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Moving pictures 2017, #54

A couple more posts and I’ll be caught up with my viewing.

Othello, Orson Welles (1951, Italy). I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about Welles – he was a true Hollywood innovator (and, later, a Hollywood outsider), who made some notable movies and some that were less notable… But then I saw his Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, and was much impressed. Enough to want to see more of his Shakespeare adaptations – his thrillers suffer from over-complication, but his simplifications of Shakespeare to make the material fit his runtime actually seem make them more powerful. Othello is… probably the best adaptation of the play ever put on celluloid. Er, that I’ve seen. I did wonder if it was Welles’s best film… but I think its troubled production tells against it. It contains some of Welles’s most striking cinematography, but it never quite hangs together as a single vision. It was famously a difficult production – begun in 1948, but Welles ran out of money and used his salary from acting jobs to fund more filming, so it went in fits and starts over a three-year period… And yet, the end-result is… really quite astonishing. For the record, I profoundly disagree with blacking up, and no matter that Othello has been played since Shakespearean times by countless white actors in black make-up, or that Welles cast himself in the title role – one of Shakespeare’s juiciest, by all accounts – it still seems off to deny the part to an actor of colour. Even in 1951. But as director, Welles has put together an impressive film, making astounding use of the constraints he encountered while filming. The stark black and white silhouettes of the opening scenes are among the most arresting images I’ve seen in a movie’s opening minutes. And Welles’s use of lighting and shadow in subsequent scenes is borderline genius. I suspect Welles is the closest Hollywood ever came to a true auteur, and even then he was forced to make films outside the system, and even outside the country. He produced an enviable body of work – not just in cinema – and I’m surprised no one has ever thought to collect it: perhaps the wide spread of financing and production companies prevents it, but from Citizen Kane to F for Fake, that’s an oeuvre ripe for celebration.

Limite*, Mário Peixoto (1931, Brazil). This is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I’d pretty much come to the conclusion I’d never get to see it as no copies were available on DVD, nor any other format. According to Wikipedia, the single nitrate print of the film had degraded so badly it could no longer screened. So I did wonder how the makers of the list had managed to see it. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project picked it as one of their films to restore – although some parts of the print were too badly damaged to fully restore, and one scene was missing altogether. But it did mean I got to see it. And… It’s an interesting film, but not especially strong on narrative. It opens with a couple lost in a boat, which is then interrupted by a series of flashbacks. Parts of it reminded me of Maya Deren’s work (which it predates), other parts of some of the early French silent films. Much of the scenery appeared very similar to that in Vidas Secas, which was made thirty years later, so not much had changed during the intervening years. I’m not sure how much of Limite‘s reputation rests on its rarity – it was only shown publicly three times, but was privately screened for Orson Welles in 1942, who greatly admired it. It was certainly worth seeing, but there are films which impressed me more in this collection.

Music in Darkness, Ingmar Bergman (1948, Sweden). Bergman directed this, but the screenplay by Dagmar Edqvist is based on his novel of the same title. A classically trained pianist is blinded after being shot by accident at a shooting range during military manoeuvres. The only person who treats him like a human being is the servant girl in his parents’ house. But any sort of liaison is very much discouraged. The blind pianist decides to train as a church organist – it’s a better career than piano tuner, or piano player in a restaurant, for a person of his training – but even then is discouraged. He bumps into the servant girl, who is now training to be a teacher, and must win back her love. None of this is especially subtle, and while the actor who played the blind pianist – Birger Malmsten, who appears in many of Bergman’s early films – was never entirely convincing as a blind person, he was certainly convincing enough as an upper class Swede to handle that aspect of the plot.

Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari (2010, Greece). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has thrown up the odd gem every now and again, and I admit I hadn’t realised it was Greek until I started watching it. And it’s a bit odd Greek, like a Yorgos Lanthimos film rather than a Theo Angelopoulos film – which is hardly a fair comparison as they’re the only two Greek directors I’ve seen recently, and the latter may be from an older tradition of Greek cinema. But, to be honest, I plan to explore Angelopoulos’s oeuvre further, and if Lanthimos and Tsangari are examples of twenty-first century Greek cinema, then I’m happy to explore that too. Providing, of course, such films are available in editions I can watch. (I studied Ancient Greek as a thirteen-year-old, but my command of modern Greek is non-existent, and I don’t remember what I learnt back then anyway.) There’s not much in the way of plot in Attenberg – a young woman’s father is dying, she enters into a relationship with a stranger who visits the small town where they live, her best friend has sex with her father. The characters are… a bit strange. The film opens, as shown in the DVD cover art, with the young woman and her best-friend ineptly teaching each other how to French kiss. And then sort of ambled along from there. I think I sort of liked it.

The End of Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1961, Japan). For some reason, this film – Ozu’s penultimate movie – has not been released  by the BFI in one of their nice dual edition releases… although now I’ve hunted down a copy, they’ll probably go and do so. The End of Summer is, like every other Ozu film I’ve seen, an ensemble piece, about family, about business, about marriagable daughters who need husbands. It strikes me as a more Westernised film than his others, in as much as some of the characters are quite Westernised, and their Westernisation is part of the tapestry of family life Ozu weaves. A patriarch has an unmarried daughter and a widowed daughter-in-law and wants to finds husbands for them both. He runs a sake brewery which is starting to fail. The daughter-in-law – Ozu favourite Setsuko Hara – has no real desire to remarry; the young daughter would sooner marry a young man she knows who recently moved to Sapporo. But in the travelling back and forth between his offspring, from Kyoto to Osaka and back, the old man strains his his heart and is stricken with a heart attack. He survives the first, but not the second. And all his match-making counts for nothing. There’s a a sense in Ozu’s films of one generation ensuring the next is well settled for their life, so they too can ensure the same for their children. Mostly this comes across as patriarchs trying to find husbands for their daughters. In mid-twentieth-century Japan. Most fathers’ minds, it seems, when not filled with business deals, were exercised with ensuring their children were well settled for their own journeys into retirement. The idea that the previous generation has sufficient “float” to get the next generation started – either in social capital or financial capital – seems quaint at best these days. None of which invalidates Ozu’s movies. They’re well shot ensembles pieces – his technqiue of cutting from speaker to speaker during a conversation may be crude but remains effective – and his choice of domestic plots that illustrate elements if Japanese life of the time of shooting still resonate today. I still maintain Ozu is better than Mizogushi, and maybe one day I’ll convince David Tallerman of that too.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, USA). Back in the 1970s, you used to be able to buy LPs of chart hits, usually published by K-Tel, which featured recent hits but performed by artists who only sounded like the original artists. Alien: Covenant should have been named Alien: K-Tel. It’s like a run-through of all the best bits of the previous Alien films, but done with less quality. And, following firmly in the footsteps of Prometheus, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense or go any way to building a logical narrative out of the franchise. And yet, according to Wikipedia, most film critics in the press were mildly approving. Really? Have they forgotten what a good film looks like? Because this isn’t one. The plot is cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier Alien movies, it introduces fifteen characters and makes no effort to let the viewer get to know them – compare and contrast with the cast of Alien – and said cast also behave completely unprofessionally and fall to pieces at the first opportunity. There’s so many things wrong with this film it seems churlish to list them. That the eponymous ship is caught in a neutrino storm which is detected shortly before it hits (handily ignoring that neutrinos pass through everything without effect – so they’re fucking difficult to detect – and also wouldn’t actually cause any damage) and yet you can’t detect a storm of light-speed particles before it hits because by definition the first evidence of it is when the storm hits… Or the character who intercepts a radio message from a planet in his spacesuit because he is at the time “outside the communication buffers” of the Covenant, which is not what “buffer” means at all. Then there’s that really annoyingly stupid mistake perpetrated by all the Alien films, in which craft drop from the mothership while it is in orbit. It doesn’t work like that. Everything is in microgravity. Sadly, it’s also a major part of the plot in Alien: Covenant – because that’s how they manage to finally kill the alien. Oops. Spoiler. And a plot which blithely skates over genocide, with no apparent moral consequences, well, that’s no good either. This is the dumbest film in a franchise which has grown increasingly dumb with each new instalment. Avoid.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 883

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Moving pictures 2017, #53

I’m still trying to catch up on my Moving pictures posts. There have been a couple of weeks where I’ve watched as many as three movies in a single night.

Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse (1969, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz is I think a great film. Sweet Charity, his first movie behind the camera, flopped – and it’s not hard to see why. Shirley Maclaine plays an innocent in New York, a young woman who works as a hostess at a dance hall and has had a string of a bad boyfriends – the films opens with her latest pushing her off a bridge in Central Park and stealing all her money. In an effort to better herself, she visits an employment agency, but has no skills or qualifications. She ends up trapped in the lift on her way down with a claustrophobe, who then proves so taken with her he woos her. She’s never had a normal boyfriend before, so she revels in his courting. And even accepts his offer of marriage. But when he discovers what she does for a living, he jilts her. This is a Fosse movie, so it’s all about the musical numbers, and most of them are pretty good. Sammy Davis Jr as evangelist Big Daddy is definitely memorable. I hadn’t known ‘(Hey) Big Spender’ came from this musical, and Fosse’s version is a prime example of repressed, well, something. Not a great film, but certainly a Fosse film.

Their Finest, Lone Scherfig (2016, UK). I’d seen this advertised on the sides of buses and trams for months, so when I saw a copy of it in a charity shop I thought it might be worth a go despite not expecting much of it. Another jingoistic pre-Brexit comedy, I thought, using WWII and the Blitz to sway public opinion, as if the two situations in anyway map onto each other. But I was wrong on several counts. It’s not a comedy. And while it takes place during WWII and is about Dunkirk, it’s very clear on the differences between the reality and the political narrative. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to write “slop” (women’s dialogue, as the misogynistic screenwriter calls it) for a film unit put together to produce uplifting films for the British public. Her first project is the story of twin sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to take part in the Dunirk rescue. Except they didn’t. The boat broke down. But Arteron lies, and the project gets the greenlight… and Their Finest turns into a pitch-perfect depiction of film-making in the 1940s, given it all felt very Archers. I’d been expecting some horrible Richard Curtis rom com set during the Blitz, but this was a little gem of a film. It’s by no means the comedy it has been sold as, but instead a solid drama of WWII – more like that Berkof drama than the comparisons its marketing was keen to draw. I liked it. Worth seeing.

Law of the Border, Ömer Lütfi Akad (1966, Turkey). I bought the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. But it proved an excellent box set, so when a second volume was released I immediately bought it. Like the first, it’s a varied mix, not all of which I’d heard of before. Like this Turkish film which is as old as I am. It apparently had a profound affect on Turkish cinema, with its mix of pseudo-western action and sociopolitical commentary. It’s set in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border, and many of the villagers survive by smuggling things across the border. But the authorities have put down new minefields, and now the border is virtually impenetrable. Then a new police lieutenant arrives in town, and a young and attrative schoolteacher persuades the village to open a school. Meanwhile, one of the local farmers has found himself with a flock of 3,000 sheep trapped on the wrong side of the border. So he tries to get master smuggler Hidir to bring the sheep across. But Hidir’s father died in the border minefield and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him. So he tries to accept the new order – sharecropping the local landowner’s fields. But that flock of sheep still presents quick riches to anyone who can get them across the border… Law of the Border was apparently pretty much lost – only a single copy survived Turkey’s 1980 coup, and it was in a parlous state. But not it has been restored – although only to the best that could be done given the state of the surviving negative. The film has its charm – it does that declamatory thing so many sociopolitical dramas do, and that I like. But it also wears its western inspiration on its sleeve, and there are lots of shoot-outs. Which does tend to make the last third of the film a bit busy. Hidir’s not exactly well-drawn either, and his character arc is a bit muddled. But for a 51-year-olf film from Turkey, it holds up pretty well.

Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavan (2007, India). Five men invest large sums of money in a scheme which will double their money in a handful of days. It’s never directly said what the deal is, but it’s probably drugs. One of the five, Shiva, the biggest and strongest of the five, will take the train from Mumbai to Kolkata with the money, collect the goods, and then return with them. But Vikram has other ideas. He sets up an alibi, and then attempts to rob Shiva on the train – but it goes horribly wrong and he ends up killing Shiva. And that’s how it goes. As each member of the five discovers the truth, so Vikram is forced to kill them in order to protect himself. Except for the detective investigating the whole thing on behalf of the leader of syndicate, who is murdered by someone else in an act of self-defence. It’s all very cleverly done, and while Vikram was obviously a bad sort right from the start – and his opening murder, meaning the rest of the film was flashback, seemed a forced start, it did leave a mystery right to the end that provided quite satisfying. This was an entertaining comedy/thriller. As far as I’m concerned, modern Bollywood needs to get equal rating in my watching with modern Hollywood – although I do need to watch more classical Bollywood, having loved Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam and everything by Guru Dutt – and I shall adjust my rental list accordingly.

The Crimson Pirate, Robert Siodmak (1952, USA). You can blame Hal Duncan for this one. There was a discussion on Twitter about best pirate movies and he insisted this was the one. So I bunged it on my rental list, and they actually sent it a week later. And… I’m prepared to entertain it as a candidate. I’m not an expert on pirate films by any means, and the high point of Hollywood swashbuckling to my mind is probably The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is, er, not a pirate film… But The Crimson Pirate is certainly a viable candidate. I’m not entirely convinced – it tries to be clever, by introducing anachronistic technology, which is indeed amusing, but it gets it wrong, which kind of spoils the intended effect. And Burt Lancaster in the title role is a just way too much a goody two shoes to convince as a pirate in the first place. His bo’sun, a dour Brit, is great. Nick Cravat, as Lancaster’s silent sidekick, provides some excellent physical comedy. But the villains are paper-thin clichés, and the grand finale is a triumph of spectacle over plausibility. A hot air balloon that goes where directed? Yeah, right. Bonus points for getting the ballast thing right, but in a balloon you’re pretty much in the hands of the wind. Best pirate movie? Not convinced. On the other hand, I can’t think of any reasonable candidates for the top spot.

Céline and Julia Go Boating*, Jacques Rivette (1974, France). Rivette is a singular talent. When a limited edition box set (3,000 copies) of some of his films came out last year, I bought it – back in January 2016. I notice it’s still available. It’s worth buying. Céline and Julie Go Boating is one of his best-known films, but the title is a complete misnomer. It’s a literal transalation ofthe French title, which is better translated as “get caught in a shaggy dog story”. Um, yes. The original phrase has no such connotations in English. Which is unfortunate, because the film is all about two young women who find themselves in a story and discover they can affect its narrative. Julie is sitting in a park reading a park when Céline wanders past and inadvertently drops her sunglasses. So Julie picks up the sunglasses and follows Céline, with the intent of returning them… which turns into a weird sort of voyeurism into her life… before the two end up sharing an apartment… At which point the story jumps the rails when the two visit an abandoned house in which Céline once worked as a nanny… and they find themselves in the house’s past, but able to change what happened… Which they subsequently set out to do. This is where the title is of relevance. I like Rivette’s films. I’ve no idea what they’re about, but I find much in them that is appealing. I bought the aforementioned box set, and it was a worthwhile purchase. I suspect I may end up getting my own copy of Céline and Julia Go Boating. I’ve a feeling the movie requires a few more watchings…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 882


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Moving pictures 2017, #52

My viewing of late has been partly dictated by LoveFilm’s imminent demise and a desire to watch as many films on my list that only it offers for rental. I can guess why it’s shutting down: there’s more money to be made in streaming. Let’s charge someone £2.49 to watch a film once instead of allowing them to rent up to twelve DVDs for £9.99 a month. Although, of course, you can pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services. And I would… if their selections weren’t so shit. There are now apparently dedicated streaming services – for Curzon, for Mubi, etc – which show the sort of films I want to watch. But I have to pay for each of them. Technology: finding more ways to separate you from your money for things that were cheaper, or even free, in the past…

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA). Another recommendation from David Tallerman. Johnson is a documentary director, and Cameraperson is excerpts from the films she has made, assembled as a testament to her life and career to date. Er, that’s it. There is footage of Johnson’s children, or footage from, for example, her documentary about bin Laden’s driver… I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work, I admit; in fact, I really should watch more documentaries. I tend to watch only those on topics which interest me, like James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep, or the Apollo missions, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… But documentaries, of course, cover a vast range of subjects, and I should know this because I live in a city that has an annual documentary festival (at which, incidentally, Cameraperson won the Grand Jury Award in 2016), and Johnson’s body of work covers some important topics. For the last year or two, I’ve split my rental DVDs between US/UK films and movies from the rest of the planet. But since I receive three at a time, perhaps I should introduce a third category for documentaries, and take one from each for each mailing. That sounds like a good plan, actually.

The Thin Man*, WS Van Dyke (1934, USA). William Powell plays an ex-private eye, married to wealthy socialite Myrna Loy. While visiting New York, a man they know disappears, and then his secretary is murdered. The disappeared man is assumed to be the murderer. The press repeatedly asks Powell if he’s investigating the case, but he points out time and again that he’s retired. But, of course, he starts looking into it, and, of course, he figures out what happened… resulting in a dinner party to which all the suspects are invited, and at which he reveals the murderer. Both leads were cast against type, but have real on-screen chemistry – although Powell does seem like he’s had a few too many throughout the film. But the way Loy and Powell actively take the piss out of each other is entertaining to watch. Loy is especially good. Apparently, director Van Dyke pushed Loy into a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party to see how she would react before casting her. Which is a pretty mean trick. Incidentally, the title refers to the disappeared man, not Powell’s character, but was mistakenly believed to be the latter – so much so, it led to five Powell and Loy sequels, all featuring the phrase “the Thin Man”. Not to mention a TV series that aired from 1957 to 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I’m not entirely sure why The Thin Man is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was certainly entertaining, but not I’d have thought an important film. True, it spawned a legacy that lasted a quarter of a century – but it’s mostly forgotten now.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax, Alexandre Aja (2016, Canada). I rented this because I’d read the book – it’s not one of Liz Jensen’s best, but she’s always worth reading. In fact, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a higher profile. Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy who is in a deep coma after falling off a cliff at a family picnic. His father has disappeared, and it’s not clear if Louis’s fall was accidental or deliberate. Louis, who narrates the film, considers himself accident-prone, and several such incidents are shown in flashback. Actually, much of the film takes place in flashback. Louis was actually pronounced dead after his fall, but came back to life on the mortuary slab – but is now in a coma. A pediatrician who specialises in comatose children becomes interested in Louis’s case and has him moved to his clinic. Louis’s mother starts to take an interest in the handsome doctor. Meanwhile, Louis meets with a rock monster in his coma dreams, and in the real world threats are made against his mother. I’d forgotten the novel’s plot when I watched the film, but it wasn’t difficult to see where it was going. It was one of those films where everything felt a little fake, the outside scenes more like a studio set plus CGI than open air, the ward in which comatose Louis is kept not looking anything like a hospital… A triumph of set-design over actual realistic surroundings. But not a bad film.

Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969, Italy). There are two types of Pasolini film: one I like a great deal, one I’m less keen on. Pigsty does both. It has two seemingly unrelated narratives. In one, a young man wanders naked across a volcanic landscape (last seen in Pasolini’s Theorem), before finding a sword and armour. And then it’s a series of fights, as he meets up with other soldiers, kills them, builds his own army, and so on. But there’s nothing in the blasted landscape to eat, so he turns to cannibalism, but is eventually arrested. The other narrative is set in the 1960s, and features a German industrialist who is clearly intended to be Hitler, even down to the toothbrush moustache and virulent anti-semitism. But his wife would sooner breed pigs, which later come in useful in getting rid of a rival. The problem with Pigsty is that the Hitler narrative is too silly to have much bite, and while the one set in ancient times is effective and looks pretty damn good, it takes too long to get to its point. This year has been the Year of Pasolini for me (well, among a couple of other directors), and from knowing nothing about him and his films I’ve worked my way through at least two-thirds of his oeuvre in around twelve months. And I like it. Some more than others, it has to be said. But I don’t doubt his importance as a director, or the uniqueness of his vision. I suppose in some respects I find him a bit like Fellini, another Italian director whose importance is beyond doubt but whose oeuvre I personally find a bit hit and miss – I love Fellini’s more self-indulgent films and find his Neorealist ones a bit meh, but that’s just me.

Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard (1987, France). Godard’s films from the 1980s and 1990s, that I’ve seen, seem to be structured in parts, which I suppose is little more than more overtly delineated acts. Soigne ta droite has several, er, parts. It opens with a man instructed to carry a film can to another city, but he’s abused by another man, and left to fend for himself. And then there are several scenes set on a small prop airliner, in which the passengers behave like children. There are musicians rehearsing, discussing music, and performing it. There are some aerial shots of the (Swiss, I think) countryside. And there’s a voice-over narration for much of the film, which explains little and confuses more. Some of the dialogue is declamatory, and tries to be philosophical but doesn’t always make the grade. Unlike in, say, Miklós Jancsó’s films, the dialogue in the scenes often feels unlinked, a sequence of non sequiturs – in one scene, some passengers are haranguing a ticket agent at an airport, but what they say to her does not match what is being acted out in the scene. Despite watching this film two or three times, I’ve yet to work out what it’s about. Godard apparently described it as “a fantasy for actor, camera and tape recorder”, which is not very helpful. I shall probably have to watch it again.

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss (1945, UK). For some reason I do not recall, I added a couple of Margaret Lockwood films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “quota quickie”, although it displays all the attributes – including James Mason in a leading role (as a Quaker and pacifist, he did not fight during WWII). (Um, it seems “quota quickies” only lasted from 1928 until 1938, so British films made during WWII don’t qualify – although Mason did make a lot of films during the period.) Lockwood plays the title character, an adventuress who steals her friend’s beau, only to find herself in a dull marriage… which she enlivens by taking up highway robbery, eventually teaming up with the infamous Captain Jackson (Mason). In many respects, it’s the dictionary definition of a bodice-ripper – apparently, it was considered very racy at the time. I would have thought the concept of a female leading lady who not only has agency, but pretty much breaks every rule of acceptable female behaviour for the time the film was set and also the time it was made (although the war would have changed some of those attitudes)… that I’d have thought more notable. And yet, for all that, the film is bit, well, dull. I think maybe the pacing is off or something. Certainly the plot is entirely predictable. And Lockwood makes a good leading lady, although somewhat bland at times. Mason is, well, Mason. The rest of the cast are your usual 1940s British actors with either cut-glass accents or put-on random regional accents. So, a bit meh, really.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 881


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Moving pictures 2017, #51

Sometimes the desire to not to watch Hollywood films gets a bit ouf of hand… The first US film in this post – well, I kind of enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy as it wasn’t an awful piece of crap like the other MCU films… One-Eyed Jacks, on the other hand, was just ticking another film off the list… or maybe not.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn (2017, USA). I remember the Guardians of the Galaxy: there was StarHawk, who was a gestalt being comprising a man and a woman, and there was Charlie-27, who was short and squat and super-strong because he was born on Jupiter or something, and Martinex, who was made out of crystal because he was from an Outer Planet, and there was the blue-skinned guy who could direct his arrows with a whistle, and the ancient Earth astronaut, who was encased in a special skintight metallic suit that apparently left his mouth, nostrils and and eyeballs exposed, and who knows what other orifices, and who went by a variety of superhero names throughout his career, and… Well, none of that has anything to do with the reboot, which is what the film franchise is based on. Yondu, the blue-skinned guy with the arrow is there, but he’s not actually one of the Guardians, and the rest have been written out. Now it’s all about a wise-cracking half-alien guy from Earth and his daddy issues. Only, in this case, daddy is a planet. No, really. Okay, so he manifests as Kurt Russell, but he’s really a planet. Big round thing, with an angry looking brain in the middle. Just like, er, Earth. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was entertaining, if dumb, and I’d expected more of the same from the sequel. Except it seems to have dialled up the dumbness without doing the same for the entertainment. The characters are reduced to ciphers, the daddy-issues plot overwhelms everything, and there’s no forward direction presented for the franchise. It’s not a mis-step, it’s a step backwards. The first film made a lot of capital out of its soundtrack, and its justification for that soundtrack. That’s all the sequel has going for it. Avoid.

One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando (1968, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, but it turns out it’s on one of the iterations of the list but not the 2013 one I’ve been using. And, to be honest, the only notable thing about One-Eyed Jacks is that it’s the only film directed by Marlon Brando. Brando plays one of a group of three bank-robbers whose last job goes awry. He’s captured by Federales, but manages to break out of jail five years later. And goes hunting for his compadre (the third died in that last bad bank raid). Said compadre is now a sheriff in San Diego, with a nubile daughter and a position to protect. Cue yawn. The history of this film is more interesting than its story: it was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a script by Sam Peckinpah. That would have been a mouth-watering western. Instead, we have a Brando vanity project. Because that’s all it is. I’ve never really understood why he has the reputation he has. When I first heard his voice, I assumed it was put on for his character; but no, he really does sound whiny whatever character he plays. And at 141 minutes, One-Eyed Jacks overstays its welcome by a good 50 minutes. There’s nothing special about this western – and the copy I watched was a terrible transfer – and I’m mystified why it made any iteration of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list.

Vanishing Waves, Kristina Buožytė (2012, Lithuania). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD – probably the only other Lithuanian film I’ve watched so far – and it looked interesting and was science fiction, so… Comparisons with Ken Russell’s Altered States are, I suspect, inevitable, if only because both films use sensory deprivation tanks as plot enablers. But in Vanishing Waves, the plan is to put their volunteer in a sensory deprivation tank and synchronise his brain waves with those of a young woman in a coma. The plan is more successful than anticipated, as he enters a dreamlike state where he interacts in some strange dream world with a young woman. It’s only after several sessions that he realises he is communicating with the comatose woman, and that the sessions offer a chance of waking her. The scientists running the project are concerned, because they’re not getting the results they expected, and they’re sceptical of the volunteer’s claims – especially when both volunteer and comatose women go into cardiac arrest during one session. The project is presented in that sort of dry corporate way, with lots of visible money, that the movie world seems to think how science is done. The dreamstates, however, are completely different, and effectively done. Worth seeking out.

Carla’s Song, Ken Loach (1996, UK). Ken Loach is not, I think, a great director. But he has a great body of work, and a couple of his films aspire to greatness. Not this one sadly. But to produce such a consistently left-wing body of work over nearly five decades is certainly something worth celebrating. Ken Loach may not have directed the best British film of the last fifty years – and there’s a contentious topic! – but he has directed an oeuvre that is impossible to ignore, that is good for all the right reasons, and yet has had disappointingly little effect. I, Daniel Blake earned scorn from a couple of right wing journalists but since the right-wing press can’t muster a single functioning brain cell among the lot, that means nothing. True, it was a flawed film, but it presented a cogent argument and made an important point. Carla’s Song is from what feels like another era, a time when left wing protest meant supporting communist regimes against US-backed right-wing insurgents. It’s set in 1987 and Robert Carlyle plays a Glaswegian bus driver with an attitude problem, who falls in love with a Nicaraguan refugee. But she has a dark secret: a lover back home whose fate is unknown. So the pair travel to Central America, and Carla’s home town to find out what happened to him. And Carlyle discovers he can’t handle the constant violence, while Carla realises she has to stay. Carlyle’s character doesn’t come across well, either too belligerent or too whiny; and the contrats between commonplace aggressive acts in Glasgow and the war between the Sandinistas and the Contra feels a bit laboured. But Oyanka Cazebas plays the title role with quiet dignity, and the location shooting is effective. Loach’s films are usually worthing seeing, some more so than others.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Karel Zeman (1961, Czech Republic). I consider myself suitably embarrassed for not having this on my rental list until David Tallerman recommended it, although I really should have done. It is, so to speak, right up my street. But… Baron Munchausen… like the world really needs a another run at the story. When, in fact, it should have made do with this one. It opens with an astronaut landing on the Moon, only to be greeted by three men in old-fashioned dress: characters from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. They’re then joined by Bran Munchausen. Who takes the astronaut with him to visit the Sultan in eighteenth century Turkey, where they both fall in love with his daughter and take her with them… A series of mad adventures then follow, including the three stuck on a ship swallowed by a whale, Munchausen riding a cannonball to spy on enemy troops during a siege, the astronaut building a steamship, only for it to explode… But it’s the animation and effects which make this film so good. It’s well, it’s Czech animation.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Moving pictures 2017, #50

Not so much of a geographical spread this time, with two films from the US. One of the US films is especially timely, despite being more than seventy years old.

Keeper of the Flame, George Cukor (1943, USA). An American hero, Robert Forrest, is killed in a car crash, and the nation mourns. Journalist Spencer Tracy is intrigued by the response of the family, especially widow Katherine Hepburn, and decides to dig deeper… only to discover the dead man had been using his wealth to build a fascist organisation bent on seizing control of the country. Sound familiar? This is not a great film: Tracey is coasting, Hepburn was desperate after a couple of duds, and the final act is muddled and relies too much on a massive infodump. But the idea of a populist leader courting fascists to gain power – I’m talking about Trump, just in case you’re too dim to spot the resemblance – is certainly something that resonates now. Forrest’s death is initially presented as an accident – he died when a bridge on his estate gave way during a fierce storm… but was the bridge sabotaged? The focus on the truth behind Forrest’s death pretty much dictates the plot for much of the film’s length, but it’s a red herring – he was killed because of his plans, and that’s where the film’s focus should have been. Disappointing.

Kurotokage, Kinji Fukasaku (1968, Japan). When I saw this film was based on a story by Edogawa Rampo, I thought the name was a Japanisation of Edgar Allen Poe. But it turns out there really was a Japanese writer called Edogawa Rampo, although, yes, it was a pen name and it is indeed a rendering of Poe’s name. Rampo was a seminal writer in Japan’s mystery genre, and the story of Kurotokage (AKA Black Lizard) is one of his. The title refers to the head of a criminal organisation, played in the film by female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama, who kidnaps a jeweler’s daughter as part of a plan to steal the jeweler’s most famous piece. It’s the sort of 1960s thriller tosh the Italians churned out by the yard and the Americans managed to avoid because New Hollywood got in the way – none of which means it’s not entertaining. Isao Kimura as the detective Akechi is smooth and perhaps too much of a stereotype, but Maruyama plays a good villain; and the improbable convolutions of the plot manage to stay just the right side of sense. And it all looks very 1960s, Japanese-style, which is a plus. Wikipedia claims the film is not available on DVD, and it certainly took me several years before I found a copy – but yes, there is a DVD release, Japanese but with English subtitles, it just takes a bit of searching to find. Not a great film, but one worth seeing.

Melody Time, Jack Kinney, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson (1948, USA). During WWII, Disney trotted out a series of anthology films designed chiefly to keep its studio of animators in work. Which is not to say that every segment in this particular film feels like makework. It’s all very dated and of its time, true, and some of the animation is not as good as other works from Disney’s heyday. But a lot of it is very good, even if it’s sometimes unsure of what register it should be in – so the story about the two lovers who go ice-skating can’t decide on melodrama or comedy; and it’s not the only one. The animation is mostly of the same sort of design as that of Sleeping Beauty, probably my favourite Disney film… but the last segment of Melody Time‘s seven sequences is a mix of live action and animation, featuring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. It comes across like the sort of kids’ programme you’d expect 1040s American television to have produced – albeit in colour – with an earnest adult celebrity earnestly patronising a group of credulous kids that were clearly cast for their looks and their ability to look and sound credulous. I actually enjoyed the film, and took it for what it was, an historical document,

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK). So, after watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, I went and bought everything else Rivers had done that was available on DVD. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness is actually a collaboration with American film-maker Ben Russell – and the DVD includes Russell’s 2013 short, Let Us Persevere in What We Have Resolved Before We Forget. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness follows musician Lichens on an island off the Estonian coast, in a forest in northern Finland, and as vocalist at a gig in Norway for a black metal band created for the film. The print is crisper than Rivers’s earlier Two Years at Sea – I’m guessing he didn’t use the same production technique and develop it at home – although there’s a similar love of static shots of steaming forests. This is another film where the landscape plays an important role, and I am a big fan of films that make effective use of landscape. I said in an earlier Moving pictures post that in a Rivers film plot was treated as an “emergent phenomenon”, and while A Spell to Ward off the Darkness was clearly and consciously constructed to tell a story – it has three parts! – it displays that same plotlessness. So there’s that dichotomy between a deliberately-designed narrative and the appearance of no narrative – and I like that narrative design can include the possiblility of no narrative, that some people actively seek to tell stories in ways that seem to disobey most rules of narrative. With someone like Rivers, I find I value his work for its cinematography – often excellent, but occasionally clichéd – and for its refusal to follow cinematic narratives.  I’m interested in narrative structures, both in film and fiction, which probably explains why I find Godard so fascinating and commercial fiction so dull. Rivers is that odd beast, an artist working in narrative cinema – which presents its own set of problems and its own reasons for appeal. I shall certainly be following his career from now on.

Splendid Float, Zero Chou (2004, Taiwan). Not sure where I came across mention of this film, but I had to buy a Chinese DVD from eBay in order to see it. And… yes, it was worth it. A young man spends his days as a Taoist priest and his nights as a drag queen on a travelling float. One night, he meets a fisherman and the two fall in love. He later learns the fisherman has died in mysterious circumstances, and determines to discover the truth of his death. But this isn’t a murder-mystery, it’s more a study of the priest’s grief. It would feel like a Taiwanese version of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – an over-rated film, I think – if it focused chiefly on the eponymous, er, float. But it doesn’t. While it presents a mystery regarding the fisherman’s death, it doesn’t make a serious attempt to resolve it. As a Taoist priest, the young man is asked to officiate at a ceremony to pacify the young man’s spirit – and it’s there where the heart of the film lies. For the ceremony to be effective, it needs an article of clothing worn by the deceased. The mother and grandmother have forgotten to bring something; the priest happens to be wearing a T-shirt given to him by the fisherman when last he saw him. There’s a slight weirdness in that the Taoist priest is presented a bit like an ambulance chaser, ie, occupying an office, with a manager, and having to chase up business in order to ensure everyone’s wages are paid. Chou is highly-regarded as a documentary film-maker, although she has also made nine feature films. There’s a joy to Splendid Float, despite its subject, which many films of its like fail to achieve. I might start looking for more of Chou’s films…

Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). After damning Godard with faint praise in a previous Moving pictures post, I found the cinematography in Je vous salue, Marie really very fetching. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite Godard films – after Le mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (and no, I don’t know why I keep on using the translated title for the latter). The story is a pretty blunt retelling of the Virgin Birth, with college dropout boyfriend Joseph and Uncle Gabriel, a rich uncle who jets in and tells Marie she will become pregnant. The film was unpopular with the religious lobby, chiefly because of full-frontal nudity in such an obvious Biblical retelling. One irate viewer at Cannes apparently threw a shaving cream pie at Godard. There’s some lovely nature photography in the film, much more noticeably than in any other Godard film I’ve seen, and although it’s a terrible cliché to use nature’s variety as illustrative of God’s purpose, Godard frames the epiphany entirely from the title character’s viewpoint. I’ve now watched Je vous salue, Marie several times and I’m still trying to work out if it’s Godard’s masterpiece. Le mépris is an obviously excellent piece of film-making, and it’s plain from the first frame. Two or Three Things I Know About Her I admire because it breaks so many of the rules of narrative cinema. But Je vous salue, Marie… I tweeted while watching it that Godard had done more to expand the language of cinema than any other director, and, okay, the comment was prompted by watching this film after a glass or two of wine… But, ignoring those directors from the very early days of film-making who basically wrote the language of narrative cinema, then, yes, I think Godard has done more to expand narrative cinema than any other director of narrative cinema. US experimental and avant-garde cinema, such as that by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren or Bruce Baillie, doesn’t seem to have impacted commercial cinema much, if at all; European avant-garde directors tended to get subsumed into the mainstream. Of course, these days, there are also artists who use video, or video installations (the distinction is important), as their medium, such as Richard Mosse, Ed Atkins or Cécile B Evans, all of whose work I’ve recently found fascinating. Je vous salue, Marie is Godard doing commercial narrative cinema after many years away from it, and I’m still not sure what to make of it – its use of the female experience, its Biblical story-line, its nudity, its nature photography, its classical music soundtrack, its topic… There’s too much in there I’ve seen explored by other directors I admire, and while I don’t believe one or the other is an homage to one or the other, or a reference, or even a straight borrowing, it intrigues me they’ve all pulled the same tools out of the toolbox to tell different stories. Je vous salue, Marie is not one of Godard’s best-regarded films: I think that might be wrong.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Moving pictures 2017, #49

Six films, six different countries. Much as I try to spread my viewing, it doesn’t always work out so well. A good mix of films too. And some pretty good films too.

Les rendez-vous de Paris, Éric Rohmer (1995, France). I’m still slowly working my way through Rohmer’s oeuvre, although I’ve no plans to “accidentally” buy a collection of his films one night after a glass or two of wine – and there are several available… although I have been tempted. But, while Rohmer’s films are very well made, none – except perhaps Love in the Afternoon – has especially taken my fancy. Les rendez-vous de Paris – one day I will have to decided on a standard for non-Anglophone films, either using the English translated title or the original language title – contains three stories based on the title. In one, a young woman arranges to meet a stranger, who she thinks might be the pickpocket who robbed her at a streetmarket, at a brasserie, only to discover her boyfriend there with another woman. In another, a woman meets with her literature teacher in a park. And in the third, an artist meets a young woman and pursues her, abandoning his date. The first story is most memorable, perhaps because of its ludicrous coincidences, but none of it really adds up to a memorable movie. One for Rohmer fans.

The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman (1960, Sweden). And I’m still slowly working my way through Bergman’s oeuvre, although unlike Rohmer I’m buying Bergman’s films rather than renting them. It has got to the point now, however, as a friend pointed out, that each new Bergman film I watch is starting feel like a Bergman pastiche. In The Virgin Spring, a man in  mediæval Sweden sends his beautiful daughter to the nearest church with candles, accompanied by the daughter’s pregnant servant. En route, the two are separated, and the servant witnesses three herdsmen rape and kill the daughter but does nothing. The herdsmen then seek shelter, unknowingly, in the father’s house, but their crime is revealed when they try to sell the daughter’s clothes to the mother. This is grim stiff, and nods at Norse mythology do little to justify the grimness. Bergman favourites Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg and Gunnel Lindblom all appear – as father, mother and servant girl – and the scenes set in the Swedish forests – ie, the ride to the church – look more like the sort of woods you’d expect in a Shakespearean play on stage. Bergman has a body of work second-to-none, and it’s certainly worth working your way through it; but there are only a few stand-outs, and the rest do have a tendency to blur into a cheerless morass of Nordic grimness. One for Bergman fans.

Moana, Ron Clements & John Musker (2016, USA). I’ve no desire to completely ignore Hollywood, although I do ignore much of its output – and I often wonder why I don’t ignore more. But Moana seemed to have generally positive reviews, and despite being a kids’ animated film, the story appeared to be a little bit different. So I bunged it on the rental list, and in due time it popped through the letter box. And… well, I enjoyed it. The story is based on Polynesian mythology. Apparently, there was a period of about a thousand years when they stopped sailing across the sea. According to the film, this is because demigod Maui stole the heart of goddess Te Fiti, creating demon Te Ka in the process. But one thousand years later, chieftain’s daughter Moana is drawn to the ocean, and feels a need to sail beyond the reef. Which is how she ends up tracking down Maui and enlisting his help to find and return Te Fiti’s heart. Everyone who provided voices for the film is of Polynesian extraction – except for Alan Tudyk, who played the, er, chicken – and efforts were made to be as sensitive as possible to Polynesian culture. Moana still came under fire, however, for basing its ship designs on those of an existing island culture. I think the fact Disney made an effort, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago, is laudable. It seems churlish to criticise them for not getting it 100% right, but since I’m not one of the affected parties I guess it’s not my call. I did find the film entertaining, and the animation well done. Major animated films in the twenty-first century so far have proven a bit of a mixed bag, but Moana is definitely one of the better ones.

Accused, Jacob Thuesen (2005, Denmark). So the night before flying out to Copenhagen for Fantasticon, I decided to watch a Danish film. I could perhaps have chosen a more cheerful one. Er, had I more cheerful one on hand, that is. Although the DVD cover prominently features the phrase “Nordic noir”, Accused, well, isn’t. A happily-married couple have a troubled teenage daughter. Who claims her father sexually abused her several years before. He’s arrested and his daughter’s claims are investigated. But they can find no proof, and the daughter’s past history of lying tells against her. Of course, this is an area fraught with moral conundrums. Do you believe the victim, despite the lack of evidence, because of the power dynamics in the relationship? Or should there be a rigorous requirement for proof, and innocence assumed if it doesn’t exist? Because these are not crimes – especially when committed years before – that are likely to generate anything more than the most circumstantial of evidence, and much of that is going to be the psychological damage of the victims. Accused never makes it clear whether the father is guilty or not – the court returns a verdict of innocent because of insufficient evidence. But even that too exacts a toll no one can walk away from such an accusation unscathed even if they are completely innocent. Accused sits in the shadow of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, and comes close to it, despite having more the feel of a teleplay than a feature film.

Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2006, Thailand). This was the second Weerasethakul film I’ve watched – I’d previously seen Tropical Malady (see here), and had been in two minds about it. But I’d forgotten I had Syndromes and a Century on my rental list… at least I did until it arrived. Tropical Malady hadn’t quite worked for me – its two stories didn’t quite join up. Syndromes and a Century is more traditional narrative, although even then it’s not entirely traditional as it doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, if indeed any. The film is split into two parts – the first takes place in a rural clinic, the second in a Bangkok medical centre. Someone recently described Weerasethakul’s films to me as “very you”, and I assume they were referring to the fact they’re “slow cinema” and often light on plot. I’m not sure I’m entirely in tune with Weerasethakul’s artistic sensibilities yet, although I do find what I’ve seen so far intriguing. There’s a documentary feel to Syndromes and a Century, making it one of those movies that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction (much like Ben Rivers’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, which actually depicts Oliver Laxe making a film that was later released as Mimosas). Of course, I’ve done the same in my own fiction, which is why it’s a boundary that interests me  – crossing fiction genre boundaries is boring, and people these days do it so uncritically, they’ve no fucking idea where the boundaries lie. But facts, everyone knows what facts are. Or at least, they used to. Until Trump and Brexit and moronic right-wingers with all the critical faculties of sea slugs, which breath through their anuses, not to mention the right-wing press… We need a better appreciation of facts, and fiction, ironically, is a good place to develop that appreciation.

Hera Pheri, Priyadarshan (2000, India). The DVD cover art is a bit misleading, although the film does revolve around three people – but it doesn’t involve them singing and dancing while playing a bizarre game of Twister. Although there were some very bizarre musical numbers… . Shyam has moved to the city to join a bank – he feels they owe him a job since his father died in a fire while working at the bank. But the job instead goes to a female candidate, Anuradha. Shyam goes to look for somewhere to live, has his pocket picked, and chases the man he thinks is responsible… Which he wasn’t. Later, he discovers that same man, Raju, a con man, is staying in the same house in which Shyam rents a room. Shyam tries various schemes to get the bank job, while Raju tells Anuradhu he will make sure she keeps it. Then the trio, plus landlord Baburao, stumble across a kidnapping plot when they get a wrong number. So they decide to insert themselves as middlemen, bump up the demanded ransom, and so make themselves millions of rupees. It does not go well. I’ve been doing quite well with my Bollywood choices so far, and while Hera Pheri was certainly entertaining, it wasn’t all that good – the comedy was too broad and repetitive, the whole kidnapping thing was ridiculous – and the fight scenes when the trio battle the kidnappers completely jumped the shark – and the two main male characters weren’t especially nice: boorishly entitled and whiny Shyam and lazy dishonest Raju. One for fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Moving pictures 2017, #48

I’ve managed to knock the percentage of films I’ve watched since 2001 that are from the US down to 50.9%, but I’m still trying to get it below half. So far in 2017 alone, the percentage is much lower – only 26%, with the UK at 12%, China at 8%, France at 7% and so on… I’ve also watched movies from 52 different countries to date in 2017.

Into the Sea, Marion Poizeau (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, an hour-long documentary about an Irish surfboarder’s attempt to introduce the sport to Iran, specifically to Baluchistan, and, being female, using female contacts in Iran. I’ve watched a bunch of Iranian films, I’ve even visited the country (although it was back in the days of the Shah), so I have some knowledge of the country. And many of the obstacles met by Easkey as she tries to surf on the Baluchistani coast, with the help of snowboarder Mona and diver Shalha – and okay, I’d always thought Baluchistan was a part of Pakistan not Iran – came as no real surprise. However, the way the three women won over the local male authorities was a done really well, and the scenes of them teaching some of the area’s male youth to surf promised a brighter future. (Much as the young women of the local villages would have liked to surf, their families would not let them.) Surfing is not a sport, or a pasttime, I find interesting – like many sports, it’s more fun to do than to watch – and while Easkey’s mission may have been born out of a selfish desire to surf a coast no one has surfed before, what she actually achieved is so much more. In these days of normalised fascism and overt racism by world leaders, it’s nice to know that some people still believe in, and are successful in creating, bridges between different cultures. No matter what prompted it, or what the “bridge” is made from.

The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1952, Japan). I found this box set on eBay and bought it because it includes an Ozu film that is not otherwise available. It classifies only two directors as “Japanese masters” – Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi… and while it’s hard to deny them their master status, it’s surely a title that should apply to more directors. The Ozu I couldn’t otherwise find is The End of Summer, which the BFI doesn’t appear to have released yet in the lovely dual format editions they have of Ozu’s other films (of course, now I’ve tracked down a copy, they’ll go and release it…). But The Life of Oharu is Mizoguchi, a director I do not esteem as I do Ozu, although David Tallerman repeatedly tells me he is very good and insists I watch his films… And having now seen The Life of Oharu (or O-haru), I can sort of see what he means. This wasn’t an especially good print, far too dark in places, and with a muddy soundtrack. One of the things I like most about Ozu’s films is that they’re ensemble pieces, where as Mizoguchi’s, if the titles are any indication, are not. And that’s certainly true of The Life of Oharu, which tells the story of its title character from the moment she’s exiled from her liege lord’s land for falling in love with a man of a much lower class (he gets beheaded). She’s then chosen to be the mother of another lord’s heir, but is sent home afterwards with a pittance. Her father had run up debts in expectation of her reward, and so sells her to a house of courtesans. But she fails at that too. There’s a heartbreaking scene near the end where Oharu is taken to meet her son, who has now taken over as lord on the death of his father. But all she’s allowed to do is watch him as he walks past with his entourage, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that her history is too embarrassing for him to ever acknowledge her as his mother. A depressingly grim film in places, but a good one.

The Hustler*, Robert Rossen (1961, USA). I’m not a Paul Newman fan, I’d much sooner watch Rock Hudson or Cary Grant or William Hurt, but The Hustler is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and there was a box set of four Newman films going for a couple of quid in an Amazon Prime Day or something a few months ago… so I bought it. And… meh. US critics seem to like films about working class types who try to better themselves, appear to succeed, but walk away with nothing more than their dignity battered. Because, of course, actually prospering would show up the American Dream for the hollow lie that it is. Newman plays the title role, a pool shark who meets his match in Jackie Gleason, but then goes away to improve his game and… well, the path to riches can never run smooth in the American Dream. Because it only really exists in cultural artefacts whose sole purpose seems to be to prove its existence by documenting its failures. If that makes sense. In a way, it helps mythologise those who do succeed in the real world – all the while helpfully obscuring just how much of an evil shit, or how bafflingly lucky, they were to succeed in the first place. None of which is especially relevant. Newman is beaten, he goes way, gets better, comes back, and humiliates Gleason. Along the way, some shit happens. There was apparently a Tom Cruise vehicle sequel a couple of decades later. I won’t be watching it.

Joi Baba Felunath, Satyajit Ray (1979, India). I mistakenly bought this thinking it was unavailable in the UK, only to then discover it’s in Artificial Eye’s Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2, which is readily available. Oh well. I hope that version is a better transfer than this one. It didn’t help that the subtitles were often out of synch with the dialogue – and disappeared altogether in some parts of the film – so I was never really sure who was saying what (in one scene, you have to remember the subtitles from a dialogue-free scene some thirty seconds earlier to figure out what’s going on). And the movie had been encoded onto the disc as two films, one of 82 minutes and another of 23 minutes that began immediately after the first. Which was confusing. Joi Baba Felunath is an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Ray featuring his private investigator character Feluda. In Joi Baba Felunath, he is asked while visiting Benares to look into the theft of a valuable Ganesha figurine made of gold and jewels. The owner has a good idea who the thief is – a wealthy merchant who has asked several times to buy it – but he’s not sure. Feluda, with his cousin and a friend who writes detective novels, investigates. It’s not a convoluted mystery, and there’s no real urgency to Feluda’s quest – although a showdown with the villain does get threatening, and a murder later follows. It’s also a wholly male film, and there’s no soundtrack – although there are a couple of musical set-pieces. Joi Baba Felunath seems to be quite well-regarded in Ray’s oeuvre, but I thought it played more like a drama than the thriller its plot demanded.

Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough (1969, UK). The title rang a vague bell, and I stumbled across this in a charity shop so it was doubtless worth a punt… The title refers to WWI and the film is an anti-war musical that tries to make palatable its points but instead makes light of them. The dialogue is, a pre-credit title card helpfully informs, taken entirely from published commentary by the historical characters depicted. Hindsight renders this somewhat less than shocking – we know WWI was a clusterfuck, and we know it was because of the clueless generals. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tackles the same subject but far better. Oh! What a Lovely War, however, does have a fascinating cast list – pretty much everyone who was anyone in UK acting circles in 1969. And quite a few whose stars would not rise for several years, such as Ian Holm. It’s a typical Attenborough movie: big bold statement, colourfully presented, top-drawer cast, sentiments the audience have long since assimilated, and just enough whimsy in the staging to be eligible for an award… It was entertaining enough, but horror stories about WWI no longer have the shock value they did half a century ago, and frankly if anyone these days is shocked by Oh! What a Lovely War they must be a fucking idiot. Not a bad film, by any means, just one whose time has come and gone.

The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri (1965, Italy). I must admit, these Shameless releases are actually quite good. Well, perhaps “good” is not exactly the right word… But, you can’t go wrong with a well-made giallo, and the Italians certainly made enough of them for one or two to stand out. I was so taken with Footsteps on the Moon, also released on DVD by Shameless, that I bought my own copy. The Tenth Victim is famously based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, ‘The Ninth Victim’, and he later went and wrote two sequels to the film titled Victim Prime and Hunter/Victim. Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni are contestants in a televised game in which the contestants try to stalk and kill each other. The hunter and victim are picked by computer. Andress has come up with an interesting spin: she will kill her victim on live television during a commercial by her sponsor. Which means it all has to be just right, and the repeated opportunities to kill Mastronianni which she fails to take persuade him she is not his hunter… It’s all complete tosh, of course, but it’s one of those movies which tries to project the future by filming in Brutalist/Modernist buildings of the time. It doesn’t always get it right – or even get it remotely close sometimes. But the misses are pretty cool, anyway. Mastroianni sleepwalks through his role, Andress is Andress. There’s not much in the way of surprises in the plot. This is a film that’s all about the look and the setting. And in that it’s pretty entertaining. I might try a few more of these Shameless releases…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880