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Moving pictures, #40

This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.

dialoguesDialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.

moonwalkersMoonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.

el_doradoEl Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.

too_late_bluesToo Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.

lamourL’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…

3-iron3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #39

Well, slightly less than half of this post are US films, although I’d prefer it to be no more than one or two per post. But we’re getting there, as our national railway famously once said only to be privatised and then completely fail to get anywhere…

only_live_onceYou Only Live Once, Fritz Lang (1937, USA). This was a cheerful movie. Henry Fonda plays a habitual criminal who decides to go straight – mostly thanks to the love of a good woman, in this case Sylvia Sidney, the secretary of the local public defender. But not everyone is so forgiving. Although the public defender (who is secretly in love with his secretary) gets Fonda a job at a delivery company, he’s fired when he takes time out to look over a new house with his new wife. And no one else will employ him because he’s an ex-con. Absolutely no one. And then someone robs an armoured car, and a hat is left at the scene which points to Fonda as the culprit. He’s found guilty (the trial is off-screen, probably because it sounds so much a travesty of justice Lang was too embarrassed to show it), and Fonda ends up on Death Row. But an opportunity for escape presents itself, he takes it, but accidentally kills the prison priest… seconds after the warden has received news that Fonda is innocent and has been pardoned. Too late! Fonda collects his wife, and the two go on the lam. To be honest, I’d expected more from Lang. I’ve seen a fair number of his noir movies, and I expected this to be as good as they were. And certainly the scene where Fonda escapes from prison is very atmospherically staged and shot. But everyone is so horrible to Fonda, and the odds are stacked against him so strongly, the set-up to justify Fonda’s abrupt shift from optimism to desperation feels forced and completely implausible. So, not one of Lang’s better films.

zabriskieZabriskie Point*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1970, USA). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films, and his Red Desert is one of my all-time favourite movies; but I also like late 1960s/early 1970s hippy films – or, at least, ones that comment on the hippy condition. It’s not just the direct rebellion, nor the questioning of society, but also that so many of these types of films throw in an additional dimension – which might well be typical hippy occult bullshit, but at least adds something a little more interesting to the story. And so to Zabriskie Point, which opens with semi-documentary footage of a protest at a California university. But when the police turn up, the protest takes a violent approach and several people are killed. Including a policeman. The film then abruptly switches to two characters: a young woman who is looking for a man in the Mojave Desert who works with emotionally disturbed children. Meanwhile, a young male student from the university protest, and a prime suspect in the death of the cop, steals a plane and flies off to Arizona… where he meets the young woman. And they go to Zabriskie Point, a real place just east of Death Valley, Nevada, where they have sex – well, actually, a full-blown orgy kicks off… and this isn’t really a film where you can describe the plot, or where such a précis would do the film any favours. But it is by Antonioni so it looks absolute fantastic and, to be fair, he makes just as good a fist of depicting the culture he’s filming as Demy does in Model Shop – they’re neither part of the culture, but their outsider status allows them see more than might be visible from inside. Antonioni made several excellent movies – I’d put Zabriskie Point in the top five of those; in fact I think I’d call it my third favourite after Red Desert and Blow-Up.

hired_handThe Hired Hand*, Peter Fonda (1971, USA). Sigh. Another 1970s Western on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But… well, this is a surprise. I’m not a fan of the Western, and have only three in my DVD collection – and I’ve probably seen more than I ever really wanted to because they’re on the 1001 Movies list… Certainly I’d never have considered watching this one: an early seventies Western, directed by Peter Fonda… (Even though I liked Easy Rider a lot.) But in fact it turned out to be pretty damn good. For exactly the same reasons why it flopped on release back in 1970. It’s slow, its cinematography is poetic, and it has a great soundtrack. Its story, to be fair, is not very interesting, and its characters are not very strong… but the whole works because the pictures and story go together exceedingly well. Fonda plays a drifter who decides to return to the wife who kicked him out years before, and asks only that he be taken on as a “hired hand” in order to prove he has changed. But a stop-off en route had made enemies of some nasty sorts and they track him down, and your typical Wild West showdown ensues. Where The Hired Hand really scores, however, is in its opening third: the cinematograhpy goes mad for dissolves and montages, and it works wonderfully well. The bluegrass score by Bruce Langhorne is also really well done – and I’m not a person who really notices incidental music (I have, like, three original soundtracks in my music collection… er, except for all those ones by Andrzej Korzyñski). Altogether, this is good stuff, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy for myself.

24_city24 City, Jia Zhangke (2008, China). I had been seriously impressed by Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, so of course I added the rest of Zhangke’s oeuvre to my rental list… and this was the first sent to me. And, I’m happy to report, I did not choose wrong. Zhangke is a name to watch and a new director to join my favourites. The title refers to a new suburb built on the site of an aircraft factory. The film covers several decades in a semi-documentary style, first interviewing workers in the aircraft factory (whose location and purpose is a state secret because the aircraft are military). The film is divided into three sections: one during the days of the plant’s operations, another after it has closed and the plant has been mothballed, and one after the site has been redeveloped and a dormitory suburb now occupies the location. The mix of staged interviews, informal interviews (one scene consists entirely of a man at a bar reminiscing about his career at the factory), and small family dramas which illustrate the personal histories affected by the history of the factory and the town which springs up in its place, is extremely effective; and I especially like the factualness of it. 24 City is, apparently, a real place, and the story of the film is no doubt based upon, or inspired by, real events; but the mix of fact and fiction I find quite compelling – much as I did in A Touch of Sin. Excellent stuff.

mournfulMournful Unconcern, Aleksandr Sokurov (1983, Russia). This was another work by Sokurov that remained underground for many years – it was banned by the Soviet authorities – before finally being publicly screened after glasnost… and was promptly nominated for a Golden Bear. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, but is intercut with documentary footage. The cinematography is, surprisingly, straightforward, but the whole thing feels ike an unholy mix of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, albeit put together in an entirely Sokurovian way. That documentary footage, for example – it’s contemporary with the setting, the 1920s, and features Shaw himself, a zeppelin, World War I, an Antarctic expedition, the River Ganges, and various places in Africa. The choices of incidental music is also typically Sokurovian, and often anachronistic. Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, which is apparently a reference to Chekhov, whose plays inspired Shaw’s, is set in the home of Captain Shotover – played by Ramaz Chkhikvadze as half Falstaff and half Lear – and is partly a drawing-room farce and partly an Edwardian sex comedy. Gunfire and explosions can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the entire film, which ends with a zeppelin dropping a bomb and blowing up the house. It’s… an odd beast. The story seems well-suited to Sokurov’s feelings about the Soviet Union. The use of documentary stock footage is perhaps more intrusive than in the other films in which Sokurov uses it, but it works really well (some of the inserts provide clever and amusing commentary on the main story). I’m not so sure about the story itself, however – I don’t know what changes Sokurov made to Shaw’s play, though the setting seems to be as described. Still, like all of Sokurov’s films, it’s one that will require repeated viewings.

brooklynBrooklyn, John Crowley (2015, Ireland). This was one of those films of the last year or so which received lots of positive buzz and reviews, and didn’t involve superheroes, so I thought might be worth watching. It’s also an adaptation of a novel (winner of the Costa Novel Award, but only longlisted for the Man Booker) by Colm Tóibin, who, I admit, I’ve never read. The story is relatively simple – a fact stressed by several of the reviews: young Irish woman in the 1950s travels to New York in order to build a new life. She lives in a boarding-house and works in a department store, but she is shy and unassuming and very homesick. Then she meets a young man, of American-Italian extraction, and the two enter into a relationship. She is is now much happier and more settled. But then her sister in Ireland dies unexpectedly, so she returns to succour her mother. And now life back in Ireland seems much more attractive than it did when she left for New York. That is until the town gossip reveals something the young woman had been sort of trying to forget… and so she returns to New York. It’s a very pretty film, the cinematography is quite lovely, and the cast are uniformly good. Julie Walters as the landlady of the Brooklyn boarding-house, however, is a scream. But the story all feels a bit drab and low-key and devoid of any real insight, which makes the movie feel more like well-shot wallpaper than actual drama. I enjoyed it, but I think it was over-praised.

land_freedomLand and Freedom, Ken Loach (1995, UK). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not apparently the edition of it I’m using. Still it’s by Ken Loach and the subject matter – the Spanish Civil War – made it seem worth renting. And so it proved. An old working-class man in Liverpool collapses in his council flat, the ambulance comes, but he dies en route. Later, going through his things, his granddaughter discovers he had sailed to Spain in the 1930s to fight for the Republicans against the fascists. She reads his letters… and these are dramatised, with Ian Hart playing the young Scouser. On arrival on Spain, it all seems a bit haphazard, but Hart joins POUM’s milita and is soon out fighting (which basically seems to involve taking potshots from the POUM trenches at fascist soldiers in their trenches). At one point, the militia oust a troop of fascist troops from a village, and the villagers then conduct a fierce discussion on private ownership and collectivisation. After Hart is injured training new recruits – a rifle explodes when he fires it – things take a turn for the worse as the various left factions begin fighting amongst themselves, and even start killing those whose idealogies are not approved. It hardly comes as a surprise the fascists win (even for those who don’t know their history). The right always will… because the left seems happier fighting among itself than showing a united front to the enemy – just look what’s happing in the UK now. You look at Trump, and it’s 1930s Germany all over again; you look at the UK, and it’s 1930s Spain. Neither, of course, bode well… I’ve watched the occasional Ken Loach film over the years and enjoyed them, but have never really made an effort to seek them out. However, I find myself appreciating social realism in movies much more these days than I used to (and consequently despising fascistic sfx-heavy tentpole movies). I see there are three box sets of Loach’s films available – Volume 1, Volume 2 and At the BBC. I might well avail myself of them…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #38

Wa-hey, I did it! An entire Moving pictures post without a single US film. Which is not say I watched zero US films during the period, just that they were so shit they weren’t worth documenting (and, to be honest, there were only one or two of them). But still, it’s an achievement. And one I hope to repeat.

lonelyThe Lonely Voice of Man, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978, Russia). This was Sokurov’s first feature-length film, created as his thesis at the prestigious VGIK film school – but the school authorities wouldn’t accept it, and despite requests to do so by a number of big names, Sokurov had to submit something else in order to graduate. The Lonely Voice of Man, meanwhile, became an underground film; and it wasn’t until glasnost that it finally saw official release – although Sokurov took the opportunity to “reconstruct” it first. It had already built up a reputation from its underground showings, but post-glasnost it picked up several awards, and much critical acclaim, at numerous festival showings. It’s roughly based on the writings of Platonov, in much the same way, I guess, that Whispering Pages is based on the writings of Gogol or Save and Protect is based on Madame Bovary. Sokurov takes a very loose approach to “adaptation”. To be honest, I know nothing about Platonov – had not even heard of him until watching this film – but I don’t doubt that familiarity with his oeuvre would add more to the viewing experience, much as it would for the aforementioned films (which, to be honest, is not something I’ve tested – although I did drunkenly buy a collection of Chekhov’s stories while watching Stone; and when I found a copy of Gogol’s collected short stories in a charity shop, I bought it…). Anyway, The Lonely Voice of Man opens with the historical footage depicted on the poster I’ve used on this post, before moving onto the plot of Platonov’s novella ‘The River Potudan’, in which a young man returns home after fighting for the revolution. His girlfriend has since qualified as a doctor, and their two changed circumstances affect their relationship. So he runs away and becomes a manual labourer in a nearby town. The cast are non-professionals, and the picture is distorted – although to a much lighter extent than Sokurov uses in later films. The cinematography is dark, with a muted palette, and a camera that focuses on objects as often as it does the characters, not to mention a non-chronological narrative. While not everything in the film is immediately parseable, the sudden switches between seasons seem, to me, to signal, changes from one narrative to another – ie, boyfriend and girlfriend getting married, and after the husband has left. In Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szianawski considers The Lonely Voice of Man a masterwork, but it seems to me more of an apprentice piece, a working-out of the themes and techniques Sokurov goes on to make extensive use of in his career (although both Szianawski and myself agree that The Second Circle is a masterpiece). There’s no doubt in my mind that Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently making films – and that’s as much a result of his contradictions as it is of the idiosyncratic approach he has taken to film-making.

subarnarekhaSubarnarekha*, Ritwik Ghatak (1965, India). Although this film appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (one of two Ghatak movies to do so; the other is The Cloud-Capped Star), it has apparently never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Which is a shame. Having now seen it, I think it’s a better film than The Cloud-Capped Star, but not as good as A River Called Titas (which is not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; go figure). But I own all three films now, so I can watch them again at leisure. Ghatak directed eight films in total, and is highly-regarded – if not of the same stature as Satyajit Ray, he’s not far from it – so it’s weird that only The Cloud-Capped Star and A River Called Titas are available on DVD (and the first is not that easy to find – Amazon third-party sellers have it at £80 (but you can get it direct from the BFI for £20)). Anyway, Subarnarekha, AKA The Golden Thread, opens with a woman being taken away from a refugee camp, but her son is left behind. A young man takes the boy in hand, and takes him with him, and his daughter, when they leave and settle in West Bengal. Jump ahead a few years and the orphan boy and the daughter are now in love, but the father is told his career at the factory, amd his rise to manager, could be threatened if his daughter marries someone from a lower caste (ie, the orphan). Then it gets sort of complicated – but that difference in caste, and how it impacts the father’s career, is the axle on which the story revolves. It might well be heresy, but I think I prefer Ghatak’s films to Ray’s. To date, I’ve seen three by Ghatak and four by Ray – but Ray was both much more prolific and is more readily available on DVD in the UK, so perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more of Ray’s films. I do wish more by Ghatak were available, however.

sils_mariaClouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas (2014, France). I’ve followed Assayas’s career on and off since first seeing Irma Vep back in 2000, although, annoyingly, the film of his that has sounded most interesting to me was 2002’s Demonlover, which was never released on DVD in the UK. He’s a film festival favourite, and his last film, Personal Shopper, won him the Best Director Award at Cannes this year (a joint win with Cristian Mingiu). Clouds of Sils Maria is an English-language film despite being set in Switzerland and with a French actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role. Binoche plays an actress who has been asked to accept an award in Zurich on behalf of a reclusive Swiss playwright. Her own career began when she played one of the two lead roles in the stage and screen versions of the playwright’s most famous play, which is about the relationship between a young woman and an older woman. Binoche is travelling with her assistant, Kristen Stewart, an American, and the mirroring of their relationship with that of the two women in the play is, er, well, a bit obvious. Fortunately, both actresses are good in their roles – Stewart is especially good – and if the shape of the story unfolds all too predictably, the script provides more than enough material for the cast to get their teeth into so they put on a good show. But, for all that, the film comes across as a somewhat dull story that just happens to be especially well-made. Perhaps it’s the milieu in which it’s set – the European great and good, swanning about in swanky hotels, and arguing over a past, and career histories, that don’t feel especially well-seated in the plot. Assayas strikes me as a more consistent director than François Ozon – although it may be unfair to compare the two as Ozon belongs to a later generation of French film-makers – but I think Ozon’s oeuvre is the more varied and interesting of the two, and Ozon’s best films are better than Assayas’s.

days_whenThe Days When I Do Not Exist, Jean-Charles Fitoussi (2002, France). This film was sent as a “bonus” with a purchase made on eBay, so I had no idea what to expect. And the internet was no real help – there’s no Wikipedia page for Fitoussi, and the imdb page for Les jours où je n’existe pas is surprisingly free of information. Whch is a shame, as it proved to be an excellent movie. It opens with a funeral, and an actor discussing the life of the person interred in the grave. The conversation – well, monologue – continues in the car as they drive away from the cemetery. And it’s only then that the main narrative begins: a man meets a woman in a park, and the two begin a relationship. But he only exists on alternate days. To him, it’s an unbroken succession of days, but for her – she’s alone every other day, and it begins to pall. So much so that she asks a friend to help try and prevent her husband (I think they’re married by this point) from appearing. But it doesn’t work. The story is told chiefly through voice-over narration (framing narrative aside), and there are occasional breaks away from the characters when the camera shoots landscape (although there’s something Benning-like about these scenes, the camera is not static but slowly pans and zooms). The whole effect feels a little like Patrick Keiller and a little like Godard (when he’s being experimental, but not too off-the-wall), but it works really well. Definitely a pleasant surprise. According to imdb, Fitoussi has made almost a dozen films, although only three or four are feature-length. I’ll definitely keep an eye open should any of them appear in editions with English subtitles.

veroniqueThe Double Life of Veronique*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1991, France). On its release, a film critic said of The Double Life of Veronique that it made “little or no sense on paper”, and she was pretty much spot-on. It doesn’t. The story is complete tosh. And yet it’s a beautifully-shot and beautifully-played piece of cinema. It not only works, it works exceedingly well – so well, in fact, it won both the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. (Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or that year, and La belle noiseuse the Grand Prize of the Jury.) The film’s title refers to young women, both played by Irène Jacob. The first is Weronika, who travels to Kraków to stay with her sick aunt, auditions for a conductor and is chosen by him as lead soprano for a planned concert. On the way home from the audition, during a violent protest, she spots a young woman who looks exactly like her. This second woman takes some photographs and then gets on a coach and drives away. This is Veronique, who teaches music at a school in Paris. Twenty minutes into the film, during the concert, Weronika collapses and dies on stage. The focus shifts to Veronique, who is suddenly overcome with sadness. A series of strange events seem to link her to the dead Weronika but transpire to be a “test” by a puppeteer and writer of children’s books Veronique has met. His last such test is sending her a cassette of ambient sounds. The postmark on the envelope leads her to a Paris railway station, where she finds the puppeteer in a café. He has been waiting there for her for two days. Angry, she leaves him – but he follows her to her hotel and the two become involved… The Double Life of Veronique is, quite frankly, made by Irène Jacob in the title role. Though the cinematography is pure Kieślowski, as is the ultra-careful timing of the story, the plot feels thinner than Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s usual material. None of which is to say The Double Life of Veronique is a bad film, or even disappointing for Kieślowski, because I thought it a better film than Three Colours: Blue, even if it did feel like the story was forever about to topple into nonsense. I need to watch Kieślowski’s other films to see if they’re also as good as I remember them – especially No End, which I seem to recall liking a great deal – although it seems not all of them have been released on Blu-ray… although Arrow Academy are going to release Dekalog in a dual edition box set later this year – it’s on my wishlist.

equinoxEquinox Flower, Yasujiro Ozu (1958, Japan). I must be getting into Ozu’s films – I recognised the characters in this movie as the same ones from Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. And because the plot was about marrying off daughters, a subject shared with those other two films, I initially thought it followed on from them. But it was actually made two years before one and four years before the other. (Although, just to confuse matters, the main character has the family name Hirayama in each film, but is played by a different actor… each of which plays a differently-named character in the other two films.) In Equinox Flower, Hirayama must deal with his own two daughters, neither of which want arranged marriages – and the boyfriend of one, in fact, approaches Hirayama to ask for the hand of his daughter – as well as trying to reconcile an old friend with his estranged daughter and also help  a female acquaintance find a husband for her daughter… The film is set mostly in Hirayama’s office, home and a Ginza bar called Luna, where the estranged daughter works. There is also a scene in the same inn which appears in the later two films (with the same landlady too). I’ve said before that Ozu’s films are very domestic – and it’s not just that they’re chiefly uchi, but more that the stories are driven by the interlinkage between several families who seem to be undergoing the same trials and tribulations. And yet there’s a telling moment in Equinox Flower, toward the end, which admits the outside world, when Hirayama and his wife are at seaside, sitting side-by-side on a bench (it’s the cover image of the DVD), and she tells him that WWII was a wonderful time for her, and he replies that he hated it. And this is after differences of opinion over their daughters’ futures and the one’s impending marriage. It’s in the small things that Ozu excels – it is, in fact, where he finds his stories. And I’m not entirely sure if the fact they’re Japanese makes them more domestic than they would be had they been set in another nation. I think it might well. Good stuff.

summer_interlideSummer Interlude, Ingmar Bergman (1951, Sweden). Bergman is a Swedish institution – at least from the outside – perhaps so much so that he overshadows everything else produced on film or television in the country (twenty-first century Nordic crime TV series notwithstanding). And, despite the size of his output, Bergman’s oeuvre isn’t all that varied. His many films are usually three- or four-hander plays, typically about relationships or families, played out with a bit more scenic freedom than a theatre offers. Summer Interlude, considered among his best by some, is a case in point. The lead character is a ballerina, who goes to stay with relatives in the country for a holiday, and subsequently has a holiday romance. But the unsophisticated boyfriend doesn’t understand the dancer’s sophisticated world – especially her relationship with her urbane “uncle” – and it all ends badly. It’s all very, well, play-ish, a story driven by relationships which are laid out in dialogue rather than through visual clues – although Bergman certainly uses his scenery to good effect (and I have to wonder if the scene involving wild strawberries inspired the later film of that title). Criticising Bergman would be like criticising Shakespeare, but nothing should be sacred – and, like Shakespeare, some of Bergman’s output works better, or at least appeals to me more, than others. Summer Interlude has its moments, but I think I’d place it in middle-tier Bergman – neither a stand-out nor one of the forgettable ones.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 791


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Moving pictures, #37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 789


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Moving pictures, #36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies you Must see Before You Die count: 787


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Moving pictures, #35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 786


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Moving pictures, #34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 784

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