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Moving pictures 2018, #46

I like it when there are six movies and six different countries. And one of the movies is from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. True, one of the films below is by a director I’ve been a fan of for many years – that’s Kaurismäki – and for reasons that still escape me I’ve been working my way through the Marx brothers films… but the others were completely new to me.

Horse Feathers, Norman McLeod (1932, USA). After moaning in my last Moving pictures post that I no longer understand why I continue to watch the Marx Brothers, my excuse for Horse Feathers is that was on the same rental disc as Monkey Business… although I can think of no good excuse for, a week later, watching A Night at the Opera (although, to be fair, it is a better film than these early ones). Anyway, Horse Feathers is about… er, a college (ie, university) with a shit football (ie, American Football) team, which always loses, and the Marx Brothers con themselves into positions of power at the college and then hire pro players for their team, all so they can beat a rival college. I can’t remember any especially amusing scenes from this film, only an overriding memory of feeling sorry for Zeppo for having to play the all-American clean-cut college-boy hero. Groucho wise-cracks (often not very funny), Harpo is creepy as fuck, and Chico, embarrassingly, plays a comedy Latino but delivers the best lines. The Marx Brothers comedy has not aged as well as some of their contemporaries.

The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismäki (2017, Finland). I already had everything in this new Blu-ray box set except The Other Side of Hope (and The Man Without a Past, which I’d already seen), but Kaurismäki is definitely worth upgrading from DVD. So I did. And gave my DVD Kaurismäki box sets to a friend. Anyway, The Other Side of Hope. There needs to be more books and films about refugees in Europe, because how we treat them increasingly defines us – and is certainly defining the current era. You have the racists and fascists becoming increasingly normalised in the press, and yet a recent poll claimed the UK was a more welcoming country than it was ten years ago. I suspect that poll doesn’t include the Home Office, which seems to staffed entirely by racists enacting racist policies put in place by arch-racist Theresa May. Happily, not everyone agrees with such Nazis, and people are writing novels – like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – and making films – such as The Other Side of Hope – which address European nations’ inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. (There would, of course, be fewer refugees moving into Europe if we stopped bombing their homes.) In The Other Side of Hope, Khaled, a Syrian, enters Helsinki illegally and applies for asylum at a police station. He tells them his story (through an interpreter): he returned home from work one day to find his house destroyed by bombs, and his wife and child dead. Like many other Syrians fleeing the civil war (and British bombs), he and his sister travelled north, but he lost her in the Balkans. His application is rejected and he escapes from the facility where he’d been put. He’s found sleeping rough by a businessman who has just sold his shop and bought a neighbourhood restaurant and which he’s failing to make a go of (their attempt at re-inventing themselves as a sushi restaurant is hilarious). The restaurant owner hires Khaled and arranges for him to get a fake ID. Meanwhile, another refugee Khaled met in the facility has had word of Khaled’s sister. She’s in Lithuania. So Khaled arranges to have her smuggled to Finland. But then Khaled has a run-in with a group of neo-Nazis… The Other Side of Hope is probably the most Kaurismäki of his films. It’s both tragedy and farce, and all played completely deadpan. The restaurant owner is played by Kaurismäki regular and ex-Leningrad Cowboys member Sakari Kuosmanen, and there are few other familiar faces in there too. Khaled is played by Sherwan Haji, a Syrian actor who emigrated to Finland. An excellent film.

The Visitor, Giulio Paradiso (1979, Italy). I get these text messages every now and again, usually late at night, from David Tallerman, in which he tells me to add certain films to my rental list (I do the same to him, of course). The Visitor was one such film. It was also completely bonkers. It’s an Italian film, but set in the US with a mostly US cast, including Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. Yes, really. There is apparently an ages-long cosmic conflict between evil, Zatteen, and good, Yahweh. But Zatteen was killed on Earth centuries ago, and survives only through the descendants of children he had with human women. One of which is apparently a young girl with telekinetic abilities, which she is using to help the basketball team owned by her mother’s boyfriend win games. It’s all a bit Damien, and the Christian references are laid on thick. And like most Italian films of the 1970s, it’s all very intense, a bit like Cronenberg turn up to eleven but without the body horror. There is, for example, a scene in which they try to kill Shelley Winters by wrapping a wire around her neck and the sending her down the stairs on a stairlift. Despite all this, The Visitor isn’t especially memorable. Batshit insane, yes; and that’s probably why so little of it sticks in memory.

The Mad Masters*, Jean Rouch (1955, France). Rouch was a name unknown to me, despite having directed 109 films between 1947 and 2002. But then, none of his films appear to have ever been released in the UK, and most of them were semi-documentary – what he called “ethnofiction” – films about people and places on the African continent. The Mad Masters is a case in point: it depicts the Hauka rituals, in which participants go into trances, froth at the mouth and claim to be possessed by their colonial administrators. The film was banned in Niger, and then in other British territories in Africa of the time, including Ghana, where it was filmed. Wikipedia states that the film has also been criticised by “African” students and critics (Africa is not a country) for presenting “exotic racism”. Given that the first quarter of the film is about how very ordinary is the city of Accra and its inhabitants – although it’s likely that’s to contrast it with the later depictions of Hauka possessions. Rouch was in important figure in French cinema, and probably deserves a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I don’t know that this is the film to represent his oeuvre. I’d certainly like to see more by him.

Bad Cop, Kai Jiang (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime – I say “found”, as if it were actually possible to look for things there and find them, which it’s not as Amazon appears to use the worst search engine on the planet and is about as effective as throwing a dart at a dartboard from several kilometres away and in a different room. So. I stumbled across it. As well as a bunch of stuff I hadn’t known was on there. Bad Cop is not a good film. A policewoman (you can also find the film as Bad Policewoman) who doesn’t take orders very well is sent undercover to a high school to discover why several of the female students have disappeared. She ends up in a relationship with the hot teacher. And the friendly fellow female student turns out to be the villain. Ho hum. Like the other Chinese films dumped on Amazon Prime I’ve seen, the subtitles were… creative. Fun, but not a very good film.

Tramontane, Vatche Boulghourjian (2016, Lebanon). I think it was trailer for this on another rental DVD that prompted me to add it to my list. Or it may have just been that it’s a Lebanese film and I’ve not seen many of them, so I stuck it on my rental list. Whatever, it was a good call. Rabih is blind and a musician in a band. The band has been invited to play in Europe (no one specifies which country or city), so Rabih goes along to the police station to apply for a passport. But they take his ID card off him because it’s fake. He clearly didn’t know, so they tell him to provide proof of his birth and they’ll let him off. But the hospital where he was allegedly born has no record of his birth. At which point his mother admits he was rescued by her brother – then a captain in the army – from a village in the south destroyed during the war. He travels to the village and learns it was never destroyed during the war, and no babies went missing. A member of his uncle’s platoon tells him he was rescued from a car crash in which his Armenian parents died by his uncle, handed to an Armenian orphanage, but then taken from that by his uncle. But the orphanage has no record of an orphan from that time. Through his uncle’s ex-fiancée, he tracks down another member of his uncle’s platoon, who tells him he was “allowed to live” after an operation on a village. At the village, he learns that a man and woman were killed in an attack and their baby disappeared, long since presumed dead. When Rabih asks if the baby could still be alive, he is told, yes, he could be but he would have another family by now and they buried the missing baby decades ago. Rabih’s uncle then presents him with a birth certificate – real, so obviously sourced from “contacts” – but documenting his fake birth as per his fake ID. Rabih has no choice but to accept it. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 930

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Moving pictures 2018, #45

Even given my usual viewing, this is a bit of an odd bunch – mostly films I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Because good luck trying to actually find films on there, as the search function is next to fucking useless. I learnt this week there are a lot of Nollywood films available for free on Prime (I also learnt they’re mostly dreadful), so an ability to search by country of origin would be really useful…

Air Crew, Alexander Mitta (1980, Russia). There are also a number of Mosfilm and Lenfilm movies available on Prime, including Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – and Air Crew was the first of several I added to my watchlist. It is apparently the first disaster film made in the USSR, and was clearly modelled on 1970’s Airport (and sequels). The first half of the film sets up the lives of the three main characters, the captain of an Aeroflot Tu-154 who fears he will be grounded because of his age, a Lothario co-pilot on the same plane who enters into a relationship with a member of the cabin crew only for it to be torpedoed by an ex-girlfriend, and an ex-member of the crew who now flies helicopters picking up cosmonauts after they’ve landed and is involved in a custody battle for his son with his ex-wife. The film doesn’t pick up until the Tu-154 is diverted to Bidri (a made-up town) where an earthquake has struck. Air Crew switches to model-work, and the disaster that unfolds makes Thunderbirds look amateur. A plane crashes and explodes, the earth quake causes an oil refinery to, er, explode, and a lava flow hits the airport and causes everything to, um, explode. But the Tu-154 – now with helicopter pilot on board, although I can’t remember how he ended up there – manages to take off. But part of the skin on the upper fuselage has ripped open, and there’s something obstructing one of the elevators on the T-tail… So while at 10,000 feet or something, one of the crew has to crawl out through the intake into the jet engine in the tail onto the upper fuselage to nail the rip shut. Another has to climb up inside the tail and out onto the horizontal stabilisers to clear the obstruction. Tu-154s had a cruising speed of 850 kph, by the way. It’s all completely mad and makes Airport look a bit feeble. While the second half massively overwhelms the first half of the film, it does give a good, if somewhat rosy-tinted, portrait of life in the USSR. Which, for all its deprivations and secret police and shit, was considerably less sexist and racist and Islamophobic than US society was. Not a great film, but definitely one worth seeing.

Monkey Business, Norman McLeod (1931, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I’m watching these, to be honest. I don’t think they’re that funny, and Groucho’s famous wit has been massively over-hyped. In fact, Chico is the funniest of the four, and he’s playing a racial stereotype. Harpo is just a creepy stalker, and Zeppo, who had the coolest name of the four, was lumbered with the straight-man role because he was the most normal-looking. And I can’t even tell the plots apart. In this one, the four Marx Brothers stowaway aboard a ship en route to the US. So the plot is basically a series of jokes in which each of the brothers plays on their characteristics. Groucho is cynical and witty (more the former than the latter), Harpo is creepy, Chico plays a comedy racial stereotype but often has the best lines, and Zeppo is completely wasted in the straight-man role. Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother”, doesn’t appear in this, which is probably why it’s so unmemorable. In fact, just about the only thing I can remember is the sketch with the fish barrels, which is pretty much all anyone can remember of this film. The Marx Brothers were… seminal? I don’t think so. Hugely popular in their time? Almost certainly. Their reputation as comedic geniuses has remained mostly undiminished for nearly 90 years, although it’s probably fair to say all the successful comedy stars from that period continue to enjoy a high reputation – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, etc. Yes, some of those are earlier – and the Marx Brothers were basically filming their Broadway shows for their early movies – but many of them survived into the 1930s and later. And, of them all, I’d say Buster Keaton was best in the early days, and Laurel and Hardy in the later days. The Marx Brothers brand of comedy was often done better by one-offs, like Hellzapoppin (see here), or by screwball romances starring Cary Grant or Clark Gable or Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck…

Crime or Punishment?!?, Keralino Sandorovich (2009, Japan). I have no idea what this film was about, but that was not unexpected given that it was recommended by David Tallerman. A model, who was printed upside down in an issue of a magazine, and objects violently to the mistake in the magazine’s office, is sentenced to be “police chief for a day” for a small prefecture’s police force. This apparently does happen in Japan. She finds herself investing in the role, and proves surprisingly popular with the police officers. One of whom is a serial killer, and she knows this is because he’s an ex-lover and he had tried to kill her. There’s also a salaryman who witnesses a murder but is then hit by a lorry. The film jumps about in time, – that salaryman’s death appears a few times – and the young woman in the lead role doesn’t especially stand out, which means it all seems a bit confused and a bit confusing. The film is a black comedy, but there wasn’t a great deal that was comic about it – although I guess that’s the point with black comedies. The fact it’s all over the place doesn’t help. Enjoyable, but I’ve seen much better.

The Millionaire, Sergey Chekalov (2012, Ukraine). Doing your life over again is hardly the most original story out there, especially when it’s linked to romance. Kirill is about get engaged to the daughter of an oligarch. He’s an architect and wants to make a name for himself on his own, without his future father-in-law’s help. But when he discovers that’s never going to happen, he rejects his fiancée and walks away. At the reception he’s just left, a waitress tripped over his best mate and brought the champagne fountain crashing down. Kirill got chatting to her outside. After he decides to walk away, he gives her a call and meets up with her and her best friend. He and his best mate take the two women on a date. Ten years later, Kirill is married to the waitress, with a small son, she works as a teacher, and he still has yet to have one of his designs accepted. But he’s still best mates with his, er, best mate, who is now married to his wife’s best friend. But then Kirill attends a ten-year reunion, meets up with his ex-fiancée ad rues what might have been. Cue fairy godmother. Who, by means of a fatal collision with a speeding lorry, throws him into an alternative present where he’d been married to the oligarch’s daughter for ten years. And… he’s a total shit, stuck in a loveless and childless marriage, and his best-mate is poor and alcoholic and his “wife’s” best friend is a disabled writer because she was injured in the taxi ride on that night after her friend was fired from her job as waitress at the engagement party and died… It’s all very obvious, but it’s well-played and the cast are likeable. The Russian filter made it perhaps more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but it was all very glib and superficial and proof that Russian culture can be just as shallow as American culture.

The Villainess, Jung Byung-gil (2017, South Korea). I think this is the first film I’ve seen that opens with a FPS POV. In fact I’m not sure if there are any films that make use of first person as camera, although surely there must be some, as it’s such an obvious cinema narrative trick. In the opening ten minutes or so, we see a young woman, as if she were the camera, basically slaughter her way through a crowd of gangsters. Later, we learn what prompted this murderous spree. We also discover what happened immediately afterwards – the young woman was picked up by a secretive organisation and locked away and trained in a variety of skills… Yup, it’s the plot of La femme Nikita. Pretty much blow by blow. And, like Besson’s film, The Villainess is immensely stylish. Perhaps not definingly so, as Besson’s film was, which spawned a TV series, but then South Korean cinema has been definingly stylish on its own for a couple of decades now. In comparison to other Korean films, The Villainess scores highly; in comparison to La femme Nikita, it blows it out of the water action-wise but can’t reach its level of stylishness. So it’s a sort of swings and roundabouts, half a dozen of one and six of the other, sort of thing. The Villainess is nonetheless definitely worth seeing.

L’Assassino, Elio Petri (1961, Italy). I’d expected this to be a giallo thriller about a, well, an assassin. From the title. But assassino just means killer or murderer in Italian, not necessarily a hitman. In this case, it refers to an antique dealer, played by Marcello Mastronianni, who is taken in for questioning by the police but not told why. Eventually, he – and the viewer – learns it is because his lover, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, has gone missing. And is then found murdered. As the police interrogate Mastronianni, and take him out to view the scene of the crime, so the story is interrupted by flashbacks showing the relationship between Mastroianni and his lover. There’s one great sequence where acquaintances of Mastroianni’s character talk to camera about him, and, of course, their testimony contradicts his own self-serving account of his past. Petri is better known for his film The Tenth Victim, an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story, ‘The Seventh Victim’, which was subsequently novelised by, er, Sheckley. Anyway, Mastroianni is or isn’t the murderer of his lover and this film keeps its cards very close to its chest for much of its length. But that’s okay because it apes a Neorealist look, although the quality of the picture is much better and the cast are pretty much all professional. But even in 1961, Rome didn’t apparently look that much different from Rome in 1941 – in some areas at least, although part of the film takes place in newly-built suburbs and one section in an abandoned building site, for a hotel, all concrete floors and no walls. It’s an atmospheric piece, if not the piece I expected, but it works, and does actually make me want to make The Tenth Victim again.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929


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Moving pictures 2018, #44

Not a single US film in this half-dozen. I’m steadily reducing the number of American films I watch, although there are still a large number of countries I’ve not seen films from.

Deewaar*, Yash Chopra (1975, India). There are only three or four Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, while around half of the list are from Hollywood. Despite the fact the two film industries are not so different in size (Indian cinema, including Bollywood, is around a third bigger than Hollywood, and Bollywood accounts for nearly half of Indian cinema’s ticket sales). Of course, the list is aimed at English-language film-watchers, but even so there are some excellent historical Bollywood films that have been missed off, such as Kaagaz ke Phool (see here), Mughal-e-Azam (see here) or Pakeezah (see here), just to mention a few of my favourites. Anyway, Deewaar is neither an historical epic, nor the usual boy-meets-girl Bollywood story, but a family drama and thriller. The film opens with a police officer being decorated, and in his acceptance speech he tells everyone he owes everything to his mother… And then the film heads straight into flashback territory. The two sons of a trade union activist go their separate ways after their father is blackmailed into betraying his fellow workers. One son becomes a criminal, the other a police officer, and… you can guess where this is going. Deewaar apparently had an enormous impact on Bollywood, and it’s certainly a much grittier and realistic – and yes, with singing and dancing – movie than others I’ve seen. In places, this means its age tells against it, as later films have covered similar territory – and, to be fair, it’s not an uncommon story in other countries’ cinemas. I think there should be more Indian films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I can see why this one is there.

Accident, Joseph Losey (1967, UK). Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter made three films in the UK during the 1960s: The Servant (see here), The Go-Between (see here) and this one. Accident opens with a, er, car accident, from which Dirk Bogarde manages to rescue Jacqueline Sassard but Michael York is already dead. The two were on their way to visit Bogarde, who was York’s tutor at Oxford. But this is Pinter, so nothing is quite as it seems, and the female characters are never treated well – in this case, that’s Bogarde sexually assaulting Sassard after the accident. Confusing matters is Stanley Baker, another Oxford don, who has been sleeping with Sassard but, unlike York, has no plans for matrimony. The car accident is amazingly shot, not like it would be these days with OTT physical/CGI effects, shot from a number of surprising angles that really evoke the accident extremely well. It’s an arresting opening, and the film takes advantage of it, so when it starts the flashback main narrative it still has the shock of the opening sequence echoing. Which is just as well, as the story which follows is not the most exciting. It’s a cross-between a romantic triangle and a campus professor/student illicit affair story, and fuck knows what sort of shape that makes. It doesn’t help that it all takes at Oxford University, and over-entitled white men no longer play as sympathetic as they once – apparently, bafflingly – did. Bogarde plays a role he’s good at: the quiet restrained type who doe something nasty. Michael York plays, well, Michael York. As usual. Jacqueline Sassard is apparently better known in Italian cinema, and retired from acting two years after Accident when she married the head of the Lancia family (that’s cars, of course). The three Pinter/Losey films are worth seeing, but I couldn’t say which was the best of them. Probably the first.

The Spring River Flows East, Zheng Junli & Cai Chusheng (1947, China). I’m a big fan of current-day Chinese cinema, especially that of the Sixth Generation directors (and Fifth Generation too), but I also like early Chinese cinema a great deal, especially contemporary dramas from the 1940s, like Spring in a Small Town (see here) and this film, The Spring River Flows East. Which is a bit epic. 190 minutes epic. Released-in-two-parts epic. The story opens in Shanghai in 1931 and follows the fortunes of a family during the Japanese invasion. A man joins the resistance, but his wife and child are put in a refugee camp when the Japanese reach Shanghai. The man is later captured but manages to escape and heads for Chungking, which is under the control of the Kuomintang. Years pass, the man becomes a successful entrepreneur and marries another woman. The Japanese are defeated. The man returns to Shanghai. At a party, his first wife, working as a waitress, recognises him and reveals he is a bigamist. His second wife insists the first divorce him, but she finds another solution. The story is pretty much a soap opera, but played out against a backdrop of war, occupation and postwar deprivation. Obviously, the first wife is the sympathetic heroine – she’s played by Bai Yang, the foremost of China’s “Four Great Actresses” – although much is made of the fall from grace of the husband, from working-class hero to bourgeois lackey. The film isn’t as well-shot as Spring in a Small Town, which is really excellent, but what it lacks in cinematography, staging or script, The Spring River Flows East makes up for in breadth of story and scale. I can understand why it’s so highly regarded in Chinese cinema. I’d like to see it again too.

Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico). After watching this, I added all of Reygadas’s available films to my rental list – which, fortunately, appears to be all of them. This film takes place in a Mennonite community in Mexico, and the dialogue is chiefly in their language, Plautdietsch. The cast are also mostly non-professional – with the exception of Miriam Toews, a Canadian Mennonite author and actor, who plays the wife of the main character. He is having an affair with a single woman, and his wife knows about it. She confronts him, whch leads to her suffering a fatal heart attack. At the wake, the mistress kisses the wife’s body and she comes back to life. This is one of those films with long static takes and sparse dialogue. The movie opens with a gorgeous shot of the sun rising, and closes with one of it setting, and I thought the whole thing from start to finish excellent. It’s very much the sort of cinema I really like, almost faux-documentary, but with those long slow-moving takes where the very lack of action draws attention to the smallest of details. It’s the polar opposite of Hollywood action movies, with their relentless series of short-span jump-cuts, CGI-enhanced action, and so much detail on screen you’ve no idea where to look or what the fuck is actually going on. Reygadas is definitely a name I’ll be keeping an eye open for from now on.

Yellow Submarine, George Dunning (1968, UK). I think I may have seen this before, although whatever bits and pieces I remembered may well have been from watching only parts of it rather than the whole movie. And that was likely over thirty years ago, during the early 1980s or late 1970s. So when it popped up free-to-view on Amazon Prime – and there’s some surprising stuff on there, but searching on the Fire Stick TV interface is next to useless (mind you, it’s next to fucking useless on the Amazon website too) – I decided to watch it. It’s… very much of its time, and very much what you see on the DVD cover-art. Young Freddie is sent in the Yellow Submarine to recruit the Beatles to help free Pepperland from an invasion by the music-hating Blue Meanies. En route, we’re treated to a number of tracks from various Beatles albums, some well-known, some pretty much forgotten except by fans of the band. I was never much of a fan of the Beatles – I’m still not one – and of the bands popular at the time (which was, I hasten to add, years before my own time), I much preferred the Hollies. I’ve always been slightly baffled by the Beatles’ level of success, but one thing I noticed watching Yellow Submarine was how familiar so many of their songs’ melodies were. I don’t mean familiar because the songs were famous, but familiar because the melodies were simple and sounded very like many other songs. Everything felt, well, a bit re-used. Maybe that was the secret of their success. After all, Oasis were huge too, and every one of their songs sounded like it was ripped off from something else. (I still think Oasis were a scam played on the British public by a jaded music press.) Anyway, I’m glad I watched Yellow Submarine, but I doubt I’ll bother rewatching it.

Le Samouraï*, Jean-Pierre Melville (1967, France). I borrowed this from David Tallerman, as it’s not available  for rent in the UK. (There isn’t even a UK release, and the only one for sale here is the US Criterion Collection DVD.) The only film by Melville I’d seen previously was Bob le flambeur, which has, to be honest, sort of mingled together in mind with a whole bunch of noir films I’ve seen over the years, so much so I don’t really know whether something I remember from it is actually from Bob le flambeur or a film by Dassin, Carné, Tourneur or Duvivier. So Le Samouraï came as a bit of a surprise, as it reminded me of Tati’s Playtime more than anything else. I mean the colour palette, of course. And some of the staging. Not the plot. Alain Delon (I prefer Belmondo, to be honest) plays a hitman, who lives alone in a small barely-furnished apartment with a canary in a cage. He shoots the owner of a nightclub, and is witnessed in the act by the club’s singer. However, when he is pulled in by the police – among many other men – the singer insists he was not the killer. He also had an alibi for the time of the murder – his girlfriend claims he was at her place. Then the hitman finds himself the target of an assassin, but he succeeds in forcing the assassin to tell him the name of his boss. While the plot was almost pure noir, the look of the film was definitely not Nouvelle Vague. The subdued colour palette and the minimalist set design, along with several industrial locations, gave the film a flat affect which suited its story. Delon played his role mostly stone-faced, but the rest of the cast felt more like types than characters. I’d not expected much when putting the disc in the player, but I found myself liking Le Samouraï a great deal. A good film, but I’m unsure whether it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929


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Moving pictures 2018, #43

I’ve been a bit lazy with my choices of viewing of late. I blame the weather. Although I have an air-conditioner, it’s not very effective, and it’s often too hot in the evenings to sit and concentrate on a movie. Not that any of the below could be described as moving wallpaper… But you know what I mean.

Love Me Tonight*, Rouben Mamoulian (1932, USA). Given the power of Hollywood, it’s often easy to forget – in the Anglophone world, that is – that Hollywood was not the only place where films were being made during the medium’s first few decades. Germany had a strong film industry in the 1920s – Alfred Hitchcock learnt much of his trade there. Then there’s the UK: during the same decade, HG Wells wrote three short silent films especially for Elsa Lanchester, as I recently learnt. And France, where Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made some of his best films; not to mention local directors such as Abel Gance or Georges Méliès. And China, which produced The Goddess (see here) and Song at Midnight in the 1930s. And the USSR… In fact, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list contains 83 films from the 1930s. Fifty-seven are from the US! France is next highest with 12, then Germany with 5, the UK with 3, and then China with 2. The remaining nations are Brazil, Spain, Japan and the USSR. But 57 from the US! Okay, so it’s easier for the US-based list makers to find early US films than early films from other nations, but that shows a piss-poor effort to track down non-US examples. One of which, Limite (see here), from Brazil, wasn’t even available at the time the list was first made, and its reputation existed mostly as hearsay (bolstered by Orson Welles declaring himself a fan after a private showing back in 1942!). All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I cannot honestly see why Love Me Tonight made the list. It’s basically a fairy-tale recast as an early Gene Kelly musical, but with Maurice Chevalier in the lead role. You know what I mean – there’s something fairy-tale about all of Gene Kelly’s musicals, whether it’s the plots or the dream-like dance sequences or the character Kelly usually plays. Chevalier is a tailor, who is owed a great deal of money by an aristocrat (this is a recurring motif in Western European history and fiction, you’d think we’d fucking learn not to trust the nobs), so he sets off to demand what he is owed. He bumps into a princess, declares his undying love, is presented as a baron at the chateau because his debtor doesn’t want to embarrass himself… and, well, it’s a story which should end with a tumbril and not with the two lovers re-united. And I really can’t understand the appeal of Chevalier, who galumphs about like a Cary Grant cast in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and whose singing voice was nothing to, er, shout about. I have enjoyed, and even admired, some of the 1930s US films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’ve been baffled by the inclusion of most of them. This definitely falls into that latter group.

The Odyssey, Jérôme Salle (2016, France). The more sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the three actors on the cover of the DVD have the wrong names underneath. Which seems like a pretty dumb mistake to let through on the packaging. Anyway, The Odyssey is a biopic of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as played by Lambert Wilson. I remember Cousteau from my own childhood. His films seemed to always be on television, although whether that was UK television or UAE television, I can’t remember. But I certainly remember his ship Calypso, the diving saucer, and the divers with their distinctive streamlined yellow scuba gear. I’m not young enough to remember his Conshelf underwater habitats, although I’ve read up on them in the last few years, and even have a  copy of the film made about Conshelf II, World Without Sun (see here). So Cousteau was not a figure that was unfamiliar to me, and I was aware of many of his achievements. Having said that, I knew little about his career, just the highlights really. I hadn’t known he was partly funded by the French Ministry of Petroleum, and was responsible for discovering a number of oilfields in the Middle East. Or that his business was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars during the 1980s. Unfortunately, The Odyssey wants to be about JYC’s (as his friends called him) relationship with his youngest son, Phillippe, who initially turned his back on his father and his career, but later joined him and became Cousteau’s lead cinematographer. He also died in a seaplane crash in 1979 – this is no spoiler, as the film opens with the crash. On the one hand, The Odyssey wants to be a biopic of JYC; on the other, it wants to be a father-son drama (because apparently the French think that’s what cinema should be about too); and on the other hand, you have Audrey Tatou as the put-upon wife who acts as “mother” and “shepherdess” (her nickname) to the crew of Calypso… The end-result is a film which has plenty of drama but none of the wonder of Cousteau’s own films about the oceans. The leads are good in their roles, but the focus feels too… land-bound. It comes as no surprise that Cousteau was a bad businessman, or that he was bad at picking business partners. He was a dreamer, and his films get that across much better than The Odyssey does. I enjoyed it, and I find Cousteau an interesting person, but I’d sooner watch one of JYC’s own films, if I’m honest.

The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau (2016, USA). Disney has been on a mission this century to remake all its classic animation feature films as live-action. I’ve no idea why. Earlier attempts, like 1996’s 101 Dalmations, were hardly successful. Having said that, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from 2015 (see here) isn’t half bad, and Sleeping Beauty (see here; the greatest Disney film ever made) was not so much remade as, er, sequelised with Maleficent. But The Jungle Book is not a film you’d expect to be given the live-action treatment. Chiefly because all of its character but one are, well, talking animals. And while WC Fields may have said, “never work with animals or children”, animals can’t actually, er, talk, which pretty much fucks up the entire story of The Jungle Book. So Jon Favreau uses CGI animals. And they look very realistic. But, of course, each animal character – Baloo, Arkela, Shere Khan, Bagheera, King Louie, and so on – needs a human actor to provide their voice. And that’s where Favreau screwed it up. It’s a good cast, an excellent cast, But so hugely miscast. Idris Elbas as Shere Khan? WTF? Bill Murray as Baloo? What the actual fuck? Disney’s original The Jungle Book is a film from my childhood. I remember seeing it in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School in the early 1970s. We also had a LP of songs from Disney films, which featured the best-known song from The Jungle Book abd other films, and which we played relentlessly when we lived in Rumeilah (an area of Doha). So, on the one hand, it’s “mess with my childhood icons at your own peril”, but, on the other, some previous attempts had actually been quite good. I wish I could say The Jungle Book fell into the latter category. The CGI animals are, unsurprisingly, fantastic to look at – even if their voices are so badly chosen. And the story sticks mostly to the Disney animated film. The musical cues make use of the songs from the animated film, without actually being, well, sung. Which feels sort of half-hearted and is disappointing. King Louis is converted into a Gigantopithecus (which allegedly existed from the late Miocene to the mid-Pleistocene), which is no more plausible than the animated film’s orang-utan but does, I have to admit, look pretty cool. But, despite all that, The Jungle Book feels mostly like a showreel for CGI. It’s like an advert for the state-of-the-art. Kipling’s collection of short stories has been well and truly buried. Instead of making a “better” The Jungle Book, Favreau should have gone back to the source. Instead, he’s produced a photo-realistic version of Disney’s 1967 animated film, but taken all the fun out of it. I admit The Jungle Book is not a Disney animated film I hold in especially high regard, but it deserved a better remake than this.

Devil Girl from Mars, David MacDonald (1954, UK). There are a lot of sf B-movies available on Amazon Prime, probably because they’re all out of copyright and watchable copies have been digitised at some point somewhere. Whether they should have been is an entirely different matter. I’d argue that Devil Girl from Mars, which is British rather than American, is one that deserved being better known, even if it’s not that good a film and was roundly panned on its release. Perversely, it is its failures to abide by sf B-movie clichés which makes it interesting. It is, sort of, an Alien precursor. A group of people are trapped at a remote Scottish hotel when a flying saucer lands nearby. They are terrorised by the UFO’s crew, the so-called “Devil Girl”, and her crap-looking robot. They plot among themselves to save the Earth from the threat represented by the Devil Girl – she is, apparently, the scout for an invading force from Mars. The plot is enlivened by the trapped guests’ dynamics. One is an escaped murderer under an assumed name. Another is a scientist sceptical of UFOs. True, the story is somewhat formulaic – N’yah, the Martian, appears in the hotel, tells the trapped guests what they can and cannot do, and leaves. They then discuss what she has said. But the focus is on the characters trapped in the hotel, in response to the threat posed by N’yah, than it is in the N’yah and the threat she poses. In the end, the scientist figures out a way for N’yah’s flying saucer to be destroyed… but only by someone willing to sacrifice themselves. Which leads to, well, a competition among the men to decide who should be the one to blow up the UFO. The acting is not especially good, the special effects are risible (especially the robot), and the studio sets aren’t very convincing. N’yah’s fetish wear doesn’t much resemble what you’d expect the captain of spaceship from Mars to be wearing. This is by no means a great film, but for all its faults it’s not a bad B-movie.

By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet (1936, Russia). I mentioned films from the 1930s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, sand that there was only one from the USSR – it’s Zemlya by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (see here). Which is an excellent film. But Boris Barnet also made some excellent films during the 1930s. Not just By the Bluest of Seas, but also Outskirts (see here). Not to mention Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see here). Eisenstein does appear on the list – several times, in fact. But not Barnet. Which is a surprise. This film has been accused – by Western critics – of being propaganda, which shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, if not honesty, on the part of those critics, as Western, especially Hollywood, movies have been propaganda for, variously, the American Dream, capitalism or consumerism since the early days of cinema. And in these times of overt product placement and merchandising, they’re even more propaganda tools. But, of course, when it applies to capitalism, it’s not propaganda. Because propaganda is political but capitalism is not. If you think that, I suggest you go back to kindergarten as you’ve entirely missed the point of the modern fucking world. Anyway, in By the Bluest of Seas, two sailors are washed ashore a Caspian Sea island during a storm, and join the collective farm located there. Both of them are attracted to the leader of the kolkhoz – that’s her on the DVD cover – and so vie for her attentions. But, after various attempts to win her favour, including a fishing trip during which she is washed overboard and believed lost, but then washes ashore later, they learn she has a fiancé off fighting in the Pacific. It’s not the most original of stories, and its depiction of kolkhoz life probably understates the hardships, but Barnet’s cinematography is really quite good, especially the scenes set on boats during storms. And, for all that, nothing in it felt like propaganda. I could argue that not only is all cinema propaganda, but that it should be more overtly propaganda. And sf should be didactic. But I like my propaganda honest about its intentions – which is more than can be said for Hollywood’s product placement deals, etc – so that at least I can decide how to take it. If, as stated earlier, By the Bluest of Seas presents an overly rosy view of life in a kolkhoz, not to mention the benefits of such a system, then what’s the problem? By the Bluest of Seas is an extremely well-shot, if somewhat hackneyed, romantic triangle set in 1930s USSR. This film should certainly have been considered for the 1001 Movies  You Must See Before You Die list; all of Barnet’s film probably should have been.

Desert Ark, Mohamed Chouikh (1997, Algeria). I now have all four of these Great African Films DVDs. ArtMattan are continuing to release DVDs, but the fourth volume seems to be the last in this series. Their DVDs are also really hard to find – ie, expensive – on this side of the Atlantic, and their website is so 1990s you can only order on it and pay by “check”. Sigh. A big shame, because Africa – which is a continent – has a rich tradition of film-making, some African nations perhaps more than others, but pretty much all of which are hard to find in the UK. This particular volume of Great African Films also includes Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a Chadian director, whose movies are released on DVD in the UK (and for good reason – they are excellent) The other film in this set is Desert Ark, by Algerian director Mohamed Chouikh (that’s French orthography, so in English orthography it would probably be Shwaykh). The story pits two tribes, one nominally Berber, against each other over an illicit love affair between a young man from one and a young woman from the other. On the one hand, it’s all intended to be figurative; on the other, artificial tribal affiliations aside, this is something that happens in real life and, despite the attempts of reconciliation by a local mullah, it quickly escalates to violence and outright war. Chouikh’s film is clearly meant to be cautionary, but in the twenty years since it was made the world has become much more violent and intolerant. Which means that Chouikh’s flights of fancy – casting the film as an allegory of life aboard Noah’s Ark – actually mean less than the narrative as presented. The final scenes, in which the two lovers stumble across a ship becalmed in the desert, feel like whimsy rather than the culmination of an allegorical commentary. There is, of course, nothing allegorical about a bullet. Or indeed metaphorical. If anything, bullets are items that are usually turned into metaphors. But when you have two tribes using guns to protect something as nebulous and worthless as “honour” – even worse than that, male honour as embodied in women as chattel – then you have a conflict that is never really going to be resolved until all the men involved have been re-educated as human beings. Desert Ark tells a story specific to its country of origin, but its themes are universal. It really deserves a wider release than it received.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 927


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Moving pictures 2018, #42

An almost entirely Anglophone group of films this time around, although one of them isn’t actually Anglophone as it takes place in Zambia and the dialogue is almost entirely in Chichewa (a member of the Bantu language family)… but the director emigrated to the UK when she was nine and the film was mostly funded by UK film production companies, so I’ve marked it as a British film.

Transfer, From the Drain, Stereo, Crimes of the Future, David Cronenberg (1966 – 1970, Canada) The four films in this box set were originally included as extra features on the special edition release of Videodrome, but have since been released as David Cronenberg’s Early Works. I am not an especially big fan of Cronenberg’s works – I’ll happily watch them, and some of them I think are very good – but I’m not the sort to track down all his films, especially the ones that are hard to find, and buy them… although if they’re readily available, I’ll happily stick them on my rental list. I knew that Cronenberg’s first film was Shivers, followed by Rabid, which I’ve seen (see here), although I first came across his work when I watched Scanners some time back in the 1980s. The four films here, two of which are technically feature films as they’re over 40 minutes in length, predate Shivers, but since Cronenberg’s career is generally considered to have started with ShiversTransfer has a psychiatrist and his patient sitting at a table in a snowy field and, to be honest, it’s a curiosity in the director’s oeuvre. Perhaps there are hints of the themes Cronenberg explores throughout his career, but it’s also one of those portentous films made by students who don’t realising they’re  both re-inventing the wheel and producing something that isn’t round in shape. The same is true of From the Drain, which also features two characters in conversation, in this case, veterans of some future war. One for fans. But then there’s Stereo, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s the usual student over-emphatic nonsense, ostensibly about an experiment to boost telepathic powers, as far as the script is concerned – or rather, voice-over, as apparently no sound was recorded as the Bolex camera too noisy. However, it was filmed entirely on the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto and features some wonderful Brutalist and Modernist architecture, made all the more visually appealing for having been filmed in black and white. Crimes of the Future treads similar ground – thematically and literally, since it’s also filmed in Scarborough – but it also harkens back to those earlier films, albeit using voiceover again, and tried to be clever with its dialogue. Stereo is a little gem, a great piece of black and white Brutalism. The earlier two films feel like ingredients that fed into it; and the last film seems like a failed attempt to remake it. They’re for fans of Cronenberg, obviously, but I’m glad I watched them.

I am not a Witch, Rungano Nyoni (2017, UK). As mentioned above, this film is set in Zambia, using a local cast, with dialogue mostly in Chichewa, but the director moved to Wales when she was nine, and the film has been mostly funded by UK production companies. But really, it’s Zambian in all but its funding. It’s Nyoni’s first feature film too, although two of her earlier short films are also included on the disc – Mwansa the Great and Listen. A young girl is accused of being a witch and taken away to a camp where witches are imprisoned. The women there are loaned to local business as manual labour. Each one is attached to a long ribbon on a large bobbin. They cannot remove the ribbon, or they are punished. The girl proves to have a talent for spotting wrongdoers. When presented with a line-up of suspects for a crime, she can pick out the guilty one. This makes her useful to the bureaucrat responsible for the  witches’ camp, and he uses her talent to better himself. It’s patently obvious that men have been using accusations of witchcraft to punish women who have rejected them – it’s even explicitly said, at one point. Of course, the young girl soon realises the power she has, especially the life that could be hers if she marries her protector, and so naturally she rebels. And, well, let’s just say the films does not have a happy ending. I thought this an excellent film. I’m not into film-making technique all that much, so the director’s inexperience, as outlined in other reviews, did not spoil my enjoyment. More interestingly, there were two shorts by Nyoni on the disc. The first, Mwansa the Great is a mildly amusing vignette set in a Zambian village, which shows a nice touch of the fantastic in realising the imagination of its child cast. Listen on the other hand, co-directed with Finnish/Iranian director Hamy Ramezan, is a much more powerful piece of work. An Arab woman in Denmark is being interviewed by two cops. She claims her husband will kill her if she is sent home. The cops do not understand Arabic, and the translator is wilfully playing down the woman’s situation. So they call in the son, who can speak Danish. He lies and tells the cops everything is fine at home because, he tells his mother, “I can protect you now”. It’s frightening how the woman’s communications are corrupted by others, so much so that the Danish cops respond differently to a woman who is quite clearly a victim. The commentary in Listen is obviously no different to that in I am not a Witch, even if the situations and settings are very different. Nyoni is clearly a name to watch, with a definite message that needs to be told.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Stanley Donen (1954, USA). I’m not a big fan of musicals, I think I’ve said that before. But I found this on Amazon Prime, so watching it wasn’t going to cost me anything, and it was a hot Sunday afternoon, and you know how it goes… I think the film also appears on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although not the one I’m using. A “backwoodsman”, Howard Keel, visits town looking for a wife. Jane Powell is sick of being treated like a drudge, so she accepts Keel’s offer despite only having met him an hour or two earlier. She goes home with him… and discovers he has six brothers. All of whom also want wives. So she basically knocks off their rough edges, teaches them how to treat women properly… and then they end up pretty much kidnapping six women to be their brides. Up until that last part, I was surprised to find myself enjoying Seven Brides for Brothers. Okay, so the songs aren’t exactly memorable, and a lot of the scenery is actually studio backdrops, but there’s plenty of humour, the dance-off at the barn-building is good, and the cast all play their parts well. It was a fun film. True, I expect to walk away from a musical remembering at least one of the tunes – if not with an earworm it takes me weeks to dislodge – but if I can remember one of the dance scenes then I suppose that’s a close second. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers will never be a favourite musical – and I’m slightly worried that such a concept should even occur to me – but I enjoyed watching it.

Paris, je t’aime, various (2006, France). This was lent me by David Tallerman. It’s an anthology film of eighteen short films by well-known directors, a mix of French and American, set in the city referenced in the title. And, well, there are too many Americans in it. The segments vary in length but all are shorter than ten minutes. I liked ‘Quais de Seine’ by Paul Mayeda Burges and Gurinder Chadha, in which a young Frenchman walks away from his sexist mates and becomes friends with a young Muslim woman; and ‘Place des fêtes’ by Oliver Schmitz, in which a Nigerian man is attacked by racists and connects with the immigrant paramedic who attends him. Most of the other segments didn’t seem to fit in with French cinema, such as Vincenzo Natali’s segment in which Elijah Wood meets a beautiful vampire, or the Coen brothers’ one where Steve Buscemi is beaten up by a young Frenchman. Of the segments which treated Paris as a destination for tourists, rather than a city with its own natives, probably the best was ‘Quartier Latin’ by Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu, written by Gena Rowlands, starring Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara and Gérard Depardieu. Out of the eighteen segments, the hit rate was too low to call the film a success. Only a couple were actively bad, but the whole project just seemed to have too heavy a US hand on it and that spoiled it. There is apparently a complimentary film set in New York, which seems more fitting, and less interesting to me, and several more planned: in Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Jerusalem. If they are equally aimed at the US market, I dread to think how they’ll turn out. Paris, je t’aime is not a film that celebrates the culture of Paris, it’s a film that uses it as a location to present a handful of Parisian stereotypes.

Sleuth*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1972, UK). I was pretty sure I’d seen this many years ago, but then realised I was confusing with a spoof Sherlock film, whose title escapes me, in which Watson was the clever one and Holmes a bumbling idiot. But that’s an entirely different film, and almost certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Unlike Sleuth. Which having now seen, I suspect I may well have seen many years ago. But I’m not sure. Olivier plays a successful writer of traditional crime novels. Caine is his wife’s lover, a hairdresser. Olivier invites Caine to his mansion and explains his cunning plan. He approves of their relationship and wants to give them a head-start. So they will fake a robbery, Olivier will claim the insurance, and Caine and ex-wife can keep whatever a fence will give them for the stolen jewellery. But Olivier, of course, has something else in mind – and shoots Caine as an intruder. The following day, an inspector turns up to investigate Caine’s disappearance, but Olivier insists it was all a joke and he only scared Caine by firing blanks. And… anymore would constitute serious spoilers. This is a film that relies entirely on the quality of its cast, and while Olivier is on top form, Caine also rises to the occasion. It doesn’t feel like a play, despite the use of pretty much a single location – the film widens it out a little, opening the film in a maze in the grounds of Olivier’s mansion, and making good use of movement throughout the interior of the house. Having said that, what really stands out about this film is the cleverness of its script, which was a play by Anthony Shaffer, so it seems a bit of a cheat to stick it on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s an excellent film, but that’s because it’s a good adaptation of an excellent play. It feels like a cheat, like it’s being rewarded for being something it isn’t. Worth seeing, definitely, but does it belong on the list?

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 926


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Moving pictures 2018, #41

I have seen other films by all the directors in the post, except for the last. Some, of course, more than others – Lang is my 8th most-watched director, with 25 movies. (Alfred Hitchcock, unsurprisingly, occupies the top spot.)

House by the River, Fritz Lang (1950, USA) Unsuccessful author Louis Hayward is left on his own with attractive maid Dorothy Patrick. Enraged by his latest rejection, and drunk, he sexually assaults Patrick, and strangles her when she resists. His brother, Lee Bowman, then turns up, and Hayward persuades him to help him dispose of the body – in the river by, er, the house. Hayward then puts it about that Patrick has run away with clothing and jewellery belonging to Hayward’s wife. But then Bowman learns that the meal sack in which they hid the body had his name on it. And the body has re-appeared. Hayward claims Bowman was the murderer. And it looks like he might go down for it. Lang made some classic noir films during the 1940s and 1950s, but this isn’t generally reckoned one of them. It apparently flopped on its release, but time has been kind to it: the starkly-lit studio sets, indoors and outdoors, look really quite effective, and if the script and acting is perhaps a bit overwrought there are some really effective scenes. The scene where Hayward tries to recover Patrick’s body from the river is especially good. Despite that, it’s probably one for fans – of Lang or noir.

Space Amoeba, Ishiro Honda (1970, Japan). The original Japanese title of this film translates as “Gezora, Ganimes, and Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas”, which, er, pretty much describes the entire plot. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as readily as Space Amoeba, or the film’s US title, Yog-Monster from Space (although what a “yog-monster” is, is anybody’s guess). Anyway, space probe on its way to Jupiter encounters a strange energy alien, which takes over the probe and sends it back to Earth. It crashes in the Pacific, and the alien takes over the body of a cuttlefish and grows it to giant-size. Meanwhile, a group of photographers and developers have travelled to Selgio Island to explore the sight of a future resort. The giant cuttlefish attacks them, and when they defeat it, the alien turns into a giant stone crab, and then a giant mata mata. So, lots of monster fights. And, er, that’s about it. There are a few character arcs and stuff, but let’s not get carried away – kaiju films are all about the monsters, after all. Strangely, the lead characters seemed to have been dubbed by Australian actors.

Ali and Nino, Asif Kapadia (2016, UK). I learnt of this story watching a documentary about Baku (see here), but at the time thought it was only a 1937 novel. But it was apparently adapted two years ago by a British director, with a Palestinian playing the Azerbaijani and a Spaniard playing the Georgian. Oh well. Casting aside, the film makes a good fist of the story and even manages to present Baku as it was in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Both Ali and Nino are from well-off families, aristocracy if not minor royalty. A rival for Nino’s affections kidnaps her, but Ali rescues her. But the rival dies during the rescue, so Ali has to hide out in the hills. Meanwhile, WWI breaks out. A friend re-unites the two and they marry in the hills. The Russian Revolution takes place. Post-WWI, Azerbaijan becomes independent. The couple return to Baku and Ali is made a government minister. But then the Russians invade and Azerbaijan becomes a vassal state. Ali and Nino flee. Ali and Nino is all a bit, well, Dr Zhivago, with a bit of Lawrence of Arabia mixed in. It’s clear where Kapadia’s inspirations lay – and it’s no bad thing, as those are both excellent films. The two leads are, perhaps, a little bland, although Mandy Patinkin, one of only two faces I recognised in the cast, makes a good Grand Duke Kipiani, Nino’s father. Kapadia at least does a better job of making his locations look like Baku of the 1930s than Lean did making Spain look like Russia (athough both are good-looking films). Kapadia is probably better-known for documentaries made from found footage, but if this, his feature film, is any indication he has a good career ahead of him in that area too.

Through the Olive Trees*, Abbas Kiarostami (194, Iran). This is probably Kiarostami’s most highly-regarded film and yet, despite the fact pretty much his entire oeuvre is available on DVD, this one film isn’t. Every other film he made: available on DVD, probably soon to appear on Blu-ray. Through the Olive Trees: nope. I can only hope that when that long outstanding Kiarostami collection appears on Blu-ray, it includes this. Through the Olive Trees is about a director making a film in a village in Iran that recently suffered a bad earthquake. I can’t think of another film director whose movies were so consistently meta – whether it was the pull back to the crew at the end of Taste of Cherry, or the plot of Close-Up (see here), which consists of a man pretending to be rival director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In Through the Olive Trees, two of the locals the director has cast have a bad relationship: he asked for her hand in marriage but was rejected by her mother. Acting in the film has brought the two together, and while he still burns a torch for her and is incensed by his rejection, she doesn’t seem especially concerned and is happy to accept her mother’s decision. But the two start to confuse the parts they’re playing and their real lives – I believe most of the cast were amateurs from the area where the film was made, and many of the events in the film happened in real life. In and around this, the director has to cope with making a film far from Tehran, with only local support, living in tents and using a much-reduced crew. This hasn’t overtaken Where the Wind Will Carry Us as my favourite Kiarostami, and I think I like Close-up slightly more as well, but it’s certainly in the top five. Excellent stuff.

The Warrior and the Wolf, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2009, China). I watched this twice before returning it to Cinema Paradiso and I’m still not sure sure what it’s about. I think I know what it thinks it’s about, but that’s not the same as what appears on the screen. It receive some stick because it’s a Chinese historical film starring a Japanese man and a Hawaiian woman in the lead roles – cf Zhang Yimou for casting Matt Damon in The Great Wall. The Warrior and the Wolf opens with on-screen text explaining that General Zhang guards the northern border, but during the winter months his army returns home. When Zhang is captured by barbarians, a new recruit, Lu, frees him. Zhang leaves Lu in charge and heads home. Winter arrives and Lu leads the garrison home, but they end up trapped in a village by a snowstorm. Lu takes a village woman for himself, She tells him that sex with outsiders turns the villagers into wolves. When the soldiers leave, they are attacked by wolves. This is definitely a film that’s all about the visuals, not to mention the sex scenes between Lu and the village woman. Occasional screen-fulls of narrative text, however, fail to bed the story into the visuals, so the end result is a film that looks gorgeous but is as dull as dishwater. I’ve now seen three films by Tian, and he definitely seems stronger on cinematography than narrative. The Horse Thief (see here) had the most interesting setting, but The Warrior and the Wolf doesn’t seem all that much different to the current crop of wu xia and historical epic films flooding out of China.

A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio (2017, Chile) This is one of those films where the plot is easy to describe. That, however, is the only thing that’s “easy” about it. A man in a relationship with a transgender woman, Marina, has a seizure one night. She manages to get him to the hospital, although not without him falling downstairs at one point. Due to the injuries sustained from the fall, the police are called. The man dies of an aneurysm. The police seemed happy Marina was not responsible for the death, but they are afraid she might have been a victim herself in the relationship. So while trying to manage her grief, she’s having to deal with an officious police officer intent on digging into her private life. Then her late lover’s transphobic ex-wife turns up. And she wants everything back. Like the car. The son moves into the flat and throws Marina out. He even keeps the dog, which was given to Marina. And the family refuses to allow her to mourn her lover’s death – they ban her from the funeral, and the son and his mates physically assault her when she turns up. The one thing I don’t understand is why the ex-wife has such powers. Her relationship with the deceased ended when she divorced him. It’s implied Marina’s relationship was relatively recent, but even so she lived with him, they were a couple. A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s certainly a good film. Its star, Daniela Vega, is excellent in the title role. But it’s also a film that makes you angry with the injustices heaped on its title character. Obviously, they’re making a point – and the success of the movie shows the point is getting across to some people. But the fact it has to be made in the first place… and the treatment meted out by transphobes… It’s disgusting, makes you ashamed to be human. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 925


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Moving pictures 2018, #40

Bit of an odd mix this time.

Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Philip Sgriccia (1999, USA). A while ago I put together a list of all films that featured deep sea diving, and this was on it. I knew nothing about it, other than that. I didn’t know it was a private project by a star of Baywatch, Parker Stevenson. I didn’t know it was released straight-to-video. I didn’t know it was pretty bad. Stevenson plays an oceanographer who is called in when an island mysteriously explodes and creates a “black tide – a “harmful algae bloom” or “HAB”, because, of course, world-killing events always have acronyms. But apparently it’s all to do with a Mayan god, who threatens extinction every 5,000 years… or is it? A diver disappears in the deeps, and when he reappears he’s different, like alternate world version of himself different. Oh, and there’s a big hole, with an “intense magnetic field”, in the ocean bed. So maybe not Mayan gods after all. Surprisingly, Stevenson managed to get use of some pretty state-of-the-art diving hardware for his film – not just a diving support ship and a ROV, but also an actual DSV (which never gets used) and an atmospheric diving suit (which does). This film apparently never made of it off VHS, which is a bit of a shame given much worse films have had DVD, and even Blu-ray, releases. It is perhaps a bit too much of a cut-price The Abyss, and Stevenson probably found his level when he appeared in Baywatch… but there’s some nice hardware on display and some pretty good underwater photography (but also some bad CGI).

The Steamroller and the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Prior to the release of his first feature film, Andrei Tarkovsky made four short films, the last of which, The Steamroller and the Violin, was his diploma film at VGIK. It’s a simple enough story: a seven-year-old music student is bullied by the other boys in his apaprtment block, and is one day saved by the driver of a steamroller working on the road outside. The two become friends. They spend the day wandering around Moscow, and agree to meet up to see a film that afternoon. But the boy’s mother won’t let him out because she doesn’t know the steamroller driver. Who insteads goes to the cinema with his female driver colleague who has completely by coincidence of course turned up. The one thing that’s noticeable about The Steamroller and the Violin is all the camera tricks Tarkovsky managed to squeeze into it. On his way to music school, the boy looks at the mirrors in a shop window, and we’re treated to a montage of split-screen fractured moving images, as if reflected in multiple mirrors. When the boy and the driver watch a house being demolished, the camera follows the path of the wrecking ball. And when the boy plays his violen for the driver, the camera is placed near the floor looking up at the boy as he plays. Given it was a diploma film – it was awared “excellent”, apparently – then I suppose it’s good to display technical proficiency, but it all does seem a bit… imposed, a bit too much for the story to carry. Worth seeing, however.

Interlude, Douglas Sirk (1957, USA). My admiration for Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” know no bounds, and not only is All That Heaven Allows my absolute favourite film but I also love Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. But not every film made during that period by Sirk worked quite so well. On paper, Interlude should have done. A young American woman, hungry for adventure, gets a job in post-war Germany with a cultural organisation. Through her job, she meets a tortured genius German conductor, whose wife is mentally ill. She has an affair with him. But eventually realises the error of her ways and returns to the US. It has all the ingredients, and the cast were certainly up to the job – June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi. It even had European locations. And yet… I note that the three films I like had Russell Metty as cinematographer, but Interlude has William H Daniels. Is that all it is? The cinematography? Because Interlude has its moments, but doesn’t enthral to same extent as those other films. Perhaps it’s because Allyson’s character is too nice – Wyman in All That Heaven Allows at least stands up for herself – or perhaps it’s that Brazzi never quite convinces as the tortured maestro, although he does make a good romantic lead. Interlude feels like a film that could have been a pure slice of Americana, with an entirely US cast, but was made in Europe for no other reason than to show American audiences that such a place existed. It’s by no means the worst film Sirk ever made – some of his early Hollywood films are clearly “work for hire” – but it lacks something that lifts up among the best of his “women’s pictures”.

Forbidden Kingdom, Oleg Stepchenko (2014, Russia). It wasn’t until I was about thirty minutes into this film that I realised it was a remake if Viy (see here). It didn’t help that the opening was completely different – Jason Flemyng is a cartographer in eighteenth-century England, who is a caught in flagrante delicto with Charles Dance’s nubile daughter, and so forced to flee the country. He heads east in his steampunk carriage, and so finds himself in the Ukraine… Which is where he ends up in a village currently being haunted by a young woman who died at the hands of a demon. Her body is lying in state in the local churchm and people who spend the night in the church witness all manner of demonic activity. But then it begins to spread into the village. Flemyng is at a dinner where all the other guests turn into monsters. There are sightings of a horned demon. It’s all very OTT and CGI, and while bits of it certainly reminded of Viy there was so much more of it. It didn’t help that the actors who dubbed into English all sounded like they were acting in a bad TV advert. In the end, it all turns out to be some sort of weird mass hallucination, and then there’s a rational explanation for everything, although I must have blinked and missed the point where the film turned from fantastical horror to historical drama. There’s also a framing narrative, in which Flemyng writes to Dance’s daughter – the implication being that the story is told through his letters, which might at least explain the change from horror to drama, but is spoiled by the fact we see it visually on-screen. It was an entertaining enough film, but the original is much better.

The Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1982, Taiwan). This is the second film Hou prefers not to remember, and also a vehicle for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee. In this film, Bee plays a substitute teacher sent to a provincial town, who falls in love with a fellow teacher. It’s not all smooth-sailing, as his girlfriend form Taipei turns up and he’s too much of a coward to tell her his attentions now lie elsewhere. He also has to get permission from the woman’s father. And then there’s the class he’s teaching, particularly three young lads he refers to as the “Three Musketeers” (or at least the subtitles do, and I have to wonder what cultural referent the actual dialogue uses). The Green, Green Grass of Home at least doesn’t have the horrible ear-wormy song of Cute Girl, although it does have a song which is repeated throughout the film – on several occasions it’s even sung by the schoolkids. But it’s still lightweight stuff, and it’s easy to see why Hou would sooner it was forgotten.

Cairo Station*, Youssef Chahine (1958, Egypt). The Egyptian film industry is, more or less, the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world. It churns out endless dramas, almost none of which – or perhaps even none – ever get released in the Anglophone film world. The only Egyptian film I’d seen prior to this one was The Yacoubian Building, which was also a best-selling novel in the UK. Cairo Station, AKA Bab al-hadid or The Iron Gate (a literal translation of the Arabic title), is an early neorealist film in an industry which hasn’t much gone in for neorealism. The story is straightforward enough – it’s a day in the life among the workers at Cairo’s railway station, focusing particularly on the porters and the women who sell soft drinks to passengers. The porters are attempting to unionise because they’re sick of the gang master who controls all the porter jobs. And the soft-drink sellers don’t have a licence and so are continually running away from the police. Also living at the station is Qinawi, a disabled man who does odd jobs and is nominally looked after by the newspaper seller. But he fancies Hannuma, but she is betrothed to the man trying to unionise the porters. And it all comes to a violent head. All of the action takes place in the station, and mostly on the tracks. The plot didn’t hold any real surprises, but I was surprised at how well the film hung together. The cast were variable, but the lead characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, and the story managed to keep its different threads running along together. I think I’d have to see more Egyptian films to decide whether or not it should represents the country’s cinema in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it’s certainly a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 924