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Top five science fiction films

I saw someone recently tweet for requests for people’s top five science fiction films and I thought, I can do that. Then it occurred to me I’ve watched around 3000 movies in the past few years, and many of them were science fiction. So those films I think of as my favourites… well, surely I’d seen something that might lead to a new top five? Even if nothing sprung immediately to mind… True, I’m not that big a fan of science fiction cinema, and most of my favourite movies are dramas. And most of the sf films I have seen were commercial tentpole US movies, a genre I like even less…

I went back over my records, and pulled together a rough list of about fifteen films – it seems most of the sf films I’ve seen didn’t impress me very much – and then whittled that down to five. And they were pretty much old favourites. Which sort of rendered the whole exercise a bit pointless.

Or was it?

Top of my list is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. Although distributed by 20th Century Fox, I’ve always counted it as a British film, as it was an entirely UK-based production, and in fact used many of the UK-based talent that had been working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie. I’ve always loved Alien, pretty much since its theatrical release. Which is a bit weird as it was given an X-certificate, and I would have just turned thirteen when it was released. But I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster; I had the collectable magazines and books, even Giger’s Alien (published by Big O according to my copy, but by Morpheus International according to the internet). I fell in love with the world of Alien, with the grimy lived-in appearance of the Nostromo, with the weirdness of the boomerang spaceship, with the look of the alien creature itself. Which doubtless explains why I’ve never really rated any of the sequels. Alien did it first, Alien kept it simple, Alien did it best. The less said about the prequels, the better…

But if we’re talking science fiction cinema worldbuilding, there are plenty of other movies which might qualify. I love the production design of David Lynch’s Dune: the uniforms, the spaceships, the sets… It’s just a shame Lynch’s vision was so badly mangled by the studio, and that Lynch himself made quite a few questionable choices when adapting the novel. Other prime examples include Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, Brazil, The Fifth Element, the various Star Trek films, the Star Wars movies… Or perhaps something more recent, such as Mortal Engines, anything from the MCU, Jupiter Ascending, Prospect, Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, The Lure… Except the only film out of that lot I especially rate is The Lure, and I’d classify it as horror rather than science fiction. (Oh, Metropolis is good too, of course.)

Of course, those are films that required new worlds built out of whole cloth – there’s even a book about it: Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes (my copy, of course, is in storage). There are those that made do with the real world, making clever, or innovative use, of existing buildings and landscape. Examples include Alphaville, Crimes of the Future, Rollerball, even Interstellar (mostly). One of the most imaginative uses of location for a sf film I’ve seen is Footprints on the Moon, which manages to create a plausible invented country out of a pair of Turkish seaside resorts. Sadly, though I like the film a great deal, it’s not quite good enough to make my top five.

A film which also creates a new world out of clever location shooting makes the second slot on my list: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a fan of the book, but I’m a big fan of Brutalist architecture and there’s plenty of that in the Fahrenheit 451 film. Plus a monorail. And Montag’s A-frame house in its leafy suburb with the silver birches and G-Plan furniture. It doesn’t look in the slightest bit futuristic – especially not now – but I love the film’s look and feel. (Except maybe the fire engine; not so keen on that.) But it’s not just the visuals, you also have Julie Christie playing two roles, the story’s focus on censorship (not television), the fact it ditched the stupid robot dog from the book, and Truffaut’s elegiac ending.

Science fiction films are not all set in the future or invented worlds. Some are set at the time the film was made. Girls Lost, set in early twenty-first century Sweden, might well have made my top five, but its central premise is just too fantastical. And Thelma, set in early twenty-first century Norway… well, telekinetic powers are a science fiction staple. At least they are in written science fiction. They’re more of a horror trope in cinema, and Thelma would also have made my list but it’s clearly a horror film.

An older film, one which depicts a 1980s Sweden, albeit far from any centre of civilisation, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Offret, AKA The Sacrifice. Like Girls Lost and Thelma, its genre credentials are somewhat wobbly, but the fact it’s about a nuclear apocalypse, a very real concern during the Cold War and one much used by science fiction, pretty much since the genre’s early twentieth century origins, just about clinches it as science fiction for me. Okay, so Erland Josephson makes a deal with a higher power to put everything back and that’s hardly science-fictional, but never mind. Watching Offret is a harrowing experience, and science fiction cinema rarely manages that.

Most people, if they had to pick a Tarkovsky movie – and why wouldn’t they pick one? – would probably plump for either Solaris or Stalker. But the latter’s urban wasteland setting might suit its story but can hardly be called worldbuilding. And I’ve seen too many Soviet bloc sf films from the 1960s and 1970s to find anything special in Solaris‘s production design. They’re both great sf films, but I much prefer the look and feel of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea to Solaris, although the latter is the better movie.

It’s not just actual Soviet and East German films, however. There are also the US ones from the 1960s which New World Pictures cobbled together from Soviet special effects footage, the best of which is Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (containing footage from Небо зовет).

Offret takes slot number three.

When I wrote about building whole new worlds for science fiction movies, I very carefully didn’t mention one particular film, which takes place on another planet ruled by an entirely invented civilisation… but is actually a very old genre property. 2012’s John Carter. My number four choice. It did badly at the box office and its cast is hardly top-drawer. But it’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, and its script makes some very adventurous decisions about its story-telling which, to my mind, totally paid off (longeurs notwithstanding). I’m not a fan of the books – they’re very much historical documents, and the tropes they introduced have been so extensively used and reworked in the decades since it would be impossible to make them fresh. But the basic story possesses a primal appeal, and although John Carter does complicate its plot with its nested endings, I think it gives the film a contemporary narrative sensibility. John Carter is a seriously under-rated movie, and it’s a pity corporate politics pretty much killed it.

That’s four movies, and the final slot was, as is usually the case, the hardest to fill. I could think of a number of films which almost made the grade. There’s Dredd from 2012, a bona fide, and ultra-violent, science fiction art-house movie, but it’s too thin on plot. Or Cargo, a Schweitzer-Deutsch film from 2009, which is a bit of a hodge-podge of genre tropes, some of which border on cliché, but looks pretty good and is about as science-fictional as you can get. Going a bit further back, there’s Peter Watkins’s Privilege from 1967, which is a clever, and quite funny, dystopian satire. Or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an alien in the person of Scarlet Johansson drives around Glasgow in 2013 picking up men to provide meat for her home world.

However… I decided to go for a completely left-field choice for movie number five: The Untamed, a Mexican film directed by Amat Escalante, released in 2016. It’s a good example of a type of cinema I especially like, slow cinema. It is enigmatic. It has a documentary feel. And yet you have no idea where it’s going for pretty much its entire length. It also shows that science fiction can be used to illuminate the lives of people in the real world, it doesn’t always need fancy worldbuilding, expensive CGI or imaginative location shooting. Sometimes it just needs the introduction of something strange into the mundane.

So that’s my top five science fiction films. As of 2019. Ask me again in a year or two and it will probably be different.

I’ve no doubt missed out a huge number of eligible movies: I  either because I’ve not watched them, don’t think they’re any good, or just simply didn’t remember (despite trawling back through my film-watching records). I’ve also not mentioned any anime films, although many of them might well qualify. I’ve watched some excellent ones – anything by Makoto Shinkai, for example; or the Neon Evangelion movies – but I don’t love anime as much as I do live-action, and besides they probably deserve a list of their own. Another day, perhaps.

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Moving pictures 2018, #40

Bit of an odd mix this time.

Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Philip Sgriccia (1999, USA). A while ago I put together a list of all films that featured deep sea diving, and this was on it. I knew nothing about it, other than that. I didn’t know it was a private project by a star of Baywatch, Parker Stevenson. I didn’t know it was released straight-to-video. I didn’t know it was pretty bad. Stevenson plays an oceanographer who is called in when an island mysteriously explodes and creates a “black tide – a “harmful algae bloom” or “HAB”, because, of course, world-killing events always have acronyms. But apparently it’s all to do with a Mayan god, who threatens extinction every 5,000 years… or is it? A diver disappears in the deeps, and when he reappears he’s different, like alternate world version of himself different. Oh, and there’s a big hole, with an “intense magnetic field”, in the ocean bed. So maybe not Mayan gods after all. Surprisingly, Stevenson managed to get use of some pretty state-of-the-art diving hardware for his film – not just a diving support ship and a ROV, but also an actual DSV (which never gets used) and an atmospheric diving suit (which does). This film apparently never made of it off VHS, which is a bit of a shame given much worse films have had DVD, and even Blu-ray, releases. It is perhaps a bit too much of a cut-price The Abyss, and Stevenson probably found his level when he appeared in Baywatch… but there’s some nice hardware on display and some pretty good underwater photography (but also some bad CGI).

The Steamroller and the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Prior to the release of his first feature film, Andrei Tarkovsky made four short films, the last of which, The Steamroller and the Violin, was his diploma film at VGIK. It’s a simple enough story: a seven-year-old music student is bullied by the other boys in his apaprtment block, and is one day saved by the driver of a steamroller working on the road outside. The two become friends. They spend the day wandering around Moscow, and agree to meet up to see a film that afternoon. But the boy’s mother won’t let him out because she doesn’t know the steamroller driver. Who insteads goes to the cinema with his female driver colleague who has completely by coincidence of course turned up. The one thing that’s noticeable about The Steamroller and the Violin is all the camera tricks Tarkovsky managed to squeeze into it. On his way to music school, the boy looks at the mirrors in a shop window, and we’re treated to a montage of split-screen fractured moving images, as if reflected in multiple mirrors. When the boy and the driver watch a house being demolished, the camera follows the path of the wrecking ball. And when the boy plays his violen for the driver, the camera is placed near the floor looking up at the boy as he plays. Given it was a diploma film – it was awared “excellent”, apparently – then I suppose it’s good to display technical proficiency, but it all does seem a bit… imposed, a bit too much for the story to carry. Worth seeing, however.

Interlude, Douglas Sirk (1957, USA). My admiration for Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” know no bounds, and not only is All That Heaven Allows my absolute favourite film but I also love Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. But not every film made during that period by Sirk worked quite so well. On paper, Interlude should have done. A young American woman, hungry for adventure, gets a job in post-war Germany with a cultural organisation. Through her job, she meets a tortured genius German conductor, whose wife is mentally ill. She has an affair with him. But eventually realises the error of her ways and returns to the US. It has all the ingredients, and the cast were certainly up to the job – June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi. It even had European locations. And yet… I note that the three films I like had Russell Metty as cinematographer, but Interlude has William H Daniels. Is that all it is? The cinematography? Because Interlude has its moments, but doesn’t enthral to same extent as those other films. Perhaps it’s because Allyson’s character is too nice – Wyman in All That Heaven Allows at least stands up for herself – or perhaps it’s that Brazzi never quite convinces as the tortured maestro, although he does make a good romantic lead. Interlude feels like a film that could have been a pure slice of Americana, with an entirely US cast, but was made in Europe for no other reason than to show American audiences that such a place existed. It’s by no means the worst film Sirk ever made – some of his early Hollywood films are clearly “work for hire” – but it lacks something that lifts up among the best of his “women’s pictures”.

Forbidden Kingdom, Oleg Stepchenko (2014, Russia). It wasn’t until I was about thirty minutes into this film that I realised it was a remake if Viy (see here). It didn’t help that the opening was completely different – Jason Flemyng is a cartographer in eighteenth-century England, who is a caught in flagrante delicto with Charles Dance’s nubile daughter, and so forced to flee the country. He heads east in his steampunk carriage, and so finds himself in the Ukraine… Which is where he ends up in a village currently being haunted by a young woman who died at the hands of a demon. Her body is lying in state in the local churchm and people who spend the night in the church witness all manner of demonic activity. But then it begins to spread into the village. Flemyng is at a dinner where all the other guests turn into monsters. There are sightings of a horned demon. It’s all very OTT and CGI, and while bits of it certainly reminded of Viy there was so much more of it. It didn’t help that the actors who dubbed into English all sounded like they were acting in a bad TV advert. In the end, it all turns out to be some sort of weird mass hallucination, and then there’s a rational explanation for everything, although I must have blinked and missed the point where the film turned from fantastical horror to historical drama. There’s also a framing narrative, in which Flemyng writes to Dance’s daughter – the implication being that the story is told through his letters, which might at least explain the change from horror to drama, but is spoiled by the fact we see it visually on-screen. It was an entertaining enough film, but the original is much better.

The Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1982, Taiwan). This is the second film Hou prefers not to remember, and also a vehicle for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee. In this film, Bee plays a substitute teacher sent to a provincial town, who falls in love with a fellow teacher. It’s not all smooth-sailing, as his girlfriend form Taipei turns up and he’s too much of a coward to tell her his attentions now lie elsewhere. He also has to get permission from the woman’s father. And then there’s the class he’s teaching, particularly three young lads he refers to as the “Three Musketeers” (or at least the subtitles do, and I have to wonder what cultural referent the actual dialogue uses). The Green, Green Grass of Home at least doesn’t have the horrible ear-wormy song of Cute Girl, although it does have a song which is repeated throughout the film – on several occasions it’s even sung by the schoolkids. But it’s still lightweight stuff, and it’s easy to see why Hou would sooner it was forgotten.

Cairo Station*, Youssef Chahine (1958, Egypt). The Egyptian film industry is, more or less, the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world. It churns out endless dramas, almost none of which – or perhaps even none – ever get released in the Anglophone film world. The only Egyptian film I’d seen prior to this one was The Yacoubian Building, which was also a best-selling novel in the UK. Cairo Station, AKA Bab al-hadid or The Iron Gate (a literal translation of the Arabic title), is an early neorealist film in an industry which hasn’t much gone in for neorealism. The story is straightforward enough – it’s a day in the life among the workers at Cairo’s railway station, focusing particularly on the porters and the women who sell soft drinks to passengers. The porters are attempting to unionise because they’re sick of the gang master who controls all the porter jobs. And the soft-drink sellers don’t have a licence and so are continually running away from the police. Also living at the station is Qinawi, a disabled man who does odd jobs and is nominally looked after by the newspaper seller. But he fancies Hannuma, but she is betrothed to the man trying to unionise the porters. And it all comes to a violent head. All of the action takes place in the station, and mostly on the tracks. The plot didn’t hold any real surprises, but I was surprised at how well the film hung together. The cast were variable, but the lead characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, and the story managed to keep its different threads running along together. I think I’d have to see more Egyptian films to decide whether or not it should represents the country’s cinema in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it’s certainly a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 924


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Moving pictures 2017, #21

Six films from six different countries, which is quite good… and even the US one is not that embarrassing. Honestly.

Dances with Wolves*, Kevin Costner (1990, USA), Yes, unbelievably, I’d never seen Dances with Wolves. Since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I’d always planned to watch it, but I had it as low priority on one of my rental lists. But then I found a copy for a quid in a charity shop… I’d been expecting a revisionist Western and, yes, that’s very much what it is… but not precisely in the way I’d expected. Costner plays a monomaniacal Cavalry officer who insists on being assigned to the furthest outpost in US territory. Shortly after settling alone there, he encounters his neighbours, a village of Lakota Indians. He visits them in the interest of peaceful relations, and gradually learns their language. He also marries a Lakota widow. But then the US Army turns up, and decides Costner is a traitor because he has gone “native”. Unfortunately, there is such a mass of cultural material generated by the US in which the Native Americans are painted as villainous savages, and the white Americans as noble pioneers, that it’ll be centuries before the US truly accepts it committed racial genocide on all the cultures which shared the North American continent prior to their arrival. So, really, we shouldn’t be calling these films “revisionist” because they depict the Lakota as actual human beings and the occupying white Americans as vicious scumbags, because that’s probably much closer to the truth than the genre usually reckons. It is also fucking shameful that science fiction bases so many of its narratives on stories of Western pioneers and their so-called courage and fortitude in colonising distant territory, when it was usually their advanced weaponry and duplicity that won the day. Dances with Wolves was not a great film, although it won a huge raft of awards, but it was a lot better than I’d expected it to be. I actually quite enjoyed it.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962, Russia). This was a rewatch, prompted by me upgrading my Tarkovsky DVDs (which went to a good home) to Blu-rays. Ivan’s Childhood was Tarkovsky’s first feature film for a studio. The title refers to a boy who becomes a runner for the Red Army on the Eastern Front during WWII. There’s a scene in the film which captures me every time: Ivan has just arrived at an outpost, and the commanding lieutenant is not sure what to make of him, despite the boy’s claim to importance. At Ivan’s insistence, the officer rings headquarters and is properly humbled. He then offers the boy a hot bath. Evereyone who meets Ivan wants to do right by him, which by their lights means sending him to school and officer training. But he wants to stay at the front, directly contributing to the war effort. To be honest, there’s not much on this Blu-ray release which justifies the upgrade – it’s a bloody good film, if not Tarkovsky’s best, there’s the rest of his oeuvre to compete for that, and to be honest I can’t say it looks better on Blu-ray than on DVD because it’s a fifty-five-year-old film. Upgrading was a no-brainer – Tarkovsky is one of the best directors ever – and if it’s prompted me to rewatch his films (again), then it’s done more than intended. In fact, I now want to watch them again again.

The Milk of Sorrow, Claudia Llosa (2009, Peru). My first film from Peru. And a female director too. (Incidentally, I’ve started tracking the gender of the directors whose films I watch now, but it’s embarrassingly male-heavy at present.) The Milk of Sorrow takes place in an area occupied by indigenous people – Quechua is spoken during the film more than Spanish, in fact – and the title refers to a belief that women who were abused or raped transmit their feelings through their milk to their female children. The film follows a young woman who is accused of suffering from this as she tries to avoid her mother’s fate. I had not come across Llosa before encountering this film – which was pretty much a random Peruvian film picked because I’d never seen a film from that country – but on the strength of The Milk of Sorrow I want to see more by Llosa. (And so I did, as it turns out The Milk of Sorrow was a two-disc set with Llosa’s Madeinusa, which will be covered in a later Moving pictures post). Some films are just good; some films are good and you want other people to watch them. Many of the recent Chinese films I’ve seen fall into that later category. As does The Milk of Sorrow. Highly recommended.

Innocent Sorcerers, Andrzej Wajda (1960, Poland). Another from the second Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. I’ve yet to get a handle on Wajda’s output – I really like Man of Marble and Man of Iron, although the latter feels more like a teleplay than a feature film; and the latter is also in the first box set of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is good as it’s apparently not available in the UK, to go with the Second Run DVD release I have of Man of Marble; but I was not all that taken with his best-known film, Ashes and Diamonds. In other words, I pretty much have to take each Wajda film as I find them. And this one was… fun, in a sort of 1960s black-and-white-jazz-soundtrack sort of way. A bit like a John Cassavetes film but more to my taste. There’s a young doctor with improbably blond hair, and a young man in sunglasses who looks like the protagonist of Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s all very New Wave, but filtered through a very Polish lens. As previously mentioned it’s a lot like Cassavetes’s films but also completely unlike them – it feels more polished for a start, less reliant on ensemble acting, with a bit more Godard in its DNA than Cassavetes was wont to show. The films suffers from unsympathetic characters – but then so do Cassavetes’s films – and very little happens during its 87 minutes. It’s considered an oddity in Wajda’s oeuvre, and it’s easy to understand why. Worth watching, but lacking something that might make it a film worth remembering.

Day for Night*, François Truffaut (1973, France). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s apparently not available for rental from either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso. But it turned out to be an excellent film, so never mind. (It was also very cheap.) Truffaut plays a director making a film in the south of France starring a British movie star, played by Jacqueline Bisset. The entire movie is a series of in-jokes about movie-making, and the personalities involved, and it works really well. My attitude to Truffaut’s films is definitely improving. There are some great set-pieces in Day for Night, especially the one with the cat, and the cast are thoroughly convincing in their roles. The alcoholic dowager actress is fun, and the various relationships which develop among the cast and crew are amusing. Apparently, Graham Greene was an admirer of Truffaut and scored himself a walk-on part as an insurance agent. Truffaut, who admired Greene’s writing, only found out later that one of the insurance agents was Greene. As meta-cinema goes, it’s all a bit obvious – and was obvious in 1973, Vertov did it fifty years earlier with Man with a Movie Camera, for example – and some of the jokes were clearly at Hollywood’s expense, but it all seemed so genial, rather than than génial, and Bisset’s depiction of a fragile actress seemed just right for her role in the film and the “film”. My third favourite Truffaut so far.

Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China). Yet more Chinese cinema. I’ve yet to see any evidence to contradict my claim that China currently has one of the strongest cinemas of any nation. Admittedly, I’m seeing the films which get international releases, and not the purely domestic stuff, but China has a stable of amazing directors, active from the mid-1990s onwards, who have produced some of the best films of the past ten or so years. Which is not to say there are not some excellent historical films – I’m a big fan of Spring in a Small Town (1948), and The Goddess (1934) is also very good. Suzhou River is an earlier work, inasmuch as it was released at the turn of the century, and it shows a bit in its MTV-style cutting, but it’s still an excellent film. It also takes an interesting approach to narrative, opening with a voiceover in which the narrator explains how he came to love a young woman who plays a mermaid in a Shanghai bar. It then tells the story of Mardar and Moudan, a courier who ferries a rich man’s daughter about town, before being forced to kidnap her… Years later, Mardar returns to Shanghai, and stumbles across the mermaid, who he thinks is Moudan. There is, as previously mentioned, a few too many MTV-style jump-cuts, but in all other respects this is a very good Sixth Generation movie. I’ve found myself buying several of the Chinese films I’ve watched on rental after seeing them, and I think I’ll be looking for a copy of this one too. (Damn, I just went and bought one on eBay for a tenner.)

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 860


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Moving pictures, #62

These posts are starting to back up, so I’m going to have to get a few of them out. But hey, you like reading about films, right? It can’t be science fiction all the time, after all. Er, not that it has been this year. Anyway, movies… The US keeps on creeping back in – although in this case it’s two classic Hollywood movies. I’d like to keep my viewing on a 2:1 basis – ie, two non-Hollywood for every one Hollywood… but it doesn’t always work out that way. Oh well.

rome_open_cityRome, Open City*, Roberto Rossellini (1945, Italy). I thought I’d seen several of Rossellini’s films, but it seems this is only the second – the first was Journey to Italy, back in 2014. Rome, Open City was apparently financed by a wealthy old lady, as the war had pretty much destroyed the Italian film industry. She wanted Rossellini to make a documentary about a Roman Catholic priest who’d helped the partisans against the Nazi occupiers. Rossellini then persuaded her to fund another documentary about Italian children who had planted bombs and fought against the Germans. Fellini’s screenwriter suggested combining the two documentaries into a single feature film, and work began on that two months after the Allies had driven the Nazis from Rome. Rome, Open City pretty much tells the stories of those two documentaries in Neorealist style, and it does it quite effectively. A lot of the cast were non-professionals, and that, and the black white photography, actually gives the film a documentary feel. I’m still not a big fan of Italian neorealism, at least not of the  films under that label I’ve seen so far, although I like them enough to want to continue to explore the genre; but Rome, Open City was pretty good. Interestingly, some of the stock Rossellini used was supplied by a US Army private called Geiger stationed in Rome. Geiger claimed to have contacts in the US film industry and some have credited him with the global success of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini, however, called him a “half-drunk nobody” who claimed to be a producer. Geiger sued Fellini for defamation in 1983 but lost the case.

nostalgiaNostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky (1983, Russia). And so the Tarkovsky rewatch continues, with this, his next to last film, made in Italy but starring a cast from various countries. A Russian writer is travelling about Italy, researching the life of an eighteenth-century Russian who lived in Italy but committed suicide after returning to Russia. The writer is accompanied by an Italian interpreter; and during their travels about Tuscany, they hear of a man who repeatedly tries to cross a mineral pool while carry a lit candle, and his story fascinates the writer. The old man (played by Swede Erland Josephson) had been in an asylum, but was released when the state closed them all. He’d been committed because he had imprisoned his family inside his house for seven years. (There’s more than an echo, and not just from the casting, with Tarkovsky’s next film, The Sacrifice.) I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I think Nostalgia might be the least satisfying. It looks lovely, of course; and the glacial pacing is pure Tarkovsky from the first frame. But it suffers because it has two male centres of attraction. Tarkovsky’s films are typically told from a single male viewpoint (he didn’t do female characters, more’s the pity). Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are about the title character, Solaris is about Kris Kelvin, Mirror is about the director, The Sacrifice is about Erland Josephson’s character… the nearest he gets to more than one is in Stalker, but it’s still the title character who provides the real focus. But in Nostalgia, you have the focus bouncing from the Russian writer to Josephson’s character, and it makes the movie feel unbalanced. The final scene, in which Josephson lectures a crowd and then self-immolates, also comes across as a weird change in tone, and though it feeds back into the emotional and narrative closure of the Russian writer’s story, it results in an ending that provides only a limited resolution. I think every self-respecting film fan should have Tarkovsky’s movies in their collection, but that doesn’t mean all Tarkovsky films are equal. Or indeed that I will feel the same way about each and everyone of them if I rewatch them all five years from now.

gunga_dinGunga Din*, George Stevens (1939, USA). Despite the title, the film is not just based on Kipling’s poem but also some of the stories from his collection Soldiers Three. In the film, the three are Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, and they’re NCOs in the Royal Engineers on the Northwest Frontier of India in the 1880s. In the first half of the movie, the three are sent with a company of sepoys to a British outpost which had ceased transmitting on the telegraph mid-message. They find the outpost deserted, but are then set upon by Thuggee bandits. They manage to fight them off, and return to their garrison. Fairbanks is all set to leave the army, marry Joan Fontaine and become a tea planter. But his old buddies still need him, especially when they learn the Thuggee guru is holed up in a gold temple. Their plan to capture him (and steal the gold) goes wrong, and they’re taken prisoner… but they turn the tables and capture the guru. But they can’t escape. And when the British army comes marching toward the temple, the guru reveals the whole thing is a trap and he has an army of his own hidden in the hills. He gives an angry speech about British imperialism and Indian self-rule, but it means nothing because the title character, a humble water carrier played by a US actor in blackface, manages to warn the British army. The poem’s race relations are pretty shit to start with, and the film only amplifies them. And yet there’s that bizarre speech by the Thuggee guru – an Italian actor in blackface, incidentally – which riffs on some pretty unpleasant truths about the British empire, and you have to wonder about sentiments more common now in the twenty-first century (except perhaps among Trump voters and Leave voters) appearing in a seventy-seven-year-old American film…

grapes_wrathThe Grapes of Wrath*, John Ford (1940, USA). Hollywood has a long history of churning out worthy adaptations of classic American novels, much like the BBC does for dramatising English nineteenth-century literary classics, although by the 1980s I suspect Hollywood had managed to cover all the major works. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. To be honest, I’d not expected much of this film, and I’d probably taken onboard a few too many stereotypes about the story, and the period of history it covers, over the years; and I’m fairly sure I read a Steinbeck novel back in my early teens but I can’t recall whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men… Anyway, I had relatively low expectations for The Grapes of the Wrath movie, and so the selfishness of US society it depicted came as little surprise… but the story also showed a side to the Okies – intentionally, obviously – in which they displayed a lot more human kindness and fellow feeling than those most at that time, and certainly more than those who were exploiting them. There’s even a government camp which looks after the migrant workers, provides them with shelter, hygiene and safety. Of course, all the local growers try to close down the government camp, because they want the Okies as desperate as possible so they will accept their rock-bottom wages. Despite a long history of films like this which show the dirty underbelly of capitalism (actually, more like the unvarnished reality of capitalism), US audiences still seem to revere the sociopaths who succeed materially in their flawed system – hell, they even make them president. Trump is not fit material for a folk hero. Tom Joad, the character played by Henry Fonda in this film, who is an ex-con returning home when the film opens, after being sent down for killing a man in a bar fight… well, Tom Joad would make a much better folk hero. And probably a better president too.

hijackHijack, Kunal Shivdasani (2008, India). Until watching this, I’d forgotten how shamelessly entertaining Bollywood movies are. I’ve been watching a lot of art house/world cinema this year, more so than in previous years certainly, and though I like such films as much because they show other parts of the world, as well as telling stories I find more appealing, it had slipped my mind how brain-switched-off entertaining some films can be. Hollywood does it well. But Bollywood does it better. With songs. Seriously, there’s no comparison. I can’t even remember what Hijack was about – a plane hijack, I guess – but I do remember starting to grin at the ludicrously cheesy opening credits, and the lyrics to the song played over the credits, and not stopping until the film had finished. I don’t even remember the song and dance numbers, and you’d think they at least would be memorable. But I don’t think it matters all that much – in the same way it doesn’t matter when you see a tentpole blockbuster: you’re there for the two to three hours of experience, and why should it matter if you can remember nothing five minutes after leaving the auditorium? Except, well, cinema – or at least film – is an artform, and it succeeds as an artform when it is memorable. Nothing happens in James Benning’s movies but they are memorable, they are art. Hijack punches all the buttons for mindless entertainment, but will probably be ignored by those most likely to enjoy it because it’s in Hindi. And has songs. But it was fun, it was dumb, and it was entertaining. And if that’s all you’re looking for then Bollywood is as valid a source as Hollywood.

bandeBande à part, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I’m slowly working my way through Godard’s oeuvre, and while I have a lot of time for what he tried to achieve I do tend to find his films a bit hit and miss. This one, despite being highly regarded, I found a miss. The plot is nominally based on that of an American noir novel. Two men and a woman, all in their twenties, decide to rob the woman’s aunt, who has a large stash of cash. But one of the men’s uncle finds out, so they bring the robbery forward a day. It goes wrong – they kill the aunt and cannot find the money. So they leave. One of the men goes back, as he thinks he knows where the cash might be hidden. His uncle follows him. They find the money and kill each other. The aunt reappears, not dead after all. She, and her lodger, take the money. The young woman and the surviving young man ride off in disgust. It’s all filmed in black-and-white, and very Godard-seque – he was married to the film’s star, Anna Karenina, at the time, and I find his films suffer when he’s more interested in his stars than in his movie – although Bande à part is not as consciously Nouvelle Vague as, say, Truffaut’s Tirez le pianiste (which I suspect is going to be my yardstick for New Wave-ness from now on). Worth seeing, but only middling Nouvelle Vague and slightly-above-middle Godard.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 829


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1001 progress

I’ve been using the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (2013 edition) to direct my film-viewing for a couple of years now, and I thought it might be worth having a look at how it’s been going… Before starting to use the list, I’d watched some 407 of the movies. My total is currently standing at 823 films seen, so I’ve watched slightly more as a result of following the list than I had before I even knew of it. What I find especially interesting, however, is the number of films I’ve subsequently bought on DVD or Blu-ray after watching them on rental only because they were on the list. Of course, there were films – by, for instance, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieślowski, Kubrick, the Archers – I already owned as I’ve been a fan of their work for many years…

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After watching Lola and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, I bought a Jaques Demy collection, which also included The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. On the other hand, much as I enjoyed Les vacances de M Hulot, it wasn’t until I’d seen Playtime, and loved it, that I decided to invest in a collection of Jacques Tati’s films. Carl Theodor Dreyer is another such director – I’d seen Ordet, I forget why I rented it, but not been especially taken with it; but after watching Gertrud I purchased everything by Dreyer currently available on DVD – which was, fortunately, pretty much his entire oeuvre (thank you, BFI). He became a favourite director. After buying a copy of James Benning’s Deseret – because it was on the list but wasn’t available for rental – I became a huge fan of his work, and bought every other DVD of his films released by Österechisches Filmmuseum. I am eagerly awaiting more being released. It also turned me into a fan of video installations, as I discovered recently when I visited the Hafnarhús branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum and saw Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ (I did like Örn Alexander Amundáson’s ‘A New Work’ too, although it’s not video, because it reminded me of my own approach to writing fiction).

There were also a number of movies I watched on rental because they were on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and then promptly bought copies of my own, like Le mépris, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, F for FakeShane, Spring in a Small Town, Shock Corridor, Häxan and Lucía. I liked Cocteau’s Orphée so much, I tracked down a copy of the Criterion collection which included it, The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus (not to be confused with the Studiocanal box set, which only has the latter two films in it). I loved Glauber Rocha’s Earth Entranced so much, I bought it, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes, the only films by Rocha available on DVD in the UK. And since the I couldn’t rent the third part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, I bought the trilogy – although I still think the first film, Koyaanisqatsi, is easily the best.

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There are also a number of films I’ve added to my wishlist because I might at some point buy them… or I might not. Such as Henry V, The Hired Hand, Easy Rider, Man with a Movie Camera, The Great Silence, Babette’s Feast… not to mention further films by directors who appear on the list… which is why I have picked up films by Guru Dutt,  Yasujiro Ozu, Ken Loach and Satyajit Ray…

There are also a number of films I only got to watch because I bought a DVD copy of my own – they just weren’t available for rental. Not all have been especially good. Stella Dallas is on the list, but is not available for rental, or indeed for purchase on DVD, in the UK. I ended up buying Spanish release… and the film proved to be entirely forgettable. There’s also streaming TV these days, and I found a few, surprisingly, streamed for free on Amazon Prime – like The Gospel According to St Matthew and Salt of the Earth. However, Amazon Prime has not been an especially good source of films from the list – either free, as previously mentioned, or for “rental”, such as Sergeant York and Housekeeping, both of which cost me £3.49 for 48 hours.

One very real consequence of using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been that my film collection has become much more varied. Not only have I bought films previously unknown to me by Brazilian directors (Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos), Cuban directors (Humberto Solás), Indian directors (Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt), but I’ve also been encouraged to further explore the oeuvres of directors I had previously tried, such as Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard… and have since bought films by all three.

I don’t think the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is perfect. Far from it. It includes way too many US films, and some nations’ cinemas are almost totally ignored. Albania, for example, apparently has a thriving film industry but, to be fair, I can’t find any films from the country readily available on DVD with English subtitles. And yet Greenland, with almost no film industry to speak of… there are DVDs of Greenlandic films with multiple-language subtitles, like Nuummioq, which is very good.

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Having said that using the list has resulted in me owning a much more varied collection of films – most of the Hollywood blockbusters went to local charity shops, and I no longer buy them – it has also shown me that some particular cinemas, not just present-day Hollywood, don’t work for me. I’m not especially taken with French films, although I like some of them a great deal. Godard, mentioned earlier, is a good example – some of his films I like a lot, some of them I just can’t understand the appeal. I like the movies of Renoir and Vigo, but not Bresson or Carné or Malle or Chabron. And Buñuel I find a bit hit and miss.

When it comes to movie genres… Well, there are remarkably few classic sf films. Given the number of sf films produced since the beginning of cinema – and one of the earliest classics, La voyage dans le lune, is an actual sf movie based on an actual sf novel – the genre’s hit-rate has been pretty low. There are a lot of westerns on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I will admit that I don’t see the appeal of the genre. It’s a peculiarly American mythology, I get that, but too many of the westerns on the list seemed ordinary, and it was only the ones which broke the mould, or bent the formula, like The Hired Hand, which for me stood out. Speaking of US films, there are a number of movies by American indie directors also on the list, and those too I failed to see why they should make the list.

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with whether a film can be considered seminal or germinal in some way. It’s evident enough with a silent movie. Watch Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and you can’t help but understand how historically important it is. And some silent movies, which normally I’d never bother to seek out, and I’ve seen solely because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, they’ve proven to be excellent entertainment – not just Storm Over Asia from Russia, but even early Hollywood works like The Phantom of the Opera.

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The 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is a deeply-flawed list, but it has still enriched my film-watching. I don’t agree with many of the choices made for the list, but it has at least prompted me to watch those films. And then seek out other films similar to those I liked. My DVD collection is, I like to think, much more diverse as a result. I’ve still some way to go before I complete the list – in fact, some of the movies are so hard to find I may never get to see everything on it. And, of course, the list is updated each year, although I’m more likely to have seen recent additions. But there is still the cinematic traditions of a huge number of nations, USA not included, to explore…

 


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Moving pictures, #55

An odd selection this time round – some old, some new, some good, some bad, some Hollywood, some world cinema, some television…

childhoods_endChildhood’s End (2015, USA). Yes, this is an adaptation of the Arthur C Clarke novel, which, I think, I read back in the late 1970s. I have the SF Masterwork edition of it somewhere (the one I read all those years ago was likely a library book, or perhaps a Pan paperback I have since lost). As it is, all I can remember is the big reveal about the Overlords, not what the actual plot of the novel was. Which pretty much ruins the big reveal at the end of the first episode of this three-part mini-series. It starts intriguingly enough, with a man on a deserted Earth, explaining that he is the only human being left. And then it’s straight into flashback, with the Overlords’ ships appearing in the sky over cities across the globe (although very Americo-centric, as US television and films always tend to be, Childhood’s End does make more of a nod to the rest of the world than usual). One man – an American, of course – is chosen by the Overlords to be Earth’s ambassador. He’s a humble farmer, with one of those farms which consists of a small house in the middle of a vast acreage of maize, and which you only see in films. And it never seems to get harvested either. Even though years pass during the series, the corn is always high and green. Colm Meaney plays a press baron who doesn’t believe the Overlords’ – well, Overlord’s, as only one appears for much of the series, Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth – stated objective of ushering in a new utopian age. So, like Rupert Murdoch, he works to make things shit for everyone except himself. Fortunately, his “resistance movement” is quickly shown to be a selfish bunch of lies. There’s also another narrative thread about a devoutly Christian woman who thinks the Overlords are agents of Satan – so she gets a bit of a shock when they reveal themselves. And there’s a young black boy in a wheelchair, who is shot by a gangbanger, resurrected by the Overlords, and grows up to become an astrophysicist and the first human to visit the Overlords’ home world – and the person in the progolue. In hindsight, it all sounds a bit hokey and simplistic, not unlike a 1950s science fiction novel, in fact. But the production values were pretty good, the cast were likeable, and it entertained throughout its 246 minutes. I’m still not how the Overlords managed to invent giant spaceships, interstellar travel and all sorts of super-advanced technological gizmos, but not clothes.

signsSigns & Wonders, Jonathan Nossiter (2000, France). This is not on the 2013 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but I’ve seen it on another version of the list – which is why I added it to my rental list. And despite being a French film, Signs & Wonders is an English-language movie, starring Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger, and is set mostly in Greece. Skarsgård plays a US businessman, who has been having an affair with Unger. He decides to break it off after becoming worried by “signs” he has seen in everyday things. He tells his wife, Rampling, and their marriage suffers. Six months later, while on a family skiing trip, he bumps into Unger, and convinces himself their relationship was fated. so he divorces his wife and moves to the US with Unger. But when she admits she manufactured their meeting at the ski resort, he realises his mistake and returns to his wife in Greece. Except she is now in a relationship with a Greek journalist, who is documenting US complicity in the Greek military dictatorship’s brutal regime. And she doesn’t want Skarsgård back. Accidents, near-fatal ones, then start to happen to the journalist… and… Meh. I couldn’t get invested much in this film, and I couldn’t see why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or at least one iteration of it.

stalkerStalker*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1979, Russia). Ask people who have a favourite Tarkovsky film which one it is, and most will say Stalker. It’s certainly the film that looks and feels the most Tarkovskian. Famously, it’s adapted from Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, although it’s ny no means a faithful adaptation. (I’ve yet to understand the appeal of the novel – I read the original SF Masterworks edition, and the translation had couched everything in US vernacular, which ruined it for me; a more recent translation is apparently much better.) Tarkovsky’s film opens in sepia, with a colour palette that immediately signifies how miserable and shit the world is – an impression only deepened by the opening argument between Stalker and his wife. Outside, the light is yellow and everywhere is shrouded in fog. Stalker meets up with Professor and Writer, the two people he is taking into the Zone, in a nearby bar. After a sequence in which the three of them drive around a post-apocalyptic industrial landscape, being chased by a man on a motorbike, and being shot at by him, they eventually take a tiny diesel train into the Zone… where the movie abruptly shifts to colour. The route through the  Zone, however, is far from straightforward – routes double-back on themselves, time passes strangely. When they lose the Professor, they find him waiting at their destination, even though he didn’t overtake them – and they then realise they are back where they started. It’s hard not to draw conclusions from the depiction of the “real” world compared to that of the Zone, and when you consider the lambent cinematography of the scenes set at the farm during the narrator’s childhood in Mirror, it seems to suggest Tarkovsky was romanticising the pre-industrial past – either his own or history’s (indeed, his next film was titled Nostalgia). Having said that, the Zone is also littered with industrial debris, indicating nature has reclaimed what was once the province of science and industry. The centre of the Zone is the Room, which apparently makes wishes come true. But the three experience a number of strange things before they reach it. Stalker in a long film – 161 minutes – and comprises a number of very long takes in which very little happens. It’s a great-looking film, but one in which the normal rules of cinema narrative do not apply – and that makes parsing it difficult, and also makes it hard to place in Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. It’s definitely not my favourite of his films, but I’m also not sure if it’s his best.

phantomThe Phantom of the Opera*, Rupert Julian (1925, USA). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been watching films I would not normally have seen. And that’s especially true of silent films – because few of them are available on DVD, and because people are much less likely to watch silent films these days (recent Oscar winner notwithstanding). True, as is evident from the DVD cover art, The Phantom of the Opera is very much available, and even in a dual-format edition from the BFI. But it is also true that Gaston Leroux’s story has been adapted many times, and is perhaps best-known these days for a musical version. The version here is from 1925, and is not even the first film adaptation – that honour goes to a 1916 German silent film, Das Phantom der Oper, now lost. In this one, Lon Chaney plays the title role, and his depiction is famous. The scene where he is unmasked apparently caused cinema audiences to scream and faint, and actually is quite shocking, even to jaded modern eyes. The film also boasts enormous sets, almost Expressionist in design, which are the basements beneath the opera house. The story itself is completely melodramatic, and some of the silent-era gurning looks weird to a modern viewer – but even ninety years after it was made this is still an entertaining movie. Worth seeing.

batmanvsupermanBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder (2016, USA). What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Pretty much the same as when Zack Snyder meets a superhero property. For some reason, he recasts it as an alien invasion story. So, if superheroes are supposed to be defenders of the righteous, but actually turn out to be pretty much fascists in tights, but Snyder prefers to think of them as alien invaders… Just where exactly is this going? I admit it, I quite liked Snyder’s Watchmen – I felt it overdid the violence, they weren’t meant to be super-powered after all, but I felt the movie’s ending was an improvement on the original. However, the less said about Snyder’s Man of Steel, the better. Unfortunately, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a sequel to Man of Steel, in which Henry Cavill reprises his role as the alien with godlike powers and the occasional urge to perform good deeds and snatched-from-death rescues. (Superman doesn’t hold up to scrutiny in much the same way as Santa Claus – there’s no way Santa could deliver presents to every kid on one day, so there’s no way Superman can save every person in danger every minute of every day. But then plausibility left the building when superheroes walked in nearly a century ago.) Anyway, Batman, played by Ben Affleck, has decided for Batman reasons that Superman is a foreigner and so a threat to Metropolis (where Batman doesn’t even live, FFS), and so he builds a supersuit so he can go mano a mano with the Kryptonite boy scout. There’s also some plot about Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, who wants to weaponize some green kryptonite but isn’t allowed to, so he weaponizes General Zod’s DNA instead and creates a super-powered monster that Superman and Batman have to fight. Oh, and Wonder Woman randomly turns up, and we know who she is because of a single photo showing her with some Tommies during WWI when she had never even been mentioned in any DC film before. I have, in short, absolutely no idea what this film was supposed to be about. It felt like someone glommed together a dozen random superhero vignettes and expected the big fight between Batman and Superman to make sense of it all. It doesn’t. None of it makes sense.

timbuktuTimbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania). I’d seen only one Sissako film prior to this – Bamako – and was not overly taken with it, but given how good Timbuktu was I may have to track down a copy and rewatch it. On the other hand, Timbuktu features quite a bit of West African music – such as Tuareg assouf (I’ve been a fan of Tinariwen for many years) – which I don’t remember from the other film, as well as being a biting satire of jihadism. The main story is about a Tuareg herder, who sits about in a tent, playing the guitar, while his kids care for his meagre herd, and his strong-willed wife keeps him company. At the river, one of his cows panics and trashes a fisherman’s net. So the fisherman kills the cow. So the Tuareg goes to see the fisherman, they fight, and in the struggle the Tuareg accidentally shoots the fisherman. He is immediately arrested by the local jihadist militia, and sentenced to pay blood money of 40 cattle. But he only has seven cows. So he is sentenced to death. As this story unfolds, the camera breaks away at intervals to record life in Timbuktu under jihadists. There are a bunch of kids playing football with an imaginary ball as sports are banned. A couple are stoned for adultery (a brutal and disgusting custom). A group of French jihadists argue about their favourite football teams. A Bambara woman scares the jihadists with her witchcraft. And a local imam patiently explains why the jihadists must follow the teachings of Islam and not their own extremist views. There was nothing that was bad about this film. It looked gorgeous, the non-professional actors were impressively convincing (especially the Tuareg herdsman), and the music was excellent. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 810


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Moving pictures, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809