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Moving pictures, #59

It’s not all about the US, although you’d be forgiven everything was always about the US – but there’s only one American film in this post. Two from France, however, despite my previously-stated lack of enthusiasm for much French cinema (although I do prefer it to US and UK cinema).

labyrinth_liesLabyrinth of Lies, Giulio Ricciarelli (2014, Germany). Someone mentioned this film to me, and then I promptly forgot about it until stumbling across it on Amazon Prime. It’s set in the late 1950s in Germany, and is about a federal prosecutor’s attempt to prosecute surviving SS guards at Auschwitz under state criminal law (rather than international crimes against humanity). He’s hampered by the fact that the German establishment is packed to the gills with ex-Nazis, all of whom are invested in ensuring that the crimes committed during WWII are forgotten. The German public also believe the Allied films taken when liberating Auschwitz and the other death camps were propaganda. When the prosecutor learns Mengele freely travels back to Germany to visit his family, he is horrifed. He does a deal with the Israelis for Eichmann and Mengele, but once they have Eichmann they renege. Mengele is never bought to justice. The prosecutor has the blessing of the state prosecutor-general, and battles through the resistance of his colleagues, the local police, and members of the German public. It’s all based on a true story, but the ending is not especially happy. The German government decreed that a murder committed while following orders was not murder, but accessory to murder; for a death-camp guard to be charged with murder, he would have to kill someone on his own provable initiative. Of the 6,500 surviving soldiers who served at Auschwitz, only 789 were charged, and only 750 were sentenced. Most served only a few years. Worth seeing.

deadpoolDeadpool, Tim Miller (2016, USA). I don’t why I bothered. I knew going in this would probably annoy me more than it would entertain. Admittedly, from what I’d read, it seemed quite different to your average superhero movie and a lot was made of its irreverent tone… Basically, you have Ryan Reynolds in the title role cracking jokes throughout, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in voiceover, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall (gosh, how innovative). Reynolds is some sort of ex-special forces mercenary, who joins a programme which is supposed to give him super mutant powers. Which it does. But it also makes him really ugly. Which is unfortunate, because he’s in a relationship and he’s afraid his girlfriend will be horrified by his new appearance (hence the mask). But Reynolds wants the bloke who ran the programme because he thinks he can restore his previous good looks. Essentially, Deadpool is one big series of flashbacks. It opens with a fight on a freeway, in which Deadpool attacks a conovy, and then a series of flashbacks, and voiceovers, explain how Deadpool ended up in that situation. Every now and again, it cuts back to the fight on the freeway. Which Deadpool isn’t exactly winning, but one of his super mutant powers is the ability to heal almost immediately from any wound. I suppose if you were to judge Deadpool against other MCU movies, then it looks quite good. But that’s a really low bar. It was entertaining, in a marginally more than brainless way, but it’s once-watched-completely-forgotten.

shoot_pianistTirez sur le pianiste*, François Truffaut (1960, France). This was a rental and only watched because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. After all, much as I love Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, I’d thought The 400 Blows a bit meh, and besides I’d found the Nouvelle Vague more miss than hit… Anyway, I bunged Shoot the Pianist (I prefer the French title, tbh) into the player one Saturday night after I’d had some wine… and, well, I wasn’t really following the film and it all looked a bit, well, New Wave and black-and-white and French and full of itself. But the next morning it occurred to me I’d not given the film a fair crack, so a couple of days later I sat down and watched it again – and this time I watched it properly. And was surprised to find myself both enjoying it and appreciating Truffaut’s film-making. Charles Azanvour plays a concert pianist who lives his life behind after his wife commits suicide, and is now playing the piano in a bar. His brother appears one day, on the run from a pair of crooks, with whom he’d committed a crime. While helping out his brother, Aznavour meets one of the bar’s waitresses, the two enter into a relationship. There’s an extended flashback to Aznavour’s days as a feted concert pianist, and a third act that is almost pure noir. But I think what appeals about Tirez sur le pianiste is that for mit really brought into focus the elements of the Nouvelle Vague – the extreme close-ups, the voiceovers, the fascination with US cinema, especially noir, the free-wheeling plotting… There’s a scene where Aznavour and the waitress, Marie Dubois, are walking along a street and night-time, and he tries to take her hand, and it was like peak Nouvelle Vague – the only missing was a jazz score. Truffaut has gone up a little in my estimation, so I might stick more of his films on my rental list.

walkaboutWalkabout*, Nicolas Roeg (1971, Australia). A teenage girl and her younger brother are driven out into the Outback their father, ostensibly for a picnic, but he goes mental, then shoots himself. So, the two of them hike off into the bush, as you do, in an attempt to find help. Neither knows how to survive in the desert and both are woefully naive about a great number of things. Fortunately, they’re discovered by a Yolngu young man on his walkabout, and he helps them and shows them how to survive in the bush. They make their way to a town, where the Yolngu man dances a courtship dance for the girl, which she fails to understand. The next day, the Yolngu man is dead. It’s not stated how he died. Roeg has said he started filming without much of a plan and pretty much filmed whatever took his fancy. It worked. The camera is forever drifting about the bush, filming the various creatures which inhabit it. There’s also an artlessness and plotlessness to the trio’s wanderings, which makes of their journey something of a fairy tale. It has an entirely appropriate dream-logic to it, and though it clearly wasn’t intentional, it makes the film much better than it might have been. I’ve not seen all that much by Roeg – the two obvious ones, of course: Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth – but I think I’ll try more by him. Recommended.

screaming_manA Screaming Man, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2010, Chad). I’ve seen two of Haroun’s early films, Abouna and Daratt, and thought them very good, so it was a no-brainer to put this on the rental list… although it took a while before I was eventually sent it. The eponymous figure is an ex-Olympic swimmer, now many years later the attendant at a hotel swimming-pool. His son is the other poll attendant. But when a new company takes over the hotel, they do the usual and start “rationalising” the staff. So the old man is demoted to gate guard, and his son remains the sole pool attendant. So the father “volunteers” his son for the army, to fight against rebel forces. They take him away and the old man gets his position back as poool attendant. Some time later, a pregnant young woman turns up and says she is the son’s wife. They take her in. The man reconsiders what he’s done, and heads off on his motorcycleand sidecar to fetch his son from the front line. He finds him badly wounded, puts him in the sidecar and heads for home. The story of a A Screaming Man seems strung on two poles: a matter-of-factness in the telling and dark humour. It’s something I noticed in Daratt, but it seems especially prevalent in this film, although it’s a more laidback affair than that earlier movie. It’s in the small scenes, like the title character dashing back and forth to open the hotel entry and exit gates as cars keep appearing. There doesn’t seem to be anything else by Haroun other than the three films I’ve named currently available, which is a shame as he’s definitely worth seeing.

limportantL’important c’est d’aimer, Andrzej Żuławski (1975, France). This was a lucky find on eBay – after all, now that I know these Mondo Vision Signature Edition DVDs of Żuławski’s films exist, how could I not want them? Of course, by the time I did learn of them, only the two most recent of the five so far released were still available – although I’d learnt of them by buying one of the deleted titles on eBay. And now the only one I’m missing it arguably Żuławski’s most famous film, Possession, but L’important c’est d’aimer, or The Most Important Thing is to Love, is perhaps Żuławski’s least batty film. Romy Schneider plays a pornographic actress whom photographer Fabio Testi falls for. So he decides to boost her career, and gets her cast in a production of Richard III. But Schneider has a husband, and as she falls for Testi, she’s conflicted between the two. As Żuławski films go, this one is almost laidback. The performances are toned down considerably more than in his other films, and while it relies a great deal on the cast’s sexuality – as all of Żuławski’s French films seem to do – there’s definitely more drama here than melodrama. Unfortunately, it does make it a deal less memorable than Żuławski’s other films. Mondo Vision, incidentally, have another impressive job on this release, and I really need to get hold of their limited edition of Possession so I’ll have the set. They’re releasing a limited edition of The Blue Note soon. It’s on my wishlist.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 822


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Moving pictures, #40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 791


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Moving pictures, #31

Bit of an odd bunch, this. Nothing from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A few rentals, a couple from my own collection, a charity shop find, and one I found on Amazon Prime and initially thought was bloody awful but found myself enjoying by the end of it.

nebraskaNebraska, Alexander Payne (2013, USA). Bruce Dern is a crotchety old man, not entirely all there, who receives a letter telling him he’s been entered into a draw for $1 million and he thinks it means he’s won the prize. So he heads south to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Billings, Montana… Or rather, he tries to, as he can’t drive. After several attempts to walk south to Lincoln, Dern’s youngest son reluctantly agrees to drive him to collect his “winnings”. The family all know there’s no prize money, but all they can do is humour Dern. En route, the pair stop off in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Dern’s home town. Once his family and old friends discover Dern is rich, they all want a piece of the money. Which doesn’t exist, of course. Dern is great in the lead role, and Will Forte – also responsible for the fucking awful MacGruber – puts in a good turn as his son. But it’s Dern’s film, and he’s more than up to the job. It’s filmed in black and white, which initially feels like an affectation, but soon seems to suit the material. Payne is not a director I especially rate – his previous movies I’ve seen have all been lightweight Hollywood comedies – but Nebraska is actually not bad. Like many films which show working-class white Americans, it demonstrates they can be not very nice people – while also suggesting they’re worse than depicted. The same might be said of working-class Brits, of course; or indeed those of any nation. But there is a particular mix of wilful ignorance and uncritical patriotism which seems characteristic of the white American working-class which is really unpalatable.

ship_of_foolsShip of Fools, Stanley Kramer (1965, USA). A group of assorted characters are crossing the Atlantic just prior to World War II, hoping for Oscars in what they hope might be, in 1965, an Oscar-bait movie. The star-studded cast says so, the weighty themes say so, filmed in black and white says so, the 149 minutes running time says so… In the event, Ship of Fools was nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, but won only for Best Art Direction – Set Direction Black and White and Best Cinematography Black and White. Having now seen the film, I’m not surprised. It’s so full of itself, it’s astonishing the ship didn’t sink the second the director shouted “Action!”. As is the case in most ensemble films, there are a variety of interlocking plots being worked out. They’re supposed to have added weight because the voyage takes place just before the outbreak of WWII and José Ferrer’s character is a straight-up German Nazi. Then there’s the Jew, with the mordant sense of humour, whose misplaced optimism seems somewhat tasteless. And Vivien Leigh was apparently suffering full-blown paranoia, but managed to put in a passable performance. Oskar Werner plays the good German – on the one hand, he’s trying to improve the conditions of the passengers in steerage; on the other, he’s feeding La Condesa’s drug habit. The film was apparently adapted from a 1962 novel by Katharine Anne Porter, who based it on a journey she actually took across the Atlantic in 1931. It took her 22 years to write the book. Porter was apparently disappointed with the film. I’m tempted to try the novel, but I can’t recommend the movie.

faithWinter Light, Ingmar Bergman (1963, Sweden). A married couple live happily in a small Swedish village, and the local vicar is their very good friend. They consult him on all manner of things, and he sets their hearts at rest every time… Of course not. This is a Bergman film. It’s not cheerful. It’s as miserable as the most miserable-looking git caught without an umbrella in a cold and miserable thunderstorm. I don’t think cheerful was in Bergman’s cinematic vocabulary. What Winter Light is, is the study of a married couple who are suffering existential qualms due to China’s development of an atomic bomb, and who are not comforted by their local vicar’s words of reassurance. But then the vicar has his own problems, chief among which is an ex-lover he no longer loves… And then the husband of the couple shoots himself and… I’m reminded to some extent of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, which also has a plot enabled by the threat of atomic bombs (the phrase “atomic bomb” sounds so much better than “nuclear bomb” – the former sounds like a wonder of science, the latter just another war toy). In The Sacrifice, the threat of nuclear war persuades Joseph Erlandsson – a member of Bergman’s stock conmpany at one point – to bargain with God: he will give up everything he owns if the holocaust is averted. It does, of course, somewhat depend on believing in a god. Winter Light plays the same existential game with the implied threat, but rather than apply it to a man’s possessions it makes play with his religious convictions instead. Of the three films in the The Faith Trilogy, I enjoyed The Silence the most, perhaps because it seemed most recognisably experimental in format; but on reflection, I wonder if Winter Light, being a much weightier story, is not the better one. [2]

black_goldBlack Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud (2011, Qatar). Also known as Day of the Falcon, which is just as vague a title. It’s basically the life of ibn Saud, but with oil as the cause of the war between the two royal houses. The film was panned on release, chiefly because of its casting – Antonio Banderas plays one emir, Mark Strong the other; Frieda Pinto plays the love interest, and Liya Kebede the other major female character. The star, the young prince who becomes an ibn Saud-like leader, is played by Tahar Rahim (which was weird as I’d watched him in A Prophet only a week or so before). Banderas, the sultan of Hobeika, and Strong, the sultan of Salmaah, have just signed a peace treaty, and have agreed to keep the “Yellow Belt” as a buffer zone between their two sultanates (I assumed this is taking place somewhere in Nejd). Salmaah also has to hand over two of his young sons to Hobeika to ensure the peace. (I’m not sure whether Banderas or Strong are sultans or emirs, the two terms seemed to be used interchangably during the film – probably they were ra’ees, usually translated as “ruler”). Anyway, some years later Americans discover oil in the Yellow Belt. Salmaah rejects them, but Hobeika is happy to profit from the “black gold”. But then the elder of Salmaah’s two sons who is living with Hobeika tries to escape and is killed. The younger, Auda, played by Rahim, who is a bookish sort, is sent to his father as peace envoy. His father persuades Auda to help in his plan to conquer Hobeika and shut down the oil wells. Auda must lead a diversionary force into the Yellow Belt, while Salmaah himself leads another force right up to the gates of Hobeika. Except librarian Auda proves to have real tactical genius, and defeats Hobeika’s armoured cars with a force of prisoners on camels. And when he then attacks the Bani Sirri and frees their slaves, he earns the loyalty of all the other desert tribes… And so turns up to Hobeika with an enormous army at his back. There are a few elements here taken from the life of ibn Saud – such as his attack on Riyadh and defeat of the House of Rashid – but the Hijaz is ignored, Mecca is ignored, and the history of oil in Saudi didn’t start until later (see Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and sequels). But despite its fancification of the real history of the interior of the Arabian peninsula (and did the Bedu tribes really dress that colourfully?), and the failure to cast appropriately (Strong at least manages an Arabic accent; Banderas doesn’t even try), I sort of found myself enjoying Black Gold. It was daft, but it was colourful and the references to ibn Saud’s life added an extra dimension.

szamankaSzamanka, Andrzej Żuławski (1996, Poland). Gosh, what to say. There is something about Żuławski’s films which… er, defies explanation. They are completely bonkers, but bonkers in such an emotionally intense and intensely watchable way that’s it’s hard not to feel something for them. The sight of Valérie Kaprisky burning up the screen in La femme publique had burned itself into my memory, and now Iwona Petry, as the (titular) heroine of Szamanka, who throws such an idiosyncratic performance at the screen it’s hard to forget it. She’s a student who rents a flat from an academic, but right from the moment they meet it’s l’amour fou. And it gets more fou as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the acadmic has discovered the well-preserved body of a two-thousand year-old shaman. The historical investigation and the affair become confused, so much so that the academic hallucinates the shaman telling him he was killed by his mistress. And so, as often happens in Żuławski films, the plot echoes the psychological dimension. Petry’s performance treads a fine line between plausible and outright weird, and the fact it works is more down to the tense atmosphere Żuławski manages to keep going for the length of the film – despite the lack of an obvious thriller plot. There are moments when it all feels like OTT posturing… but then something sort of clicks into place, and the film’s trajectory toward its tragic end is once again on course. As with La femme publique, I bought the Mondo Vision special edition DVD, which comes in a fancy box, with included OST CD, booklet and collectible bits and pieces. The presentation suits the material – I can think of many directors who deserve such releases, but Żuławski is certainly on that list. Worth buying. [1]

kingsmanKingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn (2014, UK). A couple of weeks after watching this and I still haven’t decided if this is a clever satire of 007 and other British secret agent movies, or a horrible affirmation of their worst aspects. The title refers to a private intelligence service which cleaves to an image of stereotypical British upper class manhood from about sixty years ago. And then they meet a stereotype of 1990s British working class manhood… But, of course, the establishment eventually assimilates him. En route, we have a dumb plot to kill off 90% of the global population via free SIM cards in their phones (so, er, not really 90% then) as planned by squeamish lisping zillionnaire Samuel L Jackson. Tonally, Kinsgman is all over the place – it can’t decide what values it should be promoting, and as a result ends up saying very little that makes sense. The Bond-ish villain is presented as a spoof without actually being much of a commentary, which renders it toothless as satire. Firth is even stiffer than usual in the lead role, Taron Egerton is forgettable as the everyman bruv, and the supporting cast are more noticeable for who they actually are rather than the parts they’re playing. Kingsman will kill a Satruday evening if accompanied pizza and beer, but it’s never going to make any list celebrating the best of cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 776


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Moving pictures, #24

Onward with the movie posts…

christinaQueen Christina*, Rouben Mamoulian (1933, USA). You know that thing about “Garbo laughs” and they used it as the tagline for Ninotchka, which was released six years after this one, but Garbo, who plays the title role in Queen Christina, does quite a good impression of laughter on a couple of occasions in this film. The title character is a real historical figure, queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, and she did indeed abdicate and convert to Roman Catholicism. But not, as the film would have it, for love. In the film, she’s out hunting one day when she comes across the Spanish envoy, whose carriage is stuck in a snow drift. She gives his servants advice on how to extricate the coach. Since she dresses as a man, the envoy mistakes her for one. And does the same later, when they meet at a nearby inn. Queen Christina, who is now actively pretending to be male, has taken the last room. The envoy demands “he” vacate it. They end up sharing and the queen reveals her gender – but not her identity. She saves that little surprise for when the envoy is officially introduced to her at the royal palace. The real Queen Christina was raised as a boy and was in a long-term lesbian relationship. She’d also been fascinated with the Roman Catholic Church from a young age. But when has Hollywood ever let history get in the way of a good story? Or their marketing, for that matter. I’m not entirely sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I didn’t see anything that was technicially or cinematically ahead of its time, and though it was enormously successful and popular in 1933, it doesn’t seem like anything particularly special these days.

fantastic4Fantastic Four, Josh Trank (2015, USA). Given the success of the MCU films, it can hardly be a surprise that Hollywood is rebooting every superhero franchise it can in a desperate effort to keep the rights and find a moneyspinner. Spider-Man is about to see its fourth incarnation, and here’s the Fantastic Four, another iconic Marvel property, on its third incarnation (although the first was never actually released). Like the Spider-Man reboot, they’ve rolled back the ages of the heroes to high school, because twentysomething heroes were apparently fine for twentieth-century kids but in the twenty-first century it’s got to be totally about the kids. And if that wasn’t enough of a change, this film has completely rewritten the Fantastic Four’s origin story. True, the original, er, origin story – four rich twentysomethings build a rocket, go into space, get bombarded by cosmic rays and develop superpowers – was pretty daft, but try naming an origin story that isn’t completely ridiculous. In this new version, Reed Richards spends years developing a teleportation machine, is then recruited by the Baxter Foundation, and with the help of studly Latverian genius Victor von Doom, builds a full-scale model… except it’s not a teleporter, it’s a portal to another dimension. And it’s on a drunken trip there that the four get their fantastic powers… and Doom is left behind and turns into a metal man with awesome mental powers. The military weaponizes the four – except for Richards, who goes on the run. But eventually he is brought into the fold. This is a completely charmless affair, with a charisma-free cast. And where previously the Fantastic Four spent most of their time saving the world, here they’re just “military assets”, tools of US imperialism – and while superheroes are often just as destructive as the supervillains they fight, that change in mission is just downright offensive. Marvel adopts manifest destiny. If superheroes had always seemed a little fascist before, with this film they’ve openly embraced it. Happily, Fantastic Four tanked at the box office. Avoid.

antonio_mortesAntonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha (1969, Brazil). This is the third of Rocha’s Anotonio das Mortes trilogy (its origin title is actually O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerriro, “The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior”), following on from Black God, White Devil (see here) and Entranced Earth (see here). Unlike the preceding film, this one is set in Brazil and not an invented country. The north-east of the country was once controlled by bandits called cangaceiros, the greatest of whom was Lampião, who died in 1938. But a new cangaceiro has appeared, accompanied by a young woman believed to be a saint, and a host of peasants. The blind coronel, the landowner of the town of Jardim de Piranhas, sends for Antonio das Mortes to kill the cangaceiro. Antonio fatally wounds the cangaceiro in a duel, but then suffers a change of heart and demands the coronel hand out his food reserves to the poor. The coronel refuses and orders Antonio killed… Antonio das Mortes is the only film of the three in colour, and Mr Bongo have done another slipshod job on it – the print is far from perfect, and the many folk songs on the soundtrack have French translations of their lyrics burned in. It’s also a less declamatory film than Entranced Earth, although not by much – the cangaceiro, for example, introduces himself by speaking in rhyme to the camera. And even much of Antonio’s dialogue is self-reflective. A lot of the violence is staged almost like a dance, which works well with the local folk songs on the soundtrack. The landscape appears much stranger in colour than it does in black and white, with some effective landscape photography that demonstrates just how huge and featurless is the region. I’ll admit I bought these films while under the influence after watching Entranced Earth, but I don’t regret the purchase. Not only are they very political films – the coronel in Antonio das Mortes is portrayed as over-entitled and completely lacking in compassion, and the stories of all three films centre on the common people fighting the ruling classes – but the tactic of playing the political elements flat and affectless and the cultural elements full of sound and colour is especially effective. Not to mention the over-the-top and hammed up violence. These films are very much folk-tales, but they’re colourful and political folk-tales. And I really like movies like that. Recommended. It’s a shame more of Rocha’s films aren’t available on DVD. [0]

femme_publiqueLa femme publique, Andrzej Żuławski (1984, France). I am, I admit, slightly puzzled by Żuławski’s success. After fleeing Poland in the early 1980s, the only place he could go and still make films was France. It’s unlikely he’d have fitted in to the film traditions of any other country. Because his films really are quite strange. Even La femme publique, which is an adaption of an autobiography by Dominique Garnier, in which she describes her arrival in Paris and attempt to break into cinema acting, and her subsequent domination by the director who hires her. In most hands, this would be enough for a story, but Żuławski, with Garnier’s help, decided to add in a subplot about plot to assassinate a Lithuanian archbishop… The end result is an intense drama that might or might not be a somewhat bonkers thriller, which manages not to lose sight of its story. Valérie Kaprisky plays the young actress who, despite having no experience, is cast by enfant terrible Czech director Francis Huster in his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Through Huster, Kaprisky meets fellow Czech emigré Lambert Wilson, whose wife has recently disappeared (and proves to have been murdered). Kaprisky is convinced Wilson is the murderer, so she pretends to be his wife (his grasp on reality is shaky to begin with, and visibly deteriorates). Huster meanwhile seems to be involved in some sort of plot to brainwash Wilson into assassinating the archbishop. It sort of makes sense when laid out so baldly, but this is a Żuławski movie so the reality is somewhat different. The performances are intense to a degree that’s rarely seen in Hollywood films, and the story’s focus on the psychology of the major characters is also something not often seen in plot-driven Hollywood movies (never mind Hollywood’s mindless adherence to various screenwriting techniques, such as the three-act structure, McKee’s Story or Snyder’s Save the Cat!). I don’t know that I’d call La femme publique Żuławski’s best film as I still like Na srebrnym globie a lot – but it’s certainly the best-presented film on DVD. This Mondo Vision Signature edition comes in a fancy box, with a soundtrack CD, publicity photos and a booklet. Recommended. [1]

khartoumKhartoum, Basil Dearden (1966, UK). Remember when they used to open films with ten minutes of music, so you had time to buy your ice cream from the usher down at the front, and then they’d have an intermission so you could buy another ice cream or a box of Treets Poppets… or was that just in the UK? As the title of this film no doubt makes clear, it’s about the siege of Khartoum in 1884, when the forces of the Mahdi tried to capture the city from General Gordon, who’d been sent there by the British to evacuate the British and Egyptian population before the Mahdi attacked. The film is a typical historical epic of the period – not just that ten-minute entr’acte and a ten-minute intermission, but also a cast of thousands and big names playing the major roles no matter how inappropriately cast. I mean, Charlton Heston as Gordon is one thing (although apparently it was meant to be Burt Lancaster), and he at least attempts a British accent (albeit not very well); but Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi is just blackface. Khartoum was apparently filmed in Egypt and makes much of its locations – this is big-screen entertainment, and it makes sure you get what you paid for. And yet… it’s all a bit bland and unexciting – despite the battle scenes. Gordon was, by all accounts, an odd bloke – a drunkard, possibly queer, but also a gifted leader and tactician. He actually sounds quite interesting. He was lionised following his death in Khartoum, and it wasn’t until several decades later that his actions, or indeed his character, were questioned. Khartoum is pretty much the dictionary definition of a Sunday afternoon film – at least it was a decade or two ago – and that’s about its level. As history, it’s perhaps a little more reliable than the typical Hollywood movie; and as entertainment it’s very much of its time.

fires_were_startedFires Were Started*, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK). This is the only Jennings film on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, despite him being called one of Britain’s greatest film-makers. And he made thirty-two films, although most were documentary shorts. The BFI DVD case shown here contains five films, all from 1941 or 1943. Fires Were Started is about a London fire brigade, beginning with a new arrival to the watch, and following the watch members as they go about their duties. Although some of the film is reconstruction, and filmed at Pinewood Studios, it all looks very real (the fires, I think, are real fires – certainly the cast were actual firemen and not actors). I do remember that the firemen had their own bar and drank beer… until called out by an alarm. The technology also seemed surprisingly crude, especially when compared to the military technology of the time. But Jennings had a really good eye, and was especially effective at making his subjects seem likeable and sympathetic. The new member of the watch, for example, is university-educated, whereas the the current members are all working-class… but Jennings shows how accomodating both are toward each other and how well they work together. Fires Were Started is one of three collections of Jennings film released by the BFI. I quite fancy getting all three – um, maybe I should just wait until I’ve had some wine and do as I did for Glauber Rocha…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 764


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Behind the Iron Screen

It all started quite innocently enough. Shaun Duke posted a list of something or other on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag. I pointed out he was wrongheaded. He challenged me to produce a rival list, which I did. I challenged him to produce a list… and by this point I’ve forgotten whether we were originally discussing books or films. I’ve a feeling we started off with books but somehow drifted onto films. Anyway, he responded to my challenge and issued one of his one own, which I met. And then I challenged him to produce – and I think this is the point we’re at now – a list of five Cold War-related genre films that most people would not have heard of. Which he did. And now he has demanded that I do the same, but from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, five Warsaw Pact Cold War-related genre films, of which at least three must be from the USSR/Russia…

Happily, I immediately thought of several possible movies. The only question was whether they qualified as Cold War-related. Or as genre. And having to choose three of the five from the Soviet Union did somewhat limit my choices. So it was more a matter of picking which five to put on my list than it was actually finding five. And here they are, in no particular order…

Sacrifice_Offret (The Sacrifice), Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). The absolutely obvious choice. It’s about a nuclear war, so you can’t get more Cold War than that. Okay, it was filmed in Sweden with a Swedish cast, but Tarkovsky is arguably the most famous film director to have come out of Russia, so in my mind it counts as a Russian film. So there. An ex-actor, played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, lives in a nice house on a remote Swedish island with his wife. After admitting he no longer believes in God, news reaches Josephson of all-out nuclear war. He vows to sacrifice all he owns and loves if God will undo the nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a harrowing film, but it is also Tarkovsky… and you cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Tarkovsky’s movies.

starsbyhardwaysЧерез тернии к звёздам (To the Stars by Hard Ways), Richard Viktorov (1981, USSR). The Cold War link is less obvious in this famous Russian sf film, but given that it concerns an ecological war between two groups on an alien world – and in which humans become involved after rescuing the bizarre-looking Yelena Metyolkina – there’s clearly a parallel. Admittedly, the rescue mission is multi-national, but then socialist films liked to show the world’s nations working together, even if the West has always been resistant to the idea (US films, for example, always show the US doing everything) . Ruscico currently sell a copy of this on DVD. It’s completely bonkers but worth getting. I’ve heard the director’s son has released a director’s cut of the film, but to my knowledge it’s only available in Russian and my knowledge of that language is limited to a handful of pleasantries and swear words.

testpilotpirxДознание пилота Пиркса (Inquest of Pilot Pirx), Marek Piestrak (1978, USSR/Poland). Pirx was created by Polish sf writer Stanisław Lem, so there’s no doubting this film’s genre credentials; and while it’s a joint production between studios in Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, the latter two were in the USSR when the movie was made, so it counts. It’s another socialist film which presents an international crew, but there are still two sides engaged in a form of Cold War: humans and androids. Pirx must captain a ship on a space flight Saturn. One of his crew is an android, but he doesn’t know which one – and once at their destination, it tries to seize control. A weird mix of Cold War thriller, with an amazing seventies aesthetic, and hard sf, this is another DVD worth getting. Again, it’s available from Ruscico.

noendBez końca (No End), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1985, Poland). This is in no way science fiction, and it’s only Cold War-related inasmuch as its story takes place during the years of martial law in Poland after Solidarność was banned. A translator, whose lawyer husband died recently, struggles to make ends meet and bring up her son, while the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. But it’s Kieślowski, that’s all you need to know. You cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Kieślowski’s movies.

in_the_dust_of_the_starsIm Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), Gottfried Kolditz (1976, East Germany). During the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA, made four big budget science fiction films: Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970), Der Schweigende Stern (1960), Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea (1972). The last three are available in an English-language DVD box set, but I’ve yet to find the first in an English edition (and my German is a bit rusty – I struggled when watching Raumpatrouille Orion). In Im Staub der Sterne, a spaceship lands on a rescue mission on the world of TEM 4, only for the inhabitants to deny sending a distress call. Except there are two groups on TEM 4 in a sort of Eloi / Morlock relationship, as the crew discover, and it’s not hard to read it as an Eastern Bloc versus decadent West sort of thing. The film is also astonishingly kitsch, with some of the most bonkers seventies production design ever consigned to celluloid. Hunt down that DEFA collection box set, it’s totally worth it.

szulkinO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji (O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilisation), Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland). Just because I can, I’m going to make my list six films. Mostly because this movie is so on point, it didn’t deserve to be an also ran – and yet I also wanted to include the ones I’d already chosen. O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji is set entirely in an underground fallout shelter after some sort of nuclear holocaust – except there’s more going on than there initially seems. The shelter is not the shiny clean antiseptic complex you’d expect of a US Cold War movie, but a dirty ill-lit dungeon, a sort of confined post-apocalyptic wasteland in its own right. There’s a very black joke about the currency used in the shelter (Szulkin’s films all possess an amazingly dark humour). Telewizja Kinopolska have released a DVD box set containing O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, Wojna światów – następne stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century, 1981), and Ga, Ga. Chwała bohaterom (Ga, Ga. Glory to Heroes, 1984), as well one of my favourite films, a 1993 short titled Mięso (Ironica), about the political history of Poland during the twentieth century and, er, meat products.

The also-rans? There’s Béla Tarr’s 2000 movie Werckmeister Harmonies from Hungary, which is about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but the film might have been a little hard to justify on genre grounds. Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1988) is definitely science fiction, but given that it’s adapted from a 1903 novel its Cold War credentials are a little harder to see – but Żuławski adapted the story so it read as a criticism of the Polish authorities… which they managed to spot and so shut down the production (the film was eventually completed ten years later, using stock footage and voice-over narration). Кин-дза-дза! (Kin-dza-dza!, 1986) by Georgiy Daneliya is a 1986 sf film in which a pair of Soviet innocents are dumped on a desert world in which two societies, the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, exist in near-conflict (which seems to be a common trope in Soviet sf cinema). And finally, there’s Pane, vy jste vdova! (You are a Widow, Sir!, 1971) by Czech director Václav Vorlíček, which is a sort of madcap and very silly sf comedy, involving assassins and brain transplants in an invented country, but it might be stretching the point to call it a Cold War film.


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Moving pictures, #5

I hate f**tball, so I’ve watched a whole bunch of films recently – because there’s bugger-all but f**tball on telly. Some of you might have spotted this. I can’t complain too much, however, because it has led to me making a substantial dent in my To Be Watched pile. Yes, I have a TBW pile as well… although it is orders of magnitude smaller than the TBR pile. Having said that, an additional three DVDs join it each week from Lovefilm. Anyway, I’ve been watching two films a night since the f**tball began, and some of them have been very good indeed…

blowupDVDBlow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni (1966, UK) David Hemmings – a very young David Hemmings – is a hip and trendy fashion photographer in swinging London – one of the models who poses for him is Veruschka, for instance. Hemmings has a pet project, a book of his non-fashion photographs, and while out looking to buy a junk shop he finds a small park whose peacefulness appeals to him. He takes some photos… including of a couple trysting. The woman – a very young Vanessa Redgrave – is upset at being photographed, but Hemmings won’t hand over his film. Later, he learns why. The man was about to be murdered. Beautifully-shot, tense, and yet typically Antonionian. There’s a good reason why it’s a classic film.

cracksCracks, Jordan Scott (2009, UK) You know Dead Poets Society? And Mona Lisa Smile? This is more of the same, the only difference being Eva Green plays the inspirational teacher, it’s set in the 1930s, at a girls’ boarding-school, the special snowflakes are members of a diving team, and it’s about the daughter of Spanish royalty who joins the school and the team… and upsets its delicate balance. Green, as usual, seems a little unhinged, the direction and photography are polished (Jordan Scott is Ridley Scott’s daughter), and it all hangs together… but it feels a bit like a Sebastian Faulks novel: well-crafted, nice sense of time and place, but all a bit bland and unmemorable.

PartyGirlPosterBajaParty Girl, Nicholas Ray (1958, USA) The title refers to Cyd Charisse, who plays a chorus girl at a nightclub in 1930s Chicago, but the film is really about Robert Taylor, who plays an accomplished lawyer all the gangsters use when they get into scrapes. He’s still married, but she agrees to be his mistress – but later, when he decides he’s had enough of representing scumbag gangsters, Capone-like Lee J Cobb threatens Charisse in order to make Taylor play ball. There’s little that’s original in the film, though it’s well-shot – as you’d expect from Ray – and Charisse puts on a couple of entertaining routines (though she never seems to quite light up the screen). Cobb just munches his way through the scenery. Apparently, Party Girl is now a cult film, though I can’t quite see it myself.

starcrash-dvdStarcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978, Italy) This is the film that contains the immortal line, “Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of time!” And the rest of it is pretty dumb too. How to describe how bad this film is? Caroline Munro, in what is pretty much a bikini, plays the best pilot in the galaxy; her sidekick is the best navigator in the galaxy; they are smugglers. But they’re caught by the Imperial authorities, who want them to track down the emperor’s son, who has crash-landed on a world controlled by the evil Count Zarth Arn. First they are arrested and then sent to prison, but they escape. Munro is teamed with a crap but chatty police robot, and together they find the emperor’s son – played by David Hasselhof – and… The production design owes more to Barbarella than Star Wars, but with none of the appeal of either. The plot makes no sense. Hasselhof actually out-acts everyone else in the film – and that includes Christopher Plummer, who plays the emperor. This is a film that is so bad, it goes through bad, out the other side into good, and then through that… into cult classic. Watch it at your peril.

mcconnellThe McConnell Story, Gordon Douglas (1955, USA) The biopic of a Korean war ace who became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. It’s not the best example of its type. Alan Ladd in the title role never seems quite driven enough, although the aerial photography is pretty cool. McConnell starts out as an army medic, persuades his superior officers to send him to flight school, but only makes it as a navigator – which is what he does throughout WWII. After the war, he’s invited into the newly-formed USAF to train pilots on jets. He ends up in Korea, and becomes the first US jet air ace. Afterwards, he’s assigned to Edwards AFB, where he flight-tests a new version of the North American F-86 Sabre. Apparently, McConnell was killed in an aeroplane crash before the film premiered, so they had to reshoot the ending. Toward the Unknown and Strategic Air Command are much better films of this type.

waroftheworldsWojna Swiatów – Następne Stulecie, Piotr Szulkin (1983, Poland) Or War of the Worlds – The Next Century. I forget where I stumbled across mention of this film, but it was enough to prompt me to buy a Piotr Szulkin DVD box set… and it’s proven an excellent purchase. I mentioned Ga, Ga. Chwała Bohaterom from the same boxed set in an earlier post (see here), and this film is just as bleak and black as that one – if not more so. Iron Idem is a TV broadcaster, but his boss wants him to discuss only material approved by the conquering Martians. Reluctantly, he agrees. But then the Martians trash his apartment and take away his wife – because, the Martians’ goons tell him, they want him to love the Martians. Eventually, they pile one too many indignities on him and he cracks. At a charity concert, he appears on-stage and rants at the audience, telling them to rise up against the invaders. But his speech is never broadcast – and later, after the Martians have left, without its soundtrack the footage is used as evidence he was a collaborator. It’s not difficult to see who or what Szulkin is targetting, and he gives it the blackest possible spin. There’s a grimy and desolate realness to Szulkin’s films. I’m beginning to think he’s better than Żuławski…

bestyearsThe Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler (1946, USA) Three men return to their home town of Boone City after fighting abroad in WWII. One was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but finished the war a captain is the USAAF. Another was a wealthy banker, but is now an Army sergeant. The third was the boy next-door, who fought at the Battle of Midway aboard a carrier, and lost both his arms below the elbow when his ship was sunk. They do not get the heroes’ welcome they expect. The captain learns the woman he married days before being sent to fight is now a night-club singer and used to a life-style he can’t provide – because the only job he is qualified for is the one he held before joining the Army: soda fountain jerk. The banker returns to his bank, only to learn his bosses put the bank’s earnings above the needs of its customers… which seems to him to be against all he fought for. The sailor meanwhile is afraid his childhood sweetheart will reject him because he is disabled. It all makes for a pretty damning indictment of the US public’s response to the war. Don’t be fooled by the cheery/romantic DVD cover art. Incidentally, Harold Russell, who plays the sailor, is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role – one as Best Supporting Actor and one awarded for being an inspiration to disabled people.

Like_Someone_in_Love_2D_dvdLike Someone in Love, Abbas Kiarostami (2013, France) There’s something about Kiarostami’s elliptical approach to story-telling I find very interesting. It makes him one of the more interesting directors currently making films. It’s almost perversely anti-Hollywood… which is another reason why his films appeal. Like Someone in Love is not dissimilar to Kiarostami’s other films in this regard, even though it’s set in Japan, with a Japanese cast and Japanese dialogue. A young student pays for her tuition by working nights as a call girl. One night, she visits the apartment of an old professor, but he would sooner cook her dinner and she’s so tired she falls asleep. The next day, he drives her to college, where he meets her boyfriend – who mistakes him for her grandfather. The old man then drives the pair of them – the boyfriend to the garage where he works, the young woman to a book shop. Kiarostami has set films chiefly inside moving vehicles before – but the ending to this film feels more Haneke than it does Kiarostami. Speaking of which, I’m waiting for someone to do a boxed set of all Kiarostami’s films, just as they have for Haneke…

mynightsMy Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days, Andrzej Żuławski (1989, France) Żuławski, unlike Szulkin, is plain bonkers – and this film is a perfect illustration of why. Superficially, it seems like a fairly typical amour fou romance, something the French do well, and often, with Sophie Marceau as the object of Jacques Dutronc’s obsession. (Marceau was in a relationship with Żuławski at the time.) But Dutronc’s character has a brain disease and is losing his memory, so he spends all the time obsessively speaking strings of words in order not to forget them. And Marceau is a clairvoyant in a high-end carnival act, in which she is hypnotised, tells members of the audience things they’d rather not hear, and then does a striptease. The two hook up, spend a lot of time having sex, while the rest of the cast wander in and out of the story, mostly uttering gnomic dialogue but occasionally advancing the plot. I really liked the other films by Żuławski I’ve so far seen, but this one was disappointing – perhaps because despite the characteristic Żuławski bonkerosity (er, no pun intended), it felt too generic…

Our Hospitality posterOur Hospitality, Buster Keaton (1923, USA) There’s a list of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and while there’s a lot on it that plainly doesn’t belong there – Argo? WTF? – I’ve found it a reasonably good source for titles of older classic movies I’d not seen. I’d have preferred it if the list wasn’t full of spelling mistakes and mangled titles, however – it does suggest not that much thought was put into it. Anyway, I know of Buster Keaton, of course; and I’ve probably seen one or two of his films years and years ago. But this one was new to me and… It was good, it made me laugh. The stunts were clever, the story – a pastiche of the Hatfield-McCoy feud – well-played, and the train ride was near-genius. Worth seeing.

obi oba dvdO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec Cywilizacji, Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland) Another one from the Szulkin box set, and it’s just as grim as the other two. Nuclear war has done for the world, all but one thousand people who managed to reach safety in an underground shelter beneath a protective dome. They were told that an Ark would arrive soon to rescue them, and despite the authorities repeatedly telling them there is no Ark, they still believe it. The film’s protagonist is relatively high up in the power structure – he certainly knows there’s no Ark coming – and he’s looking for a way out with his girlfriend. And sooner rather than later, as he knows the dome is about to fail. He has some silverware stashed away and he trades these for food – the utensils can be stamped into tags, which are used as currency in the shelter. Eventually, he learns of a hangar, and a plane stored in it. But when he tracks it down – and this is one of the best scenes in the film – he discovers that the richest man in the shelter has been cannibalising the aircraft’s aluminium fuselage to make currency. The ending is perhaps not the most original ever, given the set-up, but it’s cleverly framed. Good stuff.