name of a comedy alien who lands on Earth and is befriended by a group of kids. He looks like a human, however, except for the stalking growing from the top of his head. So they give him a top hat to hide it. Meanwhile, a bypass is about to be run through the village, and the kids are on the nimby side… and there are a bunch of kids who bully them on the other side. Naturally, the alien helps save the village from the march of progress, through the use of alien, er, advanced science. The Glitterball is is also an alien, which a pair of kids find and, er, befriend. But some others want the alien ball once they realise its powers. And like the other two films on this disc, it’s all about kids standing up for something else, and perhaps some noble cause, as catalysed by the arrival of an alien, human-looking or otherwise. I thought it might be fun watching these CFF films, but I can’t really say that it has been. I doubt I’ll bother with the rest.

Dark Victory, Edmund Goulding (1939, USA). My mother found a box set of four Bette David films in a charity shop and lent it to me after she’d watched them. I’m not a Bette Davis fan – there are other actresses from that period I’d sooner watch. And it turned out I’d seen two of the films in the box set before – Now, Voyager and The Letter (see here) – but I’m happy to rewatch classic Hollywood films, so no bother. Dark Victory is a film adaptation of a well-known play, in which Davis’s role is that of a young socialite with bad habits who learns she has a brain tumour, marries her doctor, who then tells her that her condition is operable, which it is not. Despite being a play before it was a film this still comes across as a Bette Davis star vehicle – although, to be honest, pretty much every Bette Davis film does. Humphrey Bogart plays a minor role as an Irish horse trainer, but the film is all about Davis and her illness-induced deterioration. Meh.

Jubilee, Derek Jarman (1978, UK). A new box set of Derek Jarman films on Blu-ray? I’ll have me a copy of that… No, wait. I’ve seen a few of his films over the years, but I’d hardly call myself a fan. I never quite plugged into his slightly amateurish aesthetic, and his choice of subjects was not one designed to appeal to me… But then I watched his Wittgenstein earlier this year (see here) and was really quite impressed. Clearly, I had misjudged Jarman. And since this new box set included Jubilee, perhaps his most famous film, and one I’d never actually seen, then maybe it was worth a punt…  So I bought it. And a very nice object it is too. The BFI have done him proud. Obvs, the first film I chose to watch from it was Jubilee. And it was not at all like I had imagined. I had thought it was some punk aesthetic celebration of the time, starring some well-known names from the scene and some of its defining music. Except, it wasn’t. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic UK after the death of Queen Elizabeth II (although even back in 1978 that was an unlikely outcome for her death). Queen Elizabeth I is transported forward in time to the 1970s by John Dee (played by Richard O’Brien. With hair! And a beard!), and then it’s sort of her hanging around with a bunch of punk misfits. The music is not at all punk, and surprisingly good. Some of the cast aren’t great, but the whole thing hangs together much more effectively than I’d expected. I thought it pretty good. And I’m glad I bought the box set.

Herostratus, Don Levy (1967, UK). I stumbled across this on the website of a certain online retailer whose owner is so desperate to spend his fortune he’s throwing it at a private space programme but apparently won’t even considered giving his employees a living wage. Anyway, I spotted it in my recommendations, before they went and changed how that works so now it’s next to sodding useless, and I bunged it onto an order. I suppose I was expecting something either like Penda’s Fen (see here) or Privilege (see here). What it is, is like neither. If anything, it reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (see here). A young man, sick of the world and its failure to cater to his sensibilities, decides to commit suicide, and tries to turn it into a media event. He approaches an advertising mogul, and they try to make a media event out of it all. Every so often, the film flashes up images of a woman in black, or a woman in a red. There’s also a scene where a young Helen Mirren, in bustier and fishnets, performs an erotic dance. Herostratus is very much a film of its time. I think it’s trying to make a similar point to Watkins’s Privilege, but it’s not as biting, or as entertaining, a satire as that one is. But I did enjoy it more than Performance.

Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence (2018, USA). It’s 2018, FFS, should we still be making movies in which Russians are played by Anglophones sporting silly accents? (Although not entirely, as one of the Russians is played by a Belgian, and another is Dutch.) And the entire plot relies on copying data on 3.5″ floppy disks. In 2018. Good luck on finding a computer with a floppy disk drive, even in Russia. Jennifer Lawrence, who may be a very good actress but seems to have the usual Hollywood problem of being unable to pick good projects, plays a ballerina who is injured onstage and then blackmailed by her uncle into becoming a sex operative, or “sparrow”, for the KGB, er, FSB. This is a film that wants its Cold War and is determined to ignore the last thirty years of actual history to get it. After demonstrating she is not going to obey the rules at sparrow school, the viewer is repeatedly told she is something special, not that this is especially evident onscreen. She’s sent on a mission to Budapest to seduce a CIA agent. Because he runs a mole in the KGB, er, FSB, and naturally they want to know who it is. She goes about it in her own way, which means blackmailing anyone who thinks she’s behaving like a double agent for the CIA. There really is nothing good to say about this film. It feels like it’s set 30 years ago and not in the present day. Jennifer Lawrence is a complete blank. And the plot doesn’t even make sense as a spy story plot. One to avoid.

Winter of Discontent, Ibrahim El Batout (2012, Egypt). This is a dramatisation of events during Arab Spring, featuring actors playing real people. One of the major characters is the female anchor of a current affairs show, who quits after being bollocked for asking dumb questions on air and decides to investigate the events ongoing in Tahrir Square for herself. The film shows both sides – and not just those fighting the authorities, but also those who are trying to shut down the insurrection. And even those who are caught up in it by accident. One such man was arrested by the secret police simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then beaten and tortured as a “rebel” despite his protestations of innocence. Arab regimes have been, traditionally, autocratic, and even democratic Arab nations have often devolved into autocracy. The West is happy to support such regimes, either to protect strategic resources – look up the history of BP, if you don’t believe me – or to keep active a ready market for armaments exports. And dropping bombs on such nations will not “fix” them. And yet, in most cases, these authoritarian regimes are so well-entrenched that not even an Arab Spring can unseat them, especially not when they’re being propped up by the West. Let’s not forget that Gaddafi may have been Public Enemy No. 1 but he was left in power for precisely as long as the West was happy to let him be in power. And now that’s he gone, Libya is a disaster area. And for all that we boast of our freedoms, they’re being eroded daily – only this month, voters were turned away from polling stations because they did not have ID for the first time in British history. Demanding ID to vote is not a solution to electoral fraud because it’s a trivial problem – in 2017, there were 28 allegations from 45 million votes, and only one conviction. It’s a way to disenfranchise people. And if the government is going to tackler electoral fraud, they would do well to address the illegal campaign spending perpetrated by their own party in the last general election… None of which is especially relevant to Winter of Discontent, which provides a good overview of the events of the January 25 Revolution of 2011 but does very little reaffirm a person’s faith in humanity…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907


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Moving pictures 2018, #23

Six films, six countries. It’s been a while since I managed that.

Oliver & Company, George Scribner (1988, USA). I have a vague ambition to work my way through all the Disney films – that’s vague, as in I’m not putting much effort into meeting it. So I added some Disney films I’d not seen to my rental list, and I watch them when they pop through my letter-box. But, to be honest, I’m not much of a fan. Sleeping Beauty I consider one of the most gorgeous animated films ever made, but that doesn’t make me a Disney fan. And Oliver & Company is a good example why. I’ve no idea who the DVD cover art is  meant to represent as the art is a great deal better than that in the film. Which is a rip-off of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, but with a kitten in the title role, and dogs playing most of the other roles. Although Fagin is a human. It’s not a bad spin on Dickens’s tale, to be fair, but Disney animated feature films live or die on the quality of animation and the songs. This one has one good song, sung by a lead character voiced by Billy Joel, but piss-poor animation. I was not impressed.

Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway (1991, UK). So many willies! I’m familiar with Greenaway’s oeuvre – in fact, I’ve been more or less following his career since first seeing one of his films back in the mid-1980s. I let it slide for a while, but caught up recently via rental DVDs. This particular film has been hard to find, but when I did track down a copy… there was lots and lots of full-frontal male nudity. Now, I hasten to add, I have nothing against male nudity, much as I have nothing against female nudity. I am not remarking on its presences, only its excessive presence. Although, I must admit, against what standard I have no idea. Apart from that, the most striking thing about Prospero’s Books is how much like his later films it is. It’s almost as if he were trying out a new way of telling stories on film, one that he went on to use in Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company – but not, I seem to remember, in The Pillow Book or 8½ Women, which were made after Prospero’s Books but precede the other films. Prospero’s Books stars John Gielgud in the title role, the sorcerer from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The other characters from the play also appear, but the film is very much about Prospero. And his library. As each book of his is introduced, so CGI brings it to life, both the writing and the subject. In between these are tableaux, over which Gielgud narrates, some of which are static, while others illustrate scenes from the books or allude to scenes from the play. It is a very clever film, and the CGI is very effective. I’ve never really been a fan of Greenaway’s most-celebrated film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (although perhaps The Draughtsman’s Contract is better known), but I’ve always thought he was a singular talent and I’m glad I returned to his films after a decade or more gap. It’s a shame there’s no handy box set of his works, but I expect that would be difficult to arrange given the multi-national financing of most of his films since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Padmaavat, Sanjay Leela Bansali (2018, India). In thirteenth-century India, the nephew of the sultan of Delhi murders his uncle and seizes the throne and determine to be next Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, a local princess accidentally shoots a visiting Rajput prince with an arrow and wounds him. She nurses him back to health, the two fall in love, as you do, and get married. Then the new Delhi sultan’s plans for expansion send him up against Rajput, and the two kingdoms fight to the death. Padmavati, the Sri Lankan princess, leads the defence of Rajput capital Chittor with an army of women after her husband has fallen to the cheating sultan in single combat. And this is Indian history so it’s all hideously complicated and not really open to easy summary. But Padmaavat is, like Baahubali, one of the new breed of epic movies coming out of India that are CGI’d up to the eyeballs. Padmaavat looks fantastic. It is nowhere near as bonkers as Baahubali, and its battle scenes are somewhat more believable. But everything is giant, the castles are huge, the forests are humungous, and the armies number in the millions. It’s all completely OTT, but also hugely entertaining. Having said all that… I recently tried watching Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is another CGI-heavy retelling of, well, not history exactly, but the Matter of Britain, which I do know a little about. And Ritchie’s film is complete fucking nonsense. Giant elephants and dragon skeletons in tenth-century Britain? WTF? I don’t know the history of India – it’s an enormous country, I suspect no one really does it all – so I can’t say if Padmaavat, an allegedly historical film, annoyed Indian viewers as much as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword annoyed me. But perhaps I should have just gone with the flow – it’s a movie, not a history lesson – and accepted it as entertainment, which is likely what it was intended to be. Certainly, Padmaavat was entertaining. And if you have to watch two Bollywood films this year, then I recommend this one and Baahubali.

No Fear, No Die*, Claire Denis (1990, France). I knew this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but I had not known it was by Claire Denis until I started watching it. And, I suspect, there are other Denis films that deserve a place on the list more. Like Beau Travail. Which is, I think, a better film than this one. It doesn’t help that the story of No Fear, No Die revolves around cock-fighting, which is barbaric – no, it’s not a “sport” – and indeed the title is the name of one of the character’s favourite cockerel. Two guys from the Caribbean travel to France, and persuade a contact there that they can make money running cock fights. He provides the venue, they provide and train the birds. But it does not go as well as planned. The situation is further complicated by the attraction one of the two guys feels toward the French guy’s wife. In most respects, this is a typical French film of tangled relationships. The cock-fighting gives it an unusual edge, and metaphor, but it’s not something you really want to watch. The cast are excellent. But I can’t help thinking Denis’s Beau Travail looked better and was a more effective movie. It deserved to be on the 100 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Not this one, which is clearly held in such high regard it’s almost impossible to find on DVD…

No compteu amb el dits, Nocturn 29, Lectura Brossa, Pere Portabella (1967, 1968, 2003, Spain). There are 22 films in this box set, and I don’t think I could write intelligent reviews of each one so I’ll lump them together. I had hoped the films would be presented on the discs in the box set in chronological order, but apparently not. Anyway, I watched all three films on the first disc in the box set and… I have no real idea what I watched. Lectura Brossa is the least puzzling of them. An actress stands on a stage in front of a screen. A script is projected on the screen, which she reads. On the right side of the stage, a woman translates the words spoken into sign language (I don’t know which one, sorry). The story involves two characters identified only as “the boy” and the “the girl”, but then introduces “the wife” and “the husband”. It is by Joan Brossa, what also provided the scripts for the previous two films, and who is then interviewed in a short follow-on piece. Both No compteu amb el dits and Nocturn 29 are black and white. The first has a fake documentary/infomercial voiceover, the second uses strange electronic cracklings or discordant piano playing as its soundtrack. Things happen, with no seeming logic – a man takes a shower, a woman removes her make-up, a man visits a post office… these could have come from either film. There is something fascinating in the way a narrative forms out of the connections between the disparate scenes – although “scene” may be too strong a word, as many are simply short sequences in which, for example, a man exits a car, climbs some stairs, enters an apartment, and then sits down. The second of the two is clearly about Franco’s rule, with its film of military parades. The first attempts to mock consumption, and the fact the two films are so similar in presentation and technique, and were made within a year of each other, makes the wide gap between the subjects seem odd. This is good stuff. And I’ve still got another 19 films to go…

Haunting Me, Poj Arnon (2007, Thailand). Four drag queens run a boarding-house for young men. A young woman dies when she falls and bashes her head on a toilet. So she haunts the boarding-house. There’s another ghost too, another young woman, who fell from the roof while running from an attempted gang rape. The drag queens initially cover up the deaths, and employ a number of methods to try and exorcise the ghosts. None of which work. Gradually they realise they need to avenge the ghosts if they’re going to get rid of them. There’s not much to say about this film. It was fun, even funny in places. Annoyingly, the quality of transfer varied throughout the film – some scenes were really high resolution, others were blocky and pixellated. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907


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Moving pictures 2018, #22

Sometimes, I even convince myself these posts must be taking the piss – I mean, there may be two films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list here, but both are pretty obscure… and they’re probably the least obscure of the half-dozen. Jancsó films I buy as soon as the come available. Colorful was lent to me, and A Silent Voice was added to my rental list when I wasn’t looking. And Penda’s Fen I stumbled across on Amazon, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go…

Silence and Cry, Miklós Jancsó (1968, Hungary). I’m a fan of Jancsó’s films, even if I don’t understand them half the time. Watching Silence and Cry, it felt like an early attempt at Red Psalm (see here), a film it precedes by four years. Like the later film it is set at the same farmhouse, and it has the same sort of flowing camera movement, following the cast as they move around. And, also like that film, the cast are never still. Even when in conversation, they continue to stroll around. However, Silence and Cry is set in 1919, not 1890, after a nationalist revolution against the communists in power. A troop of soldiers occupy the farm – it may be a village, as it contains several separate dwellings; I don’t know – unaware that one of the men who lives there was a member of a Communist battalion. For their own amusement, however, they force him to undergo demeaning trials. All of which comers to a head. Like Red Psalm, the characters are more stand-ins for the roles played by people in Hungary’s chequered past than they are actual characters. But given Jancsó’s predilection for filming against flat landscapes in which only sparsely scattered trees appear, or framing such landscapes in the doorways and windows of interior scenes, then their lack of depth seems entirely appropriate. Despite the staged fell to much of the story, Jancsó’s camera-work, almost continually on the move, gives the story a flow and urgency it would not other wise possess. As far as I’m concerned, Jancsó is one of the great directors. I’d definitely put him in my top ten greatest directors – in alphabetical order, at this moment in time, they’d probably be: Antonioni, Dreyer, Ghatak, Godard, Haneke, Hitchcock, Jancsó, Jia, Ozu and Sokurov (sadly, no female directors).

Colorful, Keiichi Hara (2010, Japan). David Tallerman lent me this as he seems to be on a mission to convince me anime is not all completely weird shit like Utena Revolutionary Girl (see here). I know that already, of course, but I’m not going to turn down the lend of a film worth watching. And, okay, I thought Colorful laid it on a bit thick, but it was a good film nonetheless. Some of the animation was really quite lovely. A soul is prevented from reaching heaven, and returned to earth to inhabit the body of a fourteen-year-old boy who has just committed suicide. A guardian angel tells him he has six months to figure what he did wrong in his former life, and to fix whatever led the boy whose body he is currently occupying to take his own life. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and after making a complete hash of everything – through a combination of his own self-centredness and his failure to make an effort to tackle the problems of his host body. Eventually, he is befriended by a fellow pupil, whose completely non-judgemental treatment of him, and indeed everyone, leads him to redemption… and the discoveries he needed to fulfil his contract with his guardian angel. Who offers him as a reward, a continued life, with no knowledge of the trial he has just undergone. I do like these sort of anime films – ie, the realistic dramas, not that the central premise of this one, with its A Matter of Life and Death conceit, is especially realistic – but when I worked my way through the Studio Ghibli films, I much preferred the high school drama ones, and that seems to be holding true for anime films in general.

Wanda*, Barbara Loden (1970, USA). I’m not sure why this made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It feels a bit like a John Cassavetes film – improvised, almost guerrilla film-making, about working-class Americans, very strong representation of women (I should like Cassavetes’s films more than I do) – but it’s not an ensemble piece, it’s not telling the story of a group, it’s telling the story of a single woman and it’s very much from her point of view, with entirely female gaze. That’s something you won’t find in Hollywood movies, and forty-seven years ago I suspect it was vanishingly rare in independent US film-making. The title refers to a woman who leaves her husband, does not contest custody of their kids at the divorce hearing, runs away with a one-night stand, only to be abandoned by him, before falling in with a bank robber and being forced by him to act as accomplice. For all that, like Cassavetes’s films, Wanda struck me as more admirable than likeable. Barbara Loden was best-known as an actress, and was married to critically-acclaimed and influential director Elia Kazan. But Wanda was made on a budget of $100,000, with a crew of four, and Loden as writer, director and star. That’s about as good a definition of vanity project as you can get. And, of course, not all vanity projects are ego trips with no redeeming qualities. I suspect Wanda is a more important film than a single viewing might suggest, and, of course, it doesn’t help that it’s a grim and depressing story… Apparently, Loden directed it because she could not interested anyone else – including Kazan – in doing so. It was critically well-received on release, but Loden died ten years later, at age 48, while preparing to direct her second feature film. After seeing Wanda, I must admit I’m now interested in seeing some of her other films roles.

Peking Opera Blues*, Tsui Hark (1986, China). I should have guessed what this film might be like since I knew the name Tsui Hark and had seen his Once Upon a Time in China (see here), but the title fooled me as I thought it might be more like Farewell My Concubine. It wasn’t. The story does feature Peking Opera, from which women were banned from performing, but it’s by no means the central plot. Peking Opera Blues is more of an action/comedy than it is a social drama. It’s set in the 1920s, and depicts the attempts by Sun Yat-Sen supporters to get hold of a document proving the emperor has borrowed money from Western bankers. The paper is held by a general, and his daughter is one of the supporters trying to steal it. Then there’s a young woman who had stolen a box of jewellery during a raid on another general’s house, but she lost it. While trying to hide from the general’s soldiers, the rebels hide out in an inn hosting a Peking Opera show. The impresario’s daughter gets caught up in the whole thing, helping to hide them, then assisting them in their several attempts to purloin the letter (did you see what I did there?). Other than the setting, and the three female leads, this is a typical Hong Kong action/comedy of the time. The fight scenes are good, there’s plenty of broad comedy, and the three leads – Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh – are especially good. But the final scenes set during a performance of the Peking opera troupe, in which the three women, and their male accomplices, have taken over some of the roles, is a lot of fun. I’m not sure if Peking Opera Blues deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – it’s a lot of fun, but is it there because it’s atypical for its type? Is that enough? Not, I think, when you consider all the films that belong on the list but aren’t there. Still, it’s worth watching.

A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan). This anime film I actually rented – only to discover after watching it that David Tallerman had stuck it on my watch list during one of our afternoons out in Shalesmoor. The story is relatively simple: a deaf girl joins a new school, is bullied by the other students, years later the biggest bully bumps into her, having spent years unable to deal with people because of guilt over how he treated her, and tries to kindle a friendship. Her willingness to forgive him, despite the the mockery of other members of the class whom he still runs into, helps him deal with his guilt, and he soon finds he can meet the gaze of other people – and they don’t much care about, or even know, what he did. However, the other members of that high school class are happy for him to carry the blame for their treatment of the deaf girl, and many still deny their own cruelty and hate him for forcing them to confront their own behaviour. There’s a lot about A Silent Voice that reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his latest, Your Name (see here), although A Silent Voice is straight-up drama that uses some elements that feel like genre to emphasise aspects of its story. Whereas Your Name uses a time-slip narrative, which is about as genre as you can get. Recommended.

Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK). The title refers to an area near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. A teenager, the son of the local vicar, is not liked by his peers, chiefly because he’s a priggish know-it-all whose ideas on religion appal his liberal low Anglican parents. The government is engaged in some secret project nearby – probably digging a secret nuclear bunker – and the locals have had several meetings on the topic, at which the chief opposition has been a playwright known for writing controversial television plays. The schoolboy, meanwhile, who is very irritating, has various fantastical encounters, including angels, Elgar, whose music features heavily, and eventually King Penda. This is good stuff – unassuming, but with real intelligence and depth. It was broadcast as a Play for Today in 1974, and written by David Rudkin. It’s very English, in the way that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood is very English, but it’s an England that’s as foreign to me as it would be to a non-Brit. My England is the run-down and neglected industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire. Their streets of terraced houses, mills and factories and works fallen into ruin, tap rooms and chip shops. The only mythology is that which attaches to generations of the same family working in the same industry. There are no sleeping kings at the bottom of a pit shaft. So I find films – or, technically, television plays – like Penda’s Fen almost as fascinating as I would a film set in, say, Mali, or China, or Greenland… Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 906