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Moving pictures, #69

The last Moving pictures post of 2016 (although it’s appearing in 2017), and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact I wrote 69 of these bloody things in twelve months. While I didn’t write about every film I watched, at 6 films on average per post, that’s still a big whole pile of movies. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and some of them became favourites. Most of them I’m at least glad I watched. Let’s hope the same can be said during 2017.

last_tangoLast Tango in Paris*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1972, France). I’m still convinced Bertolucci is just a gifted copyist, and Last Tango in Paris is just Bertolucci doing Nouvelle Vague, but with some very dodgy sex scenes. Okay, so the first clue is Marlon Brando as the male lead, an actor whose appeal continues to mystify me and whose adoption by Hollywood is quite baffling. The only thing to be said in his favour is he has shown a little more critical acumen than his colleagues in choosing the projects he worked on… But Last Tango in Paris is a blot on his copybook. It’s an “erotic drama”, which means there’s lots of simulated sex – and all involved have repeatedly insisted it was simulated – but lots of dodgy sexual politics. Even for 1972. Brando plays an American in Paris who owns a run-down hotel and whose wife has just committed suicide. He falls in with Maria Schneider, a carefree twentysomething Parisian. They have hot sex. Brando sets the rules and gets unreasonably angry when Schneider breaks them – sexual politics, 1972-style. There are lots of intense close-ups, New Wave style, and even that bit where Brando taps Schneider on one shoulder then pops around the other, doesn’t Azanvour do that in Tirez sur le pianiste or am I misremembering? The film sparked controversy on its release, but was a critical and commercial success. I’ve always known of it, of course, it’s like the first big mainstream “dirty” film that everyone of my generation knows about; the second is 9½ Weeks, which I saw back in the 1980s and I’m sure would be a major disappointment if I ever rewatched it. Of course, whatever reputation might have attached to Last Tango in Paris as far as a callow youth was concerned, that no longer holds true for me, and I took the film as I found it. And having seen it, and read up on the actual controversy regarding its making – it pretty much destroyed Schneider, those simulated sex scenes were as near as dammit to rape… it’s hard to consider it worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. To be honest, Andrzej Żuławski does it much better with l’amour fou as a theme, and at least manages such stories in a style all his own… Bertolucci, on the other hand, is a bit of chameleon, and while he certainly has an excellent eye – I’m thinking of both The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, but there are many good shots in Last Tango in Paris – I’m not convinced the sum of Last Tango in Paris‘s good bits outweigh the extensive and less than salubrious baggage it carries.

flowers_shanghaiFlowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1998, Taiwan). So I bought this “box set” – it was five DVDs in a cardboard box – because I wanted to see two of the films in it. But having now watched four of them, I’ve become a bit of a Hou fan, because he really is very good. Flowers of Shanghai is the most gorgeous-looking for Hou films I’ve seen so far, with perhaps the exception of The Assassin. The film takes place in four late nineteenth century brothels in Shanghai, and is divided into four sections, each named for the central courtesan of that section: Crimson, Pearl, Jasmine and Jade. The film chiefly consists of a static camera focusing on a group of people, courtesans and their most frequent patrons, and so telling the story of their lives and the realtionships between them, some of which are defined by those patrons. Plot-wise, it’s perhaps not the most gripping of stories, but if there’s one thing my travels in Hou territory have taught me it’s that he prefers to lay out his story in the incidentals. The dialogue defines the relationships between the characters, the mide en scène defines the setting, and the story comes out of the interplay between the two. So it’s just as well that Hou scores so highly on presenting his mise en scène, it is in fact one of his strengths as a director. He frames gorgeous shots because he has set up gorgeous shots – and Flowers of Shanghai shows that off to an impressive extent. I’m still not entirely sure why I bought the Hou “boxed set”, given that I’d only seen one of Hou’s films before, but it was a wise purchase. I now count myself a fan of his work and plan to purchase everything else he made – because, of course, only two or three are actually available for rental in the UK…

the_pastThe Past, Asghar Farhadi (2013, France). And from a new director I now admire to… well, Farhadi’s About Elly is a brilliant film, a clever drama/thriller and wholly Iranian. I loved it the moment I saw it back in 2013. His Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation were also very good. But The Past is, well, it’s not an Iranian film. It’s a French film. And it suffers as a result. It’s about Iranian immigrants in France, but their concerns, the plot, is all the sort of stuff that would drive a French film. I know the immigrant experience is important, and that documenting it is not only worthwhile but important… But, to a non-native eye I freely admit, The Past did seem to resemble more the experiences of non-immigrants than immigrants. If that makes sense. Perhaps it was a sense that the, er, sensibility seemed suited to the language and setting, when the nationality of the director and cast suggested it should have been otherwise. I firmly believe cinema is a powerful tool for documenting life across the planet, in all its manifest forms, in all its various societies and communities. That’s why I treasure world cinema. It provides an insider’s view. I’m not interested in a French-style drama that just happens to be made by an Iranian director and happens to feature a cast of Iranian extraction, because I’m more interested in seeing life as experienced by Iranians, yes, even Iranians living in France. Perhaps I’m doing The Past a great disservice, perhaps I’m completely missing a huge part of this film, but I’ve seen a number of Iranian films and I’ve seen a number of French films and to my eye this smelt like a French film. Which is not to it was a bad film – Farhadi is bloody good, after all – but I do prefer Iranian cinema to French cinema, and would rather this film had tended to the former than the latter…

meshesMeshes of the Afternoon*, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid (1943, USA). Most discussions of avant garde cinema often focus on US avant garde cinema, possibly because most European avante garde film-makers went on to become commercially successful, such as Luis Buñuel. And of those US avant garde films, Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943 is generally noted as one of the most seminal. While on the one hand the experimental films of Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage might fit into the commonly-held view of the history of cinema – it was the 1960s! everyone experimented! – but no one really expects the same of two decades earlier. Common sense dictates there must have been people experimenting with film in the 1940s just as much as there were in the 1960s (for the all the latter decades reputation for experimentation, etc.), but popular history tends to elide such experiments. Meshes of the Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is one such experiment whose reputation has withstood the test of time. I found a decent copy of Youtube and watched it there. And watching it, well, there’s a lot of Lynch in there, or rather, Lynch was clearly influenced by this film, if not others by Deren. A woman dreams about a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She follows it along a path, but loses it. She returns home and finds a key. The key morphs into a knife. There are several versions of her sitting at a table. She sees the hooded figure in her bedroom. Some of this is a dream, some of this seems to be a re-enactment of something she dreamed. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about avant garde cinema, and its history, in order to understand why Meshes of the Afternoon is considered so important. It’s good, certainly; but I’ve no way of judging its historical importance. Given the year… although Buñuel’s Un chien Andalou was released in 1929… there’s clearly some early importance there, and Deren went on to make more films and lecture extensively in film-making. Some of Deren’s other films are available on Youtube – I’ve watched one, At Land, already – and I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring… But with Benning, Bailie, Brakhage and now Deren & Hammid, this is obviously an area of cinema I need to spend a bit more time on…

good_menGood Men, Good Women, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1995, Taiwan). That’s the last of the “box set”, so now I’ll have to get me some more Hou DVDs. This is the third film in Hou’s Taiwanese History trilogy, which also includes A City of Sadness (not seen) and The Puppetmaster (see here). Like the second, and possibly the first, it’s a biopic, this time about Chiang Bi-Yu, who left Taiwan in the 1940s to fight the Japanese in mainland China, and after WWII returns to Taiwan, becomes a communist and so comes into conflict with the Kuomintang regime. The film depicts Chiang’s life in black-and-white, but is interspersed with sections in colour documenting the life of the actress who plays Chiang in the film that is Good Men, Good Women… And I have to wonder if this is where Stanley Kwan got the idea for the structure of Center Stage (see here). Both are great films, of course; and it’s no surprise that China, and other areas speaking languages of the Chinese family, should produce movies that are more than kung fu actioners or gorgeous wu xia spectacles, but we rarely get to learn that over here in the UK… So mark both those films down on your list as superior films – even if, er, they’re not actually available in the UK or US.

ride_lonesomeRide Lonesome*, Budd Boeticher (1959, USA). I couldn’t find a copy of this in the UK or US, so ended up buying a rip from someone on eBay because the film had passed out of copyright. Fortunately, it proved to be a good transfer – to be fair, most these days for sale on eBay are pretty good transfers. And as I started watching Ride Lonesome I sort of understood why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but then the further into the film I got the less I understood why it had earned its place on the list. Partly that was down to Randolph Scott, the star, who seems a pretty solid centre around which to plot a Western story, but he does, well, have an unfeasibly big head, in fact, he looks a bit like a puppet. Some actors make great Western heroes – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart… Randolph Scott just seems proportioned wrong. As for the story… He plays a bounty hunter, taking a killer to Santa Cruz, Arizona, to be hung. They stop off en route at a desert rest-stop – and the scenes set in and around that are lovely to look at and well played – and pick up a pair of freebooters, and the rest-stop’s widowed female owner, as companions. All of which leads to complications later. The story is not much, but this is a Western. The desert scene cinematography is very good, and I’d love to have seen it in full-on restored Technicolor. Later scenes, in landscape more familiar from Western television series, were less impressive. And the story’s final twist was not quite as unexpected as the story had suggested it might be. A good Western, I suspect, although I’m not so sure it deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 842


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Moving pictures, #68

Half of the films in this post are from the US, but then one of them I did actually see at the cinema. It’s become a bit of a tradition over the last decade to go see something at the cinema during the Christmas holiday, and that usually means something genre and very commercial… like Star Wars. And this year, it was Rogue One.

20462046, Wong Kar-Wai (2004, China). I bought this years ago, along with In the Mood for Love, when they were originally released in the UK on DVD – both as special editions in cardboard sleeves. I’ve no idea why. Somewhere I’d come across the director’s name, possibly in Sight & Sound, and picked up his two latest films… and while I’d clearly liked them enough to hang onto the DVDs, I’d not rewatched them until recently. And… my, 2046 is gloriously self-indulgent, isn’t it? It rehashes the plot of In the Mood for Love, with the same actors, but set in the titular year. Kar-Wai sets his scene through the use of neon-soaked montages, a combination of special effects and live photography, and it’s very effective. The actual set dressing is a little dated, although clearly not meant as an entirely serious attempt to present a real 2046 CE. Certainly 2046 is one of those films that doesn’t so much tell a story as provide a feast for the eyes. I’ll be hanging onto my copies of In the Mood for Love and 2046, I think. I also need to watch more Wong Kar-Wai, I think.

400_days400 Days, Matt Osterman (2015, USA). Some films look good on paper, but fail to live up to their promise. This is a classic example – although it tries hard. Four astronauts are consigned to a simulated space mission for the eponymous period of time in an underground replica of a spacecraft. Rather than build a simulator in a nice controllable environment, like an aircraft hangar, which is what most actual experiments of this type do, in the film they bury their fake spacecraft in a field in the middle of nowhere… Despite this, it all goes well for about 200 days. Then they start to turn psychotic, but that turns out to be caused by a fault in the environmental system. Then someone breaks into the “spacecraft”, and they lose touch with “mission control”. So they climb out of their simulator… and discover a post-apocalyptic world. Apparently, while they were on their mission, an asteroid hit the moon, and a vast quantity of pulverised moon dust dropped into earth’s atmosphere, causing a nuclear winter. However, two of the astronauts think this is all part of the simulation. The other two are not so sure. The film doesn’t resolve itself either way. 400 Days tries hard, but never quite convinces. The simulator in no way resembles a realistic spacecraft, and burying it in a field is just daft. The final scenes try so hard not to resolve the set-up, they end up setting a completely different tone to what’s gone before. This is a film that wants its cake and to eat it too, but manages neither. Avoidable.

death_lazarescuThe Death of Mr Lazarescu, Cristin Puiu (2005, Romania). Some films, on the other hand, don’t work on paper, and should not work on the screen – but somehow manage to. This is a classic example. An old man with a drink problem and past medical problems needs to go to hospital because he feels ill, but gets taken from hospital to hospital – in Bucharest – by the ambulance, because none of the hospitals will accept him. This is a black comedy. Ten years from now, it could be reality. In the UK. Thanks to scumbag Tories. Lazarescu complains of an upset stomach, and blames it on a prior condition. It gets more serious, his neighbours get involved, an ambulance is called for. And then the ambulance, and the paramedic who is taking care of Lazarescu, is bounced from hospital to hospital. Because he drinks, he is seen as less deserving of medical care – and since when did lifestyle become a barrier to healthcare? What next? Skin colour? Nationality? True, drinkers are more likely to suffer from certain conditions – but that doesn’t make drinking the cause of everything they might suffer. And healthcare for all is healthcare for all. Romania was, nominally, a socialist nation, but seriously who thinks the Ceaucescus were an actual socialist regime? Which is not in the slightest bit relevant, as Romania has an apparently quite efficient health service, it just failed the title character in this case – and more for effect, I hope, than an actual representation of the current state of affairs. Despite that, a good film and definitely worth seeing.

rogue_oneStar Wars: Rogue One, Gareth Edwards (2016, USA). Unlike The Force Awakens, I went into Rogue One with no particular preconceptions – this was not a prequel or sequel or midquel, it was a story set in the same universe as the two Star Wars trilogies. Except, of course, it turned out to be a midquel – although it retconned details I hadn’t even known, given that I’m supremely uninterested in EU Star Wars… Anyway, I took Rogue One as I found it, and I even sort of ignored the various moment of fan service as the sort of dumb frills the story didn’t need but the marketing department had insisted on including. And, as a result… it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, by any means. But it wasn’t bad. A science officer who walked away from the empire is tracked down and forced back to work – building the Death Star. Because, of course, the Death Star could only be designed by one man. But his daughter escaped and has become a bit of a freebooter. But now the rebels want her because she’s a link with an extremist group led by Forrest Whitaker and he has an Imperial pilot who has defected and wants to deliver a message to the Rebel Alliance. The message is from the science officer. Cue reluctant hero, lots of heavy-handed Imperial enforcement, and some eye-popping visuals. But, as with all of the Star Wars films, the story logic falls down in several places. We’re supposed to believe the science officer deliberately built a flaw into the Death Star (you know, that bit at the end of the first ever Star Wars film), but, well, couldn’t he have made it a bit fucking easier? And then there’s the Empire’s love of “master switches”, which are usually sited in some totally random place because of course where else would you put it? And an archive of technical plans that isn’t accessible over the network? What use is it, then? It’s like something out of an IBM catalogue from 1988. And how come the rebels could talk to the ships in orbit through the shield, but they couldn’t beam the data out? How does that work? Oh wait, made-up bollocks. Of course. In hindsight, The Force Awakens feels like a canny way to open Disney’s management of the franchise – a giant cheese-fest of fan service with a plot that reiterates the original, and parades all those beloved favourites in all their aged glory across the screen – because, hey, cultural icons turn wrinkly too, or rather, that actors who play them, and get paid to do so, turn wrinkly and, sadly, die. Which, also sadly, ties back into Rogue One and its two turns by CGI actors – Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, and a young Carrie Fisher, who even more sadly died only last month. Neither looked quite real – close enough to be very creepy, anyway. I suspect Rogue One is a good example of what we can expect from Disney in the Star Wars universe: feature-film-length episodes of a long-running series, with a story arc that retcons itself and tangles itself up so completely as it progresses that by 2050 it’s not going to make the slightest bit of sense to even the most ardent of Star Wars nerd. Still, who knows, by then we could have moved past post-truth to a post-narrative world…

red_queenThe Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Emilio Miraglia (1972, Italy). Is this a giallo? I think this is a giallo. Although it’s more like supernatural horror than a detective story. Two sisters, one blonde and one brunette, do not get on. The blonde accidentally kills the brunette, as you do, when they’re teenagers. Many years later, the father dies and his will is held in probate for a year. Because there’s a family legend that the Red Queen will return and kill seven family members, and look!, people are getting murdered in horrible ways. All the clues seem to point to the brunette sister, who everyone has insisted is living somewhere in the US, but yup, her body is still down in the cellar, where the two surviving sisters hid it. There’s a twist, of course, maybe even two or three. To be honest, I only watched this a couple of days ago as I write this and I’m having trouble remembering the details. Barbara Bouchet, as the blonde sister, is very watchable, but it must have been about two-thirds into the film before I even noticed it was set in Germany (everyone speaks Italian, of course). It’s all very silly, one of those films pretty much defined by the bright-red fake blood they use on, er, films of this type. The final scene, in which Bouchet is trapped in a room in the cellars which begins to fill with water – deliberately, it’s a trap – is a cleare reference to The Phantom of the Opera, or perhaps to one of the zillions of films which ripped off the idea from The Phantom of the Opera, but it does make you wonder why they built a room in the cellars of the castle that could be filled with water… A fun night in, providing alcohol is involved.

bad_dayBad Day at Black Rock*, John Sturges (1955, USA). This is apparently not available on DVD in the UK or US, which is a surprise. Fortunately, someone on eBay was selling a Korean copy they’d bought for a cheap price – not that I realised it was a Korean release until I received it. But it was an excellent transfer – and it need to be, because this is Technicolor in all its, er, technicolour glory. The film is set in 1946. Spencer Tracy plays a stranger who appears at titular town, looking for a Japanese man. The locals don’t take kindly to his questions. But that’s because they killed the Japanese man during the war, because he was Japanese and they are racist. Parts of the plot of Bad Day at Black Rock were very reminiscent of Rio Bravo from 1959, although that would require a temporal paradox, and, to be fair, the plot of Rio Bravo was so good Howard Hawks used it at least three times himself. However, the film that Bad Day at Black Rock most reminded me of was Violent Saturday, another Technicolor thriller and absolutely gorgeous to see, although Bad Day at Black Rock‘s desert scenery didn’t really lend itself to the format. But it’s a good thriller, sort of noir without being noir, and looks great, even if some of its performances are a bit over-egged (Ernest Borgnine, for example). Some of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die I’ve had to buy legal rips or foreign-language DVDs because they’re not available in the UK or US… and most, I’ve no desire to keep. But this one is a keeper. A good film.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 839


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Moving pictures, #67

An entirely world cinema Moving pictures: six films, six different countries… and not a single Anglophone one among the lot. Admittedly, as the DVD cover art below indicates, three of the films were from a single box set, the Criterion Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 1, which is definitely worth getting. (No volume 2 has appeared yet, however.)

world_cinemaDry Summer, Metin Erksan (1964, Turkey). During a drought, the tobacco farmer on whose land the local spring can be found decides to keep all the water for his own crops. So he blocks off the irrigation ditches – it all looks like some sort of falaj system – to the other farmers’ fields. Obviously, they’re not happy about this. Nor is the farmer’s younger brother. There are fights, the farmers without water kill the dog of the farmer with water, the falaj is repeatedly attacked and its sluices broken. For all that the film repeats its simple story, and the story is clearly a metaphor for greater struggles, it works well and doesn’t feel stretched or over-long at ninety minutes. Dry Summer apparently won awards at both Berlin and Venice film festivals, and was submitted to the Oscars but not nominated. (Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won.) I’ve seen a few recent Turkish art house films, but this was my first experience of mid-twentieth century Turkish cinema – although not, I suspect, popular Turkish cinema of the time. Worth seeing.

xlXL, Marteinn Thorsson (2013, Iceland). This doesn’t appear to have been released on DVD – I saw it on Amazon Prime – which is a shame, as it’s a pretty good film and worth seeing. Leifur is a member of the Icelandic parliament. He’s also an alcoholic and a womaniser, with a history of public drunken incidents. After his last escapade, starting a fight at a performance art thing, the prime minister tells him he must go into rehab. Leifur resists. The film is told in non-chronological order, with flashbacks and montages, which sort of mimic Leifur’s own drunken memories of his adventures. Because Leifur is a MP, there are several scenes filmed in the area around Reykjavik’s Parliament House… which is a couple of hundred metres away from the Icecon 2016 venue, and the hotel where I stayed… So that was cool, seeing a bit of Reykjavik I actually knew. XL is pretty brutal in depicting Leifur’s antics and their effect on his family and friends. He’s completely in denial, which only makes matters worse. The jump cuts and montages don’t make for easy viewing, and occasionally feel a little overdone, but they certainly help embed the film in Leifur’s POV – and, in fact, there are several scenes, including the opening, which are actually shot from Leifur’s POV. Worth seeing.

onibabaOnibaba*, Kaneto Shindo (1964, Japan). In forteenth-century Japan, two women live alone in a hut in a meadow of thick reeds. Two soldiers fleeing a battle make their way among the reeds. The women kill them, take their arms and armour, and then throw the bodies into a deep hole in the meadow. The women’s neighbour returns from fighting and admits that the husband of the younger of the two women did not survive. Some samurai enter the reeds, and are killed and robbed by the women. The neighbour and the young woman start a secret sexual relationship. A samurai in a demon mask appears. The older woman kills him. The woman wears the mask to scare her daughter away from the neighbour. After being caught out in a downpour, the woman cannot remove the mask. She reveals herself to her daughter, and the two of them try to remove the mask. Eventually, they succeed, but the older woman’s face is covered in weeping sores… The simplicity of the setting – reeds, rude huts, deep hole – works well with the stark black and white photography. The demon’s appearances (whichn it’s the old woman) are staged well, if a little over-theatrical. A good film, worth seeing.

goodbye_southGoodbye South, Goodbye, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1996, Taiwan). I’ve mentioned Hou’s soundtracks before, but this has the best one I’ve heard so far. It’s a mix of techno and rock, and there’s probably more music in this film than there is dialogue. Not that the film needs much in the way of dialogue anyway. A pair of Taiwanese low-lifes get involved with gangsters when they set up a gambling den in Pingxi. This is only first in a series of schemes of dubious legality intended to make the pair money, all of which fail to do so. There are several performances by the nightclub singer girlfriend of one of the pair, and a number of dialogue scenes set in cars as the pair drive about Taipei. There’s not much in the way of plot here – not that there was in Hou’s The Boys from Fengkuei – just a string of incidents that blur one into the other. As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is excellent, and the cinematography is very much like that in Hou’s other films, with lots of static long shots, often with odd choices for camera placement. I now want more of Hou’s films on DVD.

world_cinemaTrances, Ahmed El Maamouni (1981, Morocco). Apparently, the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project began when Scorsese was working on one of his films in 1981 and he saw Trances on TV. He loved it so much, he tracked down the distributor and director, and arranged for the film to remastered… and here it is, on DVD and Blu-ray (US-only, sadly), in a box set with five other films. And unlike those other films, it’s a documentary. It’s about a Moroccan band called Nass el Ghiwane, which started life in avant garde political theatre, but, at the time of filming, tours the country playing Moroccan folk music (chaabi), and apparently kicked off a new social movement. The film mixes concert footage, interviews with band members and fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s a film that fascinates due to its topic rather than the way it was put together, although I suspect that’s an occupational hazard for all documentary films. I can understand why Scorsese was attracted to it, as it’s especially good at capturing a moment, and a movement, encapsulated and defined by the music of Nass el Ghiwane. A good film.

world_cinemaTouki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambéty (1973, Senegal). And another from the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, this time from Senegal. I’ve seen Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé, another Senegalese film, which is excellent, but Touki Bouki is a very different film. It’s about men, for a start, and not women – in particular, one young man, and his girlfriend, who dream of a better life, but have neither the money nor the ambition to better their lot. Eventually, they steal some money from a rich man, and use it to buy passage to France. But the man finds he can’t leave, and his girlfriend goes on without him. This is a very brightly-coloured film, especially in the scenes which show animals being slaughtered for food, and which makes them particularly gruesome. I had to look away, they’re far more graphic than you’d see depicted in a film these days. Despite that, it’s a good film and I’ll probably be watching it again in 2017.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 838


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Moving pictures, #66

A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.

center_stageCenter Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.

before_revolutionBefore the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.

lady_trampLady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.

boys_fengkueiThe Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…

ghostbustersGhostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.

world_cinemaThe Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837


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Moving pictures, #65

In this post, a new nation joins the roster of countries from which I’ve now seen films: Burkina Faso. I really need to get more of those Great African Films DVDs, as I do like films from African countries – as much for the variety as for what they reveal of life in the various nations on the continent. Other than the Burkina Faso movie, only the two US directors were unknown to me (and one of them turned out to be a Brit, anyway).

preciousPrecious, Lee Daniels (2009, USA). This is on another list, rather than the one I’ve been using for the past two years. And it wouldn’t otherwise be the sort of film that would interest me. The title refers to the central character, an overweight black teenage girl with learning difficulties, a physically abusive mother, and a child with Down Syndrome (who actually lives with the girl’s grandmother) fathered by her own father. The film is adaptation of a novel, Push, by Sapphire, and it’s pretty grim stuff. The mother is especially horrible, subjecting Precious to a litany of verbal and mental abuse, and the occasional moment of violence, throughout the film. Precious herself is an innocent, completely unable to see a way out of her circumstances. But then she’s given a place at an alternative school, and she begins to open up… in the process revealing her mother’s behaviour toward her and that her child is the product of incest (oh, and she’s pregnant once again, also incestuous, when the movie opens). The book’s prose apparently reflects Precious’s improved command of language as she attends the alternative school, but the voiceover narrative doesn’t make this especially clear. The film has been accused of throwing a bit too much at the protagonist, and although there’s a clear arc toward some sort of happy ending, it is pretty heavy-handed. Still, that’s what drama does…

american_history_xAmerican History X, Tony Kaye (2009, USA). Another film that’s on another list, but this one was also free to watch on Amazon Prime so… To be honest, the story of the making of the film is more interesting than the story of the film. In American History X, Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi who goes to prison after viciously murdering two black guys, sees the errors of his ways after being sexually assaulted by another neo-Nazi in the showers and spending time working alongside a black guy who was imprisoned for six years for stealing a TV. On his release, Norton tries to prevent his younger brother, who has fallen under the spell of the same neo-Nazi guru Norton had, from following in his footsteps. These days, neo-Nazis get upset when they’re called neo-Nazis, or even just straight Nazis, but fuck ’em. They’re neo-Nazis. “Alt-right” is just as much a bullshit right-wing propaganda term as “political correctness”. Ignore anyone who uses either. But, American History X… Apparently, the studio were unhappy with Kaye’s first cut. And his second cut.’Then Norton hired an editor to cut the film to his taste. So Kaye played the prima donna, famously hiring a rabbi, a RC priest and a Buddhist monk to sit in on a meeting with studio bosses. Um, yes. The film has its moments, but Norton is too weedy to convince in his role (just compare him to the meatheads Nazis he meets in prison), and the whole thing over-inflates the success of neo-Nazism so much it dangerously normalises it. I’m all for rehabilitation narratives, but they need to be stronger than this to justify their existence. It doesn’t help that every black character in American History X is a gang banger, except for Avery Brooks’s mentor, which only just feeds into the whole neo-Nazi white supremacy thing. Seriously, films about Nazism and neo-Nazism should make the politics so unpalatable – as they are in real life – that no one would want to have anything to do with them; they should not leave enough wiggle room for an intellectually-challenged viewer to start giving brainspace to the toxic shit they peddle. We all know the dangers of “post-truth”, which is another word for “lie” or “fiction”. After all, 52% of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote even though the actual facts show Clinton won it by nearly three million votes. And don’t get me started on the lies put out by the Leave campaign…

sons_roomThe Son’s Room, Nanni Moretti (2001, Italy). And from the “look at my award-winning turn playing a toxic character in a toxic film” American History X to a drama that has a cast of human beings and deals with a very real situation. Moretti himself plays the father in a middle-class Italian family. Teenage boy and teenage girl cause the usual familial disruptions. Moretti’s job as a practicing psychiatrist means he has his patients’ problems as well as his family’s to deal with. Nonetheless, the family are generally easy-going, centred, good-natured, although attractive in a sort of lifestyle magazine advert way. And then the son dies in a diving accident, and the surviving three members of the family have trouble dealing with their grief. Moretti’s character replays over and over his last day with his son, when he cried off from the promised jog together because a patient had called him and asked for his help (the patient had just been diagnosed with cancer, it transpired). My only previous experience to Moretti’s films was his Caro diario, which I thought pretty good. That was a more personal film, although The Son’s Room covers such an emotive topic it feels a much more personal movie. I should probably watch more Moretti – he’s very good. Recommended.

great_african_1Haramuya, Drissa Toure (1995, Burkina Faso). As mentioned earlier, and evident from the DVD cover art, this is the second film in the Great African Films Volume 1 DVD I bought on eBay. This is pretty much a slice-of-life drama set in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. A teenager gets a job in a shop, but worried that his parents cannot affort to eat, he steals some flip-flops to sell, but is caught and fired. There’s a long-running plot-thread about stolen mopeds. And also a police investigation into drug dealing – which one dealer manages to evade by feeding his marijuana to an uncle’s goats… who promptly start butting each other and everything in sight. Haramuya is light on plot, but it’s also an excellent window onto a world I would not otherwise be likely to see. Toure’s direction is effective, but workmanlike more than anything else. The film comes across as a social drama, but structured as a series of interlinked narratives. The cast are natural, with only one or two moments where it feels a little amateur. Of the two films in Great African Films Volume 1, Faraw! is clearly the better, but Haramuya is still worth seeing. There are, to date, a further three volumes – 2 Tasuma and Sia, The Dream of the Python (both Burkina Faso), 3 Daratt and Desert Ark (Chad and Algeria), and 4 The Pirogue, Colobane Express and The Silent Monologue (all three Senegal). I plan to buy them (although I’ve already seen Daratt).

sonatineSonatine, Kitano Takeshi (1993, Japan). I stumbled across this in a local charity shop, and since I know Takeshi’s name, it was an obvious decision to buy it. Only later did I discover it’s the film which brought him international attention. And having now seen it, I can understand why. A Yakuza enforcer and his team are sent to Okinawa to sort out a dispute between two gangster plans but the enforcer realises it is all a plot to remove him. So he hides out with his team at a beach house, where they play games and tricks on each other… before it all comes to a violent end when the Yakuza boss turns up looking to resolve the situation. And, er, that’s sort of it. When the enforcers are hiding out at the beach, they act like kids. Takeshi, who plays the lead role, plays it totally deadpan, so the humnour is even funnier because it bounces off him completely. Of course, being a Takeshi, it’s also pretty violent, with lots of gun battles and violent murders. But there’s also a strong thread of black humour running throughout the film. For example, when the enforcers first arrive in Okinawa, they’re taken to an office building used by the clan. They’ve not been there five minutes when someone shoots at a window. What’s that? asks one of the Okinawa team. That’s just the other clan, they’re always shooting at us… This DVD only cost me a quid, and I fully expected to drop it off in a random charity shop after I’d watched it… But I think I’ll be keeping it. Worth seeing.

gabbehGabbeh*, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). Iran, despite its theocratic regime, perhaps even in spite of it, has a strong presence internationally in the cinema world, and has produced a number of excellent directors and films. Some have worked within the system, some have worked around it. I’m not sure which group Makhmalbaf belongs to, although the fact his name is important to the plot of Kiarostami’s Close-up suggests he has the approval of the authorities. And, to be fair, there’s nothing in Gabbeh that might offend them. It’s an Iranian fairy-tale, based around the style of rug from which the film takes its name. An old couple make their way to a stream to wash their gabbeh, and a young woman, who answers to the name of Gabbeh, magically appears out of the picture wiven into the rug. Gabbeh’s story is also depicted in the rug, which changes as the film progresses. She is betrothed to a young man, but each time they try to set a wedding date something happens to put it off. She tells this story to the old couple. As should be evident from the DVD cover, this is a gorgeous-looking movie. Recommended. And no, I didn’t pay the price show on Amazon, I bought my copy on eBay for considerably less.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 834


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Moving pictures, #64

Another mixed bag of films. I seem to be sticking to my plan of seeing more world cinema than Hollywood cinema, however…

the_bowThe Bow, Kim Ki-duk (2005, South Korea). David Tallerman had recommended Ki-duk’s 3-Iron and it was very good, but he also pointed out that not all of Ki-duk’s movies would be to my taste… although this one might be. Yes, it was to my taste; no, it wasn’t as good as 3-Iron. An old man and a teenage girl live on a boat, which they hire out to people wanting to deep sea fish. The old man plans to marry the girl when she is seventeen. He also has a bow, which he sometimes uses to keep unruly cusotmers in line. The girl says nothing. She also helps him with his party trick, in which she sits on a swing before a target painted on the hull of their boat, while he stands on another boat and shoots arrows at the target. And, er, that’s about it. Well, there’s a romance plot, when a student falls in love with the girl. And the old man sometimes turns his bow into a musical instrument and plays it. But this is not a film which makes an effort to ensure the viewer knows what’s going on. But then, the film works mostly because Ki-duk keeps things enigmatic. Worth seeing.

4a-dog-star-man-preludePrelude: Dog Star Man*, Stan Brakhage (1961, USA). Avant garde cinema has been around as along as, well, cinema, and yet the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list features only a handful of examples – early Buñuel, who probably doesn’t count anyway, Meshes of the Afternoon from the 1940s, Baillie and Brakhage from the 1960s, Benning from the 1990s… and all but Buñuel from the US, as if no one but Americans made experimental or avant garde films. Which is nonsense. (Not that I know enough about avant garde film to name directors from other countries, but there are plenty of books on the subject available from a large online retailer…) Having said that, Dog Star Man is apparently highly regarded and considered a watershed work in American avant garde cinema. It’s a sequence of six short films made between 1961 and 1964, but only the first, Prelude, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I found a copy of it on Youtube, I think the entire series is on there. Prelude: Dog Man Star is a montage of soundless moving images, many superimposed: prominences on the sun, clouds, a  city at night, trees, washes of colour, scratches, even some bubble-bath. It’s not as mesmerising as the static shots in Benning’s films, but there’s definitely a poetry to the play of images. I guess I should watch the rest of the sequence sometime.

i_clownsI Clowns, Federico Fellini (1970, Italy). I have become a fan of Fellini’s films after many years of only knowing La Dolce Vita and, later, . It was Satyricon and Casanova that did it, of course. They’re so bonkers, how could I not want to see more films by their director? And Roma was good too. But it’s not like I rushed out and bought every Fellini film available on DVD or Blu-ray, and, in fact, I only bought I Clowns because it was going cheap in a Black Friday sale. (I did have it on my rental list, however.) The title is not a veiled reference to Graves or Asimov but simply the Italian for The Clowns. And the title pretty much describes the film. It opens with an extended performance of a group of clowns in a circus, before showing those clowns out and about out of costume. It’s part documentary and part fiction. Wikipedia claims it was “incorrectly referred as the first mockumentary”, although, to be honest, it doesn’t come across as a mockumentary. Clowns are strange creatures, their personas and appearance deliberately designed to generate laughter, but they can also be creepy as fuck. The ones in I Clowns are pretty typical in that regard.

beyondStar Trek Beyond, Justin Lin (2016, USA). The original Star Trek movies were pretty bland, and turned blander as the series progressed, but at least they weren’t stupid films. And if there’s one thing the rebooted Trek films are, it’s stupid. The first two films made no sense and had plot holes you could fly the Enterprise through. Star Trek Beyond is slightly better than the previous two, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It opens with Kirk bored after three years of his five-year mission and applying for a promotion to vice-admiral. This is the cadet who failed to graduate from Starfleet Academy, but they put him in command of their best ship anyway, and now he expects to make vice-admiral three years after not graduating? WTF? Anyway, before Kirk can be leapfrogged over all those Starfleet officers with the decades of experience necessary for the job, the Enterprise is sent to retrieve an escape pod, which results in them trying to rescue a lost crew on a world hidden behind one of those asteroid belts you only ever see in bad sf, you know, the ones where the rocks are metres apart instead thousands of kilometres. And then a villain makes mincemeat of the Enterprise, and I sort of lost the plot around then, or probably the film did, as it turned into the usual bollocks with the hardy upright folk of Starfleet completely out of their depth against a super-powerful alien but they still manage to win the day anyway. Not that the asteroid belt was the only bollocks in the film. I noted at one point that the Enterprise’s artificial gravity worked fine except when it looked cool if everyone was thrown about the ship when it crashed. Other than that, villain Idris Elba was under so much much alien make-up you have to wonder why they bothered casting a marquee name, the Enterprise’s crash totally ripped off the same thing from the previous franchise, Karl Urban still does a mean Bones but the rest of the cast are rubbish, and the whole thing feels like an over-extended episode from a crap TV show.

puppetmasterThe Puppetmaster*, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1993, Taiwan). One thing that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has shown me is how piss-poor the UK is at making films available on DVD. The latest Hollywood shit, no problem; but world cinema, or even classic Hollywood, and it’s absolutely useless. Most of Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre is available – no doubt because he was championed by Merchant Ivory – but only two of Ritwik Ghatak’s films (and the remastered edition of one is available in the US but not here). There’s plenty of wu xia and Chinese historical epics available on DVD in the UK, but only a handful by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien… so I ended up buying a box set of five Hou films on eBay from South Korea (and the “box set” proved to be five DVDs in the cardboard box in which they were sent…). The Puppetmaster is one of Hou’s best-known films, and is essentially a sort of dramatised reminiscence by a, er, puppeteer who was forced to propagandize for the Japanese during their occupation of the country in World War II. The film opens with the puppetmaster discussing his birth, and how he came to be registered twice under two names. At intervals, as an old man, he talks directly to camera, as if being interviewed. Hou has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list I’m using, although others by him regularly crop up on other lists. The Puppetmaster certainly belongs on the list, and I’m now looking forward to watching the rest of my “box set”.

heroesHeroes, Samir Karnik (2008, India). Bollywood is not all 3-hour-long rom coms with songs and dances, it tackles other genres and subjects too. In fact, but for the inclusion of song and dance routines, it pretty much covers the same bases as Hollywood. In Hollywood, Heroes would be a serious drama, with a po-faced cast all gunning for an award. In Bollywood, it’s just as serious, but it also features broad comedy and dance routines. A war reporter interviews three soldiers in the Indian Army fighting in, I think, the Kargil War. The soldiers each give the reporter a letter to post on his return to civilisation, but the reporter later learns all three were killed in action. Three years later, a pair of slacker student fail to graduate from film school and need to make a graduation film. A friend in the army prompts them to make their topic “why you shouldn’t join the armed forces”, and the girlfriend of one of the pair puts them in touch with someone who could help… the war reporter from earlier. He gives them the three letters he was given by the dead soldiers – throughout the film they’re referred to as “martyred”, which is just… odd – and suggests they deliver them by hand and make that the subject of their graduation film. So the two load up their motorcycle, and head off to the Punjab to deliver the first letter, written by a Sikh soldier. They discover that the widow and young son are extremely proud of the soldier, as indeed is the whole village. The second letter, they deliver to the wheelchair-using brother of the dead soldier, who used to be a fighter pilot. The ex-pilot now teaches kids to stand up for themselves, but is proud of his brother’s sacrifice. There’s also a jaw-dropping action sequence in a bar when the ex-pilot takes on a gang of rowdies and beats the crap out of them, and pretty much demolishes the bar, first from his wheelchair, and then from the floor after they’ve managed to tip him over. The final letter is addressed to the dead soldier’s colonel and proves to be a request for leave. There’s an unposted card in the soldier’s file, so the colonel gives it to the film students for them to deliver to the family. But the family don’t seem especially bothered, and one of the film students accuses the dead soldier of cowardice for wanting leave during the height of the war. The dead soldier’s mother plays them a tape of her son, proving he was a hero. Heroes is all a bit jingoistic, deliberately so, but it’s palatable because the film is based on the Bollywood model, with songs and dances and daft comedy. Entertaining, but it did lay its “love your country” message on a bit thick.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 833


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Moving pictures, #63

Still trying to to catch up… Half of the films in this post’s half-dozen are from the US, but only one of them is an actual feature film per se. Both Benning’s and Baillie’s work are better considered art, or video installations – a form of art I especially like. The remaining films are an odd mix – one I expected to like but didn’t, one turned out to be a lot better than expected, and one wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hope although still quite good.

gangs_new_yorkGangs of New York*, Martin Scorsese (2002, USA). If Terrence Malick is the nearest Hollywood has produced to an actual auteur, then Scorsese, although a resolutely commercial director, is perhaps closest in Hollywood to him. Personally, I find Scorsese’s films well-made but over-rated; but he has the advantage of a career pretty much explicitly laid out in the films he’s directed, all of which are still readily available in a format of your choice. Gangs of New York was a commercial success, and a critical one too – not just appearing on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but also nominated for a shedload of Oscars, BAFTAs, Gold Globes and assorted other film awards (although it won no Oscars, Day-Lewis got best actor BAFTA, and Scorsese won best director Golden Globe). The story is set in New York during the 1840s to the 1860s. The film opens with a pitched – and gory – battle between the Irish immigrants and the native New Yorkers (of course, they’re all immigrants, the so-called “natives” arrived a couple of generations earlier). The movie then follows Amsterdam, son of the murdered leader of the Irish faction, and played by Leonardo di Caprio, as he returns to New York as a young man and goes to work for leader of the natives, Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is apparently historically accurate, even down to the accent used by Day-Lewis and others, and it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Quite how the US built a reputation as the Land of the Free and the Land of Opportunity when its biggest city was a cesspit of violence and corruption is a mystery. But then you have the myth of the wide open spaces of the Wild West, when it was all land stolen from the Native Americans, and those who stole it were mostly as violent and venal as the worst criminals. That was all pretty much around the same time. And not so long ago. Mind you, Dickens’s England was no less grim a place. Although it does seem a little like the new governments of both the UK and USA are determined to return us to those days…

holy_motorsHoly Motors, Leos Carax (2012, France). This film had all the ingredients which should have led to me loving it, but for some reason it never quite worked for me. The story is enigmatic, very little is explained, in fact it’s more of an anthology than a single plot, the cinematography is excellent, and the cast are very good too… But the whole thing felt like a film-making exercise to me, and only more so when I learnt that one of the longest segments is based on a short film made by Carax four years earlier. I’ve heard Holy Motors described as an anthology film, deliberately broken down into more easily-digestible chunks to prove a point about art house cinema, but I’m not sure I buy it. The celebrity cameos seem to suggest a personal project from a director with more of a reputation than his oeuvre suggests. Eve Mendes, for example, plays a model abudcted by Mr Merde and says nothing during her part in the film. Kylie Minogue plays a colleague of the main character, and ends up singing a really quite awful song that can’t decide if it belongs in a Broadway musical or a rock jukebox musical. The framing narrative doesn’t explain the individual segments, only links them. And while the cinematography is excellent, as is the cast, the story is enigmatic to the point of nonsense – the segment in which the protagonist – well, a cleverly-disguised stunt double – does a motion-capture sequence for an ugly CGI sequence of two great wyrms mating is entirely meaningless. That this is later followed by a sequence in which a father picks up his teenage daughter from a party, only to learn she hid in the bathroom because she’s afraid of not being popular… it shows only that the guiding principle here is directorial whim. There’s no pattern, no story-arc, no point. There’s only a director who feels like he’s not in control of his creative process – and, though I’m only going on the one film I’ve seen by Carax, he strikes me as someone who may one day make a great movie… but Holy Motors is not it.

travelling_playersThe Travelling Players*, Theodoros Angelopoulos (1975, Greece). I’ve been aware of Angelopoulos for a couple of years, although I’ve never previously seen any of his films nor had much of an idea what his films were like. But The Travelling Players eventually worked its way to the top of the rental list and was duly sent to me and… One thing I hadn’t known about Angelopoulos is that his films tick a lot of my boxes: long static shots, declamatory dialogue, plots that cover decades… This is stuff that I love in films, and apparently The Travelling Players is not unique in Angelopoulos’s oeuvre in doing so. The Travelling Players is currently available as a part of a box set, so I think I’ll be getting the box set. But, The Travelling Players… It’s about a troupe of actors, who travel the country with a play about Golfo the Shepherdess, between 1939 and 1952. As well as the covering the events in Greece during that time – the invasion by the Nazis, the war between the fascists and the communists, the British and US occupations, the Regime of the Colonels… – but the troupe’s internal dynamics are all based on the story of the House of Atreus. There are parts of the the film where a character talks directly to camera. There are some frankly bizarre scenes, like the British platoon forcing the troupe to perform on a beach, only to end up dancing with each other, or the dance hall where the fascists and communists clash like the Jets and the Sharks… The Travelling Players is also a very long film, clocking in at 230 minutes; but it’s fascinating throughout. Angelopoulos’s name was not unknown to me, but until now I’d not seen any of his films. Having seen The Travelling Players, I plan to explore his oeuvre. Recommended.

baillieVolume 1: Five Collected Films by Bruce Baillie (1964-1968, USA). I stumbled across mention of Baillie’s All My Life on a list of best films somewhere, and found a copy of it on Youtube (it’s only 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, but it is quite excellent – see here). So I did a little more research, and learnt that Baillie is best-remembered for Castro Street, a short film from 1966. Canyon Cinema, a collective he helped found, released some of his films on DVD, but they appear to have sold out. Fortunately, they’re available on Youtube in HD, including this collection, which contains Tung, Mass (for the Lakota Sioux), Valentin de las Sierras, Castro Street and All My Life. The first three are experimental/avant garde cinema, and middling successful, but Castro Street, a montage of industrial plants on the titular street, is fully deserving of its high reputation; and even In My Life, which is 3 minutes of Ella Fitzgerald singing as Baillie pans a camera along a fence, hs a beauty all its own. I discovered Baillie by accident, but it turns out to have been a happy one. I won’t be forgetting him.

13_lakes13 Lakes, small roads and Easy Rider, James Benning (2004/2011/2012, USA). I’ve made no secret of my admiration for James Benning’s work, and while I have everything he has so far released on DVD through the Österreichesches Filmmuseum, one of his best-known works, 13 Lakes, is still unavailable from them. Fortunately, someone has loaded it up onto Youtube, although it’s not a brilliant transfer. And since I’d figured out how to watch Youtube using the app on on my telly via Amazon Prime, I used it to watch 13 Lakes. Benning’s titles tend to the literal, so 13 Lakes is indeed about thirteen lakes, each of which is filmed from a static position for ten minutes. That’s it. The shots are framed such that water fills the bottom half of the screen and sky the top half. Whatever happens while the camera is running, is captured; and the soundtrack is entirely ambient sound. I happen to think Benning is a genius, and while he does really interesting things with narrative in Deseret, American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide, other films such as RR and the California Trilogy are more in the nature of video installations. As is 13 Lakes. So he presses lots of buttons for me. Small roads is more of the same, static shots of minor roads in the US, each shot a couple of minutes long and the soundtrack composed entirely of ambient sound. Unlike in 13 Lakes, the screen is not split in two, in fact the proportion of land to sky increases as the film progresses. It is mesmerising, despite the lack of narrative. Easy Rider, however, is something different. Benning retraced the route taken by the actors in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but focused his camera on the landscape. He uses the soundtrack of the film – some music, some dialogue – but other times relies on ambient sound. What I especially like about Benning is that he’s mythologizing the landscape of the North American continent using the artefacts of its current colonising culture. Not entirely, of course – Four Corners covers Native American cave art, after all. But Deseret explicitly charts the impact of people on the Utah landscape, and while 13 Lakes shows the transient nature of the marks humanity makes on a body of water (the wake of a boat or jetski, soon erased), small roads documents a more permanent marker on the landscape: tarmac. And Easy Rider ties the landscape directly to a cultural object, the story of a feature film, a fiction. I would dearly love to have copies of all of Benning’s films, but sadly only a few have been released on DVD. Equally sadly, I do not live in a city with a world-renowned modern art museum that is likely to exhibit his work. (I do, however, live in a city with Curzon cinema, but even that means nothing – as Curzon, in all their wisdom, have so far chosen not to show Sokurov’s Francofonia here, but only in their London venues. Bah.)

rogopagLet’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG, Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti (1963, Italy). Alfredo Bini apparently had the bright idea of putting together an anthology film comprising four shorts from well-known directors, although I’ve no idea if the concept was as commerically viable back then as it is now – ie, not at all. It’s not like this was the only example – there’s films such as Le Bambole from 1965, for example. Certainly RoGoPaG had a better line-up of directors… but given how little your average audience cares about who directs a film – many lists of best films don’t even name the director, for instance – it’s arguable how relevant that is. In the event, we get four short films that are emblematic – perhaps too much so – of the four directors’ works, without being their best work. Roberto Rossellini provides a story about an air stewardess who attracts the unwelcome attentions of an American who flies her route – to Bangkok – and who she decides to repel by acting more seucally-liberated than she actually is. It’s a thin piece, and it hard to work out what the point of it all is. Godard provides the second part, a five-finger exercise based on the thinnest of plots: a nuclear bomb has exploded near Paris, and two young actors get to practice acting exercises as a response to the explosion. The third film is by Pier Paolo Pasolini and is easily the best of the four. Orson Welles is making afilm about the Crucifixion, although he actually appears to be re-staging in real life famous paintings of the Crucifuxion. One of the extras has not eaten for a while and spends the entire film trying to find something to eat – to his eventual detriment. The humour is broad, the acting broader, Welles looks the part but is dubbed so he doesn’t sound it, and the re-enactments of the Crucifixion are quite astonishingly effective. The final film is the most traditional, and tells a straightforward story of a middle-class Italian family looking to upgrade their home by buying a plot of land on a future development. The kids spout advertising slogans, the family are clearly victims of consumer culture, and their final realisation of their situation is rewarded with an undeserved death. Despite the names attached to RoGoPaG, I suspect Bini thought he had something weightier on his hands than he actually had. The Pasolini apparently caused a bit of a fuss on release, though it seems tame stuff these days to non-Catholic eyes. I’m still not entirely sure what purpose anthology films served, or why anyone ever bothered to make them. I suspect they were mostly vanity projects for producers – “hey, I got to work with Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and, er, Gregoretti!” – but they’re certainly an odd fit in the world of twenty-first century cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 831