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Moving pictures 2018, #14

I’ve been having trouble recently getting invested in some of the films I’ve been watching. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. Some nights I want a movie that doesn’t require much in the way of thought, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Or I choose badly. On the one hand, I want to watch as widely as possible; on the other, sometimes some of the films I’m drawn to can be a bit of a slog. A couple here were not very good, despite the names attached to them. Another was a straightforward melodrama but happened to be about a subject that interested me, so I liked it. And one was the latest film by a favourite director. In other words, the usual mixed bag…

How the West was Won, John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall (1962, USA). I’ve known of this film for many years. Who hasn’t? It’s one of those Western titles you see mentioned everywhere, even if no one you know seems to have actually watched it. I last came across a mention of it in reference to McLintock! (see here), so when I found it on Amazon Prime, I decided to give it a go. And now I have watched it. And it is… epic. In other words, it has pretty much everyone in it. Unfortunately, it’s also the bullshit narrative the US likes to believe about its invasion of the North American continent – and it’s pretty much an invasion by most definitions of the term. The movie opens with Karl Malden and his family travelling west to settle in the wide open lands in that area. They bump into fur trapper Jimmy Stewart, who falls for one of Malden’s daughters. But the trip doesn’t go as planned, and some of the family die while rafting on a river. The film follows the remainder of the family over a couple of generations as they head west and infiltrate the capitalist infrastructure which has implanted itself in the new territories. One of Malden’s daughters, Debbie Reynolds, marries a gambler, played by Gregory Peck, who turns his talents to investment, and so becomes a serial millionaire. This only happens after she’s spent time as a showgirl. Then there’s George Peppard, who joins the US Army with dreams of glory, inadvertently saves the lives of Generals Grant and Sherman, but returns home to discover his mother has died. How the West was Won pretty much features everyone, and part of the fun of watching it is identifying the stars (Jimmy Stewart’s wig is especially bad). But as narratives of colonisation of the West go, it’s pretty much up there with history textbooks that claim the US single-handedly fought and won WWII. This is not a film to be used to teach kids their heritage. Not unless it’s one of those US schools where the teacher is licensed for concealed carry and the students get an AR-15 on graduation. But the US prefers the Hollywood version of its history because, of course, it makes them out to be hardy pioneers instead of brutal conquerors… Cinematically, the film has its moments, but to be honest you’d have to be pretty incompetent to make Monument Valley look boring, and none of the directors attached to this film could be accused of that. There are better western films, even ones with a somewhat tenuous link to actual history, such as Shane or Rio Bravo, but which have better cinematography  or make more of a meal of the scenery. How the West was Won feels like a textbook for a specific, and long since discredited, view of US history. It’s a well-made film, and it looks quite lovely in places. But it’s a piece of historical hokum and should be watched with that in mind.

Spacewalker, Dmitry Kiselev (2017, Russia). I had this on my rental list, but then went and bought it by accident. Like you do. Fortunately, I remembered to remove it from my rental list. The Russians have produced a number of films in recent years about their space programme – Gagarin: First in Space (see here), Salyut-7 (see here), and now Spacewalker, this last about Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965, another Space Race first by the USSR. For all that the US likes to trumpet its space achievements, the USSR beat its hands down until Apollo. And even now, US astronauts have to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to travel to the ISS because there is no human-rated US spacecraft currently in service. Ahem. Spacewalker opens with a MiG-15 being flown by Leonov in trouble with its jet engine on fire – and it was nice to watch a film in which a MiG-15 was played by an actual MiG-15 (although I suspect it was mostly CGI) – and because he’s a complete nutter, he goes into a steep dive to put out the fire, manages to pull out in time, and lands the aircraft. So he’s not a natural fit for the Soviet cosmonaut programme when they start, but he has his champions and is recruited. When he’s picked for the first spacewalk, he trains with Belyayev, but Belyayev breaks his leg during a parachute jump. Leonov campaigns hard for Belyayev to be kept as mission commander, and succeeds. The mission is depicted pretty much as it happened. Leonov had no troubled making the spacewalk, but experienced real trouble getting back into the Voskhod spacecraft. It’s all presented with the same degree of verimilitude of the aforementioned films. It’s like Gravity has opened some sort of floodgate. And I for one welcome these films, with their convincing depictions of actual real space exploration history, and if it’s Russian self-aggrandising instead of American, so what? It’s real history and it’s fascinating. And okay, I do love me some Soviet sf films, and these are are not Soviet although they cover Soviet history. But they’re accomplished pieces of work and the equal of, if not better than, anything Hollywood has produced. Worth seeing.

Such Good Friends, Otto Preminger (1971, USA). I’ve been working my way through Preminger’s oeuvre, and three of his later films were released recently on Blu-ray in a collection in the US but unavailable here. And since I have a multi-region Blu-ray player… Of course, now I own them, they’ll probably be released in the UK… and cost less. Although maybe not. A lot of classic movies newly-released on sell-through in the US don’t get UK releases, and Preminger is better-known for his 1940s and 1950s noir films than he is his late 1960s / early 1970s melodramas and comedies. And having now seen the three films in this collection, I can understand why. Such Good Friends is based on a novel by Lois Gould. In it, a successful children’s author goes into hospital for a minor operation, but the doctors bungle it, and bungle every subsequent attempt to fix the medical problems they’ve caused. The film did not start well. The main character, player by Dyan Cannon, goes to a publishing party with her husband, and Burgess Meredith, playing a famous author, is present; and for some reason, she imagines him naked, which Preminger actually shows on film. And then the plot goes into its litany of hospital fuck-ups and… It’s a well-made film but not an especially good one. For a start, it’s a comedy but it’s not at all funny. It’s based on a novel by Lois Gould, and after watching the film I went and did some drunk ebaying and bought the book. I have done this before – watched a a bad adaptation of a novel, and gone and bought the novel. I have no real interest in reading Gould’s book, but now I have a copy I probably will. It did at least sound better than the film. We shall see.

Spies Kill Silently, Mario Caiano (1966, Italy). Released under the titles Le spie uccidono in silenzio and Los espías matan en silencio, this was an Italian-Spanish thriller set in… the Lebanon. I watched it because I visited Beirut during the early 1970s, and I wanted to see if I’d remembered anything of the city. I hadn’t. I now wish I could not remember anything of this film. The daughter of prominent scientist is mysteriously murdered in a hotel swimming pool in Beirut. An American agent is called in to investigate the case, because there have been a series of unexplained deaths of notable scientists. It’s all a plot, of course, by one particular scientist, to take over the world. This involves brainwashing people to do his bidding, so his assassins can be literally anyone. The secret agent goes undercover, with an antidote to the brainwashing serum, but the scientist spots this and really brainwashes him. Which was a bit of a twist to the formula. But it all comes right in the end. And I was probably too young to form any lasting memories of Beirut when I visited to the city, so nothing in the film struck a chord. And it was a pretty crap film as well.

Hurry Sundown, Otto Preminger (1967, USA). Preminger apparently bought the rights to the novel from which this was adapted before it was even published. For $100,000. Later, quizzed on how much he’d paid, and perhaps embarrassed at how poorly the film had been received, Preminger replied to a reporter’s “how much did it cost?” with “seven ninety-five”. This was taken to mean $795,000. Preminger had actually meant the book’s cover price, $7.95. The story is set in 1946 Georgia. A share cropper has just returned from fighting, and discovers that his cousin has been buying up land as part of a development deal. There are only two unsold parcels of land left standing in his way – the ex-GI’s, and that of another  ex-GI… who happens to be black. This was during the days of segregation and all the white people in the film – with the exception of the white ex-GI and his family – are horribly racist. Worse, however, the film was made in 1967, in Lousiana due to union reasons, and the members of the production were shot at, and the swimming pool of the motel where they were staying was bombed. Because the cast and crew were integrated. I mean, a film set in 1946 about segegration made 21 years later is the target of hate cimes. That’s beyond irony. That’s the US. Fucking racists. The book, Hurry Sundown, did not prove to be the mega-bestseller Preminger had hoped, although it was certainly epic at 1,046 pages. It now appears to be long out of print. And the film didn’t do very well either. I’m not surprised. It’s not a good film. Michael Caine plays the cousin, a Southern entrpreneur, and he’s not a good fit for the part; Jane Fonda plays his wife. John Phillip Law, who looked great but didn’t have much in the way of acting chops, plays the ex-GI, and Faye Dunaway his wife (and she reportedly hated working with Preminger). Diahann Carroll plays the local teacher who stands up for the black ex-GI (played by Robert Hooks, who was apparently in Star Trek 3) , and she’s always worth watching. But for a late 1960s movie, none of this works, and it all feels like a story that has nothing new to say about the US’s appalling record on race relations. It was not successful, and justifiably so. Fortunately, I was not so drunk watching it that I ebayed a first edition copy of the 1,046 page novel on which it was based…

Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke (2015, China). Jia is perhaps the most celebrated of the Sixth Generation of directors from China, and with good reason. Which is not to say the othe directors are bad. They are in fact very good. But Jia is especially good. And Mountains May Depart is his latest film, again starring his wife, Zhao Tao. The film is split into three sections. The first is set in 1999, and it’s familiar territory for Jia – a mix of documentary and drama, in which the lines between the two are blurred. The film opens in 1999 with a love triangle. Zhao is love with a coalminer. but marries an entrpreneur as China embraces capitalism. They have a son, named Dollar. The second section is set in 2014. The two are separated and Dollar visits Zhao and she tries to get him to recognise her as his mother, and not her ex-husband’s new wife. The final section is set in 2025, in Australia. Dollar is now a university student, and his father is bitter and collects guns. I’ve seen comments comparing Mountains May Depart to Sirk, but I can’t see it. When I think of Sirk, I think of films packaged as women’s pictures but which cleverly subvert and critique women’s role in society (not all of Sirk’s films, obviously). Jia’s film is more a critique of Chinese society and its response to capitalism, and, in the final section explicitly, to the Chinese diaspora. True, the central character is a woman, Zhao, and her life provides the focus of Jia’s commentary. Not all of it worked for me. There weren’t enough Australian accents in the section set in Australia for a start (they mostly sounded American). The middle section is probably the best of the the three, with Zhao trying to make sense of what her life has become. Like Jia’s other films, it has that semi-documentary feel – a difficult trick to pull off in the 2025 section, which is probably why it doesn’t quite gel for me. On balance, I think some of Jia’s earlier films are better, although he remains a favourite director. Which is not to say Mountains May Depart is a bad film – it’s a bloody good film, but it’s not Jia’s best.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures 2018, #13

It’s been one of those months where I’ve not felt like being too choosy of a night when I get home from work and plop myself down in front of the telly. The advantage of rental DVDs is that I’ve thought about what to rent, and when it arrives I’ve no choice but to watch it. Which is not true of streaming. Then, it’s usually watch ten minutes of a film, decides it’s shit, do the same to another, and another, and another… and eventually end up watching something that is only a degree above shit. Or watching something that won’t be too taxing brain-wise. Which usually ends up generating ire, and so taxing the brain anyway…

The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci (2017, UK). If Ianucci’s comedy has usually been amusing, his targets have also been a bit, well, obvious. And who is the most obvious target for political satire on the planet? Er, after Trump, that is. And, er, Putin. And maybe Thatcher. And maybe the last half-dozen US presidents. Okay, historical political figures. That are not Hitler. Well, that would be Stalin. Obviously. A figure who was praised, then revered, then feared (most right-wingers think this is the same thing), and in recent years is becoming bafflingly revered again. The Death of Stalin covers the days up to  Stalin’s death, the handover of power to Malenkov, and the subsequent struggle for supremacy among the Central Committe members, which eventually saw Khrushchev prevail. The committee members – Beria, Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, as well as those previously mentioned – are played like foul-mouthed, well, children, almost. And General Zhukov comes across like a cross between Flashheart and Roy Chubby Brown. Which means that in among the back-stabbing and brutality, there’s some good humour. Admittedly, most of it you’re embarrassed to be amused by, because, well, there’s political satire and then there’s depicting politics as schoolyard bullying games. Although, to be fair, that’s pretty much what Tory politics in the UK is these days. And the difference between the Central Committee as shown in this film and the Tories are little more than: better suits, a lack of firing squads, and plummy accents. Worth seeing.

Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh (2017, UK). Of all the things the world needed, another remake of Murder on the Orient Express was not at the top of the list, or indeed anywhere on the list. It’s a hugely contrived novel, in which racist caricature Belgian Hercule Poirot, tries to solve a murder on a train with a limited cast of suspects, only to discover they were all guilty. It’s by no means Christie’s best novel, and the story is so well-known it’s impossible to ring changes on it without destroying it. But director Kenneth Branagh found a way to make it different. CGI! He creates an Orient Express that is almost cartoonish in its hyper-reality. The train on which Poirot is travelling is derailed by an avalanche in a giant mountain range in Croatia. While waiting to be rescued, a first-class passenger is brutally murdered, and Poirot is persuaded to solve the crime. Everyone else in first class has a secret, and it all links to the kidnap and murder of an American industrialist’s daughter years before – a crime plainly modelled on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Branagh has trouble playing a Poirot distinctive from Suchet’s, and plumps for a Kaiser moustache to distinguish his take on the character. The rest of the cast are drawn broadly, which is no real surprise as they’re just mannequins to pin motivations for the crime onto. And everywhere there is CGI. Lashings of it. More CGI than the remastered Star Wars trilogy. And it ruins the entire film. A plot so ludicrously contrived needs realism to anchor it and lend it plausibility, not Middle-Earth scenery  and a Belgian detective with the martial skills of Captain America. One to avoid.

The Battle of San Pietro*, John Huston (1945, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s a wartime documentary, made by a famous Hollywood director, which may be surprisingly honest for a wartime documentary… but I can think of no good reason why this one should lauded above others. Is it fair to overlook other directors for creating wartime propaganda, no matter how well made – such as the Archers’ The Volunteer (starring Ralph Richardson!), or however many WWII propaganda films Frank Capra made – or must they be brutally honest to be acclaimed? On the other hand, you have films like Rossellini’s Paisà, which is a dramatic retelling, but no doubt far more accurate than any government documentary film. Not to mention the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (see here), in which a mother attempts to save her child in war-torn Italy. The Battle of San Pietro comprises battle footage, interviews with soldiers, fly-on-the-wall footage of soldiers relaxing, and crude animation intended to explain the course of the battle. Despite being real, it was all a bit dull, to be honest. I much preferred The Volunteer, even if it was shot to recruit people for the Fleet Air Arm…

World without End, Edward Bernds (1956. USA). After Satellite in the Sky (see here), I had expected similar of this film which shares the same disc. It shares only its year of release, and its, er, science-fiction-ness. It’s a US film, for one thing. A trip to Mars, the first every spaceflight (yeah right). goes awry when the rocket is accelerated to great velocity, but not apparently at sufficiently high G to squish them, and the crew blackout and wake up in… the future. The year 2508, to be precise. Two hundred years after a nuclear war devastated the earth and mutated spiders so they’re now huge monsters. The astronauts stumble across an underground city of human survivors – if this sounds a little familar, Beneath the Planet of the apes was released 14 years after this one. The underground men are all impotent wimps, but the women are attractive and more than happy to find themselves being visited by real men. Satellite in the Sky had its flaws, but it was so much better than World without End. True, World without End is a B-movie, and quality sort of didn’t go with the territory. I’ve seen a bunch of them in my time, and while this one was better made than most, it was just as rubbish. Bad science fiction, with no Avro Vulcans.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, SS Rajamouli (2017, India). Baahubali was an experience. The film was so epic it was released in two parts, and it makes Lord of the Rings looks like a soap opera. There is twisting the material to suit the refashioned story, or even the director’s agenda, but Baahubali provides more moments of laugh-out-loud OTT action for the sake of sheer action than any other film I have ever come across. There’s the scene where the cows with their horns on fire stamped through the bandit army. Or the scene where Baahubali’s army is catapulted over the walls of Mahishmati using palm trees. I kid you not. The title character has been named heir apparent to Mahismati, a declaration that is unpopular with his stepbrother, Bhallaladeva, and his mother, the Rajamata Sivagami. Baahubali is sent off to tour the kingdom undercover with master-at-arms slave Kattappa. They witness an attack by the princess of a neighbouring kingdom. Baahubali falls in love with her, and follows her back to her kingdom of Kuntala. He pretends to be mentally challenged, although his cover is blown when bandits attack the kingdom and he fights to defend it. Then there’s the confusion over which prince of Mahismati will marry the princess of Kuntala… which leads to Baahubali being demoted from heir apparent, and then exiled. Which is why he and Bhallaladeva end up going to war. The ending neatly leads back into the beginning of the film – ie, the framing narrative in which Baahubali’s son, played by the same actor, defeats Bhallaldeva – by having Sivagami see the error of her ways and run from Mahishmati, but dies saving the life of the son. Both Baahubali films were entertainment turned up to eleven. I’ve never seen aything like them. But then, when you take the OTT action of a fantasy film and marry it with the OTT drama of a Bollywood film – well, Tollywood film, in this case – well, then you’ve got… something like this. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m tempted to get my own copy.

The Man Who Saved the World, Peter Anthony (2014, Denmark). Back in the twentieth century, there was this thing called the Cold War. The USSR and the USA wanted to bomb the shit out of each other with nuclear bombs, but never did because it was all a plot to keep their military-industrial (or, in the case of the USSR, military-political) complexes in profit. But the technology was clunky and not entirely reliable. Which is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the system should break in such a way that it appeared to be displaying a US nuclear missile attack on the USSR. Fortunately, the military officer in charge disbelieved the evidence presented by all the high technology of which he was in charge, and chose to disregard the indicated attack. Which proved to be a glitch. And so WWIII was averted and, post-glasnost, said officer travelled to the US and met a bunch of celebs – including Kevin Costner! – as “the man who save the world”. I don’t believe a word of it. It’s not how computer systems operate. The documentary includes a re-enactment of the fake nuclear missile attack, and you have to wonder how a bogus signal from one, or more, radar stations translated into such a convincing report of an attack that a Soviet officer had to actively distrust the systems for which he was responsible. The film is not helped by the feeling that the bulk of the encounters in the US are set up. The man who allegedly saved the world is probably really no more than a footnote in the history books, and what is most interesting is how it happened rather the man who made the right decision, or his subsequent attempts – or attempts by others – to capitalise on his one moment of common sense. I wanted to like The Man Who Saved the World more than I did, but it never quite convinced me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896

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Moving pictures 2018, #12

I’ve finally managed to reduce the number of US films seen since 2001 to less than half. Okay, so it’s currently around 49.6%, but that’s still less than 50%. Also true, the nation from which I’ve seen the next highest number of films is the UK (14%), followed by France (8%), Germany (3%), Italy (3%) and Japan (3%). Out of a total of 4130 movies. I’m still keen on seeing films from countries I’ve not seen films from before, especially African nations. I mean, Nigeria has the third largest film industry on the planet but Nollywood films are really hard to find in the UK. Sadly, no new nations here – it’s my third Icelandic film, my sixth and seventh Senegalese films, and my thirteenth Argentinean.

Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (1999, Senegal) No sign of any volume 5 from ArtMattan’s Great African Films, but given that their website was very much 1990s, I’m not holding my breath. (I once came across a website which included the United Arab Republic in its address dropdown list – the UAR lasted from 1958 to 1961, so it even predates the Internet.) Which is a shame, as there are few enough channels for films made in African nations to make it through to Western audiences. I’m a big fan of what cinema I’ve seen from there and would welcome seeing more. But it’s getting difficult to find anything other than films by names known on the festival circuits. I’ve said before that Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry is the third biggest on the planet, but none of its output is readily available on DVD in the UK (at least not in the obvious places – and while I recognise that the ready availabilty of Bollywood films is likely a result of the size of the Anglo-Indian market, and that many of the companies servicing it are Indian… I don’t understand why the same arguments don’t seem to hold true for Nollywood). Anyway, Colobane Express is Senegalese and set in the capital, Dakar. Aboard a bus. It’s a documentary about the service offered by the bus, which is a typical example of its type in the city – privately operated minibuses covering express routes, in old but brightly-decorated vehicles – but using actors as passengers, to tell stories about their lives and their use of the bus. It’s an effective piece of film-making, deeply rooted in its setting and yet universal in its concerns. It’s an easy film to like.

La Boleta, Andrés Paternostro (2013, Argentina). This was on Amazon Prime as The Lottery Ticket, but I looked it up and it wasn’t a US film so I stuck it on my watchlist. It was, I discovered, Argentinean. And Argentina has produced some excellent thrillers. La Boleta, however, is more of a comedy-thriller. A man is in a dead-end job and about to be demoted, his wife has left him and taken the kids and is demanding support… and there’s no way out, so he attempts suicide, which fails. But he hallucinates that he goes to heaven and is given a winning lottery ticket number by God. So once he’s been released from hospital, he buys a ticket with that exact number… but is mugged on his way home by two not-very-clever youths. He tracks them down to a barrio, and discovers they’d mugged him against orders on their way back from delivering a message to the rich father of a young woman they had kidnapped. And it all sort of escalates from there. It’s all completely implausible and daft, but it was also fun. And it played clever with the lottery ticket – an obvious maguffin – which drove the plot but didn’t resolve it. This is no Nine Queens, but from the poster alone it’s not trying to be. But it was a fun film, with a feel-good ending that still managed to take you by surprise. Worth seeing.

Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul (2012, Sweden). In the late sixties/early seventies, a US folk singer called Rodriguez released two albums which pretty much sank without trace. Except in South Africa. For some reason, his first album, Cold Fact, hit a chord with Afrikaner youth, and when the albums were pressed under licence in the country, they went on to outsell Elvis Presley. But no one knew anything about Rodriguez – South Africa was under sanctions, and since in the US Rodriguez was blindingly obscure, visitors from there were no help. There were rumours he had committed suicide on stage because of his poor sales – either shooting himself or setting fire to himself. When his two albums were rereleased on CD in South Africa, it prompted a journalist to investigate Rodriguez’s past… only to learn that he was alive and well and living in Detroit and working demolishing houses. As a result, he toured South Africa several times very successfully, although his life never actually changed. The big stumbling block in Searching for Sugar Man is understanding why Rodriguez became so huge in South Africa. He was not a great artist – very Dylanesque, although a better singer, but I can think of several artists or groups from around the same time who I personally might have thought better, such as Fat Mattress or Eire Apparent. But something about Rodriguez’s material struck a chord in South Africa’s youth, and as they grew older so they carried that love through into the twenty-first century. A love of which he was completely unaware. Which tells you more about the music industry than it does Rodriguez’s music or South Africa’s taste in music. It all felt a bit too good to be true – as, in fact, did Rodriguez himself – and critics have pointed out he had a successful career in Australia during the 1970s, not that the South Africans knew… but the film does it part feel like it’s playing up the story to South Africa’s advantage, rather than giving an honest account of a 1960s folk singer whose career unexpectedly developed second wind in the early 2000s. Still worth seeing, nonetheless.

The Silent Monologue, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal). The DVD cover explicitly likens this to Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (see here), in which a young Senegalese woman is taken back to the France with the family she works for as a nanny, only to discover she is effectively a domestic slave, trotted out to bolster her employers’ liberal credentials. The Silent Monologue is that of a servant girl, but she remains in Dakar, and her employers are Senegalese. But she is from the country, and they are affluent middle-class city-dwellers. Sembène’s film was explicit in its commentary, condemning the French exploitation of Senegal and its people, and white people’s dehumanising of black people. Sylla’s target is closer to home, and more nuanced – although to be fair, it’s unlikely nuance would have worked on Sembène’s target audience. But certainly with both this film and Colobane Express Sylla is directly addressing Sembène’s Black Girl, by both updating his story and turning the focus on women. Sylla, who was also a novelist and known in France for Le jeu de la mer, made only four films, none of which are much more than an hour in length. If her cinematography was nothing to shout about, her viewpoint certainly needs to be more widely disseminated.

The Oath, Baltasar Kormakúr (2016, Iceland). After giving up on three or four movies I’d found on Amazon Prime – some of the stuff on there is so bad I doubt it would even be shown on US television! – I stumbled across this Icelandic thriller, written, directed and starring Baltasar Kormakúr. It’s by no means an original story, but it’s handled well, and Kormakúr makes sure all the details add up. The eighteen-year-old daughter of an eminent surgeon has moved in with her boyfriend. Who is a drug dealer. When the surgeon realises her daughter is on drugs, he tries to separate her from her boyfriend, but neither are having it. So he spies on the boyfriend, witnesses him taking a shipment of drugs, later breaks uinto his apartment, leaves the drugs on display and calls the police. But they won’t arrest the boyfriend because anyone could have left the drugs. And now the boyfriend is after the surgeon to pay for the money lost because the drugs were seized by the police. (The one logical flaw in the story: the dealers would demand the money from the boyfriend, they wouldn’t care about the surgeon.) The surgeon decides to retaliate, but it all goes horribly wrong. Kormakúr plays a man convincingly driven to extreme measures, although the ease with which the characters resort to violence feels contrived. Yes, people – no, not “people”, men – will throw punches outside the pub of a Saturday night, but contriving for someone to be arrested, resorting to kidnap and murder… It’s stuff that only happens in films. Even in Iceland. But if you’re going to watch it happen, then why not in Iceland instead of some random US city? Worth seeing.

Satellite in the Sky, Paul Dickson (1956, UK). I wasn’t sure if this was a US B-movie or a spaghetti sci-fi when I bought the DVD from a seller on eBay. So when it opened with a shot of an Avro Vulcan prototype taking off, followed by some aerial footage, I sat up and took notice. For one thing, it meant the film was British; for another, the Vulcan was a pretty damn cool aeroplane. And then the Folland Midge makes an appearance as a prototpye supersonic fighter… Sadly, those opening shots are it, as the film is actually about a flight to space, in a rocket that probably owes little too much to the one in When Worlds Collide. The spaceflight is intended to be scientific only, but at the last minute the MoD (although it was probably still the Ministry of War in 1956) takes over and the mission is slightly changed: the rocket will now deposit a nuclear satellite in orbit. So, of course, that’s the bit that goes wrong. Well, other than the female journalist – Lois Maxwell! Miss Moneypenny!- stowing away. Anyway, the nuclear satellite’s retro rockets fail and it ends up stuck to the rocket by natural magnetism (um, yes). So they have to go out in the spacesuits and push it away from the rocket before they can return to earth. True, 1956 was half a decade before the first actual man in space, but you’d have thought by then they’d have got the science sorted out. For most  films of the period, I’d not consider that an issue, but this is one that makes of point of opening with shots of an Avro Vulcan and a Folland Midge. It’s saying it’s up there with the latest British aviation engineering. So it’s a disappointment it turns into standard 1950s space bollocks. It hits all the obvious plot points, although it does have the stowaway – Lois Maxwell! Miss Moneypenny! – instrumental in saving the rocket, despite her intitial hostility to the programme. This is a film very much of its time, and though it makes a good fist of its story, it’s still enormously dated. One for fans, I suspect. Or fans of the Vulcan.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #11

I know I have a very broad taste in movies, but this half-dozen seems to be taking the piss a little. A Japanese tokusatsu, a spaghetti sci-fi (based on German pulp sf), the last of Jancsó’s self-referential Hungarian meta-comedies, three Children’s Film Foundation movies, a Bollywood film, and a Chinese romcom…

Cutie Honey, Hideaki Anno (2004, Japan). So I was looking for films to add to my Cinema Paradiso rental list when I saw this one and was surprised to recognise the director’s name – whose name I knew from the Evangelion films, of course. So I texted David Tallerman and asked him if he’d seen it. He’d never even heard of it. He immediately looked it up (and discovered the US special edition DVD came with a Cutie Honey lunch box) and bought the (vanilla edition) DVD. Meanwhile, I added it to my rental list and moved it to #1. And it arrived a few days later. And… Well, it makes MTV look like slow cinema. And there’s zero exposition. It is completely bonkers. In a way that Japanese films can only be. Cutie Honey is some sort of heroine, powered by a badge, or something, which was invented by her father, who makes only a couple of of fleeting appearances. And there’s a villain, who is now a tree (really) who wants to take over Japan, or something. And, okay, I’ve no real idea what was going on in this film. The opening scenes have Cutie Honey preventing the Golden Claw from kidnapping a scientist, in some of the most ridiculous fight scenes I’ve ver seen, but none of its seems to make much difference as halfway through a tower grows under the Tokyo Tower and lifts its several hundred feet in the air. And then Cutie Honey battles the villain’s minions, but is captured by swordsman who is half-white and half-black, like a yin-yang symbol, and can fly…. I suppose in many respects, Cutie Honey is not unlike some of the anime films I’ve seen, but having had no previous experience of tokusatsu, I’ve no idea if that’s typical. It was fun, in a mad sort of way. I’d add a couple to my rental list, but I’ve no way of knowing which are the good ones and which are the bad ones – and I’m only assuming Cutie Honey is good because of Anno’s name (because the Evangelion films are very good).

Mission Stardust, Primo Zeglio (1967, Italy). I have a sort of love-hate relationship with spaghetti sci-fi films, which is an awful label for science fiction films made during the the 1970s in Italy to cash in on a post-2001 market, but I can’t think of anything better. Some of them transcended their origins and are now considered cult films. Some vanished into obscurity. Rightfully so. Some are being rediscovered – thanks to releases on DVD by Shameless and Arrow. I have even bought some of them. Mission Stardust is loosely based on the Perry Rhodan series of books, the most successful science fiction series of all time, with more than 3000 volumes published since 1961. I seem to vaguely recall reading a couple of English translations back in the 1980s. Despite its success, there are few film adaptations. It’s claimed it influenced Eolomea, and other DEFA sf films, but only in as much as it was the public face of German sf. The DEFA sf films, incidentally, are good. Well, perhaps not Signale – ein Weltrainabenteuer (see here). Anyway, Mission Stardust has a mission to the Moon encounter a stranded alien spacecraft. A senior member of the crew is dying of leukaemia, but there is a cure on Earth. So the female commander of the alien spacecraft – who gratuitously changes her clothing in front of Perry Rhodan before leaving the spaceship – pilots the shuttle down to a small African nation. Where a crime lord sees a chance to seize power by kidnapping the alien commander. So there’s this weird mix of styles – what starts out as mid-sixties Italian sci-fi turns into a colonoial thriller, but one in which the good guys have super-advanced technology. One of the appeals of spaghetti sci-fi was always the design, that characteristic 1960s Italian design you see in some films of the period from the country. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be much in evidence in Mission Stardust. The alien shuttle looks more like a giant bathysphere than a spacecraft. And the model work is all a bit pants. I found this free on Amazon Prime, so it’s not like I’m out of pocket for having watched it. But it was rubbish, and in no way did it encourage me to read any of the Perry Rhodan books.

Ede megevé ebédem, Miklós Jancsó (2006, Hungary). I have now seen all six of Jancsó’s Kapa and Pepé films and I’m no wiser as to what they’re about. The two title characters play so many roles – including themselves! – throughout the series, and often within a single film. Not to mention Jancsó’s own appearances as himself, sometimes as the actual director of the film. And Gyula Hernádi, who wrote a number of Jancsó’s films, including co-writing credits on these, also pops up every now and again. In this one, Kapa and Pepé meditate on Hungarian capitalism. But not even using Google translate on Hungarian reviews helps explain what’s going on. One review machine-translates as: “Small house in the woods. Mucsi and Scherer are in it. They refused. A puppy protects them. Mucsi is dealing with something of a mystery. Maybe with escorts.” Um, yes. Pepé joins a mafia family who run a prison… but then the film flashes back to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, also starring Peter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi, and it all has something to do with voluntary execution, both in the mafia-run privatised prison and in Ancient Rome. I’m going to have to watch these six films again, probably several times, but I suspect I’ll never really understand what’s going on in them. But that can be a good thing too.

The Monster of Highgate Ponds / The Boy Who Turned Yellow / A Hitch in Time, Cavalcanti / Michael Powell / Jan Darnley-Smith (1961/1972/1978, UK). I added this collection of Children’s Film Foundation films to my rental wishlist because of the Michael Powell one. I’m a fan of the Archers – that’s Pressburger and Powell, not the radio serial – but I’d never seen The Boy Who Turned Yellow (although directed solely by Powell, the story and script was by Pressburger). I remember the CFF from my own childhood, short films that would play before the main feature at cinemas. I couldn’t tell you which ones I saw, and I’ve no real desire to plough all half-dozen CFF DVD collections the BFI have published. But the CFF was an excellent institution – although it does still exist, as the Children’s Media Foundation, but it hasn’t made films since 1985 after its chief source of funds, the Eady Levy, was abolished. That’s the thing about taxes, you see, they help pay for good things. And when governments cut taxes to win votes, those good things go away – not just the CFF, but the NHS, the welfare state, a proper public transport infrastructure, affordable utilities… Fuck the Tories. But, Weird Adventures… Each of the BFI collections is titled – there’s an Outer Space one (must add that one to my rental list), Runaways, Scary Stories, and so on. The three in this collection are science fiction, although hardly rigorous. In The Monster of Highgate Ponds, a travelling uncle leaves an egg for some sort of dragon with his young nephew and niece in Highgate. The egg hatches and the baby dragon imprints on the two kids. When it gets too big to hide at home, they hide it in Highgate Ponds, but discovery is inevitable – as are the bumbling crooks who try to kidnap the dragon in order to sell it to a zoo. Sadly, what charm the film has is spoiled by the really crappy stop-motion and man-in-a-suit dragon. The Boy Who Turned Yellow is better, although cringingly dated, and the lecturing is a bit heavy. A boy falls asleep in class during a lesson on electricity. On his way home, something weird happens and everyone within a small area in London turns bright yellow. The boy is visited by an alien from a planet of electrical beings, who is responsible for turning him yellow. The alien helps the boy find his pet mouse, who he had lost during a school trip to the Tower of London the previous day. It’s all very, well, CFF. In the final film, Patrick Troughton plays a time traveller. But he’s not Dr Who. And, in fact, it’s not him who does the travelling in time, but two schoolkids, who rescued him when his time machine collapsed on its unsuccessful trial run. Unfortunately, the time machine isn’t that effective and it never sends them to the intended time, meaning they’re usually inappropriately dressed. There’s a nice touch in that a teacher they hate, Sniffy Kemp, keeps on turning up in the different historical periods as a dramatic foil. This one more than the others reminded me of the CFF films I remembered from my childhood, probably because in 1978 I was a child. But they also feel much like the kids’ TV of the time I recall. However, nostalgia only has so much appeal – I mean, much as we complain about how bad things are now, and remember fondly life from previous decades, the 1970s were no utopia. I was insulated from a lot of bad stuff, of course – I was a kid. And though I admire some of the culture produced during that period, and am singularly unimpressed by some of today’s, I am inordinately fond of many of the things we take for granted in 2018, such as smartphones, streaming, cheap international travel (and free movement throughout the EU – while we’ve got it, anyway), or Google translate… (Not to mention a society that is way more equal in terms of LGBT or race relations… if considerably worse in terms of economic equality.) While I sometimes wish times were simpler, as they had been forty-odd years ago, I also know they really weren’t that simple back then, and likely no better than now in many respects, but with nylon sheets and drip-dry shirts, both of which the mere thought of having to suffer make my skin crawl… So I guess nostalgia has a part to play, just perhaps not that big a part. I suspect I’ll add a couple more of these CFF collections from the BFI to my rental list, and nostalgia will play a small part in that, but then I’ve no problem with wearing rose-tinted glasses providing you know you’re wearing them

Rock On!!, Abhishek Kapoor (2008, India). I recently upgraded my Fire TV Stick, and sold my old one to a friend. I forgot to factory-reset it before handing it over, and thought I’d better double-check my watchlist before he had a chance to plug it in. Because, well, you know… And while doing this using the Amazon website, I discovered that a shitload of Bollywood films had been added. So I bunged half a dozen on my watchlist. Including this one. I think this the first movie I’ve ever watched with two exclamation marks in the title. Four young guys in Mumbai in the 1990s formed a rock band, sort of MTV-friendly grunge, won a battle of the bands and were signed by a label. But the label’s plans and the band’s plans were not the same – the label-owner wasn’t interested in them playing their own instruments, for example. Things come to a head during the filming of the first promo video, when the director seems interested only in filming the lead singer. The guitarist kicks off, the lead singer walks out, and the band folds. Cut to ten years later. The lead singer is a successful executive in his father’s investment bank, the keyboard player now writes advertising jingles, the drummer works in his family’s jewellery shop, and the guitarist gives occasional music lessons while his wife runs a fishing business which barely manages to, er, put food on the table. The lead singer’s wife visits the drummer’s shop, unaware of who he is, discovers their connection, and decides to invite the band members to an upcoming birthday party. Which naturally leads into “we’re getting the band back together” (no prizes for spotting that reference), which ends up resetting wrongs from a decade before. Okay, the music was part of the product, a commercial movie, and for all that they were trying to be musos it sounded massively commercial, but it’s baked into the story. And this is merely a Bollywood take on well-used Hollywood material. There’s probably a 1940s version of it. In fact, I suspect one or two of the Gold Diggers movies from the 1930s might be progenitors. But, despite the US grunge rock, this was still very much a Bollywood film and I enjoyed it. Not a great movie, by any means, but a fun one. And currently free on Amazon Prime.

Zero Point Five Love, GengXiao (2014, China). I’m a big fan of China’s Sixth Generation directors and I’ve watched a lot of the more populist stuff in my time – like Jackie Chan – but the Chinese film industry is as broad as Hollywood, and probably nearly as old – see The Goddess, see here – so I’m always keen to see films from other countries that haven’t in some way been “curated”. And Zero Point Five Love appeared on Amazon Prime with no commentary so I put it on my watchlist. A Chinese girl newly returned to China after time spent in the UK falls in love with an upcoming young executive. They meet cute: she’s a dancer at a corporate event, slags off the CEO for being cheap to a young man who buys her a drink, only to discover he’s the CEO… It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched the film – and I really should write these sooner after watching them – and all I can remember is a fairly standard rom com plot played out in modern-day China with a pair of attractive and likeable leads and a number of English subtitles that really did not make much sense, like “Not as far as the slutty peacock” or “I can’t water your time seflishly anymore” or “I should be wayward for my love”. But, for all that, it’s a nice film. It’s a feel-good rom com and it does the job admirably. It’s no Jia Zhangke or Fei Mu, but neither does it claim to be. Had it been a Hollywood film itwould have been a tenth as interesting. Being Chinese, and a product of modern China, lent it some interest, but it was fairly standard romantic drama for all that. I don’t regret spending the time watching it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #10

I’m trying to get up to date with these. Despite spending a couple of weeks watching mostly television series – including Agent Carter, Star Trek: Discovery, The Expanse and, er, Silent Witness – I still seem to have built up a backlog.

Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel (1964, France). This film saw a change in pace for Buñuel, and a change in fortunes. It was his most realistic film to date, and based on a popular 1900 novel of the same title by Octave Mirbeau, which had been adapted in Hollywood in 1946 by, of all people, Jean Renoir, and before that in Russia in 1916. The Mexican star of Buñuel’s Viridiana, Silvia Pinal, was originally intended for the title role, and even learnt French to play it, but the part went to Jeanne Moreau. Who plays a young woman who is hired as a maid at a country house in the 1930s that seems to be populated by oddballs and eccentrics. Her name is Célestine but they all call her Marie. The groom is an anti-semitic right-winger, the husband chases anything in skirts and takes out his frustrations on small game, the father-in-law is a shoe fetishist with a cabinet full of women’s shoes, and the next-door neighbour is fond of throwing rubbish over the fence. But then the father is found dead in bed, and a young girl who visited the house is found raped and murdered. The chambermaid suspects the groom, and promises to marry him in an effort to make him confess… The film plays like a farce set in an upper-class home, with a mix of belowstairs and abovestairs scenes and characters from several classes. For Buñuel, it’s also played straight. Moreau is precisely what her character seems to be, a chambermaid, although as the focus of the film she displays more character than the rest of the cast. Having said that, this is closer to La Règle du jeu than it is Downton Abbey (hack spit), and not just because of the language. There’s a slightly mocking tone to it all and, watching it, it’s easy to see how Buñuel, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, began re-introducing surreal elements into “straight” dramas, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. I will admit to preferring the latter films, but this is still excellent stuff. A box set worth owning.

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, FW Murnau (1924, Germany). I still think David Tallerman is being unfair in his characterisation of Murnau as an uninteresting director, although to be honest I’ve yet to get a handle on what makes a good director of silent films. True, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is really quite astonishing, but I don’t see much difference between the silent films of Murnau, Lubitsch or Lang, since all three were working in the same country around the same time. And yet… Murnau’s Die Finanzen des GroßherzogsThe Finances of the Grand Duke – was mostly filmed on location in Montenegro and Croatia – whch is not typical of German silent films. And it’s a gentle comedy too, where other silent comedies from Germany I’ve seen have tended to be broad – although certainly not like slapstick like Hollywood silent comedies. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs is set in an invented Mediterranean duchy, whose finances have pretty much given up the ghost. A US industrialist offers a large payment to mine the island’s sulphur deposits, but the grand duke turns it down as he rightly thinks it will affect the quality of life of his subjects… And that’s pretty much the plot: impoverished grand duke in danger of losing duchy to predatory capitalist interests because of lack of cash, but is saved at last minute through unlikely series of events. These events are in the person of a loaded Russian princess whom the grand duke doesn’t want to marry, but she ends up pretending to be the wife of a travelling salesman, or something, and gets to meet the grand duke in that guise, and they fall in love, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. There’s a few other bits and pieces going on in there, like the finance minister aiming to seize the duchy for himself. It’s all very, well, Ruritanian. Fun.

Le Pont du Nord, Jacques Rivette (1981, France). I’m not quite sure what to make of Rivette, as he tells fantastical stories in real-life settings, but the fantasy is all in the minds of the characters – with the occasional bit of help from the director. In other words, he finds games and conspiracies and quests in the ordinary, in such a way that the games and conspiracies and quests seems perfectly real without in any way upsetting the ordinary. And so too in Le Pont du Nord, in which two two young women meet up and follow a quest involving several different men called Max, which leads to a dragon, which is actually a playground slide, which one of them then defeats by loudly challenging it. Everything happens in and around Paris, in the quotidian world, and some of it you suspect was guerilla-filmed, even though the two women plainly don’t entirely occupy it, and there is enough strangeness in the events which befall them to suggest something other than the ordinary world. And yet the bulk of the strangeness is supplied by the two main characters, who seem to be operating in a world that doesn’t entirely exist on screen. Rivette has form in this: Merry-Go-Round is a conspiracy story with no real conspiracy in sight; Noroît is a fantasy presented with such a light touch, it might as well be mainstream. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, and the lack of reviews seems to suggest others feel the same way. At 129 minutes, it’s short for a Rivette film. (And no, I still have not tackled Out 1, all 760 minutes of it, despite owning a copy for two years.) I came to Rivette through La belle noiseuse, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list (2013 edition), and that inspired me to seek out more of his work. At which point I found myself watching films that were not like the one that had inspired me to seek out that director’s films… And yet, I find myself drawn to Rivette’s films, that are unlike La belle noiseuse, and more inclined to put in the time to watch the really long ones… Which I really must do, one of these days.

The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016, France). Refn is lauded as a talent in Hollywood, although apparently not so much after all, since he needed French money to make this film. His movies certainly look very pretty, and this one is no exception. But the stories he tells really aren’t very nice. In this one, an ingenue moves to LA, is picked up by an agency, and becomes a a successful model. Which does not go down with the two models she spends her time with. One has had a number of cosmetic surgeries to improve her looks and career, but is castigated for it. For all that it’s about a beautiful woman, this is not a film that treats women well. They are pretty much all victims. Even the young model who is the central character – she has zero agency, and her only act is to walk away from it all at the end. The other models are driven by their obsession to be admired by men, even though the men in the film are just as much ciphers as the women are. The Neon Demon is a film that’s all about how it looks, which seems apposite given it’s about the modelling industry… but it also seems to be based on misconceptions and clichés about modelling. It has its central cast of three models, including the ingenue, and it uses them to tell a story of excess, and the cannibalistic nature of the industry, making the latter real rather than metaphorical, to no good end. A film best avoided.

Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015, Thailand). I have no idea what these films are about, but I really like them. They’re sort of slow cinema, in as much as very little happens in them. But they also exhibit little in the way of plot – and nothing in the way of a three-act structure (hack spit) – and yet… things happen. Weerasethakul also has a tendency to use the same stable of actors, so the more of these you watch the more faces you recognise. And there are other commonalities: the military seems to always play a major part, as do hospitals or clinics; some of the cast are disabled; there’s always mention of Isan province, usually self-deprecratingly; and there’s always an element of the strange, or supernatural. Weerasethaskul has a shtick. Which does not detract from his films, I hasten to add. There is an oddness to his movies that I don’t think any other director quite manages, a sort of New Weird sensibility I’m not sure any other director is currently using. In Cemetery of Splendour, a sickness is causing soldiers to suddenly fall asleep, and there is a clinic with a ward full of sleeping soldiers, all lying in beds under weird blue lights. But then one soldier wakes, but can remember nothing of the time he was asleep. There’s also the cemetery of the title, which is a wood in which people have left mythic objects… It’s one of those films that, when it’s finished, you’re not entirely sure what you’ve watched. I’ve now seen five of Weerasethakul’s and I’m no closer to understanding them. He’s a singular talent and his movies, for all their glacial pace and enigmatic stories, are fascinating. If someone released a Weerasethakul box set, I’d buy it like a shot. I only own a copy of his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, but all of them bear, if not demand, rewatching.

The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel (1969, France). And speaking of shtick, I sort of feel like I have a handle on Buñuel’s, except… have I really? I mean, he was making films way back in the 1930s, all the way through to the 1970s, in a number of countries, and in a variety of styles. That’s one hell of a career. But The Milky Way feels like a Buñuel film. Even based on my limited exposure to his oeuvre. The title refers to the route taken by pilgrims from France to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Wat of St James. Two travellers follow the route and, en route, witness events which map onto the history of Christianity, especially its so-called heresies. It is very much the product of a Catholic mind, and I say that inasmuch as Catholicism is much more embedded in its followers’ lives that Protestantism, which is what I was nominally brought up as, but I’m completely atheist, and neither hold a candle to the integration of Islam in daily life… All of which means that not only do I not have a dog in this fight but I have a dog-free worldview (which pleases me, as a cat owner), and I suspect Buñuel, for all his mockery, was considerably more religious than I am, as it takes a certain degree of familiarity with the material to mock as much as is the case in The Milky Way. But for all that, religion is, to me, a soft target. I don’t believe a single bit of it. It’s also a completely pointless target. We l;ive in a world in which truth and facts and experts are routinely attacked because they don’t match the narrative of the authorities. There is no such thing as “fake news”. There is propaganda, which is unsupported by facts; and there is news, which is supported by facts. And the least trustworthy sources are those who are quickest to label something as “fake news”. Religion, and all the fucking tragedy it’s caused over the centuries, feels lightweight in comparison. Although, to be fair, The Milky Way does a good job in pointing out how shortsighted that view is. It’s not the best film in the box set, but, like Diary of a Chambermaid (see above), its presence is welcome. The box set doesn’t include some of Buñuel’s best films, but what it does include is bloody good. Worth getting.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #9

Only five films this time, for some reason. Two of them are recent Hollywood blockbusters – one I thought over-rated, the other was terrible. You can probably guess which is which…

The Song of Bernadette, Henry King (1943, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and thought: classic Hollywood, probably worth a punt. It wasn’t. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Franz Werfel, which tells the story of the woman who “discovered” the “miraculous” spring at Lourdes. In the late 1850s, Bernadette, a schoolgirl, reported eighteen visions of the Madonna, and discovered a spring, following the instructions in one of those visions, which subsequently proved to have healing properties. Put that in a work of fiction and you’d find yourself on the sf and fantasy shelves. I mean, seriously? Lourdes is big business now, of course, with over 200 million visitors since 1860, despite the waters being repeatedly examined by scientists and displaying no unusual characteristics whatsoever. The Song of Bernadette comes across as a star vehicle for Jennifer Jones, who was married to producer David O Selznick, although she did win an Oscar for her role in this film…. despite playing a fourteen-year-old even though she was a decade older. (Another Jennifer Jones vehicle, Indiscretion of an American Wife – see here – is, despite the awful title, much much better.) The Song of Bernadette is all played very earnestly, with the sort of gravitas that suggests it’s based on historical sources, when it’s actually adapted from a novel which took a number of liberties with the life of the real St Bernadette. It’s all so fucking po-faced and serious despite the ridiculousness of its premise. The Song of Bernadette actually won four Oscars – best actress, best art direction, best cinematography, best music – but then it’s not like the Academy Awards have displayed all that much critical acumen over the decades… Not worth hunting down.

Inversion, Behnam Behzadi (2016, Iran). I have to date seen twenty-two films from Iran, a number of them by Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, two excellent directors. Iran has a strong film-making tradition and a number of brilliant films have come out of the country. Pretty much all of them have been deeply-rooted in Iranian society and the situation as it pertains in Iran. Inversion is a case in point. Niloofar lives with her mother and helps look after her. But when her mother collapses and is taken to hospital, and the only cure is to move her out of Tehran and its polluted air… Her brother assumes Niloofar will give up her life and move to the north with their mother. Niloofar doesn’t want to go – she has a successful business and she’s just started seeing an old flame who has returned to Tehran and is single once again. But her brother says he can’t go, and he’s not willing to shoulder part of the burden – why should he? He’s male. Since he owns the lease on Niloofar’s busines premises, he sells it under her so she’s forced to find new premises, and generally makes life difficult for her until she agrees to give up her life and move north to look after their mother. But she won’t budge. Even though it means refusing the role Iranian society expects her to play. All of the Iranian films I’ve seen have, to some degree, been critical of Iranian society, and mostly in regard to the role of women. In some it has been explicit, as it is in Inversion; in others, it is less obvious, such as in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. When your cinema is overwhelmingly negative, you have to wonder if there’s something about your country you need to change. So… how has the UK film industry reacted to Brexit? With fucking propaganda. Films about Churchill and Dunkirk. FFS. The man was not the greatest Briton who ever lived, he was a war criminal many times over, responsible for millions of deaths around the world. His leadership during WWII does not excuse his crimes, although it would not be fair to judge him without taking it into account. But. Iran under the shah was a repressive regime propped up by the West, Iran as an Islamic state is no utopia and the films it produces show as much – although the fact they exist shows an openness to criticism the shah was unlikely to allow. Inversion is definitely worth seeing. I will not be watching the Churchill ones.

Osaka Elegy, Kenji Mizoguchi (1936, Japan). I told David Tallerman, who gave me this box set, that I preferred Japanese films set in the twentieth century to historical films, and he pointed out that half of the films in this Mizoguchi collection are actually set in the twentieth century. Including this one. It’s an early film – released in 1936 – and its story is contemporary. I’ve seen enough films by Yasujiro Ozu (well, I’ve seen pretty much all his feature films from the 1950s onwards), so I think I have a good handle on the shape of his movies. Like Mizoguchi, he tended to use a stable of actors, and his films were very similar in the stories they tell. But I haven’t got to that stage with Mizoguchi yet, although I do find myself appreciating his films much more than I did when I first started watching them. In Osaka Elegy, a young woman is pressured into becoming the mistress of her employer. But hat affair ends when the wife finds out. She finds herself in a position where she needs money, and borrows it from her new sugar daddy. But when he demands it back, she has no one to turn to, not even her boyfriend, who had asked her to marry him. You would think, given the plot and my love of 1950s melodramas, Osaka Elegy would be right up my street, And it’s true that most of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen so far have told women’s stories – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Sansho Dayu and Utamaro and His Five Women being exceptions – but Osaka Elegy didn’t feel as centred on its female lead as, say, The Life of Oharu or The Lady of Musashino. But it’s not just that. Ozu’s films are really good illustrations of uchi-soto, inside-outside, but I don’t get that same feeling from Mizoguchi’s films. Yes, they’re more melodramatic, and the stories are based around the trials and tribulations of the central character – in this case, it’s telephone operator Ayako – and as such provide a dramatic commentary on Japanese society, and women’s role in it… But… I don’t know; perhaps they have too much plot for a melodrama. These are good films – although I could wish for better transfers – but so far they’ve yet to grab me the way Ozu’s films have done, or keep me entertained the way classic Hollywood melodramas have done. But they’re at least good for rewatches, so we shall see…

Atomic Blonde, David Leitch (2017, USA). This is based on a graphic novel, which I have not read; and I do wonder at the recent popularity of graphic novels as sources for movies. Okay, cinema is not an especially sophisticated form of entertainment – in story-telling terms, that is, rather than technically – and neither is the graphic novel, and their stories map out at around the same sort of time-lengths… But if you take a medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is partly baked in, and adapt it to another medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is also baked in… It’s not going to do much for your original story, is it? And when said story is a twisty-turny Cold War thriller that likes to think it can match Le Carré or Deighton for, er, twisty-turniness… Put it this way: there’s a cunning plot twist in Atomic Blonde and it was blindingly fucking obvious about ten minutes in. Charlize Theron, in what smells overpoweringly like a star vehicle or vanity project, plays an MI5 agent sent to Berlin in 1989 to clean up a failed attempt to hand over a stolen Stasi list of all foreign operatives in East Berlin. It’s supposed to be an easy job. But Berlin resident (the technical term for a spy undercover in a city) James MacAvoy seems to be playing his own game. So there’s lots of shooting, lots of fist fights, lots of bloody violence, in which Theron gives as good as she gets, and a plot that thinks it’s a hell of a lot clever than it actually is. And a film that looks really quite nice. The DVD cover should tell you that much, that this is a film which revels in its look. And in that respect, it succeeds really well. It looks great. But the story is pants, and has that blithe disregard to killing off characters graphic novels so often exhibit (because graphic novels don’t do characterisation), but which can be a real flaw in a movie. Even a Cold War thriller. Atomic Blonde looked very nice, but it really wasn’t very good. A shame.

Justice League, Zack Snyder (2017, USA). When the current generation of superhero films first appeared, I quite liked them. Even the bad ones. I liked that CGI had reached the point where it could show superpowers onscreen and they actually looked, well, real. At the time, of course, I still read comics – or rather, I read the trade paperback omnibuses of various superhero titles. So I was sort of into fascist violence enacted via Spandex-clad goons. But in an ironic way, of course. (Who am I kidding? I would read superhero comics like a thirteen-year-old, and watched the films with the same sensibilities; it could never last.) After all, for all that Superman is called “the last boy scout”, like that’s an insult, he’s still judge, jury and executioner much of the time. And he’s one of the least objectionable ones. But it’s not the concept of superheroes which makes Justice League a bad film. It’s not even Zack Snyder, who does some things really well – and there a lot of those sort of things in Justice League. To be honest, I can’t think of another director who could have done anything with Justice League that would not have been unrecognisable. And yet, it’s a shit film. It has to pull together six superheroes, while also presenting the origin story of three of them. Although one of them had an origin story in a TV series but they decided to retcon that. We know Superman and Batman, although both have been rebooted that many times it’s hard to be sure which is which; and of course we know Wonder Woman from last year’s successful film. But the Flash is not the Flash of the television series – more than one, IIRC – and Aquaman and Cyborg are complete unknowns. Of course, when you have superheroes, you can’t have them beating up muggers and bank robbers – well, not unless they’re Batman – which means you need a global threat that only superpowered dudes can fight, and then only if certain things happen, including them actually agreeing to work together. Because when the planet is in peril, superhero egos need to be tamed first. But never mind. Apparently, evil supervillain Steppenwolf – the only supervillain named after a novel, unless I’ve missed one called Oliver Twist – failed to gain control of four Mother Boxes on a previous visit to Earth because the Amazons, gods and Atlanteans all managed to fight him off. But the death of Superman has made Earth an easy target, so he’s back. And there are no gods anymore, so the Mother Boxes safeguarded by the Amazons and Atlanteans are easy grabs. So much for that cunning defence plan then. The problem with writing stories based around Mother Boxes – sorry, plot tokens – is that the story totally depends on them being picked up one by one, and as soon as the enemy has one, well, there’s your conflict and your conflict’s resolution all in one easy-to-understand package. Except real fiction – real life – is not like that, not that fiction has any requirement to be like real life. I’m not a fan of story templates or three-act structures and the like, and I’ve seen many excellent films which make a point of not using them, but if it’s going to be used it needs to be done so with rigour and consistency. And Justice League doesn’t. It flails all over the place. Introducing heroes, only to have them write themselves out of the story, but then re-appear and help save the day. The Flash is completely re-invented as a twentysomethihg nerd so Joss Whedon has a character he can actually write dialogue for, because if there’s one thing his career since Buffy has prove it’s that he’s a one-trick pony. Amd then there’s Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman… And Affleck is actually not bad as Batman, probably slightly better than his precursors. Which sounds like heresy. Maybe it’s the grey hair at the temples that does it. Cavill just looks too chiselled to be Superman – an actual human being who looks to be good to play a superhero, who would have believed it? Wonder Woman is underused; the other three superheroes are paper-thin, perhaps because they have no origin film of their own. The end result is a movie that has a threat and a defence to that threat which don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. But it has lots of nice visuals, most of which are implausible, and some character beats that don’t seem to follow the same rhythm track as the main plot. One day, superhero films will grow up; Justice League suggests there’s a way to go yet.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #8

A nice geographic spread of films, which is the sort of viewing I’d like to be normal for me.

Salyut-7, Klim Shipenko (2017, Russia). At the time I watched this, Salyut-7 had not been released on sell-through and was only available for streaming – I watched it on Amazon Prime, inexplicably as a three-episode series: they split the feature film in two, and then added a making of featurette as a “third episode”. Which is bonkers. Happily, Salyut-7 – stupidly marketed as “the Soviet ‘Apollo 13′” – is excellent. The previous mission to Salyut – the USSR’s space station during the 1980s – had had a few problems, but when the space station completely shut down after its solar panels were hit by micrometeoroids, and resisted efforts to be restarted from the ground, the only solution was to send up a pair of cosmonauts to fix it. The mission is generally considered one of the toughtest ever attempted – although, of course, the West knew nothing of it publicly until after glasnost. In some respects, Salyut-7 is clearly a Russian attempt to outdo Gravity – at which it happily succeeds. The bulk of the action is set aboard Salyut 7, and the presentation of micro-gravity is just as convincing, if not more so, than in Gravity. True, there’s not much in the way of drama – I mean, even though the mission’s details were kept from the public, the death of the cosmonauts could never have been covered up. So it’s obvious they succeeded – well, to anyone who knows anything about the Space Race. But it was far from easy, and the film makes a meal of the difficulty. But it is, above all, really convincing in its presentation of microgravity and the hardware involved, Soyuz and Salyut. Much as I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, I do find the Soyuz spacecraft an interesting piece of hardware, and it was good to see it in detail on the big screen (so to speak). If Salyut-7 set out to beat Gravity at its own game, then it succeeded admirably: the effects were as good, if not better; but it was also a true story. I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-ray. Recommended.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). Do I classify this is a documentary or an animated film, because, well, it’s both. And it’s not like there are that many animated documentaries they can form a genre of their own. Folman served in the Israeli Defense Force (hah) during the invasion of Lebanon, but it’s not until he’s contacted by a friend from those days that he realises his own memories of his army service are suspiciously free of trauma. So he investigates, and discovers that he was present during a massacre of Lebanese prisoners of war by Falangists but had wiped it from his memory. The film implies the IDF was not complicit in the massacre but allowed it to happen – not because it had been unaware of what might occur, but because the consequences suited them. Years later, Folman has to make sense of memories he has suppressed for nearly thirty years. He travels to the Netherlands to talk to another survivor from his tank squadron, who has made a comfortable living from selling falafel. His friend too has been happy to forget what occurred during the war, although he has not actually blocked the memories. As Folman talks to people who were involved in the circumstances which led to the massacre, so he starts to remember himself what happened. Because the film is animated – it’s a sort of Rotascoped animation, unique to Waltz with Bashir – so it’s easy to tell the flashbacks and present day narratives apart. The film pulls no punches, it depicts the IDF conscripts as ill-trained and clueless, happier having barbecues on the beach than fighting… and completely unprepared for the brutality they encounter. This is not news… but it was suppressed by the Israeli authorities. Not that any other country would not have done the same. All nations did it repeatedly during WWII. The UK and US continues to do it in regard to the Middle East. I remember reading once about a first-hand account by an Israeli soldier in Lebanon and because he described soldiers stealing cars it was not published in Western newspapers as that would undermine the the reputation of Israel. Wars happen; but wars would not continue without a continual supply of weapons… and the same nations who publicly condemn those wars are happy to sell weapons to the combatants. To my mind, that makes them war criminals. They need to be prosecuted. And yes, if that means people like Folman are tried for war crimes – because they were certainly involved in them, whether they remember it or not – then so be it. I would hope the sentencing would reflect their level of involvement and culpability. That’s the proper way to do it.

Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I have, over the years, watched several of Jarman’s films, and have often wondered why his reputation was so high in certain circles. I remember thinking Caravaggio was quite good, but The Tempest felt a bit amateur-ish, and Blue was pretty much unwatchable. So I’m not sure what prompted me to put Wittgenstein on my rental list – perhaps a desire to give Jarman a more serious look? If so, I picked a good one for it. Because I actually thought Wittgenstein pretty good. The entire film is filmed against a black background. It’s not black box theatre staging because it doesn’t even make an effort to suggest scenery. It’s actors in front of a black screen. And it works really well. Wittgenstein is shown as a young boy and as a young man, played by two different actors. I know very little about philosophy, I never studied it at school and certainly not at university. And, to be honest, I’ve never felt inspired to explore the subject in the decades since I left full-time education. But Jarman’s Wittgenstein had some choice dialogue on philosophy, like “philosophy is just a by-product of misunderstanding language” and “Professor Wittgenstein, I recommend you read more Hegel”. The script was actually written by Terry Eagleton, although Jarman apparently heavily rewrote it. I’m not especially interested in how films are made, at least not as much as I’m interested in the final product. Sometimes, the genesis of a film can be as interesting as the film itself, but in most cases… Movie-making is a collaborative venture in which various creative types apply their vision to the project… and it’s a toss-up as to which vision finally makes it to the released product. At least with auteur cinema you can be fairly sure it’s the director’s vision. But in Wittgenstein alone, there’s that gap between script and film, between what Eagleton wrote and what Jarman has his cast say. As a film, I liked Wittgenstein – I found it informative and enjoyable. The black background totally worked. If I had wondered about Jarman’s reputation before seeing it, the film at least suggested he deserved his reputation. I plan to watch more Jarman, although I suspect I may have seen the best… (Gah, I now see the BFI are releasing a limited edition box set of his first six films on Blu-ray next month.)

Sumurun, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). Described as an “Oriental pantomime in six acts”, and also known as One Arabian Night, Sumurun is actually based on a play by Friedrich Freksa (do they have pantomimes in Germany?). A travelling group of performers arrive at an unnamed city. A slave trader wants to sell the troupe’s dancer to the sheikh for his harem. Meanwhile, the sheikh’s favourite from his harem, Sumurun, has fallen in love with a cloth merchant. The sheikh wants the dancer, Sumurun wants the cloth merchant. And then it turns out the dancer falls in love with the sheikh’s son. It’s all very tangled and frenetic and, er, tinted. I’ve no idea why they tinted early films. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the experience. Nor does there seem to be any reason for the tint – sometimes it’s blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes red… Sumurun was apparently filmed entirely in Berlin, using sets, which makes the external shots of the city an impressive achievement – and the desert even more so. Pola Negri is good as the dancer, and Paul Wegener makes a menacing sheikh, but the rest of the cast gurn at the camera like, er, championship gurners. Lubitsch himself, who plays the hunchbacked member of the troupe, is one of the worst. He was apparently so disappointed by his performance he swore never to act again. I’ve now seen four of the six films in this box set, and I must admit the first two were easily the best. Still, there are two films to go – Anna Boleyn and Die Bergkatze– so we shall see…

Mammon (2014, Norway). My mother, who is a big Nordic Noir fan, lent me this. She’d found it in a charity shop. It’s one of those television series where you’re not sure where it’s going for much of its length, which can be an advantage, inasmuch as it promises much. But, of course, it has to make good on that mystery in the finale. And Mammon didn’t quite pull that off. A newspaper publishes allegations of fiscal malfeasance at an investment company, and the CFO resigns under a cloud. It turns out he’s the brother of the journalist who broke the story. A few days later, the CFO commits suicide. The narrative jumps ahead five years. The journalist has dug deeper, with the help of a police officer from the financial crimes unit (they were together for a while during those five years but it’s over now). Their research leads them to a conspiracy centred around a class at a prestigious business school in Bergen twenty years earlier. Then two more important businessmen commit suicide when their finances are questioned… It’s all to do with that group at the business school – and the journalist’s brother was the leader – who decided to use insider trading to create fortunes and so beat the old boy network. And when one of their number decided to grass them up, they murdered him by tying him to a chair and setting fire to his house, also killing the man’s young son in the process… And so creating the creating the defining philosophy of the group – that they would not, like Abraham, sacrifice their sons but would sooner commit suicide. Helping the journalist is a billionaire who gained his wealth suspiciously, and he’s trailed several times before the viewer as a possible villain. But. And it’s why Mammon ultimately dissatisfied – there’s a good conspiracy at the heart of the story, and an excellent mystery… but it over-eggs the cake. We never learn the source of the billionaire’s fortune, for example – and then turns implausibly violent in the final episodes, with men in black SUVs murdering people with impunity. For four of its six episodes, Mammon was good telly. Then it threw it away. There is a second series, broadcast in 2016, and the show has been renewed for a third series.

The Pirogue, Moussa Touré (2012, Senegal). The title refers to a type of open boat used by the Senagalese to travel up the west coast of Africa to land illegally in Spain, and so make a better life for themselves in Europe. Some are realistic about their chances, some imagine Europe as a land of gold. The captain of the pirogue knows he is responsible for all those on the boat – about thirty people all told. He had initially refused the job, but he needed the money. At first, all goes well during the journey. They come across another pirogue whose engines (main and spare) have both failed, but decide they cannot stop to render assistance without jeopardising their own survival. But then there’s a big storm, and one of the men is swept into the sea. Unfortunately, he had the GPS on him. So they continue on, navigating by blind reckoning… but they’re as likely to be heading for Brazil as they are Spain. Fortunately, they’re picked up by the Spanish coast guard a day or so after their water runs out. After a couple of weeks in a camp in Spain, they’re repatriated to Senegal, none the worse for their ordeal. Except for the two who died, that is. The bulk of the film takes place in the boat, and it does an excellent job of setting out the characters, their reasons for being in the pirogue and their hopes for the future. There’s a tribal element to it, with the passengers coming from two tribes, one of which seems predominantly muslim, but it doesn’t generate conflict. There’s also a stowaway, a young woman, who causes some tension when she’s discovered – there is only so much food and water, after all. For all that The Pirogue is set on a boat in the open sea, it’s convincingly done. And the storm is especially convincing. I’m surprised this film isn’t better know, it’s a solid piece of drama and it is hugely relevant as an antidote to the racist scaremongering over immigration and refugees put out by the right. (A country without immigrants is a stagnant country. Easiest way to stop the refugee problem? Stop bombing the shit out of their homes. It’s very simple. Refutations that “it’s complex” are just excuses to not do anything.) Anyway, The Pirogue is very good, and there are two more films on this Great African Films Volume 4 DVD. It’s a shame the series is so hard to find, as it contains some excellent films (only one, Daratt, from Chad, was independently released on DVD in the UK). More films like this should be released in the UK.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895