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Moving pictures 2017, #13

The New Year’s resolution is still working. I seem to be averaging one US film per Moving pictures blog post. The films in this post were half-rented and half-owned, and two were rewatches (albeit one of them not since many years).

herzogHeart of Glass, Werner Herzog (1976, Germany). I first saw this many years ago, after buying a Herzog DVD box set in a sale. And of that initial watch, all I  could really remember was the fact the cast were hypnotised before shooting began, and the really weird way they performed on-screen as a result. Which pretty much meant I’d categorised the film as “weird Herzog that’s probably pretty good but still weird”. What I’d forgotten were the parts of the film where the camera focuses on some part of the landscape, like some Caspar David Friedrich painting, lacking only the figure of a man, while some strange German prog rock plays… for ten minutes. I love stuff like that. When the actual story kicks off – a master glass blower at a factory in an eighteenth-century town and takes the secret of the glassworks’s unique ruby glass with him – it feels a bit like the film has landed badly in the proasic after some flight of fancy. The local baron is desperate to find the secret, so much so failure drives him mad. And the rest of the town go made too. While I’d remembered how odd the casts’ performances were, since they’d been hypnotised, they actually proved considerably stranger than I’d thought. In many cases, it was like they weren’t there, their faces seemed completely blank. At other times, they over-reacted as if whatever they saw or felt just got stuck. It was… very weird. And I really did like the musical interludes. Bits of Heart of Glass are among my favourite bits of Herzog.

my_brilliant_careerMy Brilliant Career*, Gillian Armstrong (1979, Australia). I was perhaps unfair in dismissing this as a “dull Australian historical drama”, as I did on Facebook shortly after watching it, yet I really did find it over-long and uninteresting. The title refers to the boast uttered by an independent young woman in late nineteenth-century Australia. She is convinced she will become a much-lauded writer – and given that the film is based on an important Australian novel, it might well be said she did just that. A young woman is sent from the family farm to live with her grandmother in order to calm her down and teach her how to behave like a proper young woman. She meets two men, and she falls for the one with the money. She spends time at his estate. He proposes. She rejects him. His fortune then collapses. She takes a job as a governess in order to support herself, but is sent home because the family mistakenly think she is seducing the oldest son. Her boyfriend proposes again. She rejects him again. And says she wants to become a writer. (Not that writing and marriage are incompatible, as a great many female writers can attest – even in the late nineteenth century… although perhaps not so much in Australia.) My Brilliant Career pretty much stands or falls on how you take to the lead character, Sybylla, the Miles Franklin stand-in. While the film was put together well, and the two leads, Judy Davis and Sam Neill, put in excellent performances, I really didn’t take to Sybylla, which is why I didn’t take to the film. Some films like that, I might decide a second chance is warranted, and so watch them again. But this was a rental and I didn’t get a chance before sending the disc back. So it’ll have stay as a “meh” from me.

astronautAstronaut: The Last Push, Eric Hayden (2012, USA). I have a great idea for a film, it’s it like the plot of my 2011 story, ‘Barker’, about the first man in space, who dies; but in this version it’s a British space programme, because we nearly had one, you know (actually, no, we didn’t, that’s implausible make-believe). Anyway, someone made that film, it was called Capsule, and it was very dull. Astronaut: The Last Push takes that idea one step further. Two US astronauts are being set to Europa, but the most efficient course is a slingshot by Venus, and then a second by Earth. Since this will take several years, the crew of two are put into hibernation. But then the spacecraft is hit by a micrometeoroid en route to Venus, which wakes up one astronaut and kills the other. So the surviving astronaut has to stay awake, and sane, during the remaining weeks of the trip from Venus back to Earth. As does the viewer. Because once the accident is over, the only drama remaining centres on the continued sanity of the surviving astronaut. And his coping mechanisms. And that’s neither dramatic not interesting enough to fill 85 minutes. I’m a sucker for space movies, but so many of them look better on paper than they do realised on the silver screen. Usually because the story isn’t really fit for 90 minutes. But I’ll keep on watching them, in the hope I find a good one.

far_pavilionsThe Far Pavilions (1984, UK). As far as I remember, I read MM Kaye’s novel The Far Pavilions one Christmas or Easter holiday while staying in the Middle East with my parents because there was nothing else to read. It was not my usual choice of book. But I really liked it – so much so, I went on to read Kaye’s other historical novels and, years later, tracked down copies of her crime novels. A later reread of The Far Pavilions reminded me why I had loved it so much the first time I read it. So I was keen to see the television adaptation… and so I did, within a year of two of its release. But I also remember being disappointed with the adaptation, but despite that I was pleased when I stumbled across a DVD of The Far Pavilions in a charity shop for 99p (as indeed were the rest of the family, who’ll be borrowing it from me). The story is simple enough. An English boy, Ash, survives the Indian Mutiny and successfully masquerades as the son of his Indian nurse until the age of eleven. At which age, he makes himself known at the Corp of Guides garrison in Mardan in North-West India. He is sent off to England to be educated, and to grow up, as a proper Englishman, and then returns to India on his majority to take up a place as an officer in the Corps of Guides. The book makes much of Ash’s childhood as Ashok, but the TV series leaves it as off-screen back-history. Which means that Ash’s ability to pass as a “native” (Urdu-speaker? Pushtu-speaker?) has to be taken as dramatic licence in the TV series – especially since all the dialogue is in English and there are no indicators the characters have changed language. (Actually speaking, say,  Urdu, and having English subtitles would be unacceptable on UK and US television in 1984, more’s the pity.) Ash was best friends with a young princess when a kid, but now he’s a pukka sahib he ends up meeting her, only she’s being married off to a nasty piece of work and he has to escort her to her wedding. They reconnect, are horrified by her future, but both have roles to play. There’s some fine landscape in The Far Pavilions, and some good dramatic moments, but the casting is iffy at best. Ben Cross never really convinces as Ashok, a blacked-up Amy Irving makes a poor Anjuli, and Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee as Pathans is just taking the piss. The storming of the Residence in Kabul is effectively staged, and the pomp and circumstance during the princesses’ trip south, and subsequent marriage, looks good. But the miniseries never matches up to the book – which I really must reread one of these days – and, thirty-two years later, feels like a too-thin adaptation that traded on a low-grade celebrity cast and Indian scenery. True, it was the first miniseries HBO were ever involved in, so early days for the format (and kudos to them for actually going to India to film it), but I’d really liked the novel and had hoped to like this just as much.

vagabondVagabond*, Agnès Varda (1985, France). The film opens with the discovery by a vineyard worker of a young woman dead in a ditch, from what appears to be exposure. From the voiceover, it appears this might be a documentary, and a series of interviews with those involved in finding the body, and the authorities and emergency services who turn up, only increases the documentary feel. But then Vagabond abruptly shifts back in time to the earliest appearance of the young woman the narrator admits she has uncovered… and the moves forward with a combination of dramatisation of the young woman’s life – she is a drop-out, travelling about France with a tent on her back and picking up casual jobs to pay for food – and interviews with those she interacted with along the way. Vagabond doesn’t blend fiction and fact as it’s entirely fctional, but it does blend the typical modes of presentation of fiction and fact. In itself, the story isn’t all that interesting – in attempting to track back the young woman’s life and discover who she was, the narrator, and so the viewer, discovers she was perfectly ordinary. She admits at one point to having been a well-paid secretary in Paris, but decided she had had enough of that life and so took to the road. The people she meets are perfectly ordinary, lending yet more of a documentary feel to the film. The only other Varda film films I’d seen prior to this were Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which I thought okay, and Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved. Vagabond I thought good. So I really should add me some more Varda to my rental list. Happily, there are two box sets of four of her films each available in the UK.

masterpieces_1Camouflage, Krzysztof Zanussi (1977, Poland). I had a moment of weirdness when watching this when I realised that one of the characters had an English accent when speaking Polish. I don’t speak Polish… but I’ve apparently heard enough of it in films to to recognise some Polish words being pronounced with an English accent. Weird. It turned out the actress was bi-lingual, but brought up in the UK, and in this film was playing a Polish-speaking Brit. She is one of several students at a university summer camp. She is also having an affair with one of the lecturers. And that lecturer is one of the young ones, who has different ideas to how students should be treated than the older lecturers. This comes to a head over the summer camp’s competition, in which each student stands up before the class and gives a a talk on a topic. (The summer camp is specifically for students studying linguistics, incidentally.) The young lecturer favours one student to take the prize, one of the older lecturers disagrees. It causes problems. To be honest, I thought the talk the young lecturer felt deserved the price, or at least what little of it appeared in the film, based on a fallacy and not especially good. But never mind. Camouflage is another one of those television dramas writ large that the Poles did so well in the 1970s. It doesn’t feel like a feature film but an entire series edited together and, in hindsight, I have to wonder if this is because these films take the time to build their characters. They don’t create ones that fall neatly into well-known types. The Polish-speaking English actress mentioned earlier is a good example. Why have someone like her in the film? Her background doesn’t impact the story, is not relevant to the resolution. But the fact she exists makes every character in the film feel more rounded. And when the story revolves around the conflict between two lecturers, of different generations and sensibilities, then well-drawn characters are a must. Camouflage also looks wonderfully 1970s. Not the horribly over-egged 1970s of twenty-first-century attempts at recreating the 1970s, like American Hustle, but the real 1970s, with daft pointy collars, tank tops, and shirts and ties and jackets in different unaplatable shades of brown. A good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 855


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2015, the best of the year

On balance, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for me. Things improved in $dayjob, goodish things happened in my little corner of genre, and I read a number of excellent books and watched lots of excellent films. Music-wise, it was both successful and not so successful: I discovered some more new bands on Bandcamp, and this year we went VIP for Bloodstock and it really was worth the extra money; but I saw fewer bands live than in previous years, and none of my favourite ones toured the UK – and if they did, it was only in the big cities, like London, Birmingham or Glasgow. But, like I said, some excellent books and films – so much so, I had trouble picking my top five in each. But I did finally manage it.

Oh, and I got a new cat. Oscar. He’s two years old, and I’d forgotten how much of a pain young cats can be.

books
A strange year of reading, on reflection, and I’m not entirely sure why. I read some books as research for All That Outer Space Allows (which was published this year), I read some other non-fiction books (on space and aircraft and submersibles, mostly), I read some sf novels for SF Mistressworks and some more recent genre works… And I decided to widen my reading to include more classic literature. While I like to think of myself primarily as a science fiction fan, of late I’ve found it hard to generate much enthusiasm for recent sf. In part, that’s due to the way fandom is changing as a result of social media and online promotion, but also because a lot of current sf seems to me more interested in style rather than content. I like sf ideas and sense of wonder, but I also like good writing, sophisticated themes and a willingness to experiment with form and structure. While some works which meet those criteria were indeed published in 2015, those I came across didn’t feel especially progressive. Which is why you’ll notice a few notable titles missing from my top five below (and I have only one, in fact, that was actually published in 2015).

loving1 Loving, Henry Green (1945).
An author new to me in 2015, and despite being about a subject – life belowstairs in the Irish country house of an English nob during WWII – that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, Green’s writing was wonderful and his narrative technique amazing. I will be reading more by him – hell, I plan to read everything he ever wrote.

wolves2 Wolves, Simon Ings (2014).
There was some small fuss when this appeared in early 2014, but by the time awards came around it had been forgotten. Which was a shame. And I wished I’d read it in time to nominate it last year – because this is plainly one of the best sf novels of 2014. The focus of his novel tends to drift a little as the story progresses, but Ings has still managed to produce one of the smartest works of sf – if not the smartest work of sf – of the last few years.

grasshopperschild3 The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014).
A new Gwyneth Jones novel is cause for celebration, even if it’s a YA addendum to the non-YA Bold as Love quintet. But there’s a reason Jones is my favourite science fiction writer, and they’re all evident in this short novel. On the one hand, this is a smart YA novel and I’m no fan of YA fiction; on the other, it’s Gwyneth Jones and her Bold as Love world. But it’s also self-published, so it needs to be on as many best-of lists as possible so that Jones keeps on writing. (And why was it self-published? Do the major UK genre imprints not want to publish new work by the country’s best sf writer?)

darkoribt4 Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015).
I’ve been saying for years that Gilman is a name to watch, and she has at last been given the opportunity to demonstrate it to a wider audience. (She amply demonstrated it with her fantasy diptych from ChiZine Publications back in 2011/2012, but genre commentators can only apparently see what appears from major imprints – which is, if you’ll forgive me, fucking short-sighted). Anyway, Dark Orbit deservedly received a lot of positive reviews, and though to me it didn’t quite feel like Gilman firing on all cylinders, it showed great promise. More from her, please.

bone_clocks5 The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014).
Friends have been singing the praises of Mitchell for years, but I’ve never really understood why. I mean, I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and I thought it was clever… but it did seem a little over-praised. But The Bone Clocks is the novel that all the praise had led me to believe Cloud Atlas was. It’s his most insightful yet – and also his most genre.

Honourable mentions: a few titles got bumped from best of the half-year top five, although they were excellent books and probably didn’t deserve to be demoted – namely, The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958), a classic of Italian twentieth-century literature (a bloody good film too); A Division Of The Spoils, Paul Scott (1975), the final book of the Raj Quartet and as beautifully written as the other three; and What the Doctor Ordered, Michael Blumlein (2013), wich showcases why he remains one of my favourite genre short story writers. Also read and noteworthy were: Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux (2013), a literate mystery based on an interestingly odd premise; Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962), my first by him and, though perhaps overly prissy, excellent; One Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011), a bawdy, and multiply-nested retelling of some of its title’s stories; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1981), her beautifully-written debut novel; and Galactic Suburbia, Lisa Yaszek (2008), used for research and a fascinating read.

films
I went all-out on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list in 2015. So much so, in fact, that I signed up with a second DVD rental service, Cinema Paradiso, because they had some films from the list that weren’t available on Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. And I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick too, which gave me access to even more movies. Meanwhile, I purged my DVD collection of all the superhero films (why did I buy them in the first place?) and the shit sf movies (why did I buy them in the first place?), not to mention lots of other films I’d bought over the years. My collection is now looking very different, much more of cineaste’s collection (even though I say so myself), with lots of works by Sokurov, Dreyer, Murnau and Benning – and from earlier years, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski and Haneke, among many others.

The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die challenge has been… interesting. It introduced me to the works of James Benning. I’ve also seen a lot of not very good films that really didn’t belong on the list (mostly from Hollywood, it has to be said). And I’ve seen a lot of early cinema, most of which proved quite interesting. Only one of the five films in my top five was not a “discovery” from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

playtime1 Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967)
How could this not be my number one choice? It certainly was halfway back in June, and it remains so now at the end of the year. I loved its Brutalist production design, its situational humour, its wit… it is a work of cinematic genius. I’d watched a rental DVD but I loved it so much I bought a Blu-ray copy for myself… and then bought a boxed set of Blu-rays of Tati’s entire oeuvre. A film that went straight into my personal top ten best films of all time.

deseret2 Deseret, James Benning (1995)
Ever loved a film so much you went out and bought every DVD you could find by that director? Oh wait, I did that for Tati. But I also did it for Benning. Fortunately, Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have been releasing Benning’s films on DVDs the last couple of years, so there were a few for me to get. And yet… Deseret is static shots of Utah landscape, and later cityscape, while a voice reads out stories from the New York Times from 1895 to the present day. It is cinema as art installation. And I loved it. I am now a huge Benning fan. And I have all of the DVDs that Östereichesichen Filmmuseum have released. And am eagerly awaiting more.

shepitko3 Wings, Larisa Shepitko (1966)
Shepitko’s Ascent is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the only copy of it I could find was a Criterion double with Wings. I bought it. I watched Ascent. It was good. But then I watched Wings. And it was so much better. A female fighter pilot of the Great Patriotic War, and Hero of the Soviet Union, is now the principal of a school. It’s an artful juxtaposition, more so because the protagonist is female. And it was Shepitko’s debut film. War films, like Ascent, strike me as too easy as choices for assorted lists, but the social drama versus war of Wings is much more interesting. This film should have been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d also like to see more by Shepitko.

elegy_voyage4 Elegy of a Voyage, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001)
Come on, you didn’t expect me not to have a Sokurov film on this list, did you? I’m being nice by not putting five on it. Well, okay, five maybe could have made it, but one was a rewatch from previous years and so didn’t count. But four could have done. (Yes, the other three are in my honourable mentions below.) Elegy of a Voyage is one of Sokurov’s documentaries, but it’s more of a meditation than an informational film, in which Sokurov muses on journeys and art, particularly ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Bruegel.

cleo5 Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962). I have found the Nouvelle Vague to be something of a mixed bag – in fact, I’ve found the oeuvres of Nouvelle Vague directors to be something of a mixed bag. But the only Varda I’d seen prior to Cleo from 5 to 7 was a documentary from 2000. Cleo from 5 to 7 may have covered similar ground to some of Godard’s 1960s films, but it does it so much better. Loved it.

Honourable mentions: two films were dropped from my best of the half year list, one a Sokurov, one a documentary: Jodorowskys Dune (2013) is a fascinating look at a major sf film that never happened, but still left its fingerprints all over sf cinema; Stone (1992) is a typically enigmatic drama from Sokurov… but I could just as easily mention Whispering Pages (1994; which he knocked together after his financing fell apart, but it still manages to hit all those Sokurovian notes), or Spiritual Voices (1995; a documentary about Russian soldiers on the Afghanistan border whose first 40 minutes are a static shot of a Siberian wood). But there’s also Tati’s Mon oncle (1958), nearly as good as Playtime; James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge (2014), an excellent documentary on his visit to Challenger Deep, only the third person to do so; American Dreams (lost and found) (1984), another Benning piece with an unconventional narrative; Salt of the Earth, Herbert J Biberman (1954), an astonishing piece of social realism drama that deserves to be better known; Sleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959), easily the best of the Disney feature films. Day Of Wrath (1943) was another excellent film from Dreyer, Effi Briest (1974) was I thought the best of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder box set I watched, and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) was a Jean-Luc Godard that I was surprised to find I liked very much.

albums
I spent much of the year further exploring Bandcamp, and so stumbled across yet more excellent music. I did not, however, see much music live this year – Sólstafir were excellent back in February, Voices and Winterfylleth were very good in September, and highlights of this year’s Bloodstock included Ne Obliviscaris, Sumer, Opeth and Agalloch.

1 Sidereus Nuncius, Apocynthion (2013)
Spanish progressive death metal, not unlike NahemaH (also Spanish, and a favourite band… although they disbanded last year). It seems a little unfair to describe a group’s sound by how much like another band’s it is, but metal these days is such a wide and diverse genre labels are often next to useless. Apocynthion play prgressive metal with clean and growl vocals, some death metal song structures, sound effects and samples, a heavy post-metal influence and a great deal of technical ability.

panopticon2 Autumn Eternal, Panopticon (2015)
Panopticon’s Kentucky from 2013, with its mix of black metal and bluegrass, is an astonishing album… but I picked it for my best of last year. Their new album (I say “their” but it’s a one-man show) mixes folky acoustic parts with intense black metal, and it works really well.

3 Ghostwood, Navigator (2013)
This is polished progressive rock with a little bit of djent thrown into the mix, with solid riffs and some catchy hooks. They described themselves as “for fans of Porcupine Tree”, although I think this album is better than most of that band’s albums.

grorr4 Anthill, Grorr (2012)
A relatively recent discovery this one, Grorr play progressive death metal, but more like Gojira than, say, Opeth. There’s all sorts in here – bagpipes, sitar, various types of drums. It’s a wonderfully varied album, but still coherent.

5 An Act of Name Giving, Butterfly Trajectory (2015)
Anothe rrecent discovery. Butterfly Trajectory also play progressive death metal – there seems to be a common theme to this top five… They’re from Poland, and while their sound is quite Opeth-ish, they’re a good deal better than fellow countrymen Gwynbleidd who play similar material. Butterfly Trajectory seem to like their progressive bits a tad more than their death metal bits, which works really well.

Honourable mentions: Worst Case Scenario, Synesthesia (2015), French progessive death metal with plenty of other musical styles thrown in, excellent stuff; Kyrr, Kontinuum (2015), Icelandic post-metal, a little more commercial than fellow countrymen Sólstafir… whose Ótta (2015) and Svartir Sandar (2011) are excellent heavy post-metal albums; Cold and the Silence, Martriden (2015), yet more shredding from excellent medlodic death metal group, who seem to have gone a bit funkily progressive with this new album, and it works really well; and finally, RAMA, RAMA (2015), which is a weird mix of doom, stoner, psychedelic and desert rock all in a three-song EP.


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Moving pictures, #28

More films. Just the one from the US, so a reasonable spread. And a few more from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, of course.

pressurePressure, Ron Scalpello (2015, UK). There are many deep sea films, but few of them are about saturation diving. And most of them are complete bollocks anyway. I watched Pioneer this time last year but that was more of land-based thriller than a diving film, although saturation diving did feature heavily in it (see here). But Pressure is very much a diving film. It’s set almost entirely in a diving bell 650 feet (that’s about 20 atmospheres) below the surface of the sea off the coast of Ethiopia. A severe storm strikes and sinks their support ship. So they’re stuck on the sea bed, with no way to decompress and only a limited supply of heliox. Rescue is almost undoubtedly on its way, but the storm may delay it and there’s no telling when it will arrive. Pressure gets most of the details right – it certainly looks like it’s using the right technology – although for obvious reasons it ignores the helium squeak. And toward the end it all gets a bit silly – one diver seems to explode while trying for the surface, but the same fate does not befall hero Danny Huston, even though he doesn’t apparently make any decompression stops en route. (And at that depth, decompression would be measured in days or weeks.) Still, it was good to see a film based on a topic that interests me, and I’ll take what it gets right and overlook what it gets wrong.

cleoCleo from 5 to 7*, Agnès Varda (1962, France). I am ambivalent about the Nouvelle Vague. Some of its films I love, some I simply don’t see the point of. I thought this might fall into the latter, given that it covers the titular hours of the, er, titular character, as she waits for the results of a medical test which she thinks will tell her she has cancer. The film opens, in colour, with Cleo at a tarot reading, but changes to black and white as she leaves and goes about the rest of the day. But, completely unexpectedly, I found myself really loving this film. It helps that Cleo, played by Corinne Marchant, is a likeable protagonist and centres the film; but more than that, there’s the final third in which Cleo meets soldier Antoine in a park and the two talk and mildly flirt – it works really well. The dialogue feels natural, though it covers topics totally in keeping with the film’s themes, and the two have a natural chemistry on screen that plays. It’s hard not to compare it to a pair of Godard films, both black and white – Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée (see here and here) – both of which chiefly comprise women and men in conversation (Godard, incidentally, appears in Cleo from 5 to 7, in a silent film-within-a-film shown to Cleo during the two hours). Neither, however, compares well to this film, which manages to make those conversations not sound like the pretentious twaddle you’d expect of Rive Gauche students but like the natural conversational topics two might people might accidentally fall into. I rather fancy getting a copy of this on DVD or Blu-ray…

shepitkoThe Ascent*, Larisa Shepitko (1976, Russia). Another director completely unknown to me, and one of her films is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but none are available for rental in the UK, so I ended up buying a Criterion Collection DVD containing two of her films, and… The Ascent is set during the Great Patriotic War (WWII to me and thee) during the German invasion of Russia. It is, of course, cold and the ground is heavy with snow. A pair of Russian soldiers are sent to fetch food from a sympathetic farmer, but are captured by Germans. They are interrogated, and one agrees to join the local police – ie, become a collaborator. The film has a stark simplicity, helped by the snowy landscape, that plays to the story’s strengths; and while there’s not that much that’s subtle about the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the film’s verisimilitude gives its story a moral authority it might otherwise lack. To be honest, there’s not much about The Ascent that makes it stands out. It’s well-filmed, it treats its subject well, and it makes its points cleverly and with subtlety. It’s a good film, but I’m borderline on whether it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must SeeBefore You Die list, possibly because I suspect Shepitko made more interesting films or because “good” should not be sufficient reason for inclusion. Worth seeing, nonetheless.

warbirdsWarbirds, Kevin Gendreau (2008, USA). I knew this was trash just from the packaging alone, but it mentioned WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots), the US equivalent to the UK’s ATA (which was not actually a female-only organisation but just comprised mostly women pilots), so I thought it worth a go. That was a mistake. The WASP crew of a B-29 are ordered to deliver their aircraft, with important passengers, to an island in the Pacific, but they are shot down en route. If the WASPs are anything like the ATA, then the aircraft they flew had no guns fitted, and generally a single pilot was sufficient for the trip. Anyway, the WASPs and secret Army brass end up stuck on an island occupied by the Japanese – except the Japanese have almost all been killed by… giant pterodactyls. Yes, it’s that silly. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that this film had been made by the Global Asylum, but apparently not.

leni_riefenstahlOlympia, 2 Fest der Schönheit*, Leni Reifenstahl (1938, Germany). I watched this first half of this a few weeks ago, and though it covers the same subject – the 1936 Berlin Olympics – I suspect it was split into two films simply due to reasons of length. Like the first film, Fest der Volker (see here), it shows the various events. But it actually opens with some lovely shots of nature, followed by some naked men cavorting about – which would be less of a problem if you weren’t conscious of the fact the men in question were Nazis – before eventually returning to the Olympic Games. A variety of events are shown, including sailing, equestrian things and sprinting, but it’s the decathlon which proves the most interesting. There are fewer shots of the crowds, and none of Hitler, but many more of the athletes. The focus seems to be on the winners rather than the Germans, so even though it’s Americans who dominate the decathlon, we get to see them as they win each event. There’s a very real sense that what you’re seeing old, a true ddocument of the state of athletics in 1936, and so it’s easy to forget the political baggage. I happen to think that baggage is important, but neither should it detract from Riefenstahl’s achievement. Whether this holds true for her other movies remains to be seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 645


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Moving pictures, #10

And 2014 continues to be the year of the films and I continue to get my money’s worth out of Amazon film rentals. Seriously, would you find the movies I’ve been watching on Netflix? I think not. Annoyingly, this month I discovered that my “region-free” Blu-ray player isn’t actually region-free – well, not for Blu-ray discs, only for DVDs. And apparently unlocking them is a lot more difficult than it is for DVDs. So it looks like I’ll have to buy myself a new properly region-free Blu-ray player… But on with this instalment of films seen…

Again, films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are asterisked, although I’ve since found a rival list which actually has more films on it I’ve seen and which I think belong on such a list. And I’ve just checked the list the above links to, which is where I got the list I’m using from in the first place – and the bastards keep on changing it. They’ve added more 2013 films – and so must have dropped others to make room for them. So how exactly are you supposed to see all the films on the list if they keep on changing it? Argh.

Dogville, Lars von Trier (20036, Denmark) Notable chiefly for being the film in which von Trier used black box theatre staging – ie, no scenery, just chalk lines with labels, and only a handful of props. Nicole Kidman plays the girlfriend of a mobster who runs away, seeks sanctuary in the titular small mountain town, where she performs everyday task as payment for sanctuary. But the tasks get more and more onerous, until she’s treated like a slave and then actually assaulted. I enjoyed the film up until the point where the violence started and Kidman was abused. It seemed… unnecessary. Von Trier had already made his point.

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Whisky Galore!*, Alexander Mackendrick (1949, UK). This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, which was in turn based upon a real incident. In 1941, the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Erisday, and the islanders looted it of its cargo of whiskey. In the film, the SS Politican becomes the SS Cabinet Minister, and Eriskay becomes Todday. There are a couple of sub-plots, including a romance, but the bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities over the missing whiskey. Mildly amusing. There is apparently a sequel, Rockets Galore! (1957), which sounds much more kind of thing (but at £145 for the DVD, I’ll not be buying it any time soon…).

The Blair Witch Project*, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez (1999, USA) I’d managed to avoid seeing this for fifteen years, and would happily have done so for another fifteen… if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Films list and if I hadn’t found a copy for £1 in a charity shop. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it. The found footage concept might well have been fresh and exciting back in 1999, but it’s been used, if not over-used, so much since that you end up treating the film as if it were filmed normally. And in that regard The Blair Witch Project does not score well. It is mostly dull, the scares are driven chiefly by the reaction of the cast rather than the situation they’re in, and the ending falls completely flat. There were apparently nine million sequels, but I shall not be bothering with them.

The Man Who Loved Redheads, Harold French (1955, UK) This popped up on one of those “people who bought this also bought…” things when I was buying a DVD and it was very cheap and looked mildly interesting, so I bunged it on my order… It’s based on a Terrence Rattigan play and is very silly for much of its length, but there’s a surprising and quite interesting twist at the end. A man spends his entire life seeking a lost love – a young woman he met as a teenager – and encounters women who look like her at various points in his life, all played by Moira Shearer. It’s all very terribly terribly – he’s in the Civil Service and a baronet or something – although one of Shearer’s incarnations is a shop girl and it’s played smartly.

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The Gleaners and I*, Agnès Varda (2000, France), is one of those documentaries where the film-maker slowly inserts herself into the subject being filmed. It begins by studying people who hunt for edible vegetables among those rejected by farmers, such as potatoes that are too small, or too oddly-shaped to sell to their corporate masters… but it soon moves on to film homeless people in and around French cities. And as Varda involves herself with these people, so she begins to sympathise with them and their attitudes. I had not expected to like this, but I thought it really good. I think I’d like to see more films made by Varda.

The Great White Silence*, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK) Scott took Ponting with him on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 as the expedition’s photographer, and this documentary was put together from the footage Ponting shot with a cinematograph. There is straight footage of Scott and his fellows as they leave New Zealand and sail to Antarctica, set up camp, and explore the surroundings. The footage of Scott’s fatal attempt on the pole itself is done using stand-ins as Ponting remained at the main camp with the rest of the expedition. There is also some quite effective model work. The whole is a fascinating, and quite affecting, record of Scott’s expedition. Apparently, it was not a commercial success at the time and Ponting died a pauper, but it has been subsequently re-evaluated and has taken its place as one of the great documentaries of all time. Recommended.

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Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia) Not only is this the first film made in Saudi Arabia to be entered for international competition, but it was also written and directed by a woman, a Saudi national woman. That’s quite an achievement. The story, about a girl who rebels against societal expectations by demanding a bicycle, is perhaps nothing new but it’s handled well, the cast are uniformly good – especially Waad Mohammed in the title role – and it makes some pointed observations about Saudi society (so much so, in fact, I’m a little surprised the Saudi authorities allowed it – they’re not exactly known for their liberal tendencies).

Star Trek Voyager – Season 1 (1995) Having worked my way through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was more or less inevitable I’d eventually find myself doing the same for Star Trek: Voyager. Initially, DS9 was considered the best of the franchises, but it seems time has been kinder to Voyager than it has to the other two. While Voyager’s set-up was just a reboot of the original Star Trek series, and its central casting all come out of, er, Central Casting, with their “back-stories” and “character conflicts”… But it actually hangs together quite well, and the format does give the series a lot more freedom in terms of story-of-the-week. But, of course, this is 1990s television drama, so there has to be at least one story arc… And Voyager falls back on the Trek staple of the omniscient aliens who, well, they’re only omniscient as far as the plot dictates, and then they’re not. Still, you don’t watch Trek for rigour, scientific or dramatic. Actually, I’m not sure what you do watch it for…

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran), is set in Iran but was actually filmed in Morocco, as director Shirin Neshat has been banned from visiting Iran since 1996. It takes place in 1953, during the US-led coup which put the shah back in power – which the Americans engineered because prime minister Mosaddegh has nationalised the Iranian oil industry. The film follows four women during this period, a prostitute, the wife of a general (ie, part of the secular elite), and an unmarried woman  and her religious friend. It’s been likened to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but I can’t see it myself. Yes, Women Without Men is an excellent film, although a recurring image of the women walking along a road in the open country seems more The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie than it does Haneke to me.

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Suspiria*, Dario Argento (1977, Italy) I am not much of an Argento fan, I prefer Brava – though I’ve only seen a small handful of movies by either director. On the strength of this film, I see little reason to change my mind. It has its moments, and the mise en scène is… interesting, all Dutch angles and saturated colours and ersatz Expressionist set designs. A young woman joins a strange ballet school, but it appears to be haunted and lots of strange events occur, including a rain of maggots while the pupils are readying themselves for bed, a few gruesome deaths, and the frequent appearances of a mysterious heavy-breather. It was a fun film, but I’m a bit baffled as why it should be on the 1001 films list.

Festen*, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark). This is not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic. A large and affluent Danish film gather at the country hotel they own to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch. During the celebratory dinner, one of the sons accuses his father of sexually abusing him as a child, and of abusing his twin sister – who has committed suicide in the hotel shortly before the celebration. The family try to laugh off the son’s accusation, but as the weekend progresses the family begins to fall apart. This was the first film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, so it’s made entirely with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, which gives the picture a somewhat grainy look throughout. An excellent film.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song*, Melvin van Peebles (1971, USA) I may have an incorrect number of s’s in the title of this film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right number of a’s. A young African American, Sweet Sweetback, working in a brothel is “volunteered” to be arrested as a suspect in a murder – they know he’s innocent, but the police need to arrest someone to appease the community, and plan to release Sweet a few days later for “lack of evidence”. But the police also arrest a Black Panther, who the police beat up, but he’s defended by Sweet and the two manage to escape. Sweet goes on the run, heading for Mexico, and en route has several adventures, including a run-in with a gang of Hells Angels. There’s a definite amateur feel to the film, but the use of montage was done extremely well – and not something you saw in films of that period.

Punishment Park, Peter Watkins (1971, USA) Watkins is a documentary maker, and while Punishment Park is both fictional and more than forty years old, it could easily be a documentary of twenty-first century USA. Hippies, draft-dodgers and other political undesirables are taken out into the desert, charged and sentenced at a kangaroo court in a marquee tent, and then given a choice – a full sentence served in a federal prison, or three days in “punishment park”. This later requires them to cross 53 miles of California desert without food or water in three days, while being chased by armed police and National Guard. If they make it, they can go free. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s faux-documentary presentation, this was a brutal film. A bit too talky in places, and some of the dialogue felt a little too… not staged, but not natural either, but the sort of dialogue where characters explain their thoughts and feelings and attempt to do the same for others – the sort of dialogue that only appears in fiction, in other words. Nonetheless, an excellent film, and was that really ought to be on the 1001 films list.

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Man of Marble*, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland) I saw the sequel to this, Man of Iron, before I was aware of this film. But when Second Run – who I heartily recommend, they have released some amazing DVDs – released Man of Marble, I immediately bought a copy. I like Polish cinema, some of my favourite films are from Poland, and a number of directors I greatly admire are Polish… but Wajda was one I’d mostly missed out, for some unknown reason. I’m now rectifying that. The title of this film refers to a statue of a worker who became a national hero after breaking a record for laying the most bricks in a working day during the building of a new socialist town. A film student is making a documentary about him for her thesis two decades later, but what she discovers – that it was all created and managed as propaganda; and what prompted the hero’s later fall from grace – means it becomes increasingly difficult for her to make her film. Man of Marble follows both the film student and the brick-layer, swapping effortlessly between the two decades. Like Man of Iron, it felt like a television series edited into a single long episode, but with high production values; but that worked in its favour. I really liked this film. And I can’t disagree with its presence on the 1001 Films list.