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Moving pictures, #48

Only two out of the six are US movies this time, so I’m definitely getting better at this… Although a recent check through which countries’ cinema I’ve watched revealed there are a number of gaps in my viewing. Which I plan to rectify. For now, it’s two French, two Russian and two American. Two were also rewatches.

live_becomeLive and Become, Radu Mihǎleanu (2005, France). I found this on an alternative 1001 Movies list and it looked interesting enough to add to my rental list. And I’m glad I did. In 1984, some 12,000 Ethiopian Jews walked to refugee camps in Sudan, where the 8,000 who had survived the march were airlifted to Israel. Live and Become follows a Christian Ethiopian boy whose mother persuades him to pretend to be a Jewish woman’s son so that he might have a chance at a new life. His new mother dies soon after arrival in Israel, and the boy proves too difficult for the orphanage to manage. He’s a adopted by a French Jewish family who have settled in Israel, and the film then follows him through his teen years into his early twenties, as he masquerades as Jewish, tries to find out what happened to his birth mother, and becomes a victim of a racial backlash against the Ethiopian Jews. Although the film implies the 1984 airlift – Operation Moses – was a one-off and well-planned coup by the Israelis, it was actually one of several attempts to patriate African Jews to Israel, beginning in 1961 and culminating with Operation Solomon in 1991. But that’s a minor quibble – it’s a heart-breaking piece of history and deserves to be better-known. Mihǎleanu uses different actors for his lead character at different stages of his life but keeps the continuity strong between them. I had not expected to find Live and Become as gripping as I did. Recommended.

faustFaust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia). Sokurov’s films are hardly easy viewing, but I find this one among the more difficult of his – possibly because it seems at first to be relatively straightforward. Faust, a doctor in a mediaeval town in what is now Germany, is studying human anatomy, trying to find the seat of the “soul”; but his clandestine researches means he has little or no money. While trying to pawn something, he meets a moneylender called Mauricius, who seems not quite human. They spend time together and, in a large bathhouse/laundry, Faust spots a young woman and begins to obsess about her. She refuses his blandishments, a situation not helped when Faust accidentally kills her brother in a pub brawl. This is when Mauricius offers Faust a, er, Faustian bargain – his soul for a night with the young woman. Faust signs. However, he fails to act on his desires, and so Mauricius leads him to a strange land of stone and geysers where, in a rage, Faust kills Mauricius by burying him under rocks. But now Faust cannot find his way home. For a Sokurov film, Faust is played almost straight – there are occasional moments of distorted picture, much like he does in Mother and Son, but if there was a logic to them I didn’t spot it. The colours are pale and washed out, but that only gives the setting a more mediaeval feel. Even the occasional oddness – Faust’s assistant drops a bottle containing a foetus in formaldehyde and it proves to still be alive, for instance – only seem to amplify quite how strange Mauricius is… And he is odd – in the bathhouse scene, when he strips to bathe, all the women remark he “has nothing in front” and yet he appears to have something at his rear… which is far stranger than the earlier scene where he drinks a vial of poison and appears to enjoy it. I’ve seen Faust described as a German story told with Russian sensibilities, and there’s certainly a Sokurovian feel to the story – I’m tempted to describe it as having a certain identifiable philosophy, but then isn’t the Faust story itself a philosophical story? I’m unsure where I’d place Faust in Sokurov’s oeuvre. It has considerably higher production values than much of his output, and it’s evident in every frame… And the story is less elliptical than many of his other films… But it’s also less personal – the relationship between Faust and Mauricius, or Faust and Gretchen, is in no way as close as that between mother and son or father and son or grandmother and grandson… But then the relationship between body and soul is either the closest relationship of all, or no relationship at all… and that’s what Faust opens the film exploring…

diaryDiary of a Country Priest*, Robert Bresson (1951, France). There are five films by Robert Bresson on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve now seen them all… and everyone one of them has left me cold. The huge regard in which he’s held, I just can’t see it. And this one, Diary of a Country Priest, apparently Claude Laydu’s performance in the title role is, according to Wikipedia, considered “one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Um, right. Now, I like that Bresson treats his material with a straight face – even a stone-face, perhaps – and the deadpan delivery is presented with remarkable clarity and economy. But I still don’t get why Bresson is so revered – and I say that knowing that my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov, is a fan of Bresson’s films. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me see why Laydu’s performance in this film should attract such accolades. He plays a priest whose performance of his duties draws the criticism of his parishioners, and who also happens to be quite ill. There’s no thematic link between his illness and his actions – although not being a Catholic – or, indeed, the slightest bit religious – perhaps that’s a distinction lost on me. I have mentioned in the past that one of my apparent blindspots is French cinema prior to the Nouvelle Vague (bar the odd exception, such as Renoir’s films), and if so then Bresson sits squarely in it. I’m loath to say that Diary of a Country Priest does not belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain why it does belong on the list.

mirrorMirror*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1975, Russia). If you’d asked me a year ago what my favourite Tarkovsky film was, I’d probably have said Mirror. Having now watched it one more time – on Blu-ray this time – I found myself…conflicted. It frequently looks gorgeous – there’s a lambent quality to the cinematography in the scenes set on the farm that is absolutely stunning. And the black-and-white sections have that sort of concreteness which makes the space station in Solaris looks so much like a real place. But despite having watched the film several times, I’m still no clearer as to its actual story, and at times it seems like little more than fantastic moving wallpaper. It feels like a hot mess, but one that hovers on the edge of understanding. Tarkovsky’s genius was, in part, that he could make something feel like a coherent whole despite the lack of overt links between sections – as in Andrei Rublev. Mirror is supposed to present the memories of a dying poet, and indeed it has a stream-of-consciousness look and feel (the slow motion bath falling through the ceiling? WTF?), but while there’s a plain sense of thematic unity I’m not convinced the narrative hangs together in any real meaningful sense. But the genius of Tarkovsky is also that his films are eminently rewatchable, and each rewatch will reveal something new to appreciate and admire. There are films I admire hugely, and directors I admire hugely although none of their films make the first list… but Tarkovsky plainly belongs on both. I don’t know that anyone has ever equalled him, and much as I love Sokurov’s films it’s as much for his contradictions, whereas Tarkovsky is a director with remarkably few contradictions. If that makes sense. I opened this “review” wondering which of Tarkovsky’s film I liked best… At the moment, I’m tending toward The Sacrifice… but I have yet to rewatch it as the Blu-ray version has not yet been released. However, there’s still Ivan’s Childhood, Stalker and Nostalgia to rewatch; and probably further rewatches of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Mirror… and the fact I can even consider watching these films again and again is one reason why I consider Tarkovsky a hugely important and favourite director.

wolf_manThe Wolf Man*, George Waggner (1941, USA). An American, Lon Chaney Jr, learns of the death of his brother and so returns to the ancestral home in, er, Wales, to patch it up with his father, Claude Rains. The people in the Welsh village speak with English or American accents – among the former is the young woman who runs a local antiqiue shop, and among the latter is the local chief constable. While out walking in a swampy wood with the young lady, Chaney saves a woman being attacked by a wolf, but the wolf manages to bite him. Later, the police find a dead man, but no wolf’s corpse. Then there are the gypsies, who all dress like flamenco dancers or something, not to mention Chaney as a werewolf looks more like Puppyman, about to advertise Andrex, than he does a fearsome creatures from horror’s bag of fearsome tropes… and it all feels a bit risible. It’s an early Hollywood horror movie, and while it may have done something new, seventy-five years later it’s hard to spot exactly what. It feels like one of those films that are only on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list because the listmaker has fond memories of it from late-night showings on obscure cable channels or in seedy fleapit cinemas. I don’t see that appeal myself. Meh.

wonderTo the Wonder, Terrence Malick (2012, USA). I’ve no idea why I rented this. Perhaps it was in the vain hope that Malick might at some point produce a great film instead of ones that bounce between occasional moments of great beauty and the much longer moments of pretentious self-indulgent twaddle. The first third of this film, for example, resembles nothing so much as perfume commercial. And the stream-of-consciousness voice-over, which in The New World felt like an idea that could have worked really well, here only heightens the likeness to that sort of bullshit world in which perfume adverts make sense and are legitimate tools for selling a product. Ben Affleck plays an American in Paris who falls in love with Ukrainian divorcée Olga Kurylenko (who has a young daughter), marries her and takes her back to Oklahoma. But she doesn’t fit in there, and returns to Paris. Malick reportedly told his cast to keep on moving while he was shooting them, and their endlessly spinning and jumping about wears thin very quickly (and heightens the likeness to the aforementioned commercials). I have now watched most of Malick’s oeuvre and can happily admit I don’t get him. I don’t understand why he is so admired. His cinematography is frequently absolutely gorgeous, this is true; but there is more to movie-making than a stunning sunset caught just right. He also has a well-documented tendency to basically recreate his films in editing, such that half the cast end up on the cutting-room floor. In To the Wonder, that means Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all had their parts cut completely from the film. (Why would you work with someone who did that to you? For the money? Is there some sort of weird Hollywood prestige in ending up on the floor of Malick’s editing suite?) Malick feels like a director with a lot of interesting ideas but whose slightest whim is happily indulged by Hollywood. Some people need reining in, some people only produce good work when limited. I’m increasingly starting to think Malick is one such person.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 804


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Reading diary, #34

I stuck to my plan to read only non-fiction in July, but unfortunately I’d not considered one consequence: it usually takes longer to read non-fiction than fiction. So I’ve still not finished The Third Reich: A New History, I’m only three-quarters of the way through The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, and I barely got started on Imagination/Space. However… I did manage to sneak in a few fiction books…

visitationVisitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was the best book I read during the first half of this year, and is likely set to take the top spot come December… which I guess implies that I didn’t think Visitation as good. And, well, fair enough, it’s not as good as The End of Days… but it’s still an excellent novel. It’s written in a similar distanced sort of present tense without direct speech or speech tags. It’s also similarly episodic, although rather than the episodes being based around a person they’re based around a place. Which, in this case, is a patch of land beside a lake in what became East Germany. The story opens in the late nineteenth century (and it really does have a The White Ribbon atmosphere), when the land was covered by a wood. But the owner is forced to sell it after the First World War, and a succession of holiday homes are built on it. There’s some continuity in the form of the “Gardener”, a man who lived in the wood and who never speaks in the novel. At one point, the holiday home is owned by a Jewish family, but is then seized by the Nazis. It comes into the hands of a professional couple from East Berlin, and an old woman who has returned home after several decades living and working in Moscow… The land endures; the people, and the systems they create, do not. Erpenbeck is definitely my discovery of the year, and if Visitation doesn’t quite have the breadth or audacity of The End of Days, it’s likely only because it’s a much thinner book, little more than novella length. But in its approach to its material, it certainly presages The End of Days, although it runs as serial history rather than parallel or alternate history. I can’t recommend Erpenbeck enough. She has one more book available in English. I will be buying it and reading it before the year is out.

hangmanTor double 21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, Roger Zelazny / Samuel R Delany (1968/1975). A bunch of these Tor doubles appeared in the Isam Bookshop in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s when I lived in the city. They’d obviously been remaindered as that was all the shop sold: remaindered books from the US and UK. (A colleague I ran into once in the shop told me in all seriousness that the books had been “rejected because they contain spelling mistakes”.) Every now and again, when I can find copies, I add to my collection. Tor published 36 doubles in total between 1989 and 1991; some, like this one, are a pair of older reprints, some an older work and a newer one (which was often a sequel or prequel by another hand to the earlier work). The two stories in this double, however, are completely unrelated – if there’s a thematic link, I missed it. According to the cover of Home is the Hangman, “He’s back from the stars – and he isn’t happy”, which tells you two things about the title character and manages to get both wrong. A nine-word blurb that is 100% wrong. Quite an achievement. The novella is narrated by a private investigator / security specialist type, who manages to live under the radar because he was a programmer on a project to computerise everyone’s personal details and ensured his own data was not recorded (this may have seemed like a plausible idea in 1968, but in 2016 it makes no sense). This, however, adds almost nothing to the story… which is about an AI which had been built to explore the moons of the outer planets, and has now returned to Earth for reasons unknown. Four people had been involved in “training” the AI and now, a couple of decades later, one runs a store, one is a psychiatrist, one is an engineer and one is a wealthy industrialist. The store-owner is brutally killed and the industrialist thinks the AI was responsible because of something horrible that happened in the past. Think Original Sin. This novella won the Hugo and Nebula and came second in the Locus Award. Zelazny is a well-known name, and a famous genre prose stylist… so I was surprised at how rubbish this was. The prose was bland, the plot obvious, and time had has not been kind to the world-building… But turn the book upside down and flip it about and you get… We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, which is a pure hit of the pure Delany… and yes, it’s dated quite a bit but it doesn’t matter because with Delany it’s always the late 1960s/early 1970s… and yes, the central premise – giant crawler factories which lay electricity cable, free of charge, to every household on the globe – is bizarrely old-fashioned and weird for 1975… But but but. There are Hells Angels living in an abandoned house in the mountains, and they ride flying bikes. And when one of the crawling factories offers to lay cable to the house (what was wrong with the original utilities infrastructure? Delany never tells us), it breaks apart the biker gang. It’s pretty much nonsense from start to finish but it’s also what a real prose stylist looks like. Reading these two novellas is a bit like reading some sort of writing match between a pair of big names from the late 1960s. Delany wins hands-down, no doubt there; especially since Delany’s novella reads like a product of its time but the Zelazny reads like a story that could have been written at any time but does a piss-poor job of its world-building. So, Delany 1 – Zelazny 0.

agentAgent of the Imperium, Marc Miller (2015). The Traveller RPG was first published in 1977, and has been through several incarnations in the decades since. And during those years, there have been a handful of tie-in novels published – two by the game’s original publishers, GDW; one by a major imprint; but most by fans. Miller was the inventor of the game, and has been seen as its authority ever since – much as Gary Gygax was for Dungeons & Dragons – but until Agent of the Imperium, Miller had never published fiction (unlike Gygax). Agent of the Imperium was published by Miller’s company, Far Future Enterprises, but was financed via Kickstarter. Despite not think highly of other Traveller novels I’ve read, I decided it might be worth reading Miller’s go at one. And… there’s some interesting ideas in the novel, and the way it covers so much of the Third Imperium’s history is cleverly done… But it reads like a series of unconnected episodes, which eventually lead up to the seizing of the Iriridum Throne by Arbellatra, the founder of the Alkhalikoi dynasty (which was still in power five hundred or so years later, at the time the setting of Traveller “began”). The narrator of the novel is the agent of the title, and he works for the Imperial Quarantine Agency, which is charged with preventing epidemics on individual worlds from spreading across the Imperium. Of course, it takes something especially virulent to put the Imperium in danger, and the opening incident describes a world where a species of parasite has taken mental control of the population. The Agent, however, is not a real person. He was a high-level bureaucrat during the early years of the Imperium, but his personality was encoded on a wafer (a fatal process), and now, in certain circumstances, the commanders of Imperial Navy vessels or fleets are instructed to insert a copy of the wafer into a suitable officer equipped with a jack, and so invoke the Agent, who can then advise on the situation. These situations usually result in the Agent advising the fleet to destroy the world. After several such incidents, the Agent (there is a system in place to keep his memories updated and in synch) assists Arbellatra onto the Iridium Throne. I’m a big fan of Traveller and the universe its designers have created and yes, it’s a good playground for fiction… But most of the fiction set in the universe has never quite managed to grasp the flavour of it. Unsurprisingly, Miller manages that really well – despite throwing in virtual personalities and wafers and jacks, none of which, as far as I remember, appeared in any of the incarnations of the RPG. However… Miller is no prose stylist; in fact, he makes Asimov look like a prose stylist. This is commercial sf prose stripped down to its most basic, and the best that can be said of it is that it’s serviceable (although an editor should have spotted that “flang” is not the past tense of “fling”). The story is also far too episodic, and the links between the episodes too minor, to give the whole a feeling of a plot. Fans of the RPG will enjoy it – because it’s by Miller, because it’s set in the RPG’s universe – but if it had been a non-Traveller work it would be a poor one.

Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987). I stumbled across this at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm, looked it up online and decided it was eligible for review on SF Mistressworks. Which I have now done. It wasn’t… very good. See here.

coming_up_for airComing Up for Air, George Orwell (1939). George Bowling is in his forties, fat, works as in insurance inspector for the Flying Salamander, and ives in the suburbs with a wife and two kids. He is, in pretty much every respect, an ordinary lower-middle-class Londoner of the thirties. He wasn’t always, of course. He was born and grew up in a small Thames Valley village, the son of a seed merchant whose business is failing. He leaves school early and goes to work for a local grocer. And then war is declared, and George signs up. He finishes the war as a commissioned officer, which is enough to lift his ambitions above a grocer’s shop. He is, he admits, one of many men who survived the Great War and whose experiences were enough to lift them from working class to the lower rungs of middle class. All this is told to the reader by George in evocative and surprisingly chatty prose – his childhood in Lower Binfield, his aspirations, his current mid-life crisis… And it’s the latter which persuades him to return to Lower Binfield for a visit after twenty-five years away. Naturally, what he finds is not the bucolic village of the turn of the century that he remembers. I took this book with me to Bloodstock, something to read when I needed an occasional time-out from the metal and the beer, and when I started it I wondered if I’d picked a wrong ‘un. The only Orwell I’d read previously was Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his two most famous works – and Coming Up for Air‘s chatty first-person narrative is nothing like those. But the more I read, the more I found myself fascinated by George Bowling and his life. Orwell paints a picture of a life that is as foreign to me because of the time it’s set as it is because Bowling grew up in a small agricultural village in southern England (ie, not the industrial north). I enjoyed Coming Up for Air a lot more than I’d expected to, and found it a much better book than I’d anticipated. Worth reading.

FIGURESThe Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szaniawski (2014). Though I’ve been subscribing to Sight & Sound for nearly two decades, I’ve never read any actual academic film criticism. Until now. But I’m a huge a fan of Sokurov’s films, and I felt I needed a little help to parse some of them. And Figures of Paradox has been very useful in that regard, but… The language used throughout is that sort of obfuscatory academic bollocks that gives academic criticism a bad name. Having said that, Szaniawski knows his subject well, and there is plenty of information about the production of Sokurov’s films which I found both fascinating and helpful in deciphering them. However, the more I read the book, the more it becamse clear that Szaniawski had A Theory, and he was determined to prove it. There is, it cannot be denied, a certain amount of homoeroticism in Sokurov’s films, and Sokurov himself is famously celibate. Although Sokurov has denied being gay, Szaniawski is convinced he is, and the evidence for it is there in his films. I can see in part what Szaniawski claims, but there’s as much evidence in Sokurov’s filmography to “prove” he is gay as there was in Ken Russell’s – and Russell wasn’t gay. Not, of course, that it makes the slight bit of difference. It just seems a peculiar drum to bang. Reading the book, I put it down to an academic’s need to add some new angle to justify their research. (Szaniawski’s book is not the only critical work on Sokurov, but the others are all spread across a variety of magazines.) In all, I found Figures of Paradox something of a curate’s egg – a useful work in helping to parse Sokurov’s films, and better appreciate them; but it also displayed some of the worst aspects of academic film criticism. But Sokurov is still an amazing director, though.


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Moving pictures, #40

This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.

dialoguesDialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.

moonwalkersMoonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.

el_doradoEl Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.

too_late_bluesToo Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.

lamourL’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…

3-iron3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #39

Well, slightly less than half of this post are US films, although I’d prefer it to be no more than one or two per post. But we’re getting there, as our national railway famously once said only to be privatised and then completely fail to get anywhere…

only_live_onceYou Only Live Once, Fritz Lang (1937, USA). This was a cheerful movie. Henry Fonda plays a habitual criminal who decides to go straight – mostly thanks to the love of a good woman, in this case Sylvia Sidney, the secretary of the local public defender. But not everyone is so forgiving. Although the public defender (who is secretly in love with his secretary) gets Fonda a job at a delivery company, he’s fired when he takes time out to look over a new house with his new wife. And no one else will employ him because he’s an ex-con. Absolutely no one. And then someone robs an armoured car, and a hat is left at the scene which points to Fonda as the culprit. He’s found guilty (the trial is off-screen, probably because it sounds so much a travesty of justice Lang was too embarrassed to show it), and Fonda ends up on Death Row. But an opportunity for escape presents itself, he takes it, but accidentally kills the prison priest… seconds after the warden has received news that Fonda is innocent and has been pardoned. Too late! Fonda collects his wife, and the two go on the lam. To be honest, I’d expected more from Lang. I’ve seen a fair number of his noir movies, and I expected this to be as good as they were. And certainly the scene where Fonda escapes from prison is very atmospherically staged and shot. But everyone is so horrible to Fonda, and the odds are stacked against him so strongly, the set-up to justify Fonda’s abrupt shift from optimism to desperation feels forced and completely implausible. So, not one of Lang’s better films.

zabriskieZabriskie Point*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1970, USA). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films, and his Red Desert is one of my all-time favourite movies; but I also like late 1960s/early 1970s hippy films – or, at least, ones that comment on the hippy condition. It’s not just the direct rebellion, nor the questioning of society, but also that so many of these types of films throw in an additional dimension – which might well be typical hippy occult bullshit, but at least adds something a little more interesting to the story. And so to Zabriskie Point, which opens with semi-documentary footage of a protest at a California university. But when the police turn up, the protest takes a violent approach and several people are killed. Including a policeman. The film then abruptly switches to two characters: a young woman who is looking for a man in the Mojave Desert who works with emotionally disturbed children. Meanwhile, a young male student from the university protest, and a prime suspect in the death of the cop, steals a plane and flies off to Arizona… where he meets the young woman. And they go to Zabriskie Point, a real place just east of Death Valley, Nevada, where they have sex – well, actually, a full-blown orgy kicks off… and this isn’t really a film where you can describe the plot, or where such a précis would do the film any favours. But it is by Antonioni so it looks absolute fantastic and, to be fair, he makes just as good a fist of depicting the culture he’s filming as Demy does in Model Shop – they’re neither part of the culture, but their outsider status allows them see more than might be visible from inside. Antonioni made several excellent movies – I’d put Zabriskie Point in the top five of those; in fact I think I’d call it my third favourite after Red Desert and Blow-Up.

hired_handThe Hired Hand*, Peter Fonda (1971, USA). Sigh. Another 1970s Western on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But… well, this is a surprise. I’m not a fan of the Western, and have only three in my DVD collection – and I’ve probably seen more than I ever really wanted to because they’re on the 1001 Movies list… Certainly I’d never have considered watching this one: an early seventies Western, directed by Peter Fonda… (Even though I liked Easy Rider a lot.) But in fact it turned out to be pretty damn good. For exactly the same reasons why it flopped on release back in 1970. It’s slow, its cinematography is poetic, and it has a great soundtrack. Its story, to be fair, is not very interesting, and its characters are not very strong… but the whole works because the pictures and story go together exceedingly well. Fonda plays a drifter who decides to return to the wife who kicked him out years before, and asks only that he be taken on as a “hired hand” in order to prove he has changed. But a stop-off en route had made enemies of some nasty sorts and they track him down, and your typical Wild West showdown ensues. Where The Hired Hand really scores, however, is in its opening third: the cinematograhpy goes mad for dissolves and montages, and it works wonderfully well. The bluegrass score by Bruce Langhorne is also really well done – and I’m not a person who really notices incidental music (I have, like, three original soundtracks in my music collection… er, except for all those ones by Andrzej Korzyñski). Altogether, this is good stuff, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy for myself.

24_city24 City, Jia Zhangke (2008, China). I had been seriously impressed by Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, so of course I added the rest of Zhangke’s oeuvre to my rental list… and this was the first sent to me. And, I’m happy to report, I did not choose wrong. Zhangke is a name to watch and a new director to join my favourites. The title refers to a new suburb built on the site of an aircraft factory. The film covers several decades in a semi-documentary style, first interviewing workers in the aircraft factory (whose location and purpose is a state secret because the aircraft are military). The film is divided into three sections: one during the days of the plant’s operations, another after it has closed and the plant has been mothballed, and one after the site has been redeveloped and a dormitory suburb now occupies the location. The mix of staged interviews, informal interviews (one scene consists entirely of a man at a bar reminiscing about his career at the factory), and small family dramas which illustrate the personal histories affected by the history of the factory and the town which springs up in its place, is extremely effective; and I especially like the factualness of it. 24 City is, apparently, a real place, and the story of the film is no doubt based upon, or inspired by, real events; but the mix of fact and fiction I find quite compelling – much as I did in A Touch of Sin. Excellent stuff.

mournfulMournful Unconcern, Aleksandr Sokurov (1983, Russia). This was another work by Sokurov that remained underground for many years – it was banned by the Soviet authorities – before finally being publicly screened after glasnost… and was promptly nominated for a Golden Bear. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, but is intercut with documentary footage. The cinematography is, surprisingly, straightforward, but the whole thing feels ike an unholy mix of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, albeit put together in an entirely Sokurovian way. That documentary footage, for example – it’s contemporary with the setting, the 1920s, and features Shaw himself, a zeppelin, World War I, an Antarctic expedition, the River Ganges, and various places in Africa. The choices of incidental music is also typically Sokurovian, and often anachronistic. Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, which is apparently a reference to Chekhov, whose plays inspired Shaw’s, is set in the home of Captain Shotover – played by Ramaz Chkhikvadze as half Falstaff and half Lear – and is partly a drawing-room farce and partly an Edwardian sex comedy. Gunfire and explosions can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the entire film, which ends with a zeppelin dropping a bomb and blowing up the house. It’s… an odd beast. The story seems well-suited to Sokurov’s feelings about the Soviet Union. The use of documentary stock footage is perhaps more intrusive than in the other films in which Sokurov uses it, but it works really well (some of the inserts provide clever and amusing commentary on the main story). I’m not so sure about the story itself, however – I don’t know what changes Sokurov made to Shaw’s play, though the setting seems to be as described. Still, like all of Sokurov’s films, it’s one that will require repeated viewings.

brooklynBrooklyn, John Crowley (2015, Ireland). This was one of those films of the last year or so which received lots of positive buzz and reviews, and didn’t involve superheroes, so I thought might be worth watching. It’s also an adaptation of a novel (winner of the Costa Novel Award, but only longlisted for the Man Booker) by Colm Tóibin, who, I admit, I’ve never read. The story is relatively simple – a fact stressed by several of the reviews: young Irish woman in the 1950s travels to New York in order to build a new life. She lives in a boarding-house and works in a department store, but she is shy and unassuming and very homesick. Then she meets a young man, of American-Italian extraction, and the two enter into a relationship. She is is now much happier and more settled. But then her sister in Ireland dies unexpectedly, so she returns to succour her mother. And now life back in Ireland seems much more attractive than it did when she left for New York. That is until the town gossip reveals something the young woman had been sort of trying to forget… and so she returns to New York. It’s a very pretty film, the cinematography is quite lovely, and the cast are uniformly good. Julie Walters as the landlady of the Brooklyn boarding-house, however, is a scream. But the story all feels a bit drab and low-key and devoid of any real insight, which makes the movie feel more like well-shot wallpaper than actual drama. I enjoyed it, but I think it was over-praised.

land_freedomLand and Freedom, Ken Loach (1995, UK). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not apparently the edition of it I’m using. Still it’s by Ken Loach and the subject matter – the Spanish Civil War – made it seem worth renting. And so it proved. An old working-class man in Liverpool collapses in his council flat, the ambulance comes, but he dies en route. Later, going through his things, his granddaughter discovers he had sailed to Spain in the 1930s to fight for the Republicans against the fascists. She reads his letters… and these are dramatised, with Ian Hart playing the young Scouser. On arrival on Spain, it all seems a bit haphazard, but Hart joins POUM’s milita and is soon out fighting (which basically seems to involve taking potshots from the POUM trenches at fascist soldiers in their trenches). At one point, the militia oust a troop of fascist troops from a village, and the villagers then conduct a fierce discussion on private ownership and collectivisation. After Hart is injured training new recruits – a rifle explodes when he fires it – things take a turn for the worse as the various left factions begin fighting amongst themselves, and even start killing those whose idealogies are not approved. It hardly comes as a surprise the fascists win (even for those who don’t know their history). The right always will… because the left seems happier fighting among itself than showing a united front to the enemy – just look what’s happing in the UK now. You look at Trump, and it’s 1930s Germany all over again; you look at the UK, and it’s 1930s Spain. Neither, of course, bode well… I’ve watched the occasional Ken Loach film over the years and enjoyed them, but have never really made an effort to seek them out. However, I find myself appreciating social realism in movies much more these days than I used to (and consequently despising fascistic sfx-heavy tentpole movies). I see there are three box sets of Loach’s films available – Volume 1, Volume 2 and At the BBC. I might well avail myself of them…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #38

Wa-hey, I did it! An entire Moving pictures post without a single US film. Which is not say I watched zero US films during the period, just that they were so shit they weren’t worth documenting (and, to be honest, there were only one or two of them). But still, it’s an achievement. And one I hope to repeat.

lonelyThe Lonely Voice of Man, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978, Russia). This was Sokurov’s first feature-length film, created as his thesis at the prestigious VGIK film school – but the school authorities wouldn’t accept it, and despite requests to do so by a number of big names, Sokurov had to submit something else in order to graduate. The Lonely Voice of Man, meanwhile, became an underground film; and it wasn’t until glasnost that it finally saw official release – although Sokurov took the opportunity to “reconstruct” it first. It had already built up a reputation from its underground showings, but post-glasnost it picked up several awards, and much critical acclaim, at numerous festival showings. It’s roughly based on the writings of Platonov, in much the same way, I guess, that Whispering Pages is based on the writings of Gogol or Save and Protect is based on Madame Bovary. Sokurov takes a very loose approach to “adaptation”. To be honest, I know nothing about Platonov – had not even heard of him until watching this film – but I don’t doubt that familiarity with his oeuvre would add more to the viewing experience, much as it would for the aforementioned films (which, to be honest, is not something I’ve tested – although I did drunkenly buy a collection of Chekhov’s stories while watching Stone; and when I found a copy of Gogol’s collected short stories in a charity shop, I bought it…). Anyway, The Lonely Voice of Man opens with the historical footage depicted on the poster I’ve used on this post, before moving onto the plot of Platonov’s novella ‘The River Potudan’, in which a young man returns home after fighting for the revolution. His girlfriend has since qualified as a doctor, and their two changed circumstances affect their relationship. So he runs away and becomes a manual labourer in a nearby town. The cast are non-professionals, and the picture is distorted – although to a much lighter extent than Sokurov uses in later films. The cinematography is dark, with a muted palette, and a camera that focuses on objects as often as it does the characters, not to mention a non-chronological narrative. While not everything in the film is immediately parseable, the sudden switches between seasons seem, to me, to signal, changes from one narrative to another – ie, boyfriend and girlfriend getting married, and after the husband has left. In Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szianawski considers The Lonely Voice of Man a masterwork, but it seems to me more of an apprentice piece, a working-out of the themes and techniques Sokurov goes on to make extensive use of in his career (although both Szianawski and myself agree that The Second Circle is a masterpiece). There’s no doubt in my mind that Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently making films – and that’s as much a result of his contradictions as it is of the idiosyncratic approach he has taken to film-making.

subarnarekhaSubarnarekha*, Ritwik Ghatak (1965, India). Although this film appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (one of two Ghatak movies to do so; the other is The Cloud-Capped Star), it has apparently never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Which is a shame. Having now seen it, I think it’s a better film than The Cloud-Capped Star, but not as good as A River Called Titas (which is not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; go figure). But I own all three films now, so I can watch them again at leisure. Ghatak directed eight films in total, and is highly-regarded – if not of the same stature as Satyajit Ray, he’s not far from it – so it’s weird that only The Cloud-Capped Star and A River Called Titas are available on DVD (and the first is not that easy to find – Amazon third-party sellers have it at £80 (but you can get it direct from the BFI for £20)). Anyway, Subarnarekha, AKA The Golden Thread, opens with a woman being taken away from a refugee camp, but her son is left behind. A young man takes the boy in hand, and takes him with him, and his daughter, when they leave and settle in West Bengal. Jump ahead a few years and the orphan boy and the daughter are now in love, but the father is told his career at the factory, amd his rise to manager, could be threatened if his daughter marries someone from a lower caste (ie, the orphan). Then it gets sort of complicated – but that difference in caste, and how it impacts the father’s career, is the axle on which the story revolves. It might well be heresy, but I think I prefer Ghatak’s films to Ray’s. To date, I’ve seen three by Ghatak and four by Ray – but Ray was both much more prolific and is more readily available on DVD in the UK, so perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more of Ray’s films. I do wish more by Ghatak were available, however.

sils_mariaClouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas (2014, France). I’ve followed Assayas’s career on and off since first seeing Irma Vep back in 2000, although, annoyingly, the film of his that has sounded most interesting to me was 2002’s Demonlover, which was never released on DVD in the UK. He’s a film festival favourite, and his last film, Personal Shopper, won him the Best Director Award at Cannes this year (a joint win with Cristian Mingiu). Clouds of Sils Maria is an English-language film despite being set in Switzerland and with a French actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role. Binoche plays an actress who has been asked to accept an award in Zurich on behalf of a reclusive Swiss playwright. Her own career began when she played one of the two lead roles in the stage and screen versions of the playwright’s most famous play, which is about the relationship between a young woman and an older woman. Binoche is travelling with her assistant, Kristen Stewart, an American, and the mirroring of their relationship with that of the two women in the play is, er, well, a bit obvious. Fortunately, both actresses are good in their roles – Stewart is especially good – and if the shape of the story unfolds all too predictably, the script provides more than enough material for the cast to get their teeth into so they put on a good show. But, for all that, the film comes across as a somewhat dull story that just happens to be especially well-made. Perhaps it’s the milieu in which it’s set – the European great and good, swanning about in swanky hotels, and arguing over a past, and career histories, that don’t feel especially well-seated in the plot. Assayas strikes me as a more consistent director than François Ozon – although it may be unfair to compare the two as Ozon belongs to a later generation of French film-makers – but I think Ozon’s oeuvre is the more varied and interesting of the two, and Ozon’s best films are better than Assayas’s.

days_whenThe Days When I Do Not Exist, Jean-Charles Fitoussi (2002, France). This film was sent as a “bonus” with a purchase made on eBay, so I had no idea what to expect. And the internet was no real help – there’s no Wikipedia page for Fitoussi, and the imdb page for Les jours où je n’existe pas is surprisingly free of information. Whch is a shame, as it proved to be an excellent movie. It opens with a funeral, and an actor discussing the life of the person interred in the grave. The conversation – well, monologue – continues in the car as they drive away from the cemetery. And it’s only then that the main narrative begins: a man meets a woman in a park, and the two begin a relationship. But he only exists on alternate days. To him, it’s an unbroken succession of days, but for her – she’s alone every other day, and it begins to pall. So much so that she asks a friend to help try and prevent her husband (I think they’re married by this point) from appearing. But it doesn’t work. The story is told chiefly through voice-over narration (framing narrative aside), and there are occasional breaks away from the characters when the camera shoots landscape (although there’s something Benning-like about these scenes, the camera is not static but slowly pans and zooms). The whole effect feels a little like Patrick Keiller and a little like Godard (when he’s being experimental, but not too off-the-wall), but it works really well. Definitely a pleasant surprise. According to imdb, Fitoussi has made almost a dozen films, although only three or four are feature-length. I’ll definitely keep an eye open should any of them appear in editions with English subtitles.

veroniqueThe Double Life of Veronique*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1991, France). On its release, a film critic said of The Double Life of Veronique that it made “little or no sense on paper”, and she was pretty much spot-on. It doesn’t. The story is complete tosh. And yet it’s a beautifully-shot and beautifully-played piece of cinema. It not only works, it works exceedingly well – so well, in fact, it won both the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. (Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or that year, and La belle noiseuse the Grand Prize of the Jury.) The film’s title refers to young women, both played by Irène Jacob. The first is Weronika, who travels to Kraków to stay with her sick aunt, auditions for a conductor and is chosen by him as lead soprano for a planned concert. On the way home from the audition, during a violent protest, she spots a young woman who looks exactly like her. This second woman takes some photographs and then gets on a coach and drives away. This is Veronique, who teaches music at a school in Paris. Twenty minutes into the film, during the concert, Weronika collapses and dies on stage. The focus shifts to Veronique, who is suddenly overcome with sadness. A series of strange events seem to link her to the dead Weronika but transpire to be a “test” by a puppeteer and writer of children’s books Veronique has met. His last such test is sending her a cassette of ambient sounds. The postmark on the envelope leads her to a Paris railway station, where she finds the puppeteer in a café. He has been waiting there for her for two days. Angry, she leaves him – but he follows her to her hotel and the two become involved… The Double Life of Veronique is, quite frankly, made by Irène Jacob in the title role. Though the cinematography is pure Kieślowski, as is the ultra-careful timing of the story, the plot feels thinner than Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s usual material. None of which is to say The Double Life of Veronique is a bad film, or even disappointing for Kieślowski, because I thought it a better film than Three Colours: Blue, even if it did feel like the story was forever about to topple into nonsense. I need to watch Kieślowski’s other films to see if they’re also as good as I remember them – especially No End, which I seem to recall liking a great deal – although it seems not all of them have been released on Blu-ray… although Arrow Academy are going to release Dekalog in a dual edition box set later this year – it’s on my wishlist.

equinoxEquinox Flower, Yasujiro Ozu (1958, Japan). I must be getting into Ozu’s films – I recognised the characters in this movie as the same ones from Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. And because the plot was about marrying off daughters, a subject shared with those other two films, I initially thought it followed on from them. But it was actually made two years before one and four years before the other. (Although, just to confuse matters, the main character has the family name Hirayama in each film, but is played by a different actor… each of which plays a differently-named character in the other two films.) In Equinox Flower, Hirayama must deal with his own two daughters, neither of which want arranged marriages – and the boyfriend of one, in fact, approaches Hirayama to ask for the hand of his daughter – as well as trying to reconcile an old friend with his estranged daughter and also help  a female acquaintance find a husband for her daughter… The film is set mostly in Hirayama’s office, home and a Ginza bar called Luna, where the estranged daughter works. There is also a scene in the same inn which appears in the later two films (with the same landlady too). I’ve said before that Ozu’s films are very domestic – and it’s not just that they’re chiefly uchi, but more that the stories are driven by the interlinkage between several families who seem to be undergoing the same trials and tribulations. And yet there’s a telling moment in Equinox Flower, toward the end, which admits the outside world, when Hirayama and his wife are at seaside, sitting side-by-side on a bench (it’s the cover image of the DVD), and she tells him that WWII was a wonderful time for her, and he replies that he hated it. And this is after differences of opinion over their daughters’ futures and the one’s impending marriage. It’s in the small things that Ozu excels – it is, in fact, where he finds his stories. And I’m not entirely sure if the fact they’re Japanese makes them more domestic than they would be had they been set in another nation. I think it might well. Good stuff.

summer_interlideSummer Interlude, Ingmar Bergman (1951, Sweden). Bergman is a Swedish institution – at least from the outside – perhaps so much so that he overshadows everything else produced on film or television in the country (twenty-first century Nordic crime TV series notwithstanding). And, despite the size of his output, Bergman’s oeuvre isn’t all that varied. His many films are usually three- or four-hander plays, typically about relationships or families, played out with a bit more scenic freedom than a theatre offers. Summer Interlude, considered among his best by some, is a case in point. The lead character is a ballerina, who goes to stay with relatives in the country for a holiday, and subsequently has a holiday romance. But the unsophisticated boyfriend doesn’t understand the dancer’s sophisticated world – especially her relationship with her urbane “uncle” – and it all ends badly. It’s all very, well, play-ish, a story driven by relationships which are laid out in dialogue rather than through visual clues – although Bergman certainly uses his scenery to good effect (and I have to wonder if the scene involving wild strawberries inspired the later film of that title). Criticising Bergman would be like criticising Shakespeare, but nothing should be sacred – and, like Shakespeare, some of Bergman’s output works better, or at least appeals to me more, than others. Summer Interlude has its moments, but I think I’d place it in middle-tier Bergman – neither a stand-out nor one of the forgettable ones.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 791


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Moving pictures, #37

I’m still working toward my entirely USA-free Moving picture post, but I’m not quite there yet…

sicarioSicario, Denis Villeneuve (2015, USA). I’d heard many good things about this film, although these days that doesn’t really give you any real indication of what to expect. It’s a thriller about the US-Mexican border and drugs and drug cartels. That tells you much more. Like, for example, it’s an essentially racist film. Every Mexican is either a gangbanger or an illegal immigrant. The only one that isn’t, a Mexican lawyer working with the US authorities, turns out to be an assassin bent on revenge. The message of the film seems to be the only way to beat the drug cartels is to descend to their level – ie, to tacitly admit that the rule of law has failed. This is pretty much implicit in the fact the operation which comprises much of the film’s narrative is planned and led by the CIA. Who are legally prohibited from operating on US domestic territory. But that’s not a narrative I’m prepared to accept. Treating Mexicans like subhumans, assassinating drug barons, and behaving like Wild West cowboys makes the good guys worse than the bad guys. You cannot win if you surrender the moral high ground. What makes it especially egregious is that there’s an easy way to solve the problem: legalise drugs. I fail to see how it can continue to be considered “political suicide”. The only explanation is that the illegal drug market earns so much it is in its interest to remain illegal, and those involved have bought sufficient politicians to keep the situation unchanged. Of course, it doesn’t help when popular culture valorises those who both supplying drugs and those break the law in order to prevent the supply of drugs. Because in order to create a hero, you need a villain for them to fight (but not necessarily defeat – because the War on Drugs is as unwinnable, and as just as much created and perpetuated by the forces of so-called law and order, as the War on Terror). This is not drama, it’s propaganda for the status quo. Films like Sicario have tendency to make me rant, which is why I dislike watching them. It nevertheless is a nice-looking film, and Emily Blunt is good in the lead role. But the story is a bag of shite, and a film that requires you to cheer for people who have willingly abandoned law and morality in order to achieve a suprious objective (and, in this case, a frankly objectionable, illegal and offensive, objective) leaves you little to like. Meh.

three_coloursThree Colours: Blue*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1993, France). Many years ago, I decided to widen my movie viewing by watching something highly-regarded that wasn’t your usual Hollywood output. I’d been subscribing to Sight & Sound for a few years, and over the decades I’d watched the occasional “arthouse film” or “world cinema” – if anything, I liked those sort of’films, which displayed different sensibilities and visions to those I’d grown up with. And so I came across Kieślowski, who was apparently regarded as a critics’ and directors’ director, and I dutifully bought all his available films in Artificial Eye DVD editions. And yes, they were good films, streets ahead of a lot of the stuff I was used to watching. Although Blind Chance didn’t do much more than other films using the same repeated-time premise had done, and while I really liked No End it felt like an aberration in Kieślowski’s oeuvre… But of all his works, the Three Colours trilogy is reckoned the best, and I duly bought it and watched each of the three films and thought them superior drama… Recently, Artifical Eye decided to release all of Tarkovsky’s films on Blu-ray for the first time, which reminded me they had already done so for some of Kieślowksi’s – so I decided to replace my DVD copies with Blu-ray editions, and… Juliette Binoche plays the wife of a composer who attempts to free herself of her life after her husband’s death in a car accident. But it proves much harder than she had anticipated. But with a Kieślowski film, it’s as much about the cinematography as it is the story – this is the film with the infamous sugar cube scene. I was surprised by what I’d remembered from previous viewings – the overall shape of the story had gone, but a sequence shot from the back offside wheel of a car had stuck with me, perhaps because it had struck me as a corny shot when I first saw it and still seems somewhat corny. But most of the rest of the film has that clarity of mise en scène you often see in French films (well, except perhaps in some of Godard’s more experimental movies), as well as the tight focus on a single character, usually an emotionally-damaged person. Blue is certainly excellent film-making, and Kieślowski’s reputation is well-deserved; but after watching the film it felt like a superior example of a particular type of film rather than a superior film. If that makes sense.

atlantisAtlantis Down, Max Bartoli (2010, USA). I bought this at the same time as the execrable Battle Tanker (see here), but it’s not that much better. The title refers to a Space Shuttle (surely by 2010 it was known the fleet was going to be retired? The last flight, by Atlantis, coincidentally, was in July 2011, after all). But not apparently in the world of Atlantis Down. A simple supply mission to several space stations goes awry when a bright flash strikes the Shuttle, and the crew mysteriously find themselves back on Earth… or is it? One member remained behind on the spacecraft, but the rest find themselves in a mysterious wood. And as they explore it, they’re killed off one-by-one in weird ways. It’s some alien experiment or something, but it’s also exceedingly derivative and dull. I forget what the actual point of the alien experiment actually was; I’m probably better off for not remembering. I do recall that the CGI Shuttle didn’t look right, that the Shuttle’s flightdeck appeared weird (the windows were above the crew’s heads), and that the references to “internal gravity” just made the whole thing sound stupid. Atlantis Down is not as bad as Battle Tanker, but that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s two wasted hours I could have better spent watching something by, say, Sokurov…

days_eclipseDays of Eclipse, Aleksandr Sokurov (1988, Russia). It’s not easy to love everything in a particular director’s oeuvre. Take Douglas Sirk, for example. All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, and I also love Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind. But Sirk also made a lot of forgettable films, like Taza, Son of Cochise or Battle Hymn. Aleksandr Sokurov is the director I most admire, and while I don’t love his films in the same way I love All That Heaven Allows, I do find them endlessly fascinating – and one or two I have watched repeatedly because they are so gorgeously filmed and yet so strangely resistant to parsing. Days of Eclipse is one of Sokurov’s better known films, albeit not in the Anglophone world as no English-subtitled edition has ever been released on DVD. It is also, unlike many of his other films, an adaptation of a novel, a science fiction novel, Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. But not an especially faithful adaptation – in the book, the main character is an astrophysicist and a mysterious force is interfering with his research; in the film, the main character is a doctor in a poor town Turkmenistan, and he discovers that religious faith appears to be improving the health of his parents. The movie is shot in a variety of different styles – mostly in a sienna-tinted monochrome, but occasionally in colour, and sometimes in straight black and white. If there’s a pattern to this, I didn’t spot it. The protagonist also unfortunately looks more like a member of a boyband than a Soviet physician, which is a little off-putting. But it’s certainly a film – like all of Sokurov’s – which bears repeated viewings and, in fact, pretty much demands them. I’m going to have to watch it again, for sure. At least it’s not one of the impenetrable ones which, typically, I tend to prefer as I can never figure out what’s going on in them. Days of Eclipse feels perversely straightforward. I still think Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently working, and I love the philosophical meditations of his documentaries… but his fictional films seem, to me, to succeed more the… more painterly they are. If that makes sense. The stories feel like snapshots, as though an encylopaedic knowledge is required to tease out and comprehend all the references. It makes for a viewing experience that leaves you wanting another viewing…and another one… and another one. I’m glad I finally got to see Days of Eclipse, even though I found it a little disappointing; but I’m extremely glad I have a copy of my own and can watch it again at my leisure. Which I certainly plan to do.

julietJuliet of the Spirits*, Federico Fellini (1965, Italy). When I bought myself copies of Casanova and Fellini Satyricon, I decided to chuck Fellini’s Roma onto the order despite having never seen it. I could have chosen Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) instead, since it was Fellini’s first film in colour and initially it looks on a par with the films mentioned… Fortunately, I didn’t. I liked Roma much more than I did Juliet of the Spirits. You see, there’s something I don’t quite get about Fellini’s films. The colour ones I’ve seen are hugely self-indulgent – it’s their chief appeal; and yet the black and white ones I’ve watched have not been as indulgent to the same extent. Except perhaps . And now I think about it, the whole trapeze thing in the final act of La strada is pretty self-indulgent… But Juliet of the Spirits is just as mad as Fellini Satyricon and Casanova, and just as much the product of a director who appeared to have free rein, and no desire to self-censor. It’s the complete antithesis of Hitchcock. At least it is in that respect. But Hitchcock apparently liked to build complicated sets on soundstages, and so too did Fellini – pretty much all of Juliet of the Spirits appears to take place on one. (I was also maused to spot in the openning titles that much of the film’s wardrobe had been supplied by Bri-Nylon.) The title character is married to a man who organises events and charity shows, and is also a serial philanderer. A series of encounters with a number of strange people guide her to a resolution with her husband. It would not be unfair to describe the film as a series of encounters with grotesques (in its original sense – the word derives from the statues placed in grottos in 15th century Italy), although the “caves” here are mostly over-furnished sets intended to be people’s homes, or a wood, or the beach, or…  Giulietta Masina is quite astonishingly good in the title role, appearing both knowing and wide-eyedly innocent. The artificial nature of some of the sets – their house, for example, appears to have an astroturf lawn – sometimes feels tonally wrong. And, to be fair, the whole occult element of the plot was totally lost on me. I would rate it higher than the black and white Fellini films I’ve seen – except for – but not as good as the other colour ones I’ve seen.

aar_paarAar Paar, Guru Dutt (1954, India). There’s this weird series of tonal shifts in many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. Apparently serious subjects are interrupted by song and dance routines, or unprompted moments of physical comedy. Aar Paar does sort of the reverse. It starts off as a comedy – a bit of light-hearted joshing as Dutt is released from prison, and while wandering the streets of Mumbai he pratfalls when he trips over the legs of a mechanic under a car… This last is Nicky, the love-interest, and that’s the “meet cute”. But Nicky’s father will have nothing to do with Dutt. He carries a message, as promised, from another prisoner to a local gangster… and so becomes embroiled in the gangster’s dirty schemes, while posing as a taxi-driver. But as he woos Nicky, and she comes to love him, against the wishes of her father, so a young woman working in the gangster’s bar falls in love with Dutt. And then it all turns serious, with Dutt coerced into being the getaway driver for a bank robbery because the gangster has kidnapped Nicky… And then Dutt, plus Bollywood regular Johnny Walker, decide to double-cross the gangster and rescue Nicky, leading to a Hollywood-style car chase and shootout. With songs, of course. I think th ereason I enjoy Dutt’s films is because he shows more of India than you see in more recent Bollywood films – the first song in Aar Paar features a series of women carrying water; compare that with the generic Westernised yuppie characters in Dil Chahta Hai. True, Aar Paar owes a lot of its story and story beats to Hollywood rather than Bollywood, but it’s still a very idiosyncratic approach to the material, and it’s also highly entertaining. I’ll be watching more by Dutt, I think.

outlawThe Outlaw, Howard Hughes (1943, USA). I think this one ended up on my rental list because I thought it was a Howard Hawks film – and so it is… sort of. It was actually directed by Howard Hughes, but Hawks was uncredited co-director. And, after all that, it seems the film is mostly famous for Jane Russell’s boobs. Hughes claims to have invented a push-up bra in order to make Russell’s bust more, er, well, more. But according to Wikipedia she never wore it. And, to add insult to injury, Russell plays a token over which the male characters fight but isn’t in the movie all that much. It’s actually about Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett – and although the last is a sheriff, I’m not entirely sure who the title refers to. Anyway, Russell tries to kill Billy in revenge for her brother but fails; later, after Billy has been wounded in a fight with Garrett, she nurses him back to health… and falls in love with him. But Holliday still wants his horse back – the theft of which kicked off the whole plot, although it being in the Kid’s possession didn’t prevent the two from becoming friends (Holliday and the Kid, that is). But it transpires Russell is also Holliday’s girl, so her falling for the Kid pisses him off. There’s a double-cross which sees her strung up to tempt the Kid back so Garrett and Holliday can capture him. And some gunfights. And mostly it felt like the sort of mythologising sexist rubbish Hollywood has always churned out about the Wild West, with nothing to lift it above any others of its ilk. I believe it is currently out of copyright, but I can think of no good reason why it should be remembered and celebrated.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 789


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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

2015_films_by_source

Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.