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Moving pictures, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809


Moving pictures, #53

I think I’m managing a decent balance of countries in my film-viewing – France currently scores highest after the USA and UK (then Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada and Sweden…). But I would like to improve it. I’ve found a good source for African films, and emailed them to ask if they deliver to the UK – but no reply yet. Some other nations’ cinemas are much harder to find films… like Albania. It apparently has a thriving film industry, has even produced a handful of festival favourites… but finding copies on DVD is proving difficult. I shall continue to look, however. Meanwhile…

jungle_bookThe Jungle Book, Wolfgang Reitherman (1968, USA). I can remember the first time I saw this film. It was in the gym at the Doha English-Speaking School in Qatar, sometime around 1970 or 1971. (I’m a founding pupil of two English-speaking schools in the Middle East.) We also had an LP of songs from the film, and given I heard the songs so often during my childhood, I may well have confabulated that into multiple viewings of the film. So I was quite keen to watch it again (in contrast to, say, 101 Dalmatians, which I had no firm memories of ever seeing as a kid, but suspected I might have done). And… it was okay. I had expected it to be better than it was. The animation was nowhere near as beautiful as that of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and while the songs were mostly very memorable… that was all they were. It all felt a bit weak. Which was weird. I couldn’t help comparing it to 101 Dalmations, which I had not expected to like when I saw it a couple of months ago, but found quite charming. I’m not sure where The Jungle Book fits in the Disney canon – I’m not that much of a fan of their films, to be honest, and am only working my way through them out of a sense of completeness (and a vain hope of being blown away again as I was when I watched Sleeping Beauty). At the moment, myself I’d classify The Jungle Book as middling Disney – not great, but not awful; fun, with catchy songs but an unmemorable story.

eccentricitiesEccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, Manoel de Oliveira (2009, Portugal). Among the countries from which I had not seen a film was Portugal. (I can’t find a felicitous way of phrasing that which emphasises the country, but what I mean is: I had never seen a film from Portugal.) So I hunted around on LoveFilm, and found this, Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl, directed by Maniel de Oliviera. And… it was good, very good. It felt like a dramatisation of a story by Karen Blixen. Which is a compliment. A man on a train introduces himself to the woman sitting beside him, and then proceeds to tell her his life-story. Cue flashback. And it’s a very Blixen-like story. In the apartment across the street from the man’s office lived a young woman. He fell in love with her, and arranged to meet her. They were drawn to each other and decided to marry. But his uncle, who is his guardian and employer, wouldn’t let him marry, and fired him when he insisted on going ahead with it. In desperation, the man accepted a job from a friend running a plantation on Cape Verde. A few years later, he returned, having made his fortune. He again asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted. But another friend asked him to stand guarantor to a business venture… but then disappeared with all the cash, leaving the young man penniless once again. He was offered the job in Cape Verde a second time… but managed to reconcile with his uncle and so turned it down. Now, he had his original job back, his uncle would pay for the wedding, everything was working fine… but the fiancée turned out to be a kleptomaniac (hinted at throughout the film) and so he rejected her. At only 64 minutes, this is a pretty economical film. But it has that literary quality with which the best directors can imbue their movies. It feels like an adaptation of a literary story (it is: by Eça de Quierós), it feels like The Immortal Story or Babette’s Feast. Recommended; and I have added more films by de Oliveira to my rental list.

mutinyMutiny on the Bounty*, Frank Lloyd (1935, USA). Some stories seem to become so much a part of Western Anglophone culture there’s no real need to read the book or see the film or watch the play or hear the song… and so it is with Mutiny on the Bounty, in which the crew of an English ship in the late eighteenth century mutiny, set their evil captain and his sycophants adrift in a boat, settled down to a life of ease on a Pacific island, only for the captain to survive a 7,000 mile ocean journey, set the Royal Navy on the mutineers, and so bring them to justice. And the story goes: that Captain Bligh was a total monster, Fletcher Christian was an Everyman hero, and bad luck and circumstances prevented the mutineers from living the fruitful and paradisical lives they deserved. At least, so Hollywood would have you believe. It’s true that history has demonised Bligh, and Hollywood – in this film especially – fixed that version in the public consciousness. But apparently he was a good captain, and Christian was far from the selfless hero played by, in this movie, Clarke Gable. But that’s all by the bye – it’s a Hollywood film, historical accuracy is not in the product description. I had, however, expected to be mostly unimpressed by Mutiny on the Bounty. But it made a surprisingly excellent fist of life aboard an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, and the storm scenes in particular were done well. Not bad.

electraElectra, My Love, Miklós Jancsó (1974, Hungary). This may be one of the most bonkers films I have ever seen. I have seen a number of bonkers films. I have seen all of Jancsó’s films available on DVD in the UK; Jancsó makes bonkers films. But even by his lights, this is an odd one. Now I love the declamatory nature of Jancsó’s films, and I like the continual movement – of the camera, of the cast – that he uses. But even so, Electra, My Love seemed weirder than I was used to from Jancsó. As the title suggests, it’s about Electra, a thorn in the side of the tyrant Aegisthus who had murdered her father, Agamemnon, fifteen years earlier. And the film plays out Electra’s story, as her brother Orestes, believed dead, reappears in disguise, reveals himself, kills Aegisthus, and takes power. But given that this is a Jancsó film… The story takes place in the middle of nowhere, a grassy plain with no evidence of civilisation other than the crude buildings which feature in the film. And while Electra walks about declaiming, there is a cast of several hundred in continual movement about and around her, including men with whips, dwarves with cymbals, naked women and men dancing, marching bands, dancers with sticks, and a giant ball. It’s like watching a Greek myth in interpretative dance with dramatic dialogues on top. It shouldn’t work, it should feel pretentious to the nth degree… But Jancsó’s genius is that he does make it work, that it comes across as a somewhat peculiar staging of the story, but a staging that adds to the story rather than obscures it. Jancsó is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but I count myself a fan.

springSpring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, Kim Ki-duk (2003, South Korea). The title refers to the “seasons” of a monk’s lifetime. He lives in a tiny monastery which sits in the middle of a lake, and at various points in his life, events happen which are documented under the seasons of the title. The Wikipedia entry – see here – has an excellent description of them. I will admit, I am woefully uninformed when it comes to the creed and practices of Buddhism (but then I’ve never read the Bible, Talmud or Qur’an either), so much of the symbolism in this film went straight over my head. Which may be why, despite its often gorgeous cinematography, I think I like Ki-duk’s 3-Iron more – although Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is plainly the better-looking film. But then Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is a film which succeeds because of its photography. The plot starts out as a series of vignettes, and any story-arc feels like something of an after-thought, but the film’s biggest draw, its Buddhist symbology, would be likely lost on all but students of the religion (but then, who catches every reference in a literary novel?). Both 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring were recommendations from David Tallerman, who I believe counts Ki-duk among his favourite directors… and while my tastes usually lie a little closer to home – ie, from India through the Middle East and Africa to Russia and Northern Europe – and my knowledge of Far Eastern cinema is patchy at best, I do think I’d like to see more by this director.

chinoiseLa Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I think I can ditch my Theory of Godard, it’s plainly complete nonsense. It’s not as if I can split out his famous “political” films either, and declare they don’t work for me – because some of them do. I suspect that if there is something in common to the Godard films I like, it’s that his focus in the ones I like seems to be more on experimenting with narrative forms than it is on just his cast. So in Weekend, he told a surreal story; in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he tried several different narrative forms; and in Détective, he set out to tell a mystery story that could not be parsed in one sitting. But in La Chinoise, it’s all about the cast members monologuing to camera – especially his new wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky – and while its story (it can hardly be called a plot) presages the student revolts of a couple of years later while simultaneously mocking left-wing student politics, it still possesses Godard’s baffling love of US iconography. The end result is not one of his most gripping, although some of the jokes are good, and the overall structure is interesting, if not entirely successful. Back in 2002 (I could have sworn it was a year or two earlier as I seem to remember buying the DVD while in Abu Dhabi, probably from Amazon), but anyway, in that year I saw my first Godard, À bout de souffle. It was also, I think, my first exposure to the Nouvelle Vague. I have never really considered myself a fan of French New Wave cineman, but the more of Godard’s oeuvre I watch, the more I admire him for his body of work and the more of his films I find that I do like. La Chinoise, I think, is currently borderline – but I’d like to watch it again sometime, so who knows…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 808

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Moving pictures, #52

Another bunch of films, of mixed quality…

trustTrust*, Hal Hartley (1990, USA). Hartley has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can’t honestly see why he even has one. I can only guess he was the US independent film-making scene’s darling in the 1980s. He doesn’t translate to the UK. Or perhaps it’s just me. Maria is dumped by her jock boyfriend when she tells him she is pregnant, and the news causes her father to die of heart failure. Matthew is an electronics genius who thinks he’s some kind of alpha male. The two become involved. And, er, that’s it. Everything is resolutely amateur, the characters are not at all believable, and the central story – the relationship – is neither engaging nor dramatic. I really don’t see the appeal of Hartley’s movies. I thought his The Unbelievable Truth was singularly unimpressive, and wondered at its presence on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I can only say the same of Trust. I will say, however, that Trust is very 1980s – but that’s hardly a compliment. Still, at least I can cross it off the list.

capsuleCapsule, Andrew Martin (2015, UK). Someone mentioned this film to me assuming I’d already know of it given its subject. But I hadn’t. So I checked it out, the DVD was cheap, so I ordered a copy… The story mostly takes place inside the first British spacecraft, which is supposed to have beaten both the US and the USSR into space. Now, I know all about bending the history of the space race, I have won awards for doing as much, after all – kof kof – and I’m fully on board with a British astronaut orbiting the Earth in 1959 in advance of both the USA and USSR. (Stephen Baxter and Simon Bradshaw wrote an excellent short story, ‘Prospero One’, on the same subject.) Unfortunately, I’m not in the slightest bit convinced by Capsule’s alternate history. Just look at the DVD cover, it looks like a Mercury capsule. Why would the British design a space craft that looked just like a Mercury capsule? And if they did, you’d expect the interior to resemble a Mercury spacecraft, where as the one in Capsule looks like the sort of interior designed by someone who doesn’t know much about spacecraft. And then there’s the story itself. By it’s very nature, it’s going to consist mostly of a camera focused on a single bloke in a pressure suit crammed inside said spacecraft. The plot of Capsule is about his dealings with the people on the ground through his radio – UK, USA and USSR. There is, I admit, a clever twist in the tale; but the journey to that point is not convincing and sadly lacking in drama. Disappointing.

nuummioqNuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland). One weekend, I tried to work out the countries from which I’d seen at least one film and, by extension, which nations’ movies I had yet to see. And Greenland was one of those countries on the not-seen list. So I went looking for some, discovered the Greenlanders had made several over the decades, and bought Nuummioq, AKA The Man from Nuuk, because it sounded interesting. A Greenlandic casual labourer finds his view of life changing when he is diagnosed with testicular cancer. He could get treatment, but in Denmark. Meanwhile, an ex-lover has returned, and the two rekindle their relationship. One of his two friends has an idea for selling glacier ice to gullible Westerners (don’t laugh, there’s already a brand of bottle water that boasts it’s made from glacier water), and he persuades the man from Nuuk to help him film a commercial. So they take their boat up the fjord into the country, where they normally hunt… and go stay with the sheep farmer, who has a complicated history with them and their families… And this is solid Nordic drama, well-written and well-acted, with some amazing Greenlandic scenery. I’m surprised it’s a not better known. I had to buy a DVD copy in order to see it, but it was by no means a wasted purchase. And I plan to watch more Greenlandic films too. Recommended.

le_boucherLe boucher*, Claude Chabrol (1970, France). I’ve seen half a dozen films by Chabrol, and I know he’s highly-regarded, but every film I’ve seen by him has felt somewhat meh. Le boucher was, I admit, much better than the others I’d seen. A man and a woman meet at a wedding in their village – he is the butcher of the title, she is the school mistress. They begin seeing each other. Meanwhile, someone has been murdering young women in the area. The school mistress’s suspicions gradually fasten onto the butcher, and when she finds his lighter at one of the crime scenes… The film plays the thriller plot very much as a social drama, and is far more concerned with the relationship between the two than it is the crimes being committed. For a start, the murders are off-stage, and second, the police are not presented in a flattering light – it is, not after all, about them and their investigation. Unfortunately, this does mean the final act, when the butcher realises he’s been rumbled, comes across like a cut-price The Shining. What most people are likely to remember of the film, however, is the school trip to the Grottes de Cougnac, a large cave system – althoughly, I suspect, chiefly from the weird scenery more than anything else. Le boucher takes an interesting approach to its story, and if it feels a more solid than innovative it’s probably because time hasn’t been especially kind to it. But on balance, I think it probably belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

bridge_of_spiesBridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg (2015, USA). In 1957, the FBI catches a Soviet spy. When it comes to prosecuting the man, a lawyer specialising in insurance law is asked to defend him. Rather than do the perfunctory job expected of him – because this is Tom Hanks, in a Steven Spielberg film – he is determined to see his client treated with fairness and dignity, and due process, and also avoid the death penalty. Which he manages, chiefly by suggesting the Soviet spy would then be available to trade in the future should the USSR catch a US spy. Which proves pretty damn handy when the Soviets shoot down Gary Powers in his U-2 and goes on trial in Moscow for spying. And so the two sides arrange a swap, but this turns complicated when  the East Germans grab a US student studying in Berlin, and while the US government is happy to let him rot in prison, Hanks insists he’s included in the exchange. While it’s certainly true that governments don’t seem to much care about the human cost when in pursuit of goals – especially those for the millitary-industrial complex or intelligence community – Spielberg’s career-long insistence that one good man can mitigate that tendency is getting both tiresome and damaging. Hanks specialises in playing an Everyman, and yet in all his films he is quite clearly something special to achieve what he achieves. It’s completely disingenuous. It’s like celebrating a billionaire for being a patron of the arts, when in fact society should not be relying on the largesse of the wealthy to fund the arts. Charity does not begin at home; it should be systemic. And interesting though historical incidents such as that in Bridge of Spies are, and no matter how well Spielberg evokes the era in his production design and photography, you’ve still got a film which presents the wrong message (look it up on Wikipedia – the film takes liberties with history; and Abel, the Soviet spy, was a fascinating man). Meh.

river_titasA River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). For the last couple of months, I’ve been putting A River Called Titas on when I’ve had a little too much to drink and I just want to sit back and just look at pretty pictures without having my intelligence beaten to a pulp. In the past, I’ve used All That Heaven Allows, Sokurov’s The Second Circle or Whispering Pages, or the first episode of Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices, or one of James Benning’s California Trilogy… but of late, I’ve been using A River Called Titas instead. Unlike those other films, it is black-and-white, and while it has a beginning, middle and end, it’s more a series of linked stories than an actual plot. It opens with two young girls, who live in a Malo village on the banks of the Titas River in what is now Bangladesh, discussing which of the village’s fishermen they will marry. Some fishermen from a village across the river visit the village during a festival, during which it is attacked. Kishore, one of those visiting fishermen, saves Rajar Jhi, and a marriage is arranged between the two. But on their journey to Kishore’s village, their boat is attacked by pirates, who kidnap Rajar. She manages to escape them and is taken in by some villagers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know her husband’s name, only the village from which he came. The story jumps ahead ten years. Kishore has lost his mind after losing his wife. Rajar now has a ten-year-old son, Ananta. She sets off to find her husband, and arrives at his village. But he does not recognise her. A young widow, Basanti, one of the two girls in the film’s opening, helps her. During a festival, Kishore and Rajar meet up. He carries her away, but is set upon by the villagers and beaten to death. Before he dies, he recognises Rajar as his wife. In trying to save him, she drowns. Basanti takes care of Ananta. This is by no means a cheerful story, and I’m not entirely sure what draws me to it. The photography of the river is beautiful, and the way the characters’ stories loop in and out of each other is cleverly done. (The film is based on a novel, of the same title, by Adwaita Mallabarman.) Like Satyajit Ray’s films, this is Indian realist cinema – although at least one of the cast seems a bit more Bollywood than everyone else – and the focus is very much on presenting Malo village life as it really existed. I’m not entirely sure what it is that draws me to A River Called Titas – and although I find the only other two films by Ghatak I’ve managed to source on DVD, The Cloud-Capped Star and Subarnarekha, equally excellent, they don’t draw me quite as strongly. Ghatak made eight feature-length films before dying of tuberculosis at fifty-eight; he also made a number of short films, and even wrote seven books… Only the three films mentioned above are available in the Anglophone world. This is very annoying – he has become one of my favourite directors. Even more annoying, the BFI version of A River Called Titas I own was made from a poor print. There is a Criterion box set which includes a restored version of the film. I want it. And I just know I will love a proper restored print of A River Called Titas so much more than I do my current copy.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 807

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Moving pictures, #51

There have been too many movies of late – typically Hollywood action or thriller movies – which I’ve started to watch on Amazon Prime, only to give up ten minutes in because of their macho stupidity and lack of resemblance to anything approaching the real world. So I guess in that respect the service is proving useful, since I haven’t wasted rental DVDs on those films. Unfortunately, it does mean I have to look further afield for the sort of films I do want to watch – and I was already watching pretty obscure ones… It’s also proving annoying how few non-Anglophone movies are released on DVD in the UK – and some are released in such low numbers, they’re deleted less than a year later. Several years ago, I used to operate what I called “The Rule of DVD” – ie, don’t buy a DVD unless it was priced under £10. At the time, it made sense since most DVDs were released at £19.99 or £16.99. Unfortunately, the cheapest ones were generally the big Hollywood blockbusters, so it meant waiting for a sale or picking up second-hand ones on eBay… Nowadays, DVDs under £5 are pretty common, but again it’s the blockbusters (or really shit straight-to-DVD films). And the ones I now want are even more expensive than they were. Argh.

Having said all that, this bunch of films is mostly obscure – with one glaring exception, which, unbelievably, I’d never seen before (I thought I had but, watching it, nothing was familiar).

kumikoKumiko, the Treasure Hunter, David Zellner (2014, USA). I think this was a recommendation from David Tallerman. It’s certainly not a film I’d have put on my rental list. And despite the first half being set in Japan. and entirely in Japanese, it’s an American film. It’s based on an urban legend, that a young Japanese woman who was found dead in Minnesota in 2001 had been searching for the ransom money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Kumiko, an introverted office lady, finds a videotape hidden in a cave on the shore. It’s a copy of Fargo, but she convinces herself it’s real, uses her employer’s credit card to buy a plane ticket to the US, but the card is cancelled, so she starts walking toward Fargo. She’s picked up en route by a friendly sheriff, but her English is poor and when he learns her purpose he can’t get across to her that Fargo is fiction. An odd film. Zellner manages to get across Kumiko’s alienation pretty effectively – both in Japan and in the US – and Rinko Kikuchi’s slightly-bewildered but blank-faced expression throughout convinces you she is precisely the sort of person who would fixate on something fictional as fact. Worth seeing.

assassinThe Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Tsien (2015, China). And another recommendation from David Tallerman. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. I’m not an especially big fan of wu xia, although many of those I’ve watched have been gorgeous spectacles. The Assassin, however, takes a different approach – it’s very slow, very quiet, and a lot of it takes place indoors. Shu Qi plays the title role, who after failing to kill her target (because he had his baby son in his arms), is sent to the province of Weibo to kill the governor… to whom she was once betrothed. While The Assassin doesn’t have the colourful and kinetic cinematography found in a lot of wu xia, it is beautifully shot, and makes a great deal of use of stillness – which is only emphasised by the cast’s deliberate lack of affect in playing their parts, and which also makes the sudden eruptions of violence all the more visually shocking. Definitely worth seeing.

classic_bergmanIt Rains on Our Love, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This was the second film Bergman directed, with a script co-written by himself and based on a Norwegian play by Oskar Braaten. A young woman runs away to a provincial town after becoming pregnant, and a young man, fresh out of prison, is looking for a new life. The woman misses her train and bumps into the young man. They decide that since luck brought them together then they are fated to be together. After leaving their train, they stumble along a lane during a downpour, and end up breaking into a small house for shelter. But the owner catches them. He offers to rent it to them. The young man goes looking for a job, finds one, and the two settle down. But every time good luck comes their way, it’s followed by bad. Fortunately, there is a man with an umbrella, who appears every now and again and speaks to camera, who helps them out of their difficulties. I can’t say this was especially memorable – it was interesting seeing how Swedes lived in the country back in the 1940s, but the whole thing felt like a somewhat unsubtle play. One for fans only, I suspect.

starA Star is Born*, George Cukor (1954, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before – as I mention above – but perhaps I just thought I had because I knew the story from the Barbra Streisand / Kris Kristofferson version, which I definitely remember seeing. Oh, and I’ve seen the Janet Gaynor / Fredric March version too – this time last year, in fact. The story is simple enough: matinee idol on the way down spots young talent and helps her to become a star, and as their careers head in opposite directions so their relationship suffers. In this version, the upwardly-mobile star is Judy Garland in a comeback role, although apparently still suffering from chemical dependencies, and the star heading downwards is James Mason, who was not the first choice by any means but despite being a little too urbane for the role proves capable of a surprisingly good drunk. The film was shot in glorious Technicolor, and Cukor makes good use of it. But it was by all accounts an unhappy shoot, and the studio then butchered Cukor’s cut in an effort to chop it down to a “more commercial” length. The version I watched is the 176-minute restored version from 1983, which uses still photos and voice-over dialogue to fill in the scenes lost on the cutting-room floor. And judging by which scenes were cut, I’m surprised the theatrical release made any sense at all. I’m not a Garland fan, and this film is pretty obviously her star-vehicle, nor did I think the musical numbers all that good – the overly-long ‘Born in a Trunk’ number, filmed after Cukor had left the production, was especially self-indulgent. Still, at least I can cross it off the list.

detectiveDétective, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). I am mostly indifferent to French cinema, I have discovered, except for a handful of exceptions – Ozon, of course; and some Renoir; Demy; Rivette, perhaps; Tati, obviously; Denis, Assayas, assorted migrant directors like Kieślowski and Żuławski; and, I’m surprised to discover, quite a bit of Godard. I had a theory that I liked colour Godard but not black-and-white Godard, but what I hadn’t expected was that I’d like colour Godard so much. True, I count Le Mépris as a favourite film, but it’s his “commercial” film and not typical of his oeuvre. But I’ve found myself liking, and admiring, some of Godard’s later work, like Two or Three Things I Know About HerWeekend, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language. I find him… interesting. In the positive sense of the word (as it’s used by Brits). Détective is a case in point. It’s ostensibly several thriller plot lines entangled together, all of which revolve around a single hotel in Paris. But it’s also almost impossible to parse in a single sitting. I’m going to have to get a copy of my own, because I want to watch it again – it’s a film that demands rewatching. And to make a film that can’t be parsed with a single viewing is such an astonishingly arrogant thing to do that I can’t help admiring Godard for doing it.

returnThe Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003, Russia). I’d seen Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan last year, and thought it very good – although I did prefer Lungin’s Ostrov, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films are easier to get on DVD in the UK (in fact, all of Zvyagintsev’s feature films are available for rental, none of Lungin’s are) – so I added The Return, The Banishment and Elena to my rental list… and The Return duly arrived. And… it is bloody good. I liked it more, I think, than Leviathan. Two boys return home one day to discover that their father, who disappeared twelve years before, has returned. He takes the two on a fishing trip in an attempt to reconnect with them, but his methods are harsh and brutal. He stands by, for instance, when the two boys are mugged for the wallet of cash he has just given them. When the muggers escape, he goes after them, and brings the ringleader back for his sons to have revenge on – but they can do nothing. One son is keen to earn the father’s approval, the other is resistant. The trip ends in disaster, when the younger son climbs a decrepit watch tower, echoing the opening scene of the film in which the boy is too scared to climb down from a similar tower, and the father climbs up to fetch him down but falls to his death. The film is beautifully photographed, with a a washed-out colour palette that suits its story and setting. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805

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Moving pictures, #50

Another odd selection this time around. None, sadly, from the 1001 Movies list, not even the Disney.

kingdom_bothThe Kingdom II, Lars von Trier (1997, Denmark). The Kingdom is a great piece of television (the original Danish version, of course; I’ve not seen the US remake), and though it was about as subtle as a punch in the face it worked really well (that’s part of von Trier’s genius, of course: punching you in the face and making you wonder why you never saw the punch coming). The title refers to Copenhagen’s most prestigious hospital, which was built on a bleaching pond and is haunted by the people who died in it. The first series revolved an old woman who refused to be discharged because she was in contact with a ghost, and needed to save the hospital from malicious ghosts. There was also a pathologist who wanted to research a patient’s cancerous liver, but could not get permission to do so from the patient’s family… so ends up having the liver transplanted into him temporarily after the patient’s death but it goes wrong and he ends up stuck with it. And there was a Swedish consultant who hated all the Danes in the hospital, and in fact the entire country. The Kingdom II is pretty much more of the same. One of the first series’ weirder plot threads was a pregnant doctor whose embryo grew at fantastic speed (and was apparently a reincarnation of one of the hospital’s ghosts), but the foetus was taken over by an evil spirit… who turned out to be Udo Kier. And in series 2, the baby has grown bigger and bigger and is now some weird human giant creature. The’Swedish consultant is back, and just as obnoxious as ever – although a seeming change of heart doesn’t last long. And there are weird ghosts and even weirder ways of dealing with them. The Kingdom II doesn’t quite have the shine of the first series, perhaps because the first series seemed genuinely weird and comparisons between the two are inevitable. There’s no rule that says sequels are always inferior – indeed, there are some that are superior to their predecessor. The Kingdom II doesn’t match the heights of The Kingdom, but it’s still worth seeing.

dads_armyDad’s Army, Oliver Parker (2016, UK). Sometimes, everything in a movie is understandable except the reason why it was made. This film is a case in point. Did we really need a new version of Dad’s Army, given that the television series regularly pops up on television? Obviously, we need to show the world that the UK is really a very pleasant and admirable country, full of tea and jam and bumbling old soldiers and everyone pulls together and we’re still the upright hardy folk who saw off the Nazis – although if you’re a dirty foreigner we apparently don’t want you, at least that’s the message coming out of the Conservative Conference, who seemed to have actually turned into the Nazis. Oops. But, I hear you say, it’s only a comedy, a remake of a much-loved sitcom from forty years ago. And why shouldn’t the British film industry recycle its past successes, since Hollywood seems to do it all the time? But, you know, just because Hollywood does it, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And no matter how polished this version of Dad’s Army is, or how polished its cast (there’s some serious thesping chops in there), and one or two of the jokes might evince a smile and perhaps even a chuckle or two, it’s still peddling the same old Little England shit, the land of jam and scones and those old Routemasters and and everything so fucking quaint. Which is total bullshit. And it’s one thing to see Angela Lansbury turning up and causing murder in Ye Olde Englande, another to spend millions of Pounds Sterling advertising the same lie in a pathetic globally-distributed comedy movie, and even worse for a government to base their entire policy for their term in office on the same shameful xenophobic bullshit.

one_moneyOne for the Money, Julie Ann Robinson (2012, USA). I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD and it looked like it was worth watching, so I stuck it on my rental list. It’s an adaptation of a Janet Evanovich novel, which is probably why it feels a bit like an Elmore Leonard film (not that she copies his style, just that they both write comedy crime/thriller novels). Katherine Heigl plays a young woman in need of cash who becomes a bail bond agent to earn some money. And the big fish she plans to land is a cop on the run, who’s wanted for murder, and who she dated in high school. Of course, he’s innocent – it’s why he did a runner, so he could prove his innocence. Of course. And her fruitless attempts to take him into custody help flush out the villains who stitched him up, so it sorts of turns into a buddy cop movie, with that extra frisson of will-they-won’t-they romance (of course they will, have you ever known them not to?). It’s a smart sassy thiller, with more sass than smarts (in film-land, a “smart” film is one that’s not irredeemably dumb… which I guess limits it to about 5% of Hollywood’s output then…). I enjoyed this film… but not enough to want to read the novel it was adapted from, despite being a big fan of Sara Paretsky and enjoying crime novels featuring female leads.

q_planesQ Planes, Tim Whelan & Arthur B Woods (1939, UK). This was an odd film – a comedy-thriller – a “mighty spy thriller” indeed – starring Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, about agents from an unnamed country, where everyone speaks with German accents, trying to steal British aircraft-engine technology by using some sort of science-fictional ray to blow up the planes’ radios and cause their engines to stop working. But it’s not Germany. Honest. Richardson plays the eccentric head of the intelligence services – who allows himself to be arrested in the opening scenes for apparently murdering someone – and Olivier is a somewhat earnest test pilot who doesn’t get the good flights because he’s mouthy and unapologetic and usually right. And there’s Valerie Hobson, who plays Richardson’s sister, she’s a journalist working undercover at the aircraft factory who helps unravel the conspiracy despite publishing everything she learns on the front page of her newspaper. Oh, and Richardson’s girlfriend, who keeps on ringing up to arrange dates but he never manages to make them, and when they finally get together she admits she’s married someone else. Very odd. But weirdly entertaining. It was pretty much complete nonsense from start to finish – and, surprisingly, Olivier and Richardson didn’t over-power their roles (well, okay, maybe Richardson did; but he did it well), although to be fair Hobson was probably the best of the three. Worth seeing.

make_mine_musicMake Mine Music, Kinney, Geronimi, Luske, Meador & Cormack (1946, USA). This is one of six “package films” Disney made during WWII to keep its feature film division active despite the loss of personnel to the armed services. It’s basically a series of unrelated cartoons strung together, each of which was inspired by a piece of music. Make Mine Music has ten segments, opening with a joke song about two hillbilly families, then covers, among others, ‘Peter and the Wolf’, a couple of Benny Goodman pieces, a story about two romantic, er, hats, and a tale of an opera-singing, er, sperm whale. Bits and pieces of the film have appeared over the decades as discrete cartoons, either released independently or as part of  a television programme. It was… fun. Some of the anmiation was particularly good, reminding me of Sleeping Beauty, some was more like you’d expect to find in a five-minute Disney cartoon. I’m glad I watched it, and I did enjoy it, but I doubt I’ll be rushing out to buy my own copy on DVD…

rivetteNoroît, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). Twice now I’ve watched this and I still can’t make head nor tail of it. It opens with Geraldine Chapman weeping over the dead body of her brother on a beach. He was killed by pirates who inhabit a nearby castle. But they don’t look like your average pirates, as they seem to prefer wearing flares and sequinned waistcoats. The pirates are also mostly women, and it all feels a bit Shakespearean, particularly a Shakespeare play that has been “modernised” to the, er, 1970s. It even quotes from ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ – “it is the Judas of the hours, wherein honest salvation is betray’d to sin” – so not quite the Bard, but certainly around his time. (I’m not sure if the plot of Noroît maps onto that of ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’.) There’s still something odd about the films in this box set, they feel like polished rehearsals of incomplete plays – despite the windswept castle at which most of the action in Noroît takes place, despite the often lovely landscape photography, Noroît still feels like it’s on a stage…. and that’s right from the start, when the film opens with Chapman raging over the dead body of her brother on a beach. The various staged fights only increase the likeness. Of course, it doesn’t help that the cast also put on a play for the pirate leader. A movie staged like a play is hardly unusual – there’s even a movie of a “black box” play, von Trier’s Dogville – but Rivette’s movies, the three from this box set I’ve seen so far, don’t feel like they were deliberately filmed to resembled stage plays. It makes for a weird disconnect, which means the films require quite a bit of concentration to follow. And that at least means the box set wasn’t a wasted purchase, as I’ll be rewatching the movies in it several times…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805

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Moving pictures, #49

How about that? A single Hollywood movie… and it was a rewatch (although, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you when I last watched Westworld – sometime during the early 1980s, I suspect). Meanwhile, we have just one film on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list too, and that was a rewatch as well (another Tarkovsky on Blu-ray, in fact). But, on the whole, it’s a pretty good half-dozen movies – and some of them are very good indeed.

kandaharKandahar, Mohsen Makhalbaf (2001, Iran). Although one of the first Iranian directors to come to international prominence, I know Makhalbaf best from his appearance in Kiarostami’s Close-Up. So Kandahar was sort of but not quite new territory for me in more ways than one, as it’s also set in Afghanistan (although I’ve seen Osama, also set in Afghanistan). I certainly had very little idea what to expect since it’s not a film that seems to be discussed, or mentioned, much in reference to “best of” lists. Which is a shame. It’s very well-made, has an appealing streak of black humour a mile wide, and makes a series of important points about the world in which it’s set. An Afghani expat now resident in Canada returns to Afghanistan to see her sister. She’s smuggled over the border in a Red Cross helicopter, but has to travel by foot to the titular city to find her sibling. En route she runs into Red Cross workers who deal with Afghanis injured by mines and who need prosthetic limbs… leading to a scene in which a horde of one-legged Afghanis chase after false legs dropped by parachute from Red Cross helicopters. There’s a simplicity to Makhalbaf’s direction that’s a refreshing change to Kiarostami’s films, although the black humour is of a different order too. (To be fair, I’m not sure why I’m comparing the two directors as their shared nationality is not enough to do so.) Kandahar is also noted for featuring Dawud Salahuddin, an American who converted to Islam and then murdered an Iranian dissident. I can’t quite figure how that it supposed to affect my viewing of this film, because I thought it very good, and I thought it him effective in his role. Recommended.

victoriaVictoria, Sebastian Schipper (2015, Germany). Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first – Victoria was shot as a single take. The other famous single-take movie is Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and I am a huge fan of Sokurov’s films. In both, that single-take is a gimmick (and, it must be admitted, was considerably harder to accomplish in 2002 than in 2015), but… To be honest, it’s not actually all that noticeable in Victoria. I remember the first time I watched Russian Ark back in 2004 and I felt almost light-headed watching it, almost as if I could only breathe when there were cuts (of which, of course, there were none). And this despite having seen, several times, Hitchcock’s Rope, which famously he tried to film with as few cuts as possible. But I had none of that watching Victoria. Perhaps it was because the story flowed more organically than Russian Ark‘s – whatever the cause, Victoria‘s gimmick seemed much less of an issue. The title refers to a young woman from Spain who is working as a waitress in Berlin. At a Berlin night-club, she falls in with a quartet of young male Berliners and so is sucked into their plot to rob a bank to appease a ganglord who protected one of their number during a recent stint in prison. It’s a very good film and there are some blinding moments – such as when Berliner Sonne mucks about on the piano at the café where Victoria works and she responds by playing ten or so minutes of hideously difficult classical music (one of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltzes, apparently). Recommended.

pepePépé le Moko*, Julien Duvivier (1937, France). The title character is a gangster who lives in the Casbah in Algiers, and is wanted by the French police, who have sent an inspecteur from France to arrest him. But first, they have to entice him out of the Casbah. Which they do using his attraction for socialite Mireille Balin. I’ve said before I have a blind spot for early French cinema (actually, I think it spreads across quite a few decades…), and while I can see that Pépé le Moko presages noir film in many respects, I enjoyed it most for its depiction of the Casbah, a part of the world I know only from The Battle of Algiers. I can understand why the film was regarded so highly in its time, and perhaps for a decade or two afterwards, but there’s little enough there to wow a twenty-first century viewer. On the one hand, it feels like an historical document; on the other, its notability as a historical document is not immediately obvious. It’s a fun thriller, in French, set in Algiers. But it’s hard to see it as more than that because whatever importance it may have once had is no longer true. Worth seeing at least once, I suppose, but I’m not sure why it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list as its appeal doesn’t seem abiding.

aprilApril and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci (2015, France). I know Tardi’s work, in fact I have all of the English translations of his bandes dessinées as published by Fantagraphics, and I’m keen to get more when they eventually appear. But I didn’t know about this film – although I did know about, and have watched (twice), Besson’s adaptation of Tardi’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec… So stumbling across this on Amazon Prime one weekend was a happy moment. And the film did not disappoint. The DVD’s cover art says it all: a pair of Eiffel Towers, serving as the main Paris station for a monorail to Berlin. Science-fiction-wise, the film is crude: a voice-over describes the world and how it came to be. In this case, WWI never happened, steam power was not replaced by internal combustion, and April grows up in a world denuded of trees. Her grandfather was trying to create an invincibility forum, and her parents continued the hunt – in a hidden laboratory, because scientists had been disappearing, and those remaining were being co-opted by the government. When the cops raid their lab, April manages to escape, and goes into hiding in Paris, where she continues parents’ researches. Years later, a street urchin hired by a disgraced police inspector tracks down April and so kicks off an adventure that sees her eventually reunited with her parents at a secret installation run by… well, that would be giving it away. Bits of the film, despite the Tardi graphics, reminded me of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film I really like, but April and the Extraordinary World had the advantage of a bande dessinée narrative rather than a pulp one. I shouldn’t have been suprised how good this was, but then even French cinema can screw up a property when adapting it for the screen sometimes (tries hard to think of an example; fails). Definitely worth seeing.

westworldWestworld, Michael Crichton (1973, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before, but it was clearly so long ago that I’d long forgotten details and what I did remember may well have been from what I’d read about the film. In other words, I might actually have never seen it before and only known of it from writings about it. It’s possible. It may also be true of other sf films. But now I have a date against my viewing of the film, a date when I actually watched it from start to finish. Of course, I already knew what to expect: expensive and sophisticated theme-park with mostly android staff, one goes rogue and shoots all the guests. The same scenario was used in the sequel, Futureworld, which I’d seen a few weeks before. But Westworld was the first and, more than that, the first film directed by Michael Crichton. Many might not see the relevance of that, but Crichton was an odd figure – a right-wing anti-science polemicist who created a series of pro-science properties that continue to resonate, and a man who abused his privilege to convince political figures of complete bollocks. Obviously, there’s an anti-science message to Westworld – robots bad! – although, to be fair, the “capitalism will make money out of absolutely anything” message comes across a lot louder. I was surprised at the quality of the print Amazon Prime streamed, and although the reference to an ekranoplan as a “hovercraft” (seriously, how can anyone make mistake like that?) did not bode too well, it was all looking quite good… But it didn’t take long to fall apart. Okay, so Mediaeval World bore more resemblance to The Adventures of Robin Hood (a great film) than it did actual history, and even the dumbest ass knows the Romans did more than eat to excess and have orgies… And yet, perversely, the Hollywood version of the Wild West seemed perfectly acceptable (perhaps because it’s that version you’d expect tourists to want to visit). I actually enjoyed Westworld more than I thought I would, and it’s certainly a better film than Futureworld, but it was still no classic. I’ve seen it now, so no need to ever watch it again.

andrei_rublevAndrei Rublev*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Andrei Rublev is a series of excellent short films that are, ostensibly, episodes from the life of a famous painter of ikons strung into one 205-minute movie. Except a lot if it is invented because little is actually known about Rublev’s life. So what we have is, essentially, a drama anthology, comprising a series of high-quality vignettes – and high-quality not only in terms of cinematography, such as, for example, the balloon ride prologue, which does something pretty clever with a camera pointing down from the gondola. Then there’s the sequence about bell-making, which actually ends the film, and has nothing to do with Rublev’s life but is still astonishing. In fact, all things considered, Andrei Rublev is a hard film to write about, because it consists of multiple episodes. I’ve said before that part of Tarkovsky’s genius was the ability to lend coherence to disparate incidents – and while the life of the title character is about as concrete a link as you can get, Tarkovsky takes it more as a guideline than a plot in Andrei Rublev. There are eight chapters, not all of which feature Rublev, each of which illustrates some characteristic Tarkovsky has chosen to apply to Rublev. Some are amusing, such as when the Tatars mock the Christian paintings in a chruch; some are horrible, like when the Grand Prince has his men waylay the masons who worked on his palace and has them blinded. (This is one thing about history I’ve never understood – given how easy it was to kill people, why did such brutal rulers ever last more than five minutes?). Watching Andrei Rublev is an ordeal – it’s three hours long and your brain is fully engaged for the entire length (okay, yes, I have fallen asleep watching it on at least one occasion), and while it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky film I certainly consider a film that belongs in any self-respecting cineaste’s collection.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805

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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