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Moving pictures 2018, #63

I’m a bit behind on these, chiefly because I’ve been busy with other things during the last couple of weeks. Such as getting a new job. In Sweden. So those few nights when I’ve been at home, and not celebrating, I’ve been mostly watching TV series, such as season two of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, season three of Lost, and the first season of Dollhouse. I’ve got three or four of these posts to get out before the end of the year. Not to mention picking the best five movies – I’m dropping the documentary split I used in my best of the half-year post (see here) – out of the 600+ films I watched in 2018…

Anyway, aside from the last two films here, and they’re hardly twenty-first century commercial Hollywood extruded movie product, this post goes on a bit of a global tour, with a film from Europe, two from Asia and one from Africa.

Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2014, Turkey). It took me a couple of goes to get into this, but once I was twenty or so minutes into it, something clicked and I found myself engrossed – for all of its 196 minutes. True, I’ve seen films by Ceylan before, and I know he’s an excellent director. His cinematography distinguishes him, but I’ve found the tone of each of his films very different. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for example, is almost Tarantino-esque. And Winter Sleep very definitely isn’t. Aydın, once a famous actor, now owns a cave hotel in Cappadoccia and several properties in the town. The film opens with Aydın accompanying his agent to collect rent from a tenant… who has no job and no money, and reacts angrily to threats of more of his possessions being taken by bailiffs. But not as angrily as his young son, who throws a rock through the window Aydın’s Land Rover. That starts off an ongoing feud, in which Aydın cannot understand why the tenant is so angry and so uncooperative. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife is deteriorating, to the extent that he muscles in and rubbishes her charity campaign to fund local schools. So he decides to head to Istanbul, to work on his pet project, a history of Turkish theatre. But he gets sidetracked because one of his friends has been badmouthing him… And this is one of those films where things follow on naturally from one to the other but there’s no real story as such, except perhaps some form of realisation by Aydın over how badly he’s treated his friends and family. And tenants. A slow-mover, but definitely worth watching.

Prison, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). Bergman made a shitload of films – some for the cinema, some for television, some released on both media. Prison is Bergman’s first film both directed and solely written by him, and it’s notable because of its film-within-a-film narrative structure. Bergman apparently later disowned Prison, although there’s no good reason I could see while watching it why he should have done. It’s an early work, sure, and he used similar techniques, and covered similar topics, much better in later films. But Prison is still a good piece of drama, and if its story feels a bit belaboured at times that’s likely a consequence of Bergman’s lack of experience, although he had directed five films before this one. A film director is approached by an old teacher who tries to sell him a very obvious and very belaboured story of good and evil. The director has his co-workers discuss the story, but they pass on it… only to find real life sort of illustrating the old teacher’s story. But there’s another level of film-within-a-film, and that’s an explicit take on an early silent comedy, with people jumping in and out of windows and closets, all at faster-than-normal speed. Though its subject matter is as weighty as anything Bergman made, Prison didn’t feel especially grim or humourless. Perhaps that was why Bergman disowned it…

Let’s Make Laugh, Alfred Cheung (1983, China). This was apparently the most successful film in Hong Kong in 1983, and one of the most successful comedies in China for that decade. Shame then that it’s not at all funny. And I don’t think it’s an 1980s thing, or a Hong Kong thing. I mean, I’ve seen enough Hong Kong films to get the gurning thing, and the physical comedy, but while there’s plenty of the former there’s very little of the latter and much of the movie seems more focused on its romantic subplot. Idiot security guard is asked to guard a house because its owner has substantial debts, not knowing that owner has abandoned his wife and she’s still living in the property. But then the woman’s parents turn up, and she asks the guard to pretend to be her husband… The problem is the guard is such an idiot, and so useless, that he ever seems to achieve anything. And the wife is completely self-centred. Which means the romantic sub-plot, er, isn’t. I’ve seen some successful and very funny Hong Kong comedies – anything by Jackie Chan, for example – so the success of this one as a comedy is baffling.

Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal). I’ve now seen six films by Sembène, and have a seventh yet to watch, and I really do think his films are bloody brilliant. I’m astonished they’re so hard to find. He made eleven films, and only three are available in the UK, two on a single dual release. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed from the films I’ve watched, a theme that unites them, it’s that, in Sembène’s world, when men run things it’s absolute chaos, and it’s only when the women take over that things run smoothly. I can go for that. In Mandabi, a postman approaches the two wives of Ibrahima Dieng, who has been unemployed for several years, and tells them there is a money order for 250 Francs waiting for him at the post office. So he heads off to collect it. But the post office won’t give it to him without ID. And when he goes to the police station to get himself an ID, he needs another piece of paper… Meanwhile, his friends and family all want a piece of the money, and have started spending it. None of them realising, because none of them have read the letter accompanying the money order, that 30 Francs of the Fr 250 is for the nephew’s mother, Fr 200 to kept for the nephew, and only Fr 20 for Ibrahima… So on the one hand you have everyone spending money that isn’t theirs, while on the other Ibrahima gets himself further into debt in his efforts to persuade the post office to hand over the money order. The sight of Ibrahima, in his shining boubou, strutting down the street, convinced his fortunes have finally turned is one of the great comedy visuals.

The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles (2018, USA). This is one of those movies which has a more interesting production history than it does a plot. Welles, of course, was a true Hollywood maverick, and would finance his films himself, shooting them in parts over an extended period as he worked to raise the money to continue filming. And yet, in most cases, the films that resulted are pretty damn seamless. I came to Welles late, but I became a fan after seeing his later films rather than because of his more famous earlier ones. The Other Side of the Wind was not Welles’s last film, but it was locked in legal limbo for so long it’s only just finally been re-edited and released, thirty-three years after Welles died. And, in fact, pretty much the entire cast of The Other Side of the Wind are also now dead. It’s a mockumentary about a great director, played by John Huston, and the film he is working on, which appears to be the worst sort of New Hollywood soft porn director-as-auteur excess. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast – which comprises a number of familiar faces – all play pretty horrible Hollywood stereotypes. Movie industry stereotypes, that is, rather than the usual simplistic Hollywood characterisation. The end result is… an interesting historical document. But not a good film. Thee are good bits, of course – Welles was one of the best directors the US has produced – but this doesn’t feel like Welles at his best, and this version here – edited by Peter Bogdanovich, who play’s Huston assistant – does its best but it’s not Welles’s vision and you cab;t help but wonder how Welles would have put together his footage, especially when you remember other of his films, such as Mr Arkadin

After the Thin Man, WS Van Dyke (1936, USA). The thin man of The Thin Man was actually the villain of that original movie, but it proved so successful a film, and the characters played by Myrna Loy and William Powell so popular, that a sequel was made, with the perfectly understandable title of After the Thin Man (as in “following the previous film” or “following on from the villain of the previous film”), but which served only to confuse audiences into thinking Powell’s character, a semi-retired PI, was the Thin Man. And so the moniker sort of became his as the film series progressed. Otherwise, there’s no link between the story of After the Thin Man and The Thin Man. Loy and Powell are returning to their San Francisco home after a holiday away when they’re contacted by Loy’s tearful sister, whose playboy husband has vanished. He proves remarkably easy to find. Unfortunately, he’s involved in an extortion scam, and gets murdered for his pains. And the chief suspect is Loy’s tearful sister… Watching this film, you have to wonder how much of the boozing was acted, because while the dialogue between the two leads was certainly witty and snappy, and occasionally sounded ad-libbed although it may not have been, Powell did seem to have a shit-eating grin on his face for much of the film. The Thin Man was popular enough to spawn a series, but this follow-up felt weak, perhaps because it spent more time exploring Powell’s and Loy’s relationship than it did its mystery plot. Still, worth seeing if you like 1930s Hollywood movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #62

At least two of the films in this half-dozen I thought were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but aren’t. And I’m not sure why Bondarchuk’s War and Peace – at least one, if not all four, of the films – never made the grade.

Conversation Piece, Luchino Visconti (1974, Italy). Visconti seems to have a thing about veils, as at least one woman in his films appears wearing one. In this film it’s a flashback to the mother of the character played by Burt Lancaster, as the movie itself is set in the 1970s. You can tell from the fashions. Boy, can you tell. Lancaster plays a wealthy professor who lives in a Roman palazzo with large collection of books and “conversation pieces” (a type of informal group portrait, typically British and typically eighteenth-century). He is pressured into renting the top floor of is palazzo to an overbearing jet-setting marchesa, ostensibly for her daughter and her daughter’s fiancé, but actually for her own lover. Things go wrong from the start. The lover, under the impression the apartment has been purchased for him, starts knocking down walls… But despite getting off to a bad start, he and the professor become unlikely friends. The professor tries to hide the shady things going on in the lover’s life – at one point even hiding him from the marchesa, at another providing him with an alibi for the police. As he does, so he becomes less of a recluse and, surprisingly, less attached to his books and conversation pieces. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the film, given it didn’t have much in the way of a plot, or indeed a cast, which was small but high-powered. Lancaster was especially good, better I think than in The Leopard, and Helmut Berger managed a remarkable transition from dislikable to sympathetic. But the film suffered somewhat from having too small a story – evident in the fact it was shot entirely indoors.

Cold Skin, Xavier Gens (2017, France). Not sure what prompted me to add this to my rental list. Perhaps it was something in the description. Certainly neither the director nor any member of the cast was known to me. And while I’ve identified the film as French – although these days few films are the product of a single nation – Cold Skin is actually a French-Spanish production, adapted from a 2002 Spanish novel, but filmed as English language. An Irishman during WWI hitches a ride to a remote South Atlantic island to work as its meteorologist. There is only one other person on the island: a lighthouse keeper. And he doesn’t seem all there. The reason for that the Irishman discovers during his first night on the island when his hut is attacked by a horde of fish-people. He manages to survive and moves into the fortified lighthouse. Where he discovers the keeper has a fish-people woman as a sex slave. And, er, that’s about it. The Irishman learns the fish-people are not monsters (but the keeper is), even though the lighthouse is attacked nightly by swarms of them. It felt a bit like a less-commercial del Toro film, to be honest, and I’m not a del Toro fan. The fish-people were done well, and the two actors were of the type where you know their faces but you can’t think of their names and you can’t remember what you’ve seen them in before. Meh.

The Scarlet Empress, Josef von Sternberg (1934, USA). The empress in question is Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg (a principality in Prussia), but she is better known as Catherine the Great. She’s played by Marlene Dietrich in what is pretty much a straight-up Hollywood biopic. She’s taken to Russia to marry the Imperial heir, Peter, but he turns out to be a half-wit, so she finds her pleasures elsewhere, all the while trying not to offend the actual Empress of Russia, and eventually seizes power six months after Peter is crowned. And goes on to rule Russia for thirty-four years. Despite not being Russian. Neither was Peter. He was born in Kiel, in Schleswig-Holstein, was at one point declared the King of Finland and at another the heir presumptive to the Swedish throne. His mother, however, was Russian, as was his aunt, the Empress of Russia was his aunt. However, despite the manglings and mischaracterisations, The Scarlet Empress proved surprisingly entertaining because of the production design. I don’t know who was responsible – von Sternberg obviously, in some part – but the sets were completely bonkers. Giant doors with Lovecraftian marquetry on them. All the walls designed to resemble the logs of a wooden fort. And the chairs! All designed to look like gargoyles from some deranged hell. It’s a shame it was in black and white. It must have looked like Hope Hodgson on acid in colour. Perhaps one day someone will colourise it. I hope so: it would certainly rival Mughal-E-Azam (see here) for eye-curdling visuals.

Rififi, Jules Dassin (1955, France). There’s a famous scene in Rififi, where the thieves have taken over the flat above a jewellery shop and cut a hole in the floor and lower themselves into the shop. While this was playing, I was convinced I’d seen it before. But in colour. I’m thinking maybe it was pastiche of the scene in something by Buñuel but I’m not sure. Rififi is a well-known film, and highly-regarded in French cinema, so it’s likely it inspired a similar scene in another movie. Dassin, despite the name, was American, and after being outed as a Communist and blacklisted in the USA (Land of the Free kof kof), fled to France, where he continued to direct movies. Rififi was apparently a rush-job, based on a novel that no one thought any good – Truffaut said of it, “Out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. The plot is pretty basic. A jewel thief finishes a five-year sentence, recruits a gang, and robs a jewellery store under cover of night. Then it all falls apart. Because one of the gang gives a stolen diamond ring to his girlfriend, a singer at a gangster’s club, and the gangster subsequently figures out who was responsible for the robbery. Cue shoot outs. Rififi is straight-up American noir, but set in France and with a French cast. But then the French were quick to adopt film noir – the Cahiers du Cinéma were big fans of the genre, and Godard, for one, pastiched it several times during his career. And that, I think, is one of the problems with Rififi. It’s film noir, and the French made better film noir when they were making knowing take-offs of it. The fact the only thing that stands out about Rififi is its inventive robbery probably tells you all you need to know. Worth seeing, but fans of film noir will appreciate it more than others.

Kin, Jonathan & Josh Baker (2018, USA). A young adopted black boy with a white father is helping a gang he was fallen in with steal old wiring from a derelict factory when he gets caught in the middle of a firefight between two groups of armoured aliens who appear through some sort of portal. As you do. He manages to escape, but returns later and discovers one of the high-tech blasters carried by one of  the aliens. Meanwhile, his stepbrother has returned home having finished his sentence. But his dad doesn’t want him around. And with good reason. It turns out he owes money to a gangster who protected him in prison, and the only way he can arrange to pay it off is to help the gangster rob his father’s construction office. But they’re caught in the act, the father is shot and killed, as is the gangster’s brother. So the step-brothers go on the run. Along with the alien blaster. Kin suffers because it doesn’t know if it’s a science fiction film or a gangster film. The latter are ten a penny, and need to be really special to stand out. Kin isn’t. The former, well… there isn’t enough there for the film to get a good grip on its science-fictional ideas, not even given the film’s final twist. For all that, it’s a reasonably accomplished piece of movie-making. The cast are generally good, although James Franco’s gangster joins a long line of clichéd psycho movie gangsters, Dennis Quaid’s blue-collar honest Joe dad is no less a stereotype, and and as for Zoë Kravitz’s kind-hearted lapdancer… Meh.

War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Two films in and I think these are actually quite brilliant. They were massive technical achievements for Soviet cinema at the time, and every rouble spent, every technical ambition realised, is up there plain to see on the screen. Not to mention the cast of thousands. I believe Ilya Muromets holds the records for the most number of extras – I’ve heard figures ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 – although a lot of sources claim Gandhi had 300,000 extras. But the Ilya Muromets extras were costumed, which makes it a more impressive achievement. Some of these War and Peace movies must have casts numbering tens of thousands, again all in period costume (well, uniform). Anyway, this second film focuses on the eponymous heroine, and her burgeoning relationship with Prince Bolkonski. There are lavish balls – and they are lavish. But we see much of its from Rostova’s point of view, although the POV does jump about a bit, with swathes of cloth sweeping across the screen, which is odd. Also odd is the inclusion of occasional scenes where the dialogue is in Russian, since the rest of the film has  been dubbed into English (well, except for the French and German dialogue, which isn’t dubbed at all. This is apparently because the original 70mm masters have degraded beyond restoration, so an edited version was used for the DVD release, but with some scenes – the ones that aren’t dubbed – added from other surviving copies. It’s plain the full film, all 431 minutes, in 70mm – albeit on apparently awful Soviet film stock – must have been amazing. And there isn’t a single copy in good enough condition remaining to capture that – although some DVD editions are apparently better than others. That’s a shame. Perhaps we’ll be lucky and someone will find a well-preserved copy in some fleapit in a former SSR. Something similar happened to Metropolis. And to Limite. Although both are still incomplete. But they’re also much older films. Anyway, War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova finishes with the opening shots in the Battle of Borodino, and it lokos fantastic. I can’t wait to watch War and Peace, Part 3: 1812.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #61

And another eclectic – or should that be catholic?-  half-dozen films, albeit not so geographically varied as half of them are from China…

Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón (2001, Mexico). I’ve known of this film for years, and that it was highly regarded, but until I came to watch it I hadn’t realised it was by Cuarón, or that he made it after some of his better-known films. Or indeed that Cuarón was Mexican. I had thought he was Spanish. Anyway, Y Tu Mamá También is one of those back-to-basics film projects successful directors make every now and again, and which occasionally end up as the best film in their oeuvre. Which doesn’t seem to be entirely true of Cuarón, although this is certainly one of his better pieces of work. Two teenagers agree to take a young woman to a beach they invented… a day or two drive south of Mexico City. Each have their reasons for making the road trip– and that’s what this is, a road trip movie. The young woman has just left her husband after learning he is having an affair. The two teenagers have the hots for her… and it turns out there is more at stake than initially seems. Surprisingly, it turns out the made-up beach actually exists, and the three spend an idyllic few days camping there. But the woman has cancer and not long to live, and when they decide to return to the city, she remains behind with a local family. I was under the impression this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but it’s not, or at least not the 2013 version, which is the one I’m using. It probably deserves to be on the list. I think it was this film which made Gael García Bernal an international star.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Henry King (1952, USA). The story from which this was adapted is generally considered to be one of Ernest Hemingway’s best. I am not, I must admit, much of a Hemingway fan – or much of a fan of the many film adaptations made of his fiction. Even so, he was ill-served by this one. Gregory Peck plays a writer who is dying of a gangrenous wound while on safari. There are a couple of flashbacks explaining how he injured himself, but much of the story is in the extended flashbacks which detail the writer’s career. How he started out feeling sorry for himself, lived off his wife – Ava Gardner – in a poor quarter of Paris, became successful but then Gardner becomes an alcoholic after a miscarriage and leaves him. He takes up with a countess, but she dumps him when she realises he still loves Gardner. So he heads off to Spain to find her, gets embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, finds Gardner driving an ambulance on the front mere moments before she’s killed by an enemy shell… Back in Paris, he meets the woman he’s on safari with. Apparently, in the story he dies, but Hollywood went for the happy ending and he’s rescued in time. I can understand why people consider this one of Hemingway’s best stories – it has all his favourite things in it, well, except for bull-fighting, I don’t remember any bull-fighting but Peck spends time in Spain so maybe there was. Missable.

Under the Shadow, Babak Anvari (2016, UK). A horror film made by an Iranian director with an Iranian cast who speak Farsi and which is set in Tehran… but turns out to be a UK production filmed in Jordan? Such is the nature of twenty-first century film financing. None of which should be taken as a criticism of Under the Shadow as a film qua film. It is enormously effective. I’m a big fan of Iranian cinema and happy to slot this one in it, for all that it didn’t even get within shouting distance of the country. The story is relatively simple – a married couple with a young daughter find their flat haunted by a djinn, but the husband, who is sent away to serve on the front, is sceptical of his wife’s complaints. Once he’s away things gets worse, and it’s a battle between the woman and the evil spirit that seems to have occupied their building. For much of its length, Under the Shadow is like a domestic Iranian drama by Kiarostami or Farhadi, which is high praise indeed. But then it shifts into a horror register, and while the scares are relatively tame by current standards they’re effective – and I for one appreciate scares that are just that, scares, not gruesome dismemberings or something. Definitely worth seeing.

To My Wife, Wang Xiaolie (2012, China). So, for a variety of reasons, mainly involving an upgrade that actually made an app almost entirely useless, but such is the way of techbros and their reading too much into bad science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s (seriously, as fans of the genre we have a lot to fucking answer for), but anyway the film I’d planned to watch was unavailable. And I found myself unwilling to watch another episode of one of the many box sets my mother has lent me, so I went hunting on Amazon Prime. And found this. A solid Chinese drama that doesn’t even have a complete IMDB entry. It opens with two men about to be executed on, er, the seashore. It’s all to do with a woman and the last days of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912. The scene cuts to a young woman in a sports car on an empty road, she turns a corner out of sight, and we hear her crash. Now she’s in the past, in the years leading up to 1912, with a patron who supports the Qing dynasty and a brother and a fiancé who both support the end of the empire but in different ways. There are scenes of her after the car crash, now in a coma… But the she wakes and is discharged, and her husband is identical to the man who plays the admiral representing imperial forces in the scenes set in the past. And it all seems relatively straightforward, if somewhat confusing, with the past being a coma dream of the woman in the present, based on a testament from the time she had been reading… Except the film ends with the opening scene of  the executions, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s for a film being made by the woman’s husband and starring herself. It’s an interesting historical story, but the ham-fisted attempt to make it a time-slip romance – a well-established sub-genre in written romance fiction – actually makes it a more interesting film. As far as I can determine, given it has no real IMDB entry, and there’s almost no information about it available on the English-language internet, this is not a tentpole Chinese release, and either a straight to DVD or streaming-only movie. But I thought it quite good. The cast were good, the historical scenes convincing, and if the time-slip element was a little confusing it can’t be faulted for trying. Better than expected.

Detective Chinatown, Chen Sicheng (2015, China). And after watching the above, I stumbled on this – which at least has a Wikipedia entry – and since I was in the mood for Chinese cinema, and coincidentally eating Chinese food – although that later proved less than successful but we won’t go into that – and the thing about Chinese films is not so much that they’re Chinese but that they can have a Chinese approach to well-established film genres… And so their take on them can be just as entertaining as the film’s actual story. Here we have the “reluctant buddies” movie, with an incompetent cop teamed up with a brilliant assistant to solve a crime and, for added shits and giggles, the detective is trying to solve the crime of which he has himself been accused. It’s hardly a new story, it’s pretty much a universal one in fact. In this instance, failed police academy candidate and nerd Qin Feng has been sent to visit his successful uncle Tang Ren, a top detective in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Except Tang is nothing of the sort, but a low-life who works for a corrupt police sergeant. Except now he’s number one suspect for the murder of a member of a gold robbery gang. And the gold is still missing. So while Tang’s incompetent police sergeant is competing with a go-getter rival to solve the crime, Tang needs to clear his name and only geeky nephew Qin can do it. The film doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a thriller, which means the thriller elements are quite good but the comedy aspects feel forced. Which is a shame because Tang, played by Wang Biaoqang, is a good comedic character – so much so, the film often feels like a vehicle for him, which it isn’t. The final twist is unexpected but doesn’t substantially alter what’s gone before. If Detective Chinatown had been made in Hollywood, it would probably be typical Hollywood product, but the fact it’s Chinese and set in Bangkok, and its plot plays on elements of Chinese culture and society, makes it much more interesting than typical Hollywood product. There was a sequel titled, obviously, Detective Chinatown 2, this time set in New York.

Blind Mountain, Li Yang (1999, China). And yet another Chinese film, but a much more serious movie than the one above. Li is often lumped in with the Sixth Generation directors, but he doesn’t include himself in the group. Certainly, the topic, and approach to filming, of Blind Mountain has elements in common with some Sixth Generation directors’ movies. It covers a serious problem in China: the kidnap of women and their sale to remote villages as wives for single men. Huang Lu is offered a job in the north of China, which she accepts as her family has debts. But when she reaches a small village in the Qin Mountains, she is held captive and told by a man she is now married to his son. When she tries to run away, they beat her and then chain her leg to the bed. Her “husband” rapes her. She tries to escape several times, but each time is caught and beaten. One time, she even makes it as far as the nearest town, but is dragged off the bus to the city by her “husband” and no one intervenes, not even the police – because it is domestic. Eventually, she gets a message out and the police arrive. But even they prove mostly powerless against the ranked villagers… With the exception of Huang, the cast are non-professionals, in fact many are villagers from the villages in the area where the film was made. There are also two version to the movie – the international release, and the Chinese government-approved version which has a much “happier” ending. (I saw the former.) There is a great deal of astonishing scenery in China – including urban scenery – and Fifth and Sixth Generation directors make excellent use of it. As does Li here. The copy I saw wasn’t a great transfer, but the landscape cinematography was stunningly beautiful in places. The performances, despite being a mostly amateur cast, are strong, and the story is certainly one that needs to be told. Blind Mountain is the second in a loose trilogy. I’ve not seen the first, Blind Shaft, but I now plan to. And the third film, Blind Way, was supposed to be released last year but doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through or streaming yet. Li Yang is definitely a director whose career is worth following.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #60

It’s been a while now, but I’m at the stage where I’m not so much wondering why films appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as I am watching films and wondering why they do not appear on it. One of the films below is from the list, and I’m not entirely sure why it made the grade – early Chinese cinema, and for the 1930s a good piece of drama, but it’s basically just a retread of The Phantom of the Opera. Bambi, on the other hand, was a surprise – not the over-sentimental Disney blockbuster I expected, but an animated film with some lovely design work in it…

The Debut, Gleb Panfilov (1970, Russia). I started watching this film thinking it was a more recent piece of work than it was. The Amazon Prime blurb suggested it was some sort of Russian art house black and white film, and while it was certainly black and white and Russian, it was actually nearly fifty years old and a mainstream USSR release. None of which makes it likely to be a bad film. Which it certainly wasn’t. Panfilov made a bunch of films, and usually cast his wife, Inna Churikova, in the lead. This is one of them. She plays an amateur actress who is cast as Joan of Arc in a professional production filming in her town. It’s her dream role. She is also in a relationship with a married man. I like Soviet films – they may present a somewhat rose-tinted view of life in the country, but I expect they’re a damn sight closer to the reality than anything Hollywood has produced set in the USSR, or indeed the USA. I especially like the fact that equality – both gender and race – seems pretty much baked into Soviet society. Yes, Churikova is seeing a married man, but in terms of her acting career she’s not expected to accept less pay even though she’s playing the title role. It’s hard not to consider Western society a step backwards in some respects. As a movie, The Debut (AKA Начало AKA Nachalo AKA The Beginning) has its moments and Churikova is generally good in the title role. It feels like a solid film of its type, with nothing that stands out. I’d watch more by Panfilov, and The Debut is definitely worth a punt if you’re interested in Soviet cinema.

The Man with the Iron Heart, Cédric Jimenez (2017, France). The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is certainly one of the more dramatic stories of WWII which might be considered worthy of film adaptation, especially since it comprises plucky underdogs killing an evil Nazi monster (and how long before that is considered offensive by the right-wing commentariat?). But of all the books to use as a source for the story, Lauren Binet’s HHhH is the last one I’d have chosen. Chiefly because it’s about Binet researching his subject – ie, Operation Anthropoid – and the impact of his project, and what he discovers, on his life. It’s an excellent book, neither fiction nor autobiography but something of both. Which is all very good, as Binet is an excellent writer. But the film adaptation turns it into, basically, a biopic of Heydrich. And we do not need biopics of evil Nazi monsters. When a film is about the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer, then the assassins are the heroes. The Man with the Iron Heart either does not understand that or has chosen to ignore it – and neither position is defensible. To be fair, the film covers the major elements of the assassination. But it also spends far too long establishing Heydrich as a sympathetic character. We’re told he’s a monster, and we witness some of his monstrosities, but the film is invested in him as the protagonist to the extent it feels like we’re supposed to be upset when he’s attacked and dies. Disappointing. Read the book, it’s way better.

The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen (1968, China). I found this on Amazon Prime. There’s a shitload of really quite good stuff hidden away on Amazon Prime… but, of course, most viewers are only interested in the Hollywood crap. The Arch is an early Hong Kong historical drama and is generally recognised to be one of the first Hong Kong “art house” films. Fifty years later, it’s hard to determine what might back then have been considered art house, especially with Hong Kong cinema, which during the 1960s was dominated by rom coms and wuxia films made by the Shaw Brothers (at least to Western observers). And while the time it was made is important when considering a film, from half a century away The Arch doesn’t seem substantially different to other art house movies of its time. But Hong Kong had no such tradition then, nor any female directors (Tang also graduated in film studies from the University of California), and it may well be that Tang’s gender is a major reason why The Arch exists. This is a good thing, of course. The film is set in a small village during the 1900s. The chief pillar of the community is a widow, who is so revered an arch in her honour has been erected on the lane leading into the village. But then a troop of soldiers arrive and the widow finds herself drawn to the troop’s captain… The Arch is also in Mandarin, not Cantonese, which is another difference to commercial Hong King cinema of the 1960s. Tang made only four feature films – The Arch was her first – but she definitely seems like a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring.

A Jester’s Tale, Karel Zeman (1964, Czechia). I know of Zeman from his excellent adaptation of the adventures of the Baron Munchausen, which has a singularly Czechian mix of live action and animation, in a way that is so obviously an inspiration for Anglophone animators like Terry Gilliam (who does cheerfully cite Zeman as an influence). Anyway, Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (see here) was great, but I forget why I added his A Jester’s Tale to my rental list. But I’m glad I did. In fact, I like both films so much I think there should be a collection of Zeman’s movies. He made only six features films, plus a whole bunch of shorts, so he’s an excellent candidate. I’d certainly buy it. A Jester’s Tale is based on the work of seventeenth-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian and is about two warring nations, and the principality located between them, during the Thirty Years’ War. A peasant masquerades as a duke, his girlfriend as a jester, and they’re accompanied by a man-at-arms. After stealing a coach full of silver and gold, they find themselves in the principality’s castle. But every time the wind changes direction – shown graphically by a face in the clouds blowing – the principality swaps allegiance… and the “duke” is either a prisoner or a welcome guest. There’s lots of clever animation, plenty of broad comedy, and a clever use of matte paintings to create the sets. I found A Jester’s Tale a more entertaining film than The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, although both have similar plots (A Jester’s Tale was made after The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). I now want to see the rest of Zeman’s films.

Song at Midnight*, Ma-Xu Weibang (1937, China). This film is pretty much a Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera. I had a ripped copy for a while (it’s public domain, don’t worry), and then a copy appeared on Amazon Prime… and it was close call as to which had the most… creative subtitles. I have seen nearly a hundred Chinese films and the quality of the subtitles varies immensely. I can’t actually vouch for the quality of the translations as I don’t speak either Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language. But I can certainly vouch for the quality of the English used in the subtitles and “The fish can make a wave” and “You are the water in the pond, and I am that duckweed aquatically” don’t, er, make much sense. But then interpreting the subtitles is part of the experiencing of watching non-Anglophone movies (although it’s more fun when you do understand the language being spoken and can spot the differences). Anyway… the Chinese film industry is huge, and has been around since the medium’s early days. Certainly the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should include some early Chinese classics – and it does – but I’m not convinced this warmed-over take on The Phantom of the Opera is a good candidate, especially since the earlier adaptation by Rupert Julian is so good. There must have been other films that could have been chosen – although many early Chinese films may have been lost. Neither copy of Song at Midnight I had access to was especially good, and I have to wonder if a remastered copy might have led to me being more impressed. But if you want to see an early Chinese film, then The Goddess (see here) or Spring in a Small Town (see here) are much better examples.

Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA). I have a very clear memory of seeing The Jungle Book for the first time on a screen in the main hall of the Doha English Speaking School, which would make it somewhere between 1972 and 1973. I can also remember bits and pieces of Pinocchio and 101 Dalmations from my childhood. But, while I’ve convinced myself I must have seen Bambi at some point while I was a child, I can’t call up any corroborating memories. And having now actually seen the film, none of it, I must admit, seemed especially familiar. I suspect I knew of it, and that was it. But I have now seen it… and it was not at all what I was expecting. Or rather, my expectations were quite low and the film exceeded them. I shouldn’t have to describe the story, but… Bambi is a deer, the “prince of the forest”, hunters turn up, his mother dies, he grows up, there’s a forest fire, then more hunters, but all the animals live happily ever after… Which sort of implies the message of the film is that it’s okay to kill animals. After all the hunting and forest fires, the film ends with a repeat of the opening scene – except Bambi is the father and not the newborn – as if the film is trying to point out that Nature carries on. Kill all the deer, but more will be born. Yet for much of its length, Bambi feels like a paean to the simplicity and noble savagery of the animal world and its right to be left undisturbed by humankind. Okay, so the animals are characterised as, first, American kids, and then as American teenagers – but that’s the nature of Disney films and they’ve even characterised alien creatures as American kids… And yet… I’d put Bambi in the top five Disney film for beautiful animation and design. I’d still rate Sleeping Beauty top, and Cinderella second, but it would be a toss-up between Bambi and 101 Dalmations for third place. Bambi doesn’t have 101 Dalmations‘ charm but it does have these abrupt shifts to almost abstract art – which was one of the things Disney used to do back in the day and which really did add to the movie. When the forest fire takes hold, the art on screen is really quite striking, not in an especially realistic way, but it looks lovely. It’s not much – the use of silhouettes, an abstract representation of the threat… But it’s hugely effective. It’s when animation turns into animated art. When Bambi is at its most, well, mainstream it’s less appealing, although the character design is excellent and the animation has that clarity of line I wish Disney had not later dropped…  I was surprised, as mentioned earlier, to discover after watching Bambi that I’d rate it in the top five of the Disney animated films I’ve so far seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #59

Another mixed bunch from all over the world, and only one from the US. And from a mix of decades too.

Germany Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini (1948, Italy). I may have mentioned before how I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism, and Rossellini is a big name in that movement – this is the sixth film by him I’ve seen – but I have to admit Germany Year Zero took me by surprise. He has four films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You list, but this is not one of them. But to my mind it deserves a place more than any of the others. Obviously, it’s set in Germany, not in Italy, and its cast are German and speak that language. Even though it’s an Italian Neorealist film. A twelve-year-old boy in Berlin shortly after the Allied victory and occupation gets involved with some very dodgy people. The only way for his family to survive is selling stuff on the black market (it’s implied the daughter has taken up with GIs). The boy bumps into his old teacher, who asks him – in a scene that shows the teacher is a total paedophile – to sell a record of a speech by Hitler to some American soldiers. But it’s not enough. The boy’s ill father is admitted to hospital but is discharged a few days later. The teacher, who is clearly still a Nazi, says the weak must be sacrificed for the good of the strong, and so the boy poisons his father. No one realises the cause of the death, but the boy is dejected. The movie was filmed on location, on the streets of what was left of Berlin. Until you watch films like Germany Year Zero, it never quite sinks in how destructive WWII was. True, cities on both sides, and in many countries, were destroyed. Well, except for the US, that is. But popular culture has taught us to remember only the combatants, and we conveniently forget that more Germans died of starvation and illness after the fighting had finished than were killed by Allied bullets. Or indeed that WWI was not won by the armies on the Front but by an uprising by the socialist sailors of the Imperial German Navy. Germany Year Zero deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, much more so than the four films by Rossellini that are on the list.

The Day of the Triffids, Steve Sekely (1962, UK). I have the book, although it was only recently given to me; and despite being British and a sf fan, I managed to reach half a century without actually reading a novel by John Wyndham. Which is a peculiar omission, given his position in British genre fiction. (I read a Wyndham collection back in the 1980s and was unimpressed.) But then, Brits don’t really need to read Wyndham, as they sort of absorb the plots of his books through a sort of cultural osmosis. Whether they’ve actually watched the film adaptations or not. The Day of the Triffids has been adapted three times, and this is the first of them. It’s since been followed by two TV series, in 1981 and 2009. This film stars Howard Keel, who manages to not look like Howard Keel but sound just like him, as a merchant seaman in hospital for eye treatment following an undisclosed accident. As a result, he misses the meteorite shower which blinds almost the entire population of the planet. Um, I’m starting to realise why I’ve never bothered reading Wyndham… Anyway, Keele releases himself from hospital and discovers London in chaos – including a scene which features the most feeble train wreck ever committed to celluloid. He rescues a young orphan girl, and the two head out of London. Where they find refuge at a girls’ school. Not knowing the book, I’ve no idea how well the film adapts it, although the Wikipedia article does point out some discrepancies, such as the origin of the Triffids. The film has its moments, although it never looks more than cheap and Keele sort of lumbers through his part. I have the book now, in the SF Masterworks edition, so I guess I’ll be reading it at some point. I doubt I’ll bother rewatching the film, however.

Che Guevara As You’ve Never Seen Him Before, Manuel Pérez (2004, Cuba). This is the final film from the Viva Cuba collection, which I see is now going on Amazon for £149.90. I’m glad I bought it when I did. Despite the title this is a straight-up documentary about Che Guevara, using a lot of archive footage, archive photographs, interviews with those who knew him (some of which are from older programmes), and Che’s own words from his letters and journals. There’s also a voiceover which narrates Guevara’s life. Like  most of my generation, I know of Che Guevara, and that he was involved in the Cuban Revolution, although he was not Cuban himself. I had always thought he was Bolivian, but he was actually Argentinean. He died in Bolivia, captured and executed by CIA-backed Bolivian troops. I also knew of Guevara’s motorbike ride, if only from seeing mention of the film adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries. I had not realised how much Guevara accomplished, both before joining the Cuban revolutionary forces, and after when he was made a member of the Cuban republic’s government. He had always felt like a tragic figure, a revolutionary who died young (aged 39), and whose image had since become iconic. But he was a great deal more than that – a doctor of medicine, a military theorist, a diplomat, a government minister, and he wrote a number of books and journals. He not only left a mark on the world, he left a considerable legacy, and it’s a shame he’s likely known to most people these days as little more than a stylised face on a T-shirt or poster.

Uzumasa Limelight, Ken Ochiai (2014, Japan). This was recommended by David Tallerman, so I put it on my rental list and… it was an excellent call. The title refers to an area in Kyoto where a large film studio was located. For decades the studio churned out television series, including a samurai drama that ran for so long the lead actor’s son took over his role. The studio employed dozens of actors in (mostly) non-speaking parts. Like Trek redshirts, they were there to fight the hero and be killed. And some of those bit-part actors have been doing that since the series started. When the studio decides to cancel the samurai series, one such actor, in his seventies but still spry, finds himself being cast less and less often. He ends up performing as a samurai in the studio’s attached theme park. Meanwhile, a young extra persuades the old actor to train her in stage-fighting. The studio decides to launch a new samurai drama, but they cast some sort of comic idol in the lead and he turns the whole thing into a joke. And when his co-star falls out with him and leaves, the young extra, who had been her stunt double, takes over the role, and becomes a big star. Although the old actor is very much the centre of the film, this is really an ensemble piece, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong. The comedian star of the new samurai series is a horrible piece of work, and while the film makes you want the old actor to become a star he’s really not star material. An excellent film.

Twilight, Robert Benton (1998, USA). It had been a long day and I didn’t fancy watching anything too taxing, so when I found this on Amazon Prime, it seemed like a good candidate. And so it was: a gentle thriller, with a cast that seemed to be mostly in their sixties or seventies… but it turned out to be the usual Hollywood thriller about film-making type of bollocks. But mildly entertaining with it. Paul Newman (73 at the time the film was released) works for Hollywood couple Susan Sarandon (52) and Gene Hackman (68). He’s an ex-cop and an ex-PI. When Hackman asks him to deliver money to a blackmailer, it uncovers a decades-old crime – the disappearance of Sarandon’s original Hollywood star husband – and the clumsy “cleaning up” of it all by fixer James Garner (70). Also in there is ex-lover police lieutenant Stockard Channing (54), and a very young Reese Witherspoon as the daughter. There’s a dumb joke about Newman supposedly having been emasculated when shot “rescuing” Witherspoon from her boyfriend, which really shouldn’t have made the final cut. Hackman’s character is all over the place, changing tone and register from one scene to the next. Sarandon is the femme fatale but isn’t in the film enough to justify the role. Newman more or less shuffles through his part, and although he has the screen presence his eyes have always looked vacant to me. The ending comes as no real surprise, and the only real mystery is why the police never managed to solve the original crime. Okay, for a wet Sunday afternoon, I guess, but that’s about it.

The Color Out of Space, Huan Vu (2010, Germany). As the title indicates, this was adapted from a HP Lovecraft story. I’ve read the story, it’s one of his better ones, and certainly one of his more memorable ones (many of them have a tendency blur into one other). The action is shifted to Germany, where the film was made. The protagonist is searching for his father, who disappeared while on active duty in the region after WWII. The rest of the plot more or less follows that of the story, although the discoverers of the farm affected by the “colour” are GIs on patrol. The acting is variable at best, and the US accents by the German cast are from convincing. The film is shot in black-and-white, but it only really works when the “colour” makes its appearance, although admittedly the effect used is done quite well. But it all feels very amateur and rough, and though the changes to the story might actually improve the plot a little, the film is probably only of interest to Lovecraft completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932


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Moving pictures 2018, #58

The usual mixed bunch. I don’t write about every film I watch as not all of them are worth writing about.

Bus 174, José Padilha (2002, Brazil). I wasn’t sure whether this was a dramatisation of real events, like United 193, or some sort of high-octane South American thriller, but I remembered seeing it on one list or another, so I bunged it on my rental list. It turned out to be a documentary. With actual footage shot live during the event it depicts. Which is: a young man who grew up as a member of a street gang hijacks a city bus in Rio de Janeiro and holds its passengers hostage. The police, and a hell of a lot of press, turn up. The police are ill-trained and ill-prepared. Even BOPE, Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, the Brazilian equivalent to SWAT, doesn’t even have much of a clue what to do. The hijacker lets some of the passengers, but keeps about half a dozen. Eventually, after four hours, he makes a break for freedom, with a gun to the head of one of the hostages. The police move in and bungle it. The hostage dies. The police take the hijacker, and he does on the way to the police station. The film consists of press footage from the hijack, interspersed with talking heads of the people involved. It also covers the background of the hijacker, and social problems which resulted in someone like him. It also explains how badly trained the police are, and repeated points out how and why they failed – in fact, one of the talking heads is the police officer who was in charge, and is generally considered to be the only one who did anything right. Good stuff.

The Incredibles 2, Brad Bird (2018, USA). The Incredibles remains a high-water mark in animated film-making, and more for its story-telling than its technical animation. If you know what I mean. Technically, it was brilliant, but it was state of the art in 2004 and fourteen year later that bar has moved. But story-telling is not so tied to advances in technology, more narrative expectations by audiences… and they are much more easily managed. Sadly, that’s where The Incredibles 2 fails. It looks great. And its story feels like an advance on that of the original… but as others have pointed out some of the genders politics in this new film are a step backward. Superheroes have been outlawed, but the Parrs/Incredibles from trying to prevent the Underminer rob a bank. Unfortunately, the extensive collateral damage from their intervention results in the government shutting down the programme keeping superheroes fed and housed… Which is where a telecoms billionaire appears and professes to want to change the public perception of superheroes and make them legal again. And to do that he plans to relaunch Helen Parr as Elastigirl. Which leaves Bob Parr as a house husband. And he completely fails at it. Meanwhile, Elastigirl is running around trying to catch the Screenslaver, a mysterious villain who uses hypnotic images on screens to control people. As I think others have said, The Incredibles showed a family with superpowers struggling to cope with real life, but this sequel tries to make humour out of gender role reversal when that schtick stopped being funny last century. The mystery part of the plot – ie, the Screenslaver’s identity – is no brain teaser, and some of the action set-pieces are a bit OTT. About the best bit of humour is the baby developing its many and varied superpowers. And yet The Incredibles 2 is still better than a lot of other films Hollywood has released this year. If it fails to live up to the high reputation of its series, and it doesn’t place every foot as firmly as it could have done, but it’s still a very entertaining movie.

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, Éric Rohmer (2007, France). I’ve been working my way through Rohmer’s oeuvre as I do sort of enjoy his style of subtle personal drama. Unfortunately, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is an historical drama, and the French are really bad at those. I mean, Jacques Rivette got away with it, but only because he did it so much his own way it became something entirely different. But when you look at Robert Bresson and his Lancelot du Lac (see here) which looks like a bunch of LARPers let loose in a forest… And The Romance of Astrea and Celadon is no more convincing. It’s a bunch of attractive French twentysomethings floating about a castle in loose smocks. The story is based on the seventeenth-century novel by Honoré d’Urfé, which at 5399 pages I doubt I’ll ever read. Or indeed ever meet anyone who has ever read it (not even Adam Roberts has read it, I’d bet). And after seeing this film, I’m less likely to read it. Astrea and Celadon were shepherds in fifth-century France, who famously fell in love. Distilling a novel of “forty stories”, as Wikipedia describes the book, into a 109-minute film is going miss out a lot of material, although the novel is famously digressive. Rohmer’s film most likely covers only the basic romantic plot of Astrea and Celadon: she spurns him after believing some lies told by a rival, he throws himself into a river but is rescued by nymphs, he disguises himself as a woman in order to be close to Astrea in order to win her back… It’s supposed to be set in the “time of the Druids”, although more like the period as imagined by an unsupervised student drama society than an actual evocation of any real historical period. And I get that it needs to look floaty and clichéd because it’s trying to represent pure courtly love, pure “romance” of the kind that gave most European languages – but not English – their word for book-length fiction. I should also point out that French cinema does perfectly good nineteenth-century historical dramas, has made many excellent ones in fact, but I’ve yet to see anything set earlier from France that impressed. (I’ll no doubt think of half a dozen examples the moment this post goes live… Oh well.)

Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, Sooraj Barjatya (1994, India). Many years ago I was in a taxi in Abu Dhabi and the driver had the radio turned to a local Urdu station, and I heard a track from a Bollywood film and it was brilliant. It went through about a dozen different genres in ten minutes, including reggae and metal. A friend later identified the song for me, but I never managed to get hold of a copy of the film or the OST. But I stumbled across Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! on eBay and something about the title reminded me of that track from years before… even if, having now watched it, the song I remember doesn’t appear in it. I’m not entirely sure about the plot as, like most Bollywood films, it was complicated by broken romances, love triangles and mistaken identities. Sort of. Two well-off families arrange a marriage between eldest son and daughter, but the other son and daughter, accompanying their respective siblings, spend so much time in each other’s company, they too fall in love. The wedding goes ahead, and then there’s a baby. The married sister discovers her sister loves her brother-in-law and vows to arrange their marriage. Before she can do anything she falls down the stairs and dies of a head injury. The parents decide to have the surviving sister marry the widower in order to bring up the baby. Happily, the pet dog reveals who really loves who, and the two lovers are reunited. Plus songs and dancing, of course. Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! was predicted to be a flop because it was so unabashedly a rom com, but proved to be a box office hit, and the highest-grossing Bollywood film of the 1990s. It also won five awards. At 199 minutes, it’s long even for Bollywood, and Salman Khan’s relentless gurning does get a bit wearying after a while. But the whole thing is just so, well, happy – er, tragedy on the stairs aside – that’s it hard not to like it. If you wanted a good intro to Bollywood movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! would do the trick.

Three Evenings, Arshak Amirbekyan (2010, Armenia). There is good stuff to be found on Amazon Prime, as I think I have said before, but you need to hunt for it. Three Evenings is a short film – only 64 minutes – but it is purely Armenian, which is not something that can be said of, say, The Colour of Pomegranates… It is also set in the 1960s, although this is not immediately apparent. A man returns home and there is a woman waiting outside his apartment building. She explains that she had followed her husband to the building because she believes he is having an affair with one of its residents. The man can neither confirm nor deny her husband’s activities. She invites herself in for coffee and the two begin chatting. They have a pleasant time. After several visits, the woman explains that she had followed her husband to the building, seen the man and decided she wanted to now him better. So her visits have been in the nature of a seduction. Much of the action takes place in the man’s flat, and what little that doesn’t occurs at the entrance to the apartment building. This is very much a two-hander, but the two leads are believable in their roles, and even the woman’s revelation manes to both surprise and yet follow naturally on from what has happened before. And it’s all very nicely shot. A good film.

Umbracle, Pere Portabella (1974, Spain). The more films from this box set of twenty-two films by Portabella I watch, the more I realise that purchasing it was a good move – and the box set will no doubt become more scarce and more expensive – but I’m not entirely convinced that every film Portabella made was watchable, I’m a big fan of avant garde cinema – or rather, a big supporter of such cinema… because I believe that cinematic narratives need to be experimented with and upon if the medium is going to progress. And the history of cinema has, happily, shown that that is indeed what happens. This does not mean James Benning is ever going to make a Hollywood film, but what avant garde cinema makes eventually feeds into commercial cinema. Which puts Portabella in a strange place, as his cinema – or at least this film – is itself derived from commercial cinema. Like Vampir Cuadecuc, Umbracle uses footage shot by Portabella during an actual commercial film shoot. It stars Christopher Lee, from Vampir Cuadecuc, but in scenes staged especially for Umbracle. Including Lee reciting, from memory, Poe’s ‘The Raven’. The Wikipedia article on the film makes little sense, which is hardly surprising as the film itself makes little sense. It is a movie made during Franco’s regime and is a commentary on that regime without falling foul of its censorship laws. Yet it is also put together partly from footage from a foreign film which has nothing to do with Spain or Franco. Other films I’ve watched by Portabella in this box set are explicitly declamatory – either people talking about film-making during Franco’s regime, or stagings of play that directly comment on his regime. I suppose it’s a cliché to suggest the more… elliptical forms of various artforms tend to prosper under repressive regimes, as well as the underground ones – and I’m a fan of avant garde cinema and science fiction, both artforms that have in the past commented on repressive regimes from the inside. Unfortunately, science fiction is now a resolutely commercial genre and no one gives a shit about any commentary it might make any more. Oh well. At least there’s still weird avant garde films that no one will ever watch…

1001 Movies you Muse See Before You Die count: 932


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Moving pictures 2018, #57

I had thought two of the films in this post – the first two – were on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but apparently not. At least, not the version of the list I’m using. I suppose there’s an argument that both deserve places, although Aśoka principally because it was widely released in the west (it did not perform especially well in India, although it was critically acclaimed).

Aśoka, Santosh Sivan (2001, India). Bollywood likes historical epics as much as it likes rom coms, and while the latter generally earn the biggest box office receipts, the former usually do quite well critically. Aśoka did indeed earn critical plaudits, but it only performed “moderately” at the Indian box office. Although that’s becoming increasingly untenable as a barometer of success. Bollywood films might judge their success on theatre receipts because there’s not much of a tradition of sell-through in the country. But in the US, where you have both sell-through, international receipts, and streaming, to judge a movie’s success purely on how well it plays in Peoria, so to speak, is remarkably parochial. But then the US has always been good at parochial. Anyway, Aśoka covers the career of the title character, played by Shah Rukh Khan, an emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321 BCE to 187 BCE). I don’t know how closely these films follow the lives of the historical figures they depict – not too far from reality, I’d imagine, as audiences and critics tend to mock films that try to present complete bollocks as actual history, you know, like Trump. Having said that, these historical Bollywood epics do usually follow a similar plot: hero is cheated of throne (or unsuitable sibling is heir), is sent away to live the life of a common man, has adventures, falls in love, helps the female lead regain her rightful place, returns in triumph to his homeland and seizes the throne after a massive battle. Aśoka didn’t boast the OTT CGI of Baahubali, and the final battle was clearly made using physical effects (and a close-in camera to hide the lack of a cast of thousands), but it’s clear where Baahubali took its story beats from. I enjoyed Aśoka, even if Shah Rukh Khan was not at his best. According to the Wikipedia entry on the film, a BBC film reviewer described Aśoka as having “elements of both Gandhi and Braveheart, which is a pretty racist thing to say. Bah.

A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinnemann (1966, UK). The man in question is Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532, who took over from Cardinal Wolsey but resigned when he refused to back Henry VIII’s formation of the Church of England. While More felt the primacy of the pope should not be challenged – they had funny ideas in those days about Jesus actually founding the Roman Catholic Church or something – he was also scrupulous not to say anything which might be deemed treasonous. But he did refuse to sign Henry VIII’s new Oath of Supremacy as it calls Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England. It proves a waste of time as an up-and-coming courtier perjures himself and claims More said the king could not be head of the church. It’s enough to have More sentenced to execution. The courtier, incidentally, goes on to become Lord Chancellor from 1547 to 1552. Paul Scofield had played More both on the West End and Broadway, and won an Oscar for his movie portrayal. Although adapted from a play, the film manages to not be, well, stagey, with a good use of outdoor filming. The period setting disguises the occasional portentousness of the dialogue, although the real locations such as Hampton Court Palace are nice to see and add authenticity. When all’s said and done, A Man for All Seasons is a quality British period drama, and that’s something the British usually do well – it just isn’t usually financed by Hollywood.

The Big Short, Adam McKay (2015, USA). This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title, but where the book features real people the film, weirdly, puts invented people in their place. The events the film depicts, however, are all completely true. The Big Short recounts how a small group of people foresaw the 2008 financial crisis, and used their foresight to profit big time. Along the way, the film explains just how criminal the US banking sector was, and no doubt still is, and how it brought about the crisis. Christian Bale, who has managed to become more annoying with each new film I see him in, plays the only person who is not renamed in the film, Michael Burry, an ex-doctor hedge fund manager, who is introduced listening to Mastodon’s ‘Blood and Thunder’ at full blast in his office, while dressed in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. It’s clear he lies somewhere on the autism spectrum, which may be why he spots that the mortgages underpinning mortgage-backed securities are far from cast-iron, and certainly don’t deserve the triple-A credit rating they’ve been given. And the situation will only worsen when the interest rates rise… So he decides to bet on the securities failing, using credit default swaps… The Big Short uses a variety of unlikely celebs, appearing as themselves, to explain some of the financial concepts, including Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie. Burry is not the only person to spot the problem with mortgage-backed securities, but all he does is invest in their failure (which brings him into conflict with his hedge fund customers, although his funds eventually end up $2.69 billion in profit), but it is Mark Baum (actually Steve Eisman), another hedge fun manager, who investigates… and discovers that: mortgage brokers are underwriting mortgages for home-owners they know will default because the brokers can sell the mortgages onto Wall Street banks, credit rating agencies giving everything triple-A rating because otherwise banks will go to their competitors, and the nature of credit default swaps means that $1 billion worth of swaps can be spun out of a $50 million mortgage-backed security. The whole thing was a house of cards built on corrupt practices. And yet no one went to prison. Worse, the US government bailed out the banks. It’s likely true the consequences of allowing them to fail were too catastrophic, but crimes were committed and the perpetrators went scot-free – worse, they pocketed billions of dollars. It will happen again, as long as the banks are not properly regulated. Of course, post-Brexit the UK won’t have much of an economy to crash, but that’s hardly cause for celebration. I suspect The Big Short focuses more on the personalities and simplifies the actual financial aspects – but it is Hollywood, after all. And when you look at the cast attached… But a film worth seeing, for what it shows more than how it says it.

Happy End, Michael Haneke (2017, France). A new film from Haneke is a cause for celebration. He’s one of the most interesting directors currently working in feature films, and yet… Okay, I wasn’t that taken with Amour. And my first thought on watching Happy End was, well, Godard. But I rewatched it – and Haneke’s films certainly bear, if not demand, rewatching, chiefly because they are considerably more subtle than much of the output of the artform… Happy End is about a family based in Calais who run a construction company. An accident at one of their sites throws the family’s internal flaws into stark relief. The head of the family, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is suffering from dementia. Company head, and de facto family head, played by Isabelle Huppert, is about to be married to a UK lawyer, played by Toby Jones. And brother Matthieu Kassovitz has returned to the family fold, with his teenage daughter in tow. Meanwhile, Huppert’s oldest son is playing up, and trying to embarrass the family and the company, for reasons that seem more political than personal. Haneke presents the story through a variety of media, spoofing everything from phone-shot videos to chat sessions on the screen. As is typical for Haneke film, everything stumbles along… and then abruptly changes after some shocking event. It comes late in this film, and it’s more a release of what has clearly been held back for much of the movie’s length. I’m not entirely sure what point Haneke is making here. For much of the film, it seems to be about how dysfunctional families with money are – but that’s so banal, it’s not worth documenting. But toward the end, Haneke drags in a group of refugees, and nails their stories to that of the central family… and it feels like Happy End wants to be a story about how Europe is treating refugees – much like Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope (see here) or Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – but it fails to present any argument as definitive as those. I like that Happy End has that innovative approach to narrative that Godard does so well, that Haneke himself has done so well in past films… but I’m not convinced the point Happy End makes is actually worth the time spent making it. There is a good point to made in its story, but Haneke has chosen not to make it. Happy End is, I think, a better film than Amour. But it still feels a bit weak sauce for Haneke.

Long Way North, Rémi Chayé (2015, France). This was one of those happy finds you have every now and again on streaming platforms. I’d just got back from Fantasycon in Chester, after a typical nightmare train journey, and I didn’t want anything too taxing to watch. An animated film seemed like it might fit the bill. And it did. The stylised art worked well for the period it depicted, mid- to late eighteenth-century, and the locations, which was chiefly the Arctic. Sasha is a member of the Russian aristocracy. Her grandfather disappeared years before on a trip to discover the Northwest Passage. A new favourite of the tsar plans to undo the grandfather’s legacy, and curtail the political ambitions of Sasha’s family, so Sasha runs away to find him. At a northern port – Murmansk? – she trades her expensive earrings for a berth on a ship heading into the Arctic Circle – but the man she paid is not the captain, but the first mate (and the captain’s younger brother). She’s ripped off. The owner of a local tavern takes pity on her and offers her a job, and over a month or so Sasha learns that her privilege gets her nowhere and how to work hard. And so she gets that berth on the ship, on the promise of salvage of her grandfather’s ship, and they head north… It ends happily, of course it ends happily. Although given the length of time the grandfather has been missing, not that happily. But this is a nice piece of animation, classily done, and if it feels a bit clichéd in parts it looks good while it’s doing it.

Le plaisir, Max Ophüls (1952, France). After complaining in a prior Moving pictures post I wasn’t much of a fan of mid-twentieth century French cinema, I go and watch a movie by Ophüls from 1952, who I have indeed previously seen films by, and whose films I have seen I actually quite like. Having said that, I wasn’t expecting much of Le plaisir, a collection of three unrelated stories by Guy de Maupassant – and explicitly so, as the opening of each is narrated and the prose is of the sort you would find in written fiction. The first story, ‘Le Masque’, originally published in 1889, takes place at a dance palace, where a fashionable young man dances enthusiastically but somewhat stiffly with some of the dancers, but then keels over. A doctor is called, and he discovers the young man is wearing a mask and he is in fact quite old. They take him home, and the man’s wife explains that her husband tries to recapture his lost looks and youth by visiting the dance palace in the guise of a younger man. The second story is one of those characteristically French stories in which a group of sex workers are treated as if they were no more than somewhat excitable young women, when they accompany their madam to the confirmation of the daughter of the madam’s brother. The brother, a cobbler in a provincial village, is refreshingly accepting of his sister’s career, and of those she brings with her. The rest of the village treat the women as if they were simply ordinary visitors – “ladies from the city”. It is only because of those who have knowledge of the ladies true nature that evens began to unravel. They are sex-workers and accepted because no one realises they are sex-workers. But that’s an argument for changing the perception, and it’s surprising to see such an argument in a 1952 film; and done so well. The final story sees an artist fall in love with his model, but they quarrel so much they split. But when she tries to rekindle their relationship, and he refuses, she jumps from a window… And their relationship is strengthened because she is now in a wheelchair. Which is a message in the 21st century Ophüls – or even de Maupassant – probably did not intend back then. The final scene has the artist pushing his girlfriend in a wheelchair along the beach…. Which is not quite so amusing as it might have been in 1952. Of all the French directors of the first half of last century I have more time for Ophüls than the others… and I really did like Le plaisir. Despite the fact it was a piece of pure commercial cinema. Some of the cinematography is gorgeous, and the sets Ophüls built to tell his stories are part of the film’s charm. I liked this film a lot. and it makes me wonder if Ophüls’s films are not worth a second look.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 932