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Moving pictures 2019, #20

Some more movies…

Seat 25, Nicholas Agnew (2017, UK). There’s an international mission to Mars, but it’s one-way. Twenty-four trained astronauts will be sent to settle the Red Planet, But there is room for one more, and that position will be taken by the winner of a lottery. A young woman in the UK wins the ticket, but is given time to break the news to her family – assuming, that is, she accepts – before it is announced publicly. It’s a neat idea and a good hook from which to hang a low-key drama. The world-building is very light, and mostly concerned with infomercials about the mission to Mars. The story stays entirely focused on the young woman who has won the seat: her life, her husband, her friends, her parents and in-laws, her colleagues… She keeps her win secret from them all, but kicks off a few “hypothetical” discussions to see how they would react if she told them she was going on a one-way trip to Mars. If this were all there were to the film, then it would be a neat little drama. Unfortunately, whoever wrote the script doesn’t seem to have advanced socially since the 1970s. Not only is the young woman brow-beaten by her husband, but the dynamics between the couple are a good thirty years old. And her in-laws crack jokes about people in Africa living in mud huts. Who does that? I heard shit like that when I was at school. And that was many decades ago. It wasn’t funny then either. Seat 25 could have been a good indie film, but it was ruined by gender politics and race relations from the 1970s.

M. Butterfly, David Cronenberg (1993, USA). This is based on a true story. A French accountant at the French embassy in Beijing was seduced by, and entered into long a relationship with, a Chinese opera singer who specialised in playing female roles. The accountant believed the singer was female and never learnt his true gender, even believing an adopted son presented by the singer was his natural son. Even though the Frenchman didn’t realise he was actually in a relationship with a man, and it was never revealed to him, the fact he was in a relationship with a Chinese national was enough leverage to “persuade” him to pass secrets to the Chinese authorities. This went on for two decades. And the Frenchman only learned the true gender of his lover when they were both arrested for spying in 1983. Cronenberg’s film is adapted from a 1988 play by David Henry Hwang, which takes some liberties with the actual story – mostly by compacting the chronology, as far as I could tell. When Cronenberg makes mainstream movies, I can’t honestly tell the difference between his work and any other director’s. The body horror stuff is obviously so signature that any film that doesn’t feature it doesn’t seem like a Cronenberg film. Which is a shame, as he’s an excellent director, and M. Butterfly tells its story entirely convincingly, more so, I think, because Jeremy Irons is perfect as the Frenchman. It works as a slightly off-kilter drama, but it’s off-kilter, I think, more because of the story than because of anything Cronenberg brings to it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Fernando Cerchio (1961, Italy). I wonder how many people don’t realise Italy had a huge film industry and churned out movies by the metre. It wasn’t all Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica or Visconti. There was a long series of Hercules films, for example. Not to mention all those “spaghetti westerns”, the sf movies, giallo films, and loads of international thrillers. Some had US stars in lead roles (usually ones whose careers were on the slide). Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile is, of course, an historical film, a swords-and-sandals movie, starring Jeanne Crain (who plays Nefertiti), Edmund Purdom and… Vincent Price. Purdom and Crain are in love, but high priest Price marries Crain off to the new pharaoh. Who happens to be best mates with Purdom. The romantic triangle is tangled up with the overthrow of the state religion, and the institution of a new monotheistic religion. But this is all standard fare: a mid-sixties mangling of history presented as melodrama. It just happens to be from Italy instead of Hollywood. The film also features several really fake-looking fights between Purdom and a lion. Avoid.

Madadayo, Akira Kurosawa (1993, Japan). This was Kurosawa’s last film and while not one of his signature samurai historical films it was definitely an historical film. It’s set in the late nineteenth century and concerns a retired teacher and those of his pupils he stayed in touch with. It’s immediately obvious from the first five minutes of this movie that Japanese teachers and pupils have a different relationship to those in the West. I mean, most of what I know about pupil-teacher relations has been gleaned from films; as indeed for UK schools, since I went to a public school (not a prestigious one) and it wasn’t unusual for pupils of that school to stay in touch with teachers on an irregular basis for a few years after they’d graduated. But in Madadayo, the “pupils” are young men starting their careers, and yet they visit their old professor, throw a party for him, and ensure his retirement is as intellectually rich as his career was. And they did this every year, for decades. Which unfortunately means Madadayo is not exactly heavy on plot. It’s an elegiac piece, the handing over from one generation to the next, embodied in a teacher and his pupils, which feels like the most obvious of metaphors, but… Madadayo is a nice film. It’s well-played, extremely well-filmed… but ultimately its story is so slight it’s a wonder it lasts 134 minutes. One for fans of Kurosawa, I suspect, although I did enjoy it.

Dumbo, Tim Burton (2019, USA). Disney seems to be on a mission to rebuild its brand in the twenty-first century, and it’s chosen to do so by creating “live-action” versions of its classic films, so kids can enjoy cutting-edge versions of old school animations their parents loved as children. As a strategy, it makes sense… but it’s resulted in some odd films. I can’t really see how a piece of Tim Burton whimsy is intended to appeal to the same market as the original Dumbo back in the 1940s. Sure, tastes have changed considerably since then, as have sensibilities. But this new Dumbo is a great deal darker than the original. For a start, it opens with a  soldier returning home from WWI, minus an arm. His home is a travelling circus, owned by Danny DeVito, and he left his two children there while he was away fighting. The story more or less follows the original – as far as I know, as it’s been decades since I saw it – but all with that Tim Burton heightened reality look and feel. DeVito’s circus is failing financially and a successful rival wants to buy him out. But then his single elephant gives birth to a new calf, initially considered a freak because of his over-sized ears. Turns out the baby elephant can fly. And he’s a big draw. The circus’s fortunes begin to improve. But then millionaire Michael Keaton turns up and proposes a partnership between the circus and his New York amusement park. But all is not well at the amusement park, which does bear some resemblance to some sort of twisted Disney World, but the good guys triumph, there’s a a nice environmentally-friendly message, and even a somewhat perverse dig at corporatised entertainment. I’ve never been a Tim Burton fan, but this is the second one by him I’ve seen recently that stars Eva Green and, well, I sort of quite enjoyed it too.

Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg (2018, France). Back in the day, disasters such as the sinking of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered Oscar Class submarine, would have been the a natural subject for a made-for-television movie, with a cast of nobodies all speaking English with bad Russian accents. Instead, we get a French film with a Belgian star and a Danish director who co-founded the Dogme 95 movement with Lars von Trier. Needless to say, the Dogme 95 rules were not in force in Kursk. The story is well-known – submarine sinks after unexplained interior explosion, men are trapped, no rescue is made in time – but the film is very good on the Russian authorities’ poor response to the incident. Initially, they denied the sinking, then they delayed releasing details… The Royal Navy had already offered help but was rebuffed. Perhaps they could have saved some of the crew if given permission early enough, but it seems like pointless speculation. The rich and powerful will always protect their own interests first, whether they’re oligarchs or admirals. Kursk does an excellent job of presenting the  interior of the submarine, both before and after the disaster, but it does all feel a bit like a CGI-fest. We have perhaps became too used to disasters from disaster movies, or just straight-up thrillers, such that we no longer feel compassion, or fear, for those in real peril. Kursk is a good film and worth seeing, for all that it’s framed as a disaster movie and they’re generally best avoided.

1001 Movies You Must See Before They Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #5

I used to plan my viewing – well, mostly – but that seems to have gone by the board now that I’m about to up sticks. I don’t know what there’ll be available to watch for the first few weeks I’m in Sweden – I suspect I will reading more – although I will be packing my Blu-ray player in my suitcase. And, of course, a couple of a box sets…

Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai (1997, China). I’ve yet to figure out what I feel about Wong’s films. I do like his most famous film, In the Mood for Love, and its sequel 2046, although I’ve been ambivalent about other films by him I’ve seen. And that’s pretty much true of Happy Together. It’s well-made, often with quite stunning cinematography, and with a great soundtrack – the second by Wong, I seem to recall, that includes a track by Frank Zappa (‘Watermelon in Easter Hay’ in this one). The problem is that Wong’s films are really good but they haven’t quite clicked for me, and I’m somewhat surprised they haven’t done so. They’re exactly the sort of thing I should Iike and admire, and some of them I do like and some of them I do admire, and some of them it’s both. Wong should be one of those directors on my “to watch” list, and he is to some extent or I’d not have rented this film… but whenever I watch one of his movies I always feel I should like it more than I actually do. I suspect I need to give his oeuvre a more careful study.

Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa (1980, Japan). And after Wong, another director whose oeuvre I find a bit hit and miss. I like Kurosawa’s films, I have a lot of time for them, but he made a lot of samurai movies and they do all sort of blur into one another, if not even into themselves because they’re quite long. This one is a good three hours, and not a fat lot happens during that time. A daimyo in sixteenth-century Japan has a double – the kagemusha of the title – and after being shot by a sniper during a siege of a castle, the double takes his place. And proves more effective in it than the generals eager to maintain the pretence realised. It’s all very Kurosawa, a full-on historical samurai film with epic battle-scenes, real castles and an almost-Shakespearean plot. But it’s also very long and that, for me, told against it. It really doesn’t need three hours to tell the story, and it felt more often than not that Kurosawa was more in love with his material than any viewer was likely to be. But it’s Kurosawa, and that’s not so much a brand as it is a badge of quality. Anyone watching Kagemusha is going to know what they will get. I’ts probably telling that the Kurosawa films I like best are the ones that aren’t historical samurai films. One for fans.

Salome, William Dieterle (1953, USA). As mentioned in an earlier post, my mother lent me a box set of Rita Hayworth movies, which included a couple I’d not seen before. Like this one. To be honest, I hadn’t missed anything. Salome is a typical Hollywood Biblical story, which means it’s not only wildly historically inaccurate, it probably bears little resemblance to the original Bible story. For all the US bleats about being Christian, it shows a remarkably cavalier attitude to its central religious text – except when it’s doing the exact opposite and interpreting it entirely literally, despite that being scientifically impossible, never mind displaying a complete lack of common sense. The story of Salome is not one they tend to teach in Sunday school, given it involves a head on a plate. And, to be honest, even after watching the film, I’m not entirely sure what the film was actually trying to say. Salome is a Jew brought up in Rome, who upsets caesar because a Roman one-percenter wants to marry her and so she is sent back to Jerusalem, a city she does not know. But she’s not having that, so she uses her feminine wiles to overturn caesar’s decision. And after her famous dance, which might well have had seven veils in this film but they weren’t what is normally meant by “veil”, she asks a boon and her mother jumps in and ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate, as you do, and that’s not really what Salome wanted. It’s all very 1950s bible-story Hollywood, and even Hayworth’s presence can’t redeem it. Avoid.

Cul-de-sac, Roman Polanski (1966, UK). I know I shouldn’t be watching Polanski movies but this was free on Amazon Prime so it’s not like I’m giving money to Polanski. How difficult is it to sort his situation out? I mean, the US will rendition people and throw them in Gitmo because they think they might be terrorists, and have no evidence to prove they are, but when they do have evidence someone committed a crime he gets to lead a normal life as long as he doesn’t visit the US. Of course, Polanski, a Pole, is white. And the US is not currently bombing Poland. But who knows with Trump. Or indeed the UK, as the racist Leave voters seem particularly incensed at the number of Poles in the UK. Anyway, Cul-de-sac is an odd film. Donald Pleasance and his wife Françoise Dorléac live in an old castle on Lindisfarne, when their home is invaded by bank robbers on the run Lionel Sanders and Jack MacGowran. Sanders takes the couple hostage while he tries to contact his boss. MacGowran, who was shot during the robbery, dies of his wounds. Then friends visit Pleasance and Dorléac, and the two have to pretend to normality while Sanders acts as their new manservant. Polanski sex-crime aside, he was a was good director and some of his early works from the 1960s are really good films. Cul-de-sac is characteristically odd, but it’s well-shot, extremely atmospheric, and the cast put in good turns. While I can’t recommend it, I have to admit it’s worth seeing.

Fair Game, Mario Andreacchio (1986, Australia). Had it not been the fact this was movie was Australian, I would likely have written it off as a B-movie. Which it still is, to be honest. Three typical examples of Australian manhood harass and assault a woman who runs a wildlife sanctuary because she prevented them from kangaroo hunting. But their revenge goes awry when she proves more of a match for them. I would like to say it’s refreshing to see an Australian film in which a woman wins against a group of men, but I think that’s an unfair characterisation of Australian culture. And hardly commonplace in Hollywood or the UK film industry. The plot of Fair Game is a staple – there must be a couple of hundred Westerns which use it – in which a lone hero (female, in this case) defends the town (well, her sanctuary) against marauders bent on revenge, using a variety of tricks and traps based on what’s available. Not a great film, by any means, but worth a punt.

The Lion King*, Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff (1994, USA). Yes, I know. I’d never actually seen The Lion King before, and it’s not like I made a conscious decision to avoid it but since I don’t have kids it’s not the sort of film that crops up in my normal viewing. But it’s in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I decided to add it to my rental list and watched it when it dropped through the letter box. Some twenty-five years after it was released. And it has not aged well. Not well at all. I’ll not bother summarising the plot. The animation is good, although nothing especially stands out – although the scenes involving the hyenas do harken back to earlier Disney films. As does the final showdown between Simba and Scar. But the comedy is occasionally borderline for 2018, and the songs are completely unmemorable. Yes, even the most famous one. Life on the veldt is completely romanticised – lions are carrion eaters, after all – and even some of the landscape looked a bit suspect. The Lion King was massively successful, and was the second highest grossing film of all time in its year of release (it has since dropped to number 40), and I suppose that’s why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But, frankly, there are better Disney feature films, such as Bambi, which are more deserving of a place. The Lion King seems to me to be more  triumph of marketing than film-making – I remember the advertising at the time was relentless – and that’s no indication of quality. Well-marketed films do not belong in a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 934


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Moving pictures 2018, #54

Some well-known names in this movie post – I’m referring to the directors, of course, although a couple of the titles are probably also well known. A bit of a mixed bunch. Some were better than expected, others weren’t. Oh well.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ron Howard (2018, USA). Let’s get the good news out of the way first: I enjoyed this. Yes, I actually enjoyed watching it. But. It didn’t feel like a Star Wars film; and this Han Solo is pretty much an entirely different character to the one played by Harrison Ford. It is, in other words, a fun space opera set in a well-realised space opera universe, that happens to share a lot of commonality with Star Wars films. So, like Rogue One then. Which I liked too. Although that film did at least manage to slot itself into current SW history (which Disney are busy rewriting and retconnning faster than Trump is the history of his disastrous presidency). But, Solo… It’s about, er, Han Solo. Who grows up as a member of a criminal gang on Corellia, but manages to escape (and chooses the name “Solo” because he’s alone – do you see what they did there?). Anyway he ends up in the Imperial infantry, but deserts and joins Woody Harrelson’s gang of thieves, bullshits his way into jobs he has no real hope of completing, fails to complete them, bullshits his way out of it, and somehow or other ends up with Lando Calrissian’s ship, the  Millennium Falcon. It’s all great fun, but all drawn with very broad strokes. There’s no complicated structure here, no weird story arcs, to fuel deep analyses of the film-maker’s intentions (if you find what you’re looking for in a Hollywood film written by committee and rewritten by a director whose strings are being pulled by a studio… what you’re finding probably only exists in your head). Star Wars has gone all diverse, and not before time, and Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3-37 (who is not at all leet, but more L7 – but perhaps the band weren’t so keen on her being called just L7), is presented as one of the highlights and deserves the role. Harrelson and his gang are entirely forgettable. Bettany puts in a quality turn as the villain, but then he’s good at his job and people seem to forget that. He played fucking Vision, FFS. To be honest, I gave up on the plot about 30 minutes in. It didn’t matter. The entire film is set-up. And minor redemption too, of course. All of Star Wars is redemption, of one form or another. But at least Solo, or Rogue One, isn’t the portentous crap George Lucas made of the prequels and Disney is now making of the sequels. It’s not like Solo/Rogue One are ignoring important subjects, like slavery or terrorism, though it’s “commentary lite” on both; but then this is space opera and when it comes to human issues and relevance, space opera has always been light on payload. Solo goes for “character and colour and cosmos” (ie, worldbuilding), which is a wise decision as those three Cs are about all that works in cinematic space opera. I enjoyed Solo. Not a great film, not a great science fiction film, but fun all the same. And not a good Star Wars film. Which is entirely in its favour.

Il Postino, Michael Radford & Massimo Troisi (1994, Italy). From the ridiculous to the, er, mawkish. I should schedule these films better, then I could actually write from “the ridiculous to the sublime” and it might even be true. Il Postino is, as far as I can tell, and I may be mistaken, one of those awful mawkish Italian films that seemed to do really well on the international circuit during the 1990s. Like Life is Beautiful and Cinema Paradiso. It’s not restricted to Italy, of course. French versions include Jean de Florette and La gloire de mon père and no doubt many others, for other nations. The central premise of Il Postino is that the local postman, an aspiring poet, becomes friends with a mystery visitor to a small Italian island, who turns out to be exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The two form an unlikely friendship. Neruda was indeed famous, but not so much outside the Hispanic-speaking world. He was also equally well-known, in the same world, as a political dissident in a far right regime. Yes, once poets were actually exiled, or worse, for their public commentary against authoritarian governments. They didn’t just write cute advertising copy for building societies. But then the UK has never had a society of intellectuals similar to that of Spanish-, French- or Italian-speaking countries. We’ve been far too class-ridden. Our intellectuals were focused on social climbing – by all accounts, Waugh was a terrible snob; and on professing a desire to write a novel, Fleming was told by some dowager duchess, “Don’t do it, Ian. You’re not clever enough.” The joke being, of course, that the British aristocracy couldn’t muster a working brain cell between the lot of them. And the chances of a British intellectual from the arts running afoul of the establishment are pretty remote because the establishment simply co-opts them. In fact, the idea of art as political seems to be fiercely opposed by the Anglophone world. We saw it in science fiction with the Sad Puppies, who were, ironically, entirely political. But in the English-speaking world satire and commentary are toothless, and we’re all the poorer for it, even it means our so-called intellectuals are unlikely to ever be exiled. And, I suppose, there’s an advantage to that inasmuch no one will make mawkish films about them. Well, not about their exile. There are plenty of mawkish UK films about recent historical figures, like the one about Stephen Hawking. Which is, now I think about it, probably worse. Fuck them all.

King of New York*, Abel Ferrara (1990, USA). I always get this film a bit confused with Scorsese’s King of Comedy – and it doesn’t help that both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s the titles, of course, because that’s about the only resemblance between the two. I had also thought I’d seen King of New York many years before, but having now watched it, I’m not so sure. It’s a straight-up mobster movie, perhaps more violent than was common in the late eighties, but it seems a bit tame when compared to twenty-first century Hollywood cinema. Walken plays a gangster who finishes his prison sentence and returns to New York determined to take over everything. Which is what he does. He shoots anyone who disagrees with him. He also mixes in posh circles because his girlfriend is a DA or something. I’m not sure. I didn’t really care. This film has fuck-all to recommend it. Walken plays Walken, the rest of the cast are forgettable, and if it had any historical impact in 1990, that has long since dissipated. It’s by no means the only film to follow the same formula, and if they’re trying to capture a point in time I have to wonder how they saw that particular point… Missable.

A Closed Book, Raúl Ruiz (2010, UK). Ruiz was a highly-regarded director from Chile, although this film was made in the UK, and based on a novel by UK author Gilbert Adair, which he adapted himself. It’s a two-hander – mostly – and a pretty odd one. I don’t think it works, and I’m not sure if that’s because the story is just silly or because the two leads, Tom Conti and Darryl Hannah, struggle to carry it. Conti, a reclusive art critic who lives in a stately pile recruits Hannah to be his amanuensis. He reveals he was blinded in a car crash a few years earlier and has decided it is time he wrote his autobiography. Hannah, however, plays it sneaky and gaslights Conti… and it’s all because her history is linked to his car crash, and… Yawn. This has been done a million times before. Make both of the leads female and they’d call it “grip-lit”. Not that it would make much difference as the two leads here are terrible. Ruiz apparently took a hands-off approach and then they edited the shit out of the film… But it’s hard to see how it could have been improved. The material just isn’t strong enough. Avoid.

Rhapsody in August, Akira Kurosawa (1991, Japan). Kurosawa is, of course, best known for historical samurai films like, er, Seven Samurai, or Throne of Blood or Yojimbo… But he also did other stuff, like the excellent Dersu Uzala, and this one, Rhapsody in August, which I kept on thinking as “Kirosawa does Bergman”, and it sort of fits… A family have left their children with their grandmother, a survivor of Nagasaki, while they visit a dying relative in Hawaii. The grandmother was supposed to go, but refused because she has not seen the relative – her brother – since the war. So you have the culture shock of a Japanese visitor to the US, handled through video letters to the grandmother, and Japanese kids learning about Nagasaki and the very real effect the nuclear bomb had on the country. It’s all good stuff… until Richard Gere appears on the screen. He plays an American, a member of the family by marriage, and he speaks Japanese (and convincingly haltingly), but he just seems out of place. He’s clearly important to the film, and he’s certainly been used to promote it – and it’s true his character’s perspective is important to the story, an American viewing the impact of Nagasaki – but to a Western viewer he brings too much baggage, and not of a good sort. True, Japanese actors bring baggage to their roles, and Kurosawa certainly had his favourites, so Toshiro Mifune, for example, no doubt dragged around a shedload of past performances whenever he appeared in a movie (over 150, apparently, and I’ve probably seen around ten percent of them). Despite all that, the overriding impression I have of Rhapsody in August is Bergman lite. It seems the sort of story he did so much better.

Red Line 7000, Howard Hawks (1965, USA). This is not one of Hawks’s best-known films, and for good reason. It’s all very formulaic, and while it’s set among race car drivers I doubt would many recognise the sport depicted as it’s changed so much since 1965. James Caan plays one of two drivers for an owner. The other had decided to retire and get married and, as is usual for these sorts of films, is killed in a crash in his last race. The hunt is on for a new team member to drive alongside Caan. Which ends up being: a young American man who appears to have no experience or qualifications, but some talent, and fancies the owner’s “masculine” sister (she rides a motorbike!); and a celebrated driver from Europe, who has a French girlfriend in tow. Yawn. The footage of the races uses actual real races – and accidents – which gives it all more of a patina of reality than you usually get with Hollywood films that repeatedly cut to close-ups of the stars in what are patently sets filmed against moving backdrops. And the cars are so crude! They’re just souped-up Plymouths and the like. When they crash, they burst into flames. And kill the driver. It’s watching a dangerous sport in the days when it was outright fucking lethal. And dramatising that lethality. I suspect there are good reasons why Red Line 7000 is not lauded as one of Hawks’s best. It doesn’t help that Caan mumbles his way through his part, far too many of the scenes are studio sets, the female characters are stereotypes, and the plot goes round in circles just like the race cars. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932


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Moving pictures 2018, #4

I still seem to be watching a lot of films. Normal service – well, normal as of 2015 – should be resumed soon…

Cinema Komunisto, Mira Turajlic (2010, Serbia). Back in the day, Yugoslavia as was decided to attract foreign investment by opening up one of its state-run studios, Avala Film in Belgrade, to foreign film-makers. President Tito was a big movie-fan, so it gave him the opportunity to meet many film stars, such as Orson Welles or Kirk Douglas. Cinema Komunisto uses both archive footage and interviews with those who worked at Avala. The facilities are now pretty much ruins, but the massive wardrobe and props departments still exist. It’s interesting stuff, with lots of nice touches – like the bridge Avala helpfully blew up for a US war movie, only for the film-makers to use a model shot in the final cut; or the US film star who complimented Tito on his wonderful palace, only to be told it was the “people’s palace”. Yeah right. “Socialist” dictators and their insulting fiction of non-ownership of their wealth. Worth seeing.

Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961, Japan). I thought I’d seen this, but it seems I think I’ve watched more Kurosawa films than I actually have. And this was one of the ones I hadn’t actually seen. That has now been remedied. Obviously. The title means “bodyguard” and refers to the character played by Toshiro Mifune, who is never named. He wanders into a town in which two rival gangs have the local populace terrorised. Mifune decides to do something about it, by playing one gang off against the other. I’m told the story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which I’ve never read, although Kurosawa claimed it was based on Hammett’s The Glass Key. Yojimbo was certainly lifted pretty much wholesale by Sergio Leone, however, transplanted to the Wild West and made as A Fistful of Dollars. Which seems entirely approproate as, despite its setting in mediaeval Japan, there is very much a Wild West air to the film. There are guns – one of the enforcers in one gang has a revolver, makes much use of it – but most of the fight scenes feature swords. The characters seem a little caricatured, much like in a spaghetti Western, including the boar-like brother of one gangster, and the seven-foot tall enfrocer of the other. Kurosawa clevery ramps up the violence as the film progresses, until the final showdown results in the destruction of the businesses of the two merchants who back each of the two gangs. I’ve stuck a load of Kurosawa on my rental list recently, as I really should watch more of his films.

People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G Ulmer (1930 Germany). I had thought this was a documentary, but it isn’t. It’s actually a drama, made by a film club in Berlin, a fact the film actually makes a point of. It opens by introducing the main actors, and points out that once the film is over they will be returining to their day jobs, which it helpfully indicates. The story follows four friends on a Sunday, as they head for Wannsee to enjy the summer sun on the beach. As siilent dramas go, People on Sunday ticks all the boxes, but what makes the film remarkable – and it can hardly be “a pivotal film on the development of German cinema”, as Wikipedia puts it, if Lubitsch was making popular films in Berlin more than a decade earlier – but what is certainly remarkable about People on Sunday is the number of people involved in it who went on to have careers in Hollywood. Not only the two directors, Siodmak and Ulmer, but also Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Worth seeing.

The Calm, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1976, Poland). One of Kieślowski’s favourite actors, Jerzy Stuhr, plays an ex-con who tries to turn his life around after being released from prison. It’s never revealed what he was sent down for, although it seems unlikely to have been a violent crime. Stuhr leaves Kraków and heads out into the country. He gets a job on a building site, where the manager seems to trust him – although not, it transpires, for necessarily the right reasons. He meets a young woman, the two marry and a baby is on the way. His has turned his life around and everything is going well. He is a model member of society. But materials keep on disappearing from the building site, and when the manager threatens to take the cost of the missing materials out of everyone’s wages, they go on strike. Stuhr ends up as an unwilling liaison between the two. And learns that the manager himself is responsible for the thefts – and that he trusts Stuhr because Stuhr, an ex-con, would make a good patsy should the scheme be uncovered. Stuhr can’t resolve the situation and his fellow workers decide he is a scab. So they beat him up. This is not a cheerful film, although it initially appears to be. It seems Kieślowski is trying to say that no matter how hard you work to improve yourself, the system will still fuck you up in the end for no good reason. And in 1970s Poland, that was likely true. So it’s a little ironic that The Calm was banned by the Polish authorities, and didn’t get shown until 1980, because it depicted a strike and strikes were illegal in Poland.

Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China). That’s the last of the Christmas presents, and the last of Jia’s films until the box set containing Mountains May Depart that I’ve pre-ordered arrives. His films really are brilliant, so much so that each time I watch a new one I have to decide whether or not it is my new favourite Jia film. Still Life came close, perhaps just inching out 24 City but not managing to steal the top spot from The World. Still Life is set in the Three Gorges area and tells the story of Han Sanming (played by Han Sanming), who has returned to travelled to track down his wife and daughter who ran away sixteen years earlier. But the address he has for them is now underwater, part of the city that has been destroyed for the Three Gorges Dam project. Sanming joins a local demolition crew, who are demolishing buildings using lump hammers. The film then shifts to Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao, who played the lead in The World, and Han Sanming played her boyfriend), a nurse who is in Fengjie to look for her husband, who it turns out has become a successful local businessman. In fact, he runs several demolition contracts, and Sanming works for him. He also has a rich girlfriend. When Shen Hong finds this out, she asks for a divorce. In the final section of the film, Sanming’s wife turns up and reveals that their daughter is now working furthe rsouth in indentured labour to pay off the wife’s brother’s debt. Sanming offers to take wife and daughter with him, but he would have to pay off the debt – and he doesn’t have the money. so he returns alone to the coal maines of Shanxi… Although a drama, Still Life plays like a documentary – it’s one of the chief appeals of Jia’s films – and some of the scenery on display is fantastic. The Three Gorges region is astonishingly beautiful, but it is also heavily built-up and, during the period the film was made, was being slowly demolished and flooded for the dam. It makes for some striking cinematography. Excellent stuff.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein, Ernst Lubitsch (1918, Germany). The title translates as “I don’t want to be a man”. Ossi Oswalda plays the high-spirited daughter of an indulgent uncle. When he leaves, she is put in the charge of a new guardian, who is far more strict. So she dresses up as a man and goes out on the town, ending up in a posh ball, where she finds it much harder to be a man than she had expected. She bumps into her new guardian, and tries to steal his date in revenge. Unfortunately, someone else has more success, and Oswalda and her guardian drown their sorrows in drink and become great friends. So much so they begin kissing each other. When they leave the ball, the cab driver drops Oswalda off at the guardian’s house, and vice versa. But it all works out in the end. Oswalda is undoubtedly the star of the film – there wouldn’t be a film without her. Her bad behaviour in the opening section of the film does an excellent job of outlining her character; and her antics when cross-dressed, most of which are based on a complete obliviousness to her disguise, display excellent comic timing. When you consider that Ich möchte kein Mann sein was made a dozen years before People on Sunday, and there’s not all that much that’s technically different between the two… it does undermine the claims to importance of People on Sunday. The latter is undoubtedly the better film – it’s longer, 73 minutes to the 41 minutes of the Lubitsch, and it’s a drama played completely straight and which makes a feature of its amateur cast. Ich möchte kein Mann sein is a flat-out comedy, although not the fall-about slapsatick comedy Hollywood was making at the time, and it makes a meal of its “fish out of water” story. A fun film, but one chiefly for fans of silent cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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The endurance of the human bladder

As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, but some of the films below stretch that endurance somewhat – happily, not as much Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó… which is 432 minutes long! Of course, these are DVDs and Blu-rays, so there’s always the pause button, a boon to the bladder….

I’ve started to become a bit of an Orson Welles fan, even though I’ve had a DVD of Citizen Kane for a couple of decades… but it’s his other stuff I’m now finding more interesting. Macbeth was cheap on eBay and and Touch of Evil was a charity shop find. La note bleue, on the other hand, is the latest Mondo Vision release of an Andrzej Żuławski film, and I ordered it from their website.

I liked Pakeezah so much (see here), I wanted my own copy. It wasn’t expensive (I see it has now gone up in price). And the rental copy of Mughal-e-Azam I watched (see here) was the original black and white, but I wanted to see it in its colourised version. Which I now have done. And my eyes are still burning. Ran was a charity shop find. I’m not a big Kurosawa fan, so maybe I need to watch some of his films again.

I’ve been trying to complete my Bergman collection – hence, Crisis and Prison. I’m still nine short, although seven of them don’t appear to have ever been released on sell-through… The Beast in Space (see here) was a whim purchase – I’d enjoyed a couple of other Shameless releases, so I chucked this one onto an order.

I pre-ordered the new Metropolis 90th anniversary edition from Eureka’s own website. It arrived recently. The  Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a charity shop find. A Brighter Summer Day I bought because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and wasn’t available for rental. I seem to have picked up a few Edward Yang films now. And Oedipus Rex, well, 2017 has been the Year of Pasolini for me…


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Moving pictures, #37

Only 315 movies to go and I’m done with the list. Unfortunately, not every film on it seems to be actually available – and the list does evolve – so it’s not like finishing it is, well, a death sentence. I should have a go at putting together my own, I suppose – although, to be fair, 1001 movies is a lot of movies – since I can think of a couple of dozen films which belong on the list much more than some of the Hollywood crap which actually does appear on it. (Quick plug here for my list 101 Films for a cineaste, and I really ought to do a part two and part three…)

odd_man_outOdd Man Out*, Carol Reed (1947, UK). This was an odd one (no pun intended). It was probably a Quota Quickie – it starred James Mason, who made his career in Quota Quickies during WWII (he was a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker) and is black-and-white. It is also about the IRA. Of course, the organisation is never named, and even the city in which the film takes place remains nameless (although a bus appears at one point with “Falls Road” on its sign). Mason plays the leader of a cell, who has been ordered to rob a mill. The robbery goes wrong, and the men are forced to hide out. Mason is shot and separated from the others, and tries to head back his girlfriend’s house, where he had been hiding for the past six months. In pretty much all respects, Odd Man Out is a straightforward noir film – except for the political angle. It makes for an odd disconnect. While the cast are presented as criminals, and they perform criminal acts, as is fairly common in noir, the fact they’re IRA gives their actions added weight. To be fair, the film doesn’t belabour the point, and while it makes much of its setting, Belfast, the sectarian angle is played down, probably wisely. Apparently Odd Man Out received a BAFTA for Best British Film in its year of release. On balance, it probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

ikuruIkiru*, Akira Kurosawa (1952, Japan). Ask anyone who knows very little abut Japanese cinema to name a Japanese director, and Kurosawa will probably be the most popular answer (so don’t go picking it on Pointless). I have over the years watched a number of Kurosawa’s films and, perversely, still like his Russian one best. I hadn’t really expected to like Ikiru, an early work, especially given the plot summary. A minor bureacrat, Watanabe, is given 12 months to live after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. Impressed by the enthusiasm of his department’s sole female member, a young woman, he starts spending time with her. But she resigns from the ministry, and soon after tires of his company. She tells Watanabe he needs to find a hobby. He decides to take a petition to convert an urban rubbish tip into a playground, and push it through all the government departments and get all the backing and signatures it needs, to make it happen. There’s a quite horrible scene at his funeral during which the local deputy mayor takes full credit for the playground, totally downplaying Watanabe’s contribution. A good film.

high_sierraHigh Sierra*, Raoul Walsh (1941, USA). I started watching this and wondered if I’d accidentally stuck a film on my rental list I’d already watched earlier in the year… but no, that earlier film was The Treasure of Sierra Madre which, like High Sierra, stars Humphrey Bogart, is in black-and-white, but otherwise bears no resemblance to it at all. On the other hand, I could have been confusing it with Angels with Dirty Faces, which stars the Humph as a bent lawyer, but I suspect it’s just all these noir films are beginning to blur together a bit… In this one, the Humph plays an ex-con who leads a robbery on a resort hotel. Though they plan it to the smallest detail, it all goes horribly wrong. Ida Lupino is good as the femme fatale. She had a fascinating career, incidentally – a Brit who moved to Hollywood, played in a number of noir films, before becoming one of Hollywood’s first female directors. (And Hedy Lamarr, a contemporary, held a patent for the maths used by torpedo guidance systems. Just compare those two with the current crop of Hollwood actresses…). The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die could do with having some noir trimmed from it.

black_narcussisBlack Narcissus*, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1946, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Archers for many years, and thought I had seen Black Narcissus years before – at least, I’m pretty sure I had – but I stuck on my rental list for a rewatch as it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And… yes, it’s the film I thought it was, and it’s also very much not the film I thought it was. It is deeply problematical – Jean Simmons in blackface as a young Indian woman; the whole colonialist attitude to the locals – but it is also a gorgeous-looking film, which is especially surprising as it was filmed entirely in a studio (even the model of the mountain-top monastery looks gorgeous). I recently rewatched the Archer’s The Red Shoes, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I had on previous viewings – and I expected much the same for Black Narcissus, a film I could admire, with very much an Archers’ look and feel, but something of a Sunday afternoon movie and soon forgotten… Except I actually really did find myself liking it. It’s pure melodrama, it’s colonialist melodrama, it is, as I’ve said, deeply problematical… but there’s also a faint whiff of knowingness to it, and a definite series of hints that its viewpoint is skewed (the local British agent, for example, is very much sceptical view of his role). It all adds up to something considerably more than a Sunday afternoon movie, and I wouldn’t mind watching it again…

shrinkingmanThe Incredible Shrinking Man*, Jack Arnold (1957, USA). I was taken to task for not liking this film much by a friend on FB. But I really couldn’t get excited about it. Not only does it have that B-movie moralistic voice-over, in which the whole film is presented as an object lesson because no one involved in making the film had enough confidence in the audience to get the point of it all, but the special effects may have been shocking in 1957 but seemed relatively humdrum in 2015. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a B-movie and nothing more, and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is either an acknowledgement that some B-movies have transcended their origins, or a completely mystery. I acknowledge the former, but incline to the latter in this case. The moralistic posturing in The Incredible Shrinking Man actually spoiled it for me, whereas I suspect a reliance on the pure visceral thrill of a tiny little man fighting a GIANT SPIDER might have given the film more authority in its central premise. Despite it s appearance on the list, this is a B-movie, it looked like a B-movie, it played like a B-movie, and its presence on the list is not enough for it to magically transcend its B-movie origins.

hitchcock2Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock (1966, USA). Among the first DVDs I bought when the format appeared was a pair of Alfred Hitchcock collections. I replaced both of these with Blu-ray editions during a recent Amazon Prime Day, and have been slowly working my way through them – rewatches all, of course. I’ve not bothered mentioning them in these Moving pictures posts because they’re films I first saw decades ago, and have rewatched several times since. But I thought it worth writing about Torn Curtain for a number of reasons. It’s considered minor Hitchcock despite its high-powered stars (who were apparently forced on Hitch by the studio), but it’s also an odd film even within Hitch’s oeuvre. It’s set mostly in Europe – I was dead chuffed, for example, on my first visit to Copenhagen when I spotted the Hotel’d’Angleterre, which appears in this film – and it is a surprisingly European film for a major Hollywood player. Paul Newman is a US scientist who fakes a defection to the East so he can steal some formulae from an East German rocket scientist; Julie Andrews plays his wife, who inadvertently gets herself involved in the whole plot. I had forgotten how wonderfully Technicolor Torn Curtain is, and how surprisingly unpretentious it is. The fight scene between the Stasi agent and Paul Newman, which takes place in total silence, I pastiched in one of my novels I liked it so much. The pair’s trip across East Germany to a contact who will smuggle them into the West is resolutely ordinary, with weird moments of humour interrupting the jeopardy. I actually liked the film a lot more than I had done afterprevious viewings. And yes, it was totally worth replacing my DVD copies with Blu-ray ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 686


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Moving pictures, #11

I seem to have gone on a bit of a Russian film binge in this one – a Sokurov box set I’d ordered arrived, and I decided I’d better finish off the Eisenstein box set.

facesFaces*, John Cassavetes (1968, USA). I think this is the second Cassavetes films I’ve seen, it would appear he’s one of those highly-praised US independent directors, like Hal Hartley, whose appeal completely passes me by. Faces is shot in black and white, in a cinéma verité style, and seems to consist chiefly of a group of small people at various times, whose constituents change, being drunk and either talking crap, larking about or treating women badly. Buried somewhere among these scenes is a narrative, which apparently describes the slow disintegration of a marriage. But, to be honest, I didn’t much care. Most of the cast were pretty reprehensible, and their drunken boasting was hardly edifying or particularly entertaining. I’m afraid the high regard in which Faces is held is completely beyond me.

elegylandMaria, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978 to 1988, Russia). Sokurov’s films are not easy to find, and many of them have yet to be released on DVD. Elegy of the Land, on which this film appears, is fortunately relatively easy to find. Sokurov began his career making television documentaries, often from found footage, but Maria is original footage about the eponymous farmer, first filmed in 1978, and then added to ten years later. It’s a propaganda piece, but it’s also typically Sokurovian, although some of the cinematography is not as sophisticated as that displayed in later films. There are, for example, no distortions of the image, as used in later films, and the narrative is relatively straightforward. The film is also vibrantly-coloured – albeit only in the first half, the 1978 segment which last some 18 minutes and 30 seconds. The only dialogue is that spoken by the women farmers (only one or two men actually appear in this part of the film). Ten years later, Sokurov returned to film Maria, opening this half of the film with a typically Sokurovian long take shot from a vehicle driving along a road. The inhabitants of Maria’s village are invited to a showing of the first half of the film, and Sokurov films them (in black and white), and provides a voice-over. Maria dies, and he takes stills of the funeral, while commenting on her career and what she represented to those who knew and loved her. Maria is an odd piece – those first 18½ minutes seem very typical of Soviet propaganda – a colourful cinematographic essay on Soviet agriculture, although without the usual self-aggrandizing commentary. But the second half of the film is much more like one of Sokurov’s elegies, a meditation on its subject visualised using a variety of cinematic techniques. The more Sokurov I watch, the more he climbs in my estimation.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). This is available on the Early Masterworks box set, which has only a US release (and includes a Region A Blu-ray), so it’s a little harder to find. But it’s worth taking the trouble to track down a copy. And I say that having now seen Stone three times and still being no wiser as to what it is actually about. In fact, the second time I watched it was after spending the afternoon on a bit of a pub crawl, so I fell asleep about ten minutes in. I then decided to rewatch it straight away, while reading the essay on the film in The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox… And the following morning I discovered I’d ordered two paperbacks by Anton Chekhov from Amazon… But then I find Sokurov’s films – both fiction and documentary – endlessly fascinating not only because he distorts his cinematography to generate a specific visual look and feel – something I would like to be able to do in fiction – but also because he builds his narratives from allusion, metaphor and references, and there is so much going on in his films that every other director’s oeuvre seems almost juvenile by comparison. As far as I can determine, Stone is about Chekhov, returning to his house after his death, I think – but it shares a look and feel, and a thematic similarity with my favourite Sokurov film The Second Circle, although in this one the picture is distorted rather than just filtered. It’s another film with those long takes which suck you in, until you find yourself focusing on every aspect of the film with a degree of concentration it’s impossible to give to a nanosecond jump-cut Hollywood tentpole blockbuster…

dersuDersu Uzala*, Akira Kurosawa (1975, Japan/USSR). This is the first film Kurosawa made after attempting suicide following the commercial and critical failure of Dodes’kaden, and apparently he had known of the book of the same title by Vladimir Arsenyev since the 1930s. Whatever the provenance, I have to admit this is the Kurosawa film I’ve enjoyed and admired the most – but how much of that is due to my favouring of Russian cinema over Japanese? The title character is a hunter of the Goldi (Nanai), one of the Tungusic peoples of the Russian Far East, who Arsenyev runs into while on an army expedition to survey the Sikhote-Alin region. Uzala is a wily old man of the woods, and though the Russian soldiers initially consider him a primitive, he quickly earns their respect. So far so good. Kurosawa handles his wilderness filming with his usual excellence, and makes particular use of his fondness for placing the camera at odd angles. There is a weird spiritual interlude, which feels like pure Kurosawa, but which I felt didn’t quite gel with the other parts of the film. And then there’s the bit where Arsenyev attempts to “tame the savage” by offering Uzala his home when the hunter finds he can no longer live in the wilds as he once did. But he soon begins to long for his previous life. I thought Dersu Uzala very good – and while I may be starting to appreciate Kurosawa’s films more, I suspect it’s the story which is responsible for my liking it so much.

esisensteinIvan the Terrible, part 1*, Sergei Eisenstein (1944, USSR). No, I don’t understand why the first part of this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the second isn’t. Especially since I preferred part 2 to part 1. The film tells the story of, er, Tsar Ivan IV, who ruled all the Russias from 1547 until his death in 1584. It’s all very in your face, with much gurning, and some quite fantastic costumes. In many respects, it feels and looks like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, although some 300 years separates the two films (their subjects, not their filming). This first part deals with Ivan’s ascension to the throne, with much politcking from the boyars, many of whom had their own candidates for tsar. Then there’s a mob scene – Eisenstein likes his mob scenes – and there’s also his marriage to Anastasia Romanovna, which doesn’t go all that well… The spectacle and melodrama tend to overwhelm the story, and disguise the fact Ivan the Terrible was a pretty fascinating historical figure – this is in many respects  an historical biopic turned up to 11.

esisensteinIvan the Terrible, part 2, Sergei Eisenstein (1958, USSR). Apparently, Stalin banned this part, which is why it didn’t appear until fourteen years after the first. It was also filmed partly in colour, unlike the black and white of part 1. And I found myself enjoying it more. Again, you have those fantastic costumes, and a lot of scenes set in Ivan’s throne room. And in some of those scenes, a dance springs to mind especially, Eisenstein actually turns it up to twelve – which is quite an achievement.  In other words, this film is more of the same, with the emphasis on more. Incidentally, I’m still a little annoyed I’ve yet to find a copy of Tartan’s Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 1 (containing Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October) for a reasonable price… although I see the Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 2 is now going for silly money… so I’m glad I bought my copy when I did.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 587