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Moving pictures, #48

Only two out of the six are US movies this time, so I’m definitely getting better at this… Although a recent check through which countries’ cinema I’ve watched revealed there are a number of gaps in my viewing. Which I plan to rectify. For now, it’s two French, two Russian and two American. Two were also rewatches.

live_becomeLive and Become, Radu Mihǎleanu (2005, France). I found this on an alternative 1001 Movies list and it looked interesting enough to add to my rental list. And I’m glad I did. In 1984, some 12,000 Ethiopian Jews walked to refugee camps in Sudan, where the 8,000 who had survived the march were airlifted to Israel. Live and Become follows a Christian Ethiopian boy whose mother persuades him to pretend to be a Jewish woman’s son so that he might have a chance at a new life. His new mother dies soon after arrival in Israel, and the boy proves too difficult for the orphanage to manage. He’s a adopted by a French Jewish family who have settled in Israel, and the film then follows him through his teen years into his early twenties, as he masquerades as Jewish, tries to find out what happened to his birth mother, and becomes a victim of a racial backlash against the Ethiopian Jews. Although the film implies the 1984 airlift – Operation Moses – was a one-off and well-planned coup by the Israelis, it was actually one of several attempts to patriate African Jews to Israel, beginning in 1961 and culminating with Operation Solomon in 1991. But that’s a minor quibble – it’s a heart-breaking piece of history and deserves to be better-known. Mihǎleanu uses different actors for his lead character at different stages of his life but keeps the continuity strong between them. I had not expected to find Live and Become as gripping as I did. Recommended.

faustFaust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia). Sokurov’s films are hardly easy viewing, but I find this one among the more difficult of his – possibly because it seems at first to be relatively straightforward. Faust, a doctor in a mediaeval town in what is now Germany, is studying human anatomy, trying to find the seat of the “soul”; but his clandestine researches means he has little or no money. While trying to pawn something, he meets a moneylender called Mauricius, who seems not quite human. They spend time together and, in a large bathhouse/laundry, Faust spots a young woman and begins to obsess about her. She refuses his blandishments, a situation not helped when Faust accidentally kills her brother in a pub brawl. This is when Mauricius offers Faust a, er, Faustian bargain – his soul for a night with the young woman. Faust signs. However, he fails to act on his desires, and so Mauricius leads him to a strange land of stone and geysers where, in a rage, Faust kills Mauricius by burying him under rocks. But now Faust cannot find his way home. For a Sokurov film, Faust is played almost straight – there are occasional moments of distorted picture, much like he does in Mother and Son, but if there was a logic to them I didn’t spot it. The colours are pale and washed out, but that only gives the setting a more mediaeval feel. Even the occasional oddness – Faust’s assistant drops a bottle containing a foetus in formaldehyde and it proves to still be alive, for instance – only seem to amplify quite how strange Mauricius is… And he is odd – in the bathhouse scene, when he strips to bathe, all the women remark he “has nothing in front” and yet he appears to have something at his rear… which is far stranger than the earlier scene where he drinks a vial of poison and appears to enjoy it. I’ve seen Faust described as a German story told with Russian sensibilities, and there’s certainly a Sokurovian feel to the story – I’m tempted to describe it as having a certain identifiable philosophy, but then isn’t the Faust story itself a philosophical story? I’m unsure where I’d place Faust in Sokurov’s oeuvre. It has considerably higher production values than much of his output, and it’s evident in every frame… And the story is less elliptical than many of his other films… But it’s also less personal – the relationship between Faust and Mauricius, or Faust and Gretchen, is in no way as close as that between mother and son or father and son or grandmother and grandson… But then the relationship between body and soul is either the closest relationship of all, or no relationship at all… and that’s what Faust opens the film exploring…

diaryDiary of a Country Priest*, Robert Bresson (1951, France). There are five films by Robert Bresson on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve now seen them all… and everyone one of them has left me cold. The huge regard in which he’s held, I just can’t see it. And this one, Diary of a Country Priest, apparently Claude Laydu’s performance in the title role is, according to Wikipedia, considered “one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Um, right. Now, I like that Bresson treats his material with a straight face – even a stone-face, perhaps – and the deadpan delivery is presented with remarkable clarity and economy. But I still don’t get why Bresson is so revered – and I say that knowing that my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov, is a fan of Bresson’s films. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me see why Laydu’s performance in this film should attract such accolades. He plays a priest whose performance of his duties draws the criticism of his parishioners, and who also happens to be quite ill. There’s no thematic link between his illness and his actions – although not being a Catholic – or, indeed, the slightest bit religious – perhaps that’s a distinction lost on me. I have mentioned in the past that one of my apparent blindspots is French cinema prior to the Nouvelle Vague (bar the odd exception, such as Renoir’s films), and if so then Bresson sits squarely in it. I’m loath to say that Diary of a Country Priest does not belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain why it does belong on the list.

mirrorMirror*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1975, Russia). If you’d asked me a year ago what my favourite Tarkovsky film was, I’d probably have said Mirror. Having now watched it one more time – on Blu-ray this time – I found myself…conflicted. It frequently looks gorgeous – there’s a lambent quality to the cinematography in the scenes set on the farm that is absolutely stunning. And the black-and-white sections have that sort of concreteness which makes the space station in Solaris looks so much like a real place. But despite having watched the film several times, I’m still no clearer as to its actual story, and at times it seems like little more than fantastic moving wallpaper. It feels like a hot mess, but one that hovers on the edge of understanding. Tarkovsky’s genius was, in part, that he could make something feel like a coherent whole despite the lack of overt links between sections – as in Andrei Rublev. Mirror is supposed to present the memories of a dying poet, and indeed it has a stream-of-consciousness look and feel (the slow motion bath falling through the ceiling? WTF?), but while there’s a plain sense of thematic unity I’m not convinced the narrative hangs together in any real meaningful sense. But the genius of Tarkovsky is also that his films are eminently rewatchable, and each rewatch will reveal something new to appreciate and admire. There are films I admire hugely, and directors I admire hugely although none of their films make the first list… but Tarkovsky plainly belongs on both. I don’t know that anyone has ever equalled him, and much as I love Sokurov’s films it’s as much for his contradictions, whereas Tarkovsky is a director with remarkably few contradictions. If that makes sense. I opened this “review” wondering which of Tarkovsky’s film I liked best… At the moment, I’m tending toward The Sacrifice… but I have yet to rewatch it as the Blu-ray version has not yet been released. However, there’s still Ivan’s Childhood, Stalker and Nostalgia to rewatch; and probably further rewatches of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Mirror… and the fact I can even consider watching these films again and again is one reason why I consider Tarkovsky a hugely important and favourite director.

wolf_manThe Wolf Man*, George Waggner (1941, USA). An American, Lon Chaney Jr, learns of the death of his brother and so returns to the ancestral home in, er, Wales, to patch it up with his father, Claude Rains. The people in the Welsh village speak with English or American accents – among the former is the young woman who runs a local antiqiue shop, and among the latter is the local chief constable. While out walking in a swampy wood with the young lady, Chaney saves a woman being attacked by a wolf, but the wolf manages to bite him. Later, the police find a dead man, but no wolf’s corpse. Then there are the gypsies, who all dress like flamenco dancers or something, not to mention Chaney as a werewolf looks more like Puppyman, about to advertise Andrex, than he does a fearsome creatures from horror’s bag of fearsome tropes… and it all feels a bit risible. It’s an early Hollywood horror movie, and while it may have done something new, seventy-five years later it’s hard to spot exactly what. It feels like one of those films that are only on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list because the listmaker has fond memories of it from late-night showings on obscure cable channels or in seedy fleapit cinemas. I don’t see that appeal myself. Meh.

wonderTo the Wonder, Terrence Malick (2012, USA). I’ve no idea why I rented this. Perhaps it was in the vain hope that Malick might at some point produce a great film instead of ones that bounce between occasional moments of great beauty and the much longer moments of pretentious self-indulgent twaddle. The first third of this film, for example, resembles nothing so much as perfume commercial. And the stream-of-consciousness voice-over, which in The New World felt like an idea that could have worked really well, here only heightens the likeness to that sort of bullshit world in which perfume adverts make sense and are legitimate tools for selling a product. Ben Affleck plays an American in Paris who falls in love with Ukrainian divorcée Olga Kurylenko (who has a young daughter), marries her and takes her back to Oklahoma. But she doesn’t fit in there, and returns to Paris. Malick reportedly told his cast to keep on moving while he was shooting them, and their endlessly spinning and jumping about wears thin very quickly (and heightens the likeness to the aforementioned commercials). I have now watched most of Malick’s oeuvre and can happily admit I don’t get him. I don’t understand why he is so admired. His cinematography is frequently absolutely gorgeous, this is true; but there is more to movie-making than a stunning sunset caught just right. He also has a well-documented tendency to basically recreate his films in editing, such that half the cast end up on the cutting-room floor. In To the Wonder, that means Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all had their parts cut completely from the film. (Why would you work with someone who did that to you? For the money? Is there some sort of weird Hollywood prestige in ending up on the floor of Malick’s editing suite?) Malick feels like a director with a lot of interesting ideas but whose slightest whim is happily indulged by Hollywood. Some people need reining in, some people only produce good work when limited. I’m increasingly starting to think Malick is one such person.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 804


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Moving pictures, #47

At least half of my movie-watching is not from the US, but I still need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch. (To be fair, the bulk of those I actually purchase these days are non-Anglophone; in fact, it’s been a couple of years since I last bought a Hollywood film on DVD or Blu-ray… at least to keep, rather than a £1 purchase from a charity shop to watch and then take back afterwards…). Anyway, a typical mix this time around: three from the US (although one is silent), and one apiece from Argentine, Germany and Japan.

hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015, USA). Tarantino is a bit of a Hollywood darling, not to mention completely full of himself. His films are hardly typical Hollywood product – although their stories are very much set in those spaces colonised by Hollywood stories – but they still get major releases, with massive marketing campaigns and countless column-inches of approving reviews. The Hateful Eight is apparently a “revisionist Western”, although whether that means revisionist in respect to actual history or Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West I’ve no idea. Because, let’s face it, Shane or Rio Bravo can hardly be considered historically accurate, much as I love them. The Hateful Eight is basically Tarantino showing off about Westerns – all of his films are about him showing off in some respect – which in this case means a bunch of people trapped at a remote trading post during a fierce Wyoming winter, some years after the American Civil War, while en route to a nearby town. Two are bounty hunters, one is a prisoner of one of the bounty hunters, another is a newbie sheriff on his way to take up his silver star, one is an old Confederate general, one is a gruff cowboy, one is an English hangman, and the last is the Mexican assistant who has been left in charge of the trading post by its owner (he claims…). There then follows lots of dialogue, a deal of which is expositional, a minor mystery which is quickly disposed of, and a good deal of gory gunfighting. For a movie that’s 168 minutes long and mostly in a single indoor set, The Hateful Eight proved surprisingly gripping. Some of the photography was also very nice indeed, which is just as well since the characters are mostly stereotypes, and the story goes into this lengthy narrated flashback sequence to explain the entire plot of the movie which is dumb. Tarantino carries his films with wit, which is just as well as he can’t plot for shit and he’s just about capable of handling archetypes rather than real characters. But archetypes are very Hollywood – more than that, they’re classy Hollywood (stereotypes are just commercial Hollywood). A Tarantino film is never less than entertaining; and as Hollywood auteurs go (it should be an oxymoron, to be fair), he’s among the top rank. I just wish everything he did wasn’t polluted by that air of insufferable smugness he carries around with him.

official_storyThe Official Story*, Luis Puenzo (1985, Argentina). One of the joys of having your viewing directed by a list is sitting down to watch a film you know nothing about it and discovering it’s really good. And, it has to be said, of late I’ve found myself more drawn to documentary dramas than I have sfx-heavy fantastical bullshit. The Official Story hints at, but does not plainly state, its topic, although the country of origin and year should be some clue. It’s about the Disappeared. (For an excellent documentary on a similar topic, I recommend Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light.) A well-off couple – he’s something high up in the junta’s government, she’s a teacher – welcome a friend who fled the country shortly after the military seized power. She e’plains why she left – an ex-boyfriend was considered anti-junta and, although she’d not seen him for two or more years, she was arrested and tortured – but the teacher seems unconvinced, while the husband has his own cross to bear in the form of the deals he’s made to prosper during an oppressive regime. There’s a classic scene where the wives – all well-off, all untouched by the regime’s excesses – meet for lunch and the returned woman lays into one of them with an impressive savagery. Driving the plot is the dawning realisation that the teacher’s adopted daughter may be the child of a Disappeared woman, and when she starts looking into it she somes across a woman who may be the grandmother of the adopted daughter. The husband is far from happy when the wife tries to introduce the woman to the daughter, because the guilt of having another woman’s child, of having prospered, child-wise, at the expense of the real mother, and of the mothers’ movement to which the biological mother and grandmother belonged is anathema to him but is also… something new and uncomfortable for her, as mediated partly through her experiences in the classroom as a history teacher for rebellious teen boys, and also informed by the history of her friend who has recently returned. While this is an excellent film, and tells a story that needs to be told, the astonishing thing about it is that it was planned while the junta was in power – but the junta fell just as the screenplay was completed. Nonetheless, to plan a film so critical during the regime… Recommended.

scream_stoneScream of Stone, Werner Herzog (1991, Germany). Apparently Herzog himself disowns this one, and it’s certainly true that it doesn’t feel 100% like a Herzog film. Which is weird, because he directed it, he just didn’t write the script. Which, to be honest, seems to sit pretty much in the same space as most of Herzog’s films. There’s a mountain in Patagonia called Cerro Torre which is notoriously difficult to climb because it is both needle-shaped and its top features a mushroom of ice. A mountain climber challenges a championship indoor climber to accompany him on a climb to the top of Cerro Torre. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Donald Sutherland plays a television producer who kicks off the rivalry, and then cynically feeds it, in order to get something he can make a TV programme about. The script isn’t great, much of the story is a bit cliché, but there’s some lovely photography… and while it’s easy enough to declare it second-string Herzog, it’s still Herzog and so superior to many other directors’ output. So, not a great film, and not one for the Herzog collection, but, I think, still worth seeing.

queen_earthQueen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry (2015, USA). I must have seen a positive mention of this somewhere, which is why, I assume, I added it to my rental list. In the event… there’s a type of American independent movie which seems to rub me up the wrong way. Uusually, they’re talky, and trying to be clever, and mostly reliant on the acting chops of the central cast. I’ve seen a number of films which fit this description and can think of only a handful which make the grade (and most of those starred Brit Marling, who’s definitely going to be something big one day). But. Queen of Earth. Which stars Elisabeth Moss, who I know chiefly from Mad Men. I watched it from start to finish, and there were lots of close-ups in cars; and Wikipedia describes it as a “psychological thriller” but I’m buggered if I can remember an actual story never mind anything as crass as a plot. It’s one of those films where the dullness of the script is not enlivened by some nice landscape cinematography because remains tightly focused on the cast and the no doubt bon mots they are so artfully enuniciating. The movie was, unfortunately, a rental, so I can’t watch it again and re-evaluate it; but on the one showing, I was less than impressed- although that, I suspect, may be due to it more being a type of film I don’t like rather than the film itself. (It’s an entirely different matter, for example, when a film covers a type of story I like but does it badly – it so much easier to a) see that it’s bad and b) that I don’t like it.) So, when all’s said and done, there’s a definite element of YMMV to Queen of Earth

good_morningGood Morning, Yasujiro Ozu (1959, Japan). And speaking of YMMV, I do like these Ozu films and I’d never really expected too. Perhaps it’s that his stories seem to work for me in colour so much more than they do in black and white. I don’t know; I’ll have to re-watch Tokyo Story, or some other early film, to find out. And I probably will… since I seem to be in the habit of buying these excellent BFI editions of Ozu’s films. Good Morning is, like the other Ozus I’ve enjoyed, a domestic drama, and in this case centres around a neighbourhood club in which some funds have apparently gone missing. But it’s just as much about the Hatashi family, who are sort of at the centre of the missing funds mystery and have problematic relationships with their neighbours for a number of different reasons. It is, I suspect, pointless to relate the plot of an Ozu film, because they’re chiefly a series of domestic observations strung together and ostensibly applied to a single family, And that’s just as much the case here, especially the whole sequence in which the two young boys spend time at their neighbour’s house because they have a television. But there’ a clarity to Ozu’s framing and a stark simplicity to his blocking which reminds me more of Hergé’s ligne claire style of artwork than it does any cinema movement. It works beautifully well and, as I’ve said before, it frames uchi and soto in such a clear an unambiguous way that when it re-styles one as the other, it actually suggests an additional dimension to the scene which is not stated but still subtley changes its import (I’m thinking of the framing of the street shots as interior shots in An Autumn Afternoon here, which manages to beautifully define the character dynamics despite the dialogue only baldly stating the relationships). I’ve never been a big fan of Far Eastern cinema, although I’ve watched and enjoyed lots of Hong Kong action movies over the years. But – despite not liking Tokyo Story when I watched it several years ago – I’ve found myself becoming a bit of an Ozu convert. More, please.

eagleThe Eagle*, Clarence Brown (1925, USA). I have in other posts about my movie watching remarked that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to excellent films I might otherwise have missed – and not just silent films since I already had a few in my collection… But it’s not an area of cinema I’d choose to explore without prompting… Although having done so, I’ve seen some excellent movies made before sound… Sadly, this is not one of them. I’m not sure what The Eagle‘s actual claim to fame is. It’s not Rudolph Valentino’s most popular film, because that would The Son of the Sheik (and it’s pronounced shay-kh, with a “kh” like a softer version of the “ch” in loch; and not sheek, which is an entirely different word from another language altogether). Anyway, Valentino plays a lieutentant in Czarina Catherine the Great’s Imperial Guard. After rescuing a runaway coach – inadvertently taking the empress’s horse in the process – he comes to the czarina’s notice. She offers him a general’s rank, but he’s not willing to pay the price (sexual favours, basically). So he runs away with a price on his head. And ends up as a Robin Hood-type outlaw, the Black Eagle of the, er, title… and he bumps into the nubile young woman from the runaway carriage earlier, who it is the daughter of the local grandee who tricked Valentino’s father out of his estate, and so he pretends to be a French tutor in order to get close to her and win her love as well as conduct his Robin-Hood-ish campaign against her father… Yes, only in a silent film, but it sort of works… even if California makes a piss-poor stand-in for central Russia, and assorted Hollywood mansions make for unconvincing Russian castles. There are silent films that are still astonishingly good even now in 2016, but this isn’t one of them. It may well be the first appearance of a number of heavily-soiled tropes and clichés, but that’s not enough in my book to make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list… especially when it doesn’t appear to be genuinely new at the time it was made. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 802


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Moving pictures, #46

Yet more movies… All but one are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but two of them I’d seen previously.

solarisSolaris*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972, Russia). I first saw Solaris back in the early 1980s when I was at school. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was on, I think, BBC2, and the junior common room had a single television set but I somehow managed to persuade a half a dozen of my fourteen-year-old peers to sit and watch three hours of Russian sf film. Whatever leadership qualities I had then which allowed me to manage that have long since gone. But I’ve treasured Solaris ever since. In fact, it was one of a handful of films I was determined to own once DVDs appeared on the market (I never liked VHS, and refused to buy videocassettes). I’ve watched it few times since buying it on DVD back in 2002, but this most recent rewatch was triggered by upgrading my copy to Blu-ray. And I still love the film, although it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky. Despite the odd moment which is wildly implausible – such as when Kelvin’s launches Hari in an escape rocket from the station, and Kelvin survives being in the same chamber as the launch – the entire film looks astonishingly believable. There’s something about the production design (rocket launch notwithstanding) that makes the space station look like a real place. The story is loosely based on Lem’s novel of the same title, so loosely Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation; but, to be frank, when having someone of the calibre of Tarkovsky adapting a work it seems churlish to complain it’s not especially faithful. And it’s true the film does mostly ignore the Solaris organism, which is the focus of the book, and instead spends its time documenting the effects of the organisms on the scientists aboard the space station. But it looks gorgeous, and even the moments of black and white – Tarkovsky ran out of colour film stock – seem to fit in with the overall look and feel of the movie. Solaris works so well because it doesn’t do the science-ficiton thing and focus on the novum, the Solaris organism, as the book does, but focuses instead on Kelvin’s relationship with Hari. In the book, the Solaris organism manifests fantastical cathedral-like islands; in the film, it manifests a single enigmatic woman from Kelvin’s past. I know which story I prefer.

deer_hunterThe Deer Hunter*, Michael Cimino (1978, USA). I’d seen this many years ago, but other than it being about Vietnam and involving a scene featuring Russian roulette remembered pretty much nothing of it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Because, to be honest, I thought The Deer Hunter merely okay. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are two of a group of steel workers who regularly go hunting in the mountains and generally behaving like swaggering macho working-class Americans. And then they sign up to fight in Vietnam and, well, there are a million films about that, in fact until 9/11 it pretty much defined a big part of the US psyche… But things don’t go well in Vietnam and they’re captured together – in one of those coincidences that plots require – and tortured by the Viet Cong… before escaping. But all of them have been damaged by their Vietnam experiences. Well, all except De Niro. Although perhaps he is as he can no longer no shoot defenceless deers when hunting. Christopher Walken forgets who he is and begins playing Russian roulette for money… and winning. John Savage loses both legs and the use of an arm, and ends up in a VA hospital. I can see how at the time this movie took a number of chances, and they paid off. But from forty years later, there’s little in it to impress all that much. It concerns a topic which is the concern of a nation that is not my own and a generation which is not my own. I have to judge it as a film and only that. There is no baggage. And in that respect, it has its moments – Cimino’s ambition is plain, and it mostly works; but the characters are thinly-drawn and there’s too much reliance on the cast to bring them to life (some, notoriously, weren’t even scripted but had to improvise). It’s a good cast, of course, and they mostly went on to greater things, but this is early in their careers. The Vietnam scenes do not compare well with those in other films (my only comparison, of course), and there’s little subtlety in the war’s effects on the characters. I’m in two minds whether this belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There are better Vietnam films, there are better war films… but it captures something – even if it’s only its director’s ambition – that might be worth preserving.

all_quietAll Quiet on the Western Front*, Lewis Milestone (1930, USA). The most surprising thing about this film, I guess, is that it’s a US film with US actors who play Germans fighting for Germany during World War I. Has Hollywood ever made a movie about Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS soldiers? I don’t think so – at least not where they’re playing the heroes (and we’ll nip the “good Nazi” discussion in the bud right now, thank you very much). All Quiet on the Western Front is essentially a “war is hell” story, and it happens to be written by a German and set during WWI. Which clearly wasn’t seen as a commercial obstacle by Hollywood – although, to be fair, Hitler didn’t seize control of Germany until 1931, but surely it was obvious what was going on in Germany at the time (for a start, half of Britain’s aristocracy were supporting Hitler by then). Despite all that, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly unexciting war film, if that doesn’t sound odd. What I mean is, it doesn’t offer any astonishing insights – perhaps it did in 1930, although I find it hard to believe; perhaps it did in 1928 when Remarque’s novel was first published in the Vossische Zeitung, although given the effects of WWI on the German population away from the Front (especially given the blockade by the British Grand Fleet), so maybe not… True, it humanises the enemy of WWI, and that may have been something new to US audiences, which I guess makes it anti-propaganda and not something which Hollywood normally does. And, after all that, the trench warfare it depicts seems a little sanitised compared to the reality as documented, or indeed in later films set during the war.

rivetteDuelle, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still no clearer as to what it’s about. There are apparently two women, the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun, and they fight a magical battle in mid-1970s Paris over a magical diamond. I tweeted while watching this that in most films there’s always a sense the director is playing to the gallery, but that sense was completely absent from Duelle (as indeed it was in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round too). You feel like a Peeping Tom, watching something without knowing the context. I was, I admit, beguiled by the “limited edition” status of the collection in which this appears, and having been impressed by La belle noiseuse, but two films in and I’m beginning to question my purchase. It’s not that Duelle is a bad film – it’s not, at all, it’s well-shot and well-acted… but, well, it’s a bit like watching someone’s home movie (with extremely high production values, that is). If the synopsis give on Wikipedia is the story Rivette thought he was telling, the film is a little too confused for it to stand as a description of its plot. I quite liked Merry-Go-Round‘s inability to resolve itself – it was very L’Avventura, and I admire Antonioni’s film, and indeed his oeuvre. But Duelle often feels like assorted episodes from an incomplete series. I’m going to have to watch it again, I think; but I’m still convinced I’ll never make real sense of it.

gospelThe Gospel According to Matthew*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964, Italy). I was looking for something on Amazon Prime to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and stumbled across this, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t quite the easy watching I was hoping for, but never mind. It’s a pretty much straight-up telling of the eponymous gospel, its southern Italy locations making a good fist of standing in for Biblical Palestine. I’m not entirely sure why the film exists, to be honest. It’s not a new spin on the gospel, and as commentary it’s remarkably thin. The neo-realist style works well with the material, but we’re still talking about a 2000-year-old fantasy that a substantial portion of the world’s population think is historical fact. Here are a few facts: Jesus was a Jewish; he spoke Aramaic; Jesus is not an Aramaic name, so he can’t have been called that; he probably wasn’t born in Nazareth either, because there’s no archaeological evidence the town existed until the third century CE. But then Pasolini’s film tells it as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel, which was written at least two generations after the Crucifixion, and have undoubtedly been rewritten many times since. But that’s the source material, this is the film. And it, well, it tells a story, and it does well. But the source material is always going to overshadow it, and while I salute Pasolini’s bravery in tackling it, and I admire the understated way he told the story, it does all feel a bit unnecessary. Does it belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list? I honestly don’t know.

haxanHäxan*, Benjamin Christensen (1922, Sweden). Um, I could perhaps have better planned my viewing… to go from saying I have no interest in a movie about Christ straight into one about Satan and witchcraft… Especially when Häxan proved well-made and fascinating. I’ve no idea what prompted Christensen to make it – surely Sweden in the 1920s wasn’t that bad a place? Häxan opens with a history of witchcraft, before then illustrating that history with a series of re-enactments illustrating parts of the history. One part iunvolves the trial of an old woman for witchcraft, and the final part of the film attempts to give modern explanations to behaviour classed in less enlightened times as witchcraft. And this is in a film ade in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for osme to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. In fact, silent movies were very much a thing of the past when I was born. And I suppose I inherited the general response to them that my generation had – sound was better, so why bother watching silent films? Of course, I’ve seen quite a number of them since then. Indeed, I’ve become a fan of Murnau’s films, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a bona fide classic, as is Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, not to mention Ponting’s The Great White Silence, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Dovzhenko’s Zemlya. Okay, I’m not a big fan of the Keystone Cops, and while I’ll happily watch Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel & Hardy, they’re pretty much watch once and enjoy experiences; and that’s even true of early Hitchcock… but there are silent films – and I don’t just mean Metropolis – that every cinephile should have in their collection… and yes, Häxan is probably one of them. Happily, there’s a good edition from Tartan readily available in the UK.


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Moving pictures, #45

More movies!

suffragetteSuffragette, Sarah Gavron (2015, UK). I’m surprised it’s taken until 2015 to make a film like this. Actually, I’m not surprised, just disgusted. True, this film is bsed on fictional characters, and real historical people such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emil Davison do make brief appearances (the former is, in fact, played by Meryl Streep). The film tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK through a pair of invented characters – a working-class laundress played by Carey Mulligan, who more or less accidentally becomes a suffragette. Well, inasmuch ,as she rebels a clear injustice and that brings her into contact with the suffragettes and so she reluctantly joins their campaign. To me, it seems incredible that women should ever have been denied the vote, but I’m not stupid, I realise that historically men have been complete scumbags, and many still are today. I remember thinking while watching Suffragette that most social progress has come about because of violent action, and that decades of insistence on “peaceful demonstration” has only slowed the rate of social progress – if not driven it backwards, as twenty-first century culture seems in many ways less progressive than that of the twentieth century. I have to wonder sometimes if the twentieth century was only a social experiment, and now it’s over. But I suspect what’s more likely is that WWI killed off great swathes of the upper classes and so opened up management of society to the middle classes, but now the upper classes are back in charge once again. But Suffragrette… An important film, I think, because of its subject, but not a great film; and though played well by its cast and directed well, it did all feel a bit meh. Recommended because of its subject, if not as a film per se.

jeremishJeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack (1972, USA). I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I find myself liking several Western films that don’t follow the usual Western story-lines. Like this one. Not a brilliant film, by any means; but there’s lots of lovely scenery in it, and the story is sufficiently distant from your typical Western story that I found it interesting… but I’m not convinced Robert Redford was suitable for the title role. He looks too, well, urbane. The title character heads off into the mountains for a new life. Fortunately, he stumbles across an old timer before he dies of starvation, and the old timer teaches him how to survive. Taking his leave after learning all this is to learn, he finds a homesteader family that had been attacked by Blackfoot. The wife has been driven mad with grief and she insists Johnson take her young son with him. So he does. He then comes across a trapper who had been buried neck-deep in sand by Blackfoot, and rescues him. They track down the Blackfoot who attacked the trapper and steal back his possessions – and killed the Blackfoot braves. This apparently makes Johnson something of a hero among the other Native American tribes of the area. He ends up married to the daughter of a Flathead chieftain, and they and the boy start to make a life for themselves. But the US Cavalry asks for Johnson’s help to resuce a wagon train, and this requires a ride, against Johnson’s better judgement, through a Blackfoot sacred burial ground. The Blackfoot respond by killing his wife and adopted son. There then follows many years of Blackfoot sending young braves to test their mettle against Johnson, all of whom, of course, he kills. We like to think of the Wild West taking place in the scrub and desert of south-west USa, but there’s other scenery which falls within the genre – the Rocky Mountains in this case. And it’s hard to film such landscapes badly… but when they’re filmed well, they’re gorgeous. Pollack had always struck me as a Hollywood stalwart – a director of commercially successful films, with the odd critical success thrown in, but by no means an auteur. And while Redford may not convince as the title character in Jeremiah Johnson, Pollack does a really good job at presenting the landscape (I can’t say “capture” but I have no personal experience of it). The end result is a superior Western, albeit perhaps high second-tier rather than first-tier. But worth a watch.

uchoUcho*, Karel Kachňya (1970, Czech Republic). I wanted to like this film more than I did. For many reasons. For the fact it was banned for many years in its home country, and only shown for the first time after the Velvet Revolution. For its subject: the lives of people in a totalitarian state. For its story: the paranoia endemic in totalitarian states is heightened for a couple after they return from a party and find their front door unlocked, and that tears their marriage apart. And for its use of New Wave cinematic techniques to tell its story. But something about it didn’t quite click for me. Possibly because I have a positive view of the trappings it presents as totalitarian, which I’ve taken from films like Eolomea and Wings. If that makes sense. This is not to say what happened to the Czech Republic – Czechoslovakia as was – at the USSR’s hands is in any way condonable. But in the Eastern Bloc the signifiers they presented for success and happiness I actually find quite appealing, and though they’re all utopian surface, cleverly hiding the totalitarian reality underneath, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the dream. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that Ucho reveals that horrible reality underneath as a commentary by someone who actually lived it. In terms of technique, Ucho has much to recommend it – the use of ambient light, the tight focus on the central charaters… a variety of New Wave techniques, in fact. But the shifting of focus of totalitarian depradations to married-couple dynamics feels at times like diminuation of what should be a major dramatic point. There is, for example, a point in the film when the doorbell rings and the husband and wife work themselves up into such a frenzy believing the secret police have come to take him away that he walks down to open the gate carrying a suitcase of overnight things. But it turns out it’s only a bunch of drunken colleagues from the minsterial party which opens the film. The threat remains – and the movie is clear on that – but the decaying relationship between husband and wife seems to be used a little too often to ratchet up a more existential fear than is deserved by the story. Ucho is an important film, but it is somewhat disappointing as a piece of cinema. Worth seeing – once, at least.

three_coloursThree Colours: Red*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). And so the Three Colours trilogy, and my rewatch of it, comes to a close; and Red is generally considered the best of the three… and so it is, but by considerably more of a margin than I’d remembered. Yes, yes, that final scene where all the major characters from all three films are paraded across the screen is silly and unnecessary; but there’s still a focus and tightness to the story of Red which is so much stronger than that of the other two films. Irene Jacob, who was so good in The Double Life of Veronique, plays a model in Geneva with an absent boyfriend. One night she hits a dog in her car, and it turns out the dog’s owner is ex-judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who cares nothing for the dog. So Jacob pays for the vet bills and adopts it as a pet. But it turns out Trintignant is a bit of a misanthopric oddball, who listens in on the phone calls of his neighbours… and he draws Jacob into his obsession. But she also has problems of her own. I’d started watching Red expecting something similar to my rewatches of Blue and White, so I was surprised to discover how much better than them it is (final scene notwithstanding). There is, now I think back on it, not much that stands out in terms of cinematography – a lot of use of the titular colour, and some nice photography of night-time Geneva. And, to be fair, the cast in all three films have been excellent – but I think it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Trintignant that works so well and lifts the film above Blue and White. The film is supposed to represent fraternity, yet most of the relationships in it have failed by the end – Jacob and her absent boyfriend, a neighbour and his girlfriend… And the strongest relationship in the film, between Jacob and Trintignant, is between two characters who have nothing in common, in fact Jacob is vehemently opposed to Trintignant’s practice of phone hacking. But when Jacob leaves to visit friends in the UK, Trintignant is the only one to wish her good fortune. This rewatch has amended my opinion of the Three Colours trilogy. They’re undoubtedly good films, but having watched so much more non-Anglophone cinema since I first watched them I find them more excellent examples of a particular type of film than merely excellent films. Kieślowski was a gifted film-maker and left an enviably impressive body of work, but I find myself thinking better of his earlier Polish films than I do his later French ones. Go figure.

waiting_womenWaiting Women, Ingmar Bergman (1952, Sweden). Bergman wrote a number of films about women, and while I don’t know enough to call his attitude to women into question, I do wonder sometimes. In Waiting Women, we have a group of women reminscing about the situation which led to their current state of affairs. And it’s all about relationships. The movie opens with a group of women preparing a meal together, before then flashing back to stories of their relationships, the longest and most memorabe of which is that featuring Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – although it does also include a nasty line in misogynistic cracks from Björnstrand. And the infamous elevator scene. Which is, to be honest, one of the highlights. The two are trapped in a lift, and over the course of some ten minutes their rancour turns to humour. The flashback structure at least meant Waiting Women didn’t feel like a televised play, which a lot of Bergman’s films do (even those with scenes that take place outdoors). Not great Bergman by any means, but even his sub-par films are still a cut above most film-maker’s best.

riverRiver of No Return, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). I mentioned in a previous post that Preminger only made one Western… and this is it. And it’s a curious beast. It has many reasons to like it, and yet to fails to, well, impress. The story is an adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves, which is a point in its favour; and the landscape in which the film is set is gorgeous, and often extremely well-photographed… but it’s the things that make it a Hollywood film which spoil it. The close-ups are done in a studio, not on location, and it shows – badly. Marilyn Monroe was a big draw at the time, but she doesn’t bring anything special to this film. In fact, she’s a bit crap – and only seems to really shine when she’s at her most artless (although I guess that was part of her talent as an actress; having said that, by all accounts, she was pretty insufferable during this shoot). Mitchum turns up to a gold-diggers’ camp to pick up his ten-year-old son, who had been left there by arrangement. It turns out the son had been looked after by saloon singer Monroe. Mitchum and son go off to Mitchum’s homestead beside the eponymous river… only for Monroe and fiancé gambler to turn up on en route to stake a claim at Council City. Their raft founders, but Mitchum rescues them. Gambler responds by stealing Mitchm’s horse to continue his jounrey, but Monroe remains behind. Gambler never returns so the three of them make their own way, by raft, to Council City. The location shooting ias lovely, the studio shots anything but. In fact, it seems for much of the film the continuity people were given the day off, as close-up shots often seem to take place in completely different environments. River of No Return is an odd beast. Preminger was a skilled director, and he manages a solid narrative with (mostly) good turns from his cast. But the mix of location shooting and studio shots never quite match and the discrepancy jars badly. One for completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 796


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Moving pictures, #44

More viewing, only one from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list this time, and it’s an American film… although, once again, half of the films below are from the US. I need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch.

idahoMy Own Private Idaho*, Gus Van Sant (1991, USA). The only thing I knew about Gus Van Sant prior to deciding to work my way through the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list was that he’d made a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Which sounds like an interesting exercise, except, well, that’s pretty much what a play is, the same story with a different cast. And since I’d seen Hitchock’s film a number of times and was familiar with it, Van Sant’s experiment proved even more disappointing. Van Sant’s most-famous film, however, is My Own Private Idaho, which, okay, I may have heard of before, but knew nothing about. And it turns it’s about a pair of street hustlers, played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, except Phoenix has narcolepsy, and Reeves’s father is rich and the mayor of Portland. Oh, and the story is roughly based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays… which is fine as far as it goes, but when Van Sant starts using Shakespeare’s dialogue it really doesn’t work. Having Reeves call the Falstaff figure, Bob Pigeon, “a horseback-breaker, a mountainous tub of lard”, just sounds really silly in 1990s Oregon. In fact, it’s the Shakespeare-isms which spoil My Own Private Idaho. Okay, so Reeves’s character is not entirely believable (make him actual royalty, though, as Shakespeare did, and it weirdly seems okay), although it does make for an effective ending. But it’s that mix of Rechy’s City of Night and old Bill’s Henry IV Part 1, etc, which doesn’t gel. It’s like oil and water, or even a lava lamp. It’s just too obvious when Reeves et al start spouting the Bard’s couplets, and it upsets the balance of the film. I can see how My Own Private Idaho might appeal to some, but it wasn’t a movie I rated highly.

holidayHoliday, George Cukor (1938, USA). An early screwball romance starring Cary Grant and “box-office poison” (as she was at the time) Katharine Hepburn? What’s not to like? Quite a bit, according to audiences when it was released. Grant plays a man who plans to quit his job as soon as he can afford to and do nothing, and Hepburn plays the sister of his fiancée, who is stinking rich. This was during the Great Depression. Hollywood: super-sensitive, as usual. Grant meets Doris Nolan while on holiday in Lake Placid, and the two get engaged. He doesn’t realise she is filthy rich and the youngest daughter of an eminent New York banker. He turns up to the family home, learns the truth, but manages to charm the father and so get permission to marry. But it seems Nolan is a bit of a stuffed shirt, and it’s her libertine sister, Hepburn, who’s a better match for Grant. This one is early in Grant’s career, so he hasn’t got the polished urbanity of later films. If anything, he’s a bit of a galumpher, more of a tail-wagging puppy. Hepburn is Hepburn – did she ever change? – and it’s hard to believe she was ever box-office poison. By all accounts, this film did much to rehabilitate her. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon provide excellent comic relief as Grant’s best friends, a pair of cycnical academics. Both stars, and director, made much better films, but Holiday has its moments. It’s not great, but if you’re into films from the era, it’s probably worth seeing. But I can understand why it flopped at the box office.

rivetteMerry-Go-Round, Jacques Rivette (1983, France). I watched Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, because it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it very good; and then Arrow Academy released a limited edition Blu-ray collection of some of Rivette’s films, none of which I knew anything about… but the collection was a limited edition, and I’ve learnt to my cost previously it’s best to buy things like this straight away because when you finally come to realise you want a copy they’re either not available or cost silly money. So I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection. On the basis of having seen a single film by the director. So it goes. And yet there’s nothing in Rivette’s movies that immediately appeals to me. They’re well-crafted, certainly; and very French. And, er, very long. Especially the centre-piece of this collection Out 1 – 12 hours and forty minutes! fucking hell – which I admit I have yet to watch. In fact, I’m working my way through the the collection in installments, beginning with Merry-Go-Round, which clocks in at a mere 2 hrs and 40 mins. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A woman sends a telegram to her sister in Rome, Léo, and an ex-boyfriend in New York, Ben, asking them to meet her at a hotel in Paris. But when they turn up, she’s not there. They follow a series of clues and end up at her old home, where she tells them that her father, who died two years previously after embezzling $4 million, isn’t dead. And then she’s kidnapped and taken away in an ambulance. There then follows an almost dream-like quest, in which Ben and Léo try to track down the not-dead father and his millions. Much of this involves running through woods. Including being chased by a knight on horseback. Or exploring empty houses, particularly ones where doors give onto different landscapes – breaking that compact between director and viewer in which the spaces depicted on screen connect in a logical and plausible manner. (Sokurov does something similar in Faust, by having characters enter the frame from parts of the space the camera has already shown do not have entrances.) So the world of Merry-Go-Round doesn’t quite follow the “rules”, but then neither does the quest narrative. There are long extended scenes which do nothing to advance the plot. There are also plot-holes. And interludes in which two odd-looking blokes play noodley jazz on double bass and bassoon. In parts, Merry-Go-Round feels like an early-1980s L’Avventura – or rather, it sets up an expectation of being a 1980s L’Avventura, perhaps on little more than its lack of plot momentum. I am, on balance, glad I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection (it’s still in stock! Get it now while you can! Only 3,000 copies!), and I think they’re films which will bear rewatching, if not demand it; but I’ve a way to go yet before I call myself a Rivette fan.

ladyThe Lady, Luc Besson (2011, France). Of all the subjects about which Luc Besson might make a film, I must admit a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is not one I’d ever have guessed. But then, in many respects, The Lady doesn’t feel much like a Besson film. There’s a moment of almost cartoon-like violence when paramilitaries of the former prime minister assassinate the Executive Council (ie, the government-in-waiting for when the British withdraw), including Suu Kyi’s father. But in most other respects, The Lady is pretty restrained. Michelle Yeoh is especially good in the title role, and if David Thewlis was a bit too thespian as her husband, it didn’t detract overly much from the film. I will admit to knowing only the broadest details about Suu Kyi and Myanmar, and so films such as The Lady are eye-openers. Seriously, military juntas are not governments. The UN could surely make a legal, ethical and moral case for overthrowing such governments. But, of course, military juntas are excellent customers for arms dealers, and selling weapons is what it’s all about in the twenty-first century. The UK is now second only to the US as a seller of armaments. Mostly to the same countries we bomb or which have created the current refugee crisis. If you truly did reap what you sow, this country would neck-deep in salt.

streets_of_fireStreets of Fire, Walter Hill (1984, USA). I had vaguely fond memories of this, after seeing it back in the 1980s, so despite its somewhat negative reputation I thought it might be worth watching. And having now seen it… I think my memories were a little imprecise. It looks great, mostly, no doubt about that; and the music, while of its time, is quite listenable. But that script. It’s fucking awful. It’s totally misogynistic, and it puts words in the mouths of its cast – Rick Moranis, especially – they should have been embarrassed, if not fucking offended, to speak. Diane Lane plays a rock star who is kidnapped by a bike gang led by Willem Dafoe. A young woman persuades her ex-soldier brother, Michael Paré, an ex-boyfriend of Lane’s, to come home and rescue the rock star. And it pretty much goes as you’d expect. I’d hoped time had been kind to Streets of Fire, that it’s 1980s macho posturing might seem more like kitsch thirty years later. It hasn’t. Rick Moranis snarling misogynistic comments at the camera is still a horrible thing to see. Paré does his best with a bad part, Dafoe does even better with a worse part, but Lane does nothing with a nothing part. Visually, the film still scores, and its influence on later films is easy to see. But the reasons why it flopped it 1984 are also obvious, and not even thirty years is going to make it a cult hit.

mr55Mr & Mrs 55, Guru Dutt (1955, India). The more of Dutt’s films I watch, the more I appreciate them. Admittedly, this was not a good transfer – BFI, why are you not all over Dutt’s films? – and the plot was pretty much a Hollywood staple (never mind a Bollywood staple), but even so… Rich playgirl Anita is living the high life but then discovers she has to marry before the age of 21 in order to inherit seven million rupees. And she only has a month to do it. She approaches her friend, tennis pro Ramesh, but he’s off to Wimbledon. In desperation, her mother pays cartoonist Dutt Rs 10,000 to marry Anita, with the promise of a quickie divorce soon after. Of course, the two fall in love after the ceremony. But then careful lying by the mother ensures each thinks the other doesn’t really love them, so the divorce goes through… But they get together and realise they do actually love each other after all. It’s all keyed off American signifiers of success – not just Anita hanging around a posh tennis club and worshipping pro Ramesh at the beginning – but also the trappings of wealth enjoyed by Anita’s family are familiar to Western audiences. And yet, there’s also something indefinably Indian about it – and I don’t mean the fact it breaks into song at assorted moments. It feels like an Indian film based on a Hollywood template, by someone who was quite aware of, and more than capable of using, the story patterns of both Indian and Hollywood cinema. Dutt makes good films. He really needs transfers worthy of his work.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 795


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Moving pictures, #43

Well, 2016 is definitely turning into the year of movies. To date, I’ve seen 431 movies, mostly on DVD and Blu-ray, mostly my own or from LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso or on Amazon Prime. Some of them have been very good indeed, and I will probably watch them again (if I haven’t done so already). Some were rentals I liked so much, I went and bought a copy of my own. And some… well, best not mention them…

Anyway, on with the next half-dozen adventures on the silver screen wot I have partaked:

arabesqueArabesque, Stanley Donen (1966, USA). Who remembers Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Paris. Lee Marvin as the villain. Missing millions. Which turned out to be a rare stamp on an innocuous envelope. It’s a film with bags of 1960s charm – with a pair of leads like Grant and Hepburn, how can it not have charm? Arabesque was apparently Donen’s attempt to hit the same sweet spot again. Unfortunately, while Donen wanted Grant, he got Peck. And Grant’s dialogue doesn’t work when coming from Peck. Sophia Loren manages to hold up her end, however. But both are hampered by a convoluted plot that’s almost impossible to follow. Donen apparently remarked that the film could only succeed if he made it “so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. And having now seen it, I can certainly vouch for the second half of that statement. Peck plays an Eygptologist who is asked to translate a message in heiroglyphics by head of an Arab state. It’s all to do with some big oil develoment deal and a plan to assassinate the ruler, but most of the plot consists of Peck getting beaten up by the villain’s henchmen or Peck and Loren chasing around London after the scrap of paper with the heiroglyphics on it. Not a high point on all three cvs, to be honest.

texasThe Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Michael Ritchie (1993, USA). In the normal course of events, I’d not give this film a second look, or indeed even a first one. But a film blog I read, Antagony & Ecstasy, wrote a long semi-approving piece on it, and a week or two later I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop… But, well, I guess this is not a movie that travels well. I’ve never seen the appeal of, or humour in, films depicting US white trailer trash or working class, and that’s pretty much what this is – although it’s based on a true story. Holly Hunter plays the title role, a mother who was so determined to see her daughter succeed she sort of agreed when her drunken brother-in-law (Beau Bridges) tried to entrap her into paying him to off a rival mother. The film is framed partly as Hunter preparing for an interview after the fact, and partly a dramatisation of events, and the whole thing seems mostly motivated by stupidity because the actual character motivations are somewhat opaque. Which makes Hunter’s character come across like a sociopath. Which, to me, sort of ruins the whole desperate housewife story. It’s not very funny film, either. I gave my copy to David Tallerman, so we’ll see if he makes anything of it.

crimesCrimes of Passion, Ken Russell (1984, USA). I don’t think I’d ever call Russell an “interesting” director – he made a handful of solid films, one or two near-classics, and a lot of self-indulgent crap. From the write-up, I suspected Crimes of Passion fell on the border between “solid work” and “self-indulgent crap”, so watching it was a bit of a gamble. And having now watched it… yes, it pretty much straddles the two groups. Kathleen Turner plays a fashion designer who moonlights as a prostitute, using the name China Blue. A surveillance expert is asked to spy on her because her employer suspects her of selling designs to competitors, and he becomes obsessed with her. There’s Anthony Perkins, in full frothing-at-the-mouth mode, wandering around as preacher, who alternately demands to “save” China Blue or have sex with her. He also frequents peep shows. And then there’s China Blue’s customers, with their fetishes… It all looks a bit cheap (and I mean that in its pecuniary sense), and with Perkins drooling and spraying spittle one minute, and then Turner chewing the scenery in the next, it makes it all look like a shoestring exploitation flick with bizarrely high production values. An odd film.

star_copsStar Cops (1987, UK). Many thanks to Paul Cornell for tweeting that a third-party seller on Amazon had clearly found a stash of these somewhere and was selling them at a decent prize (around £20, if you must know). I’d missed buying myself a copy of Star Cops before it was deleted, and by the time I wanted one the price had reached silly money. But now I have one. I remembered the series from its original broadcast back in 1987, although having now seen all nine episodes on the DVD I think I might have missed one or two of the episodes. Anyway, I remembered it as smartly-written, with slightly dodgy production design and cheap effects. What I’d certainly forgotten was the vastly irritating theme song by Justin Hayward, which, while not quite as bad as Enterprise‘s, does have the added horror of getting stuck in your head for days afterwards. David Calder plays a British police officer on 2017 who distrusts the computers and continues to investigate a case the computers have ruled a suicide. It turns out he’s right, of course; but it makes him enough enemies, and leads to the murder of his girlfriend, so he accepts a position as the new head of the International Space Police Force, based on a station in LEO. After a coupleof episodes there, the ISPF moves to an office at a base on the lunar surface (which was obviously a relief for the actors and the budget as it meant no more wires). One of the star cops is presented as a bit of an old-school dimwit, but he also does a nasty line in racist and sexist remarks. The other star cops are an Australian engineer, a US engineer, and a Japanese doctor. Most of the stories are pretty good, although the final one, ‘Little Green Men and Other Martians’, despite having a neat premise, does suggest the lunar base is wide open to whoever turns up – which I wouldn’t have thought all that likely. I’m glad I finally got hold of a copy. These days, sf television series may have fancy special effects, but they rarely have writing as good as this.

vidas_secasVidas Secas*, Nelson Pereiras dos Santos (1963, Brazil). This is generally reckoned to be the first film in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. I wanted to watch it because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and because I’d become a fan of Glauber Rocha after watching three of his Cinema Novo movies – but Vidas Secas is almost impossible to find on DVD (as I type this, there’s one copy available on Amazon for… £101.95). Fortunately, I managed to get a copy from another source, for no more than the price of a typical DVD. And yes, it was worth it. It’s an adaptation of a novel of the same title, by Graciliano Ramos, and tells the story of a poor family in north-east Brazil. It was entered into the Cannes Film Festival and won the OCIC Award. Its plot isn’t easy to summarise, as it’s really just a series of incidents in which the family move from one place to another, try to scratch a living, are preyed on by those more powerful than themselves, and so move on elsewhere. In one village, a local policeman drags the husband into a card game, but when the husband leaves after losing his money, and so the policeman loses even more, the policeman goes after him, beats him up, and then arrests him for resisting arrest. The husband is thrown into jail and whipped. It’s a grim film, althugh not unaffecting – near the end, the family are so hungry the husband tries to shoot their dog, but it takes him ages to work up the courage to do it, and then he botches it and the dog crawls away to die slowly. This is not a film to watch if you’re not in a cheerful mood. It definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, though.

usherThe Fall of the Louse of Usher, Ken Russell (2002, UK). Well, I mentioned Russell’s self-indulgent crap earlier, and I hadn’t watched this. Which is absolutely awful. It’s Russell’s last film, was shot on his own property, and features himself and friends as the cast. A rock-star, Roddy Usher, played by James Johnston of Gallon Drunk, is consigned to a mental institution after killing his wife and walling up her body. His doctor is played by Russell himself. He gives Usher shock treatment and, well, lots of things happen, few of which I can, thanksfully, remember. It all looked horrible and cheap and amateurish, and I’m surprised it ever saw a general release. The DVD, released by Final Cut, calls it “the ultimate home movie”, but even that fails to convey how crap it is. This is definitely a film to avoid. It was Russell’s last feature film, and a poor epitaph for a man who did make some good stuff during his long career.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 794


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Moving pictures, #42

More films. So it goes.

fanThe Fan, Otto Preminger (1949, USA). I have a fondness for Preminger’s films, although that may well be simply because he was a name I fastened onto when I started tracking my film watching… but I started out watching his movies so I may as well carry on and complete his oeuvre. Of which this is not a good example. It is an especially unwitty adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, which inadvertently has the advantage of making the story much simpler to parse – although, to be fair, I’ve not seen Wilde’s play, so the loss of his dialogue is not one I’d notice. (There are, of course, more faithful adaptations of the play, but I’ve not seen any of those either.) It opens shortly after WWII, when an old woman in an auction room objects that the fan which is for sale, found in the ruins of a bombed house and unclaimed, is hers. The auction house tells her that if she can verify her claim, they’ll hand it over. So she goes looking for Lord Darlington, a friend from many years before… And after a bit of banter (very little of which is Wildean), we’re in flashback territory, and it’s the last decade of the nineteenth century and the “adventuress” Mrs Erlynne has arrived in London and attached herself to the company of Lord Darlington and the young Windermeres. And when Arthur Windermere puts up for a London residence for Mrs Erlynne, and is often seen her company, tongues begin to wag, and a nasty rumour eventually reaches Margaret Windermere. It all comes to a head at a fancy party at the Windermeres, to which Erlynne is invited, and at which she reveals her secret (she’s Margaret Windermere’s black sheep mother, who ran away decades before). As historical drama, this is a pretty solid, if unadventurous, movie, but you expect more from Wilde and the bowdlerisation of his lines has done it few favours. One for Preminger completists, I think.

new_worldThe New World, Terrence Malick (2005, UK). I don’t know what to make of Malick. His films are beautifully shot but also complete nonsense. There is, for example, a brilliant idea at the heart of The New World, but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. It may be that Malick’s use of Hollywood stars, and their highly-promoted identities, works against what he is trying to achieve… The New World tells the story of Pocahontas, although focusing mostly on the English men with which she had relationships. Malick has gone for a completely authentic look and feel to his story – even going as far as getting a professor of linguistics to reconstruct the extinct Powahatan language spoken by the Native Americans of the period and location the film takes place. But the real genius of The New World – or rather, what could have been the real genius – is that the bulk of the dialogue is actually voiceover and is the characters, all of whom are real historical figures, speaking the text from their own diaries and journals. But. It doesn’t quite work because this is not a documentary and the real historical figures are played by recognisable Hollywood actors such as Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis or Christian Bale. True, the pivotal role of Pocahontas is played by an unknown, Q’orianka Kilcher, a German actress, in her first major role. And she’s very good in it too. It goes without saying that The New World is mostly gorgeous to watch, and it looks and sounds exactly how you would expect a English colony in North America in the early seventeenth century to look and sound (well, except for the drama school kids, but we won’t mention them)… I remain conflicted about Malick and his films. They look lovely, he’s probably the closest the Hollywood system has come to slow cinema, but… there’s always something slightly off about them. Perhaps it’s simply that his style of film-making doesn’t work in Hollywood, is fatally compromised by Hollywood’s use of familar names and faces in roles where the baggage they bring undermines their parts. It doesn’t help that Malick’s reputation in the US as “auteur supreme” likely gives him the freedom to be self-indulgent, and a little self-indulgence goes a long way. But whatever it is, there’s something about Malick’s films that rubs the wrong way, and I wonder if it’s the friction between the Hollywood system and the sort of films Malick’s movies try to present themselves as being.

city_of_womenCity of Women, Federico Fellini (1980, Italy). As male writers get older, they enter a Dirty Old Man phase – cf John Fowles’s Mantissa, or anything by Robert Heinlein after the mid-1960s… – and creators in situations which give them more than the usual artistic freedom are especially susceptible. True, Fellini has been self-indulgent since day one, but I do love that self-indulgence in his colour films – or, at least, I loved those I’d seen… But Fellini has made many films, and bizarre as Satyricon is, or Casanova… others would no doubt fall either side of that indulgence divide (to coin a phrase). I had very little idea of what to expect from La città della donne, except perhaps something like a cross between Giuglietta della spiriti and something created by a middle-aged Italian male… And, er, that’s a bit what it’s like. It feels like it can’t decide if it’s an attack on feminism or a celebration of it, and the fact it sends mixed messages is clearly not to its credit. There are things to like in City of Women – and they’re the same sort of things to like in Fellini’s career – but there’s also that weird undercurrent that feels like a, well, MRA attack on feminism. Which is like watching a comedian whose every other joke falls flat, but you’re never entirely sure if that’s deliberate. Things have changed in the four decades since the film was made, and it renders some of its complaints weirdly old-fashioned, others weirdly trivial, and some even more relevant now than they were then. A man on a train (Marcello Mastroianni playing, well, Marcello Mastroianni) flirts with a woman, and when the train stops in the middle of nowhere and she disembarks, he follows her… through some woods to a sort of isolated hotel where a conference on feminism, attended entirely by women, is taking place. And, er, that’s it. This is Second Wave Feminism as the butt of an extended joke… except, there’s a sense throughout that the joke is on those who see the feminism as the joke. I don’t know. Given Fellini’s career I’m inclined to think he was having fun at the expense of anti-feminists (while not subscribing to feminism himself), but parts of City of Women are so bonkers – the final third of it, pretty much – that it’s hard to be sure what he meant. Given his previous films, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, I think; but City of Women still remains the least satisfactory of his colour films I have seen so far.

septemberCome September, Robert Mulligan (1961, USA). I do love me some Rock Hudson rom com, and he was at his best in these during the 1960s. And, let’s face it, how can you go wrong with Gina Lollobrigida as the female lead? And Italian locations? (Although apparently Lollobrigida was not keen on returning to Italy.) Anyway, Hudson plays a successful industrialist who, each year, spends the month of September in his large villa on the Genoese coast. But one year he decides to go in July instead… which promptly screws up a few things. For a start, his girlfriend, Lollobrigida, is about to get married to some English wet, but breaks it off when she gets his call. And his butler, played superbly by Walter Slezak, has been runnnig the villa as a hotel for eleven months of the year. And, en route to his villa, Hudson has a run-in with a bunch of American rowdies led by Bobby Darin. So Hudson finds his girlfriend wavering, his house occupied by a group of young American women and their chaperone, and he has Darin’s rowdies camped outside on the road because Darin fancies one of the guests of the “hotel”, Sandra Dee (Darin and Dee actually married after the film)… Aside from Hudson’s massive sense of entitlement, this is a pretty straightforward 1960s rom com. It has its charms, and some of its jokes are quite good, but it’s hamstrung by the fact that Hudson’s character is actually a nasty piece of work. It’s watchable because Hudson is eminently watchable – and there are probably only a handful of actors of the time who could have got away with playing such a role – but not even Lollobrigida’s screen presence and charm, Darin’s cinematic surliness, or even Dee’s all-American bland chirpiness, can make this more than a middling rom com of the period, even for Rock Hudson.

phoenixPhoenix, Christian Petzold (2014, Germany). I don’t chose my viewing entirely from lists of best films. Sometimes it’s stuff I stumble across that takes my fancy, and sometimes it’s movies recommended by friends. As this one was. By David Tallerman. Who has recommended good films to me in the past (some, it must be said, better than others). In fact, Phoenix had not pinged on my radar at all, and having now watched it I’m glad David recommended it. A Jewish woman who survived the camps returns to Berlin to discover what happened to her Gentile husband. She had been badly wounded in the face, and she requires plastic surgery, which results in her appearance changing. So when she tracks down her husband, he does not recognise her. But he does think she looks enough like his “missing” wife that she could impersonate her and so claim the inheritance left to her. The woman does not reveal her true identity and plays along with this subterfuge, partly to disprove the lie of a friend who insists the husband was the one who gave up the woman to the Gestapo. Phoenix is based on a 1961 French novel, Le retour des cendres, but, to be honest, to my mind it seems to work better with a German setting – it certainly gives the central premise a bigger emotional payload. A good film and definitely worth seeing. It might well make a future 1001 Movies list, if it hasn’t already.

lessonA Lesson in Love, Ingmar Bergman (1954, Sweden). Bergman made a lot of films and some of them are bona fide classics of the medium. Others are little more than cinematic adaptations of middling stage plays – or, at least, that’s how they come across, even if they’d been written directly for film. As far as I know, A Lesson in Love was conceived of and produced purely as a film. But it’s not that easy to tell with Bergman. A Lesson in Love is also minor Bergman, inasmuch as it’s entertaining and has something to say, but when all’s said and done, it sort of fades into that middle Bergman ground where so many of his films reside and where it’s hard to tell one of them from the other. I could put together a list of a dozen top-notch Bergman films, and even for a director who made over sixty films, that’s an enviably large list. Sadly, A Lesson in Love would not be on that list. It’s a 1950s Swedish comedy about a gynecologist and his patients and marriage and affairs, and to be honest it all sort of blurs into one after a bit. There’s some good witty dialogue and some on-target points, but nothing in it really stands out. It probably needs a rewatxch, to be fair, but if there’s one thing about Bergman’s oeuvre that is true it’s that it can stand multiple rewatches. And not many directors can say that.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: 793