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Moving pictures, #37

I’m still working toward my entirely USA-free Moving picture post, but I’m not quite there yet…

sicarioSicario, Denis Villeneuve (2015, USA). I’d heard many good things about this film, although these days that doesn’t really give you any real indication of what to expect. It’s a thriller about the US-Mexican border and drugs and drug cartels. That tells you much more. Like, for example, it’s an essentially racist film. Every Mexican is either a gangbanger or an illegal immigrant. The only one that isn’t, a Mexican lawyer working with the US authorities, turns out to be an assassin bent on revenge. The message of the film seems to be the only way to beat the drug cartels is to descend to their level – ie, to tacitly admit that the rule of law has failed. This is pretty much implicit in the fact the operation which comprises much of the film’s narrative is planned and led by the CIA. Who are legally prohibited from operating on US domestic territory. But that’s not a narrative I’m prepared to accept. Treating Mexicans like subhumans, assassinating drug barons, and behaving like Wild West cowboys makes the good guys worse than the bad guys. You cannot win if you surrender the moral high ground. What makes it especially egregious is that there’s an easy way to solve the problem: legalise drugs. I fail to see how it can continue to be considered “political suicide”. The only explanation is that the illegal drug market earns so much it is in its interest to remain illegal, and those involved have bought sufficient politicians to keep the situation unchanged. Of course, it doesn’t help when popular culture valorises those who both supplying drugs and those break the law in order to prevent the supply of drugs. Because in order to create a hero, you need a villain for them to fight (but not necessarily defeat – because the War on Drugs is as unwinnable, and as just as much created and perpetuated by the forces of so-called law and order, as the War on Terror). This is not drama, it’s propaganda for the status quo. Films like Sicario have tendency to make me rant, which is why I dislike watching them. It nevertheless is a nice-looking film, and Emily Blunt is good in the lead role. But the story is a bag of shite, and a film that requires you to cheer for people who have willingly abandoned law and morality in order to achieve a suprious objective (and, in this case, a frankly objectionable, illegal and offensive, objective) leaves you little to like. Meh.

three_coloursThree Colours: Blue*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1993, France). Many years ago, I decided to widen my movie viewing by watching something highly-regarded that wasn’t your usual Hollywood output. I’d been subscribing to Sight & Sound for a few years, and over the decades I’d watched the occasional “arthouse film” or “world cinema” – if anything, I liked those sort of’films, which displayed different sensibilities and visions to those I’d grown up with. And so I came across Kieślowski, who was apparently regarded as a critics’ and directors’ director, and I dutifully bought all his available films in Artificial Eye DVD editions. And yes, they were good films, streets ahead of a lot of the stuff I was used to watching. Although Blind Chance didn’t do much more than other films using the same repeated-time premise had done, and while I really liked No End it felt like an aberration in Kieślowski’s oeuvre… But of all his works, the Three Colours trilogy is reckoned the best, and I duly bought it and watched each of the three films and thought them superior drama… Recently, Artifical Eye decided to release all of Tarkovsky’s films on Blu-ray for the first time, which reminded me they had already done so for some of Kieślowksi’s – so I decided to replace my DVD copies with Blu-ray editions, and… Juliette Binoche plays the wife of a composer who attempts to free herself of her life after her husband’s death in a car accident. But it proves much harder than she had anticipated. But with a Kieślowski film, it’s as much about the cinematography as it is the story – this is the film with the infamous sugar cube scene. I was surprised by what I’d remembered from previous viewings – the overall shape of the story had gone, but a sequence shot from the back offside wheel of a car had stuck with me, perhaps because it had struck me as a corny shot when I first saw it and still seems somewhat corny. But most of the rest of the film has that clarity of mise en scène you often see in French films (well, except perhaps in some of Godard’s more experimental movies), as well as the tight focus on a single character, usually an emotionally-damaged person. Blue is certainly excellent film-making, and Kieślowski’s reputation is well-deserved; but after watching the film it felt like a superior example of a particular type of film rather than a superior film. If that makes sense.

atlantisAtlantis Down, Max Bartoli (2010, USA). I bought this at the same time as the execrable Battle Tanker (see here), but it’s not that much better. The title refers to a Space Shuttle (surely by 2010 it was known the fleet was going to be retired? The last flight, by Atlantis, coincidentally, was in July 2011, after all). But not apparently in the world of Atlantis Down. A simple supply mission to several space stations goes awry when a bright flash strikes the Shuttle, and the crew mysteriously find themselves back on Earth… or is it? One member remained behind on the spacecraft, but the rest find themselves in a mysterious wood. And as they explore it, they’re killed off one-by-one in weird ways. It’s some alien experiment or something, but it’s also exceedingly derivative and dull. I forget what the actual point of the alien experiment actually was; I’m probably better off for not remembering. I do recall that the CGI Shuttle didn’t look right, that the Shuttle’s flightdeck appeared weird (the windows were above the crew’s heads), and that the references to “internal gravity” just made the whole thing sound stupid. Atlantis Down is not as bad as Battle Tanker, but that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s two wasted hours I could have better spent watching something by, say, Sokurov…

days_eclipseDays of Eclipse, Aleksandr Sokurov (1988, Russia). It’s not easy to love everything in a particular director’s oeuvre. Take Douglas Sirk, for example. All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, and I also love Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind. But Sirk also made a lot of forgettable films, like Taza, Son of Cochise or Battle Hymn. Aleksandr Sokurov is the director I most admire, and while I don’t love his films in the same way I love All That Heaven Allows, I do find them endlessly fascinating – and one or two I have watched repeatedly because they are so gorgeously filmed and yet so strangely resistant to parsing. Days of Eclipse is one of Sokurov’s better known films, albeit not in the Anglophone world as no English-subtitled edition has ever been released on DVD. It is also, unlike many of his other films, an adaptation of a novel, a science fiction novel, Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. But not an especially faithful adaptation – in the book, the main character is an astrophysicist and a mysterious force is interfering with his research; in the film, the main character is a doctor in a poor town Turkmenistan, and he discovers that religious faith appears to be improving the health of his parents. The movie is shot in a variety of different styles – mostly in a sienna-tinted monochrome, but occasionally in colour, and sometimes in straight black and white. If there’s a pattern to this, I didn’t spot it. The protagonist also unfortunately looks more like a member of a boyband than a Soviet physician, which is a little off-putting. But it’s certainly a film – like all of Sokurov’s – which bears repeated viewings and, in fact, pretty much demands them. I’m going to have to watch it again, for sure. At least it’s not one of the impenetrable ones which, typically, I tend to prefer as I can never figure out what’s going on in them. Days of Eclipse feels perversely straightforward. I still think Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently working, and I love the philosophical meditations of his documentaries… but his fictional films seem, to me, to succeed more the… more painterly they are. If that makes sense. The stories feel like snapshots, as though an encylopaedic knowledge is required to tease out and comprehend all the references. It makes for a viewing experience that leaves you wanting another viewing…and another one… and another one. I’m glad I finally got to see Days of Eclipse, even though I found it a little disappointing; but I’m extremely glad I have a copy of my own and can watch it again at my leisure. Which I certainly plan to do.

julietJuliet of the Spirits*, Federico Fellini (1965, Italy). When I bought myself copies of Casanova and Fellini Satyricon, I decided to chuck Fellini’s Roma onto the order despite having never seen it. I could have chosen Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) instead, since it was Fellini’s first film in colour and initially it looks on a par with the films mentioned… Fortunately, I didn’t. I liked Roma much more than I did Juliet of the Spirits. You see, there’s something I don’t quite get about Fellini’s films. The colour ones I’ve seen are hugely self-indulgent – it’s their chief appeal; and yet the black and white ones I’ve watched have not been as indulgent to the same extent. Except perhaps . And now I think about it, the whole trapeze thing in the final act of La strada is pretty self-indulgent… But Juliet of the Spirits is just as mad as Fellini Satyricon and Casanova, and just as much the product of a director who appeared to have free rein, and no desire to self-censor. It’s the complete antithesis of Hitchcock. At least it is in that respect. But Hitchcock apparently liked to build complicated sets on soundstages, and so too did Fellini – pretty much all of Juliet of the Spirits appears to take place on one. (I was also maused to spot in the openning titles that much of the film’s wardrobe had been supplied by Bri-Nylon.) The title character is married to a man who organises events and charity shows, and is also a serial philanderer. A series of encounters with a number of strange people guide her to a resolution with her husband. It would not be unfair to describe the film as a series of encounters with grotesques (in its original sense – the word derives from the statues placed in grottos in 15th century Italy), although the “caves” here are mostly over-furnished sets intended to be people’s homes, or a wood, or the beach, or…  Giulietta Masina is quite astonishingly good in the title role, appearing both knowing and wide-eyedly innocent. The artificial nature of some of the sets – their house, for example, appears to have an astroturf lawn – sometimes feels tonally wrong. And, to be fair, the whole occult element of the plot was totally lost on me. I would rate it higher than the black and white Fellini films I’ve seen – except for – but not as good as the other colour ones I’ve seen.

aar_paarAar Paar, Guru Dutt (1954, India). There’s this weird series of tonal shifts in many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. Apparently serious subjects are interrupted by song and dance routines, or unprompted moments of physical comedy. Aar Paar does sort of the reverse. It starts off as a comedy – a bit of light-hearted joshing as Dutt is released from prison, and while wandering the streets of Mumbai he pratfalls when he trips over the legs of a mechanic under a car… This last is Nicky, the love-interest, and that’s the “meet cute”. But Nicky’s father will have nothing to do with Dutt. He carries a message, as promised, from another prisoner to a local gangster… and so becomes embroiled in the gangster’s dirty schemes, while posing as a taxi-driver. But as he woos Nicky, and she comes to love him, against the wishes of her father, so a young woman working in the gangster’s bar falls in love with Dutt. And then it all turns serious, with Dutt coerced into being the getaway driver for a bank robbery because the gangster has kidnapped Nicky… And then Dutt, plus Bollywood regular Johnny Walker, decide to double-cross the gangster and rescue Nicky, leading to a Hollywood-style car chase and shootout. With songs, of course. I think th ereason I enjoy Dutt’s films is because he shows more of India than you see in more recent Bollywood films – the first song in Aar Paar features a series of women carrying water; compare that with the generic Westernised yuppie characters in Dil Chahta Hai. True, Aar Paar owes a lot of its story and story beats to Hollywood rather than Bollywood, but it’s still a very idiosyncratic approach to the material, and it’s also highly entertaining. I’ll be watching more by Dutt, I think.

outlawThe Outlaw, Howard Hughes (1943, USA). I think this one ended up on my rental list because I thought it was a Howard Hawks film – and so it is… sort of. It was actually directed by Howard Hughes, but Hawks was uncredited co-director. And, after all that, it seems the film is mostly famous for Jane Russell’s boobs. Hughes claims to have invented a push-up bra in order to make Russell’s bust more, er, well, more. But according to Wikipedia she never wore it. And, to add insult to injury, Russell plays a token over which the male characters fight but isn’t in the movie all that much. It’s actually about Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett – and although the last is a sheriff, I’m not entirely sure who the title refers to. Anyway, Russell tries to kill Billy in revenge for her brother but fails; later, after Billy has been wounded in a fight with Garrett, she nurses him back to health… and falls in love with him. But Holliday still wants his horse back – the theft of which kicked off the whole plot, although it being in the Kid’s possession didn’t prevent the two from becoming friends (Holliday and the Kid, that is). But it transpires Russell is also Holliday’s girl, so her falling for the Kid pisses him off. There’s a double-cross which sees her strung up to tempt the Kid back so Garrett and Holliday can capture him. And some gunfights. And mostly it felt like the sort of mythologising sexist rubbish Hollywood has always churned out about the Wild West, with nothing to lift it above any others of its ilk. I believe it is currently out of copyright, but I can think of no good reason why it should be remembered and celebrated.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 789


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Moving pictures, #36

Nope… FAIL. I started well… but then it all turned into US films. Admittedly, a few are classics but…

idaIda, Paweł Pawlikowski (2013, Poland). Despite his name, despite the fact this film was made in Poland, about a Polish subject, with a Polish cast and Polish money… the director is a Brit and his previous films were all set in the UK. None of which makes the blindest bit of difference, of course. If there’s a sensibility at play here, then it’s undoubtedly more Polish than British – and that’s not just because Ida was filmed in black and white and is paced more like East European “slow cinema” than it is, say, Gosford Park. All of which, to my mind, are good things. The title refers to an orphan about to take her vows at a convent. The mother superior tells her she has one living relative, an aunt, and she should visit her before making her final decision. Ida’s aunt proves to be a judge, and a decade before in the 1950s had a been a state prosecuter known as “Red Wanda” who sent men to their deaths at state show trials. Ida wants to learn what happened to her parents, so the two drive to the rural farm where the family lived. They were Jewish, but had been protected by the locals during the Nazi Occupation; but then one night they disappeared. The family who now run the farm – and had protected the family – are afraid Wanda and Ida want their property back, and are prepared to fight for it. But Ida is really about the relationship between Red Wanda and her niece, and while Ida herself is something of a blank – played by a non-professional in her first role – Agata Kulesza as Wanda quickly takes over the film and carries it through to her abrupt end. Ida was the first Polish film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and I think it’s on a later 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list than the one I’m using. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.

taalTaal, Subhash Ghai (1999, India). Bollywood films are now a regular part of my viewing. I admit I prefer the historical ones more than the current ones, but this one did have a good soundtrack. And from my limited experience to date, it seems most Bollywood films follow the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl. There’s also usually a class difference between the two, or at least something that makes the two lovers “star-crossed”. In this case, Akshaye Khanna is the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Aishwarya Rai is the daughter of a lowly folk singer. They meet cute (he nearly falls off a cliff, is saved by her, then inadvertently causes her to nearly fall off), and, er, fall in love, but his father is against the match, and insults her family when they visit in Mumbai. She goes off and becomes a pop star, using songs based on her father’s music, and pop-star/producer Anil Kapoor asks her to marry him. But Rai is still carrying a flame for Khanna, as he is for her; and Kapoor reluctantly realises this and gets the two back together again. So, pretty predictable stuff. But the song and dance routines are good, especially an extended number when Rai performs at a MTV Award ceremony in Canada. Fun.

dallasDallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée (2013, USA). Which is anything but fun. McConaughey apparently lost 21 kg to play the lead role, and he looks bloody awful. It’s quite off-putting. True, he’s playing a man who’s HIV+ and only a heartbeat away from full-blown AIDS… and has a lifestyle that includes heavy drinking and smoking and frequent drug use. But it’s what he does after his diagnosis which forms the plot of the film. Dallas Buyers Club is about the system Ron Woodroof – a real person, and this film is based on his life – put in place to obtain unapproved drugs to prolong his life as a HIV sufferer. He smuggled the drugs into the US by claiming they were for his personal use, and got around the law by not selling them but giving them away free to people who paid him $400 a month to be in his buyers club. It was not his idea – he picked it up from schemes being used in New York – but Woodroof did sue the FDA for the right to take one of the unapproved drugs he had been using. Much has been made of McConaughey’s side-kick in the buyers club, a transgender called Rayon, who was not a real person but based in part on a number of people known to Woodroof, and played by Jared Leto. To be honest, Dallas Buyers Club felt like a film of actors acting rather than a somewhat liberal-with-the-facts retelling of a person’s life- oh wait, of course, biopic… I mean, it felt like an artefact, not that it was helped by being about a bunch of not very nice people who had found themselves in a truly horrible situation not of their making. And while people certainly died because HIV treatment was ineffective and inadequate during the early 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club unhelpfully implies this was partly the FDA’s fault because it refused to approve drugs… Except pharmaceuticals need to be carefully regulated because without controls all manner of horrible shit would be killing desperate people in order to fatten the P&L accounts of Big Pharma. Dallas Buyers Club also apparently claims the drug Woodroof was originally prescribed is toxic and ineffective, but it’s not. And the treatment he self-administered is far less effective than the film claims. It’s bad enough to paint the FDA as the villains when they perform a vital role; it’s another to completely misrepresent drugs and drug regimens in service to drama. Meh.

twentieth_centuryTwentieth Century, Howard Hawks (1934, USA). For a film made only three-and-a-bit decades into the century, naming it for the entire 100 years is a bit of a hostage to fortune. Still, we’re talking Hawks here, and pre-Code, and screwball comedy – so it’s likely to be entertaining if nothing else. And so it proves. John Barrymore is a Broadway actor and producer, and he decides to turn lingerie model Carole Lombard into a Broadway star, despite her initial lack of apparent talent. He succeeds. Three years later, she plits from him, and his career goes into decline and he ends up in jail for debts. He escapes, disguises himself and catches the Twentieth Century train – the real source of the film’s title – from Chicago to New York. Also aboard is, of course, Lombard. The movie then turns into a drawing-room farce, only the drawing-room is very long but very narrow and is travelling across country at a high rate of speed. There are a number of running jokes featuring other passengers, such as a man known for writing cheques he can’t redeem, and he gives one to Barrymore. Of course, the plot runs along rails as set as the Twentieth Century itself, and the presence of a desperate Barrymore after one big hit and Lombard on the same train naturally leads to a new partnership and, if not a happy ending, at least one that could lead to happiness.

shanghaiShanghai Express*, Josef von Sternberg (1932, USA). When it comes to US films from the 1930s I’ll admit I’m frequently baffled why some made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and others didn’t. I could be charitable and suppose the list-makers hadn’t managed to watch every Hollywood film from the decade, but that would be unfairly assuming they’d skimped on their due diligence – I mean, you don’t produce a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die without making a serious effort to watch as many eligible films as possible. Perhaps it just comes down to value judgements – after all, “best is just subjective”… Except, of course it fucking isn’t, otherwise everything would mean nothing. But people respond differently to films, as I’ve certainly learnt during my informal project to watch all of the movies on the aforementioned list. So perhaps that’s it. True, I like me a 1930s screwball comedy much more than I like me a po-faced 1930s thriller, especially ones that wears its orientalism proudly on its sleeve and even uses “yellowface” in one of its lead characters. The title refers to a celebrated madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, who is on a train from Beijing (here called Beiping) to Shanghai during a civil war. Also on board are an ex-lover of Dietrich, a French general, a bible-basher, and a half-Chinese businessman. The last is played by Werner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan. And he proves to be more than a businessman, he’s actually a rebel warlord. And he takes the ex-lover, a British officer and brain surgeon on his way to operate on the governor-general of Shanghai, as hostage for one of his men taken by the Chinese authorities. It’s all very intense, and each character has a well-defined character arc… but you can’t help noticing that it’s played pretty damn insensitively and for all its star performances it’s still little more than Yellow Peril. If the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list must have a 1930s film set aboard a train on it, it’d have been better off with Twentieth Century – and I don’t think that’s a great film either.

road_to_gloryThe Road to Glory, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Not sure what happened here – the rental service must have suffered some sort of blip and sent me two Howard Hawks films from the thirties. But never mind. If the title of The Road to Glory reminds you of a later film by a certain Stanley Kubrick, the title is not the only thing the two (nearly) share. Both are set among French soldiers during World War I. And both far from glorify combat. However, where Kubrick’s movie was about three soldiers unfairly charged with cowardice, and the officer who fights to save them from the firing squad, The Road to Glory is about, er, two French Army officers who fall in love with the same woman. Oh well. I tend to think of Hawks as one of those directors who produced solid films with just that little bit more which showed he had a real eye for the medium. He was no auteur, but neither was he a workmanlike director. But that extra touch isn’t always evident in his movies. It’s there in Scarface, a handful of tricks and a certain eye in some of the scenes; but there’s little in The Road to Glory that doesn’t look like anything more than a dab hand at staging, lighting and blocking. I’ve watched quite a few of Hawks’s films by now, but I can’t say I’ve spotted a “Hawks vision”. Which is not something you can say of Hitchcock’s films. There’s something very distinctive about the way the Hitch staged and shot his movies, and if Hawks had an approach all his own I’ve yet to spot it. Perhaps I need to see more of his films. Perhaps no such thing exists.

battle_tankerBattle Tanker, Jeffrey Scott Lando (2011, USA). I spotted this in a charity shop and though it looked like the sort of thing put out by the Global Asymlum, I thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s shit. Really shit. There’s this mysterious weaponised substance called ICE-10, which has something to do with a meteorite that landed in the 1960s and something to do with anti-matter – like everything in this movie, it’s all confused bollocks. This ICE-10 is kept in a secure facility in Alaska, but they want to drill there so the US government has decided the safest place for it is at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The plan is to put the substance aboard an oil tanker, sail it to the trench, and then scuttle the ship. This is all helpfully explained… and the film abruptly cuts to the ship and it seems they’ve already gone and put the ICE-10 aboard and are halfway across the Pacific. We’re told the ship is a Very Large Crude Carrier, and the film’s title seems to confirm this, but VLCCs do not have holds with hatch covers because why would you put a giant deck hatch on a tank of oil? The ship is also entirely CGI, so it’s not like they couldn’t get it right – although it is very cheap and crap CGI. The interiors are just as bad, although at least they’re not tricked-out industrial plants. The character arcs and dialogue follow text-book story beats, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making the characters comes across as complete fucking idiots for most of the movie- oh wait, that’s how these sort of things work, you can’t have common sense in use too early because how else are you going to show that the characters have grown. Seriously, ban all recipes and templates from script-writing – it makes for shit movies. Having said all that, only a complete fucking idiot would expect Battle Tanker to be quality; and while I was expecting a piece of shit, it failed to even rise to those levels. At various points, the ICE-10 containment – the design of this on the monitoring software bore no resemblance to the actual CO2-wreathed hardware, suggesting a budget shortfall – is “vented”, which generates great clouds of anti-matter, or something, which makes things which encounter it blow up, such as US Navy cruisers, airliners, and, er, Honolulu… I found this DVD in a local charity ship, but I think the world would be a better place if, instead of returning it, I destroyed it.

1001 Movies you Must see Before You Die count: 787


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Moving pictures, #35

One of these days, I’ll put up one of these posts and it will not contain a single English-language film. But this time, I’m batting two from six for foreign-language films, which is an improvement on one from seven like my last Moving pictures post…

romaRoma, Federico Fellini (1972, Italy). When I picked up copies of Casanova and Satyricon, I decided to throw in Roma as well, even though I’d not seen it. I had thought, from the title and cover art (though, to be fair, I’d not looked especially closely at the latter), that Roma was set during, well, Roman times. Like Fellini Satyricon. I was, in fact, expecting something similar to that film, which is why I’d bought it – Fellini in all his 1970s indulgent colour. But it turns out Roma is about a young Fellini, who was actually from Rimini, arriving in Rome, and falling in love with the city. The end result is something which has the freedom and plotlessness of a New Wave film, but is in glorious colour and contains a strong thread of Fellini’s somewhat earthy humour. I had expected to like the film for the same reasons I’d like Fellini Satyricon – ie, because it was, basically, bonkers – but actually found myself liking it because it felt like a string of vaguely-related Nouvelle Vague scenarios shot with the sureness and control of a master director and in which the process of filming itself became one of the story’s narratives. One particular scene springs to mind: Fellini is filming something on Rome’s ringroad, and it begins to rain… Apparently, it was shot entirely on a soundstage, although it doesn’t look like it is. A featurette on the Blu-ray points out that a lot of the Roman locations were actually shot on soundstages – and that the same was true of many of the street scenes in Fellini’s . So there you go. I’d sort of added Roma to an order on a whim, but I liked it a lot and I’m glad I bought it.

futureworldFutureworld, Richard T Heffron (1976, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and while I can remember seeing Westworld, I wasn’t so sure if I’d ever seen this sequel. And having now watched it, I’m still not sure. Some bits seemed familiar, other bits didn’t. I suspect I probably did see it – the scenes with “Clark”, the robot rebuilt by the janitor, seemed familiar, and they’re not scenes that would normally be excerpted or trailed where I might have otherwise seen them. Anyway… after the oops-we-appear-to-have-killed-a-lot-of-our-paying-guests of Westworld, Delos is determined to push ahead with its robot-serviced fantasylands, and so has another go with a big promotional splash. Included in said splash are old-school newspaper reporter Peter Fonda and up-and-coming TV reporter Blythe Danner. Of course, there’s more going on than Delos’s PR department want people to know… Well, no, not really: the robots are perfectly safe, and are unlikely to run amuck and slaughter guests. Instead, Delos is planning to replace state and industry world leaders with robot replicas, although how people would tell the difference is never explained. Or indeed why they should be any different. Robot replicas reporting to a corporate overlord versus our current generation of politicians… Nope. Same thing. Aside from a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Blythe Danner has sex with rogue robot gunfighter Yul Brynner, Futureworld is a bog-standard 1970s sf film in which frankly rubbish sfx are married to a hackneyed plot that some sf author probably covered two decades before. It’s not like the production design is anything special either – and I really like 1970s production design. Meh.

endearmentTerms of Endearment*, James L Brooks (1983, USA). Jack Nicholson is an ex-astronaut and a sad ageing womaniser. Shirley Maclaine, after being introduced via an entirely pointless prologue featuring her and her daughter, Debra Winger, and their relationship, is Nicholson’s neighbour. For reasons he does not appear to understand, he invites her out for a drink. The two are initially repelled by each other, for, it must be said, fairly good reasons. But they too fall in love, and Maclaine somehow succeeds in rehabilitating Nicholson, although her own snobbery survives more or less intact. As for Winger, who swoops into the story at various points, as if her life and relationships are germane to the central plot and not episodes that interfere in the central relationship between Maclaine and Nicholson. Terms of Endearment apparently won five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay – which no doubt explains its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See  Before You Die list, but it is a pretty boring film. Maclaine is reasonably good, Nicholson does his usual gurning, Winger is good but her presence feels like an attempt to shoehorn a second plot in (perhaps it had more space in the original novel), and I totally forget who else was in the movie. I can at least now cross it off the list… but without any real sense of accomplishment.

red_desertRed Desert*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). This was a rewatch, and I normally don’t bother mentioning them – especially when I’ve written about the film before on this blog, as I did here… But Red Desert is so good, it’s one of my top ten films, and I rewatched it because I finally got around to upgrading my DVD copy to the Blu-ray edition and… It’s a beautiful film, it’s a painterly film. And it shines on Blu-ray. The film is all about industrial landscapes and their effect on the environment – as translated through Monica Vitti’s damaged character – and never has pollution looked so pretty. The scene where the group of friends gather in a hut on the jetty, and a ship draws up alongside… The ship seems even more over-powering, so close and so huge… It completely overshadows the sexual games the couples had playing in the hut earlier. The white fog which covers everything when they leave seems like a fitting commentary. Red Desert is a favourite film – hence the purchase of it on Blu-ray and this additional review of it – and it not only survived a rewatch, but the rewatch only increased my admiration for the film. A genuine piece of cinematic genius.

horizonswest11Horizons West, Budd Boetticher (1952, USA). When this dropped through the letter-box, I assumed I’d stuck it on my rental list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But it’s not. And it’s not a Howard Hawks western. So it must have been because it stars Rock Hudson. Except he’s not actually the star. Robert Ryan is the star. He and Hudson are brothers. After returning from the civil war (they were on the losinig side, you know, the side that thought it was okay to own slaves), they settle down to farm the family homestead. But Ryan has ambition. So he enlists the help of some local disaffected veterans, begins rustling cattle and selling them to the Mexicans, and so builds up a fortune. Raymond Burr plays the local grandee, who is a nasty piece of work, and provides additional motive to Ryan to earn his fortune – other, that is, than Burr’s wife, whom Ryan falls for, and who later proves the driver of his worse actions. Hudson meanwhile takes over as marshal and ends up attempting to bring his brother to justice. It’s an interesting situation, but it’s given the usual shallow Hollywood treatment. And there’s nothing else to recommend it. Missable.

shineShine*, Scott Hicks (1996, Australia). A biopic, and you know how much I love them… The subject in this case is David Helfgott, an Australian concert pianist. The film opens with Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush in fine form) demanding entrance to a closed restaurant during a storm… and over the course of the film he gets to know its staff, one in particular, and becomes a regular there playing the piano. He is a psychiatric patient, and it is a friend of one of the waitresses – Lynn Redgarve – who eventually marries him and so rehabilitates him. Before that, we have his history: his teen years as a gifted pianist, driven by his tyrannical father, arguments over competitions, over whether he can study in the US, his move to London to study at the Royal College of Music, his eventual breakdown and admission to a psychiatric hospital… This is a polished piece of biopic-ery, but I can’t honestly see anything in it that lifts it above others of its ilk. How it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a mystery. Which is hardly something I’ve no said before… I watched it, that’s enough. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 786


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Moving pictures, #34

Damn, more American films. Bit of a relapse here, although to be fair four of the US films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

pattonPatton*, Franklin J Schaffner (1970, USA). George C Scott won an Oscar for his portrayal of the title character in this biopic, although he famously refused to accept it. But the rest of the cast and crew were happy to accept Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Art Direction. In Best Film, it was up against Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story and M*A*S*H, so not an especially strong year (although the smart money would likely have been on M*A*S*H), because there’s not much in Patton that actually seems like Oscar-material. The script was written without the approval of the family and mostly from the memories of Patton’s friend and aide General Omar Bradley – and despite that still invented a number of incidents. It was filmed in Spain, and not in North Africa or Italy. The historical details are often inaccurate – it’s not just the use of tanks that weren’t built during WWII. but that the Luftwaffe only appears to possess two Heinkel bombers… and they weren’t capable of strafing the ground, which they do multiple times during Patton. Admittedly, the film was made before CGI – in the twenty-first century, they’d no doubt fill the skies with zillions of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters (which would, of course, be just as ridiculous). Patton was by all accounts an odd bloke, and Scott manages to get that across… but much of the film seems like little more than a spat between Patton and Montgomery as each chases after the glory of defeating the Axis. Hardly the most edifying motivations for waging war, but I guess it plays better than tactical and strategic opportunism. There are a vast number of WWII films, but there only a handful I’d rate, and this isn’t one of them. Watch Das Boot instead, or The Big Red One.

whiplashWhiplash, Damien Chazelle (2014, USA). Numerous positive reviews persuaded me to add to this my rental list, despite the subject not appealing. A student at a famous New York musical school is training to be a jazz drummer. He is talent-spotted by one of the lecturers, a well-regarded composer – and an abusive arsehole. And the film is all about how he abuses the student – and the other students in his jazz band. It’s one of those films where you can recognise how well it was played by its cast, and how well-written the story, but you still wonder why the fuck you watched it. JK Simmons – probably best-known in this country as Dr Skoda from Law & Order – plays the composer, who is a real nasty piece of work… and he thinks his methods are justified because only by driving people to breaking point are true muscial geniuses made. Which is, of course, complete bollocks. But, of course, the student initially responds to Simmons’s abuse, before eventually being pushed too far and cracking. And dropping out of music altogether. Only to later bump into Simmons, accept his flattering offer of drumming for his band at a jazz festival – but it’s all a trick to humilate the ex-student on stage, except he then turns the tables, which segues into one of the longest and most boring drum solos ever recorded (and I say that despite being a fan of prog). Whiplash was not a film I would normally have watched, and I can’t say I’m glad I watched it. Put it down as one of those films or books that you don’t like even though you recognise that they’re good (because, of course, how you respond to a work is an entirely different thing to its actual quality). Meh.

wingsWings*, William A Wellman (1927, USA). This was the first film to ever win an Oscar, which is of course about as much an indication of quality as winning the first ever Hugo. And yet… I believe Wings has a somewhat mixed critical legacy, but I admit rather enjoyed it. True, Clara Bow was somewhat clumsily inserted into the plot, and it showed. And, bizarrely, although it’s Gary Cooper’s first appearance on film, he looks pretty much the same as he did throughout his entire career. Basically, two rivals for the love of the same woman join up when the US finally decides to enter WWI (please don’t call it the 17-18 War, it erases the three years of fighting by all the other nations that were involved). During basic training as pilots, the two beat each other to a pulp and so become fast friends. They are shipped to Europe, where they begin flying sorties against the Germans. On one such sortie, one of them is shot down. But he manages to steal a German biplane to return to the allied line… only to be shot down and killed by his best mate. Wings is justifiably praised for its aerial sequences, which are pretty impressive for a 1927 silent movie – and, I suspect, would still have been impressive had the film been made fifty or sixty years later. Perhaps the romantic triangle – the two male leads and Jobyna Ralston; Clara Bow is the over-looked love interest – is hoary and clichéd, even for the 1920s, and perhaps the trench warfare doesn’t resemble depictions since put on celluloid or, er, televisual æther, but those are minor quibbles – the film is called Wings because it’s about a pair of aviators, and in that area it scores highly. Worth seeing.

educationAn Education, Lone Scherfig (2009, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since it’s on at least one edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I gave it a go. It’s based on a memoir by a British journalist, who, apparently, was seduced as a sixteen-year-old by a thirtysomething con man and so was introduced to a life she had only previously dreamt of – sort of. Teacher-pupil romances are nothing new, and have been a staple of literature and cinema for centuries (well, at least one century), but there is still something skeevy about a man in his late thirties in a relationship with a 16-year-old schoolgirl. An Education is set in the 1960s, when, we are supposed to believe, “things were different”, as if that’s supposed to excuse them… Although, of course, such relationships likely still happen today. I note that only recently – in 2016, for fuck’s sake! – has Virginia made it illegal for men to marry 12-year-old girls. Anyway, the heroine of An Education, Carey Mulligan, is clever and plans to go to Oxford – but after falling for the oleaginous charms of smooth talker Peter Sarsgaard (who does a pretty good British accent, it must be said), she drops out of school. After several adult adventures, including a dirty weekend in Paris, she learns he is already married – and tries to return her previous life, except it’s not that easy (but she succeeds anyway). An Education was slick and sixties and about as believable as an episode of Danger Man. It feels like a watered-down version of The Servant, without the menace, the suspense or the commentary on class and society. Meh.

touch_sinA Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China). This is on later editions of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (obviously it hadn’t been released when they put together the 2013 edition of the list), but it sounded like it was worth renting… And so it proved. It’s bloody good, easily the best film of the seven in this post. I’ve not seen anything by Zhangke before, but I’ll be adding his other films to my rental list. A Touch of Sin comprises four stories, all based on real events, and linked only by the similarity of their documented effects on those involved. In the first, a man in provincial town rebels against the rich man who has bought the village’s coal mine but not redistributed its riches as promised. The episode opens with a violent encounter and ends with one. The second episode is the slightest of the four and details one man’s murderous robbery spree. The third has a young woman travel to a provincial town, where she ends up working as a receptionist in a massage parlour. But when a local VIP demands she “service” him and tries to rape her, she responds violently. The final story is the most interesting. A young man leaves his job after inadvertently causing an industrial accident – the employer assigns his wages to the injured party as recompense – and ends up working as a host and waiter in a hotel catering to rich businessmen from Hong Kong. He then leaves that job and goes to work in a factory. Shortly afterwards, he commits suicide. China apparently has a very high rate of suicide, and the fourth story is based on one company where 18 employees attempted suicide (14 succeeded) within a year. This is the unadvertised cost of your cheap computers and and smartphones (not to mention the pollution). Western consumers are happy to accept the low prices resulting from company practices which lead to 18 staff suicides in one year, but then have the gall to moan about these products no longer being manufactured in Western countries. But don’t worry, people of the West! Soon, you will have a nation populated entirely by workers on zero-hour contracts with no rights, where only the air is free, and the environment, well, companies won’t have to siphon off funds from CAPEX to make sure the birds and bees don’t fall out of the sky. So you’ll still get your cheap smartphones and tablets, and on the back they’ll say “MADE IN ENGLAND”. Ahem. A Touch of Sin (a daft title, and the deliberate nod to A Touch of Zen does it no favours) is a beautifully-shot and altogether real study of the effects of capitalism on China. Recommended.

living_deadNight of the Living Dead*, George A Romero (1968, USA). I think I did this wrong – I watched Dawn of the Dead before watching Night of the Living Dead. Both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve no idea why I did it in that order. Okay, dawn comes before night, but Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978 but Night of the Living Dead was Romero’s first film and released a decade earlier. Also, I don’t get zombies. I don’t get the appeal, I don’t get the position they occupy in Anglophone 20th/21st-century culture. I didn’t, for example, even realise that the big thing about 28 Days Later is that the zombies run. So fucking what. In Night of the Living Dead, a couple visit the woman’s mother’s grave in a cemetery. A zombie attacks them and kills the man. The woman finds refuge in a house with a black man with a good head on his shoulders (a rarity in US cinema back in 1968). It transpires there are also people hiding in the cellar. Zombies attack the house. They fight them off. An escape attempt goes badly wrong. People die. Yawn. This is allegedly a classic of the genre, and for an independent film it has a couple of things to recommend it. But I suspect it’s one for fans of the director and/or zombie films; and not for me.

vietnamGood Morning, Vietnam*, Barry Levinson (1987, USA). Is there no phrase in cinema more likely to cause the heart to sink than “biopic”? Well, “directed by Chris Columbus”, perhaps. Or “from the producers of…”, as if the ability to bring in a film on time and on budget is any kind of artistic recommendation. Except, well, Good Morning, Vietnam, isn’t actually a biopic. Adrian Cronauer was a real person, and he really was a DJ in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He tried pitching a sitcom based on his experiences to TV networks, but tyey – conveniently forgetting that M*A*S*H was one of the most successful sitcoms of the time, and so proving that television executives have always been remarkably stupid – turned it down as they didn’t think war a fit subject for comedy. So Cronauer wrote a TV movie script, which passed across Robin Willams’s desk, and Williams liked it so much he turned it into a film project. The actual plot of the film, Cronauer has said, bears very little resemblance to his actual experiences; and all of Williams’s on-air performances were improvised during filming. Which does make you wonder why they bothered basing it on a real person. Or insisted it was true. After all, back in 1987 there was no social media, there was no “post-truth” politics; back then, words meant what the dictionary said, expertise was valued, and demagoguery had not been successful since 1930s Germany. Still, at least Williams got a shedload of award nominations out of Good Morning, Vietnam, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 784


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Moving pictures, #33

Again, more US films than I really would like to be watching. True, over half of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is American, and when I’m looking for brainless entertainment to watch of a Saturday night with a bottle of wine in hand, then the US provides more suitable films than any other nation but… I’d seriously like my movie viewing to be more global, and though I’ve been making an effort in that direction, it sometimes feels like I’ve not been assiduous enough… Oh well. Most of my favourite films and directors are not from the US, and my DVD/Blu-ray collection now certainly comprises more world cinema than Hollywood…I’m getting there.

elephantElephant*, Gus Van Sant (2003, USA). You know that thing they have in the US, and that keeps on happening, where someone walks into a place and shoots everyone, because civilised nations banned guns the first time it happened but the US is happy to sell assault rifles to any lunatic with a dollar bill… Elephant apparently started life as a documentary about a real school shooting, but turned into a fictional representation of one. The film follows the victims, witnesses and perpetrators, often criss-crossing timelines, which is quite an effective technique. But the film itself offers no commentary on its subject, other than showing the shooters being bullied by jocks. Which is weak. I mean, it’s not hard to condemn either the shooters, the culture which persuaded them shooting their peers was a conceivable response, or the society which allowed them access to the weapons to do so. But Van Sant does none of these. He humanises the victims – which is the weakest argument of all against such atrocities. We know they’re human, we know they are just like us. We also know the perpetrators are little different to us. What we want to know is: why was this allowed to happen? And what is being done to prevent it? In the US, the answer to both appears to be: very little.

evangelion_3Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). The Evangelion films are re-workings of the Neon Genesis Evangelion OVA, but rather than distillations of that 26-episode series they feel more like isolated excerpts from it, ie random episodes from a much longer story. I like that the films make no concessions to their viewers, and that despite their basic plot of high-school kids piloting mecha in fights against giant aliens, there’s so much more going on that’s left for viewers to puzzle out: the world-building, the relationships between the characters, the technology, even the family dynamics for those characters who are related to each other… In this movie, the action takes place fourteen years after the explosive end of Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. Shinji and Evangelion Unit 01 have been drifting in orbit. He is rescued by WILLE and fitted with an explosive collar. Only it turns out WILLE is fighting NERV, and they have a, er, flying battleship. Which is now powered by Evangelion Unit 01 (there are around a dozen Evangelion units by this point). And then it sort of gets a confusing, with some cast members carried over from the earlier films, and entirely new ones to figure out as well. Not to mention a circuituous route, via the weird dynamics between the Evangelion pilots, to a final battle scene, which triggers another apocalypse… I’m going to have to watch this again – if not all three films – before I truly figure out what’s going on. It’s all made for an odd viewing experience. Although superficially the same, and sharing a design aesthetic, the three movies manage to present three episodes of one story-arc in three tonally different ways. The fourth and final film is due Any Day Now, having postponed several times since its original release date in 2013.

barbarianThe Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand (2003, Canada). Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but this sequel is on a different one. I’d not been that impressed by the first film – it seemed almost a parody of an independent movie, a group of characters sitting around moaning about the state of the world – so I can’t say I was especially keen on seeing this sequel. But I must have stuck it on my rental list, and subsequently forgotten about it, because it arrived and I watched it and… It’s just as dull. It’s set seventeen years after The Decline of the American Empire, which was released in 1986, and features most of the same cast. Rémy has terminal cancer, and his family – especially his son, a financier living and working in London – and his friends (from the earlier film) come to visit him. There’s a lot about the Canadian national health system being over-stretched and ineffective, but I can’t decide if that’s done deliberately in order to enable the plot (rich son pays for expensive treatment in US), or some kind of commentary on public healthcare. There’s also a number of scenes of the friends sitting around and talking, a lot of which is reminiscences. I found it all a bit uninvolving, much as I did The Decline of the American Empire. Meh.

robinsonRobinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I really liked Keiller’s earlier two films, London and Robinson in Space, and was expecting much the same of this one. But it was so much better. It has the cinematographic beauty that comes from well-placed static shots like in Benning’s films tied to a clever voice-over narrative like something out of an Adam Curtis documentary. This time Vanessa Redgrave narrates, as the lover of the narrator, and Robinson’s friend, in the earlier two films. Robinson in Ruins opens with Robinson’s release from prison, and then describes his journey through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, remarking on the things Robinson found and their history and how it all links in to the UK’s current economic malaise (current as of 2010, of course; we all know who exactly who – Osborne’s damaging and ineffective “austerity” aside – is responsible for the UK’s economic woes in 2016). I liked London and Robinson in Space a lot, but Robinson in Ruins is so much better. Perhaps its because it’s nearer in time than those two earlier times. True, I remember Tory Britain from 1979 to 1997 (although I was abroad for the last three years of it). Of course, 2010 saw the end of thirteen years under New Labour, although Robinson in Ruins is more about the damaging effects of big business and capitalism, and the corruption in which its naturally embedded, than it is economic policies. I suspect I will be watching this again before the end of the year, and it might well make my top five best of the year by December…

misfitsThe Misfits, John Huston (1961, USA). This was both Clark Gable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, and when it arrived from the rental service I assumed I’d stuck it on my list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – except it isn’t, at least not the 2013 edition, which is the one I’m using. So I’m somewhat mystified as to why I stuck it on my rental list. Because it’s not that interesting. Monroe plays a somewhat flighty divorcee, Gable plays an ageing cowboy, the two fall in love. There’s Montgomery Clift as a rodeo cowboy who hooks up with them, and Eli Wallach as Gable’s friend, who’s a mechanic and flies a biplane. Gable and Monroe’s relationship falters when Gable decides to go capture some wild horses in the hills (to sell for dog food). He, Monroe and Wallach, plus Monroe’s friend Thelma Ritter, head off to a rodeo to find a third cowboy and so meet Clift. It all feels a bit like a cynical attempt to plug into some US myth or other, not to mention trading on its two marquee name stars. Gable is good, but Monroe looks like she’s sleepwalking half the time – and by all accounts, it was a difficult shoot as she often turned up late, and sometimes never at all. Clift isn’t too bad, although he doesn’t quite convince as a dim-witted cowboy. The final act, where the five – Wallach in a biplane, the rest in a pickup – try to round up half a dozen wild horse, and Gable gets dragged across the desert by a mare, feels somewhat over-stretched. Meh.

red_riverRed River*, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). I honestly thought I’d already seen this – I mean, I’d seen a several Hawks westerns starring John Wayne, and I was pretty sure this was one of them. But apparently not. Of course, it’s not that easy a call, given Hawks’s penchant for remaking his films under new titles… Wayne plays a typical Wayne character, who leaves a wagon-train, and his sweetheart, which is bound for California, to head south to claim land in Texas, accompanied only by a grizzled old man and a pair of steers (one male, one female, of course). Later that day, they see smoke on the horizon and dash back to discover the wagon-train destroyed by Native Americans and everyone killed. There is only one survivor, a traumatised boy called Matt. The three continue south, Wayne finds his land and claims it, killing a representative of a Mexican don who has title from the King of Spain (so much for international relations…). The film then jumps forward fourteen years, Matt has grown up into Montgomery Clift, and Wayne looks more like himself than Ronald Reagan (as he did earlier). Wayne’s ranch has proven successful and he has thousands of head of cattle. But no money. The just-ended civil war saw to that. So he needs to take his cattle to the nearest railhead in Missouri hundreds of miles away to sell them. There’s a nearer railhead in Kansas, but since no one has actually been there and see it, Wayne refuses to head that way. His high-handed tactics during the drive end up with Clift challenging him, taking over the drive and heading north along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. Fortunately, the rumoured railhead exists, and Clift gets an excellent price for the cattle. Wayne then turns up. ready to kill him, they have a big fist-fight, and make up. It’s all very manly, and just like you’d expect the Wild West to be. Of course, having seen a number of Westerns, I’m aware of the way cattle barons like Wayne’s character treated homesteaders and settlers, and that’s not even mentioned – in fact, the only town in the film is the Kansas one at the end. Admittedly, the cattle drive is pretty impressive… although the use of sound-stages for the campfire scenes do spoil all that location shooting a bit. I’m not that much of a fan of Westerns (see my comments on the genre in previous Moving picture posts), and I understand that the Chisolm Trail was historically important, and that Red River makes a good story of it, but it’s all a bit too macho and one-sided for me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before YOu Die count: 780


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Moving pictures, #32

Definitely a mixed bag this time around. Perhaps a few too many from the US, but a couple from India as well. Plus Korea and Italy.

The-Good-The-Bad-The-Weird-2008-Front-Cover-1554The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim Jee-woon (2008, Korea). The title of this film pretty much clues you into its story – yes, it’s a Western, but a weird one, and very much Korean. And, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of fun and pretty good to boot. There’s a treasure map, which a Japanese official is carrying from China to Japan. But while crossing a Manchurian desert, his train is attacked by the Bad, who has been sent by the map’s owners to retrieve it. However, also attacking the train is the Weird, who manages to get the map first – although he doesn’t realise what it is or its value. Then the Good, a bounty hunter, turns up to kill the Bad, but instead gets caught up with the Weird as he escapes the Bad’s goons. And so it goes, as the Bad catches up, they have shoot-outs and fights, before the two manage to escape yet again… and eventually decide to make for the treasure. En route, the Good reveals that he’s after the Bad because he’s the “Finger Chopper”, a notorious criminal back in Korea. Eventually, the three of them arrive alone at the treasure… except the treasure is not what they’d expected. The fight choreography is done well – and there’s plenty of it – and the story has a somewhat off-kilter sensibility that plays entertainingly. I’d forgotten I’d put this on my rental list, and when it popped through the letter-box I was expecting it to be a bit meh, but I really enjoyed it. A better-than-average popcorn movie.

liberty_valanceThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance*, John Ford (1962, USA). There are a lot of westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and I’m not an especially big fan of the genre. A few I’ve enjoyed, one or two I’ve even bought copies for myself. But most are, for me, Sunday afternoon viewing, enjoyable enough to watch but you’ve forgotten them ten minutes after the credits rolled. I get that they’re US mythology, that they’re predicated on tales of strong manly men being strong manly men and winning against all odds, but to be honest I find that Hollywood macho bullshit tiresome at best. I do, however, love the landscape in which these stories take place, and I value films which make a proper meal of it. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sadly does anything but – it was shot entirely on a soundstage. But it does offer an interesting spin on the whole idea of Wild West mythology… although it pretty much reduces it to a single line, and then spends the entire film justifying that line. Which is, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Jimmy Stewart plays a lawyer who travels west and settles in the rough town of Shinbone. En route he is waylaid by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the local gunslinging hoodlum. Stewart vows justice – but legal justice. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the local stand-offish hard man, warns Stewart that law books are not going to do it. And so it proves. Marvin continues his reign of terror, Stewart teaches literacy to many of the towns folk (including love interest Vera Miles), and Wayne pines after Miles and gets angry with Stewart for stealing her heart. Then Stewart goes into politics, upsetting Marvin who engineers a shoot-out. But Stewart shoots and kills Marvin. Or does he? There’s little to admire in the story of this film, with its tale of rule by strength and politics corrupted by money. By all accounts, it was also a horrible shoot. Ford constantly belittled Wayne, and at one point even turned on Stewart. It sometimes astonishes me that little of the hardships of making some films comes through in the final product, which is, I guess, a testament to the professionalism of those involved. You can’t tell watching a film whether it was a happy shoot or an absolutely miserable one. And, to be honest, I think we viewers should know. The end does not justify the means. The fact that Ford made a bunch of people’s lives a misery so someone else could make pot loads of money is, when you think about it, pretty offensive. Film is a far more collaborative medium than writing… but the various media all take care to hide the tribulations of the creative process… because, of course, they’re selling product. Still, that’s capitalism for you…

19001900, Bernardo Bertolucci (1976, Italy). I think I saw this on one of the alternative 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lists – ie, not the 2013 edition – so it was either dropped before, or added later… and I’m not entirely sure why it was there in the first place (I seem to say that a lot about the films I’ve watched). It’s certainly epically long, 317 minutes in fact, and was originally released in two parts. It tells the story of two men, the son of a padrone and the son of one of his workers, from the late nineteenth century through to the end of the Second World War. The padrone, Robert De Niro, comes to an uneasy alliance with the fascists, but the worker’s son, Gerard Depardieu, becomes a communist and fights them. Donald Sutherland plays the foreman hired by De Niro who becomes a full-fledged fascist, black uniform and everything. The film mixes the historical with the personal, sometimes to good effect, but often the focus is too tight on unlikeable characters and the relationship of the scene to the grander sweep of the narrative seems lost. One example is a sequence in which Sutherland accidentally kills the young nephew of the padrone… and the death, subsequent hunt for the “missing” boy and discovery of his body is used to illustrate the ignorance, ruthlessness and expediency of the fascists without actually making them any more villanous than they already had appeared to be. Having said all that, I wasn’t especially convinced by the three leads’ performances, although Depardieu seemed the best of the trio. And there were far too many moments when it all seemed a bit overwrought, everything turned up to eleven… only for the narrative to move on and dial things down to something more appropriate. As far as I could determine, the point of the movie was the move from the old system of landed aristocracy – the padrones – to something more equitable, in which the people owned the land they worked – with a somewhat violent diversion via the fascists, who picked up on the general malaise and incorporated it into their rhetoric but actually did very little to address it (UKIP voters, take note: this is how fascism operates). As a result, the ending, in which De Niro is cast down, and Depardieu uplifted, doesn’t really feel like a consequence of the preceding five hours… This is not helped by the film opening with a scene from near the end, so that the movie is actually one long flashback sequence. Meh.

river_titasA River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I watched it back in November 2014; and so too is his The Golden Thread, but that’s apparently – annoyingly – not available on DVD. Anyway, I’d thought The Cloud-Capped Star good enough to want to see more by Ghatak and, in the fullness of time, A River Called Titas was sent to me by one of my rental services. The film is one of those which comprises many interlocking stories (Wikipedia claims it was one of the first to do so – in 1973? Really?), all based around life in the villages on the banks of the eponymous river. One main narrative thread tells of a young woman kidnapped on her wedding night, but after she escapes from her captors she realises she has no idea who her husband is or where he lives. The movie takes a while to get started, and the quality of the original black and white stock was plainly quite poor – as is the audio quality – but the various weaving in and out of people’s stories soon proves captivating. I seem to rememember The Cloud-Capped Star being quite grim, and so is this in places, but the overall effect felt far more cheerful. There was also some excellent cinematography, especially of the river, as there was in the earlier film. I liked this so much, I’m considering getting copies of both of Ghatak’s films released by the BFI (except, WTF, copies of The Cloud-Capped Star are now £80…*); and I also fancy reading the source novel of the same title by Bengali writer Adwaita Mallabarman.

aar_paar_1Aar Paar, Shakti Samanta (1985, India). After being impressed by Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (see here) and Kagaz Ke Phool (see here), I decided to buy a copy of his Aar Paar… but the seller screwed up and sent me this 1985 film of the same title instead. When I pointed out their mistake, they told me to keep the DVD sent in error and they also sent me the correct one. As for Samanta’s Aar Paar… it’s pretty much what you’d expect a not very good Bollywood film to be like. True, the Bollywood films I’ve seen so far have been considered good ones, and I’ve enjoyed them; but Aar Paar was definitely like a cheap version of them. I can’t even remember the story – in fact, I think there were several of them, I’m not sure. I remember a number of really badly choreographed fight scenes in which it sounded like they were fighting with exploding fists. There were, of course, several song and dance numbers, one of which I seem to recall took place on a boat. And there was a villain with greased-back hair. And the hero was not only fighting for the love interest but also for social justice – something to do with the fishing industry, in this case. This is one of those films that goes in one eye and out the other, and also goes reasonably well with popcorn and beer because it doesn’t much matter if you’re not following it. Miss ten minutes and you can pick up what’s going on within thirty seconds. It was fun, kinda, but if I hadn’t been sent it by mistake I’d never have bothered to seek it out to watch. [0]

rosemaryRosemary’s Baby*, Roman Polanski (1968, USA). Polanski’s actions leading to his current legal status in the US aside, I’ve never really understood why he’s held in such a high regard as a director. Okay, Repulsion was good, and Chinatown is a classic – but the latter at least is a result more of its script than its direction. And so to Rosemary’s Baby of which… I can remember very little and it’s only been a week or so since I watched it. Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, and John Cassavetes her husband (which is a little odd as I know him primarily as a director), and the two have this weird friendship with an older couple (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) after they move to a new apartment… Rosemary gets pregnant, but it doesn’t go well, and her doctor is somewhat horrified to learn that the weird neighbours have been feeding her “tannis root” and… I must have fallen asleep or something because apparently there was all this Satanic stuff and I missed it. I suspect I’m going to have to watch this film again, but I really don’t want to. What I do remember hardly endeared it to me, or persuaded me it was worth greater study. Perhaps if I stumble across a copy for 99p in a charity shop, I might buy it and watch it again, but otherwise it’s Polanski and… Meh.

pickupPickup on South Street*, Samuel Fuller (1953, USA). A year or so ago, I’d never even heard of Samuel Fuller, and now I find myself something of a fan of his films – albeit only on the strength of having seen five of them. This one is noir, and pretty typical in its following of the forms, except… it’s all about secrets stolen to sell to the communists. Cold war noir. It’s a pretty typical Fuller film (and I say that despite my limited experience) inasmuch as he wrote and directed it, and it feels like he banged it out much as a pulp fiction writer would bang out simplistic moral tales which hooked onto the current Zeitgeist. There’s no denying Fuller’s technical proficiency (or indeed technical creativity – cf The Big Red One), amd his ability to craft taut and well-plotted noir stories certainly seems to deserve more credit than it gets – although, to be fair, this is the third film by Fuller to be given the Masters of Cinema treatment, so perhaps that last comment is unfair. But there is something impressively hermetic about Fuller’s plots, they’re not just ur-noir, they’re pretty much ur-cinema. They are without indulgence, just pure dialogue and tight visuals in service to a self-contained story. Truth to tell, the actual story feels almost incidental – in this particular movie, the microfilm of top-secret information is no more than a maguffin. But that matters not a jot. I mean, there’s solid entertainment, and then there’s a film which is so tightly-packed it’s like neutronium or something. I bought this, rather than rented it, and it was a fine purchase. [dual]

1001 Movies You Miust See Before You Die count: 779

* Not wanting to miss out on A River Called Titas, given the price now asked for The Cloud-Capped Star, I went and bought it. But then I did a bit of hunting and discovered copies of The Cloud-Capped Star were still available from the BFI shop for the RRP, so I ordered one. It’s annoying, but apparently my tastes are so fringe I need to buy stuff I want straight away, because once it’s deleted/out-of-print it’s going to cost ten or twenty times more. Gah.


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Moving pictures, #31

Bit of an odd bunch, this. Nothing from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A few rentals, a couple from my own collection, a charity shop find, and one I found on Amazon Prime and initially thought was bloody awful but found myself enjoying by the end of it.

nebraskaNebraska, Alexander Payne (2013, USA). Bruce Dern is a crotchety old man, not entirely all there, who receives a letter telling him he’s been entered into a draw for $1 million and he thinks it means he’s won the prize. So he heads south to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Billings, Montana… Or rather, he tries to, as he can’t drive. After several attempts to walk south to Lincoln, Dern’s youngest son reluctantly agrees to drive him to collect his “winnings”. The family all know there’s no prize money, but all they can do is humour Dern. En route, the pair stop off in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Dern’s home town. Once his family and old friends discover Dern is rich, they all want a piece of the money. Which doesn’t exist, of course. Dern is great in the lead role, and Will Forte – also responsible for the fucking awful MacGruber – puts in a good turn as his son. But it’s Dern’s film, and he’s more than up to the job. It’s filmed in black and white, which initially feels like an affectation, but soon seems to suit the material. Payne is not a director I especially rate – his previous movies I’ve seen have all been lightweight Hollywood comedies – but Nebraska is actually not bad. Like many films which show working-class white Americans, it demonstrates they can be not very nice people – while also suggesting they’re worse than depicted. The same might be said of working-class Brits, of course; or indeed those of any nation. But there is a particular mix of wilful ignorance and uncritical patriotism which seems characteristic of the white American working-class which is really unpalatable.

ship_of_foolsShip of Fools, Stanley Kramer (1965, USA). A group of assorted characters are crossing the Atlantic just prior to World War II, hoping for Oscars in what they hope might be, in 1965, an Oscar-bait movie. The star-studded cast says so, the weighty themes say so, filmed in black and white says so, the 149 minutes running time says so… In the event, Ship of Fools was nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, but won only for Best Art Direction – Set Direction Black and White and Best Cinematography Black and White. Having now seen the film, I’m not surprised. It’s so full of itself, it’s astonishing the ship didn’t sink the second the director shouted “Action!”. As is the case in most ensemble films, there are a variety of interlocking plots being worked out. They’re supposed to have added weight because the voyage takes place just before the outbreak of WWII and José Ferrer’s character is a straight-up German Nazi. Then there’s the Jew, with the mordant sense of humour, whose misplaced optimism seems somewhat tasteless. And Vivien Leigh was apparently suffering full-blown paranoia, but managed to put in a passable performance. Oskar Werner plays the good German – on the one hand, he’s trying to improve the conditions of the passengers in steerage; on the other, he’s feeding La Condesa’s drug habit. The film was apparently adapted from a 1962 novel by Katharine Anne Porter, who based it on a journey she actually took across the Atlantic in 1931. It took her 22 years to write the book. Porter was apparently disappointed with the film. I’m tempted to try the novel, but I can’t recommend the movie.

faithWinter Light, Ingmar Bergman (1963, Sweden). A married couple live happily in a small Swedish village, and the local vicar is their very good friend. They consult him on all manner of things, and he sets their hearts at rest every time… Of course not. This is a Bergman film. It’s not cheerful. It’s as miserable as the most miserable-looking git caught without an umbrella in a cold and miserable thunderstorm. I don’t think cheerful was in Bergman’s cinematic vocabulary. What Winter Light is, is the study of a married couple who are suffering existential qualms due to China’s development of an atomic bomb, and who are not comforted by their local vicar’s words of reassurance. But then the vicar has his own problems, chief among which is an ex-lover he no longer loves… And then the husband of the couple shoots himself and… I’m reminded to some extent of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, which also has a plot enabled by the threat of atomic bombs (the phrase “atomic bomb” sounds so much better than “nuclear bomb” – the former sounds like a wonder of science, the latter just another war toy). In The Sacrifice, the threat of nuclear war persuades Joseph Erlandsson – a member of Bergman’s stock conmpany at one point – to bargain with God: he will give up everything he owns if the holocaust is averted. It does, of course, somewhat depend on believing in a god. Winter Light plays the same existential game with the implied threat, but rather than apply it to a man’s possessions it makes play with his religious convictions instead. Of the three films in the The Faith Trilogy, I enjoyed The Silence the most, perhaps because it seemed most recognisably experimental in format; but on reflection, I wonder if Winter Light, being a much weightier story, is not the better one. [2]

black_goldBlack Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud (2011, Qatar). Also known as Day of the Falcon, which is just as vague a title. It’s basically the life of ibn Saud, but with oil as the cause of the war between the two royal houses. The film was panned on release, chiefly because of its casting – Antonio Banderas plays one emir, Mark Strong the other; Frieda Pinto plays the love interest, and Liya Kebede the other major female character. The star, the young prince who becomes an ibn Saud-like leader, is played by Tahar Rahim (which was weird as I’d watched him in A Prophet only a week or so before). Banderas, the sultan of Hobeika, and Strong, the sultan of Salmaah, have just signed a peace treaty, and have agreed to keep the “Yellow Belt” as a buffer zone between their two sultanates (I assumed this is taking place somewhere in Nejd). Salmaah also has to hand over two of his young sons to Hobeika to ensure the peace. (I’m not sure whether Banderas or Strong are sultans or emirs, the two terms seemed to be used interchangably during the film – probably they were ra’ees, usually translated as “ruler”). Anyway, some years later Americans discover oil in the Yellow Belt. Salmaah rejects them, but Hobeika is happy to profit from the “black gold”. But then the elder of Salmaah’s two sons who is living with Hobeika tries to escape and is killed. The younger, Auda, played by Rahim, who is a bookish sort, is sent to his father as peace envoy. His father persuades Auda to help in his plan to conquer Hobeika and shut down the oil wells. Auda must lead a diversionary force into the Yellow Belt, while Salmaah himself leads another force right up to the gates of Hobeika. Except librarian Auda proves to have real tactical genius, and defeats Hobeika’s armoured cars with a force of prisoners on camels. And when he then attacks the Bani Sirri and frees their slaves, he earns the loyalty of all the other desert tribes… And so turns up to Hobeika with an enormous army at his back. There are a few elements here taken from the life of ibn Saud – such as his attack on Riyadh and defeat of the House of Rashid – but the Hijaz is ignored, Mecca is ignored, and the history of oil in Saudi didn’t start until later (see Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and sequels). But despite its fancification of the real history of the interior of the Arabian peninsula (and did the Bedu tribes really dress that colourfully?), and the failure to cast appropriately (Strong at least manages an Arabic accent; Banderas doesn’t even try), I sort of found myself enjoying Black Gold. It was daft, but it was colourful and the references to ibn Saud’s life added an extra dimension.

szamankaSzamanka, Andrzej Żuławski (1996, Poland). Gosh, what to say. There is something about Żuławski’s films which… er, defies explanation. They are completely bonkers, but bonkers in such an emotionally intense and intensely watchable way that’s it’s hard not to feel something for them. The sight of Valérie Kaprisky burning up the screen in La femme publique had burned itself into my memory, and now Iwona Petry, as the (titular) heroine of Szamanka, who throws such an idiosyncratic performance at the screen it’s hard to forget it. She’s a student who rents a flat from an academic, but right from the moment they meet it’s l’amour fou. And it gets more fou as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the acadmic has discovered the well-preserved body of a two-thousand year-old shaman. The historical investigation and the affair become confused, so much so that the academic hallucinates the shaman telling him he was killed by his mistress. And so, as often happens in Żuławski films, the plot echoes the psychological dimension. Petry’s performance treads a fine line between plausible and outright weird, and the fact it works is more down to the tense atmosphere Żuławski manages to keep going for the length of the film – despite the lack of an obvious thriller plot. There are moments when it all feels like OTT posturing… but then something sort of clicks into place, and the film’s trajectory toward its tragic end is once again on course. As with La femme publique, I bought the Mondo Vision special edition DVD, which comes in a fancy box, with included OST CD, booklet and collectible bits and pieces. The presentation suits the material – I can think of many directors who deserve such releases, but Żuławski is certainly on that list. Worth buying. [1]

kingsmanKingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn (2014, UK). A couple of weeks after watching this and I still haven’t decided if this is a clever satire of 007 and other British secret agent movies, or a horrible affirmation of their worst aspects. The title refers to a private intelligence service which cleaves to an image of stereotypical British upper class manhood from about sixty years ago. And then they meet a stereotype of 1990s British working class manhood… But, of course, the establishment eventually assimilates him. En route, we have a dumb plot to kill off 90% of the global population via free SIM cards in their phones (so, er, not really 90% then) as planned by squeamish lisping zillionnaire Samuel L Jackson. Tonally, Kinsgman is all over the place – it can’t decide what values it should be promoting, and as a result ends up saying very little that makes sense. The Bond-ish villain is presented as a spoof without actually being much of a commentary, which renders it toothless as satire. Firth is even stiffer than usual in the lead role, Taron Egerton is forgettable as the everyman bruv, and the supporting cast are more noticeable for who they actually are rather than the parts they’re playing. Kingsman will kill a Satruday evening if accompanied pizza and beer, but it’s never going to make any list celebrating the best of cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 776

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