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Moving pictures 2017, #33

One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which, to be honest, I didn’t much like, a rewatch (after many years), another strange Indian film, I finally cracked open the BBC Shakespeare Collection I bought a couple of years ago, and a pair of dramas, one made in 1970 and one set in 1970…

Buffalo 66*, Vincent Gallo (1998, USA). There are many puzzling films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is, their presence is puzzling, not the film itself, such as all the ones by Woody Allen… but you can add this one to that not-so-select group too. An indie film directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, with a feeble plot, and featuring a central character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s also supposed to be set, I think, in the early 1980s, although it’s hard to tell, and the soundtrack contains some 1970s UK prog rock anyway so who knows. Gallo has just been released from prison, and goes to visit his parents. Except he’s been lying to them for years, about his incarceration, even about his relationship status. So he kidnaps Christina Ricci and demands she impersonate his invented girlfriend. Which she does, for not-actually-discernible reasons, and does it a bit too well for Gallo’s liking. The title is apparently a reference to an American Football game in 1966 or something, as if anyone outside the US either knows or gives a shit about the country’s dumb sports. I really couldn’t see why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – there were a couple of nice-looking scenes, and I actually like 1970s UK prog rock so I  enjoyed hearing the music. But… Buffalo 66 might be an above-average example of its type, but it’s eminently forgettable and doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Duvidha, Mani Kaul (1973, India). Uski Roti (see here) was Kaul’s first film; Duvidha was his third movie. I’m not really sure what to make of them – well, the two I’ve seen so far. I have watched Bollywood, I have watched parallel cinema. I like both, but I love the films of Ritwik Ghatak. And yet Kaul is nothing like either. If anything, he’s more consciously in the tradition of European art-house cinema, but without seeming to settle on a particular style. True, this is after seeing only two of the films on this DVD, but I’ve seen a lot of European art house films, and Kaul’s pacing reminds me of Béla Tarr (although he predates him), and some of his staging reminds me of Sergei Parajanov, and his use of voice-over and dialogue feels more Russian than Indian… In other words, Kaul presents a singular vision, not just in Indian cinema, but internationally… and I’m still trying t work out how much I like it. Duvidha at least boasts a more straightforward narrative than Uski Roti – a young couple marry, and the husband heads off to a distant town for five years to make his fortune… But a ghost in a nearby banyan tree learns of the husband’s plan, and so impersonates him and returns to the wife and takes the husband’s place. It’s based on a story by Vijayadan Detha, which was in turn based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Unlike the previous film, this one is shot in colour, but I can’t tell if the slightly washed-out palette is deliberate or a consequence of the transfer. The framing, however, is obviously down entirely to Kaul, and he shows a considerable amount of inventiveness in placing his camera and framing his shots. The pacing is once again slow, and the story is told through a mixture of voice-over and looped dialogue. There’s a bleakness to the landscapes depicted, something also notable in Uski Roti, but more visible here because the film is in colour. Clearly Kaul deserves his accolades and reputation, but I think I need to watch more of his films – or the ones I have a few more times – before I can get a real handle on his work.

Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1987, Poland). I last watched this over a decade ago – I had a DVD copy of it, which I gave away when I bought the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Blu-ray box sets – and sort of remembered the story when I sat down to rewatch it. You know, the plot… the guy who catches a train, and his life goes one way… but then he doesn’t catch it and his life goes another way… twice. Sort of like Sliding Doors. But Polish. And political. And not a rom com. And without that annoying John Hannah chap. It’s clearly early Kieślowski, with its television staging and heated political arguments. This impression is hardly lessened by the second of the three “alternates”, in which the protagonist fails to make the train, attacks a station official and is arrested… and so ends up in the Polish prison system and becomes a dissident. I’ve seen pretty much everything Kieślowski made – Artificial Eye released most of them on DVD around a decade or so ago – and the one I remember most fondly is No End. Having now rewatched the Three Colours trilogy, after replacing my DVD copies with Blu-rays, I approached this rewatch of Blind Chance with mixed feelings. I’d remembered the basic plot… but I’d forgotten quite dull most of it is. At the time I first watched Blind Chance, I’d not seen much Polish cinema, so the political element of the story I found fascinating. But I’ve since lots of Polish films, and I’m a little better informed on the country’s political history… It’s a bit like… I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and it sometimes seems like its reputation rests on the fact it portrayed life in the USSR as some sort of blackly comic farce… and yet that has always been my impression of the Soviet Union. It is books like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty that are really eye-opening about the USSR. And so Blind Chance – despite its tripartite structure, it doesn’t seem to offer any particular insight, or especially interesting commentary, on the Polish regime of the 1970s and early 1980s. Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron seem, to me, to make their point with much more bite than Blind Chance, although the latter is certainly the cleverer script. I don’t know; I found this rewatch of Blind Chance somewhat disappointing, much as I had the Three Colours rewatch.

Coriolanus, Elijah Moshinsky (1984, UK). I’d been renting DVDs from this box set, but then decided to go and buy so I could watch them at my own pace… so, of course, it’s taken me 18 months to crack open the box set and start watching it. I did rewatch The Comedy of Errors before watching Coriolanus – you know, the one with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing a pair of twins, both of which have the same names (as if), leading to all sorts of mistaken identity merry japes. Coriolanus stars Alan Howard in the title role, a Roman general who reluctantly stands for consul in Rome, and wins. But that pisses off the political classes, and Coriolanus blames it all on the plebians, whom he holds in great contempt. This is not the most edifying of Shakespeare’s plays – kof kof, of the ones I’ve seen; although to be fair there’s few enough of them that qualify as “edifying”. Coriolanus is apparently a tragedy, and not a historical play, although I don’t understand the distinction as surely Roman times were considered historical even in Shakespeare’s day? I mostly remember it as a lot of standing around pontificating in front of “crowds” of a dozen or so people, several after-the-battle scenes, and lot of Coriolanus feeling sorry for himself. Meh.

Say Hello to Yesterday, Alvin Rakoff (1970, UK). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD, and so stuck it on my list. Jean Simmons plays a suburban wife, who travels in to London one day on the train and comes to the attention of flighty young man Leonard Whiting. He badgers her incessantly, on the train and once she has arrived in London. Eventually, she succumbs. They end up in bed in a cheap hotel. He professes his undying love; she is more pragmatic. This is hardly a unique or insightful story, but it is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of its time. Okay, so I don’t actually remember 1970, but I do remember 1975 – and not a great deal had changed in terms of, well, the sort of things that would concern a production designer, during those five years. Everyone drives Minis, everywhere looks grubby, the whole aesthetic is just so naturally early 1970s it’s clearly unforced. Whiting is hugely annoying, but Simmons is good; but it’s the look and feel of the film where it truly scores. Though you can’t tell it from the film, it’s obvious the hotel sheets are drip-dry nylon. It’s that kind of movie. I tweeted while watching it that silver birches seem to embody the 1970s style of utopia for me. They’re there in Fahrenheit 451, and they feel almost emblematic of the sort of utopian, or comfortable, lifestyle the 1970s considered futuristic. For me, they’re a science-fictional tree.

The Commune, Thomas Vinterberg (2016, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen was the first film made following the Dogme 95 rules, and it’s a bona fide classic film. But he also made the bafflingly crap It’s All About Love. And the very good The Hunt. And, well, they were the only films by him I’d seen prior to watching The Commune. But I knew he was a name worth watching, so I bunged The Commune on the rental list – and I should really add a few more. In Copenhagen in 1970, a successful couple want to move into the large house in which the husband grew up, but they can’t afford the rent on their own (even though the wife works as a newsreader on television). So they invite friends of similar political leanings to share the house as a commune. They advertise to fill up the last few places. Unfortunately, the original couple’s marriage disintegrates – he’s a university lecturer and falls in love with student – and this causes problems in the house. This is not a Dogme 95 film, not judging by the lighting at least. And the plot is pretty much a lit fic staple – college professor sleeps with student, starts to question his marriage, it falls apart… except the girlfriend joins the commune, and the wife stays, and it’s all pretty obviously uncomfortable. Or helped by the rest of the commune, who are all the sort of earnestly progressive types more likely to get bogged down in trivia than actual worthwhile causes. A watchable film, better made than most, but not a great film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 870


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Moving pictures 2017, #32

Two Hollywood films in this batch, although I’m not entirely sure that label can be applied to the first US film mentioned – Noomi Rapace as the female lead! Isabelle Huppert as her mother! Although otherwise, it’s solid mid-Hollywood casting down the line – Colin Farrell, F Murray Abraham, Armand Assante… But there’s also two Indian films, although one isn’t actually Bollywood… plus another Filipino movie, and the second film I’ve seen by Lucía Puenzo. In fact, aside from the shitty animated one, it’s a pretty good collection of movies.

Uski Roti, Mani Kaul (1970, India). There are two 20-DVD box sets released by the National Film Development Corporation of India, but I’ve had trouble finding copies at reasonable prices. Meanwhile, individual films – or in this case, three films in a single case – seem to be readily available… but are almost impossible to find on Amazon because the data entry is so piss-poor. And don’t get me started on big data… Anyway, I recognised the cover design of this Mani Kaul triplet as being from NFDC, and spotting that the back-cover described the films’ genre as “offbeat/social”, I decided they were worth a punt despite having never heard of the director… Only to later discover that Wikipedia describes him as “arguably the greatest Indian director of Hindi films” and also points out he was a student of Ritwik Ghatak (a favourite director of mine). The greatest Indian director Hindi films… and yet the DVD here is the only one of his films available in the UK.  (Not entirely the UK’s fault, as most Bollywood movies available here on DVD are released by Indian labels, not UK ones.) Had I known of the Kaul-Ghatak link, I might have guessed that Uski Roti is “parallel cinema” rather than Bollywood. No singing and dancing here. In fact, the first line of dialogue isn’t spoken until ten minutes into the film. And there isn’t a great deal of dialogue anyway. Kaul seems to like static shots in which there’s very little action or movement. He also likes voice-over narration, and indirect dialogue (if there is such a term – I mean where the character is on-screen, but the dialogue is voice-over). Despite watching Uski Roti twice, I’m still not entirely clear about the plot. Roti is a type of unleavened bread, and Uski Roti appears to be about a woman who makes lunch for her husband, a driver, and then walks to the road along which he drives to hand it to him when he passes. But he spends most of his time away from the family home. The pacing is languorous at best, there are lots of carefully-framed shots, and the whole thing feels like it was consciously made to be nothing like a Bollywood film. Worth seeing.

Insiang, Lino Brocka (1976, Philippines). This was the second disc included with Manila in the Claws of Light (see here), and also stars Hilda Koronel, this time in the title role. Insiang is a young woman living with her mother in a Manila slum district. She has a boyfriend, but her mother’s boyfriend rapes her. Her mother believes her boyfriend and not her daughter, and so Insiang runs off with her boyfriend. But after having consensual sex with her, he deserts her. So Insiang returns to her mother’s boyfriend, seduces him and persuades him to enact her revenge on her boyfriend. She also tells her mother she has slept with her boyfriend… and so her mother stabs and kills him. This is definitely social drama, but not, I think, Pinoy-style. It’s played very straight, the cast are excellent, and the scenes are all shot on location. Koronel is good in the title role – hugely better, in fact, than she was in Manila Claws of Light. I think, on balance, the earlier film is the better of the two, perhaps because its story has wider scope. Insiang is quite claustrophobic – deliberately so, I imagine, in order to evoke life in the slums – but it’s also a very incestuous story, which means it has a small cast. Manila in the Claws of Light was a bigger story, and while Insiang‘s narrower focus works well for it, I don’t think it’s as good as the other film. But the DVD set is definitely worth seeing. And I heop we’ll see more films by Brocka made available.

Dead Man Down, Niels Arden Oplev (2013, USA). I found this on Amazon Prime, and I’ve no idea what possessed me to watch it. I’m by no means a Colin Farrell fan, and while the thrillers in which he appears – Euro or Hollywood – are nowhere near as bad as those in which Liam Neeson appears, they’re often thin and implausible stuff. As, er, was this one. But in Oplev it had an interesting choice of director, which led to an entirely unexpected direction for the film, and, as mentioned above, Noomi Rapace plays the female lead and Isabelle Huppert is her mother. Farrell is an enforcer for a gangster, except it seems he isn’t. He has infiltrated the gang in order to exact revenge, because they accidentally killed his young daughter, and then killed his wife and himself (but failed the latter, obvs) when the couple chose to act as witnesses against the gang. However, Rapace, who lives in a neighbouring skyscraper on the same floor as Farrell, so their windows look onto each other’s flats, saw Farrell kill a man. And she’s disfigured from a car crash caused by a drunk-driver who was only lightly sentenced and still continues to drink-drive. She wants revenge, and blackmails Farrell into committing it for her. And there’s the problem… This is a dull dull dull ganster/revenge/lone hero plot, and there a zillion films like it, pretty much all of which are bad. Oplev, however, has chosen to approach the film entirely differently, and he slows down the pace, pulls back on the glorification of violence, and puts the emotional landscapes of the characters of Farrell and Rapace front and centre. And the whole lot is filmed in a low-lit style with a limited colour palette. With a good story, this would have been a superior thriller. With the story it has, it’s a dog food gateau. Oplev could not apparently lift inferior material to something more than inferior, even with a good cast and an art-house look and feel.

The Secret Life of Pets, Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheny (2016, USA). My finger must have slipped or something, that’s the only explanation. Okay, so Hollywood has churned out some big-budget well-regarded animated feature films over the last couple of years… but every good one there are thousands of inferior ones. And since these days it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between marketing copy and critical commentary, I had mistaken believed this might be one of the few good ones. It wasn’t it. In fact, it was really bad. With a voice cast who seem to have made careers out of sounding like much more famous actors. I can’t even remember what the film was about, something to do with some house pets and the sewers, I seem to recall, but it was just one long uninterrupted stream of clichés and hoary old potted routines. Even the stylised animation looked a bit 1990s, albeit being digital it looked cleaner and smoother than it would have done in that decade. Avoid.

Wakolda, Lucía Puenzo (2013, Argentina). I think it was a trailer on another rental DVD that persuaded me to add this to my rental list. I’d seen a film by Puenzo several years ago, XXY, but had not at that time taken note of the director’s name. It was only after watching Wakolda that I put two and two together… and on the strength of these two films, I’d like to see more by her. A family heading south to Patagonia are asked by a German immigrant if he can drive with them as the roads are dangerous. They agree. After arriving at their destination – a hotel on a lake the family plan to re-open, the German goes on his way. But he reappears a couple of days later and asks to move into the hotel. He is a doctor, and he has noticed that the young daughter is small for age, due to her premature birth, and often sickly. He offers free treatment to improve her health, but the father is sceptical. Meanwhile, a photographer working locally turns out to be a Mossad agent and she identifies the doctor as Mengele. The film is based on Puenzo’s own novel of the same title. Mengele is portrayed as something close to a sociopath, so obsessed with his medical researches that he doesn’t even consider his patients as human beings, and his acts of kindness are merely part of his strategy to get people to agree to his plans. The film is told partly in flashback voice-over narration by the young daughter, and it’s all presented as a sort of gentle drama with an undercurrent of thriller. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

Pakeezah, Kamal Amrohi (1972, India). I forget why I added this to my rental list – it’s certainly not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it certainly belongs on it, but perhaps it was on some list of best Bollywood  movies or something. Anyway, I bunged it in the player not expecting much, I mean, a forty-five year old Bollywood film… boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, lots of singing and dancing, and probably a terrible print as well… But, well, it was all that, but it was also bloody good. It was if the Archers – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, that is – had made a Bollywood film. Which in no way is to erase Amrohi’s achievement, which apparently took some sixteen years. But Pakeezah had that same Archers look of detailed interior sets built to resemble exteriors. And some of the photography is, despite the poor print, really quite astonishingly good. In fact, everything about the way this film was made is good. It’s set in Lucknow at the turn of century. It opens with a woman dying in childbirth, and her baby being taken by her sister, who brings the child up in her brothel, where she becomes a much fêted singer and dancer. The local nawab takes to her, and starts wooing her. While on a river trip, their boat is attacked by elephants and the dancer is thrown into the river. She is rescued by a forest ranger, and the two fall in love… There is plenty of singing and dancing in Pakeezah, but it’s classical Indian music rather than the popular musuic you might find in a more recent Bollywood film. The sets are fantastic, and the costumes are amazing… so it’s a shame the DVD transfer isn’t especially good. I’ve seen worse – the Guru Dutt ones, for example; and at least one of the recent Bollywood films I’ve seen was a really low res picture – but it’s a shame that a film that’s held in such high regard isn’t available in a better edition. Excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures 2017, #31

I managed to cross a few films off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time, although two of them were US films by directors whose works I don’t especially like – and no, I don’t understand how the films made the list in the first place. This post also marks my first Singaporean film, wihch I stumbled across on eBay and which seemed intriguing enough to buy. The seller contacted me to point out the DVD was region 3, but I replied I’d bought a multi-region Blu-ray specifically because I want to watch DVDs and Blu-rays from other regions. This post has my first Jordanian film too – although I’m fairly sure this is a Jordanian film for the international market, rather than the Arabic-language market.

The Color Purple*, Steven Spielberg (1985, USA). I’m not a big Spielberg fan – in fact, I’m not a fan of his films at all, especially not of his push-button emotional content films – and that’s what The Color Purple is (despite my dislike of US spelling, it seems to fit in this case). I’ve not read the novel by Alice Walker but I fervently hope it’s not as bad as this film, which is an over-sentimental drama covering an African-American family over several decades from the 1920s onward. Whoopi Goldberg plays a poor and uneducated woman (when she’s an adult) in rural Georgia. She is married off to Danny Glover, even though he had turned up at the house intending to marry another sister. That sister runs away, and goes to “Africa” (I don’t recall the actual African nation being named) with a missionary couple. In the novel, at least according to Wikipedia’s plot synopsis, she ends up marrying the missionary husband after his wife dies; in the film, she marries a young man she meets in the “African” village in which she is living. Goldberg, meanwhile, is abused by Glover over many years, decades even. There are also some scenes at a bar, where a musical number is performed by the fallen wife of the local preacher… leading to a frankly ludicrous scene later where said fallen wife hears the choir singing and marches around a mile, singing all the while, and being heard by the congregation as she marches. I really didn’t like this film. It was manipulative to a degree I’ve not seen in a Spielberg film before, and he’s entirely about manipulating his audience. I also fail to understand why it made the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list instead of like, say, Black Girl, a Senegalese film which makes a similar point albeit much more honestly. Still, I guess there was a lot of money pumped into The Color Purple

Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar (2014, Jordan). I’ve watched a number of Arabic-language films, but they’ve mostly been ones aimed at non-Arabic audiences – not badly-acted Egyptian dramas, in other words. Even the films of Elia Sulieman, a favourite director, are not really made for a Palestinian audience, although they are very Palestinian films. Amd while I’m all too happy to watch such films, it not the same as watching a Bollywood movie, which is a movie designed to appeal to its home audience. It seems to me, though I have no proof, that Theeb, a film made in Jordan by a Jordanian/British director, is a film designed more to appeal to an international audience than a Jordanian audience. And as a big fan of non-Anglophone cinema I have no real problem with that, but as someone who dislikes the concept of “world cinema” I’m less approving. Theeb is a good film, of that there’s no doubt. It’s an excellent historical drama, set in Jordan during WWI, and a clever character study of its central character, a young boy caught up in events he does not understand. But different countries have their different populist cinemas – I’ve mentioned Nigeria’s Nollywood before, and the difficulty of finding its popular films with English subtitles – but what I fail to understand is why it is assumed populist non-Anglophone cinema cannot find an Anglophone audience and only non-Anglophone auteur films are worth releasing in English-language markets. True, the English movie market is pretty much 99% Hollywood, and they can’t even work out how to handle Spanish-speaking audiences, which is a huge part of the US population. But in the UK, we have Welsh and Cornish and the two varieties of Gaelic, and TV channels and programmes and films for each, albeit small scale. And, personally, most of my favourite directors do not make English language films, so I have to watch with subtitles. In fact, subtitles are a passport to a world of cinema and only a fool would ignore them. Subtitles are good. And so is this Theeb.

Hannah and Her Sisters*, Woody Allen (1986, USA). I really don’t understand the appeal of Woody Allen’s films, and I certainly don’t understand why he has six movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list, since none of them to my mind are all that good. Hannah and Her Sisters fools the viewer initially because it opens with a voice-over by Michael Caine, and no one on-screen resembles Allen. But then he appears, and it all begins to  slide downhill. Caine is married to Hannah, but fancies one of her sisters. Allen is an ex-husband of another sister, but once went on a date with yet another sister which ended badly. And, oh god, this sort of middle-class American bed-hopping drawing-room farce is tedious at best and embarrassing at worst. Allen at least manages not to entirely embarrass his viewers or his cast, but it’s a close-run thing. Caine does not do needy very well, and the film pretty much hinges on his needy desire for sister Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow’s wife. I watched this film so I could cross it off the list. I only have one more Allen film left on the list to watch – Crimes and Misdemeanours – and then I never have to watch another Woody Allen film ever again.

Manila in the Claws of Light*, Lino Brocka (1975, Philippines). When I set out to watch all the films on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list, copies of this film were almost impossible to find. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project went and restored it – yay for Scorsese – and then the BFI released it in the UK on dual format – yay for the BFI. And… it’s good, good enough to make want to watch more films by Brocka. Fortunately, as the DVD cover art indicates, there is another film bundled with Manila in the Claws of Light, Insiang. But my chances of finding any further Brocka movies is, I suspect, extremely remote. Anyway, Manila in the Claws of Light… A young man from the provinces (well, an island other than Luzon – the Philippines is an archipelago, after all) moves to Manila to track down his girlfriend, who had left earlier after being promised employment in the capital by a visiting woman promising jobs there for young women (yes, yes, it’s pretty obvious to us, but these are unsophisticated probincianos). The guy ends up working on a building site as casual labour, where he learns how they are treated, how their wages are garnished, and what life is like at the bottom of the heap. But he spends all his spare time looking for his girlfriend. And eventually finds her. Which is where, of course, things start to go wrong. The film opens in black-and-white, and the print quality is not especially good, which I thought odd for 1975… but then as the opening credits end it changes to colour and the print quality greatly improves. I’m not sure this adds anything to the film, or why Brocka chose to do it. Manila in the Claws of Light treads a fine line between melodrama and social realism, but manages not to fall off in either direction. Brocka is apparently “one of the most influential and significant Filipino filmmakers” (according to Wikipedia), and while I’ve known of Pinoy cinema for many years – there used to be a column in Gulf News’ weekly magazine dedicated to it; and one to Lollywood too – I’ll admit I didn’t take much notice of the directors’ names (although such columns tend to focus on the stars anyway), but even in my years of following “world cinema” (ugh) I’d not come across Brocka’s name before. Mostly my fault, yes, but given how so many directors from other countries are lauded in Anglophone cinema – Tarkovsky, Ray, Kiarostami, Kurosawa, Almodóvar, Tati, Fassbinder, Bergman, etc. – I’m surprised I’d not stumbled across Brocka’s name before. But then, as mentioned previously, Manila in the Claws of Light was, until this edition appeared, extremely hard to find. Perhaps the appearance of Two Films by Lino Brocka means more films by him, and other Filipino/Filipina directors, are going to be released in the Anglophone world. I hope so.

Girl Gets Girl, Sonia Sebastián (2015, Spain). I forget where I came across this – probably a trailer on another rental DVD – and decided to add it to my rental list. Bur I thoroughly enjoyed it. The film was almost like someone trying to out-Almodóvar Almodóvar himself. Ten years after running away from a wedding, Inés returns to Spain from Miami, just when her ex-girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter is have a “first period party”. There then follows a series of mildly comic and well-written scenes in which each of the characters at the party try to get their own way. A previous girlfriend, for exmaple, turns up with a dodgy guy as her “boyfriend”. and he tries to drug her drink but the wrong woman drinks it. One of the two mothers of the young girl is desperately trying to hide her sexuality from her mother. The other mother thinks Inés still loves her, but Inés is basically just hiding from some enemies she made in Miami, And not just enenies, as one is an editor who fell in love with her and follows her to Spain to win her heart and/or get back her money. The script is witty, the characters are likeable, the plot is, despite being a but obvious in places, is clever. It’s by no means great cinema, but it is a fun film that entertains without annoying or insulting the viewer’s intelligence. Oh, and it doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, it comes top of the class. Worth seeing.

In the Room, Eric Khoo (2015, Singapore). As mentioned above, I stumbled across this on eBay and decided to take a punt on it (it’s not actually available on Amazon). It was a good call. The title refers to a room in the Hotel Singapura (an alternative title for the film) in which events happen over several decades. The story opens in 1942, in black-and-white, with a Brit and a Singaporean lamenting the loss of the Brit’s livelihood – a plantation – but also quite clearly about the love affair between the two men. Another story is about a madam who trains young women to be prostitutes in the early 1960s in the room, and in this sequence the production design and colour scheme is appropriate to the decade. There’s a rock band who occupy the room in the 1970s… and so on. There’s a variety of styles on display, all of which seem appropriate to the decade being depicted, but it does mean In the Room doesn’t feel like it presents a singular vision. Sometimes it feels like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, other times it feels a bit like Almodóvar. Or maybe not. It’s not the most original plot on the planet – I can think of at least two bad films that have the same premise – and Khoo’s decision to give each sequence an appropriate flavour does tend to dilute his vision. But I still thought this was rather good, and I’m glad I took a chance on it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 867


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Moving pictures 2017, #30

Six films, four countries… and they’re all countries from which I’ve seen many films before. Some favourite directors – including one who’s becoming more of a favourite, and one whose works I don’t like as much as I used to…

Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina (2016, Finland). I stumbled across this true story last year on the BBC website, but had forgotten a film was being made of it. So I was chuffed when I came across Diving into the Unknown, and immediately added it to my rental list. It’s intended to be a fly-on-the-wall film of a difficult cave dive. But the dive turned into tragedy, and the documentary crew continued to film those involved as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy, and what it meant to them in their pursuit of their sport. A team of Finnish technical cave divers planned to swim through a cave system in Plurdalen, Norway, which stretched some two to three kilometres but reached a depth of 130 metres, with many tight and narrow passages. At the deepest part of the dive, two of the team drowned – despite being experienced divers, and as a consequence of events not entirely explained in the film. An attempt by the authorities – aided by a team of British divers – to retrieve the bodies failed, and further entry to the caves was prohibited. So the Finns decided to illegally re-enter the caves and fetch their colleagues’ bodies. Which they did. With the original documentary crew following their every move. Their “rescue” mission was successful, and the Norwegian authorities chose not to prosecute them. The film is a combination of talking heads – the divers discussing their sport, the dive, and the tragedy – and footage from both the tragic dive and the rescue dive, with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the group preparing for each of the dives. The divers are completely normal people – mostly men, but there are some women – and not the sort of egotistical assholes you usually find in extreme sports (although, on reflection, all the documentaries I’ve seen about divers has shown them to be disconcertingly ordinary). Diving into the Unknown is the sort of story Hollywood would have a field day with (who know, there may be a fictionalisation in the works already), but the matter-of-fact presentation of the documentary I find much more effective. Definitely worth watching.

Finally, Sunday, François Truffaut (1983, France). The more Truffaut I watch, the more I like Truffaut. I’d seen Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cent Coups many years ago, and not been all that taken with them, although I did, and still do, love Fahrenheit 451. But the Truffaut films I’ve watched since, I’ve liked a great deal, including Tirez dur le pianiste, which may actually be one of my favourite New Wave films.  Finally, Sunday, or Vivement dimanche!, was Truffaut’s last film and, as I tweeted while watching it, probably “the Truffautest film Truffaut ever Truffauted”. For a start, it’s shot in black and white, which immediately suggests Truffaut’s New Wave movies, and it is, in fact, very New Wave, in look and tone and construction. A rich man is shot while hunting, and a business associate, an estate agent, is the prime suspect. The estate agent’s secretary, played by Fanny Ardant, sets out to prove her boss’s innocence. So you have that noir link, a New Wave favourite, right there in the plot. It’s also very Hitchcockian, of course, as Truffaut was an expert on Hitch, and was instrumental in rehabilitating the director and his oeuvre. I too am a big fan of Hitchcock and own pretty much all of his movies on either DVD or Blu-ray (and I’ve also seen Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, although I’ve not read the book). In places, it’s hard to tell what in Finally, Sunday is homage and what is pastiche, but then the lines between those two are often blurred in the New Wave (although perhaps more so in Godard’s films). I am becoming a bit of a fan of Truffaut, despite being initially cool to his films. I think Truffaut is the better director, but Godard is the better film-maker, if that makes sense. Happily, most of Truffaut’s oeuvre is available in the UK – including a pair of reasonably-priced Blu-ray collections – which is not the case for Godard.

Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008, Italy). The first Sorrentino film I saw was The Consequences of Love and I thought it great – the aesthetics of a European car commercial married to a, somewhat langorous, thriller plot. And so beautifully shot. And I liked The Great Beauty too, even if it felt like Fellini on prozac – because the cinematography was once again exquisite – although to be fair, the languid pace did suit the story (or rather, it suited the character of the film’s protagonist). But Youth was a disappointment, a trite story of the over-privileged at a Swiss sanatorium, albeit still with lovely photography. But my appreciation of Sorrentino’s work was definitely on the wane. And so, Il Divo… This is an earlier work than those mentioned previously, and is a lightly fictionalised account of the career, and fall from grace, of the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, prime minster from 1972 to 1973, 1976 to 1979 and 1989 to 1992. He was accused of corruption and ties to the Mafia, but was aquitted in court due to a lack of evidence. The film is as stylish, and as stylised, as Sorrentino’s later works, with beautifully-lit and -shot interiors, but Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in The Great Beauty, plays Andreotti with a weird lack of affect that seemed to make the man more of a caricature than a character. It was a bit like watching a political cartoon wandering through Rome’s many historical buildings. It all felt like it wasn’t taking Andreotti’s transgression expecially seriously – not an attempt to rehabilitate, but more of a trivialisation of his crimes. An odd film.

Gone to Earth, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1950, UK). The Archers must surely be in the top ten of British directors, if not the top five, although many of their films these days are so much of their time the sheer technical brilliance involved in their making is often overlooked. My favourite of their movies remains Black Narcissus, which is such a beautifully-made piece of cinema it’s mind-blowing it was done entirely in a studio. But the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are best known for three other films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all of which are excellent… but it does mean the rest of their oeuvre tends to get overlooked. Including this mid-career piece set in Cornwall. Although, to be fair, Gone to Earth is a bit hokey, and while there’s lots of good Archer-ish things about it, the story is somewhat over-melodramatic and perhaps even a bit bodice-ripper-ish. Jennifer Jones plays the flighty nature-loving and nubile daughter of a coffin-maker and harpist in 1890s Shropshire. She also has a pet fox. But then the local squire takes a shine to her… but she marries the new vicar instead. And then runs away to be with the squire. But the vicar wins her back, although by this point her name is mud in the community. It all comes to a head with a tragedy that was carefully telegraphed in the first act. This is not a great Archers film, although the fact it was made by them means it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries. It seems a bit chrulish to complain about the story, since most of the Archers’ films are overloaded melodramas, and part of their formula was making such melodramas play like plain dramas. Gone to Earth doesn’t manage the charisma of the aforementioned films, perhaps because it feels like a cut-price Austen story, or because the characters are just a tad too archetypal… A film worth seeing, but not a great film.

The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and a quick google persuaded me it might be worth watching. Which it was. It’s very slow, which I like; but I’m not sure on it being inspired by the films of Jess Franco. But then, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any films by Franco (isn’t he a bit like Tinto Brass? Deeply sexist exploitation films from the 1970s?). A young woman turns up at the house of a slightly older woman – I’m not sure where this was filmed, the cast speak English but it doesn’t look like the UK (and the two leads are Italian and Swedish, anyway) – where she is apparently taken on as a maid/housekeeper… although the mistress of the house appears very demanding, if not over-demanding. It transpires the maid is a student of the older woman, who is a lepidoptery expert. And the two are lovers. The film charts their exploration of a BDSM relationship, in which it is soon revealed that the submissive is actually controlling the mistress. It’s all filmed totally like an art film, and not at all like the soft porn its story suggests. In fact, in places it closer resembles video art than it does narrative cinema. Clearly, Strickland is a man with a singular vision, and the wherewithal to get projects with such, on the surface, salacious plots green-lit. The film certainly makes the viewer feel like they’re peeping on a private affair, which is clearly the effect Strickland was striving for (there are shots taken through keyholes, for example). It makes for an uncomfortable experience, that razor-edge between titillation and invasion of privacy the film manages to straddle quite successfully. Not everything in it works, but enough does to make it an interesting movie.

La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000, France). This, to be honest, was a bit of a slog. I’m fully in tune with Watkins’s objectives and sensibilities, but 345 minutes (5¾ hours!) is a lot of time to spend watching a pretty obvious story unfold. There’s a lot of good things in this – it’s a Watkins, so that’s a given – such as the insistence on historical verisimilitude but the presence of modern media. But it’s also a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the titular government, which ruled Paris for just over a month in 1871. The film is presented as re-enactments of events, using a very large and mostly non-professional cast, some documentary footage about the making of the film, fake news broadcasts by a contemporary (ie, 1871) television station (yes, really), and a series of historical notes given as lengthy intertitles. It comes across as a comprehensive documentary, or Open University film, about its subject, but with added commentary and, on top of that, meta-commentary about the media and the role of media in the sort of events which both created and led to the destruction of the Paris Commune. The film makes a large number of interesting, and important, points, but watching all 345 minutes of it is a real test of endurance. It’s going to take me several goes to digest it all, so I’m glad I have my own copy (albeit from a France-released box set – why is there no UK box set of Watkins’s films?).

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures 2017, #29

Another mixed bag, including some films I didn’t expect to like but did, and some I expected to like but didn’t…

The Wedding, Andrzej Wajda (1972, Poland). I find Wajda a bit and miss, to be honest. I really like both Man of Marble and Man of Iron, but didn’t take to Ashes and Diamonds. Two of those films are in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets, along with Innocent Sorcerors, Promised Land and… The Wedding. That’s quite a showing, out of twenty-four films. I suspect some of Wajda’s films require several watchings, and The Wedding is one of them. As the title, er, informs, it’s set at a wedding, in 1900 in Kraków, between a middle-class poet and his peasant fiancée. The film is apparently based on a play by Stanisław Wyspiański, and is concerned chiefly with the history of Poland, particularly how it relates to class. The play is apparently held in high regard – and Wajda has also directed the play, it seems – but some of the reviews I’ve seen online of Wajda’s film are less complimentary – although the non-Polish reviews seem uniformly approving. The play has rhyming dialogue, but Wajda dispenses with it for the film, although many lines spoken by the cast use a lot of poetic imagery. As everyone at the wedding gets more pissed, so they start to see apparitions which represent people and incidents from Polish history. In 1900, Poland didn’t exist as a nation, as it was occupied by Russia, Austria and Prussia, and it would not regain its independence until The Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The Wedding takes place at a time when an uprising might have happened – The Wedding partly symbolises the inability of the intelligentsia and peasants to work together. The film has an externsive cast, and crams a lot into its 106 minutes. It doesn’t feel at all stagey, chiefly because Wajda films several important scenes outdoors (I don’t know how the play handles them). But even the interior scenes feel very cinematographic, as Wajda uses close-ups, zoom shots and pull back shots. The Wedding was definitely a film that improved on a second viewing. I’ll probably have to watch it again sometime.

The Eye of Silence, Emmanuel Sapolsky (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime, and the synopsis sounded reasonably interesting so I sat down to watch it. Amèlie is a young Chinese woman in Beijing, who enjoys going out clubbing with her friend Coco. They’re both beautiful and looking for a good time. Coco already has a boyfriend, a young and rich property developer. Amèlie makes her living pretending to be French – she lived in France and speaks the language – for a friend who scams companies looking for overseas investment. Amèlie also has extremely sensitive vision and can see in the dark – but she has to wear sunglasses in the light. At a party thrown by Coco’s boyfriend, Coco goes into a diabetic coma and then dies while being raped by the boyfriend and his friends. Even though the lights are out, Amèlie witnesses this, but she doesn’t know what to do. Sapolsky is, I think, a French director, and Xin Wang, the actress who plays Amèlie, has appeared in a couple of his projects – including Ex-Model a series of webisodes about a Chinese fashion model in Paris who discovers she is too old (at thirty) to get more work. They’re also available on Amazon Prime and are quite amusing. Xin Wang is a face to watch, and while the seeing-in-the-dark thing is an important plot-point – it makes her witness to the crime without the perpetrators realising it, and leads to a somewhat bathetic ending – it does feel a bit unnecessary. The Eye of Silence is clearly a star vehicle for Xin Wang, but she’s very good so that’s no problem. Worth watching.

Songs from the Second Floor, Roy Andersson (2000, Sweden). The night before I flew out to Sweden for a convention, I decided to watch something Swedish. As you do. And I found this film on Amazon Prime, which seemed to have added a number of good films in the week or two prior (including the one above). However, I’m not sure Songs from the Second Floor was a good choice of film to put me in a Swedish frame of mind as it was fucking weird as shit. It’s a series of vignettes, all of which are completely depressing, are played totally deadpan, and in which the cast wear white face make-up that makes them look like cadavers. It makes Finnish films look like the Marx Brothers. The vignettes sort of interlock, inasmuch as characters move through them while also having their own stories. In one, a man who has just been fired, clings to the leg of his boss, and is dragged begging for a second chance along the corridor. In another, a man on a subway train carries a bag full of burnt paper. A naval officer gets into a taxi which is stuck in traffic, even though he is late for an important funeral. The film has a very washed-out look, which does everyone the appearance of warmed-over corpses, but given that it’s a mordant commentary on modern life, it’s quite effective. It presents a different character of black humour to that of films from other nations I’ve seen, more absurd and surreal, I think, than, say, Finnish black-comedies. And less cataclysmic than Polish ones. I’m not sure I liked it, but I think I’ll probably have a go at the two “sequels”, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Performance*, Nicolas Roeg (1970, UK). I think I had the wrong idea about this film in my head prior to watching it. Because when it opened as a mockney gangaster flick, with James Fox as a dapper but psycho enforcer for a London gang boss, I wondered if I were watching the right movie. But after Fox pisses off his boss and is forced to go on the run, he ends up hiding out in the house of retired rock star Turner (played by Jagger), and the film I’d been expecting began to manifest. But there was little in it, I thought, to justify a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. As an ultra-violent film with flashes of surrealism, it predated Pete Travis’s Dredd by several decades, but didn’t seem to add anything to either ultra-violent films of its time or surrealist movies. But then the film reached ‘Memo from Turner’, almost a promo video, performed by Jagger, and the whole film went up a level. That happens sometimes: a film is mostly meh, and then something happens to cause you re-appraise what you’ve just watched. Performance still feels like a so-so 1970s British gangster film, and I couldn’t decide if Jagger was actually acting or not (as in, he wasn’t that bad, and he’s usually a terrible actor), but the ‘Memo from Turner’ sequence was really good, and if only for that I think better of this film than I otherwise would.

The Green Ray, Éric Rohmer (1986, France). Among the people I know who actually know who Rohmer is – and it’s a small number of people – The Green Ray is generally proffered as Rohmer’s best film. So I was surprised to find it so disappointing. Rohmer’s films are very talky, but this one seemed even more so than others I remembered. Perhaps I expected too much of it. But his films also tackle thorny moral situations and problems, and YMMV almost certainly given those subjects. In The Green Ray, a young woman’s relationship has just ended, and her holidays planned are torpedoed when her travelling companion pulls out. She joins a beach party, but she’s the only single person there and doesn’t fit in (I know that feeling). She bounces around Europe, looking for a companion but unwilling to engage in the sort of mindless mating games people use when looking for one-night stands (I know that feeling too). You’d think, with Rohmer tackling a situation with which I can sympathise, I’d like The Green Ray more than I did. But Delphine, the main character, felt a little too flat to be sympathetic, and perhaps the over-reliance on dialogue told against the film. Also, when I think of the Rohmer films I like – Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach – the emotional problem which forms the core of the film feels stronger and a more powerful engine for the plot. The Green Ray – a reference to both Verne’s novel of the same name, and the near-mythical green flash sometimes seen at sunset – feels at times as unfocused as Delphine’s holiday plans. I still like Rohmer’s films, and am happy to work my way through his oeuvre, and I suspect The Green Ray is going withstand a rewatch much better than some of his other films… One of these days I’ll have to see if I can pick up a DVD collection of his movies; there are several available.

The Holy Mountain, Arnold Fanck (1926, Germany). I had thought Leni Reifenstahl – of Triumph of the Will fame – had directed this, but it turns out she was its star, not its director. She plays a dancer who falls in love with a mountaineer, but then he gets jealous when she gives one of her scarves to one of his friends, leading the friend to believe she loves him and the mountaineer to think she has betrayed him. The film makes much of the fact its mountaineering scenes were actually filmed in the mountains and not faked up in a studio, and, while there are plenty that were certainly filmed on location, a pivotal scene in which the mountaineer has to hold his friend all night after he’d fallen off a cliff does look a bit like it was done in a studio. About all I can remember from the film is the dancing scenes (bad) and the climbing scenes (good). If the film was sold on its location shooting, it at least did a good job on it. The story – boy meets, girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again after much difficulty – may not have been all that original, and Reifenstahl as an actress has nothing like Louise Brooks’s on-screen charisma, and the film does not go somewhat off-piste towards the end (leading to the film’s title)… but I did enjoy it. And while silent films require a different viewing protocol to “talkies”, I’ve seen aneough them now to appreciate how it’s done. And some silent films, in fact, I’ve thought absolutely blinding. Worth seeing, but probably not worth a rewatch.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 866


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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Moving pictures 2017, #28

Another mixed bag…

Passengers, Morten Tyldum (2016, USA). This didn’t do too well at the box office, and was panned by critics; and was especially panned by many of the people I follow on Twitter/read on blogs. Chiefly because it was characterised as a rape/stalker fantasy. What many of those critics had failed to mention is that Pratt’s character agonises over his decision, but goes ahead and does it despite knowing he’s in the wrong. Although that in no way justifies his action, or makes it right. And Lawrence’s character roundly rejects him when she learns the truth. It’s an unpleasant story, but it’s disingenuous to claim it presents it without commentary. On top of which, the film has plenty of other problems. Briefly, Chris Pratt is a glorified mechanic being shipped in cold sleep to a distant colony world aboard a fancy CGI starship. A meteorite strike causes a glitch and he’s awakened ninety years before the starship reaches its destination. He cannot go back into cold sleep. And he’ll be dead by the time the ship reaches its destination. In the cold sleep chamber, he spots Jennifer Lawrence, fancies her, looks into life – she’s a celebrated writer – and falls in love with her. So he wakes her and pretends it was another glitch. They have a good time aboard the deserted starship, despite knowing they’ll not live to see the destination. Then she discovers he deliberately woke her. She rejects him. Then the reactor or something goes berserk because of the meteroid strike or something, and they have to work together to save the ship. Ship fixed, rift healed. The two of them live happily ever after… True, Passengers shows Pratt doing something unthinkable, and then shows him enjoying the fruits of that act – it is, in effect, a death sentence for Lawrence, triggered wholly by Pratt. But the consequences of that act are not left unexplored, or presented without commentary. In fact, the shit third act’s bullshit jeopardy, thrown into the plot in order to effect a reconciliation, is probably more offensive. Boy wakes girl, thus consigning her to an early death aboard a starship populated only by him, but fusion reactor meltdown makes it all okay… And yeah, he did wrong, he was being punished for it… and the film then fakes a situation to make it all work out okay. That’s the really bad thing about Passengers. I probably should have avoided it, as advised.

A Girl At My Door, July Jung (2014, South Korea). Another film David Tallerman added to my rental list. And another good call. (This is not to say they’ve all been good calls, but we seem to be averaging quite a high hit rate each.) A policewoman has been assigned as station chief at a small seaside town after a scandal back in Seoul. On her first day, she witnesses some schoolkids bullying a a girl their own age. Later, she spots the girl’s father beating the same girl, and she stops it. The policeman gets reluctantly involved when the girl turns up at her house, and she takes her in so she will no longer be beaten by her father. This, of course, causes talk. And is not helped by the policewoman drinking. It all comes to a head when the father – a drunkard, and manager of the town’s main business – accuses the policewoman of abusing his daughter. Which is only made worse when the daughter, in all innocence, gives answers to the police which can be easily misconstrued. But the girl has her revenge – she fakes an incident of rape from her father while her phone is on and afte rshe has called a policeman. A Girl At My Door can’t decide if it’s a drama or a thriller, and flips between both registers… but that works in its favour. It goes for dead-pan throughout, which means the spin put on events later in the film can be seen purely as perspective. Having said that, the teenage girl is a bit creepy – although in a way you can never quite put your finger on. The fact everything starts to go horribly wrong for the policewoman comes as no real surprise, but the way the girl turns the tables is a neat twist. Definitely worth seeing.

The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin (1940, USA). I admit I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, perhaps because it’s possibly Chaplin’s most famous film (it’s also an important plot point in Iron Sky)… but I’d never actually seen it. And then it popped up on Amazon Prime… And, well… It seems it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See  Before You Die list and I can see why: it’s a bit rubbish. It’s more Benny Hill than your actual Charlie Chaplin. The title refers to Hynkel who is, well, Hitler. But there’s also a Jewish tailor (that’s the actual name of the character) who closely resembles him. Both played, of course, by Chaplin. But the tailor loses his memory after being injured in WWI. He returns to the Jewish ghetto and tries to rebuild his life, but Hynkel’s stormtroopers are proesecuting a campaign of antisemitic violence and intimidation against the ghetto’s inhabitants. When the Jewish tailor becomes a target, he ‘s first helped out by Paulette Goddard, and later by an officer high in Hynkel’s regime, whose life the Jewish tailor saved during WWI (an early sequence in the film shows this: it’s a pretty dumb flying comedy routine). Having seen several Chaplin films, and thought them good, I was expecting more of The Great Dictator. It didn’t deliver. There were some clever gags in the films – the ack-ack gun, for example – but they were usually book-ended by weak comedy. It’s probably worth seeing this, so you can cross it off your list. But it’s far from being one of Chaplin’s best.

Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson (2016, Canada). Someone, a known and plainly deluded denier, asked Buzz Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had been to the Moon… and Aldrin punched him in the face. Since 1969 there have been conspiracy theories claiming Apollo 11, or all of the Apollo missions, were faked. It’s all complete bollocks, of course. (Hint: when a cover-up is more expensive and complicated than the event is it is supposedly covering up, chances are the event actually took place.) But while faked Moon landings have appeared in fiction during the past four and a half decades, the nearest Hollywood came was Capricorn One, which posited a faked landing on Mars. Until now. In the past two years, there have been two films about faked Moon landings – both, incidentally, suggesting Kubrick was involved – but neither of which have been US films. First was Moonwalkers (see here), which was French, and not entirely successful; and now we have Operation Avalanche from Canada. In this one, an ambitious young CIA agent persuades his bosses to allow him to a film a faked Apollo 11 moon landing because all indications are NASA will fail to achieve Kennedy’s target of the “by the end of the decade”. The agent and his team pose as a documentary crew, and the enture film is presented as found footage – ie, the footage they shot. And it makes a better fist of the found footage angle than Apollo 18 (which remains the best fictional representation of Apollo on film). The DVD’s cover art does Operation Avalanche no favours – nor, in fact, does the the title. The synopsis led me to expect something like Moonwalkers, which was not especially good, or funny. But Operation Avalanche is actually pretty good. It maintains an impressively earnest tone throughout, evokes its period especially well, and its cast of unknowns and barely-seens do a good job of convincing the viewer it’s all really quite real. Worth seeing.

Cumbres, Gabriel Nuncio (2013, Mexico). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime – it is proving not entirely useless, and despite being full of shit films, does actually have the odd gem buried in there. And it’s no good searching for it, because the search function is shite. You just… stumble across it. And hope it doesn’t disappear before you get the chance to watch it. I guess it’s little different, in effect, to channel-hopping… and discover ing that one of your 200+ cable channels is not showing an episode of NCIS or Friends by is ten minutes into a hard-to-find film you really want to see… Which is all somewhat irrelevant, as I knew nothing about Cumbres when I came across it – but the synopsis sounded intriguing, and it was a Mexican film and I’ve not seen many Mexican films (er, Jodorowsky… and that’s about it). A father wakes up his teenage daughter and tells her she has to drive her older sister out to relatives in the country because something bad has happened. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Nuncio takes his time revealing what the elder sister has done, although it’s mentioned early that it involves her boyfriend. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white, and is mostly set in the car in which the two drive south. It’s well-played, Nuncio’s coyness over revealing the reason for the sudden flight quickly ceases to be annoying, and it all hangs together exceedingly well. Good film.

Fat City*, John Huston (1972, USA). I’ve yet to figure out why Huston is important, or at least important enough to appear eight times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Eight times. Some of his early stuff is clearly seminal Hollywood film-making – and he was part of a Hollywood dynasty too. But I’m not sure this grim drama about a has-been boxer and an up-and-coming boxer was all that good. Stacey Keach plays a boxer fallen on hard times, forever promising he’ll get fit and return to the sport, but usually ending up back on the booze. Jeff Bridges plays the amateur Keach decides has talent, and who he pushes into a career in the sport. It’s set in a run-down area of Los Angeles, featuring a cast of alcoholics and low-lives, and is based on the only novel published by Leon Gardner. When I started working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, Fat City was unavailable on DVD, but a posh new dual format edition has just been released. Which was lucky for me. I guess. Although why it ever ended  up on the list is a mystery. True, I’m no fan of boxing films – or indeed of the sport (and it’s a bit rich actually calling it a “sport”, if you ask me), so much of its appeal is lost on me. But I am a fan of films, and nothing about Fat City especially stood out for me. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list count: 865