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Moving pictures 2018, #32

A return to usual, with only two of the six films from an Anglophone country. I’m still trying to reduce the percentage of US films in my overall films seen list, and now rent two foreign-language films for every English-language one.

The Super Inframan, Hua Shan (1975, China). I was looking at new releases on DVD/Blu-ray on the Cinema Paradiso website and spotted this, and it looked totally worth a go, a Hong Kong action film done like a Japanese tokusatsu that ripped off Superman. Sadly, it sounded better on, er, paper than it actually was on the screen. I mean, it was exactly what the description promised – a ridiculous plot that confused science-fictional aliens and mythological demons, lots of balletic fight scenes, monsters that could only have been dreamt up by someone whose brain has turned into cheese, cheap costumes that visibly fell apart during the fights, risible dialogue, and jeopardy that was so fake it killed suspense. I had expected to be a lot more entertaining – and bits of it were quite amusing. But unlike some films which are so bad they go out through the other side and become good, The Super Inframan never even made it halfway. The transfer – it’s a new Blu-ray release – however was very good, and as brainless colourful moving pictures to watch while consuming alcohol go, it’s as a good a candidate as any other.

The Freethinker, Peter Watkins (1994 Sweden). I have no idea what to make of Watkins. His use of faux documentary is second to none, but his move toward a mix of drama and documentary, on obscure subjects, probably explains why his films are now financed by television companies in other countries, like Sweden. They are also long. It feels like he’s given up his chance to make a difference to focus on the stories he want to tell. And while I can’t begrudge him that, I have to begrudge the loss of 1990s and 21st century equivalents to War Games, Privilege and Punishment Park. Instead we have La Commune (Paris, 1871), all 345 minutes of it, and The Freethinker, all 276 minutes of it, and The Journey… all 873 minutes of it! The title of this film, which is split across two DVD discs, refers to Swedish playwright August Strindberg, who lived from 1849 to 1912, and wrote “over sixty plays and more than thirty works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics” (Wikipedia). ‘The Freethinker’ is also the name of Strindberg’s first play, which he apparently had trouble staging. In fact, Strindberg seems to have struggled for acceptance at first. I wonder if this is true of all art that withstands the test of time. It could be said art is the present in conversation with the past, and art that argues with, criticises, disputes or even refutes the ways of the past is art that tends to last longer. Of course, access also helps – either by popularity or patronage – and obscurity has consigned much great art to the dustbin of history. Watkins’s films are not especially accessible – 276 minutes! – and have become increasingly less visible. And yet they’re clever stuff. They’re inventive in the way they use their format – mixing dramatisation and documentary, breaking the fourth wall, having the cast comment on the historical personages they are playing… a technique also used in La Commune (Paris, 1871). However, unlike La Commune (Paris, 1871), The Freethinker reminded me in places of Sokurov’s films, especially his “elegies”. But where Sokurov talks over his found footage, meditating on a variety of topics inspired by the pictures on the screen, Watkins treats his documentary elements more traditionally, albeit as part of a far from traditional whole. Of course, Strindberg is, for Watkins, just a jumping off point to discuss the role of the artist and critic in society, much as in some of his other films – Privilege, for example, is commentary on the intersection of popular culture, commercialism and authority. At the moment, I’m in two minds whether I should replace my DVD copies of Culloden, The War Game and Punishment Park – part of a French-released box set which also contains La Commune and The Gladiators – with the eureka! and BFI Blu-ray releases… although I suspect I probably won’t. But I’ll continue to hunt down his other films, which, I must admit, are not especially easy to find.

Nowhere in Moravia, Miroslav Krobot (2014, Czechia). Krobot is apparently a highly-respected theatre director and this is his first feature film. Which might go some way to explaining why it is so slow and so dull. Which is totally unfair, as I know nothing about his plays. In this film, an ex-teacher of German now runs a small bar in a backwater Moravian village. Basically, very little happens for much of the film. It introduces the various oddball characters – the woman who lives with two men, the vagrant who drops into the bar every night to buy booze, the mayor who spends most of his time hunting a stag at night… Someone dies, and a relative from Germany comes to the village for the funeral. The bar owner’s sister goes back with him to Munich, she is many years his junior, for a better life. Then the woman with the two lovers is murdered by them. They’re caught very quickly, and taken away by the police. And, er, that’s it. Disappointing.

Fahrenheit 451, Ramin Bahrani (2018, USA). One would imagine in these days of fake news or YouTube slipping Nazi propaganda to children that Fahrenheit 451 would be ripe for a remake – despite the title referencing an ancient temperature scale only the US continues to use, and the actual temperature actually having fuck all to do with paper burning as Bradbury got it completely wrong… And yes, you’d be right about the need for a new Fahrenheit 451. Especially given Bradbury’s original intent for the novel – not a commentary against censorship but against the pervasiveness of popular culture fed through television… But this is not that Fahrenheit 451. This is a reboot of the original film adaptation but with added emojis and reality-TV gloss. And, er, that’s it. Montag is a firemen, he burns books. He comes to doubt his mission, and eventually joins those who seek to preserve books. Except culture is not just books, and in this day and age what were books can now be served in a variety of ways. This new Fahrenheit 451 has the firemen destroy computers because of ebooks (er, haven’t they heard of backups? the cloud?), and it’s pretty much stated that people are mostly illiterate (which suggests an easy test for “criminals” who own books – see if they can read). There is a lot of pointed commentary, on a variety of related subjects, that can be made using a story like Fahrenheit 451. Adding a 2018 gloss to Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation – and they didn’t even use Truffaut’s genius move of casting the same actress as both Montag’s wife and mistress! – is the dumbest possible way to use the story. What next? Nineteen eighty-four with VR goggles? Avoid.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA). To be honest, I had thought this was a Japanese film, not an American one. After all Yukio Mishima was a famous Japanese writer, if chiefly famous for publicly committing seppuku – although many seem to forget he was also a right-wing nutjob, and even ran his own government-approved militia. He does, to be fair, come across as a fascinating character, more so at least than Strindberg, see above. and like Watkins’s The Freethinker, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is ostensibly a documentary about the man’s life, but uses non-traditional means of doing that. The film not only dramatises parts of Mishima’s life, but also excerpts from his books; and some of the latter are almost hallucinogenic. (I might even have a go at reading one.) I had not expected to like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and even less so when I learnt it was a US film – although filmed in Japanese, with a Japanese cast – but I was surprised to discover that I liked it a great deal. In fact, I’m thinking of getting myself a copy…

My American Uncle, Alain Resnais (1980, France). Gérard Depardieu plays the technical director of a textile firm that’s merging with a competitor. He’s not offered the role of technical director in the new merged film, but a more important position as managing director of a subsidiary. But this requires a move several hundred kilometres from Paris, and is a job well out of his comfort zone. He makes a hash of it. And it affects his marriage. All this is to apparently illustrate the theories of philosopher Henri Laborit, who appears at intervals during the film, explaining his theories on evolutionary psychology (a lot of “evo psych” is now, of course, completely discredited). There are many characters in this film that have affairs with other characters, but given how prevalent that is in French dramas it didn’t really feel like it fed into Laborit’s thesis. So what you have is a long convoluted drama interspersed by lectures to camera by Laborit. Which makes for an odd viewing experience. Both Resnais and Jacques Rivette seemed to like making knotty elliptical dramas based on really quite subtle points, but both also seemed to have difficulty with pace. You can get away with that if you have the cinematography – and while Rivette clearly did, I’ve yet to be convinced Resnais had it. They’re both directors who each produced a fascinating body of work, neither which can be easily described. And it’s that refusal to follow expected narrative forms in narrative cinema – much as Michael Haneke does this century – that’s why I’m interested in their films… but sometimes it doesn’t quite work…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 915

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Moving pictures 2018, #21

I promised 2018 wouldn’t be all film posts, but we’re less than four months into the year and I’m on my twenty-first film post. That’s like three a week. And not much else, except posts on the books I’ve bought and the books I’ve read. While I’ve started reviewing again for Interzone, and SF Mistressworks is back up and running, I still need to start writing criticism again. I suspect I’m better at ranting than sustained arguments, and since the “reviews” in these film posts have a tendency to turn into mini-rants, I’m letting it out in dribs and drabs instead of holding it back for one long piece on science fiction… On the other hand, I’ve found it harder to engage with online sf fandom this last year or so, chiefly because I’m usually not interested in the books and authors under discussion.

Speaking of mini-rants… We have an Oscar-winner in this post. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the Hugo this year. I hated it.

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro (2017, USA). I’m not really sure how to write about this film. Del Toro has been widely praised over many years, and not just in genre circles, and of course The Shape of Water won the Oscar. Now I’m not so foolish as to believe the Oscar is any real indication of quality, and often as not the Academy’s choice of winner is baffling to everyone (as is their choice of shortlist). But that’s awards for you. The Shape of Water, in which a captured amphibian human, an experimental subject in  a secret government research programme, enters into a relationship with a mute woman (mute, but not deaf), has been seen by many as a sensitive treatment of the disability. I can’t speak to that, it’s not my experience to discuss. But I can certainly discuss the film I watched. Which opened with an acknowledgement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and then proved to be a complete rip-off in mise en scène and lighting and the whole look of the film to the oeuvre of Jeunet and Caro, so much so it went beyond homage. Then there’s the fact the amphibian human is basically Abe Sapiens from the Hellboy films, and even played by the same actor, Doug Jones, under the prosthetics. Meanwhile, one of the scientists in the lab is a Soviet mole, and he fancies the mute woman, but his KGB handler is after him to kill the creature. The mute woman helps the amphibian human to escape and hides him out in her apartment. The two start having sex. But the chief US scientist is after them, as is the KGB handler, and it all comes to a violent end. The film is set in the 1950s, and I thought it horribly misogynistic. Yes, the times were misogynistic – and I’ve seen a lot of 1950s films; my favourite film was released in 1955 – but del Toro’s depiction of it felt excessive. It made a film, which felt like a rip-off of better films, quite horrible to watch. Why it won the Oscar is a mystery. I thought it was rubbish. Plus, at one point the amphibian bites the head off a cat, which is not going to endear a film to me at all…

Z*, Costa-Gavras (1969, Algeria). I didn’t bother to look this one up before watching – I mean, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list, so I was going to watch it whatever. Which meant I cam to it completely cold… and, unlike some of the films from the list I’ve come to cold, I was actually pleasantly surprised and, by the end, very much impressed. The title refers indirectly to the military junta which seized power in Greece in the early 1960s. Among the many things the right-wing military dictatorship outlawed was the letter “Z”. The film is thinly-disguised retelling of events surrounding the assassination in 1963 of the Opposition Deputy after he had given a speech on nuclear disarmament to an audience opposed to the right-wing government in power. The government try to cover up the assassination, but put no real effort into making it plausible. And the investigating magistrate put on the case soon develops a case against senior military officers linked to the government. But this is not the result the government want. After various failed attempts to make it go away, they eventually let the investigation and court case run its course. Several senior military officers are charged and found guilty. A few months later, the army seizes power, the sentences from the court case are quietly forgotten, and the military dictatorship bans, among other things, the Opposition, demonstrations and the letter “Z”, zeta, because it was used by the Opposition to mean “he lives”, in reference to the assassinated Deputy. The story is told in an economical style, which feels very French – and it’s a French language film – for all that it’s set in Greece. There’s a refreshing lack of clutter to the story, which moves through its plot like it’s on rails – and even attempts to, er, derail it, such as the alternative theories to the assassination given by the authorities, which are shown in flashback as if they were true, fail to shift the story from its intended ending. So fake news doesn’t always win. A lot of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have been new to me. Some of them have proven not very good at all; others have surprised me, and I’ve been greatly impressed, despite them not being ones I’d expected to like or enjoy. This one definitely falls into the latter category.

Same Old Song, Alain Resnais (1997, France). This film opens with an acknowledgement to Dennis Potter, and as well it should as it borrows a conceit from Potter’s Pennies from Heaven: the characters break into song at intervals, but they actually lipsynch to the original versions of tracks. I don’t remember much of the Potter TV series, or the later Hollywood adaptation for that matter, although I do vaguely remember seeing the series back in the 1980s. Same Old Song is an ensemble piece. Camille bumps into Nicolas, a man her sister Odile was once close to but who has been away from Paris for many years. Odile is now married to Claude. She is also looking for a bigger apartment, using estate agent Marc. Camille runs historical walking tours of Paris. A regular on these tours is Simon, who fancies Camille but only irritates her by expanding on her lecturettes to the others in each group. He claims to write radio plays, but he actually works for Marc – and he is useless at is job and only kept on out of loyalty to Marc’s father. Camille meanwhile fancies Marc, and enters into an affair with him. Nicolas is also looking for an apartment, so he can bring his family back to Paris. Later, he admits he is estranged from his wife and child. At points throughout the film, members of the cast begin singing– well, no, they don’t, they lipsynch. To popular songs performed by the original artist. In several cases, they lipsynch to songs performed by artists of a different gender. I didn’t at first think the gimmick added anything to what was essentially a fairly common type of French relationship drama, but it actually started to grow on me. It helped that the cast were uniformly very good. I liked the film. On the other hand, it all felt a bit lightweight for the director of Muriel or Hiroshima Mon Amour

WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia). I joked on Twitter while watching this that I had persistently misread “Mysteries of the Organism” as “Mysteries of the Orgasm” only to discover that my misread was closer to the truth. Which is not entirely fair. But, to be honest, I have no idea what this film was about. Well, I know what it was about, but I don’t… It’s about Wilhelm Reich and his theory of orgone energy, and is partly a documentary about Reich and his “Orgonon”, his lab in Maine, USA, but it also includes shots of Jackie Curtis eating an ice cream on Broadway, a story about a woman in Communist Yugoslavia who is forced out of her flat because her room-mate is having sex and so lectures on sex and politics to the rest of her apartment block and later enters into a relationship with a People’s Artist ice skater, an interview with a woman who paints people while they masturbate, a man who dresses like a homeless soldier and stalks well-off New Yorkers with a plastic rifle, and several others bits of found footage, interviews and drama… It’s pretty much impossible to summarise the plot, or the various sections. It’s also completely mad. But in a good way. I loved the bits set in Yugoslavia – it was that sort of declamatory film-making I really like. The documentary bits were less interesting, perhaps because Reich’s theories are so off-the-wall they’re hard to take seriously. It’s an odd choice for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I can see how it might have become a cult favourite, but it does several things that other films do perhaps better – bits and pieces, for example, from the oeuvres of Miklós Jancsó or Sergei Parajanov – although they don’t use the collage (if that’s the right word) technique used here. It’s an interesting film, but I’m not sure if WR: Mysteries of the Organism belongs on the list. If the list includes this, it might as well include Anthony Balch’s Secrets of Sex

Pina, Wim Wenders (2011, Germany). I have watched many films by Wenders, and some of them I have liked a great deal. I have a box set of his works somewhere. Though at one time Wenders may have had the same stature internationally, I suspect Herzog has since outstripped him. Possibly because Herzog has made a couple of movies for Hollywood. It can’t be because Wenders makes documentaries on obscure subjects as well as feature films, because Herzog does that too. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d classify Pina Bausch and Tanztheater as an obscure subject. The weird thing is, there are several films in which a completely off-the-wall dance routine bumps the movie from very good to borderline genius – and one of them is even by Herzog – and yet I’m not a fan of dancing. (Watching, or doing.) Or Tanztheater. So much of this documentary was wasted on me. It was interesting, inasmuch as it was something I’d not seen before. And the footage shot in  Wuppertal, especially of the city’s unique Schwebebahn, was fascinating. But Tanztheater didn’t strike me as an artform I feel inspired to explore further. Apparently, Bausch died during the filming of Pina, and Wenders planned to abandon the project. But all those who knew Bausch persuaded him to continue, and the film became a memorial to her. In that respect, I think it succeeds extremely well.

The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA). This is the second film this year I’ve watched with this title. The first was a good thriller from Iceland (see here). This one is a documentary about two men who were involved with al-Qa’eda during the 1990s. And, like any documentary about the War on Terror, the US comes out of it looking like the biggest villains. At one point, a military lawyer representing the US in a case against one of the two guys mentions “crimes against humanity” – and this from a state which has imprisoned people without due process, without a trial, has secretly abducted them from sovereign nations and smuggled them to their illegal prison, breaking no end of international law, tortured them (in direct defiance of international law and a treaty to which the USA was a signatory), and, in this case, even manufactured a crime they could find the defendant guilty of because he plainly wasn’t guilty of the one for which he was arrested. Anyway, Abu Jandal was a bodyguard for bin Laden but left al-Qa’eda shortly before 9/11 after a difference of opinion over the organisation’s tactics. When he saw 9/11 on the news, he was so disgusted he gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities. And after a couple of years in prison was rehabilitated via the National Dialogue Conference. He then fed intelligence to the US regarding al-Qa’eda, and now talks regularly to young Yemeni men – and has been interviewed on Arabic television – about his history, about what al-Qa’eda means, and about how best to fight US hegemony in the Arab world. Abu Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was bin Laden’s driver. He was not a combatant, he was not privy to tactical or strategic information. But the US arrested him, renditioned him to Guantanamo, tortured him, and then put him in front of a military court. But Hamdan’s lawyer challenged the verdict as unconstitutional (now there’s a joke!) and it went to the Supreme Court. So the US government quickly invented a crime – “giving material aid and support to terrorists” – that they knew they could make a case for, and he was duly found innocent of all charges except for two of the five charges of giving material aid. This is a fascinating documentary, and tells you more about how the US has prosecuted the War on Terror – like a bunch of war criminals, basically – than it does on the War on Terror itself. When those who fight terrorists employ even more immoral and illegal tactics than the terrorists, then they need to be brought down too. Once, history may have been written by the winners, as they say; but now, with the internet, so many narratives spring up around every event it’s no wonder the authorities have to resort to accusations of “fake news!” in order to get their version of events accepted…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 904


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Moving pictures 2018, #6

I don’t seem to have been making much traction with the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list recently. True, there’s a film from the list – Alphaville – in this half-dozen, but it was a rewatch as I first saw the film many years ago.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!, Alain Resnais (2012, France). It had never occurred to me the director of Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour had made films into the twenty-first century, but after stumbling across Muriel (see here), I looked further, discovered Resnais’s last film was released in 2014… and added a bunch of those available to my rental list. And the first to be sent proved to his last-but-one film, Vous n’avez encore rien vu, with its dumb Bachman Turner Overdrive title. Happily, the title is the only dumb thing about it. A famous playwright invites a dozen or so actors with whom he has worked during his career to his funeral. The actors are all billed as themselves. On arrival at the late man’s house, they are sat in front of a screen and asked to watch a performance of the playwright’s most famous play, Eurydice, put on by a young theatre collective. And as the collective act out the play, so those at the wake begin to act out the parts they took in past celebrated stagings of the play. For some of these scenes, Resnais lays in CGI scenery, intended I think to represent the scenery of the play when those actors were in it. The play-within-a-play has been around for a long time – Shakespeare even used it in Hamlet – but making the cast of the main play complicit in the staging of the embedded play is a new twist. And it’s cleverly done. Resnais apparently had another person direct the version of Eurydice watched by the cast, so that it would be different in style to his own direction. Having only seen three films by Resnais prior to this one, the distinction was lost on me. But never mind. A good film, worth seeing.

Level Five, Chris Marker (1997, France). Marker these days is probably best known for La jetée, an experimental film from 1962 which was freely adapted as Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys in 1995. Marker actually made a shitload of films, most of them short and most of them experimental. Level Five is feature-length, at 106 minutes, but very much experimental. It has a single cast member, Catherine Belkhodja, who views the world through a variety of computer screens. The Wikipedia plot summary refers to these last as “virtual reality”, but they’re not. And even for 1997, the computer graphics are crude. If anything, they remind me a little of Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World from 1991, which I first saw in 1992 or 1993 and thought a good presentation of the future at the time. Viewed from the twenty-first century, it’s not, of course. And Level Five feels somewhat similar in that regard. It’s not just the software or the hardware on display, but also the geopolitics, the social concerns… For all that it’s trying to be prophetic – deliberately so, it makes a feature of its analyses – Level Five seems to miss far more often than it hits. And having the film consist solely of either close-ups on Belkhodja or the computer graphics she is either watching or discussing doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama. I suspect this film needed another watch or two, but unfortunately it wasa rental and it’s gone back. Ah well.

McLintock!, Andrew V McLaglen (1963, USA). Yes, that really is John Wayne spanking Maureen O’Hara on the cover art. And while art like that, and the offensive tagline, “He tamed the Wild West… but could he tame her?” might have been acceptable in 1963 (in some parts of society), they are no longer (Presidents Club notwithstanding). Even worse, a quick google shows that the film posters of the time used the same image, along with equally offensive taglines like “He’s a tender loving guy!” and “Wallops the daylight out of every Western you’ve ever seen!”. The sad thing is, is that for half of its length, McLintock! is actually an amusing comedy Western. McLintock! was a Wayne project, the first of many movies he used to promote his conservative Republicans values – although present-day Republicans may consider those values dangerously liberal in some respects. Wayne developed the script, he hand-picked the director, one of his sons played the young male lead, another son produced, and he insisted on a supporting role for Yvonne De Carlo because her husband had been injured filming How The West Was Won. The film is set in the town of McLintock, named for Wayne’s character, a local cattle baron, who owns pretty much everything in sight. His wife, Maureen O’Hara, left him two years earlier to live in New York, but now she is back – because their daughter, Stefanie Powers, is about to return from college. Meanwhile, homesteaders have arrived in McLintock, ready to settle land they’ve been given on nearby Mesa Verde. The US government has also released the chiefs of the local Comanche tribe, only for a locally-held commission to tell the tribe they must leave their land. All this is good drama, and Wayne’s character is even-handed, if overly paternalistic, and keen to see everyone is treated equally, Comanche or homesteader. But not the women. Twice in McLintock! women are spanked using coal scuttles, and on both occasions such disciplining is seen as both normal and required. In fact, Wayne and O’Hara are at loggerheads for much of the film, until he spanks her. And then she turns all loving and decides not to return to New York. Bah.

Alphaville*, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). Although I’d seen ten of the thirteen films in this collection before, for some reason I saved Alphaville to watch last – despite working my way through the others chronologically. I think perhaps it was because I’d last seen it nearly  a decade ago and perhaps felt I’d not appreciated it as much as I should have done… I don’t know. But I do know, however, that I liked it a great deal more this time. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent posing as a jurnalist who visits Alphaville from the “Outer Countries”. It takes a while before his purpose there is clear, but he has been sent to bring back Professor Nosferatu, now known as Professor von Braun, the inventor of Alphaville and the Alpha-60 computer which rules it (it was not unusual in 1950s and early 1960s sf to assign AI-like capabilities to very large computers). Constantine meets up with Anna Karenina, von Braun’s daughter, and she gives him entry to the sections of Alphaville society his (fake) journalistic credentials cannot provide. None of Alphaville is filmed on sets. Godard made no effort to build a future city – and Alphaville‘s universe is implied to be galactic and not just planetary. Contemporary Paris provides the backdrop. At the time, some of the buildings used may have appeared futuristic, but now they appear mostly otherworldly, which has more or less the same effect. Some parts of the film haven’t aged so well. The seductresses, for example. Or the execution scene in the swimming pool with the sycnchronised swimmers. But there’s a lot that remains impressive. I especially liked a tracking shot following Constantine and Karenina as they travelled down in a lift, which continued in one take from them entering the lift cabin until they exited the hotel. An excellent film.

Tartuffe, FW Murnau (1925, Germany). I don’t know how many silent films I’ve watched, but I learn something new about cinematic narrative each time I watch one. I suppose I expected silent dramas to be completely different to films with sound, as if the use of intertitles laid a constraint on cinematic narrative which sound had removed from movie-making. And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But it didn’t mean silent cinema was completely unadventurous narratively. As Tartuffe demonstrates. It opens with a venal housekeeper gaslighting her employer so that he leaves his fortune to her and not to his actor grandson. Which the grandson learns on a visit to his grandfather. After being thrown out of the house, the grandson addresses the camera and insists he is not giving up. He returns to the house disguised as an impresario and puts on a private cinema screening for his grandfather and the housekeeper of… Tartuffe, the play by Molière. It’s a simplified version of the play, but the cut-down story is more than adequate to make the grandson’s point. In the film-within-a-film (explicitly so, unlike the Resnais above), Orgon returns from a trip and brings with him a religious man whom he greatly admires: Tartuffe. In fact, he admires him so much he changes every aspect of his life to accommodate Tartuffe. Orgon’s wife, Elmire, however, suspects Tartuffe is a fraud, and sets out to entrap him by seducing him. And she succeeds… I’ve seen several of Murnau’s films, and liked them, so this box set of his early works was a good buy. And a bargain too, as it was cheaper than the individual versions of the films in it.

Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi (2017, USA). I am not a fan of superhero movies. The ones everyone praises, I generally think are terrible. I mean, I’d always liked the Guardians of the Galaxy since first reading them in an Marvel anthology comic back in the 1970s, but the movie wasn’t even based on those Guardians of the Galaxy but a later reboot, and, for all its hype, it was pants. And the sequel was worse. So I had pretty low expectations for Thor: Ragnarok, especially given how forgettable the two previous Thor films were… And yes, I was aware Thor: Ragnarok had been directed by Taika Waititi, a leftfield choice for a MCU film, but I wasn’t convinced the addition of Kiwi humour to MCU bombast would work. But. I was actually entertained. Which was unexpected. Thor: Ragnarok is not a great film by any means, and it’s not entirely sure what it should have been. You have the pure Kirby-vision of the Asgard sections, but the part set on Sakaar feels more like a reject from a Star wars prequel. But the film has a number of good lines and some entertaining comic set-pieces. For example, when Thor is about to leave Dr Strange’s mansion and puts out his hand for Mjolnir and you hear the sound of glass breaking, I laughed out loud. I wasn’t convinced Waititi’s rock-creature deadpan humour worked all the time, but Cate Blanchett did make an excellent villain. I could live without most of the plot, and the final battle on Bifrost went on far too long. I’d certainly describe Thor: Ragnarok as one of the better films in the MCU, although that’s not a hard bar to clear. Perhaps its success might lead Disney to experiment a little more with who they choose to direct their films… What am I thinking? It’s Disney. They’re as corporate as you can get. They’ll either flog their new formula to death, or strangle whatever creativity their chosen director tries to put into their film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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2017, the best of the year: films

A couple of years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try and watch all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition). This year I also decided to try and watch a film from as many countries as I could. Both challenges have been going quite well: I’ve watched 897 of the 1001 so far, 56 of them seen for the first time this year; and I’ve watched movies from 53 countries… although only Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania were new to me in 2017.

It also occurred to me in 2017 that most of the films I watched were directed by men. So I started to track the genders of the directors whose films I watch in an effort to see more films by female directors. Unfortunately, female directors are hugely outnumbered by men, especially in Hollywood, and I managed only 43 films by women during the year. Having said that, a couple of those female directors became names I plan to keep an eye on, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo.

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I watched 602 films in 2017, although only 532 were new to me this year. I also decided in 2017 to watch more documentaries, and ended up watching so many that I thought it best to split my film best of the year lists into two, one for documentaries and one for “fictional” films… except I’m not sure what to call the latter, but I think “narrative cinema” is the preferred term.

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1 I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba) [1]. I loved Humberto Solás’s Lucía after watching it, and I wanted to see Tomáz Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment a second time, and there was this box set from Mr Bongo that included both, as well as I am Cuba and Strawberry and Chocolate. So I bought the box set… and was blown away when I watched I am Cuba, a documentary commissioned by the Soviets to promote Cuba, but which was so innovative it was never actually released. Kalatozov reportedly strung cameras on wires, but even knowing that it’s hard to work out how he achieved some of his shots. And this was in 1964, when there was no CGI. I am Cuba also presents the island as a near-utopia, and while the USSR and its satellite nations were never that, they at least aspired to it – which is more than can be said of the West. The American Dream isn’t utopia, it’s a deeply mendacious justification for the success of the few at the expense of the many. Even now, 53 years after I am Cuba was made, Cuba remains poor, but has one of the best free healthcare systems on the planet, and the US is rich and its healthcare system is unaffordable by the bulk of its population. Some things are more important than giving a handful of people the wherewithal to buy their own Caribbean island.

2 The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not watched a film by Guzmán, why not? The Pearl Button is a meditation on the universe, water, the history of Chile, especially the Pinochet dictatorship, and the genocide of the country’s indigenous people. It’s a mix of stock footage and gorgeously-shot film, all tied together by the calm voice of Guzmán. He describes how Pinochet’s goons would torture people and then dump their bodies offshore from helicopters. He interviews supporters of Salazar, president before Pinochet’s coup, who were put in concentration camps. He speaks to the handful of survivors of the Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes of Patagonia, which in the late 1880s were infected with Western diseases, and the survivors hunted for bounty, by settlers. He discusses Jeremy Button, a a Yaghan tribesman taken back to Britain on the HMS Beagle in 1830 (it was when returning Jeremy Button to Patagonia a year later that Darwin first travelled aboard the HMS Beagle). The Pearl Button is not only an important film because of what it covers, but a beautifully-shot one too. You should watch it.

3 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China) [2]. This year I went on something of a China/Taiwan cinema kick. I forget what started it off, but I discovered lots of new names to watch and lots of excellent films. Zhao Liang I had, I think, put on my rental list because his films sounded like Jia Zhangke’s , who was already a favourite. But Zhao makes documentaries, and Behemoth is about coal in China, the mines and those who live on their periphery and survive by gleaning. Zhao’s earlier work has been very critical of the Chinese authorities – meaning his films are not wholly official – but they are also beautifully framed. And in Behemoth, he goes one further and uses split-screen, but also arranging his screens in such a way they’re not initially obvious as split-screen and then suddenly turn kaleidoscopic. It’s not a technique I’ve seen before, and it probably wouldn’t work in most situations, but it’s absolutely brilliant here. Zhao Liang is a name to watch.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France) [4]. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s films for many years and own copies of much of what he’s directed during his long career. I’d heard about Francofonia some time in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 it appeared, and not until 2017 it was released in the UK – and only at Curzon cinemas, but, annoyingly, only the Curzon cinemas in London. FFS. I’d liked to have seen it on a big screen. But I had to console myself with the Blu-ray. Which was pretty much as I expected – a typical Sokurovian mix of documentary, meditation, narrative cinema and autobiography – although the production values were a distinct cut above his previous work. It’s a good entry in Sokurov’s oeuvre, if not one of his best ones, but even merely good Sokurov is still so much better than most film-makers can manage. It’s also been heartening seeing how well it has been received… because that means we might see more films from Sokurov. Because I want more, lots more.

5 Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). I loved Koyaanisqatsi when I watched it last year, and I later learned that its director of photography, Ron Fricke, had made a pair of similar non-narrative films himself: Baraka and Samsara. They’re basically footage of various parts of the planet, with only the most tenuous of links and no over-arching story. The emphasis is entirely on the imagery, which is uniformly gorgeous. Of the two, I thought the second, Samsara, much the better one.The footage is beautiful, the parts of the world it covers fascinating, and it’s one of the few films out there which gives you faith in humanity. I quite fancy having my own copy of this.

Honourable mentions: The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK) astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Baraka, Ron Fricke (1992, USA) gorgeous non-narrative cinema from around the world; Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (2003, UK) 1970 tour across Canada aboard a train featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others; Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA) Johnson’s life stitched together from outtakes from her documentaries and privately-shot footage; Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria) affecting fly-on-the-wall film of an ambulance crew in Sofia’s beleagured healthcare system; Petition: The Court of Appeals, Zhao Liang (2009, China) filmed in the shanty town outside Beijing where petitioners lived while waiting the years it took for their appeals to be heard, if ever.

narrative
1 The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). I loved this film – it’s perhaps a stretch to call it narrative cinema as it’s also partly a documentary. Anyway, I loved this film… so much I went and bought everything by Ben Rivers that was available (no surprise, then, that his two other feature-length films get honourable mentions below). The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – the title is taken from a Paul Bowles story, which partly inspires it – opens as a documentary of Olivier Laxe filming Mimosas. But then Bowles’s story intrudes, and Laxe, a real person, and his film is indeed real and has been released… Laxe’s story morphs into the plot of Bowles’s short story. This is brilliant cinema, an unholy mix of documentary, fiction, literary reference, art installation and narrative cinema.

2 Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). I knew Watkins from The War Game and Punishment Park, both mock documentaries about very real horrors; so when I watched Privilege it came as something of a surprise. True, it’s similar, in as much as it’s a mock documentary, set a few years ahead of when it was made; but it also seems a more tongue-in-cheek film, and plays up the ridiculousness of its premise. The segment where the star is filming a government commercial for apples, for example, is hilarious. In the movie, Watkins posits a fascist UK in which a pop star is used as a symbol to make unpleasant government policies more palatable. We’ve yet to see that happen here, if only because politicians foolishly believe they have media presence. They don’t. They’re as personable as a block of rancid butter. And often as intelligent (BoJo, I’m looking at you; but also Gove, Hammond, Davies, Rudd…) We should be thankful, I suppose, because if they ever did decide to use a media star with actual charisma, we’d be totally lost. On the other hand, satire apparently died sometime around 2015, so perhaps Watkins may prove more prophetic than he knew…

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia) [3]. I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and stuck it on my watch list. It was later recommended to me, so I sat down and watched it, and… it was excellent. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematography is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). 2017 was a bit of a Pasolini year for me. I bought a boxed set of his films on Blu-ray, and worked my way through them – although a number I’d seen before. Arabian Nights feels like an ur-Pasolini film, in that it does so well some of the things some of his films were notable for – a non-professional cast acting out elements of a story cycle in remote locations. The title gives the source material, but the look of the movie is pure Pasolini – although much of it comes down to his choice of locations in North Africa. Of all the Pasolini films I’ve seen, this is by far the prettiest; and if its treatment of its material is somewhat idiosyncratic, 1001 Nights is far too complex a source for honest adaptation.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China) [5]. I “discovered” Jia in 2016, but it was obvious he was a director to keep on eye on, and so I sought out his other works. Including this one. Which I thought worked especially well – not that this other films are bad, on the contrary they’re excellent. But something about this one especially appealed to me. It’s set at a theme park containing famous buildings from around the world. The movie follows two workers there, one a dancer and the other a security guard. The film is a sort of laid-back thriller, in which the cast move around the artificial world of the theme park, trying to make ends meet, and trying to keep their relationship together. The World has a documentary feel to it, and often seems more fly-on-the-wall than narrative drama. But I think it’s its literalisation of the term “microcosm” that really makes the film.

Honourable mentions: Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic) grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia)  languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India) more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China) grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China) cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru) affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan) a lovely piece of Japanese animation; Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France) a thinly-veiled retelling of the Virgin Mary Godard turns into a compelling drama; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand) the best of Weerasethakul’s atypical fractured-narrative films I’ve seen so far, mysterious and beautifully shot; O Pagador de Promessas, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil) the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’or, an excellent piece of Cinema Novo;  Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France) enigmatic meditation on memory presented as a laid-back domestic drama; The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA) pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s B-movie supernatural thriller that also manages to be feminist; Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK) see above.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #63

I think this post pretty much brings me up to date with these film posts, although I’ve still got about eighty DVDs/Blu-rays on the pile to watch (some of them are rewatches, however, of films I’ve seen before). My last Moving pictures was a bit US heavy, and this one is a bit UK heavy. It also includes a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the first from the list I’ve seen for a while.

The Reckoning, Paul McGuigan (2003, UK). Another one lent to me by my mother, and about which I knew nothing. It’s set in late fourteenth century England. Paul Bettany, a priest, flees his parish after being caught bonking the wife of a parishioner. He meets up on the road with a troupe of mummers, and persuades them to let him join them. A broken bridge forces them to take a detour en route to their next gig and they end up in one of those sorts of places where everyone goes quiet when the mummers walk into the room and the big castle on the hill is still in the process of being built. Oh, and there’s a court in the village square sentencing a deaf-mute woman for the murder of her own son. The mummers’ play isn’t a big hit, so Bettany persuades them to create something new – a play not based on the Bible. In fact, it will be a play based on the murder of the woman’s son. So they look into it a bit, so they can get the details right… and discover it doesn’t add up. It’s a put-up job. The woman is clearly innocent. And all the clues point to someone else altogether… As murder-mysteries go, it’s well laid out and the clues all point in a very obvious direction. The twist isn’t so much whodunnit, as it is howthefuckdowemakesurejusticeisdone, which is a surprisingly relevant subgenre in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Willem Dafoe, the leader of the mummers, was perhaps too intense, and not helped by a wandering accent that managed not to convince as any form of regional English accent. Bettany, on the other hand, seemed a bit too modern. But the mise-en-scène was generally good. And it all hung together entertainingly. You could do much worse.

Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál, Miklós Jancsó (2002, Hungary). I’m really glad I bought these films, even though I have zero clue what’s going on in them. But at least I can watch them again… and again… and again… until I do. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. Like the previous three films in the series, Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál stars Zoltán Mucsi and Péter Scherer as Kapa and Pepe respectively, both of whom are some sort of combination of protagonist, exposition, commentary and comic foils, in a film that is about Hungary without being about Hungary. If that makes sense. The title translates as “Shut up, mate, don’t go to sleep”, but I’m not entirely sure how that relates to the plot – or rather, the narrative, as there isn’t much of a plot. The film opens with a man being told how he will be moulded into a pop star – it’s deeply cynical, all the more so for seemingly being filmed in a derelict house. The man appears several times throughout the film – as an actual rock star, singing deeply cynical songs about life in Hungary. In fact, music features more heavily in Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál than I remember it doing in the earlier films, even though all four have included live musical performances. Kapa and Pepe first appear being led to a firing squad, but it’s all a joke. Except they’re playing Jews. And there are Nazis invading Poland, some of whom are keen to evade the liberating Soviets – and Kapa and Pepe are sort of go-betweens and freely offer useful advice. Nonetheless, they’re not impressed by the film, as they explain to Jancsó, who appears as himself, and writer Gyula Hernádi, who also appears as himself. Like the other Kapa and Pepe films I’ve seen, it’s all every cheap, but there are plenty of crane shots. The music is modern, with rock, rap and punk. One actor plays a US WWII officer, although he might have been British – he starts off by reading an excerpt from James Joyce, but later drives a Jeep and puts on a US accent, although it’s about as good as Dafoe’s regional English accent in The Reckoning… When I’ve watched all six of these films, I will watch them again. And I suspect I will still never really understand them. Rather than find that frustrating, it strikes me as a challenge.

Glastonbury Fayre, Nicolas Roeg & Peter Neal (1972, UK). I don’t know if I stuck this one my rental list because it was directed by Roeg, or simply because I was looking for documentaries for my documentary rental list and I quite enjoy documentaries abut music from 1965 – 1975. Glastonbury Fayre was shot at the 1971 Glastonbury Fair, the second festival held there but the first to be called a Glastonbury festival… and it couldn’t have been more different to the Glastonbury Festival of today. Lots of hippies. Most of them spaced out, on their own naivete if not on drugs. And performances by bands such as Fairport Convention, Family, Gong, Traffic, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band… As footage of a concert, Glastonbury Fayre is not great – you don’t get to see full performances, and what’s shown is only a selection of what appeared on stage. Roeg, and co-director Neal, seem more interested in the festival-goers, and there’s plenty of footage of them doing their, um, thing over the weekend. I do like music like this, and documentaries about this sort of music, although I don’t generally buy them. (But I will admit owning a few albums by early 1970s bands.) Worth seeing.

Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France). Resnais I know chiefly for Last Year in Marienbad, which straddles that fine line between pretentious self-indulgent crap and profound film-making, and I’m still not entirely sure on which side it falls; and Hiroshima mon amour, which, despite me being too squeamish to enjoy much of the film, I found surprisingly affecting. So Muriel came as something of a surprise: a subtle drama, filmed in colour, that plays as much with the forms of its narrative and it does with the narrative itself. The title refers to a woman the stepson of the protagonist was complicit in torturing and killing while serving in Algeria. The protagonist is Hélène, a widow who sells antiquies from her flat, and who takes up with an old lover, Alphonse. It’s all very domestic – except for the flashbacks of the stepson’s service in Algeria, which are presented as degraded film – and very subtle. The film takes its time to introduce the main characters and their relationships, only to present parts of the subsequent chronology out of sequence and with few clues to link them. It looks very drab and realistic, Resnais is not above staging scenes which embarrass his characters or call their, er, character into question. Resnais maide nineteen feature films in total. Muriel was his third – after Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year in Marienbad – and I’m now quite keen to explore his oeuvre. Having looked at the titles – both in French and English – of the films he made subsequent to Muriel, I’ve not heard of a single one. I am not, I freely admit, majorly au fait with French cinema, but I knew of several of Godard’s films before I watched them, and the same for Truffaut, Renoir, Demy, Rohmer, Chabrol, Varda…

A Brighter Summer Day*, Edward Yang (1991, Taiwan). I bought this Criterion Blu-Ray (some, it seems, they’ve started releasing in Region B) because it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I thought the two Yang films I’d seen previously were excellent, and it doesn’t appear to eb available for rental. Which is just as well. As the film is 237 minutes long! That’s nearly four hours. WTF. A Brighter Summer Day is, like the other two Yang films I’ve seen – Yi Yi (see here) and Taipei Story (see here) – concerned chiefly with Taiwanese people trying to make sense of living in Taiwan. In this case, the film is set much closer to the split with China and the exodus to Taiwan by Kuomintang members and sympathisers in 1949. The story is based around the senseless murder of a schoolgirl by her putative boyfriend, but much of the film’s four hours are involved in setting up the background, characters and relationshipsd which eventually lead to the – in the film’s original Mandarin title – titular murder. It opens with two boys spying on a film being made from the catwalks high up in the roof of a studio… which proves to be next-door to their school. And it transpires that Si’r, one of the boys, is something of a loser, neither good at school nor a member of one of the gangs which control the area. And it is a war between the two gangs, brought briefly to a halt by the planning of a pop concert, which eventually leads to Si’r murdering Ming, who was not really his girlfriend. This is a long, involved movie. It’s beautifully filmed – and the Criterion Blu-ray transfer is amazingly good – and it lokos gorgeous throughout. But it’s not the most compelling of narratives, and its mix of domestic drama and teenage delinquency, with occasional elements of political subversion, are not particularly dramatic when played out over four hours. It’s a bloody good film, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also a slow burning one, and something of an endurance test. I seriously need to see more of Yang’s films, although Yi Yi was apparently his last. Definitely worth seeing.

Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, which does occasionally throw up interesting films to watch for free. The film is based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov from 1865, in which the wife of  a rich Russian merchant, has an affair with one of his slaves, and then murders her father-in-law and then her husband. And that’s pretty much the plot of Lady Macbeth, except the story is relocated to the north-east of England, and it all smells like Brontë rather than Shakespeare. In fact, it feels much like a film by Andrea Arnold, although less, dare I say it, sympathetic to its female characters, especially the title character. The acting is uniformly good, the look and feel is very much Brontë, the plot is very much Shakespeare, and the cinematography and mise-en-scène has that static camera positioning, few jump cuts, and staginess that seems to be the vogue in art house cinema these days. I ike the style, I admit, although at least Peter Greenaway has the courage of his convictions and stages pretty much everything as if it were set on a, er, stage. However, as far as British cinema goes, I’d sooner this country were churning movies more like Lady Macbeth than Victoria & Abdul

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886


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Moving pictures, #12

More films seen recently, and it’s the usual mix. As if all that many of the films I’ve been watching this year could be described as “usual”…

fast_timesFast Times At Ridgemont High*, Amy Heckerling (1982, USA). Time has not been kind to this film. Pretty much everything in it has since been used in later high school films, so it now looks like a string of tired old clichés. Which is not to say much of it wasn’t clichéd to begin with. I’m not a fan of high school movies to start with, chiefly because I never went to an American high school – so such films mean pretty much nothing to me. I’ve no idea why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was perhaps mildly amusing in 1982, but in 2014 it’ll make for an evening’s entertainment only if you’re easily please and if you’ve consumed several beers.

Au Hasard Balthazar*, Robert Bresson (1966, France). The title refers to a donkey, owned by the young daughter of a farmer. As she grows up, so the donkey changes hands, and undergoes a series of indignities and cruelties – it may be a beast of burden, but it’s not treated at all well. The farmer’s daughter also suffers abuse at the hands of the various people, although emotional rather than physical. In fact, the two lives broadly mirror one another, although the similarities seem to bounce between too obscure to be easily spotted, or glaringly signposted. But a good film, and worth seeing.

wearethebestWe Are The Best!, Lukas Moodysson (2013, Sweden). I’ve been a fan of Moodysson’s films since seeing Lilya 4-Ever several years ago, so anything new by him goes straight on the wish list. I did consider going to see this at the cinema earlier this year – it was on around the same time as Under The Skin – but in the event decided to hang on for the DVD. Which is what I did. The film is based on the graphic novel Aldrig Godnatt by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson. It’s about two early-teen punks in 1982 Stockholm – in the graphic novel, one is called Coco, so its plainly based on the author’s own childhood; but in the film, the character has been named Bobo. The two girls decide to form a band, and recruit a shy Christian girl as guitarist. They then link up with a boy punk band, which causes a few problems as two of the girls fancy the same boy. There’s a beautifully-handled scene in which one of the mothers lectures the girls on tolerance for Christianity, which is not something I ever thought I’d say about a film. We Are The Best! is effortlessly good, and the central trio play their parts superbly.

Journey To Italy*, Roberto Rossellini (1953, Italy). George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are in Italy to sell a property they’ve inherited near Naples. Things happen. Sanders flirts with another woman, Bergman is jealous. Bergman goes off and does her own thing, Sanders assumes she has a man friend and is jealous. Then, just before the end, they reconcile. By all accounts the production was pretty chaotic, and it shows. Not the most captivating Italian realist film I’ve seen.

americanhustleAmerican Hustle, David O Russell (2013, USA). I’d seen the trailers for this back when it was out in the cinemas, and it looked like it might be enjoyable. Of course, you should never trust a trailer, it’s a marketing tool, and a good one can make a shit film appear to be worth shelling out £10+ to see it. And while I rented this on DVD, so it didn’t cost me anywhere near a tenner, it was still a waste of money as I didn’t like it very much at all. The characters were all horrible, the production design was garish – yes, it was set in the 1970s, but so was Life on Mars, which was a little bit of a spoof, and even that didn’t manage such horrible production design – but worst of all, American Hustle was boring. And while Robert De Niro was supposed to be speaking Arabic, it didn’t sound anything like it. But then he allegedly learnt the language while visiting his casinos in the Middle East – I think Abu Dhabi was mentioned – which is rubbish, as gambling is haram and no Islamic state would licence casinos. (At Nad -Al-Shiba racetrack, they used to offer a prize, usually a car or a racehorse, to anyone who guessed the winners of the night’s races correctly; it wasn’t gambling because it didn’t cost money to guess.)

Shame*, Steve McQueen (2011, UK). I picked this up in a charity shop, which is where it’s going now that I’ve watched it. Michael Fassbender plays a self-centred, er, executive of some sort, in New York who is addicted to sex – he downloads porn at work, he sneaks off to the bogs for a wank, he frequents prostitutes… Then his sister comes to stay with him, and she has a history of suicide attempts. Although beautifully shot, the characters were so unlikeable, the pace so glacial, and the story so uninteresting that I’m mystified by the high regard in which the film is held.

The Cabin In The Woods*, Drew Goddard (2011, USA). I might not think every film on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list belongs there, but for some of them it’s possible to make a case. But not this one. It’s a piss-take horror full of the usual allegedly witty Whedon banter, with some silly explanatory story driving the plot. This is a film better-suited to a midnight showing on some cable channel, to be watched after copious beers and a doner kebab.

hiroshima mon amour dvd (Small)Hiroshima Mon Amour*, Alain Resnais (1959, France). Resnais is one of those directors whose films I want to like, but every time I watch one I can’t bring myself to do so. He does interesting things, he pushes the boundaries of cinematic narrative. This one is a case in point – the central relationship between the two unnamed characters is handled beautifully, but the documentary footage of Hiroshima is disturbing and I’m far too squeamish to enjoy watching it . It’s too visceral to be likeable as a movie – I might have found it easier to appreciate as a book – but then, that was probably the whole point. Though I didn’t enjoy it, I can understand why Hiroshima Mon Amour is on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list.

Far_from_heavenFar From Heaven, Todd Haynes (2002, USA). This was a rewatch, as I’ve had the DVD for a couple of years. I originally bought it because it is, of course, famously inspired by Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – in fact, the film sort of follows the basic plot of Sirk’s film, and its cinematography is clearly inspired by it. Like other Haynes films I’ve seen, I love some things about it and dislike others. Haynes’ 1950s small-town America is beautifully coloured and shot, but I’m not really convinced by Julianne Moore in the lead role. And while her relationship with her gardener works really well, I’m not sure about her husband’s homosexuality – it feels like Haynes has thrown in two scandals for the price of one.

monumentsmenThe Monuments Men, George Clooney (2014, USA). It’s WWII and Clooney recruits a bunch of art experts to hunt through Europe during the latter weeks of the war to hunt for art stolen by the Nazis. Each of them has a piece they obsess over, and would even die for – it certainly leads them to take risks, and results in at least one death. We all know the Nazis were very naughty boys, but stealing art is pretty low down on the list of their crimes. And, to be honest, I think we might have been better off if much of it had never been recovered. Great art should be there for the world to see, not changing hands for ridiculous amounts of money and then hidden away in private collections. That’s just turning paintings into substitute penises, which pretty much misses the whole point of Art. Films like this don’t help.

violentsaturdayViolent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I didn’t have high expectations for this film, it looked like it might be a minor piece of 1950s noir, something to do with a riot in a small town on the titular day of the week. But when it opened with a car driving down into a working copper mine, and then an explosion to bring down a section of cliff-face, it was obvious this was not going to be your average noir. In fact, Violent Saturday is 1950s melodrama meets thriller, with a trio of bank robbers planning a heist on the day in question, while about them various dramas in the lives of the townsfolk take place, including but not limited to: the wastrel son of the mine owner failing to hold his marriage together, the mine’s manager trying to keep his son’s respect despite not fighting in the war, a bank clerk trying to work up courage to ask out the mine’s nurse… And all shot in beautiful widescreen Technicolor. Loved it.

cloudcappedThe Cloud Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara)*, Ritwik Ghatak (1960, India). This was a bit grim. A young woman, a refugee from East Pakistan, lives with her family in a camp outside Kolkata. Her brother is a wastrel and wants to be a singer – he sings frequently throughout the film, and he’s good. Her fiancé is forever borrowing money off her so he can complete his studies. She is having trouble completing her own studies, with so many demands on her time and finances. And then things start to get worse. Filmed in a very stark black and white, intensely realist, and with an interesting and effective use of close-in mise-en-scène and much wider vistas, particularly across the Hooghly River, this is an excellent film, although perhaps a little long. Definitely a film that deserves repeated watches. And I might have a go at something else by Ghatak.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 528