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Moving pictures 2017, #12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures 2017, #1

The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures, #51

There have been too many movies of late – typically Hollywood action or thriller movies – which I’ve started to watch on Amazon Prime, only to give up ten minutes in because of their macho stupidity and lack of resemblance to anything approaching the real world. So I guess in that respect the service is proving useful, since I haven’t wasted rental DVDs on those films. Unfortunately, it does mean I have to look further afield for the sort of films I do want to watch – and I was already watching pretty obscure ones… It’s also proving annoying how few non-Anglophone movies are released on DVD in the UK – and some are released in such low numbers, they’re deleted less than a year later. Several years ago, I used to operate what I called “The Rule of DVD” – ie, don’t buy a DVD unless it was priced under £10. At the time, it made sense since most DVDs were released at £19.99 or £16.99. Unfortunately, the cheapest ones were generally the big Hollywood blockbusters, so it meant waiting for a sale or picking up second-hand ones on eBay… Nowadays, DVDs under £5 are pretty common, but again it’s the blockbusters (or really shit straight-to-DVD films). And the ones I now want are even more expensive than they were. Argh.

Having said all that, this bunch of films is mostly obscure – with one glaring exception, which, unbelievably, I’d never seen before (I thought I had but, watching it, nothing was familiar).

kumikoKumiko, the Treasure Hunter, David Zellner (2014, USA). I think this was a recommendation from David Tallerman. It’s certainly not a film I’d have put on my rental list. And despite the first half being set in Japan. and entirely in Japanese, it’s an American film. It’s based on an urban legend, that a young Japanese woman who was found dead in Minnesota in 2001 had been searching for the ransom money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Kumiko, an introverted office lady, finds a videotape hidden in a cave on the shore. It’s a copy of Fargo, but she convinces herself it’s real, uses her employer’s credit card to buy a plane ticket to the US, but the card is cancelled, so she starts walking toward Fargo. She’s picked up en route by a friendly sheriff, but her English is poor and when he learns her purpose he can’t get across to her that Fargo is fiction. An odd film. Zellner manages to get across Kumiko’s alienation pretty effectively – both in Japan and in the US – and Rinko Kikuchi’s slightly-bewildered but blank-faced expression throughout convinces you she is precisely the sort of person who would fixate on something fictional as fact. Worth seeing.

assassinThe Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Tsien (2015, China). And another recommendation from David Tallerman. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. I’m not an especially big fan of wu xia, although many of those I’ve watched have been gorgeous spectacles. The Assassin, however, takes a different approach – it’s very slow, very quiet, and a lot of it takes place indoors. Shu Qi plays the title role, who after failing to kill her target (because he had his baby son in his arms), is sent to the province of Weibo to kill the governor… to whom she was once betrothed. While The Assassin doesn’t have the colourful and kinetic cinematography found in a lot of wu xia, it is beautifully shot, and makes a great deal of use of stillness – which is only emphasised by the cast’s deliberate lack of affect in playing their parts, and which also makes the sudden eruptions of violence all the more visually shocking. Definitely worth seeing.

classic_bergmanIt Rains on Our Love, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This was the second film Bergman directed, with a script co-written by himself and based on a Norwegian play by Oskar Braaten. A young woman runs away to a provincial town after becoming pregnant, and a young man, fresh out of prison, is looking for a new life. The woman misses her train and bumps into the young man. They decide that since luck brought them together then they are fated to be together. After leaving their train, they stumble along a lane during a downpour, and end up breaking into a small house for shelter. But the owner catches them. He offers to rent it to them. The young man goes looking for a job, finds one, and the two settle down. But every time good luck comes their way, it’s followed by bad. Fortunately, there is a man with an umbrella, who appears every now and again and speaks to camera, who helps them out of their difficulties. I can’t say this was especially memorable – it was interesting seeing how Swedes lived in the country back in the 1940s, but the whole thing felt like a somewhat unsubtle play. One for fans only, I suspect.

starA Star is Born*, George Cukor (1954, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before – as I mention above – but perhaps I just thought I had because I knew the story from the Barbra Streisand / Kris Kristofferson version, which I definitely remember seeing. Oh, and I’ve seen the Janet Gaynor / Fredric March version too – this time last year, in fact. The story is simple enough: matinee idol on the way down spots young talent and helps her to become a star, and as their careers head in opposite directions so their relationship suffers. In this version, the upwardly-mobile star is Judy Garland in a comeback role, although apparently still suffering from chemical dependencies, and the star heading downwards is James Mason, who was not the first choice by any means but despite being a little too urbane for the role proves capable of a surprisingly good drunk. The film was shot in glorious Technicolor, and Cukor makes good use of it. But it was by all accounts an unhappy shoot, and the studio then butchered Cukor’s cut in an effort to chop it down to a “more commercial” length. The version I watched is the 176-minute restored version from 1983, which uses still photos and voice-over dialogue to fill in the scenes lost on the cutting-room floor. And judging by which scenes were cut, I’m surprised the theatrical release made any sense at all. I’m not a Garland fan, and this film is pretty obviously her star-vehicle, nor did I think the musical numbers all that good – the overly-long ‘Born in a Trunk’ number, filmed after Cukor had left the production, was especially self-indulgent. Still, at least I can cross it off the list.

detectiveDétective, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). I am mostly indifferent to French cinema, I have discovered, except for a handful of exceptions – Ozon, of course; and some Renoir; Demy; Rivette, perhaps; Tati, obviously; Denis, Assayas, assorted migrant directors like Kieślowski and Żuławski; and, I’m surprised to discover, quite a bit of Godard. I had a theory that I liked colour Godard but not black-and-white Godard, but what I hadn’t expected was that I’d like colour Godard so much. True, I count Le Mépris as a favourite film, but it’s his “commercial” film and not typical of his oeuvre. But I’ve found myself liking, and admiring, some of Godard’s later work, like Two or Three Things I Know About HerWeekend, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language. I find him… interesting. In the positive sense of the word (as it’s used by Brits). Détective is a case in point. It’s ostensibly several thriller plot lines entangled together, all of which revolve around a single hotel in Paris. But it’s also almost impossible to parse in a single sitting. I’m going to have to get a copy of my own, because I want to watch it again – it’s a film that demands rewatching. And to make a film that can’t be parsed with a single viewing is such an astonishingly arrogant thing to do that I can’t help admiring Godard for doing it.

returnThe Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003, Russia). I’d seen Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan last year, and thought it very good – although I did prefer Lungin’s Ostrov, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films are easier to get on DVD in the UK (in fact, all of Zvyagintsev’s feature films are available for rental, none of Lungin’s are) – so I added The Return, The Banishment and Elena to my rental list… and The Return duly arrived. And… it is bloody good. I liked it more, I think, than Leviathan. Two boys return home one day to discover that their father, who disappeared twelve years before, has returned. He takes the two on a fishing trip in an attempt to reconnect with them, but his methods are harsh and brutal. He stands by, for instance, when the two boys are mugged for the wallet of cash he has just given them. When the muggers escape, he goes after them, and brings the ringleader back for his sons to have revenge on – but they can do nothing. One son is keen to earn the father’s approval, the other is resistant. The trip ends in disaster, when the younger son climbs a decrepit watch tower, echoing the opening scene of the film in which the boy is too scared to climb down from a similar tower, and the father climbs up to fetch him down but falls to his death. The film is beautifully photographed, with a a washed-out colour palette that suits its story and setting. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805


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Moving pictures, #20

Bit of an epic Moving pictures post this time as I try to get up to date with my recent viewing. The usual mixture of movies, of course, although perhaps a few too many American ones. Never mind.

nightwatchingNightwatching, Peter Greenaway (2007, UK). This is the first of Greenaway’s “Dutch masters” trilogy – I actually saw the second one first, Goltzius and the Pelican Company– and this time is about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Played by, of all people, Martin Freeman. This is very much the Greenway I remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, although it was the sets, rather than the staging and camera work, that made it feel more like a play than a film. I’d not really enjoyed Goltzius and the Pelican Company, and when I started watching Nightwatching I didn’t initially think Freeman was very convincing as Rembrandt, but he won me over and the movie definitely turned more interesting as it progressed. Not bad.

before_i_go_to_sleepBefore I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffe (2014, UK). So I got my Fire TV Stick, and went looking on it for a movie to watch, and this looked like a recent thriller that might do the job and… oof. What a nasty film. I’m sorry, but when your plot is predicated on violence toward women, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Nicole Kidman plays an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing what has happened to her over the past decade. Her husband, Colin Firth, explains that she was in a car accident, and suffered brain damage. Except that’s not true. As she slowly discovers, partly as a result of documenting each day secretly, something therapist Mark Strong has suggested to her. The final twist is, to be honest, a bit obvious. Despite the cast and the polished production, this leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Best avoided.

leviathanLeviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014, Russia). Perhaps Russian films such as Night Watch and Black Lightning might have got all the box office, but Russia has churned out some quality drama too (and not just by my beloved Aleksandr Sokurov). Kolya is a car mechanic, whose land has been compulsory-purchased by the town council, allegedly for a transmitter; but Kolya is pretty sure the corrupt mayer just wants to build himself a house there. He’s tried the local court, but they’re in the pocket of the mayor. As are the police. And the purchase price is far from what the land is worth. The more Kolya struggles, the worst his situation becomes. So he rants and raves and hits the vodka, but none of it helps. Beautifully-photographed, intensely and depressingly realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

natural_born_killersNatural Born Killers*, Oliver Stone (1994, USA). As indicated by the asterisk, this is one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and I very much doubt I would have otherwise watched it. Or re-watched it. Sort of. Back in the 1990s I bought the CD of the sountrack by Trent Reznor (I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails in those days) and listened to it quite a lot. Unlike other OSTs, the Natural Born Killers one featured dialogue from the film between songs. And there was enough of it to actually peice together the plot of the film. As I discovered when I watched it. Otherwise, the movie seemed to be trying too hard to become a cult film, failing dismally, but in its failure actually getting closer to that status than it did by design. If that makes sense.

A-Place-In-The-Sun-1951-Front-Cover-38596A Place in the Sun*, George Stevens (1951, USA). Hollywood churned out a lot of worthy but dull films during the 1950s and 1960s, usually based on highly-regarded novels – in this case, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This is definitely one of them. Montgomery Clift plays the scion of a poor branch of the family who visits his rich industrialist uncle and asks for a job. He’s given a lowly position, despite being a relative, and is supposed to work his way up the corporate ladder. Because hard work. Because American Dream. Unfortunately, there’s a nubile fly in the ointment in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor and… you know how it goes. Ambitions thwarted by actual situation – personified by women, of course – leading to foolish plan to get rise to top back on track, usually results in someone’s death, hero ends up in prison. The book should have been called An American Cliché. Not worth the effort. Meh.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Melvin Frank (1965, USA). This film is nothing to do with the sf anthology I recently read (see here). This is a Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobridigida vehicle, in which they play divorcees who temporarily get back together because he needs to show he’s happily married to land a job. The film is actually set in London, though clearly only the stock footage was shot there and neither of the stars actually visited the city. It gave the whole film a bit of a soap opera feel. The Technicolor wasn’t up to its usual gorgeousness, the banter felt a bit lacklustre (although Gig Young was excellent), and it all felt even more inconsequential that most movies of this type do. I enjoyed it, but there are better Rock Hudson rom coms / melodramas out there.

aileenAileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer / Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer*, Nick Broomfield (1992/2003, UK). I added the latter to my rental list (because asterisk), but the disc also included the former, so I watched both. Aileen Wuornos was the US’s first serial killer – or at least the first one ever caught. She killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, claiming self-defence after she’d been arrested. But over the course of her trial and her time on death row, she changed her story several times. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documents how the media exploited Wuornos and her trial – some of the police officers involved were paid large sums by Hollywood producers for film rights, for example, and later were made to resign. In Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Broomfield interviews Wuornos shortly before she is executed. If the first film painted her as the victim of a system determined to see her executed because she was a woman serial killer, ten years in prison had clearly unbalanced her. Definitely worth seeing.

the_swiss_conspiracyThe Swiss Conspiracy, Jack Arnold (1976, US/Germany). There’s probably a very good reason why I bought this DVD but I’m buggered if I can remember what it was. The film is a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller starring Ray Milland and David Janssen, and notable only for being shot entirely in Zürich. It’s about, of course, a Swiss bank. Senta Berger and Elke Sommer are watchable, but Janssen is a bit too gravelly for his allegedly louche character, and John Saxon hams it up like a slab of gammon as a mobster. There’s a passable chase scene, but this doesn’t really even pass muster as a Sunday afternoon film.

a_touch_of_zenA Touch Of Zen*, King Hu (1971, Taiwan). This is apparently an important early wu xia film, but I can certainly verify it is a long and dull one. A painter in a small town becomes embroiled with a fugitive from imperial justice, a young woman who’d tried to warn the emperor of his eunuch’s corruption. Although the film is about the woman, Yang, it’s the painter, Ku, who is the centre of the story. I remember that the film was so long it was pslit into two, and Ku seemed mostly a bumbling oaf. Some of the fight scenes looked a little clumsy given the current state of the wu xia art. But mostly I remember that it dragged on and on and on. But I’ve seen it now. Huh.

A-christmas-Story-DVDA Christmas Story*, Bob Clark (1983, USA). If this hadn’t been on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, I’d never have bothered renting it. Certainly there’s nothing in its description which would recommend it to me – a boy’s Christmas, loosely based on a series of nostalgic columns from a US newspaper. And having now seen it, I can thoroughly not recommend it. The writer of the column narrates the film, which is set in the mid-1940s – and bizarrely, there is no mention of WWII, it’s almost as if the US were not at war – and focuses chiefly on the narrator’s boyhood self and his determination to get an air rifle for Christmas – which, of course, no one thinks he should have. I really didn’t like this film. Cloying manufactured nostalgia, which works by elevating the absolutely trivial to emotional life-or-death. Avoid.

hitchcock2The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963, USA). During the recent Prime day on Amazon, I spotted the two Hitchcock collections on Blu-ray going for less than half price. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever purchased – but at that price it was worth “upgrading”. And the first one I watched from my new Blu-ray collection was The Birds from Vol 2, probably because it was a Hitchcock film I’d not rewatched for a long time. As I soon discovered, because I’d completely forgotten the framing story, in which a socialite played by Tippi Hedren flirts with po-faced attorney Rod Taylor in a pet shop, and then drives up the coast to backend-of-nowhere town Bodega Bay where he’s gone to spend the weekend with his widowed mother and much younger sister. She ingratiates herself into the family, and even ends up spending the night Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, who is the local school teacher. And then the birds attack. It’s all a bit random. And the special effects show their age in a number of ways. But Hitch maintains an impressive level of creepiness throughout, and successfully ups the peril as the attacks progress. A bona fide classic.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 611