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Moving pictures 2017, #12

More movies from around the world. Two were from the first of the three Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought (I can’t find these box sets for sale anywhere online, so I’ve linked the title to website promoting the original Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema‘s tour of, er, cinemas.)

beijing_bikeBeijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai (2001, China). As a fan of both Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, I was keen to see more films by modern Chinese directors, and Wang Xiaoshuai’s name cropped up as another of the “Sixth Generation”, which includes Jia. So I stuck one of his films on my rental list… Having cottoned onto Wang through Jia and Zhao, the director this film most reminds me of is Hou Hsiao Hsien, who is Taiwanese, although it does have the documentary feel Jia manages to give his films. Four teenagers from the provinces land a job at a bicycle courier company. They are each given a new mountain bike, the cost of which is taken out of their wages for the first six months. One of them is a week or two away from paying for his bike when it is stolen. So he fails to deliver the package that had been given to him – there’s an excellent sequence in which he turns up to a posh spa and gives the name of his contact, only for the brainless receptionist to assume he means a guest of the same name, and so he has to have a shower to enter the spa and afterwards is told he must pay for the shower – and is subsequently fired. He vows to find his stolen bike, and the company manager tells him that if he does, then he can have his job back. And he finds it. It had been sold to a schoolboy who fancies a girl in his class and has been accompanying her on her ride to school (but he stole the money from his parents to buy the bike). Unfortunately, the rest of the story rests on a fallacy – that the purchaser of stolen property owns the stolen property because they bought it in good faith. The moment the courier turned up and identified his bike, the schoolboy should have handed it over and demanded his 500 yuan back from the person who’d sold him the bike. But these are schoolkids, I suppose, and allowed to get it wrong – so wrong, in fact, that the courier and the schoolboy end up agreeing to use the bike on alternate days, the one so he can keep his job, the other so he can get closer to the girl he fancies. Who has already started going out with someone else anyway. This is not a cheerful film. (Does China even make cheerful films these days?) But it is a good one.

gods_egyptGods of Egypt, Alex Proyas (2016, USA). I knew this was going to be complete nonsense – I remember when the film was released last year, and what people were saying about it. But it was a Saturday night, I had a bottle of wine, and it couldn’t be that bad, could it, surely? Um, yes. Worse, in fact. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the whitecasting (especially since it’s equally troubling in the film following, although that at least has a more understandable excuse). So, skipping over the fact the film has a pretty much uniformly white cast playing the actual gods of Ancient Egypt from, er, Egypt, in North Africa… Even ignoring such a colossal failure, Gods of Egypt fails in so many other ways. For a start, it takes that mythology and turns it into a fantasy film. True, there is, as far as I know, no organised church of Isis, Horus, etc, to take religious offence at this appropriation; and Hollywood has done pretty much the same for Greek mythology since someone hand-cranked a camera in California for the first time. But neither past custom nor lack of a lobby group makes it acceptable in this day and age. And, as well as all that, Gods of Egypt is just, well, a shit film. The acting is terrible, the plot is nonsense, the production design looks wholly generic, and who really gives a shit about a bunch of super-powerful over-entitled people and their abuse of the population they rule? It might have flown forty years ago, but not now. Okay, so the way they made the gods all bigger than actual people was sort of cool… for about five minutes. But, to be honest, the entire film you just wanted them to put themselves out of your misery. Not only did Gods of Egypt make any random MCU movie look good, it also made it look positively left-wing. Avoid.

masterpieces_1Pharaoh, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1966, Poland). And from the ridiculous to the sublime. Well, not quite. But it was obviously perversity which made me put on another film about Ancient Egypt immediately after sitting through Gods of Egypt. Pharaoh, however, is an earnest historical drama, shot in the Uzbekistani desert with a blacked-up cast. A cast – and that’s pretty much all the speaking parts – in dark skin make-up so they resemble Ancient Egyptians is never going to be acceptable… although this movie was made fifty years ago and is Polish-language. Suitable Polish-speaking actors were likely impossible to find (in which case, the best answer: make a different film), but we have what we have. Fifty years ago, Kawalerowicz went ahead and made Pharaoh. And, to be fair to him, he made more of an effort at verisimilitude under much more constrained circumstances, than Hollywood ever did. As it is, Pharaoh is pure historical epic but, despite opening with a huge battle sequence, still feels somehow small-scale. Perhaps it’s because the two main exterior locations, the palace and the temple, appear to exist in an empty desert wasteland. I don’t recall seeing a city, or even a camp for the slaves working on the various monuments. The story centres on the power struggle between a pharaoh and his priests, with lots of intense scenes set in darkened chambers in either building. I’m not entirely sure what to make of Pharaoh – it’s well-made, although its sensibilities are no longer acceptable, but in many ways it’s a good old-fashioned Sunday afternoon movie. It’s worth noting, however, that DI Factory have done a lovely job with this Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. The packaging looks great, and the restored film’s transfer looks excellent. Happily, I have seven films in this box set yet to watch, and another two box sets in the series as well.

francofoniaFrancofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). There is a Curzon cinema here in Sheffield but, for reasons best known to themselves, Curzon chose to screen Francofonia only at their Bloomsbury and Soho cinemas, and not in a city which has an annual documentary film festival. Bastards. So I had to wait for the Blu-ray. I’d first heard about Francofonia some three years ago, and had expected it to appear in 2015. I had also been expecting something in a similar vein to Russian Ark, only this time about French history and the Louvre, albeit mostly focusing on the Nazi occupation of Paris. But I should have known better. Because Francofonia is actually closer to Sokurov’s “elegy” documentaries, especially Elegy of a Voyage, as well as bafflingly meta-fictional, like Mournful Unconcern (which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House and features documentary footage of Shaw himself), not to mention Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn, in which Sokurov discusses the writer’s oeuvre and then interviews him on several occasions (including during a walk through some woods near Solzhenitsyn’s home). It’s not that Francofonia distils Sokurov’s career, more that it feels like a film that makes use of more of the techniques he has employed in other films than any other. Part of Francofonia is a dramatic reconstruction of the Germans taking over the Louvre, part is a history of the Louvre and of its director at that time. Another part is Sokurov himself trying to hold a video conversation with an agent aboard a ship in mid-Atlantic, during a severe storm, about a container of items destined for the museum and which might be lost. Every now and again, Luftwaffe planes fly over Paris. There is also archive footage of Hitler arriving in Paris. Sokurov is, in many respects, a product of his career. Early documentaries stitched together from archive footage led to his ability to build narratives from snippets of historical film, as well as provide a philosophical voiceover to pin it all together; his early problems with the authorities rejecting his films led to a more elliptical way of making his points; and his often precarious funding resulted in him having to edit a finished product together out of an unfinished project, so much so the enigmatic narratives were often more pragmatic than deliberate. Add to that a tendency to lard his films with references to literature and art – such as Dostoevsky in Whispering Pages, Caspar David Friedrich in Moloch – to an extent that sometimes the reference overwhelms its role in the narrative. This is, after all, the director whose first episode of a five-episode series about soldiers in Afghanistan consists entirely of a filmed snowscape while a voiceover discusses the life and career of Mozart. Francofonia, more than any other film I’ve seen by Sokurov, including Russian Ark, shows the advantages of modern film-making technology. It is a gorgeous piece of work and seamlessly assembled. It probably looked fantastic on a cinema screen. (Bastards.) But it also showcases Sokurov’s genius to an extent I’d not previously witnessed – the things I love his work for? They’re all in here. I’d always thought it a crime Sokurov was best-known for the technical achievement of Russian Ark, ie, a single take of 99 minutes; but with Francofonia I think his genius might become more widely known for what it truly is. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s work for many years and have most – but not quite all – of the feature films and documentaries he has made. I consider him the most interesting film-maker currently alive, and I’m hugely glad that not only is Francofonia seemingly doing well but also that is so much more emblematic of his work than I’d expected. It is an astonishing piece of work, go see it.

eleneaElena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia). I’ve now seen all four of Zvyagintsev’s films (a fifth is due for release this year), and I think I rate Elena second-best after The Return. The title refers to the working-class wife of a rich Muscovite. They met when he was in hospital and she was a nurse. The husband has a daughter by his dead first wife, Elena has an unemployed brother with a growing family. Elena wants to provide for here relatives, who live in a tiny flat in a block in a Moscow suburb, but her husband refuses to fund her brother’s indolence. Then the husband has a heart attack while swimming, and is once again in hospital. When he returns to their penthouse flat, Elena nurses him… but when he reveals he is going to write a will in which his daughter gets everything and Elena only an annual allowance, she poisons him. Since he died intestate, she gets half of everything. Zvyagintsev typically takes his tme over telling his stories, and Elena is no exception. The first five or so minutes of the film are a silent tracking shot through the penthouse. And then, the introduction of the couple”s domestic life takes another thirty or so minutes before the dramatic tension which is at the heart of the story is revealed. If you like your 5-second jump-cuts, this is not the film for you – indeed, Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre is not for you. But well-drawn character studies with an eye for detail and insight? Then he mostly definitely is. All of Zvyagintsev’s films are worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Provincial Actors, Agnieska Holland (1979, Poland). I’ve seen Holland’s Europa Europa (1990), and thought it very good, so I was not expecting to be disappointed by Provincial Actors (AKA Aktorzy prowincjonalni), an earlier film. The title is an apt description of its story. A provincial theatre is putting on an important play, but the director is “modern” and some of his artistic decisions don’t sit well with the cast, especially the older members who have been in productions of the play before. I will admit I know nothing about the play – ‘Liberation‘ by Stanisław Wyspiański from 1903 (he appears to have been an impressively accomplished Renaissance man) – but it is clear it’s an important play in Polish theatre. I think where Provincial Actors really works is that it’s not entirely about the play and the young director’s re-interpretation of it – this is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong – but that the lives of the actors, and the history they have together, is just as important. There’s an astonishing moment set in the apartment of one member of the cast, who is ironing a dress when a body plummets past the window behind her. It is another member of the cast. There are external factors to the play which explain, and determine, how the various members of the cast behave, and their attitude to the play and its direction. It’s an accomplished piece of ensemble acting, shot with that sort of television docudrama conviction that Polish films of the 1970s and 1980s seem to do so well. I’d like to see more films by Holland. Happily, she has made a lot; not so happily, I don’t think all that many of her early works are available in the UK…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures, #8

The Blu-ray was starting to crackle and fill the screen with static when you ejected a disc, and its remote control was seriously irritating me with its bad design and hard-to-figure-out-what-button-was-what; and the old stereo was just sitting there doing nothing since only the DVD-player had been plugged into it… So I had a bit of a clear-out. I bought myself a new Blu-ray player, one that can play all regions of DVD and Blu-ray, from mrmdvd.com, and chucked everything else away. I also bought myself a soundbar, but it turned out my 18-month-old television didn’t have the necessary new-fangled output for it, so I had to cancel the order. Gah. Backward compatibility FTW. Not. Anyway, the corner of the living-room now looks a lot tidier, the new player works very well indeed, and, of course, I’ve watched my Criterion Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows*…

europa_europaEuropa Europa*, Agnieszka Holland (1990, Germany). A Jewish boy is captured by Soviets while escaping Germany, grows up in a Soviet orphanage, but is then captured by Nazis – and pretends to be an Aryan German. It’s based on a true story, and protagonist Jupp (AKA Solomon Perel, AKA Josef Peters) first acts as translator to front-line Wehrmacht troops, but is then sent to a Hitler Youth school. Where he falls for an Aryan mädchen, a dubbed Julie Delpy… except she wants a child for Hitler but Jupp can’t let her see his todger because he’s circumcised and that’ll reveal him as a Jew. This is all based on a true story – in fact, the real Jupp appears as himself in an epilogue set in Israel in the year of filming. But I never quite felt the film got across the fear Jupp must have been feeling as he masqueraded as a Hitler Youth. The hate, not to mention the rejection, of his position was there, and some of the lengths Jupp went to in order to disguise his race, not to mention his reasons for doing so, were certainly horrific. This is an excellent film, and if it fails occasionally in the implementation, it’s still a story that demands to be told. Definitely worth seeing.

shock_aweAntichrist, Lars von Trier (2009, Denmark). I’m really not sure what to make of von Trier’s films. There was much to admire in Antichrist, for example – including a scene supposedly imagined during therapy that was pure Sokurov – but it’s always like 4 and 5 makes 10. Admittedly, the final credits revealed Antichrist was dedicated to Tarkovsky, which made some of it understandable (including that Sokurov-ish scene), but some of von Trier’s signature touches seemed to work much better than others. A couple lose their child, and the husband – Willem Dafoe – persuades the wife – Charlotte Gainsbourg – that they must go to an isolated cabin in the woods. Then it all goes a bit strange. In von Trier’s favour is that his films bear, if not demand, re-watchings. There are elements in this one, for example, which don’t initially seem to make sense. But there’re also those which plummet toward the schlocky, which other von Trier films have suffered from. After so much metaphorical and allegorical payload, the film turns into art house horror, and it does tend to undo what’s go before. It’s not that von Trier does not have the courage of his convictions – if there’s one thing this film does not lack throughout its length, it’s conviction – but it often feels like he does’t have enough confidence in his allusiveness, or feels a need to shock the viewer as if whatever judgement a film may receive will depend entirely on that shock value. When you look at earlier films, such as Europa, the shocking end felt of a piece with the story, and if it seemed melodramatic it was at least in keeping with the movie’s aesthetic. But in Antichrist, the horror doesn’t quite blend… and I can’t decide if that’s a deliberate provocation or an unintended artefact. I suppose the fact I can’t tell at least demonstrates von Trier’s importance as a director…

Lisa-And-The-Devil-blu-rayLisa and the Devil, Mario Bava (1973, Italy). I have enjoyed the odd Mario Bava in the past, and I do like the fact they’re very much movies of their time and not particularly gory… so I bunged a few on the rental list, and one of them dropped through the letter box. Also, of course, Elke Sommer. While Lisa and the Devil had its moments, and a story that actually wasn’t too bad, this was pretty cheap entertainment and not a film that’s worth watching more than the once. A tourist lost in Toledo stumbles across an antiques shop in which a creepy-looking Telly Savalas is buying an item. Later, having failed to find her friends, she accepts a lift from a couple in a limousine. The car breaks down outside a creepy-looking mansion… and the butler there proves to be Telly Savalas. It’s all something to do with an aristocratic family, a dark secret, and a demon or something. Apparently, the film was recut to resemble The Exorcist in the US and bombed because… everyone thought it was a rip-off of The Exorcist. Duh. More for fans of Bava or bad 1970s horror, I suspect.

daysofheavenDays Of Heaven*, Terrence Malick (1978, USA). I really wanted to like this, Malick is a very visual director and this is one of those not-very-commercial-successful Hollywood film where the auteur seems to win out over the usual crass Hollywood product. There’s also a (mostly) good cast too. But it really didn’t work. It felt like substandard DH Lawrence transposed to 1920s Texas, and the lovely cinematography was not enough to save it. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams move to Texas from Chicago in 1916, and find work with a local farmer. He falls for Adams, so Gere persuades her to marry him so the two of them can live the good life at the farmer’s expense. It ends badly. Duh. This is a film rightly praised for its cinematography, but the story was slow and uninvolving, and even in 1978 Gere might make a good lead in a rom com but he didn’t have the chops for something as serious as this (unlike Same Shepard, who played the farmer). Disappointing.

masculinMasculin Féminin*, Jean-Luc Godard (1966, France). I have mixed feelings about Alphaville and I absolutely adore Le Mépris, but I can’t really say I’ve seen anything else by Godard that I’ve liked. Including this one. The problem with a lot of Nouvelle Vague cinema is that its characters are self-absorbed to a point that makes them unsympathetic and dull to watch. (The same is also true of a some of Rohmer’s earlier films.) As for plot, well, that’s just bourgeois. (I jest, as I actually agree that plot is over-rated.) Anyway, Masculin Féminin is a series of discussions, monologues, diatribes and pontificating by a young man who enters into a relationship with a young woman, and her two flat-mates, who does not share his tastes or politics. I vaguely recall there being lots of polo-neck jumpers and arguments in corridors. It was all a bit yawn.

bela_tarr_collectionThe Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary). After watching on rental thirty minutes of Barr’s Sátántangó in which nothing happened, I decided I ought to buy one of his films in order to give him a fair go – and from what I’d read, his style of film-making was likely to appeal. So I bought The Béla Tarr Collection box set, which contains three of his films, and this was the first of them I watched, coincidentally with a friend who was also new to Tarr’s movies. It made for an interesting experience. The story of The Man from London is apparently taken from a Simenon story, and it was a while before we nailed down the setting. But the movie also proved a welcome antidote to most Hollywood films, in that the pacing was leisurely, if not glacial, the cinematography was lovely, it was black and white, and the only way to watch was to patiently let it slowly unfold. It was a little off-putting to have one of the actors dubbed by a Fox brother – they have way too distinctive voices – but given the stately progress of the story it actually seemed to fit really well. I’m told some of Tarr’s films are real exercises in endurance, but this was an excellent introduction to his oeuvre. And I still have two more films to watch in the box set…

planete_sauavageLa Planète Sauvage*, René Laloux (1973, France). A highly-regarded science fiction animated film that happens to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… so why not buy a copy? On Blu-ray? So I did. And, well… I was expecting weird, the cover of the Blu-ray alone is enough to prime a viewer for weird. And, it has to be said, I do like me some weird in my cinema. But while it struck me that the story of La Planète Sauvage was fairly routine, and something you might find in a bande dessinée or Polish sf story… the animated design by Roland Topor definitely qualified as strange. On an alien world, giant blue aliens – like the one on the Blu-ray cover – keep humans as pets, though there are many “feral” humans about. A baby human is adopted as one such pet by a young alien girl, but somehow manages to follow the electronic teaching she receives and so becomes educated. He later escapes and meets up with a group of feral humans, and persuades them to fight against the aliens… As allegories go, this is pretty in-your-face, and the idea of using sf to hide what you really want to say and make it palatable was past its sell-by date in 1973. But La Planète Sauvage still presents a unique vision, and is worth seeing for that (even if some of the short films included on the Blu-ray are a bit too much Métal Hurlant, and so less interesting).  Nonetheless, worth watching.

baron_bloodBaron Blood, Mario Bava (1972, Germany/Italy). Another 1970s Bava horror film that, er, stars Elke Sommer. A young American man with a toothsome smile visits relatives in Austria, where he learns about a castle which used to belong to an ancestor, called, er, Baron Blood. Sommer plays an archaeologist investigating the castle’s history while it is being refurbished. She and young American man, while acting about, read out a curse inflicted on Baron Blood, and then read out the words meant to lift the curse. So the baron comes back from wherever he was… and after killing a few people ends up as Joseph Cotton in a wheelchair. This is pretty much standard 1970s Euro horror fare, and if it isn’t, it certainly fits my idea of what it might be. It was kind of fun, but even for Bava it was pretty weak.

shock_aweMelancholia, Lars von Trier (2011, Denmark). You know where science fiction literalises metaphors? Now imagine that depression was a giant planet on a collision course with Earth… Von Trier has said that the story of Melancholia was inspired by his discovery that people with depression remain calmer during crises than people not suffering depression. Which revelation actually leads to three readings of the film. As your actual science fiction, it’s nonsense – the near approach of the rogue planet Melancholia, and its effects on the Earth, are not in the slightest bit scientifically accurate. As genre, it’s hard to imagine a literalised metaphor more in your face than a giant planet about crash into the Earth. However, seen as a study of Kirsten Dunst’s character, in the face of the collision with Melancholia… The first time I watched the film, I took the first reading, despite the fact the story is mostly about Dunst’s wedding, subsequent breakdown and recovery with her sister’s family (also the hosts of the wedding and reception). And the planet Melancholia crashes through the story like a giant implausible thing of implausibility. It all looks absolutely gorgeous, of course, but your suspension of disbelief is in sore need of a hook to hang it on. However, a combinations of readings two and three a) renders it a much more interesting film, and b) allows you to appreciate the lovely cinematography for what it is. I thought Melancholia much better on this rewatch than I had the first time I saw it. I still need to work out what von Trier is doing with his films, but he’s certainly one of the more interesting directors currently making movies.

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 577

* For the record, the colours are gorgeous, but the picture is so precise it appears slightly grainy, and the shadows and dark areas tend to block out a little. And I really need to get a soundbar or something. Oh, and the film itself is still brilliant.