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Moving pictures 2018, #2

I plan to watch less films in 2018 than I did in 2017, and already I’m spending an hour reading when I get home from work, and only putting a film on afterwards. And yet I’m three dozen films in and it’s only the 17 January as I type this, and I’ve a third and fourth post, with another dozen movies already lined up… Oh well.

Nightfall, James Benning (2011, USA). I found this on Youtube, which seems to be the place to find Benning films, as the Österreichisches Filmmuseum has only released half a dozen or so DVDs of his work. Some of his films are apparently available via Mubi, but I’ve yet to subscribe to it. Meanwhile, there are (often low-quality) copies uploaded to Youtube by various fans, plus Benning’s own Youtube account. Nightfall has nothing to do with Asimov, thankfully, but is 98 minutes of a forest high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the sun sets. That’s it. Benning locks off his digital camera, and leaves it running. It’s about as stripped-back Benning as you can get. Unfortunately, there’s an extra-textual element to much of Benning’s work – the juxtapositon of sound and vision, for example, and the reasoning behind it – and watching one of his films on Youtube means you don’t have access to that extra-textual knowledge. You can google for it… and I did. But all I could find claimed that Nightfall was precisely what it presented to be. But, knowing Benning’s work, I suspect there’s more to it than just that. I shall have to look further.

Elle, Paul Verhoeven (2016, France). This was a Christmas present. The last I’d heard, Verhoeven was working on some project back in the Netherlands after his successful Black Book, and it seemed pretty certain his Hollywood career was on hiatus as, despite the success of his Hollywood films, I suspect he was too idiosyncratic and the sequels by other hands to his movies had seen diminishing returns. Now, the movies he made in Hollywood were (mostly) top-notch, and while the Starship Troopers live-action franchise (not to be confused with the CGI one) upped the satire with each new installment, it also lowered the audience figures. The Robocop sequels went into a death spiral in terms of both quality and commercial success. And the sequel to Basic Instinct was a Sharon Stone vanity project, and rightfully bombed. (There was also an unofficial sequel to Showgirls, made by a porn actress who had a bit part in the original; it’s absolutely fucking dreadful.) So, Verhoeven: no longer Hollywood. And now he appears to have reinvented himself as French cinema’s successor to Andrzej Żuławski. Because Elle pretty much plays like Verhoeven channelling Żuławski. Which is no bad thing, I hasten to add. Plus, it stars La Huppert. Which is also a good thing – she is probably the best actor currently making films. In Elle, she plays the CEO of a video games company which has a fairly typical testosterone-driven nerd culture. One night, she is raped by a man who breaks into her house. Afterward, she carries on as if nothing had happened – but now she is suspicious of every man in her life: employees, friends, neighbours… The violence is played flat and brutal, which is a Verhoeven trademark, but the way the story pans out feels more Żuławski… although Verhoeven doesn’t have his cast acting as emphatically as Żuławski does. It’s an odd film, a very French drama into which these violent incidents erupt. Which is, I suppose, very Verhoevenesque.

Utamaro and His Five Women, Kenji Mizoguchi (1946, Japan). David Tallerman, who likes his Mizoguchi, gave me this box set as he had upgraded his copies of the films it included. (I’ve done the same for him when I’ve upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray.) Utamaro and His Five Women is set during the Edo Period in, er, Edo. The film opens with a samurai art student taking issue with the text on a print of a painting by Utamaro. He tracks him down and challenges him to a duel. Utamaro challenges him to a drawing contest instead… which he wins so handily, the art student joins him as an apprentice. And it’s the new apprentice’s girlfriend who becomes the first of Utamaro’s women, each of whom are combinations of model and muse. The second is a famous courtesan who has him paint on her back for a tattoo artist to use as an outline (as per the box set cover art). Another of his women is a lady’s maid he spots at the beach, diving into the sea among a large group of women and bringing out fish. One of the interesting things about this film – and it’s a good film if you like Japanese historical films – is that it was made under American Occupation immediately following WWII, and the Americans didn’t like the Japanese to make historical films as they thought they were militaristic and nationalistic (according to Wikipedia). But they let Mizoguchi make this.

Mystery, Lou Ye (2012, China). Another Christmas present. Lou is a Sixth Generation director from China, and I’m a big fan of those films by the group I’ve seen. Other members include Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan,  whose films I’ve seen and much admire; and Lu Chuan and He Jianjun, whose movies I haven’t seen. Lou’s Suzhou River is a thriller/drama with a very clever structure; Mystery, a later film, also uses a non-linear narrative to tell its story. It also has that same documentary style approach to its narrative, which is, I freely admit, one of the real draws of Sixth Generation films. The movie opens with a young woman wandering out into a road and being hit by one of two racing sportcars. Except it may not have been an accident, as she appears to have been fatally assaulted beforehand. Lu Jie makes friends with Sang Qi at a playground where both their kids play. Sang is convinced her husband is having an affair and asks Lu to meet her at a coffee-shop to discuss the advisability of hiring a private detective. But it turns out the coffee shop overlooks the hotel where Sang’s husband meets his mistress. Except… Lu sees her own husband entering the hotel with a young woman. So Lu investigates, and discovers that Sang is also her husband’s mistress and Sang’s young son was fathered by him… You have to keep your wits about you to follow this, although the way the story is presented is deceptively simple. It’s the flashbacks, you see. The situation is complicated, and only revealed piecemeal. Definitely worth seeing.

Notre musique, Jean-Luc Godard (2004, France). I’m almost done with this Godard box set, and I’m really glad I bought it. These are films to watch again and again. Godard’s films have never been exactly traditional. Even in his early Nouvelle Vague movies, he played around with narrative forms. Later, he experimented even further. And continues to do so. Notre musique is from Godard’s phase when he mixed fact and fiction, and often played the protagonist himself. After an opening non-narrative section of documentary war footage, the film presents Godard waiting at an airport prior to flying to an arts conference in Sarajevo. He meets a man who will be an interpreter at the conference, French, but originally Israeli, whose niece will also be at the conference. Godard is interviewed by an Israeli journalist, who later interviews Mahmoud Darwish. Both interviews concern Israeli-Palestinian relations. For all his cleverness and cinimatic tricksiness, Godard was never especially subtle. His films are always about something, and if it’s not that which drives the narrative, then you can be sure the characters will discuss it a number times during the movie. Some of his films in fact are little more than discussions among members of the cast. In order to make a point, Godard not only uses language, ie, the spoken word, but also the language of narrative, and even the language of cinema. The epitome of this being, of course, his film Goodbye to Language (see here). (Although I prefer his Film Socialisme (see here), which is similar.) It’s not necessary to agree with Godard’s argument to appreciate his films, but then I don’t think he expects his films to be persuasive per se, more that they’re presented as arguments and their chief purpose is to provoke discussion (but from a sincere position). Anyway, this is by no means Godard’s best film of this sort, nor his most intriguing; but it certainly bears rewatching.

Emperor, Peter Webber (2012, USA). My mother lent me this one. I’ve watch a film about General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito before, but it was Sokurov’s The Sun (see here), which could not be more different to this US take on the same historical events. Emperor is told from the point of view of Brigadier-General Bonner Fellers (a real person, like everyone in this film), who was a member of MacArthur’s staff and tasked with discovering Hirohito’s complicity in declaring war on the US. Before the war, Fellers had been in a relationship with a Japanese woman studying in the US, but she had returned home hurriedly for family reasons. He followed her back to Japan, weathered anti-Western sentiment from newly-militarised Japanese society, and met her father, a decorated general. As a Japanist, he’s a good choice to investigate Hirohito, although he did abuse his position during the war so that his girlfriend’s town was avoided by US Army Air Force bombers. MacArthur, meanwhile, is more concerned about using his occupation of Japan as a stepping-stone to the US presidency. To that end, he runs roughshod over Japanese imperial protocol. I happen to think humans are not gods, divine right is a con, and anyone who thinks royalty is any way different to anyone else is stupid. Despite that, Emperor was based on historical events and, as far as I can tell from some quick online research, quite accurate. Okay, Tommy Lee Jones somewhat overwhelmed MacArthur, but the remaining cast were, I guess, sufficiently unknown to me they could be seen as the historical characters they played. The CGI showing a devastated Japan was quite effective but, to be honest, the whole felt more worthy than it felt notable.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 895

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Moving pictures 2018, #1

I’ve no plans to give up writing about the films I’ve watched – and I still plan to chase completing the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list 2013 edition, and to watch films from as many countries as I can. But I’m not intending to write another seventy of these posts in 2018 as I’m going to try and read more books this year.

The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (2014, France). I don’t know if I stuck this on my rental list because it was by Wim Wenders or because it was a documentary that looked interesting. But it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the excellent 1954 social drama about a strike at a US mine, whose title lacks the definite article. The Salt of the Earth is about photographer Sebastião Salgado. Born in Brazil, Salgado was originally an economist. While living and working in Paris, his wife bought him a camera. He began using it on his trips to other countries. Eventually, he gave up his career to focus on photography. His photographic work tends to stark black and white photographs of people in extreme situations – refugees, famine victims, war, workers at a vast open gold mine… It’s fascinating stuff, and Salgado’s work is both beautiful and harrowing, some of it perhaps too harrowing. Although Salgado has been exhibited all over the world, I’ve never seen any of his exhibitions – but then it’s only the last five or six that I’ve started visiting art museums, and I usually go to the modern art ones… but I did discover the work of Richard Mosse at one such. (Although this Christmas, I visited the David Collection‘s exhibition of Islamic Art, which was cool; and I liked their exhibition of paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916).) Anyway, The Salt of the Earth is worth seeing.

Logan, James Mangold (2017, USA). Professor X says “fuck”! He says it a lot! I mean, okay, you expect that from Wolverine, but Professor X dropping the f-bomb is just weird. One day, someone will decide Logan is a post-superhero film, when in fact it’s just a straight-up superhero film, and if it does something new in MCU terms, I’m pretty sure the comics have covered similar ground many times in the past. Logan works as a limo driver, he is ageing and his powers are waning. He lives just over the border in Mexico, in an old industrial plant, where he and Caliban look after a doped-up Professor X. Who is doped-up because he had some sort of mental fit which killed a lot of people and they’re medicating him to prevent a re-occurrence. And then a woman turns up with a young girl in tow and begs for Wolverine’s help. It turns out Nasty Corp has tried to weaponise mutants by breeding kids with superpowers – come on, who wants to play in a universe in which scientists experiment on children? Are you sick? – and the girl is one of them, in fact she has Wolverine-like powers and is a pretty mean fighter to boot. So snarky cyborg enforcer, with private army at his back, and Mengele-like scientist played by Richard E Grant, go mano a mano against Logan, who has gone on the run with the Prof and the girl… And that’s about it. Yawn. It’s a chase movie, the baddies are tooled up, the good guys are either old or young but still not massively outmatched… It’s a definite improvement on the usual dreadful superhero films with their cartoon characters, who cause as much damage as the supervillains, and cartoon violence and cartoon morality. They don’t even have the saving grace of cartoon wit. It might well be that Logan is the superhero film growing up, but it’s got a long way to go yet.

The Sense of an Ending, Ritesh Batra (2017, UK). I read Julian Barnes’s novel of the same title during Bloodstock last year. I seem to remember it being a bit of a damp squib. A very nicely written novel, but it just sort of petered out, and its concerns were so trivial I really couldn’t care about any of its cast. And the same is, unsurprisingly, true for the film. Jim Broadbent plays a very Jim Broadbent character, who has his past rudely thrust in his face when he’s willed a diary by the mother of a woman he used to see when he was at university thirty-plus years earlier. Except he doesn’t have the diary. Because the woman, played by Charlotte Rampling, won’t give it to him. In fact, she tells him she destroyed it. So he stalks her, and discovers she has a mentally disabled son called Adrian… which is also the name of Broadbent’s best mate at school, who went on to marry Rampling after she and Broadbent drifted apart. Prompting a really shitty letter to them on his part. However, Adrian junior is not Rampling’s son, but her half-brother. And Broadbent sort of remembers an afternoon alone with Rampling’s mother… Yawn. We all confabulate, it’s a fact of life. It seemed a really feeble point to a story that didn’t appear to be going anywhere – no matter how well-acted, or -written, it was. Missable.

Suntan, Argyris Papadimitropoulos (2016, Greece). You know that story in The New Yorker that went viral the other week, and the writer ended up with a $1.2 million advance for her short story collection? There’s no logic behind why one thing goes viral and another doesn’t, although the story clearly described a situation many women had experienced. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of it happening on social media myself. It’s the same premise which drives Suntan. Kostis is hired as a doctor on a small holiday island. He keeps mostly to himself, but one day he treats a twenty-one-year-old female tourist, Anna, who flirts with him and invites him to the beach with her friends. So, after work, he heads down there, and sees Anna and her friends sunbathing nude or in skimpy outfits. They recognise him and he joins them… and over the space of several days, he spends his time after work hanging out with them. One evening, the two have sex on the beach. But then Anna disappears for several days, and when she returns Kostis is furious she left without telling him. She saw no reason to tell him, and is put off by his behaviour. He does the male thing, and stalks her. The film ends with a drunk Kostis, who has been fired from his job for his bad behaviour, kidnapping Anna… I have not watched much Greek cinema, only four films in fact, by Angelopoulos, Lanthimos, Tsangari and now Papadimitropoulos; but what I’ve seen has been very good. Recommended.

Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). There’s no doubt Shinkai has produced some of the best feature-film anime to have come out of Japan this century – Your Name‘s home box office is only second for anime to Spirited Away (and Spirited Away holds the record for highest-grossing film in Japan). Mitsuha lives in a small town in central Japan. She has dreams about a boy in Tokyo. One day, she finds the words “Who are you?” written in her exercise book, and her friends remark on her weird behaviour the day before. It turns out she and the boy, Taki, have been swapping bodies. They help each other with other’s lives, communicating via notes or text messages they leave each other. Taki tries to track Mitsuha down, but all he has is a sketch of her town. He eventually discovers the town was destroyed by a meteorite, a piece of a passing comet, three years earlier. Their body-swapping time-slipped. So Taki tries to tell Mitsuha she must persuade the town to evacuate on that night… As you would expect from Shinkai, the animation in Your Name is gorgeous. It takes a moment before the story starts to pick up and it’s clear what’s going on – the viewer is initially just as confused as Mitsuha. But as the plot unfolds – as it’s clever how it works out – so you’re drawn into, first, the mystery, then the rush to warn Mitsuha, and, finally, the race to change the past. Good stuff. I suspect this may be an early runner for by top five of the year.

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson (2017, USA). So let’s talk about The Last Jedi. It is, I think, the dumbest of the Star Wars films yet, and that’s not an especially high bar to clear. It does some things well and it makes some interesting choices, but in its headlong rush to reset the universe back to what it was when the franchise kicked off, it runs a series of set-pieces which make zero sense either in relation to the world-building, the characters, or the warped physics that pertain in space opera movies. I liked that the Resistance is now run by women, older women, and I can’t help but wonder what the film might have looked like had Carrie Fisher completed filming. I liked Laura Dern’s character and I thought she was used well. But. Poe Dameron is not only a liability, he was pretty much responsible for the destruction of the Resistance. I realise the story template needed to have the Resistance reduced to a small band of heroes (which is a blatant retcon of the original trilogy, anyway; but never mind), but Dameron should have been booted out of the airlock after his first stupid stunt with the space bombers. (“I like him,” says General Organa… even though his dumb plan just resulted in the deaths of around 90% of the Resistance? Huh.) And… space bombers. WWII in space is one thing, but… space bombers. Bombs don’t fall in space… because there’s no gravity. It’s one thing to send a squadron of really slow spaceships on a suicidal mission – stupid, but it fits Dameron’s character and the Resistance’s clear military incompetence – but making them bombers is… Ugh. Next, there’s the central narrative of the film: the First Order’s big fuck off superstardestroyers are chasing the ragtag fugitive fleet of the Resistance… who can’t go very fast, only just fast enough to keep out of range of the First Order’s big fuck off superstardestroyers’s guns. I mean, really? Was that the best they could think up? Hugely powerful stardestroyers can’t catch up to a medical frigate? And they used to have a gun that could fire across the entire fucking galaxy in an instant? But now their superstardestroyers’ guns have an effective range of a few thousand kilometres? It’s such blatantly manufactured jeopardy, it feels like it’s treating the audience with contempt. Yes, yes, the General Organa blasted into space thing was silly, but made more sense within the universe than the space bombers did. On the other hand, I did like the sections set on Skellig Michael, and I thought the bit with the mirrors was especially good. Rey, in fact, makes a really good hero, much more so here than in The Force Awakens, where she seemed overwhelmed by the story. Kylo Ren, however, is still a petulant blank, whose characterisation and motivation bounce all over the place. (Having said that, the fight scene in the throne room was a proper bit of action sf cinema.) The Last Jedi also muffed its major villain – we don’t know where Snoke came from, and he dies without us learning. All that build-up for… zip. But then I still don’t understand how the First Order managed to pay for, build and staff a fleet of big fuck off superstardestroyers, while the actual government of the galaxy, the New Republic, ends up stuck with the pieces of crap it had when it destroyed the Death Star. That’s the big problem with this new Star Wars trilogy – it wants to go back to the plucky band of heroes versus the big bad empire, but it can’t plausibly get there within the lifetimes of its heroes. So the film-makers just went, ah fuck it, let’s have a new evil empire that’s more powerful than the Republic which defeated the old evil empire hiding out somewhere all along, just in case, you know, the old evil empire was defeated… Or something. And we’re supposed to swallow it. Can you imagine if the Fourth Reich turned up from nowhere in the 1970s, and it was better-equipped than the USA and USSR combined? Having said all that, lots of people have been finding positive things in The Last Jedi that were sadly lacking earlier Star Wars films. If we can just add intelligence to that list, then the next one might turn out alright…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895