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Moving pictures 2017, #18

I don’t seem to have watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list for weeks. But then I have got to the point where, bar a few really populist movies I’m not especially keen on watching (The Lion King, The Sound of Music, etc), the films I’ve yet to see are getting hard to find. I suspect I may never actually watch all 1001 – not that I want to die, either – but if I can get pretty damn close to completion I’ll be happy. And then I’ll move onto a different list…

The Last Man on the Moon, Mark Craig (2014, UK). The title refers to Gene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to land on the surface of the Moon. Cernan died earlier this year, although this film about him, and sharing a title with his autobiography, was made three years ago. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – talking heads, including Cernan himself, discussing his career prior to NASA, his career at NASA, and his flight to the Moon, intercut with archive film of naval aviators and astronauts. The footage shot on the Moon’s surface is, of course, fantastic, and the nearest anyone will ever get to an actual alien planet this century. (I suppose there might be a commercial, or Chinese, or even Indian, flight to the Moon before 2199, but the way things are going I suspect climate crash will get us all first.) There are a handful of documentaries about the Apollo programme made over the last 45 years, which had theatrical releases, and they’re all very good indeed. Later ones have perhaps featured more talking heads, but then they’ve been more about the people involved than just the achievement itself. Which is hardly surprising, given technological progress since 1972 and the complete lack of political will to contribute to human space exploration. Recommended.

The Man in the Sky, Charles Crichton (1957, UK). I like films whose plots heavily feature aeroplanes, although I much prefer Cold War fighters and bombers than other types of aircraft. The plot summary of The Man in the Sky mentioned a rocket plane, so I bunged it on my rental list and… Well, it’s not really a rocket plane. It’s a Bristol Type 170 Freighter, a late 1940s prop-powered cargo plane, that has had JATO rocket pods attached to give it a much shorter take-off run. Jack Hawkins plays the chief test pilot who takes it up for a demonstration flight for the owner of a freight airline who is planning on buying the plane. The aircraft manufacturer desperately needs the sale, or he will go out of business. So it’s a bit of a downer when one of the engines catches fire during the flight. The crew and passengers parachute to safety, but Hawkins has to figure out how to bring the aircraft down safely because the fire has damaged the ailerons on one wing. It’s all very British Stiff Upper Lip drama, making light of a crisis, etc, and Jack Hawkins plays Jack Hawkins the way he always has done. It’s a mildly entertaining British drama and very much of its time.

Uniform, Diao Yinan (2003, China). This is the second Diao film I’ve watched, after the excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice (see here). A slacker tailor, with an ill father and nagging mother, tries to return a uniform left by a policeman who needed it ironing. But the policeman isn’t home, and a neighbour tells the tailor he was in an accident. On his way back home, the tailor is soaked in a rainstorm, so he swaps his shirt for the policeman’s. And he discovers that people treat him differently when they think he’s a policeman. So he starts doing it more often. And when his father has to go into hospital, but he has no money to pay for it, so he impersonates a policeman and shakes down people for money. He starts seeing a girl who works in a CD shop, but then he discovers she works for an escort agency as well. This is a pretty bleak film – and, to be fair, a lot of the Sixth Generation Chinese directors seem to go for bleak – but it also has that documentary air I find so appealing about recent Chinese films. The protagonist of Uniform is hardly admirable, or even sympathetic – he’s a slacker who turns into a bully. But his situation is certainly sympathetic, and not just unique to twenty-first century China. I’ve said before that China has an especially strong cinema at present, and this film is ample evidence.

Lenny, Bob Fosse (1974, USA). I wanted to see this since the editing of Lenny plays such an important part in Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, a film I really like. I know very little about Lenny Bruce as he was a) American, and b) before my time. Dustin Hoffman plays the title role, and the film follows his career, intercut with excerpts from some of his later stage performances. It’s astonishing how badly he was treated by the authorities – repeatedly arrested for using words like “cocksucker” in his act – but then the hypocrisy and corruption of the US establishment is hardly news. (Of course, the same can be said of the establishment of pretty much every country.) As biopics go, it’s a good one. But biopics are also dependent on the person being covered, and Lenny Bruce wasn’t all that interesting a person. He was a professional arsehole who ran afoul of the establishment, which hardly makes him unique; but the subject of his comedy seemed fresh and necessary, and was also the reason he was targeted. It makes for a good story. The problem is that when this is real, and the heroes are so deeply flawed, it often invalidates the point being made. Lenny Bruce was a knob. He also had important things to say. So what does that say about his message? Very little, sadly. Most of what he complained about is, these days, generally  acknowledged to be true, but no one seems especially interested in changing things. So US society remains sexist and racist, even more so now than when this film was made.

Marriage Italian Style, Vittorio De Sica (1964, Italy). This is the fifth film by De Sica I’ve seen, and I think most of the earlier ones were Italian Neorealist, a film genre of which I’m not a big fan. Marriage Italian Style, however, is very much a 1960s drama, although it opens in the late 1940s. Sophia Loren plays a prostitute frequently visited by successful businessman Marcello Mastroianni, and he eventually sets her up in his own house, ostensibly to look after his ageing mother. But when Mastroianni plans to get married to another woman, Loren feigns a mortal illness and extracts a promise from him to marry her instead. Then she “recovers”. He marries her, she moves her three sons into the house (one of which was fathered by Mastroianni, but she refuses to tell him which). They start shouting at each other. The two leads are experienced actors, and very good ones too, and they play their parts as well as can be expected. Burt none of it actually adds up to much, and the story never really ignites. Sadly, you don’t much care what happens to the marriage. I’m not sure why I stuck this one my rental list, and having now watched it I’m even less sure.

The Class, Ilmar Raag (2007, Estonia). After Georgia in the last Moving pictures post, it’s now the other end of Europe and another country I can cross off the list of nations whose films I’d never previously seen. The Class is set at a high school in an unnamed Estonian town. One boy in the class is consistently bullied, first by a group of jocks but then by pretty much everyone in the class. But then one classmate decides enough is enough, and he fights the bullies. Which makes him a targe0 toot. Which eventually ends up with the two of them walking through the school with guns, shooting those who had bullied them. It is, sadly, these days a somewhat clichéd story – at least in certain parts of the world – Estonia, it has to be said, not being one of them (but the Wikipedia page mentions two school shootings in Finland which quote the film as inspiration). The problem here, of course, is not kids shooting up schools with guns, but bullying. The Class presents a story that feels very European – this could never be mistaken for a Hollywood film – even if the story is one Hollywood has covered several times. It is also an extremely polished piece of work. Pretty much all nations have a film industry, but not all of their output makes it out of their country – and for some, none of it does. I saw something recently about Jia Zhangke, a Chinese director whose films I rate highly, and whose first three films were made without official approval. It was the international film festival circuit at which his movies were shown which helped finance his later films and also persuaded Beijing to give him their approval. And while I realise there’s been a cinema underground as long as cinema has existed – Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man are evidence of the US’s own underground avant-garde cinema scene – the twenty-first century has made it much easier for the armchair enthusiast to access previously hard-to-find material. While I’ll happily travel to Sweden or Iceland for a science fiction convention, I’ve yet to work up the enthusiasm to travel to London to see a specific film (damn you, Curzon for showing Francofonia only in London).  Which is, I admit, a purely personal fault. But while I can continue to explore the world’s cinema from my armchair, I will do so – rental, if I can, and I’ll buy them if I think them good enough (as I have done). Because I think it’s important to watch films from as many nations as possible.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 857