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Moving pictures 2018, #10

I’m trying to get up to date with these. Despite spending a couple of weeks watching mostly television series – including Agent Carter, Star Trek: Discovery, The Expanse and, er, Silent Witness – I still seem to have built up a backlog.

Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel (1964, France). This film saw a change in pace for Buñuel, and a change in fortunes. It was his most realistic film to date, and based on a popular 1900 novel of the same title by Octave Mirbeau, which had been adapted in Hollywood in 1946 by, of all people, Jean Renoir, and before that in Russia in 1916. The Mexican star of Buñuel’s Viridiana, Silvia Pinal, was originally intended for the title role, and even learnt French to play it, but the part went to Jeanne Moreau. Who plays a young woman who is hired as a maid at a country house in the 1930s that seems to be populated by oddballs and eccentrics. Her name is Célestine but they all call her Marie. The groom is an anti-semitic right-winger, the husband chases anything in skirts and takes out his frustrations on small game, the father-in-law is a shoe fetishist with a cabinet full of women’s shoes, and the next-door neighbour is fond of throwing rubbish over the fence. But then the father is found dead in bed, and a young girl who visited the house is found raped and murdered. The chambermaid suspects the groom, and promises to marry him in an effort to make him confess… The film plays like a farce set in an upper-class home, with a mix of belowstairs and abovestairs scenes and characters from several classes. For Buñuel, it’s also played straight. Moreau is precisely what her character seems to be, a chambermaid, although as the focus of the film she displays more character than the rest of the cast. Having said that, this is closer to La Règle du jeu than it is Downton Abbey (hack spit), and not just because of the language. There’s a slightly mocking tone to it all and, watching it, it’s easy to see how Buñuel, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, began re-introducing surreal elements into “straight” dramas, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. I will admit to preferring the latter films, but this is still excellent stuff. A box set worth owning.

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, FW Murnau (1924, Germany). I still think David Tallerman is being unfair in his characterisation of Murnau as an uninteresting director, although to be honest I’ve yet to get a handle on what makes a good director of silent films. True, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is really quite astonishing, but I don’t see much difference between the silent films of Murnau, Lubitsch or Lang, since all three were working in the same country around the same time. And yet… Murnau’s Die Finanzen des GroßherzogsThe Finances of the Grand Duke – was mostly filmed on location in Montenegro and Croatia – whch is not typical of German silent films. And it’s a gentle comedy too, where other silent comedies from Germany I’ve seen have tended to be broad – although certainly not like slapstick like Hollywood silent comedies. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs is set in an invented Mediterranean duchy, whose finances have pretty much given up the ghost. A US industrialist offers a large payment to mine the island’s sulphur deposits, but the grand duke turns it down as he rightly thinks it will affect the quality of life of his subjects… And that’s pretty much the plot: impoverished grand duke in danger of losing duchy to predatory capitalist interests because of lack of cash, but is saved at last minute through unlikely series of events. These events are in the person of a loaded Russian princess whom the grand duke doesn’t want to marry, but she ends up pretending to be the wife of a travelling salesman, or something, and gets to meet the grand duke in that guise, and they fall in love, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. There’s a few other bits and pieces going on in there, like the finance minister aiming to seize the duchy for himself. It’s all very, well, Ruritanian. Fun.

Le Pont du Nord, Jacques Rivette (1981, France). I’m not quite sure what to make of Rivette, as he tells fantastical stories in real-life settings, but the fantasy is all in the minds of the characters – with the occasional bit of help from the director. In other words, he finds games and conspiracies and quests in the ordinary, in such a way that the games and conspiracies and quests seems perfectly real without in any way upsetting the ordinary. And so too in Le Pont du Nord, in which two two young women meet up and follow a quest involving several different men called Max, which leads to a dragon, which is actually a playground slide, which one of them then defeats by loudly challenging it. Everything happens in and around Paris, in the quotidian world, and some of it you suspect was guerilla-filmed, even though the two women plainly don’t entirely occupy it, and there is enough strangeness in the events which befall them to suggest something other than the ordinary world. And yet the bulk of the strangeness is supplied by the two main characters, who seem to be operating in a world that doesn’t entirely exist on screen. Rivette has form in this: Merry-Go-Round is a conspiracy story with no real conspiracy in sight; Noroît is a fantasy presented with such a light touch, it might as well be mainstream. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, and the lack of reviews seems to suggest others feel the same way. At 129 minutes, it’s short for a Rivette film. (And no, I still have not tackled Out 1, all 760 minutes of it, despite owning a copy for two years.) I came to Rivette through La belle noiseuse, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list (2013 edition), and that inspired me to seek out more of his work. At which point I found myself watching films that were not like the one that had inspired me to seek out that director’s films… And yet, I find myself drawn to Rivette’s films, that are unlike La belle noiseuse, and more inclined to put in the time to watch the really long ones… Which I really must do, one of these days.

The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016, France). Refn is lauded as a talent in Hollywood, although apparently not so much after all, since he needed French money to make this film. His movies certainly look very pretty, and this one is no exception. But the stories he tells really aren’t very nice. In this one, an ingenue moves to LA, is picked up by an agency, and becomes a a successful model. Which does not go down with the two models she spends her time with. One has had a number of cosmetic surgeries to improve her looks and career, but is castigated for it. For all that it’s about a beautiful woman, this is not a film that treats women well. They are pretty much all victims. Even the young model who is the central character – she has zero agency, and her only act is to walk away from it all at the end. The other models are driven by their obsession to be admired by men, even though the men in the film are just as much ciphers as the women are. The Neon Demon is a film that’s all about how it looks, which seems apposite given it’s about the modelling industry… but it also seems to be based on misconceptions and clichés about modelling. It has its central cast of three models, including the ingenue, and it uses them to tell a story of excess, and the cannibalistic nature of the industry, making the latter real rather than metaphorical, to no good end. A film best avoided.

Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015, Thailand). I have no idea what these films are about, but I really like them. They’re sort of slow cinema, in as much as very little happens in them. But they also exhibit little in the way of plot – and nothing in the way of a three-act structure (hack spit) – and yet… things happen. Weerasethakul also has a tendency to use the same stable of actors, so the more of these you watch the more faces you recognise. And there are other commonalities: the military seems to always play a major part, as do hospitals or clinics; some of the cast are disabled; there’s always mention of Isan province, usually self-deprecratingly; and there’s always an element of the strange, or supernatural. Weerasethaskul has a shtick. Which does not detract from his films, I hasten to add. There is an oddness to his movies that I don’t think any other director quite manages, a sort of New Weird sensibility I’m not sure any other director is currently using. In Cemetery of Splendour, a sickness is causing soldiers to suddenly fall asleep, and there is a clinic with a ward full of sleeping soldiers, all lying in beds under weird blue lights. But then one soldier wakes, but can remember nothing of the time he was asleep. There’s also the cemetery of the title, which is a wood in which people have left mythic objects… It’s one of those films that, when it’s finished, you’re not entirely sure what you’ve watched. I’ve now seen five of Weerasethakul’s and I’m no closer to understanding them. He’s a singular talent and his movies, for all their glacial pace and enigmatic stories, are fascinating. If someone released a Weerasethakul box set, I’d buy it like a shot. I only own a copy of his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, but all of them bear, if not demand, rewatching.

The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel (1969, France). And speaking of shtick, I sort of feel like I have a handle on Buñuel’s, except… have I really? I mean, he was making films way back in the 1930s, all the way through to the 1970s, in a number of countries, and in a variety of styles. That’s one hell of a career. But The Milky Way feels like a Buñuel film. Even based on my limited exposure to his oeuvre. The title refers to the route taken by pilgrims from France to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Wat of St James. Two travellers follow the route and, en route, witness events which map onto the history of Christianity, especially its so-called heresies. It is very much the product of a Catholic mind, and I say that inasmuch as Catholicism is much more embedded in its followers’ lives that Protestantism, which is what I was nominally brought up as, but I’m completely atheist, and neither hold a candle to the integration of Islam in daily life… All of which means that not only do I not have a dog in this fight but I have a dog-free worldview (which pleases me, as a cat owner), and I suspect Buñuel, for all his mockery, was considerably more religious than I am, as it takes a certain degree of familiarity with the material to mock as much as is the case in The Milky Way. But for all that, religion is, to me, a soft target. I don’t believe a single bit of it. It’s also a completely pointless target. We l;ive in a world in which truth and facts and experts are routinely attacked because they don’t match the narrative of the authorities. There is no such thing as “fake news”. There is propaganda, which is unsupported by facts; and there is news, which is supported by facts. And the least trustworthy sources are those who are quickest to label something as “fake news”. Religion, and all the fucking tragedy it’s caused over the centuries, feels lightweight in comparison. Although, to be fair, The Milky Way does a good job in pointing out how shortsighted that view is. It’s not the best film in the box set, but, like Diary of a Chambermaid (see above), its presence is welcome. The box set doesn’t include some of Buñuel’s best films, but what it does include is bloody good. Worth getting.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 895

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2017, the best of the year: films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #67

I seem to have built up another backlog of these again. Cracking on…

Passion, Jean-Luc Godard (1982, Switzerland). Some people consider this one of Godard’s best, although he seems fixed in the minds of the general cinema-going public only as the Nouvelle Vague director of films such as À bout de souffle, Bande à part and Une femme est une femme. Of course, he’s made many more films than that, and is still making them. Passion marked Godard’s return to mainstream cinema after a period making experimental pictures. A Polish film-maker in Switzerland is exasperating his backers by staging huge, and expensive, tableaux based on famous paintings, none of which suggest a commercial narrative movie. Meanwhile, Isabelle Huppert is fired from her job at a local factory, and subsequently tries to organise a strike. The film-maker, played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, is in a relationship with Huppert; he’s also in a relationship with the wife, played by Fassbinder favourite Hanna Schygulla, of the owner of the hotel where he is staying. It’s an odd mix of a film. The Huppert narrative is very much realist social drama, but the Schygulla elements feel a bit like a bedroom farce and the tableaux scenes are more Peter Greenaway than anything Godard has done previously. It works, because Godard is good at this stuff. And he also has an excellent cast – Huppert, probably the best actor currently making films, is on top form, even with the stutter with which her character is lumbered. The tableaux are… odd. As I said, more Greenaway than Godard. But unlike Greenaway, Passion shows how they are constructed – their existence is part of the narrative, rather than them actually being the narrative. I rate other films by Godard higher than Passion (although I’m not that much of a fan of his Nouvelle Vague movies). Um, thinking about my favourite Godard films, they’d probably look like this: 1. Le mépris, 2. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 3. Je vous salue, Marie, 4. Week End, and 5. either Passion, Détective or Film Socialisme.

The Mortal Storm*, Frank Borzage (1940, USA). A write-up of this film somewhere – Wikipedia? imdb? – states that it rarely mentions the country in which it was set in order not to offend German audiences. Except that’s completely untrue. It makes it abundantly clear it’s about Germany and the average Germans’ complicity with Hitler and the Nazis. The whole point of the film is a relationship between a non-Nazi and the daughter of a Jewish intellectual. No effort is made to disguise this. Jimmy Stewart is friendly with the daughter of college professor Frank Morgan, who is Jewish. She’s already engaged to a Nazi party member, but when her step-brothers start spouting the party line, she realise her mistake. This is a good film because it’s totally not subtle. It’s not a great film – some of the opening shots have that sort of artificial grandeur Hollywood managed every so often with its studio shots… but once the plot gets into gear they disappear. Given its subject – even more timely now than it has ever been – The Mortal Storm probably deserves its spot on 1001 Movies you Must See Before Die list, even though technically there’s nothing that’s special or important about it.

Gold Diggers of 1937, Lloyd Bacon (1936, USA). A theatre owner wants to put on a new show but his partners have spent all on his money on the stock market. So they get his life insured, planning to bump him off and then collect to make good on their debts. But the insurance salesman – Gold Diggers regular Dick Powell – who sold him the policy is keen on him staying alive. So the corrupt partners try to kill the theatre owner, but Powell has to keep him alive in order to earn his commission. Cue hilarity. There are some entertaining set-pieces, but the humour is all a bit obvious and some of the acting closer to mugging. There’s one of Berkeley’s big routines at the end, but the way the final act gives everyone the happy – or not, in the villains’ case – ending does feel over contrived. I don’t know if the Gold Diggers series was killed by the Hays Code or the declining quality of the films, but they’re not bad examples of their time and type, and they’re usually entertaining. If you find copies of these two Busby Berkeley collections, they’re worth having, although volume one much more so than volume two.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand). I’d known Weerasethakul’s name originally as the director of The Adventures of Iron Pussy, a film I’ve never seen, but a spoof of 1970s Thai action films and musicals didn’t sound like it would appeal. But then earlier this year I came across mention of the film he made after that, Tropical Malady, and it seemed much more like the sort of movie I enjoy watching. So I stuck it on my rental list (see here). And followed it with Syndromes and a Century (see here). And then it turned out Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included Weerasethakul’s first film, Mysterious Objects at Noon… So I’ve now seen four films by Weerasethakul, and they’re very good. They’re slow and elliptical and often beautifully shot. Sort of my thing, really. Okay, so sometimes the parts don’t quite fit together, but I really like the fact Weerasethakul ignores the three-act structure. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives consists of six linked stories about the title character. They’re odd, but odd in a way that is presented as completely normal. The dead  sister of Uncle Boonmee’s wife joins them for dinner and they treat her appearance as completely unremarkable. A nephew who disappeared returns as a forest spirit – covered head to toe in fur and with red eyes that glow in the dark – and they treat him as if he were just a lost nephew. It’s beautifully laid-back. True, not much, if anything, happens; but Weerasethakul presents worlds in which strange things take place and they are treated as completely ordinary. And the slow dead-pan delivery not only makes their ordinariness within the world of the film more believable but also makes them even more extraordinary to the viewer. I think I’m becoming a bit of a Weerasethakul fan. And yes, now I want to see The Adventures of Iron Pussy.

Silver Lode*, Allan Dwan (1954, USA). That’s some cover art. Silver Lode is actually a relatively ordinary 1950s Western, and that cover art looks more like some twenty-first century Western romance, with its artfully-designed typeface and artfully-placed lens flare. A US marshal and three marshal deputies ride into the eponymous town with a warrant for the arrest of John Payne, a pillar of the local community. The marshal tells everyone that Payne killed his brother – shot him in the back during a poker game – and stole the pot of $20,000 dollars. At first, the people of Silver Lode are on Payne’s side and are keen to ensure he is conveyed safely to California, where the warrant was issued, in order for his innocence to be proven. But then one of the marshal’s deputies admits to Payne that it’s all a fake – the marshal is no marshal and the warrant is forged – and it’s all for revenge… but the marshal kills the deputy and pins it on Payne… Public opinion turns and Payne finds himself hiding from the mrshal and his deputies and the townsfolk. It’s an interesting spin on your usual Western story, and it’s handled well – Payne’s actual guilt is left in the air until the very end – but in terms of presentation there’s nothing special about Silver Lode. I’d sooner its position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list went to a better non-Hollywood film.

O Pagador de Promessas*, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil). Another highly-regarded film that doesn’t seem to have ever had a DVD release – at least not in the UK – so I ended up having to buy a rip on eBay from a US seller. O Pagador de Promessas, variously translated as Keeper of Promises and The Given Word, is the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’Or. Like some of the other Brazilian films I’ve seen, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I do wonder if I’m seeing the cream of the crop – Vidas Secas, the films of Glauber Rocha… These are excellent films and it’s criminal they’re not better known in the Anglophone world. But O Pagador de Promessas… A poor farmer promises to carry a crucifix from his farm to a church in Salvador (like those other excellent Brazilian films, O Pagador de Promessas is set in Bahia) if his donkey survives its illness. But the church are unhappy with the farmer’s “pagan” promises, and various other groups try to use him to promote their own anti-Catholic causes. From my limited exposure to Brazilian culture, Bahia seems to be fertile ground – Vidas Secas is set there (see here), as are Rocha’s Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes (see here and here), not to mention Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent novel, The War of the End of the World (see here). It’s not all carnivals and football. Duarte made half a dozen feature films between 1947 and 1967 – I’d like to see them all. And watch the rest of Glauber Rocha’s oeuvre, of course. I should make more of an effort to track these films down.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 893


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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #49

Six films, six different countries. Much as I try to spread my viewing, it doesn’t always work out so well. A good mix of films too. And some pretty good films too.

Les rendez-vous de Paris, Éric Rohmer (1995, France). I’m still slowly working my way through Rohmer’s oeuvre, although I’ve no plans to “accidentally” buy a collection of his films one night after a glass or two of wine – and there are several available… although I have been tempted. But, while Rohmer’s films are very well made, none – except perhaps Love in the Afternoon – has especially taken my fancy. Les rendez-vous de Paris – one day I will have to decided on a standard for non-Anglophone films, either using the English translated title or the original language title – contains three stories based on the title. In one, a young woman arranges to meet a stranger, who she thinks might be the pickpocket who robbed her at a streetmarket, at a brasserie, only to discover her boyfriend there with another woman. In another, a woman meets with her literature teacher in a park. And in the third, an artist meets a young woman and pursues her, abandoning his date. The first story is most memorable, perhaps because of its ludicrous coincidences, but none of it really adds up to a memorable movie. One for Rohmer fans.

The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman (1960, Sweden). And I’m still slowly working my way through Bergman’s oeuvre, although unlike Rohmer I’m buying Bergman’s films rather than renting them. It has got to the point now, however, as a friend pointed out, that each new Bergman film I watch is starting feel like a Bergman pastiche. In The Virgin Spring, a man in  mediæval Sweden sends his beautiful daughter to the nearest church with candles, accompanied by the daughter’s pregnant servant. En route, the two are separated, and the servant witnesses three herdsmen rape and kill the daughter but does nothing. The herdsmen then seek shelter, unknowingly, in the father’s house, but their crime is revealed when they try to sell the daughter’s clothes to the mother. This is grim stiff, and nods at Norse mythology do little to justify the grimness. Bergman favourites Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg and Gunnel Lindblom all appear – as father, mother and servant girl – and the scenes set in the Swedish forests – ie, the ride to the church – look more like the sort of woods you’d expect in a Shakespearean play on stage. Bergman has a body of work second-to-none, and it’s certainly worth working your way through it; but there are only a few stand-outs, and the rest do have a tendency to blur into a cheerless morass of Nordic grimness. One for Bergman fans.

Moana, Ron Clements & John Musker (2016, USA). I’ve no desire to completely ignore Hollywood, although I do ignore much of its output – and I often wonder why I don’t ignore more. But Moana seemed to have generally positive reviews, and despite being a kids’ animated film, the story appeared to be a little bit different. So I bunged it on the rental list, and in due time it popped through the letter box. And… well, I enjoyed it. The story is based on Polynesian mythology. Apparently, there was a period of about a thousand years when they stopped sailing across the sea. According to the film, this is because demigod Maui stole the heart of goddess Te Fiti, creating demon Te Ka in the process. But one thousand years later, chieftain’s daughter Moana is drawn to the ocean, and feels a need to sail beyond the reef. Which is how she ends up tracking down Maui and enlisting his help to find and return Te Fiti’s heart. Everyone who provided voices for the film is of Polynesian extraction – except for Alan Tudyk, who played the, er, chicken – and efforts were made to be as sensitive as possible to Polynesian culture. Moana still came under fire, however, for basing its ship designs on those of an existing island culture. I think the fact Disney made an effort, which would have been unthinkable ten years ago, is laudable. It seems churlish to criticise them for not getting it 100% right, but since I’m not one of the affected parties I guess it’s not my call. I did find the film entertaining, and the animation well done. Major animated films in the twenty-first century so far have proven a bit of a mixed bag, but Moana is definitely one of the better ones.

Accused, Jacob Thuesen (2005, Denmark). So the night before flying out to Copenhagen for Fantasticon, I decided to watch a Danish film. I could perhaps have chosen a more cheerful one. Er, had I more cheerful one on hand, that is. Although the DVD cover prominently features the phrase “Nordic noir”, Accused, well, isn’t. A happily-married couple have a troubled teenage daughter. Who claims her father sexually abused her several years before. He’s arrested and his daughter’s claims are investigated. But they can find no proof, and the daughter’s past history of lying tells against her. Of course, this is an area fraught with moral conundrums. Do you believe the victim, despite the lack of evidence, because of the power dynamics in the relationship? Or should there be a rigorous requirement for proof, and innocence assumed if it doesn’t exist? Because these are not crimes – especially when committed years before – that are likely to generate anything more than the most circumstantial of evidence, and much of that is going to be the psychological damage of the victims. Accused never makes it clear whether the father is guilty or not – the court returns a verdict of innocent because of insufficient evidence. But even that too exacts a toll no one can walk away from such an accusation unscathed even if they are completely innocent. Accused sits in the shadow of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, and comes close to it, despite having more the feel of a teleplay than a feature film.

Syndromes and a Century, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2006, Thailand). This was the second Weerasethakul film I’ve watched – I’d previously seen Tropical Malady (see here), and had been in two minds about it. But I’d forgotten I had Syndromes and a Century on my rental list… at least I did until it arrived. Tropical Malady hadn’t quite worked for me – its two stories didn’t quite join up. Syndromes and a Century is more traditional narrative, although even then it’s not entirely traditional as it doesn’t have much in the way of a plot, if indeed any. The film is split into two parts – the first takes place in a rural clinic, the second in a Bangkok medical centre. Someone recently described Weerasethakul’s films to me as “very you”, and I assume they were referring to the fact they’re “slow cinema” and often light on plot. I’m not sure I’m entirely in tune with Weerasethakul’s artistic sensibilities yet, although I do find what I’ve seen so far intriguing. There’s a documentary feel to Syndromes and a Century, making it one of those movies that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction (much like Ben Rivers’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers, which actually depicts Oliver Laxe making a film that was later released as Mimosas). Of course, I’ve done the same in my own fiction, which is why it’s a boundary that interests me  – crossing fiction genre boundaries is boring, and people these days do it so uncritically, they’ve no fucking idea where the boundaries lie. But facts, everyone knows what facts are. Or at least, they used to. Until Trump and Brexit and moronic right-wingers with all the critical faculties of sea slugs, which breath through their anuses, not to mention the right-wing press… We need a better appreciation of facts, and fiction, ironically, is a good place to develop that appreciation.

Hera Pheri, Priyadarshan (2000, India). The DVD cover art is a bit misleading, although the film does revolve around three people – but it doesn’t involve them singing and dancing while playing a bizarre game of Twister. Although there were some very bizarre musical numbers… . Shyam has moved to the city to join a bank – he feels they owe him a job since his father died in a fire while working at the bank. But the job instead goes to a female candidate, Anuradha. Shyam goes to look for somewhere to live, has his pocket picked, and chases the man he thinks is responsible… Which he wasn’t. Later, he discovers that same man, Raju, a con man, is staying in the same house in which Shyam rents a room. Shyam tries various schemes to get the bank job, while Raju tells Anuradhu he will make sure she keeps it. Then the trio, plus landlord Baburao, stumble across a kidnapping plot when they get a wrong number. So they decide to insert themselves as middlemen, bump up the demanded ransom, and so make themselves millions of rupees. It does not go well. I’ve been doing quite well with my Bollywood choices so far, and while Hera Pheri was certainly entertaining, it wasn’t all that good – the comedy was too broad and repetitive, the whole kidnapping thing was ridiculous – and the fight scenes when the trio battle the kidnappers completely jumped the shark – and the two main male characters weren’t especially nice: boorishly entitled and whiny Shyam and lazy dishonest Raju. One for fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Moving pictures 2017, #34

I think I might start posting DVD haul posts as well as book haul ones. Admittedly, many of the films I watch are rental DVDs, but those I can’t find at either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso, and are not recent releases, I generally have to hunt down, so perhaps it’s worthwhile recording that. Except, well, of the six movies below, only the first and last are from my collection. Nazar is the third of three films from the box set, and the other two have appeared in previous Moving pictures posts; while The Bad and the Beautiful is a Korean release I bought on eBay as the film is apparently not available in either the UK or the US. Go figure.

Anyway, time to start doing the bap-bap-baa bap-bap-baa bap-bap-baa from the Pearl & Dean theme tune as the main feature is about to begin…

Nazar, Mani Kaul (1991, India). After three movies by Kaul, I still have no idea what to make of him. Nazar, a later film than the other two, and apparently based on a Dostoevsky short story, as was the movie he made following this one, is, well, is pretty much Kaul channelling Godard. I like many of the Godard films I’ve seen – not that I’ve watched anywhere close to half of his total output – but he is pretty much a mixed bag. Some of his films, for me, work much better than others – and not for obviously discernible reasons: I love, for example, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, but was mostly left cold by Made in USA (I have the Criterion editions of both), and yet Godard shot both films simultaneously, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon, during the same month. However, one thing that is true of all of Godard’s films is that they bear, and sometimes demand, repeated watchings. I get that same sense from the three films in this Mani Kaul box set, but Nazar still strikes me as much more consciously Godard-esque than Uski Roti or Duvidha. And for that reason… it also seemed to me less successful. The well-off owner of an antiques shop in Mumbai marries a seventeen-year-old orphan. The film opens with her suicide, then flashes back to describe the events that may or may not have prompted the suicide. There are a lot of close-ups and pullbacks, with voiceover by the male lead Shekhar Kapur, but also some dialogue too. Much of the film consists of slowly moving shots with only music and sound effects. Kaul also does something interesting where he sits the camera in one spot, has the actors approach it, perhaps by crossing a room, and although the camera follows them it does not always pull back, and so an actor, or a part of them, fills the frame. Another Godard-esque aspect is that the dialogue sometimes feels like a series of non sequiturs. Certainly real-life conversations skip about, but the staginess of Nazar‘s dialogue, and the long silences in between, break the continuity. This box set was a good buy, and I’ll certainly watch the three films in it again, indeed I’d like to see more by Kaul… but I’m still not entirely sure what I’m watching.

Behave Yourself!, George Beck (1951, USA). My mother gave me a bunch of DVDs recently to watch, mostly classic Hollywood movies and recent UK TV mini-series. This was the first one I watched and, well, the cover art does over-sell it somewhat. There’s no Shelley Winters reclining lasciviously in lingerie in it, for one thing. According to Wikipedia, the script was written in four days, and they’ve not done a bad job given the time they took. Winters and Granger are happily married, but it’s their wedding anniversary and he’s forgotten it – until Winters drops heavy hints, at which point he does the usual and claims to have arranged a surprise… Meanwhile, two groups of villains are attempting to exchange, I think, counterfeiting plates, for cash, and are using a trained dog to do it. One group has trained the dog to lead the other group to the wanted goods. Except the dog takes a liking to Granger, screws up his attempt to buy his wife some lingerie by trashing the store, follows him home… and is immediately assumed by Winters to be the surprise present Granger had hinted at. Except now one gang of villains wants the dog back, another have figured out the dog’s role and want it for themselves, and the other gang think whoever has the dog is their contact from the first gang… The one-liners come thick and fast, there’s plentiful slapstick, and the plot manages not to collapse into a heap. But. It’s all a bit, well, corny, the characters are stereotyped, and Granger is far too smiley and amiable for his role (it was apparently written for Cary Grant). It’s an entertaining 81 minutes, but it’s no surprise it was quickly forgotten.

Grey Gardens, Albert and David Maylses (1975, USA). This movie is on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or perhaps another best of list, but it’s not on the list I’ve been using. But I watched it anyway. The title refers to a mansion in East Hampton, New York, USA, a property owned by members of the Bouvier family, relatives of Jackie Kennedy (as was). By the time the film was made, the mansion and its garden had fallen into disrepair, and the two women who lived there, the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy, both called Edith – Little Edie and Big Edie – were living in squalour. They were also quite eccentric. Grey Gardens is pretty much pure fly-on-the-wall, with some prompting by an off-screen interviewer. There’s an extensive look at the two Bouviers’ past, especially Little Edie’s career as a model and socialite in 1920s and 1930s New York. However, the problem with Grey Gardens, especially given its direct cinema approach, is that its worth depends entirely on its subjects. It handles the two women well, but I honestly don’t think they’re interesting enough in and of themselves, or because of how they’ve let the house fall into wrack and ruin, to justify the reputation this film has. Little Edie and Big Edie are not particularly interesting people. Odd, certainly. But not fascinating or admirable or important or even representational. Their only real claim to fame – because there are plenty of women, and men, who have let their homes fall into total disrepair – is the family connection to Jackie Kennedy and JFK. But, and I’m sorry I have to break the news to the US, the Kennedy family were not royalty and, more than that, actual royalty is not all that fucking interesting anyway. I suppose in some ways it’s the antithesis of the American Dream, ie, riches to rags, but in a world where, as Noam Chomsky has said, debt is little more than slavery (but hardly equivalent to it, because slavery is an abomination), and poverty is increasing massively thanks to the actions of the one-percenters, the two Edies’ downward trajectory is neither entertaining nor edifying. In other words, I don’t pity the Bouviers, I pity the people who pity the Bouviers. And that includes the Maysles.

52 Tuesdays, Sophie Hyde (2014, Australia). No idea how this one ended up on my rental list – I don’t think it’s the sort of film David Tallerman would have recommended, so perhaps I saw a trailer or something. Billie is sixteen, her parents are divorced, and her mother is now transitioning from Jane to James. Because of this, Billie goes to live with her father, and visits James every Tuesday after school. For a year. Hence, 52 Tuesdays. Unfortunately, James’s body rejects the male hormones, so his treatment stalls. Meanwhile, Billie has hooked up with Josh and Jasmine, two older kids from her school, and while the three experiment sexually, so Billie films them… leading to her sending a nude photograph of herself to Jasmine, which the school learns about and goes mental because it’s technically paedophilia as Billie is under the age of consent or something… I remember taking this out of the LoveFilm envelope, reading the précis on the DVD sleeve and thinking it didn’t sound too bad, but getting pulled into the story as I watched it… because Tilda Cobham-Hervey is really good in the role of Billie, the film iss played as a low-key drama, and it touched enough points out of the ordinary, in a nicely sensitive fashion, to give the story added interest. I’m guessing that adding it to my rental list was pure whim, but I really enjoyed 52 Tuesdays. A well-played uplifting drama about something personal, and a perfect antidote to Grey Gardens. Worth seeing.

Tropical Malady, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2004, Thailand). Weerasethakul’s name is not unknown to me, although this was the first film by him I’ve watched. I seem to recall seeing a trailer of it on another rental DVD. But it was released by Second Run, and their catalogue is generally pretty damn good. So, despite not really knowing what to expect, I had reasonably high hopes when I slid Tropical Malady into the DVD player… And it both met them and failed them. The film tells two stories. In the first, a soldier is assigned to a provincial village, falls in love with a local villager, and the two spend time together. In the second, a soldier – not necessarily the one from the first story, but played by the same actor – follows a lost villager into the jungle and meets a tiger spirit – played by the love-interest of the soldier from the first story – who haunts and taunts him. Unfortunately, the links between the two stories – despite the shared cast, despite the shared setting – aren’t strong enough, although the individual stories themselves are very good. Had it been two separate films, I’ve have thought them much better – but as a conjoined work, and this despite my own experiments in literary structure – it didn’t to me seem as if it quite hung together. Despite that, I want to watch more Weeraserthakul, and perhaps I may later have cause to re-evaluate Tropical Malady. It’s nonetheless worth seeing – I enjoyed it, but it never quite gelled for me.

The Bad and the Beautiful*, Vincente Minnelli (1952, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and, while Minnelli has made some classic Hollywood films, I think putting six of them on the 1001 list is over-doing it. By quite a bit. Particularly with this one. The Bad and the Beautiful opens with a person telephoning a famous director, a famous actress and a famous writer, all of whom refuse to talk to the caller. They’re then called to the office of a top Hollywood producer, who explains they have good reason to refuse to speak to the caller, ex-producer Jonathan Shields but… The film flashes back to each of the three’s history, explaining how they came to know Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) and how he shafted them, before returning to the producer’s office… It’s a clumsy-as-hell narrative structure, the characters are all archetypes, and Minnelli was never more than ordinary in his framing… but it’s a Hollywood film about Hollywood and… yawn. Seriously, this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? It’s a clichéd melodrama, in which the prize goes to who chews the most scenery. And yet… it was nominated for six Oscars and won five of them – and still holds the record for the most Oscars for a film not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. For the, er, record, it won Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Costume Design (Black and White), Best Adapted Screenplay… but lost Best Actor. Incidentally, awards for black and white films were dropped in 1967, and both colour and B&W films competed in the same categories thereafter. It’s possible 1952 was a bad year, Oscar-wise, to prompt so many nominations – and wins – for this ordinary melodrama… Um, I see Best Picture went to The Greatest Show on Earth, Best Director to John Ford for The Quiet Man, Best Actor to Gary Cooper for High Noon and Best Actress to Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba… So, yes, a shit year. Seriously, this film does not belong on  the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I seriously doubt Minnelli deserves so many places on it either.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 871