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Moving pictures, #61

The USA has crept back into this post, although I think I’m currently watching on average more non-Anglophone movies than Anglophone ones. Mind you, I did recently re-organise my LoveFilm rental lists, so I now receive two non-Anglophone movies and one Anglophone movies each week.

midnight_in_parisMidnight in Paris, Woody Allen (2011, USA). I am really not a fan of Woody Allen and tend to avoid his films as much as possible. But David Tallerman spoke approvingly of this one, it was free to watch on Amazon Prime, and it didn’t actually star Allen himself… Also, the story sounded sort of interesting. Owen Wilson – who turned out to be Woody Allen in all but name – is a successful Hollyood scriptwriter holidaying in Paris with his fiancée and future in-laws. They don’t seem well matched – he to his fiancée or to his in-laws. While wandering the streets of Paris one night, an old-fashioned car stops and offers him a lift. He’s taken to a party, where he meets F Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. And from the party, they move onto a bar, where he meets Ernest Heminway… and so on, to Gertrude Stein, Pabo Picasso, Man, Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali… And the next morning, he’s back in twenty-first century Paris. And so it goes: he spends his nights with the literati of 1920s Paris, falls in love with a young woman, and slowly realises his fiancée is not for him. But neither is the woman from the 1920s, as the two of them travel back to 1890s Paris and she decides to stay there. Wilson is Allen in all but appearance, and he’s one of things I find most annoying about Allen’s films. Michael Sheen plays a hugely irritating and patronising friend, and the fact fiancée Rachel McAdams likes him tells you how unsuitable she is for Wilson. Midnight in Paris is by no means a subtle film. The big names of the 1920s and 1890s who make an appearance are little more than caricatures, and the whole edifice is plainly meant to be carried by Allen Wilson. It’s entertaining enough, I guess, and the central conceit has its charm. But it hasn’t caused me to reassess my opinion of Woody Allen’s films.

kings_speechThe King’s Speech*, Tom Hooper (2010, UK). I’d managed to avoid watching this, despite the fact it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, because I really don’t want to watch films about the British royal family which don’t treat them as anything other than the historical embarrassment they are. (I have nothing against the Windsors per se, but the concept of “divine right” is primitive nonsense and the whole concept of royalty has no place in the modern world.) Anyway, The King’s Speech popped up for free on Amazon Prime, so I went for it since it was going to cost me nowt. And… it was entirely as I expected: a super-entitled seeks twonk help for his speech impediment, and ends up turning to an untrained Australian therapist with a pet theory. Which apparently works. One of the conditions of the treatment is that the therapist treats his patient as an equal and vice versa – but King George VI (as will be) seems to have real trouble with that. He hides it well, but he’s better than everyone else on the planet because’s a King Emperor. Of course. For all that, the film was pretty innocuous. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the mise en scène, and while the movie had a first-rate cast most of them looked they were going through the motions. How it ended up on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery, as it’s little more than a competent historical drama about an uninteresting topic. Meh.

classic_bergmanSo Close to Life, Ingmar Bergman (1958, Sweden). Three women are in a ward at a Swedish hospital to deliver babies. One is in a loveless marriage, another isn’t ready for a child, and the third is eagerly awaiting motherhood. Bergman keeps the story confined to the ward – and a few other rooms in the hospital – but it’s all about the three women, and their visiting partners; and fortunately Bergman’s cast have chops to spare in delivering the story. In fact, the three female leads – Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson – all won the Best Actress Award at Cannes that year; Bergman walked away with the Best Director Award. So despite being his first work after the critically-acclaimed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, released the previous year and still considered among his best works (and possibly the two of the best-known films made by Bergman), So Close to Life manages not to embarrass. It has that theatrical atmosphere many of his films never quite managed to avoid, although in this case it’s heightened by the restricted sets. This sort of film-making does throw a lot of onto the cast’s shoulders, but one thing youn can say about Bergman’s films is that he was never let down by his actors. I can’t say So Close to Life was especially memorable, but it was a superior piece of intense and up-close drama, and certainly worth watching.

strangerStranger than Paradise*, Jim Jarmusch (1984, USA). I think this is the last of the Jarmusch’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is a relief. Perhaps I saw his films in the wrong place at the wrong time, ie, not the USA in the mid-1980s. Because I don’t get the appeal at all. In this one, which in parts feels like a complete rip-off of Cassavetes, a pair of musicians play lowlifes in New York who befriend a young Hungarian woman, and later drive to Cleveland to visit her after she has moved there to be with her mother. And, er, that’s it. Oh, they drive to Florida as well. But it’s basically jazz musician John Lurie and Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, who look confusingly alike, ad libbing at each other. The cinematography is black and white, and pleasingly clean; but I can’t see the appeal of the supposed plot, which I have seen described as both surreal and minimalist – and while I’m in no way chained to the necessity of plot (I love video installations, for a start), I think a feature film has to offer something more if it’s going to skimp on plot – and Stranger than Paradise doesn’t really. Some similar films shift their emphasis to their soundtrack, and use that to carry the film – but Stranger than Paradise didn’t. It just felt meandering, dull, its appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Yoyu Die list is baffling, and Jarmusch’s appeal still escapes me.

shop_on_high_streetThe Shop on the High Street*, Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos (1965, Slovakia). In occupied Slovakia, a man is told to take over a sewing shop owned by a senile old Jewish woman, because Jews cannot own property or businesses. But the old woman’s shop has been doing badly for years and is only kept afloat by donations. The Jewish community persuade the man to keep the shop going and they will pay him a weekly payment. So he stays on… but the old woman has got it into her head he’s her nephew and he’s only there to help her out, and he doesn’t disabuse her. But then authorities round up all the town’s Jewish population, and the man can’t decide if he should turn in the old woman… There’s nothing particularly special about The Shop on the High Street. It’s a blackly comic film was about one of WWII’s lesser known aspects, played well by its cast and well-shot by its directors. Its story, however, is one that certainly should not be forgotten – now more than ever. How long in Trump’s USA before businesses owned by Muslims are handed to “Christians”? (I use quote marks because there’s fuck-all that’s Christian about most of the stuff done by the US Christian Right.) Anyway, Second Run have an excellent eye for good films – I don’t think they’ve released a dud yet – and this is no exception. Definitely worth seeing.

cowboysLes cowboys, Thomas Bidegain (2015, France). An odd film, this. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take it, and as it progressed I found myself changing my perspective on its central premise. In the 1990s, a French family at a local country & western festival discover their teenage daughter has disappeared. They spend several days searching for her, before receiving a letter from her: she has run away with her Muslim boyfriend and plans to live in Pakistan with him. The father is convinced his daughter was kidnapped by white slavers, and spends years tracking down clues to her location. To no avail. It costs him his life in a traffic accident. The son takes over, and even ends up as a relief worker in Pakistan, where he tracks down hs sister’s husband. Except they’re not married anymore, and in a struggle, the son accidentally shoots the husband. He is caught by the police and imprisoned. The French authorities arrange for his release. He buys the release of the dead man’s wife and takes her back to France with him. She would have been killed had she remained in Pakistan, but she’s an outsider in France – indeed, she’s the subject of racial abuse during a visit to the country & western festival. The son marries her, they settle down and have a kid… and then he hears from someone who has seen his missing sister… A good film that manages to remain objective, despite its emotive content, but allows the viewer to see that the behaviour of the characters is often not acceptable, no matter what provocation. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 826


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Moving pictures, #60

Look at that! Another group of films without a single one from the US. And not a bad film in the lot, either. I’m getting better at this.

au_revoirAu revoir les enfants*, Louis Malle (1987, France). The Malle films I’ve watched so far – all of which were a result of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – I’ve not found that impressive. Which is not to say I’d totally written him off – after all, I might well have said the same of Claude Chabrol, but then I watched A Story of Women and Le boucher, and revised my opinion – but let’s just say my expectations were not especially high when I put Au revoir les enfants into the player. Malle appears three times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there was always a possiblity one of his films might strike my fancy, and… Au revoir les enfants did: I thought it a well-shot and well-played French movie. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical. Set at a boys’ boarding-school in 1943 in occupied France, a class tough, who wets his bed at night, wakes up and discovers one of the school’s three new pupils praying in Hebrew. The priest who runs the school is hiding Jewish children from the Germans. The two boys become friends, but then the Gestapo raid the school and take away the three boys and the priest. They were denounced by the kitchen hand, who had been fired for selling school food supplies on the black market. There’s nothing in particular about Au revoir les enfants that stands out, it’s just a well-made drama, its cast are good, and it tells a story that – in these times more than ever – needs to be told. It’s not a film that deserves to be forgotten or ignored. Recommended.

black_coalBlack Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan (2014, China). Streaming is apparently not a total dead loss. I was looking for something to watch one night and spotted this on Amazon Prime: a recent Chinese thriller. So I gave it a go. It was excellent. When I lived in the UAE, I watched a lot of Hong Kong action films, especially Jackie Chan ones, on VCD (who remembers VCD?), but I watched very little, if anything, from mainland China. And then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made wu xia commercially successful internationally, and it was followed by a raft of historical Chinese epics / wu xia movies, the bulk of which looked absolutely gorgeous. But, of course, China’s film industry produces more than just historical epics and wu xia, and in the last couple of years I’ve seen several such films – for example, I thought Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin so good, I stuck all his other films on my rental list. Black Coal, Thin Ice reminded me a little Zhangke’s film, but it also reminded me a little of a French thriller from 2000, Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers). Black Coal, Thin Ice opens with the discovery of a dismembered body at a coal plant. ID found nearby identifies the body as that of Liang, a coal worker. While apprehending a suspect, there’s a shootout and only detective Zhang and his partner Wang survive. The case is closed. The film skips ahead five years. Zhang is now a drunk, and working as a security guard. He bumps into Wang, who is still a detective, and learns that two further murders have occurred since that first one, both with the bodies dismembered. All three victims were linked to Liang’s widow Wu. Serial killer movies are nothing new, of course, and in recent years many have moved from focusing on the drama of the chase, and eventual arrest, onto the psychological effects of the investigation on those hunting the serial killer. Black Ice, Thin Ice falls firmly into the latter category, but it scores by not sensationalising its story, and by characterising Zhang as a failure from the start – it’s not the investigation which traumatises him, it was the shoot-out before they even knew they had a serial killer, when they thought they had closed the case. The cinematography is lovely, although the settings are wholly urban or industrial, and the performances low-key. Recommended.

tokyo_storyTokyo Story*, Yasujiro Ozu (1953, Japan). Watching Ozu’s films is a bit like watching a long-running family drama series, except the actors play different parts, although in broad outline their characters are the same. And it’s all set within the same generation, over a fifteen year period beginning in the early 1950s. So, in Tokyo Story, Chishu Ryu, who also plays the lead in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, plays one half of a retired couple, with Chieko Higashiyama, who plays the mother in Early Summer (and in which Chishu Ryu plays, er, her oldest son), visit Tokyo to stay with their adult children. One of whom is a widow (she’s actually a daughter-in-law). Single women seem to feature heavily in Ozu’s films. It’s the daughter-in-law who spends the most time with the old couple. On their return to their home in Onomichi, they stop off to see another of their children in Osaka, where Higashiyama takes ill. When the two get back to Onomichi, Higashiyama’s illness worsens and she dies. The family gather for the funeral, but again it’s the widowed daughter-in-law who provides the most support. She points out she is less busy than the others as she has no family of her own, and so Ryu tells her she should remarry as soon as possible. If it’s not a familiar plot, it’s a familiar refrain. I’ve remarked before that Ozu’s films are very domestic, very inside, and the fact they’re chiefly family dramas is a reflection of this. And at the time Ozu was making films, it seems one of the issues which exercised family patriarchs was making good marriages for their daughters. True, this is a Japanese film, but it’s also more than sixty years old, and I suspect “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” is more of an explanation of its concerns than any differences in Japanese and British culture. It also possesses bags of charm, but not because – he says, trying desperately hard to think of UK and US examples – it presents a charming lifestyle, as in, say, All That Heaven Allows (extra points for shoe-horning my favourite film into the post), or any random Rock Hudson rom com from the fifties, or The Man Who Loved Redheads, or Josephine and Men… in which the lifestyle defines the characters. In Ozu’s films, the lifestyle remains essentially unchanged from film to film, and the characters are defined by their relationships (which is good, given Ozu’s penchant for using the same actors in different roles). I first watched Tokyo Story back in 2009, long before I started using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I likely did so after seeing it praised somewhere, perhaps in Sight & Sound… At the time, I enjoyed it, but didn’t bother furhter exploring Ozu’s films. Now, however, I’m getting quite hooked on them. I don’t think I’d count Tokyo Story among my favourites by him, but it is, of course, recommended.

great_african_1Faraw! (une mère de sable), Abdoulaye Ascofaré (1997, Mali). Somewhere or other I’d come across mention of ArtMattan Productions’ DVD series Great African Films, in four volumes so far, and I immediately wanted copies. But their website design seems stuck in the 1990s, and when I emailed them to ask if they’d sell copies to a buyer in the UK I never received a reply. So I ended up purchasing a copy of their first volume – which includes Faraw! (une mère de sable), from Mali, and Harumbaya, from Burkina Faso – off someone on eBay. Annoyingly, it proved to be ex-rental, but I went back and checked the seller’s description and, yes, they did mention that, I’d just missed it. Oh well. The two discs played fine, anyway. Faraw! is set in north east Mali, a desert region, where the twentieth century has made few inroads. A mother, apparently based on Ascofaré’s mother, has trouble making ends meet – her husband is an invalid and his pension is all the income they have, her daughter is rebellious, and the two young sons are more likely to cause trouble than help. In desperation, she approaches the handful of Europeans living in the village, offering the services of herself and her daughter as cleaners. But the Europeans want more from the daughter than just washing and sweeping, so the mother turns them down in disgust. She visits an ex-suitor, and he gives her a donkey. She uses this to fetch water from a spring, and then sells the water to women in and around the village, so earning enough to feed her family. The film ends with a bizarre dream sequence, in which the title character makes a triumphant entry to the village. There’s a freshness and honesty to Faraw! you no longer see in Anglophone movies. While it was obviously made on the cheap, the cast are entirely convincing in their roles (except, perhaps, the Europeans), and Aminata Ousmane – this is apparently her only film appearance – fills the screen with a fierce maternal determination that pretty much defines the movie. It was totally worth hunting down this DVD. Recommended.

east_bucharest12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania). I mentioned to a Romanian friend I’d been watching lots of films from various countries, so he said, of course you’ve watched some Romanian films… and I was a little bit embarrassed to realise I hadn’t. I immediately added a bunch to my rental list and this was the first one to arrive. I’ve certainly watched a film made in Romanian – East Germany’s Im Staub der Sterne was filmed partly in the country – but never an actual Romanian film. And the fact it proved to be 12:08 East of Bucharest was pure chance. It starts out a bit grim, following the life a drunk in the town of Vaslui, who can barely remember what he gets up to each night, and spends the following morning begging for a drink from his regular bar. Then he makes his way to a television studio to appear in a programme about the day 16 years before when a revolution overthrew Ceauşescu’s brutal regime. He was a teacher at the time, and he claims to have been present in the square when Ceauşescu fled the town hall. Except not everyone remembers it like that. And during the live celebration, people ring in and disagree with the teacher, and the other two panel members, over their claims to involvement in the revolution. So what starts out as grim turns blackly comic before becoming a weird sort of farce in which the three on the TV panel argue back against those who call into the television studio, insisting that the role they played during that year is true. The end result is a black comedy that is really quite funny, makes pointed commentary on Romania’s history, and remains very Romanian (I was unaccountably amused by the many mentions of Timişoreana beer). Recommended.

flickering_truthA Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand). And yet another gem found on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure what possessed me to start watching it, but I’m glad I did. It documents the attempt to rescue the Afghan Film Archives in Kabul after the depradations of the Taliban. The films are in poor condition, and not all have survived – but there are some historically important documents in there. A Flickering Truth is ambivalent toward its protagonist, Ibrehim Arif, who had been imprisoned by the Mujahideen but had fled Afghanistan to settle in Germany – and there’s a suggestion throughout the film that his projects are as much selfish as they are altruistic. It’s true that he does a great deal to rescue the archive, but he also has his critics – although whether they are motivated by the fact he fled to Germany is left to the viewer’s own interpretation. It’s fascinating stuff, and the footage shown from the archives is even more fascinating. I’ve seen Osama, which gives a good indication of what life was like under the Taliban; but many people seem to have forgotten what life was like in that part of the world before Islamism rose in response to Western interference. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan… these were all secular states. – until the Cold War ended and the USA decided to try its hand at foreign affairs in the Middle East. (Which is not to ignore their previous meddling, and how successful it was…) (Nor am I absolving the UK of blame, although it tended not to fuck things up as badly as the US.) (Not that that is anything to boast about…). A Flickering Truth was excellent stuff and reminded me a little of both Kandahar and the aforementioned Osama. Recommended.

1001 Films You Must See Before you Die count: 823


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Moving pictures, #59

It’s not all about the US, although you’d be forgiven everything was always about the US – but there’s only one American film in this post. Two from France, however, despite my previously-stated lack of enthusiasm for much French cinema (although I do prefer it to US and UK cinema).

labyrinth_liesLabyrinth of Lies, Giulio Ricciarelli (2014, Germany). Someone mentioned this film to me, and then I promptly forgot about it until stumbling across it on Amazon Prime. It’s set in the late 1950s in Germany, and is about a federal prosecutor’s attempt to prosecute surviving SS guards at Auschwitz under state criminal law (rather than international crimes against humanity). He’s hampered by the fact that the German establishment is packed to the gills with ex-Nazis, all of whom are invested in ensuring that the crimes committed during WWII are forgotten. The German public also believe the Allied films taken when liberating Auschwitz and the other death camps were propaganda. When the prosecutor learns Mengele freely travels back to Germany to visit his family, he is horrifed. He does a deal with the Israelis for Eichmann and Mengele, but once they have Eichmann they renege. Mengele is never bought to justice. The prosecutor has the blessing of the state prosecutor-general, and battles through the resistance of his colleagues, the local police, and members of the German public. It’s all based on a true story, but the ending is not especially happy. The German government decreed that a murder committed while following orders was not murder, but accessory to murder; for a death-camp guard to be charged with murder, he would have to kill someone on his own provable initiative. Of the 6,500 surviving soldiers who served at Auschwitz, only 789 were charged, and only 750 were sentenced. Most served only a few years. Worth seeing.

deadpoolDeadpool, Tim Miller (2016, USA). I don’t why I bothered. I knew going in this would probably annoy me more than it would entertain. Admittedly, from what I’d read, it seemed quite different to your average superhero movie and a lot was made of its irreverent tone… Basically, you have Ryan Reynolds in the title role cracking jokes throughout, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in voiceover, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall (gosh, how innovative). Reynolds is some sort of ex-special forces mercenary, who joins a programme which is supposed to give him super mutant powers. Which it does. But it also makes him really ugly. Which is unfortunate, because he’s in a relationship and he’s afraid his girlfriend will be horrified by his new appearance (hence the mask). But Reynolds wants the bloke who ran the programme because he thinks he can restore his previous good looks. Essentially, Deadpool is one big series of flashbacks. It opens with a fight on a freeway, in which Deadpool attacks a conovy, and then a series of flashbacks, and voiceovers, explain how Deadpool ended up in that situation. Every now and again, it cuts back to the fight on the freeway. Which Deadpool isn’t exactly winning, but one of his super mutant powers is the ability to heal almost immediately from any wound. I suppose if you were to judge Deadpool against other MCU movies, then it looks quite good. But that’s a really low bar. It was entertaining, in a marginally more than brainless way, but it’s once-watched-completely-forgotten.

shoot_pianistTirez sur le pianiste*, François Truffaut (1960, France). This was a rental and only watched because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. After all, much as I love Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, I’d thought The 400 Blows a bit meh, and besides I’d found the Nouvelle Vague more miss than hit… Anyway, I bunged Shoot the Pianist (I prefer the French title, tbh) into the player one Saturday night after I’d had some wine… and, well, I wasn’t really following the film and it all looked a bit, well, New Wave and black-and-white and French and full of itself. But the next morning it occurred to me I’d not given the film a fair crack, so a couple of days later I sat down and watched it again – and this time I watched it properly. And was surprised to find myself both enjoying it and appreciating Truffaut’s film-making. Charles Azanvour plays a concert pianist who lives his life behind after his wife commits suicide, and is now playing the piano in a bar. His brother appears one day, on the run from a pair of crooks, with whom he’d committed a crime. While helping out his brother, Aznavour meets one of the bar’s waitresses, the two enter into a relationship. There’s an extended flashback to Aznavour’s days as a feted concert pianist, and a third act that is almost pure noir. But I think what appeals about Tirez sur le pianiste is that for mit really brought into focus the elements of the Nouvelle Vague – the extreme close-ups, the voiceovers, the fascination with US cinema, especially noir, the free-wheeling plotting… There’s a scene where Aznavour and the waitress, Marie Dubois, are walking along a street and night-time, and he tries to take her hand, and it was like peak Nouvelle Vague – the only missing was a jazz score. Truffaut has gone up a little in my estimation, so I might stick more of his films on my rental list.

walkaboutWalkabout*, Nicolas Roeg (1971, Australia). A teenage girl and her younger brother are driven out into the Outback their father, ostensibly for a picnic, but he goes mental, then shoots himself. So, the two of them hike off into the bush, as you do, in an attempt to find help. Neither knows how to survive in the desert and both are woefully naive about a great number of things. Fortunately, they’re discovered by a Yolngu young man on his walkabout, and he helps them and shows them how to survive in the bush. They make their way to a town, where the Yolngu man dances a courtship dance for the girl, which she fails to understand. The next day, the Yolngu man is dead. It’s not stated how he died. Roeg has said he started filming without much of a plan and pretty much filmed whatever took his fancy. It worked. The camera is forever drifting about the bush, filming the various creatures which inhabit it. There’s also an artlessness and plotlessness to the trio’s wanderings, which makes of their journey something of a fairy tale. It has an entirely appropriate dream-logic to it, and though it clearly wasn’t intentional, it makes the film much better than it might have been. I’ve not seen all that much by Roeg – the two obvious ones, of course: Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth – but I think I’ll try more by him. Recommended.

screaming_manA Screaming Man, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2010, Chad). I’ve seen two of Haroun’s early films, Abouna and Daratt, and thought them very good, so it was a no-brainer to put this on the rental list… although it took a while before I was eventually sent it. The eponymous figure is an ex-Olympic swimmer, now many years later the attendant at a hotel swimming-pool. His son is the other poll attendant. But when a new company takes over the hotel, they do the usual and start “rationalising” the staff. So the old man is demoted to gate guard, and his son remains the sole pool attendant. So the father “volunteers” his son for the army, to fight against rebel forces. They take him away and the old man gets his position back as poool attendant. Some time later, a pregnant young woman turns up and says she is the son’s wife. They take her in. The man reconsiders what he’s done, and heads off on his motorcycleand sidecar to fetch his son from the front line. He finds him badly wounded, puts him in the sidecar and heads for home. The story of a A Screaming Man seems strung on two poles: a matter-of-factness in the telling and dark humour. It’s something I noticed in Daratt, but it seems especially prevalent in this film, although it’s a more laidback affair than that earlier movie. It’s in the small scenes, like the title character dashing back and forth to open the hotel entry and exit gates as cars keep appearing. There doesn’t seem to be anything else by Haroun other than the three films I’ve named currently available, which is a shame as he’s definitely worth seeing.

limportantL’important c’est d’aimer, Andrzej Żuławski (1975, France). This was a lucky find on eBay – after all, now that I know these Mondo Vision Signature Edition DVDs of Żuławski’s films exist, how could I not want them? Of course, by the time I did learn of them, only the two most recent of the five so far released were still available – although I’d learnt of them by buying one of the deleted titles on eBay. And now the only one I’m missing it arguably Żuławski’s most famous film, Possession, but L’important c’est d’aimer, or The Most Important Thing is to Love, is perhaps Żuławski’s least batty film. Romy Schneider plays a pornographic actress whom photographer Fabio Testi falls for. So he decides to boost her career, and gets her cast in a production of Richard III. But Schneider has a husband, and as she falls for Testi, she’s conflicted between the two. As Żuławski films go, this one is almost laidback. The performances are toned down considerably more than in his other films, and while it relies a great deal on the cast’s sexuality – as all of Żuławski’s French films seem to do – there’s definitely more drama here than melodrama. Unfortunately, it does make it a deal less memorable than Żuławski’s other films. Mondo Vision, incidentally, have another impressive job on this release, and I really need to get hold of their limited edition of Possession so I’ll have the set. They’re releasing a limited edition of The Blue Note soon. It’s on my wishlist.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 822


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Moving pictures, #58

Continuing on with the movies posts in a world in which superheroes, should they start to appear, would actually look like the good guys…

housekeepingHousekeeping, Bill Forsythe (1987, USA). I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and have all of her novels, so I was naturally interested to see how she translated to the silver screen because, er, well, I’m not sure. And the answer is, er, I’m still not sure. I enjoyed the film Housekeeping, but not as much as I enjoyed the novel. But one of the joys of Robinson’s novels is her prose, and so a cinematic adaptation has to provide an equivalent – and I don’t think that Forsyth’s Housekeeping does. But, would I have read the book having seen the film? Probably not. It’s a perfect example of how the two media interact. It’s usually said the book is better than the film, although there are a few examples where the reverse is true – Marnie, The Commitments… – and it’s certainly true for Housekeeping, even though the film is not all that bad without knowledge of the book. Christine Lahti is good as the flaky aunt who takes over the upbringing of the two girls (one of whom narrates). However, the landscape as shown in the film never quite fit my mental map from reading the book. Mostly it was too big. Now, the US is big, so I suspect the film was a better representation than what I had imagined, but it still felt weird watching it. Intellectually, I guessed I was wrong, which then felt like accusing myself of a failure of imagination… But then voicover is a poor substitute for interiority, if only because using it to the same extent feels like over-using it. Post-facto narration is one way of presenting interiority via voiceover, but it’s tricky to write in such a way that the lack of hindsight doesn’t seem odd. Mostly Housekeeping succceeds, and on reflection its charm probably carries it further than someone with knowledge of the book would expect. Worth seeing, but I much prefer the novel.

hitch_truffHitchcock / Truffaut, Kent Jones (2015, France). I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s films – in fact, he was the first director whose movies I collected on DVD because he was the director, rather than buying DVDs based on story or stars or  genre, and I buillt up a collection of pretty much everything he had made. A recent rewatch of his two main collections, after upgrading them to Blu-ray, only confirmed by admiration of the movies. Truffaut, on the other hand… I love his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 – in fact I love the film but hate the book – but nothing else by him has ever really appealed to me. I’ve always much preferred Godard. But Truffaut was a big fan of Hitchcock and, as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, was instrumental in rehabilitating Hitchocock as an auteur. This documentary includes footage of the original interview which led to Truffaut’s book (I really do need to get myself a copy), as well as present-day talking heads discussing Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Truffaut’s interview of Hitchcock. It’s fascinating stuff, more so because of what it reveals of Hitchcock than because of its commentary – there’s a telling moment where Hitchcock directs Truffaut during a photo shoot, and it’s clear from his comments that Hitch knows exactly what looks best. Recommended.

zero_de_conduiteZéro de conduite*, Jean Vigo (1933, France). I know Vigo from L’atalante, which I bought many years ago from, I think, a sale at HMV. It turns out he only made four films, and both L’atalante and Zéro de conduite make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before  you Die list, which I calculate at 50% of his oeuvre, and that has to be considered a pretty impressive achievement. Except… well, I didn’t think that much of Zéro de conduite. In fact, of the three films included on the disc I rented – it also included À propos de Nice and Le natation par Jean Taris – I thought À propos de Nice more interesting a movie than Zéro de conduite. Anyway, Zéro de conduite – it’s set at a boys’ school in, I suppose, the 1910s. The school is harsh and the pupils eventually rebel. None of it seems entirely real – there’s a teacher who steals food from the pupils, there’s a lack of discipline that seems more wish-fulfilment from the pupils than the teachers… and while it’s all entertaining enough, nothing seemed to really stand out. Le natation par Jean Taris was a straightforward documentary on a swimmer and his technique, and while Vigo’s film-making techniques may have been every bit as innovative as Taris’s swimming technique in 1931, all that remains now is a mildly interesting documentary on swimming which clearly prototypes techniques now commonplace. À propos de Nice, however, is much more interesting proposition. The result of a desire to make a film about Nice, Vigo was determined to avoid common narratives, and so chose to contrast the rich with the poor. The film opens with aerial shots of the city, a surprising enough thing to see on the screen in 1930, before showing the great and good wandering up and down the Corniche. It then moves to the poorer sections of the city, and the contrast is every bit as effective as Vego might have imagined. À propos de Nice did more to persuade me that Vigo was an important early director than Zéro de conduite ever did, and I suspect it rightly belongs on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list.

ray_1Nayak, Satyajit Ray (1966, India). The third and final film in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1, and while I thought Charulata the best of the three, I’d be hard-pressed to choose whether this one or Mahanagar the next best. The “hero” of the title is a Bengali movie star, Arindam Mukherjee, who has to travel by train to Mumbai to pick up an award. Also on the train is a young editor from a women’s magazine who persuades Mukherjee to allow her to interview him. As he answers her questions, it triggers flashbacks which dramatise some of the incidents which led to his current success. Like Charulata, there are also some dream sequences – so I’m starting to wonder if this is a Ray thing – and they’re both disturbing and effectively staged. One in particular has Mukherjee drowning in a sea of money when he spots a mentor from earlier in his career – except the mentor looks like a statue. Anyway, it’s weird and yet very effective. Nayak is a character study of its protagonist, but it’s also a study of what a character study is. Mukherjee’s present-day actions are explained through flashback vignettes, which also help illustrate why he reacts as he does in later scenes. There’s a running argument throughout the film between Mukherjee and his mentor, the former sees himself as part of a new generation of actors, the latter as a defender of the old tradition. Although I’ve only seen a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I already have him pegged as an urban director, compared to Ghatak’s often rural settings. (But then I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s films, and I suspect he saw himself as more of a Marxist than a defender of the rural way of life.) Certainly the three movies in this box set by Ray are urban, and it makes an interesting change to Ghatak’s films.

herzogNosferatu: Phantom der Nacht*, Werner Herzog (1979, Germany). I prefer the German title to this film, although the version of it I watched this time around was the English-language version. It’s a pretty straightforward remake of Murnau’s film, with Kinski in the Schreck role, and while he doesn’t quite manage to present the same level of menace, Herzog’s film does have some lovely cinematography and use of incidental music. Particularly in the scenes where Bruno Ganz (as Jonathan Harker) approaches Dracula’s castle, which are beautifully shot with impressively evocative background music. Whitby is transposed into Wismar, a small town on Germany’s coast on the Baltic; but the story pretty much follows Bram Stoker’s story. When you have so many cinematic adaptations of a single novel – or of that novel’s eponymous villain – then fidelity to the source text seems pretty irrelevant. By 1979, of course, Dracula had been pretty much set in the public’s mind as a saturnine but urbane aristocrat in dinner jacket and cape. Herzog’s Dracula is a welcome return to Murnau’s frankly quite odd presentration of the vampire, but in that form he at least seems to embody a real sense of menace. Having said all that, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht does seem a little, well, tame for Herzog. Nonetheless, it’s easily one of the better Dracula films made – and yes, it does belong on 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list; and yes, Murnau’s Nosferatu is also on the list, as is Dreyer’s Vampyr

stella_dallasStella Dallas*, King Vidor (1937, USA). This didn’t appear to be available on DVD in either the UK or US, and the copy I finally ended up with was a Spanish release. And it was pretty much a waste of time – the film was a potboiler, with little to recommend it and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, the daughter of a millworker, who has social ambitions. She engineers an introduction to mill manager John Boles, callously gets him to marry her on the rebound, and then uses her new-found position to explore society, much to her husband’s disapproval. But after giving birth to a girl, she sublimates all her ambition into giving her daughter the best start in life. Husband meanwhile has been transferred to New York, but mother and child stay back home, mother hanging out with unsavoury types while daughter grows up like some sort of changeling. But then husband bumps into an old flame, now widowed and with three boys, and they rekindle their relationship. Daughter goes to visit, is a great hit, and… well, you can see where this is going. It’s pure melodrama from start to finish, but has none of the subversiveness of Sirk. I’ve no idea why it was on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list – it may have been nominated for two Oscars, and the AFI nominated the title character as one of its 100 Heroes & Villains… But it was all a bit meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 820


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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817


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Moving pictures, #56

A right proper mix this time around. I have recently simplified my lists on LoveFilm. Previously, I was running three lists – one for Hollywood blockbusters, one for classic movies, and one for world cinema. I’ve now combined them into one for English-language films and one for non-Anglophone movies. I am not in the slightest bit desperate to see the latest films released by Hollywood as soon as I can and am happy to wait before eventually watching them. Besides, there’s always Amazon Prime if I want to watch crap US films…

ray_1Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India). This is the second film in the Satyajit Ray collection I bought, but unlike the first it is an historical piece. The title is the name of a young woman in 1870s Kolkata, whose husband asks a friend to keep her company. It’s based on a novella by Rabindranath Tagore. Her husband is rich and publishes a newspaper called The Sentinel. Determined not to be a member of the “idle rich”, he involves himself in every aspect of running his newspaper. To keep his wife company, he invites his cousin to stay. The cousin, Amal, is a bit of a waster but claims to be a writer, and Bhupati hopes Amal will help Charu with her stated intention to write. But the two’s relationship soon moves beyond mentor and pupil – especially after the pupil demonstrates more talent than the master. The film takes place almost entirely within the large house occupied by Bhupati and Charu, and even features a couple of musical numbers. There’s a scene set on s beach which features some nice photography, although Ray is not above using clichés (a camera moving from the foot of a table up to its surface to reveal a letter, for example). Madhabi Mukherjee totally shines in the title role, outdoing many a Hollywood star. It’s an odd film in that it feels complete ahistorical, despite its carefully presented period – not just the set dressing and costumes, but also several mentions that India is still governed by Britain. It’s the first film I’ve seen that has persuaded me Ray is as good as Ghatak, although they each had a very different approach to cinema. For most of its length,  Charulata feels like a cross between a light social comedy and drawing-room farce, with a strong thread of rom com and social drama, but there’s an astonishing daydream sequence in the middle, in which Charu has a blinding moment of inspiration and writes a story which is then published in a magazine. Good stuff.

herzogStroszek, Werner Herzog (1977, Germany). Herzog had stumbled across Bruno S and cast him in the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hausar, but was so taken with the busker, that he wrote this film specifially with Bruno S in mind as the title character. Of course, there are other of Herzog’s interests paraded before the camera, such as a livestock auctioneer, as in How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, auctioning off the title character’s possessions toward the end of the film. Stroszek is a Berlin street performer who has fled Germany with his girlfriend after running afoul of gangsters, They decide to settle in “Railroad Flats”, a dead-end town in middle America. Things initially go well, but their natures will out and the pair end up badly in debt. she does a runner and he turns to drink. A friend persuades him to help in a bank robbery. It goes badly wrong. It’s hard to know what to make of Stroszek. It is, on the surface, a straightforward drama about a hard-luck protagonist. But, on the one had, it’s so clearly tailored to Bruno S that it wouldn’t work without him; but on the other hand, some of the elements of the plot simply don’t ring true as something Bruno S would do. But then Herzog was always more about the philosophy than he was such bourgeois ideas as narrative, plot and structure. Stroszek is not a film about a man who makes a fresh start only to see it turn to shit, it’s about an implacable universe and the way stories too often manipulate that indifference in order to provide the ending the audience desires. Most movies are commercial constructs and so formalising their design – creating a “formula” – helps the industry maximise their effectiveness. But there’s no truth in that, and art is about truth. Hollywood delivers product, Herzog can never be accused of doing the same. He has built a career out of presenting naivety, but doing it in such a way that it not only entertains but also reveals truth. Stroszek is big on naivety – it’s Bruno S’s biggest selling-point – but low on truth. And while the film is entertaining, I can’t help thinking Herzog’s instincts led him astray. There is nothing new in Stroszek, and the film suffers as a result.

loreleiThe Lorelei, Mol Smith (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, and was sufficiently misled by the description to watch it. The Lorelei is a British independent film, which means it has production values on a par with a double-glazing advert. A young woman hires a private investigator to investigate the death of her step-father in Oxford under mysterious circumstances. He involves his house-mate, a student who moonlights as an escort. The police then become involved when some of the escorts run by the same woman who runs the student are found dead in mysterious circumstances. We’re meant to believe the deaths are the work of a lorelei, a creature living in the Isis who takes the form of a young woman. Who pours water into their mouth from her own mouth and so drowns them. But The Lorelei is not framed as a horror film, but as a mystery. And as a mystery it fails because it can’t keep its central idea secret until the third act. There’s one twist in the story, but it’s a weak one – because it doesn’t really matter, the story has focused so much on other things that the mystery it resolves is secondary. I’ve no idea why I bothered watching this all the way to the end, it was pretty bad.

onceOnce, John Carney (2007, Ireland). This is not my usual viewing, as you no doubt have realised, but Once is on one of the other 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die lists and it was free to watch on Amazon Prime and it was a Sunday afternoon, so… Sadly, Once has a more interesting genesis than it does a plot. A busker in Dublin becomes friends with a young Czech woman, the two perform together, eventually record a demo of his songs, before returning to their separate loves. Initially, Cillian Murphy was going to play the lead role, but he pulled out and the part was taken by Glen Hansard, who had written the songs, and who is probably best-known for playing Outspan in The Commitments. The initial financing for the film pretty much collapsed, and it was eventually made on the cheap for $150,000, only to earn considerably more than that at the box office. That I find heartening. The story itself is packed full of clichés from start to finish, but happily is carried by the charm of its cast and the verisimilitude of its musical performances. It’s not precisely a feelgood movie, although it definitely heads in that direction – but no one is going to walk away from seeing it depressed. I can’t call myself a fan, but I sort of enjoyed it.

black_catThe Black Cat*, Edward G Ulmer (1934, USA). I’ve noticed that some film critics seem to revere monster movies out of all proportion to their quality. They even talk of a “Golden Age”. I’m not sure that The Black Cat fits in that period, but it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so clearly the makers of the list held it in’some regard. I have no idea why. A young married couple are travelling through Hungary when their train breaks down. They have made the acqauntaince of Béla Lugosi, who is returning to the area after many years away (most of which were spent in a POW camp). There’s a bus accident, and they all end up at the home of Boris Karloff, a renowned Austrian architect, whose house in built on the ruins of a castle whose garrison he betrayed during the war. Lugosi was at that garrison and he’s out for vengeance. Karloff also collects the corpses of young women, er, because. One of which is Lugosi’s wife. There’s also Lugosi’s daughter, who is being kept by Karloff. And it’s all to do with some secret Satanic cult which Karloff leads. The sets aren’t bad, although Lang did much better, and the film generally looks quite good for a movie of its period and genre. But Lugosi is absolutely terrible, he gurns and grimaces like a prime hock of ham. The Black Cat is one of those films whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I find completely baffling.

luciaLucía*, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this film purely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. I knew nothing about it before putting it into the DVD player. But having now seen it… I’m reminded of my response to Black God White Devil. I watched it… and then went and bought all three films available on DVD by Glauber Rocha. Coincidentally, also released by Mr Bongo. And also piss-poor transfers. While I didn’t dash out and buy all of Solás’s films after seeing Lucía, I did buy myself a copy of Lucía. Because it’s a film that is just so good. Which came as a surprise to me as, much like the Rocha one, I had not expecting to find myself so taken by it. It tells the story of three women called Lucía, in 1895, 1933 and 196-. The first is an historical conflict piece, the second a doomed romance, and the third more of a cinema verité movie. Lucía in 1895 elopes with a dashing young man, only to learn she has been used to discover the location of the nationalists’ headquarters. It’s all completely over-the-top, but in a gloriously historical way. Lucía 1933 is a more sedate affair, in which the eponymous young woman leaves her middle-class family to live with a young revolutionary, and ends up working in a cigar factory. The section marks a cusp between the first and last sections, and contrasts the two social classes. The final section shows Lucía living in a hearty communist utopia, which is couched in terms of her relationship with her new husband. It’s handled with a light, even comedic, touch, and the cast are uniformly good – in fact they are in all three sections. Something about Lucía immediately appealed to me, so I went and bought myself a copy. I shall no doubt now discover there’s a much better, and correspondingly expensive, transfer of the film available from Criterion… Recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 812


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Moving pictures, #55

An odd selection this time round – some old, some new, some good, some bad, some Hollywood, some world cinema, some television…

childhoods_endChildhood’s End (2015, USA). Yes, this is an adaptation of the Arthur C Clarke novel, which, I think, I read back in the late 1970s. I have the SF Masterwork edition of it somewhere (the one I read all those years ago was likely a library book, or perhaps a Pan paperback I have since lost). As it is, all I can remember is the big reveal about the Overlords, not what the actual plot of the novel was. Which pretty much ruins the big reveal at the end of the first episode of this three-part mini-series. It starts intriguingly enough, with a man on a deserted Earth, explaining that he is the only human being left. And then it’s straight into flashback, with the Overlords’ ships appearing in the sky over cities across the globe (although very Americo-centric, as US television and films always tend to be, Childhood’s End does make more of a nod to the rest of the world than usual). One man – an American, of course – is chosen by the Overlords to be Earth’s ambassador. He’s a humble farmer, with one of those farms which consists of a small house in the middle of a vast acreage of maize, and which you only see in films. And it never seems to get harvested either. Even though years pass during the series, the corn is always high and green. Colm Meaney plays a press baron who doesn’t believe the Overlords’ – well, Overlord’s, as only one appears for much of the series, Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth – stated objective of ushering in a new utopian age. So, like Rupert Murdoch, he works to make things shit for everyone except himself. Fortunately, his “resistance movement” is quickly shown to be a selfish bunch of lies. There’s also another narrative thread about a devoutly Christian woman who thinks the Overlords are agents of Satan – so she gets a bit of a shock when they reveal themselves. And there’s a young black boy in a wheelchair, who is shot by a gangbanger, resurrected by the Overlords, and grows up to become an astrophysicist and the first human to visit the Overlords’ home world – and the person in the progolue. In hindsight, it all sounds a bit hokey and simplistic, not unlike a 1950s science fiction novel, in fact. But the production values were pretty good, the cast were likeable, and it entertained throughout its 246 minutes. I’m still not how the Overlords managed to invent giant spaceships, interstellar travel and all sorts of super-advanced technological gizmos, but not clothes.

signsSigns & Wonders, Jonathan Nossiter (2000, France). This is not on the 2013 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but I’ve seen it on another version of the list – which is why I added it to my rental list. And despite being a French film, Signs & Wonders is an English-language movie, starring Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger, and is set mostly in Greece. Skarsgård plays a US businessman, who has been having an affair with Unger. He decides to break it off after becoming worried by “signs” he has seen in everyday things. He tells his wife, Rampling, and their marriage suffers. Six months later, while on a family skiing trip, he bumps into Unger, and convinces himself their relationship was fated. so he divorces his wife and moves to the US with Unger. But when she admits she manufactured their meeting at the ski resort, he realises his mistake and returns to his wife in Greece. Except she is now in a relationship with a Greek journalist, who is documenting US complicity in the Greek military dictatorship’s brutal regime. And she doesn’t want Skarsgård back. Accidents, near-fatal ones, then start to happen to the journalist… and… Meh. I couldn’t get invested much in this film, and I couldn’t see why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or at least one iteration of it.

stalkerStalker*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1979, Russia). Ask people who have a favourite Tarkovsky film which one it is, and most will say Stalker. It’s certainly the film that looks and feels the most Tarkovskian. Famously, it’s adapted from Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, although it’s ny no means a faithful adaptation. (I’ve yet to understand the appeal of the novel – I read the original SF Masterworks edition, and the translation had couched everything in US vernacular, which ruined it for me; a more recent translation is apparently much better.) Tarkovsky’s film opens in sepia, with a colour palette that immediately signifies how miserable and shit the world is – an impression only deepened by the opening argument between Stalker and his wife. Outside, the light is yellow and everywhere is shrouded in fog. Stalker meets up with Professor and Writer, the two people he is taking into the Zone, in a nearby bar. After a sequence in which the three of them drive around a post-apocalyptic industrial landscape, being chased by a man on a motorbike, and being shot at by him, they eventually take a tiny diesel train into the Zone… where the movie abruptly shifts to colour. The route through the  Zone, however, is far from straightforward – routes double-back on themselves, time passes strangely. When they lose the Professor, they find him waiting at their destination, even though he didn’t overtake them – and they then realise they are back where they started. It’s hard not to draw conclusions from the depiction of the “real” world compared to that of the Zone, and when you consider the lambent cinematography of the scenes set at the farm during the narrator’s childhood in Mirror, it seems to suggest Tarkovsky was romanticising the pre-industrial past – either his own or history’s (indeed, his next film was titled Nostalgia). Having said that, the Zone is also littered with industrial debris, indicating nature has reclaimed what was once the province of science and industry. The centre of the Zone is the Room, which apparently makes wishes come true. But the three experience a number of strange things before they reach it. Stalker in a long film – 161 minutes – and comprises a number of very long takes in which very little happens. It’s a great-looking film, but one in which the normal rules of cinema narrative do not apply – and that makes parsing it difficult, and also makes it hard to place in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. It’s definitely not my favourite of his films, but I’m also not sure if it’s his best.

phantomThe Phantom of the Opera*, Rupert Julian (1925, USA). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been watching films I would not normally have seen. And that’s especially true of silent films – because few of them are available on DVD, and because people are much less likely to watch silent films these days (recent Oscar winner notwithstanding). True, as is evident from the DVD cover art, The Phantom of the Opera is very much available, and even in a dual-format edition from the BFI. But it is also true that Gaston Leroux’s story has been adapted many times, and is perhaps best-known these days for a musical version. The version here is from 1925, and is not even the first film adaptation – that honour goes to a 1916 German silent film, Das Phantom der Oper, now lost. In this one, Lon Chaney plays the title role, and his depiction is famous. The scene where he is unmasked apparently caused cinema audiences to scream and faint, and actually is quite shocking, even to jaded modern eyes. The film also boasts enormous sets, almost Expressionist in design, which are the basements beneath the opera house. The story itself is completely melodramatic, and some of the silent-era gurning looks weird to a modern viewer – but even ninety years after it was made this is still an entertaining movie. Worth seeing.

batmanvsupermanBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder (2016, USA). What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Pretty much the same as when Zack Snyder meets a superhero property. For some reason, he recasts it as an alien invasion story. So, if superheroes are supposed to be defenders of the righteous, but actually turn out to be pretty much fascists in tights, but Snyder prefers to think of them as alien invaders… Just where exactly is this going? I admit it, I quite liked Snyder’s Watchmen – I felt it overdid the violence, they weren’t meant to be super-powered after all, but I felt the movie’s ending was an improvement on the original. However, the less said about Snyder’s Man of Steel, the better. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sequel to Man of Steel, in which Henry Cavill reprises his role as the alien with godlike powers and the occasional urge to perform good deeds and snatched-from-death rescues. (Superman doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in much the same way as Santa Claus – there’s no way Santa could deliver presents to every kid on one day, so there’s no way Superman can save every person in danger every minute of every day. But then plausibility left the building when superheroes walked in nearly a century ago.) Anyway, Batman, played by Ben Affleck, has decided for Batman reasons that Superman is a foreigner and so a threat to Metropolis (where Batman doesn’t even live, FFS), and so he builds a supersuit so he can go mano a mano with the Kryptonite boy scout. There’s also some plot about Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who wants to weaponize some green kryptonite but isn’t allowed to, so he weaponizes General Zod’s DNA instead and creates a super-powered monster that Superman and Batman have to fight. Oh, and Wonder Woman randomly turns up, and we know who she is because of a single photo showing her with some Tommies during WWI when she had never even been mentioned in any DC film before. I have, in short, absolutely no idea what this film was supposed to be about. It felt like someone glommed together a dozen random superhero vignettes and expected the big fight between Batman and Superman to make sense of it all. It doesn’t. None of it makes sense.

timbuktuTimbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania). I’d seen only one Sissako film prior to this – Bamako – and was not overly taken with it, but given how good Timbuktu was I may have to track down a copy and rewatch it. On the other hand, Timbuktu features quite a bit of West African music – such as Tuareg assouf (I’ve been a fan of Tinariwen for many years) – which I don’t remember from the other film, as well as being a biting satire of jihadism. The main story is about a Tuareg herder, who sits about in a tent, playing the guitar, while his kids care for his meagre herd, and his strong-willed wife keeps him company. At the river, one of his cows panics and trashes a fisherman’s net. So the fisherman kills the cow. So the Tuareg goes to see the fisherman, they fight, and in the struggle the Tuareg accidentally shoots the fisherman. He is immediately arrested by the local jihadist militia, and sentenced to pay blood money of 40 cattle. But he only has seven cows. So he is sentenced to death. As this story unfolds, the camera breaks away at intervals to record life in Timbuktu under jihadists. There are a bunch of kids playing football with an imaginary ball as sports are banned. A couple are stoned for adultery (a brutal and disgusting custom). A group of French jihadists argue about their favourite football teams. A Bambara woman scares the jihadists with her witchcraft. And a local imam patiently explains why the jihadists must follow the teachings of Islam and not their own extremist views. There was nothing that was bad about this film. It looked gorgeous, the non-professional actors were impressively convincing (especially the Tuareg herdsman), and the music was excellent. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 810