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Moving pictures, #42

This is the last lot of movies watched in 2015 – only three of them, in fact. Well, two movies and a season of a television series. I’m still unsure whether to continue these posts this year – what do people think? Is it worth it? I mean, I do tend to watch a broad variety of films, and while I can hardly recommend every one I’ve watched, I’ve certainly discovered directors and movies I greatly admire. I’d hope readers of this blog find these posts useful.

easy_riderEasy Rider*, Dennis Hopper (1969, USA). There are films you know about but never get around to watching – and it’s hard not to know about an icon of US counter-culture like Easy Rider. But I’d never seen it. Unfortunately, such knowledge often results in you thinking you know what to expect. Like two guys on choppers, driving around the US, complaining about The Man. And while elements of Easy Rider might well be described as such, I actually found myself really enjoying it because it proved to be so much more. There was the music, of course – all very much of the time, but not especially obvious choices. The cinematography was surprisingly good, especially of the US landscape. The film tries for a thriller plot, but mostly fails because it’s been filmed in that less-than-rigourous manner in which actors were expected to improvise, and non-professionals were involved. Neither fact, of course, is a criticism – in fact, they can result in superior movies (except for comedies, that is, especially Seth Rogen ones). But they did somewhat upset my expectations… albeit in a good way. Despite the fact it’s likely an invention, or probably never existed, I still can’t help buying into the beardy long-haired hippy on a chopper turning their back on society thing – even though it never came to anything, and most of them ended up as either CEOs of successful hedge funds or sellers wildly improbable products that no one was interested in… I’d like to see this again; I think it bears rewatching.

sohck_corridorShock Corridor*, Samuel Fuller (1963, USA). I know Fuller’s name from The Big Red One, which I watched last year (it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, of course; as is Shock Corridor). Although clearly done on the cheap, I thought The Big Red One a superior WWII movie, and I’m not that much of a fan of the genre. Shock Corridor, however, is an early work, a black-and-white OTT noir thriller. I wasn’t expecting much, but I ended up loving it. I plan to buy the Criterion Collection edition – and The Naked Kiss, which I’ve not seen but was made around the same time. But, Shock Corridor… A reporter poses as a patient to infiltrate a mental hospital where a patient was murdered the previous year. The crime is still unsolved, but clearly someone inside the hospital was responsible. Of course, the burden of presenting as mentally ill eventually causes the reporter to become mentally ill. But he does solve the crime. It’s all completely over-the-top – the patients are all pretty much clichés of mental patients, but Constance Towers plays a good role as the reporter’s girlfriend. In fact, she makes the film. It’s also a little weird seeing Roscoe P Coltrane play a straight role. Great stuff.

hammer_houseHammer House Of Horror – Complete Collection (1980, UK). I remember these being broadcast back in 1980. I was at boarding school, and we stayed up late to watch them. I only saw a few of the thirteen episodes, however – or at least, I only have memories of a few of the episodes. Two in particular have always stood out – ‘Guardian of the Abyss’, in which a Satanic cult use Dr Dee’s original scrying glass to summon a powerful devil; and ‘The Carpathian Eagle’, which featured Suzanne Danielle as a young woman who picks up men and cuts out their hearts. Last year, the Horror channel (one of the hundred or so cable channels I have on Virgin Media which rarely show anything of interest) broadcast the entire series, but again I only managed to catch a couple of episodes. Thirty-five years later, the one thing that struck me about the episodes I watched on cable telly was that they were so very late nineteen-seventies. And they weren’t very scary at all. I’d been a little afraid they were – ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ had given me nightmares when I watched it back in 1980. So I decided to get the DVD set, and… Well, they’re not really horror, they’re more thrillers, often with only a hint of the supernatural. They were also a lot better than I’d expected. Production values were pretty high for the time (okay, so the same manor house appeared under different names in multiple episodes, but never mind), the cast were pretty high-powered – Denholm Elliott, Peter Cushing, Brian Cox, Jon Finch, Simon MacCorkindale, Paul Darrow, Diana Dors, Warren Clarke, Dinah Sheridan… – and the final twists weren’t always blindingly obvious. Perhaps one or two episodes felt a bit stretched for their 51 minutes running time, but others were very effective in the scares department. When the DVD set arrived, I wondered why I’d bother ordering it, but having now seen all thirteen episodes I’m glad I did. ‘Guardian of the Abyss’ is still hugely creepy, if no longer nightmare-inducing; the plot of ‘The Carpathian Eagle’ is far more obvious than I’d remembered but is still good drama; and there are also fun episodes like ‘The House that Bled to Death’ (Carrie, in a semi-detached),’ A Rude Awakening’ (Denholm Elliott trapped in a sequence of nested nightmares), ‘Visitor from the Grave’ (woman kills an attacker, but he continues to haunt her), and ‘The Two Faces of Evil’ (scary hitchhiker proves to be a doppelgänger of a woman’s husband). Good stuff.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 701

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Moving pictures, #41

This year’s viewing is nearly done. It has been the Year of Films. A huge number of them. Sadly, not all were especially good. But I did “discover” the films of Jacques Tati and James Benning, and started to obsess over the films of Aleksandr Sokurov. So not all bad then. The following movies pretty much take me to the end of the year. I’ve yet to decide what I plan to do about documenting my film-watching next year. I’m hoping I won’t be spending as much time watching DVDs, so I might well follow the same format. But we’ll see how it goes…

ang-lee-trilogy-dvd-coverThe Wedding Banquet*, Ang Lee (1993, Taiwan). I’m fairly sure I’ve seen a variation on this story, although the particulars escape me at the moment. Taiwanese expat has moved to the US, and is now living with partner Simon in Manhattan. His parents, however, think he is straight and are still trying to fix him up with a suitable wife. To forestall them, and to help out, he agrees to marry a tenant of his, a Taiwanese artist with no money. But then the parents want to visit and they bring $30,000 to pay for a sumptuous wedding. Son manages to keep the ceremony low-key, but his parents use the money on a huge banquet at a local Chinese restaurant run by a man who had been the father’s driver when the father had been a senior officer in the army. I am, I admit, somewhat conflicted about Ang Lee’s films. I’ve enjoyed many of them but not enough to seek out his oeuvre. He strikes me as good, but not great. His films are, at least, wide-ranging in topic, but though several of them appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, including this one, none to me feel really deserving.

deewaarDeewaar, Milan Luthria (2004, India). I watched this film by mistake. As you do. There’s a Deewaar on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, but it was made in 1975 – although it does also star Amitabh Bachchan. But I rented the wrong one (actually, the other isn’t actually available for rental). By the looks of it, the two films are completely different. Ah well. This one, the 2004 film, is about a group of Indian soldiers held as POWs by Pakistan since the 1971 India-Pakistan War. Without India’s knowledge. But one of the prisoners escapes and tells the son of one of the imprisoned men, a war hero, and together they plan an escape. Over the film’s three hours, Deewaar manages to hit every WWII POW movie cliché with impressive accuracy. There are, of course, since this is Bollywood, a couple of musical numbers, but they are uncharacteristically restrained – just lots of singing and very little dancing. But then it is a POW film. Despite not planning to watch it, I quite enjoyed Deewaar – so much so, I went and stuck a dozen or so Bollywood films on my DVD rental list. But it looks like if I want to see the 1975 Deewaar I’m going to have to buy a copy. Oh well.

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterStar Wars: The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams (2015, USA). Criticising The Force Awakens is starting to feel like spitting on Mother Teresa, but let’s face it, Abrams is a piss-poor director and The Force Awakens is a well-produced piece of fan service that does little more than reboot the Star Wars franchise (completely trashing SWEU in the process) while nonetheless making not the slightest bit of sense from start to finish. My twelve-year-old nephew, of course, loved it. I loved the original Star Wars film when I was eleven – but that film was a thousand times better than this one. So… there’s the First Order, which is supposed to be some sort provincical fascist troop, except they can afford Star Destroyers and even have enough money to convert an entire world into Starkiller Base, which is sort of like the Deathstar only MOAR BIGGAH. Then there’s the Republic, which beat the Empire – as in the original trilogy – except it doesn’t seem to care much about the First Order because it just sits around and waits to get blown up (in one of the most undramatic planet-blowing-up scenes in cinema history). And then there’s the Resistance, which is… resisting whom exactly? And it only has a handful of X-Wing fighters, so it’s not like it’s much of a threat against the Star Destroyer-equipped First Order anyway. I’ll not bother reiterating the plot, which pretty much hits all the beats of the original Star Wars film, though I welcomed both Rey and Finn as protagonists (and decry Disney’s failure to include Rey in most of their merchandising). There are a couple of really annoying plot holes, however. First, the Millennium Falcon sits there unlocked and fuelled, ready for Rey to steal it. As if. And where did she learn to pilot starships anyway? Poe Dameron’s reappearance, having been thought dead for two-thirds of the film, is handled really badly. Abrams does the amazingly fucking stupid thing he does in his films where a character sees a planet thousands of light years away explode in the sky above him. FFS. Actually, that’s not even stupidity, that’s contempt for his audience. The Millennium Falcon gets through the shield around Starkiller Base by approaching the planet at lightspeed. So why don’t the X-Wings? Why do they need the shield dropping? Finn was a “sanitation engineer” on Starkiller Base. Seriously? They use stormtroopers to empty the bins? Isn’t that a bit of a waste of all that combat training? Not that it seems to have been much use with Finn. Now, I enjoyed The Force Awakens, and I’ll likely watch it again some time. But it is not a good film, and adds almost nothing to the Star Wars franchise (although it certainly removes a lot: the entire SWEU, in fact). The most interesting thing about The Force Awakens has been the cultural phenomenon it has generated. All that crap about spoilers, all that rubbish about criticising it being a heinous crime. It’s not a patch on the 1977 Star Wars and, dare I say it, is a good deal less inventive than The Phantom Menace. Disney have taken a much loved intellectual property, which had been product from a week after its release, and turned it into twenty-first century product. And that’s not a compliment.

automataAutomata, Gabe Ibáñez (2014, Bulgaria). What an odd film. It starts out like Blade Runner, but then keeps the plot but changes tack to become a robot-hunter flick. Antonio Banderas plays the Deckard role, a cop who stumbles across a robot that proves to be a little more than it should be – it can break the “Second Protocol” (only the first and third of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics make an appearance in this) and so repair itself. He ends up getting abducted by one of these robots, and taken out into the desert surrounding the city – the result of climate crash or nuclear war is not made clear, but certainly it’s radioactive. The film doesn’t seem to know what self-awareness is, and confuses it with heuristic programming. Melanie Griffith plays a “clocksmith”, someone who modifies robots, and she is terrible, some of the worst acting I’ve seen in a long time. The film is also over-lit, often badly so (and so lights reflect off Banderas’s sweaty face where light sources are not supposed to exist), and filmed in DV so the image is sharp and clear and pretty unforgiving under the over-lighting. The robots, however, at least look like robots and not sexy women modelled in chicken-wire, and although the background makes very little sense and seems to over-rely on over-used cyberpunk tropes, the plot mostly hangs together. The supporting cast are all British (despite the Bulgarian money and locations and Spanish director), many doing bad to middling American accents. For some reason, Automata reminded me of Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitem, and while less inventive than that film it is more convincing.

dangerouslDangerous Liaisons*, Stephen Frears (1988, USA). I’ve known of this film for years, decades even, but never actually watched it. But, as the asterisk indicates, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list so I bunged it on my rental list and lo and behold it arrived. And… meh. I really didn’t take to it. Glenn Close plays a manipulating marquise, John Malkovich plays a scheming vicomte, and both Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer play the vicitms of their sexual machinations. There’s lots of walking around in period costume – 1780s France, that is – and Malkovich issuing protestations of his undying love to Pfeiffer and she rebuffing him because, well, because he’s a sociopathic sexual adventurer, and then he explains himself to Close and… But, of course, Pfeiffer eventually succumbs to his blandishment. Amd Thurman too falls from grace. And Close gets her revenge. And… yawn. Keanu Reeves is there too, and he still can’t bloody act. He’s more wooden than a bloody wooden spoon. Bit dull this, and yet another inexplicable entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_killerThe Killer*, John Woo (1989, Hong Kong). Back when I lived in Abu Dhabi, DVDs weren’t that easy to come by – mostly thanks to censorship – but VCDs were readily available. And most of the latter were Hong Kong films. It seems that city had adopted the format with a vengeance (unlike Europe and the US). As a result, I bought a number of VCDs of Hong Kong action films, including quite a lot by Jackie Chan. And it’s those films The Killer reminded me of. Chow Yun Fat plays a gentleman assassin. On one of his jobs, he inadvertently blinds a night-club singer. So, hiding his identity, he returns to her, pays for treatment, and slowly falls in love with her. Meanwhile, the police are after him, as are a bunch of gangsters. Which means lots of slo-mo shoot-outs, although perhaps not with so much of the signature Woo, two guns, both held horizontal, while the shooter leaps in slow-motion for cover. It is amazing, however, that Fat never gets hit by those firing at him, at least not until the end of the film when the plot requires it. As Hong Kong actioners go, this is a superior example, but Hong Kong is such a huge cinema people are likely to find something more to their taste than this random sample from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (Woo’s later success in Hollywood notwithstanding… um, or perhaps that’s responsible for his appearance on the list).

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 699


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Moving pictures, #40

Cracking on, so to speak… More cinematic consumption by Yours Truly.

BSG1978Battlestar Galactica (1978, USA). So this Black Friday seems to have infected the UK from the US (and to be fair it’s a better tradition than the UK’s home-brand Black Friday) and Amazon had a whole bunch of mostly uninteresting deals going, but one which caught my fancy was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ultimate Collection on Blu-ray for £60 reduced from £160. To which I succumbed. And then the following week, they had Cyber Monday, and fuck knows what the fuck that is, but Amazon were selling a bunch of stuff cheap, among which was the original Battlestar Galactica series from 1978, plus the much-maligned Galactica 1980 sequel series, on Blu-ray for half-price at £20. So I bought it too. Foolishly. And watched it. Even more foolishly. I remember Battlestar Galactica quite fondly from the 1980s – it used to be on at 6 pm on BBC2 in Janet Street-Porter’s “yoof” spot. Much as I loved the universe of Star Wars, so I loved the universe of Battlestar Galactica. The uniforms, the spaceships, the, er, well, that was about it. Certainly not the stories. After all, who can forget the episode in which they spend an hour trying to figure out how to put out a fire on the Galactica before deciding to “let the vacuum in”? And the mangling of English in pursuit of a futuristic dialect is both annoying and embarassing – “frak” is okay, “felgercarb” is acceptable, but “chancery” is not the right word for a casino, and when a warrior goes on leave it’s not a “furlong”. Argh. I was, however, surprised by how closely the rebooted series followed the plots of the original series. Not entirely, obvs – but some of them were a lot closer than I’d remembered. The original Battlestar Galactica remains a notable piece of science fiction television, even if it was designed to totally cash in on Star Wars, and the things it did right mostly, but not always, outweigh the things it got wrong. Which is more than can be said for Galactica 1980

sensoSenso*, Luchino Visconti (1954, Italy). Visconti is a director I think well of – he has directed a number of films I admire. So I was predisposed to like Senso, despite knowing little about it. Other than the fact it was a period drama, which is not necessarily in my book a fact which might affect my opinion. And so it proved. Senso is a good period drama, but I’m not sure why it is a better period drama, other than perhaps its director’s name. Admittedly if its period is not of interest to audiences, that’s hardly the fault of the film-maker. But the whole point of period dramas is that they’re recognisable – or something about them is recognisable – to the viewer. For Senso, this is undoubtedly true of an Italian audience, much as it would be for Visconti’s excellent The Leopard… But Senso, for all its plaudits, never quite manages to evoke its time and place as a time and place sufficient to persuade audiences of its story. To be honest, I don’t recall much of the film (I write these posts a week or two after viewing the movie) and from what I do remember it struck me as mostly unsuitable romances during a period when such a thing existed and had very real social consequences. Nothing in the cinematography stood out, which I would have expected of a film by Visconti. He’s done better, and I’m surprised this one made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

BSG1978Galactica 1980 (1980, USA). Ever watched something – several episodes of something – and then wonder why the fuck you bothered? Admittedly, Battlestar Galactica, the original 1978 TV series, is far from great television. But even fans of that are hard-pressed to say something nice about Galactica 1980. It’s not just that the project started off with a dumb premise, but also that the premise was shot down by the network after the pilot and then replaced with an even dumber premise. It’s a generation after the original Battlestar Galactica ended and its stars all have better things to do except Lorne Greene whose career must have been in the toilet as he’s back but this time with a fake beard. And there’s another villain, another nasty member of the Council, played by Richard Lynch, who also played a villain in an episode of the previous series. The “ragtag fugitive fleet” has finally reached Earth, but our world is, er, far too technologically primitive to help them fight the Cylons. But Betamax! I hear you cry. Walkmans! Sinclair ZX81s! Ford Pintos! Legwarmers! So Xavier, the councillor played by Lynch, decides to travel back in time in order to boost Earth’s technology – and the period he chooses is – yawn – Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Peenemünde, to be precise. Xavier is going to help von Braun invent the V-2. But grown-up Boxey – now called Troy because Boxey is a dumb name, even for a kid – and Barry van Dyke sidekick Dillon are sent back after Xavier – whose name is at least not pronounced ecks-avier because that’s not how you fucking pronounce it, you fucking stupid X-Men – and manage to destroy the V-2 prototype as it launches and so, er, stop V-2s from raining death and destruction on London– no, wait. That happened anyway. Anyway, they don’t change history. Xavier escapes to another time period to continue his dastardly plan. However. The network didn’t like the idea of Galactica warriors chasing Xavier through time-period-of-the-week and asked for a rethink. So we got… space scouts! A bunch of kids from Galactica are stranded on Earth, chaperoned by Troy and Dillon, who decide to disguise the kids as a scout troop. The remaining six episodes involve Troy and Dillon having adventures in USA 1980 – including a cringeworthy double episode featuring Wolfman Jack – sometimes with, sometimes without, the super-strong, high-jumping super scouts who can also turn invisible. The final episode is a flashback in which Starbuck crashlands on an alien world, finds a crashed Cylon fighter, reprogrammes one of the Cylons into a middle-American, and then becomes the father – without actual sex – with a mysterious and flighty young woman of the young genius who directed Galactica’s strategy in earlier episodes. Both, I should add, remain remarkably clean during their ordeal. And the woman wears a quite flimsy nylon dress. Even the Cylon is shiny as fuck. Battlestar Galactica is pants; Galactica 1980 is an entire underwear department. I expect the Blu-ray will prove useful at persuading unwanted guests it’s finally time to leave…

hanabiHANA-BI*, Takeshi Kitano (1997, Japan). According to Wikipedia, the title of this film should properly be in all caps. So that’s how I’ve done it. I have a lot of time for Takeshi Kitano – he has a wonderfully varied oeuvre, and some of his films are actually classics (plus if you don’t love the final musical number in his version of Zatoichi then you are clearly not human). This, however, is an early work, although apparently not early enough not to be known to display his trademark. er, trademarks. Such as gory violence. Which it contains in abundance. The film also follows an achronological narrative. Kitano plays Nishi, a police officer, whose wife has cancer. His partner is confined to a wheelchair after a shootout with a Yakuza. Nishi retires, and finds himself in debt to a Yakuza loan shark. So he masquerades as a police officer and robs a bank. The film skips back and forth in time, without clues (remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s plaster on her face in Sliding Doors?), which initially makes the film hard to follow. But it soon becomes clear and starts to grip. The moments of violence are shocking and bloody. Nishi, however, remains a cipher. A good film and a deserving entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I think.

henry_vHenry V*, Laurence Olivier (1944, UK). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has been finding films you really enjoy and/or greatly admire that you would not otherwise have come across. Now I respect Shakespeare, and I’ve been intermittently working my way through the BBC adaptations of his plays (I really ought to buy the damn boxed set), but he’s hardly my first choice, or second , or third, choice of viewing. More so for a 1944 adaptation. By Olivier, who, for all his evident ability, has been characterised as a “luvvie”. So, unexpectedly, I found myself really liking his staging of Henry V. Not because he’s chopped it down to a suitable movie length, or because everyone acts like an actooor (including some godawful Welsh characters)… but because he chose to represent the world of his play as towns and cities are represented in mediaeval art, because he framed the play as a play, and because he staged the battles really quite effectively. It works, it works really well. From the opening pan across a model London to the Globe Theatre, its cast and audience, to the not-quite-Technicolor of its costumes and sets, to the faux mediaeval representations of places to the battle itself… it all works wonderfully well. It is Shakespeare made real. It’s not the dry play as learnt by schoolgirls and schoolboys, it’s visceral and real… and yet still a play. I had expected Henry V to be dull and firmly up its own arse, but in fact it is a great piece of cinema. It needs a proper re-issue , remastered on Blu-ray, not some afterthought “classics” DVD release.

hearts_darknessHearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse*, Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper (1991, USA). I like Apocalypse Now, I think it’s a good film. It wears its inspiration a little too obviously on its sleeve, but it doesn’t suffer because of that. And some of the supporting cast pretty much define stereotypes of Vietnam War movies (except Dennis Hopper’s character, which is a stereotypically Dennis Hopper character). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, however, is the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, a notoriously difficult film to make. Partly it was money – Coppola had to stump up his own cash, and it still went over-budget. Partly it was the location – the Philippines stood in for Vietnam, and despite promises by the government the borrowed military helicopters often disappeared with little or no notice to fight rebels. And partly it was Coppola not knowing what the fuck he was doing. Then there was Marlon Brando, who demanded $3 million for three weeks’ work, and who then spent days sitting around discussing his character’s motivation. What a prima donna. Seriously, that’s totally unprofessional behaviour, and I doubt his name on the credits added significantly to the movie’s takings. Coppola also spent a week filming Harvey Keitel in the lead role, before firing him and casting Martin Sheen (Sheen is very, very good, but it would have been interesting to see what Keitel was like, but sadly no footage is included). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an object lesson in how not to make a film – there are a few problems which are a result of the location, but the main takeaway is that Coppola didn’t know what he was doing and bit off more than he could handle. Having said all that, Apocalypse Now is a genuine piece of classic cinema, but so perhaps it was all worth it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 696


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Moving pictures, #39

Trying to get the last of these out of the way before Christmas. It doesn’t help that I’ve been watching a couple of films a night, more on the weekend. And it’s not as though I mention every film I’ve watched in these posts – some because they’re rewatches, but mostly because they’re some rubbish I stumbled across on TV, Amazon Prime or charity shop DVD… Anyway, here’s the latest batch…

blancanievesBlancanieves, Pablo Berger (2012, Spain). Back in 2011, The Artist was released, a silent film produced in France, which went on to win a raft of awards. This was a bit of a blow to the makers of Blancanieves, who had decided to make a silent black-and-white film several years before but didn’t make it into production soon enough to beat The Artist to release. To be fair, The Artist is a very good film, but you have to wonder how many of its awards were a result of the novelty of a silent B&W film in the 21st century. But then we have Blancanieves, also a silent B&W 21st century film, against which to compare it. And, sadly, Blancanieves does not compare too favourably. It’s good, but it’s doubtful it would have beaten The Artist to any awards. Not in Blancanieves‘ favour is that it’s about bull fighting, a sport (and I use the term loosely) that only the Spanish seem to think is not barbaric. The plot is apparently based on ‘Snow White’, albeit transplanted to Spain and, er, matadors. It’s certainly a nice-looking film, and it works quite well as silent and B&W. And, but for inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning The Artist, it would likely count as a good film. But comparisons are inevitable, and it loses out to them. All the same, worth seeing.

destryDestry Rides Again*, George Marshall (1939, USA). If there’s one story which appears again and again in Western films, it’s the lone hero who cleans up a town under the corrupt thumb of the local cattle baron. Given the bad name cattle barons have in Western literature – which is the nearest the US gets to a native mythos (native to its colonisers, that is) – it’s surprising unfettered capitalism is still seen as admirable. Maybe everyone is just waiting around for the lawman to turn up and clean up the town… although I wouldn’t go looking to that gallery of clowns the GOP is currently fielding as they’re so deep in the cattle barons’ pockets they’ve forgotten what daylight looks like… Ahem. Anyway, wild west town is dominated by criminal sorts, led by owner of the local saloon, at which Marlene Dietrich performs nightly. Villain has been cheating people at cards in order to get their land, and now owns the route needed by ranchers on their drives – and he’s going to charge them a fee per head to cross his land. When this leads to the sheriff’s murder, the corrupt mayor gives the tin star to the town drunk… who promptly sends off for Jimmy Stewart. In the past, the drunk had been deputy to Jimmy’s dad, the original Destry, a much respected lawman, and the drunk hopes the son has followed in the father’s footsteps… Except, it seems, he hasn’t. He doesn’t wear a gun. He lets the villains make fun of him. He even upholds the eviction of a homesteader who had lost the title to his land in a crooked card game. But, of course, Destry is playing a long game, and it all comes right in the end. Of course. This is a Hollywood western, after all. Even Dietrich, the saloon singer and accomplice of the saloon owner, proves to have a heart of gold. The best of the film, however, is when the women of the town, the wives and girlfriends, decide to intervene in the big fight between the forces of law and the villain’s henchman, and march straight in with various blunt instruments and proceed to hammer the shit out of the bad guys. That’s not something that normally appears in the mythos. And, perhaps, given more focus in the narrative, it might have made something special of Destry Rides Again. As it is, it’s a good western – though more for its breaking from the template than its slavish following of it – but there are a number of good westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, compared to the vast number of ordinary and just plain bad westerns that Hollywood made. Worth seeing.

spring_small_townSpring in a Small Town*, Mu Fei (1948, China). This is generally reckoned to be one of the greatest Chinese films ever made – which is quite an encomium given the size of Chinese-language cinema (yes, I know “Chinese” is a language family, not a language, but you know what I mean – the film is actually in Mandarin). A classic piece of cinema it certainly is, not only because of its age. It is also a really good film, a film I watched on rental DVD but would like to pick up my own copy so I can rewatch it. A woman’s life post-WWII is interrupted when a suitor prior to her marriage arrives in town. The film takes its time telling its story, but that actually works to its advantage because it allows for a nuanced presentation of the various relationships – wife and her husband, wife and old boyfriend, wife’s younger sister and the old boyfriend… To be fair, there’s not a great deal of subtlety in who the characters are intended to represent – the husband, for example, spends his time pining for the past and complaining about his various illnesses. And the wife is the heart of the film, and whose heart is torn. I really need to be get my own copy of this. Incidentally, the film was remade in 1993 by Zhuangzhuang Tian. I’ve not seen the remake, but I’m definitely intrigued…

defiantThe Defiant Ones*, Stanley Kramer (1958, USA). It is horrible to think this film may well owe its position on the 1001 Mosvies You Must See Before You Die list because back in 1958 it was considered transgressive, perhaps even shocking. Because it’s about two cons who escape a chain gang while chained to each other. One is Tony Curtis, the other is Sidney Poitier. A white man chained to a black man. Curtis coasts, as well he might given his role, but Poitier is good (both were nominated for Oscars, but neither won – the award went to David Niven for Separate Tables). The two struggle through the swamps before stumbling into a company town, where they are captured and about to be lynched. But one of the residents argues against such vigilante “justice” and later helps them escape. They come across a boy, who takes them home to his mother, who has been abandoned by her husband. And she uses race to drive a wedge between the two, because she needs a man to look after her. There is not much, it must be admitted, in this film to like. The central premise should not be shocking or transgressive, and the responses of others to the two main characters throughout the film is deeply racist. True, the movies does comment – is itself a commentary – on those racist attitudes, but showing such things without actively presenting consequences seems to me a waste of time. Because, you know, there are people out there stupid enough not to see something bad in what they’re watching. All together, probably a film not worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

bike_thievesBicycle Thieves*, Vittorio De Sica (1948, Italy). I do like Italian Neorealist films, and this is considered an important work in the genre – an important work in Italian cinema, in fact – but I have to admit I didn’t much enjoy watching it. Chiefly because of its plot. An out-of-work man in post-WWII Rome is offered a job putting up posters, but he needs a bicycle to get the job. So his wife pawns the family heirloom linen to raise the money. But on his first day on the job, the man’s bike is stolen. And he spends the rest of the day trying to find it and its thief. Without success. Grinding poverty is a problem, but it is a structural problem in society. Certainly it’s fertile ground for drama, but such stories always to me imply that such conditions are either normal, inevitable or inescapable – and I disagree with all three conclusions. True, Italy after WWII was not in the best of places economically – but neither was the UK and it managed to create the NHS. The US, of course, was in a much better place – it profited from WWII – and it still treats its citizens like shit. Worse, certain of its citizens kill other ones if they try improve things for those who are not well off. All of which, however, has nothing to do with Bicycle Thieves. As mentioned previously, I like Italian Neorealist cinema, but I didn’t enjoy this particular example. Worth seeing, definitely, and certainly it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that’s as far as it goes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 692


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Moving pictures, #38

There’s probably another two or three of these posts to come before the year is out. I’ve yet to decide if I’ll carry on with them next year – I might choose to just write about a single film in a post, as I’ve done in previous years. We’ll see. Of course, there’s still a good 300+ films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But meanwhile…

sleep_bSleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959, USA). There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD, I seem to remember, and something about it persuaded me it would be worth watching. I might well have seen the film as a child, but I have no memory of it. A Blu-ray copy appeared in Amazon’s Black Friday sales, so I bought it. And… it’s probably one of the most Technicolor movies I’ve ever watched, second only to The Adventures Of Robin Hood. So, of course, I loved that about it. I also liked that the songs weren’t intrusive – the cast didn’t break into singing per se, the songs sort of grew out of the background music. And the style of the animation is that sort of stylised 1950s, er, style which I find much more appealing than the normal Disney style. So, despite the over-done Disney DVD cover, Sleeping Beauty is actually a gorgeous piece of animation. But, interestingly, it’s an odd take on the story, because it’s told through the viewpoints of three meddling middle-aged women, the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. They hide Princess Aurora from bad witch Maleficent, although, of course, fairy tale curses have a way of coming true… But that sleeping bit, it’s only like part of the final act, it’s the shape of Aurora’s life which is the backbone of the film. And it works really well. As does Maleficient’s actually quite scary transformation into a dragon when she tries to prevent Prince Philip from reaching the sleeping Aurora. Without watching all the other Disney animated features films, and going only on what I remember of them, I think I can safely say Sleeping Beauty is the best of them. Although I would like to watch The Jungle Book again…

nightofthecomet-bdNight of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt (1984, USA). I suspect this may be the most eighties film made during the eighties. I remember first seeing it in the mid-eighties on television – it was introduced by either Jonathan Ross or Alex Cox, as part of a cult film series, I forget which; but I’ve always fancied a copy of it… and then late last year Arrow released a dual-format edition. So I bought it. And… it’s pretty much how I remembered it and, as I mentioned earlier, so very eighties. It’s not just the soundtrack – little of which was actually familiar to me even though I remember much of the decade, although the songs did sound very much of the time. Nor the clothing. But I seem to remember Valley Girls appearing in several cult films at the time – the other one that springs to mind is Julien Temple’s Earth Girls are Easy – and the two main characters of this, played by Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, are pretty much perfect casting. There’s a sequence in the film which more or less defines it for me – and certainly proved the most memorable – and yet has nothing to do with zombies. (Oh yes, the plot is: a comet flies close to Earth, all those who did not spend the night in something with steel walls turned into dust… or a zombie.) Anyway, the two girls decide that since they’re now apparently the only inhabitants of Los Angeles they can do what they like… which includes trying out everything which takes their fancy in a department store – all to, of course, the strains of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Fun’. Anyway, the pair have their ups and downs, their moments of jeopardy, being rescued and as well as rescuing others – they’re good strong female leads… and it’s a shame films like Night of the Comet are not bettered remembered. Worth getting hold of.

early_cinemaThe Great Train Robbery*, Edison Manufacturing Company (1903, USA). To be honest, I don’t remember much about this – it was one of about twenty or so films on a DVD collection of early cinema, Primitives and Pioneers – a mixture of US, French and British movies, all of which were identified by the company which made them rather than the person who directed them. Some of them were quite good – ‘Explosion of a Motor Car’ by the Hepworth Manufacturing Company was pretty good, if surprisingly, and comically, gruesome. Some of the others were mere fragments. However, one thing which did stand out – and I suppose The Great Train Robbery is as good an example as any – was the desire by the film-makers to tell stories using this new medium. So rather than documenting the world around them, they staged little vignettes and scenarios. A train being robbed, a woman’s baby being stolen from its pram, even the use of fantasy (hand-coloured too) in some of the early French films. In fact, while there’s little to say about the movie which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the actual collection itself is totally worth watching.

blueBlue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche (2013, France). There was apparently some fuss when this won the Palme d’or at Cannes, although I was not aware of that until after I watched it. But having now read some of the criticisms of the film, I can understand what the critics meant. The film is based on a well-regarded French bande dessinée about a young woman’s sexual awakening and subsequent lesbian relationship with a blue-haired artist. And, of course, the homophobia she experiences – from family as well as school friends. Much has been made of the sex scenes in this film, and it’s certainly true they play far too… straight to be convincing. It’s hard to explain, and I’m no real position to judge the veracity (although plenty who are have said what I am about to), but they don’t ring true, in the same sort of way that sexual encounters in pornographic films don’t ring true as real sex. The two leads, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, are excellent, but the whole films still feels like a mistreatment of its source material and the lifestyle on which its source material – Julie Maroh’s 2010 Le bleu est une couleur chaude – is based. I can understand why the film has proven controversial, and I can’t help but agree with those who find fault with it. I’ve seen it now, but, you know, it wouldn’t have bothered me if I never had… and I can’t really recommend it to anyone.

happyHappy People, Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov (2010, Germany). The subtitle of this film, “A Year in the Taiga”, pretty much tells you all you need to know about this documentary. Assuming, of course, you know what “taiga” means. I admit it, I think Herzog is a genius, and while not all of his films are great, he’s never made a dull film. And that’s as true of Happy People as it is of any film he’s made, even if it’s just a documentary about the inhabitants of Bakhta, a small village in the middle of Siberia, which can only be reached by air or river (and the latter only during the summer when the river isn’t frozen solid). It’s a hard life that Herzog and Vasyukov document, but appealingly simple. True, the values and attitudes of the village’s residents are equally simple, but they seem to suit the lifestyle. There is, for example, one moment where one of the native Ket people accidentally burns down his house because he’d been drunk and left a cigarette burning. But he and his mother are more concerned about the loss of their home’s fetishes than anything else. There’s a sad overtone to much of the proceedings inasmuch as the Ket’s traditional lifestlye has been overwritten by the USSR, but the film’s title is no lie and all those involved seem to be inspiringly happy despite the hardship of their lives. Another charity shop find that’ll be a keeper, I think.

purpleThe Purple Rose of Cairo*, Woody Allen (1985, USA). I am not a fan of Woody Allen’s films. Actually, I can’t stand them. But this one was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I sort of had to watch it. (He has several – and far too many – films on the list.) From what I knew of the film, I guessed it would be less irritating than most of his oeuvre – he’s not in it, for a start. And the central premise sounded quite good: a character from a film steps out of a cinema screen and runs away with a lonely woman, only for the actor who plays the character to come searching for the pair. That description, however, proved somewhat incomplete. The woman, played by Mia Farrow, is a battered spouse. And she goes to the cinema to escape her husband as much as she does to watch movies. On the plus side, the idea of a character stepping out of a film, leaving the remainder of the movie’s cast to figure out how to proceed, is handled well and proves mildly amusing. The fish-out-of-water romance by the film character and Farrow is less amusing and trades a little on cliché. And when the actual actor turns up and proves to be self-centred and career-minded, well, that is an actual cliché. My opinion of Allen’s films remains completely unchanged having seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I still don’t understand why so many of his movies are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 688


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Moving pictures, #37

Only 315 movies to go and I’m done with the list. Unfortunately, not every film on it seems to be actually available – and the list does evolve – so it’s not like finishing it is, well, a death sentence. I should have a go at putting together my own, I suppose – although, to be fair, 1001 movies is a lot of movies – since I can think of a couple of dozen films which belong on the list much more than some of the Hollywood crap which actually does appear on it. (Quick plug here for my list 101 Films for a cineaste, and I really ought to do a part two and part three…)

odd_man_outOdd Man Out*, Carol Reed (1947, UK). This was an odd one (no pun intended). It was probably a Quota Quickie – it starred James Mason, who made his career in Quota Quickies during WWII (he was a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker) and is black-and-white. It is also about the IRA. Of course, the organisation is never named, and even the city in which the film takes place remains nameless (although a bus appears at one point with “Falls Road” on its sign). Mason plays the leader of a cell, who has been ordered to rob a mill. The robbery goes wrong, and the men are forced to hide out. Mason is shot and separated from the others, and tries to head back his girlfriend’s house, where he had been hiding for the past six months. In pretty much all respects, Odd Man Out is a straightforward noir film – except for the political angle. It makes for an odd disconnect. While the cast are presented as criminals, and they perform criminal acts, as is fairly common in noir, the fact they’re IRA gives their actions added weight. To be fair, the film doesn’t belabour the point, and while it makes much of its setting, Belfast, the sectarian angle is played down, probably wisely. Apparently Odd Man Out received a BAFTA for Best British Film in its year of release. On balance, it probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

ikuruIkiru*, Akira Kurosawa (1952, Japan). Ask anyone who knows very little abut Japanese cinema to name a Japanese director, and Kurosawa will probably be the most popular answer (so don’t go picking it on Pointless). I have over the years watched a number of Kurosawa’s films and, perversely, still like his Russian one best. I hadn’t really expected to like Ikiru, an early work, especially given the plot summary. A minor bureacrat, Watanabe, is given 12 months to live after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. Impressed by the enthusiasm of his department’s sole female member, a young woman, he starts spending time with her. But she resigns from the ministry, and soon after tires of his company. She tells Watanabe he needs to find a hobby. He decides to take a petition to convert an urban rubbish tip into a playground, and push it through all the government departments and get all the backing and signatures it needs, to make it happen. There’s a quite horrible scene at his funeral during which the local deputy mayor takes full credit for the playground, totally downplaying Watanabe’s contribution. A good film.

high_sierraHigh Sierra*, Raoul Walsh (1941, USA). I started watching this and wondered if I’d accidentally stuck a film on my rental list I’d already watched earlier in the year… but no, that earlier film was The Treasure of Sierra Madre which, like High Sierra, stars Humphrey Bogart, is in black-and-white, but otherwise bears no resemblance to it at all. On the other hand, I could have been confusing it with Angels with Dirty Faces, which stars the Humph as a bent lawyer, but I suspect it’s just all these noir films are beginning to blur together a bit… In this one, the Humph plays an ex-con who leads a robbery on a resort hotel. Though they plan it to the smallest detail, it all goes horribly wrong. Ida Lupino is good as the femme fatale. She had a fascinating career, incidentally – a Brit who moved to Hollywood, played in a number of noir films, before becoming one of Hollywood’s first female directors. (And Hedy Lamarr, a contemporary, held a patent for the maths used by torpedo guidance systems. Just compare those two with the current crop of Hollwood actresses…). The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die could do with having some noir trimmed from it.

black_narcussisBlack Narcissus*, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1946, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Archers for many years, and thought I had seen Black Narcissus years before – at least, I’m pretty sure I had – but I stuck on my rental list for a rewatch as it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And… yes, it’s the film I thought it was, and it’s also very much not the film I thought it was. It is deeply problematical – Jean Simmons in blackface as a young Indian woman; the whole colonialist attitude to the locals – but it is also a gorgeous-looking film, which is especially surprising as it was filmed entirely in a studio (even the model of the mountain-top monastery looks gorgeous). I recently rewatched the Archer’s The Red Shoes, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I had on previous viewings – and I expected much the same for Black Narcissus, a film I could admire, with very much an Archers’ look and feel, but something of a Sunday afternoon movie and soon forgotten… Except I actually really did find myself liking it. It’s pure melodrama, it’s colonialist melodrama, it is, as I’ve said, deeply problematical… but there’s also a faint whiff of knowingness to it, and a definite series of hints that its viewpoint is skewed (the local British agent, for example, is very much sceptical view of his role). It all adds up to something considerably more than a Sunday afternoon movie, and I wouldn’t mind watching it again…

shrinkingmanThe Incredible Shrinking Man*, Jack Arnold (1957, USA). I was taken to task for not liking this film much by a friend on FB. But I really couldn’t get excited about it. Not only does it have that B-movie moralistic voice-over, in which the whole film is presented as an object lesson because no one involved in making the film had enough confidence in the audience to get the point of it all, but the special effects may have been shocking in 1957 but seemed relatively humdrum in 2015. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a B-movie and nothing more, and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is either an acknowledgement that some B-movies have transcended their origins, or a completely mystery. I acknowledge the former, but incline to the latter in this case. The moralistic posturing in The Incredible Shrinking Man actually spoiled it for me, whereas I suspect a reliance on the pure visceral thrill of a tiny little man fighting a GIANT SPIDER might have given the film more authority in its central premise. Despite it s appearance on the list, this is a B-movie, it looked like a B-movie, it played like a B-movie, and its presence on the list is not enough for it to magically transcend its B-movie origins.

hitchcock2Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock (1966, USA). Among the first DVDs I bought when the format appeared was a pair of Alfred Hitchcock collections. I replaced both of these with Blu-ray editions during a recent Amazon Prime Day, and have been slowly working my way through them – rewatches all, of course. I’ve not bothered mentioning them in these Moving pictures posts because they’re films I first saw decades ago, and have rewatched several times since. But I thought it worth writing about Torn Curtain for a number of reasons. It’s considered minor Hitchcock despite its high-powered stars (who were apparently forced on Hitch by the studio), but it’s also an odd film even within Hitch’s oeuvre. It’s set mostly in Europe – I was dead chuffed, for example, on my first visit to Copenhagen when I spotted the Hotel’d’Angleterre, which appears in this film – and it is a surprisingly European film for a major Hollywood player. Paul Newman is a US scientist who fakes a defection to the East so he can steal some formulae from an East German rocket scientist; Julie Andrews plays his wife, who inadvertently gets herself involved in the whole plot. I had forgotten how wonderfully Technicolor Torn Curtain is, and how surprisingly unpretentious it is. The fight scene between the Stasi agent and Paul Newman, which takes place in total silence, I pastiched in one of my novels I liked it so much. The pair’s trip across East Germany to a contact who will smuggle them into the West is resolutely ordinary, with weird moments of humour interrupting the jeopardy. I actually liked the film a lot more than I had done afterprevious viewings. And yes, it was totally worth replacing my DVD copies with Blu-ray ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 686


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Moving pictures, #36

Of the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die, 533 are from the US. That’s not an exact figure, of course – these days, with film production companies from different nations often doing deals to back a movie, it makes it difficult to say a movie is categorically from one nation or another. Even so, for over half of the list – which, admittedly, is clearly aimed at Anglophone film-goers – to be from a single country is a bit much. And, as I’ve discovered, a lot of the US movies just aren’t really that good.

For the record, France scores next highest, with 102 movies; then it’s the UK at 82; then Italy at 42; Germany at 33; Japan 26; USSR/Russia 19; Australia and Sweden 13 each; Hong Kong 12; and Spain and India with 10 apiece. The countries of the rest of the world have less than ten films each on the list.

Think about that: India, which Wikipedia describes as “the largest producer of films in the world”, provides only 1% of the list – and of those ten movies, four are by Satyajit Ray and two by Ritwik Ghatak (both of whom have been critically lauded in the West), one is a silent (and actually by German director Franz Osten), and only three are Bollywood. There is also a single film from Egypt – the largest film producer of the Arabic-speaking world (three-quarters of all Arabic-language films were made in Egypt). While I will admit the only Bollywood films I have seen are two of the three on the list – and I really liked Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge – but I have seen a number of Arabic films – I’m a big fan of Palestinian director Elia Sulieman – though not very many from Egypt.

But then the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list seems to be a weird mix of populist movies and popular auteur films. Some directors appear far too often, some not often enough. There are some films which are historically important, and some which display innovative cinematic techniques. But a good many of the movies on the list really don’t deserve to be on it, and there are far better, and more important, choices the list-makers could have chosen…

And as if in illustration, this post features four US movies from the list, none of which rightly belongs on it.

phantom_carriageThe Phantom Carriage*, Victor Sjöström (1921, Sweden). I can appreciate films that are clearly important in the development of cinema, and while they may prove difficult viewing to present-day audiences, it does not usually take too much of a leap of imagination to realise how the film might have played to a contemporary audience. And so to The Phantom Carriage. I suspect “Pepper’s ghost” was an illusion not unfamiliar to audiences in the 1920s, but to see the cinematic equivalent – double exposure – no doubt impressed because of the newness of the medium. And it’s certainly used to good effect in this film. The story itself is a typical piece of Gothic hokum, although it makes extensive use of flashbacks – which is certainly daring in a silent film. I suspect this is a movie which will need a couple of watches to fully appreciate. Worth seeing.

orphicTestament of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau (1960, France). I really like Cocteau’s Orpheus, the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy, although I wonder how coherent a trilogy the three films make. Testament of Orpheus, for example, is actually Cocteau revisiting the themes and motifs of Orpheus, but without actually bothering with plot, characters or anything else so bourgeois. None of which is especially a bad thing. But Orpheus has the advantage of subtext – one that the film actually makes text at certain points – which is the German Occupation of France. And Testament of Orpheus often turns to the surrealist imagery of The Blood of a Poet, and fails to make good use of it in the context of its story. Cocteau has been travelling through time, but materialises in 1959 and persuades a scientist to kill him with a special gun so that he can remain permanently in that time. But it doesn’t go as planned, and Cocteau finds himself halfway between the real world and a fantasy world in which elements of Orpheus appear – including its characters. There’s plenty of dream-logic at work, which is heightened by the use of camera tricks such as filming in reverse. The use of a sound-stage and assorted ruins as sets only adds to the meta-fictional nature of the film. It’s a talky movie, more concerned with philosophy than drama, which makes for slow viewing. But it’s also a clever film, and makes some witty points about the medium of film and even poetry. I still prefer Orpheus, but this one comes a close second.

glenn_gouldThirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould*, François Girard (1993, Canada). I knew nothing about this film or its subject before watching it. I don’t listen to classical music, and wouldn’t know one eighteenth century composer’s works from another’s. But good documentaries make you care for their subject irrespective of any actual interest you might have had previously. And in that respect Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould succeeds admirably. It is helped by two factors: one, its subject is actually an interesting person, and two, it has chosen to document its topic in an unusual mannner. Glenn Gould was a renowned concert pianist from Canada, but also an insightful and prolific commentator on a number of topics. The film is structured, as its title suggests, as a series of short movies about Gould, ranging from fly-on-the-wall to talking heads to weird animation. And it totally works. Hunt down a copy and watch it.

ballad_narayamThe Ballad of Narayama*, Shohei Imamura (1983, Japan). There are some films that are clearly well-made, admirable even, but something about the story prevents you from liking them. Such is the case with The Ballad of Narayama. It is a nasty, horrible film. Albeit a well-made one. It’s set in a small village in nineteenth century Japan. It is the practice in the village for old people when they reach the age of seventy to walk to a nearby mountain and remain there until they starve to death. And if they won’t go voluntarily… One old woman is approaching her seventieth birthday, and much of the film is about her family as they scrabble to survive in poverty. She has decided she will go with dignity, and so spends her last year arranging her affairs. The various characters are mostly mean and despicable. One smells so bad, no one will have anything to do with him. A young woman with a burn scar on her face will happily sleep with any man, and is treated badly them by all as a result. One man has already tried starving his old father, in an effort to encourage him to head for the mountain. I really didn’t like this film, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.

short_cutsShort Cuts*, Robert Altman (1993, USA). Altman appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list six times – as well as Short Cuts, there’s The Player, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe And Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H. There’s perhaps one that actually belongs there – I’d vote for McCabe And Mrs Miller. Short Cuts, however, is one of those films were a number of intersecting stories sort of, er, intersect and er, prove, well, nothing really. The cast list is impressive, as is indeed the case for most Altman films. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of small stories which cross and intersect , which seems to be an Altman thing, but I can’t barely remember the details – and I suspect some of them I’ve confused with The Player. The problem is that all the stories seem little more than scenes in a larger story, when in fact there is no larger story. So you’ve no real idea what the point of the film is, or what happened to beginning, middle and end. I am all for non-traditional narrative structures, but a braided narrative is hardly non-traditional and for it  to be effective it really needs to be put to good use. Meh.

how_greenHow Green Was My Valley*, John Ford (1941, USA). Because of a little thing called World War II, this movie about a small mining village in Wales was actually filmed in California. And in black and white – so the difference wouldn’t be too obvious. Hollywood apparently also had a problem casting actors who could manage a Welsh accent, as most of the cast sound more Irish than Welsh. Except for male lead Walter Pidgeon. He didn’t even try, he just sounds American. Unbelievably, How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars in its year of release, beating out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion to Best Picture, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Best Director, and also taking home Best Supporting Actor, Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction. And yet it’s sentimental tosh. It reminded me in many ways of The Quiet Man – another John Ford film starring Maureen O’Hara – whose high regard I find mystifying. I’ve no idea what How Green Was My Valley‘s source novel is like – I imagine it has plenty of social commentary, which Hollywood has buried beneath layers of schmaltz. And yes, there’s lots of singing…

Artists___ModelsArtists and Models*, Frank Tashlin (1955, USA). I don’t believe this is actually available on DVD – I ended up buying a ripped version of it on eBay for a couple of quid (the seller sent me You’re Never Too Young, another Martin & Lewis film, by mistake, then told me to keep it and sent the right movie). There are many films – and this is becoming an all too common refrain – whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. It’s possible to make a case for Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man – it’s an awful comedy, but the way the camera pulls back and reveals the set as a giant doll’s house is innovative. But I can see nothing in Artists and Models which makes the film in any way interesting or important. Martin plays an out-of-work artist, and Lewis is his comicbook-fan friend. It turns out the artist responsible for Lewis’s favourite character, Bat Lady, lives in their apartment building (her friend, Shirley MacLaine, is the model for Bat Lady). When the artist resigns, Martin applies for the job, using a character invented by Lewis – who dreams the stories, and describes them aloud while sleeping. I find Lewis’s OTT gurning hard to take at the best of times, and he’s in full flow in this movie. Martin is much more watchable – but stick to the Matt Helm films if you want to see him in action. Not a good film.

cabaretCabaret*, Bob Fosse (1972, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz had taken me by surprise – I had not expected to like it as much as I did. Cabaret, I thought I knew more about. I am fairly sure, for one thing, that I have seen the film before, although most likely only in snippets over the past few decades. Sadly, despite my familiarity with bits of it I didn’t take to Cabaret very much. Possibly because Liza Minelli’s character I found annoying, and because it’s impossible to take Michael York seriously as an actor. The musical scenes at the Kit Kat Club were well-staged, although Joel Grey’s emcee was creepily over-the-top. One of All That Jazz‘s strengths was its meta-fictionality, the fact it was a film about making a film, based quite heavily on Fosse’s own experiences – and the final extended dance sequence was the perfect capstone to the high-intensity story which had preceded it. Cabaret, on the other hand, is a straightforward drama enlivened by musical numbers, and not even Minelli, the movie’s setting or its score lifted it for me above other films of its ilk. All That Jazz rightly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’m less convinced Cabaret does.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 681