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Moving pictures, #18

More of a geographic spread this time around, with only two of the six from Hollywood – and both of those I only watched because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Some of you may have noticed that I had a go at putting together my own version of the list, but so far only managed about 300 films. It’s a work in progress, of course; and will undoubtedly change as I watch more films, or change my minds about films I’ve already listed. It has so far proven difficult not to put too many films on my list by directors I rate highly – such as Dreyer below – but even then I seem to have included half a dozen by one favourite director but only two by another. So it’s not like I’ve been all that consistent. Ah well. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, more films from the actual 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a few others, what I have viewed recently…

once_uponOnce Upon a Time, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Denmark). As is no doubt obvious from the title, this is a fairy tale. It’s adapted from a play of the same title by Holger Drachmann, first performed in 1885. The film isn’t complete, however, as about half has been lost – but the Danske Filminstitut have managed to salvage a narrative using still photos and new intertitles based on original sources. It’s a less engaging film than Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal, although the staging is often impressive – as can be seen from the still on the DVD cover. I seem to recall the story dragging somewhat – and that there were a lot of intertitles, although whether that was a result of the fact half the footage has been lost, I’m not sure. I seem to recall other films by Dreyer from the same period featuring more intertitles than I’d expected. On the other hand, you’d expect a silent movie adaptation of a stage play to be quite talky… I do like Dreyer’s films – I’d certainly put him in my top ten directors list… (For the record, they would be, at this particular time, in no particular order, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Suleiman, Antonioni, Haneke, Hitchcock, Dreyer, Benning, Kieślowski and Kaurismäki.)

goodbyeGoodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard (2014, France). Some things I like the idea of more than I like the actual thing. One of those things is experimental cinema. I like that some film-makers explore how the medium can be used to tell stories, film-makers like James Benning, for example. But not every experiment film works for me. I remember watching and not liking Lukas Moodysson’s Container, although I do like Moodysson’s other movies. Godard was a director who certainly experimented, and one or two of his experiments I do indeed like – such as Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Weekend. Goodbye to Language experiments with both 3D filming techniques – entirely lost on me as I watched a 2D version – and cinematic narrative… and it’s not an easy film to watch. There are scenes which look and feel more like documentary footage, there are scenes in which characters lecture at each other (not unusual in a Godard film), there are strange camera tricks and photographic effects. The story has to be puzzled out from what’s shown on the screen, and it’s not at all obvious. Watching Goodbye to Language was a bit of a chore, but, as mentioned earlier, I like the idea of the movie – and might well give it another go sometime. Sometimes it happens you don’t take to something immediately, but leave it a while, return to it, give it another go… and it becomes a favourite. I suspect that won’t happen here, but perhaps I might decide I do actually like it…

A_Simple_DeathA Simple Death, Aleksandr Kaidanovsky (1985, Russia). Kaidanovsky is perhaps better known as an actor – he played the lead in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and one of Pirx’s crew in Test Pilota Pirxa – but he also directed three feature films: Гость (an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges story), Жена Керосинщика, and Простая смерть. The last, A Simple Death, is an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, and pretty faithfully follows its plot: a magistrate who has led a mostly good and successful life falls while hanging curtains one day and hurts his side, the pain grows each day until he is bedridden and his codition is terminal, where he reflects on his mortality, his life and the injustice of his current predicament. Although made in 1985, A Simple Death is black and white, and parts of the film reminded me strongly of Sokurov’s Stone, in which Chekhov returns to the present day and surprises the young man who is caretaker of his house. There’s a similar aesthetic at work, although Kaidanovsky’s film and camera work is not as experimental as Sokurov’s. Good stuff.

winchesterWinchester ’73*, Anthony Mann (1950, USA). The title refers to a model of rifle, the Winchester 1873, which was a superior repeating rifle and much prized. Even more prized, however, was the “one in a thousand”, which was is a particular instance of the Winchester ’73 which was so well-made – more by accident than by design – that it shot so much truer than the other 999 rifles made in that batch. Winchester ’73 opens with a crowd gathering in Dodge City to either witness or take part in a shooting competition, the prize for which is a “one in a thousand”. The contestants are whittled down to two: Jimmy Stewart and Stephen McNally. And there’s plainly bad blood between the two. Stewart wins, but McNally later ambushes him, steals the prize rifle, and gets the hell out of Dodge. Stewart and buddy chase after him. Meanwhile McNally has lost the rifle in card game with a gunrunner, who then sells it to a Native American chief (Rock Hudson) on the warpath. Who then attacks a cavalry detachment, but Stewart and buddy turn up and help them cavalry win the day. Hudson is killed and a young Tony Curtis finds the prize rifle. The sergeant gives it Charkes Drake, as Stewart has already left. Drake, and fiancée Shelley Winters (who had met Stewart back in Dodge), continue with their journey, but come a cropper with a member of McNally’s gang, and so the rifle ends up back in McNally’s hands. At which point Stewart turns up and the two shoot at each other for the gun. Throughout the film, they’ve been depicted as superlative shots, but this last scene has them repeatedly missing each other. Guess they weren’t so good, after all. As mid-centiury Westerns go, Winchester ’73 isn’t a bad one – and it’s certainly refreshing to see Stewart acting tougher than he usually does. But I’m not really sure why it needs to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

strictlyStrictly Ballroom*, Baz Luhrmann (1992, Australia). I should think most of the populations of Australia and the UK, amd a goodly-sized proportion of the US, have already seen this film, but somehow or other I’d never managed to do so. Of course, I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And now I have. It was… okay. It’s a spoof set around a regional ballroom dancing championship in Australia. The son of a dancing school instructor is the local star, and tipped to do well in the competition. But his partner leaves him for another dancer since he has a tendency to stray from “proper dance steps” – and, against his parents wishes, and with some persuasion, he decides to take as his partner a young woman who hangs around the dancing school but is not a dancer. They practice secretly, she develops into an excellent dancer, and he even learns some useful life lessons – and how to dance the pasodoble correctly – from her immigrant parents. Apparently, the film was adapted from an earlier play written by Luhrmann when he was  a student. It’s also one of the most successful Australian films of all time. It has now been made into a stage musical, which I guess means it’s now as mainstream as you could possibly get.

grafittiAmerican Graffiti*, George Lucas (1973, USA). After THX-1138, Lucas decided to make something more commercial, and so chose a story based on his own memories of growing up in Modesto, California. Although audience response to the film was good, and he had a number of big names batting for him, the studio first wanted their own re-edit of it and then to release it as a TV movie. However, saner heads prevailed, and the film was given a theatrical release, and went on to make a pretty good profit. All of which may be interesting, but is of no consequence when considering American Graffiti as a film. And it’s a Californian coming-of-age movie, a duller subject I can’t imagine. Obnoxious teenagers with over-inflated senses of self-worth driving around small town USA and getting up to drunken antics. Richard Dreyfus spends much of the movie chasing after a young woman he saw fleetingly in a car. Paul Le Mat cruises around with a teenybopper, before ending up in a road race against Harrison Ford. Charles Martin Smith chats up a young woman, mostly by telling lies, and then cruises around with her. And so on… Yawn. I have no idea why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 753

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Moving pictures, #3

Well, my DVD-player decided to pack in. After seven and a half years of hard use. I guess I can’t complain too much. Fortunately, I also have a Blu-ray player, so there was no interruption of service. Having said that, I need to get a new Blu-ray player as the one I have is region-locked, so I can’t watch my Criterion Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows. Bah. Stupid region-locking.

servantThe Servant*, Joseph Losey (1963, UK). James Fox is an upper crust bachelor, back in London after working abroad. He buys himself a townhouse, and advertises for a manservant. Dirk Bogarde is subsequently hired. Once the house has been decorated, the pair move in. Bogarde arranges for his sister, Sarah Miles, in Manchester to join him as a housekeeper, although the two seem suspiciously close for siblings. Fox’s girlfriend, Wendy Craig, doesn’t like Bogarde – she doesn’t think he’s appropriately servile. Miles and and Fox have sex, Fox comes increasingly under the sway of Bogarde… until their roles are pretty much reversed. Bogarde doesn’t quite convince as a Mancunian, but he plays a servant just on the edge of taking liberties perfectly. A proper creepy little film and worth seeing.

greatgatsbyThe Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann (2013, USA/Australia). F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the Roaring Twenties, when you think about it, should be pretty much ideal material for Luhrmann’s brand of spectacle. So it’s a bit of a shame that this film felt entirely pointless. Not the story – which everyone knows – but the film’s reason for existing. It didn’t help that I’ve always found both Maguire and DiCaprio a bit bland. And some of the scenery was pure CGI eye-candy, which made everything resemble a cartoon more than a classic of American literature. Nothing felt plausible, so what the story was actually about got lost in the fake world Luhrmann had created – and this is the film of a novel that comments on weighty topics like, to quote the Wikipedia page for the novel, “decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, and success”. Disappointing.

madeinparisMade in Paris, Boris Sagal (1966, USA). A silly sixties rom com starring Ann-Margret and the late Louise Jourdan. Ann-Margret plays a junior fashion buyer for a New York department store, sent for the first time to Paris to sign up fashion designer Jourdan’s latest collection. She discovers that the previous buyer and Jourdan had something of an “arrangement”. Since she has a clean-cut boyfriend back home, and she’s a nice girl, Ann-Margret’s certainly not going to continue it. So a telegram gets sent back home saying she’s falling down on the job. Boyfriend then turns up and jumps to conclusion. Jourdan oozes Gallic charm throughout, Ann-Margret makes a good ingenue… but it’s all just melodramatic froth and chock-full of French stereotypes.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). Dreyer’s Gertrud is a film that almost makes my top ten, so I’ve been picking up more of his films to watch. Day Of Wrath was Dreyer’s first film after more than a decade. It was also the first feature film he made in his native Denmark, and only his second with sound. It’s set in a village in 1623. A young woman is married to a pastor a good deal older than herself. When a local old woman is accused of witchcraft, the young woman hides her in the pastor’s house. The pastor’s son returns home from abroad shortly afterwards, and he and his father’s wife begin seeing each other. The wife, whose mother had been accused of witchcraft, but spared because the pastor wanted to marry the daughter, curses her husband. He dies. She’s accused of witchcraft. This is grim stuff, shot in stark black and white, with lots of close-ups of grim-looking faces. Sort of like Bergman, but without the cheerful optimism. I especially like how Dreyer stages his films, so that the sparse sets throw the focus on what’s going on beneath the words. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite directors.

starshiprisingStarship Rising, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). I bunged this on an order because the DVD had a pretty cover and it was cheap. What I didn’t know is that Johnson is a genre feature film cottage industry all his own, and churns out low budget movies like a one-man Global Asylum. He is apparently best known for directing over 500 music videos. Huh. While the CGI in Starship Rising is actually pretty respectable, the sets just about visible underneath look cheap (and badly-lit, to hide how really cheap they are). And the acting is poor, too. So was the script. There was something about a huge warship, which is ordered to destroy Earth, but one of the officers mutinies and, er, lots of other things happened. I will admit I wasn’t concentrating as much as I should have been – maybe there was something interesting happening on Twitter, there was certainly nothing interesting in the movie. One to avoid. There is apparently a sequel due, shot back-to-back with this one, but not yet released.

Devils-DVDThe Devils*, Ken Russell (1971, UK). I’ve actually read Russell’s science fiction novel, Mike And Gaby’s Space Gospel. It was fucking awful. And only the other night, I was flicking through channels and stumbled across The Lair of the White Worm, and after watching Amanda Donohe chew everything in sight, including the scenery and some poor lad’s genitals, while bumbling posh Englishman Hugh Grant played a bumbling posh Englishman, I couldn’t help noting how much of a perv Ken Russell had been (not an original observation, by any means). Which leads me to The Devils, which is the only one of Russell’s 18 feature films (and much more television work) to make it onto the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. The Devils was very controversial when it was released, probably because it has lots of naked and semi-naked nuns having sex in it. To be honest, it was all a bit much and overwhelmed the story a bit. The sets, however, all buttresses and high walls of white tile, looked pretty cool, and Oliver Reed was on top form. Despite its relentlessness and all those scenes of writhing naked flesh, I thought The Devils pretty good. Might watch some more Russell.

bigredoneThe Big Red One – The Reconstruction*, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA). I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of war movies (and I have far less time for Vietnam War films than I do WWII ones), but there are a handful which are quite good. This, I discovered as I watched it, is one of them. Okay, so Israel makes a poor stand-in for, well, North Africa and most of Europe, and this was clearly a film done on the cheap as even the tight-focus shots couldn’t disguise the paucity of cast members. Not to mention that exactly the same type of tank – Israeli M51 HV tanks, apparently – stood in for all the tanks used during WWII. The film follows a platoon of soldiers from the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division (their badge is a, er, big red 1), led by taciturn sergeant Lee Marvin, as they fight in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and Germany. The sergeant and four others survive each action, so much so other soldiers assigned to the platoon might as well have worn red shirts. A German Feldwebel pops up at intervals, usually trying to kill Marvin, as a sort of thematic reflection of Marvin’s character. The Big Red One is not a patch on The Thin Red Line, but I did think it better than those huge ensemble war movies they used churn out by the dozen in the 1960s and 1970s, like The Longest Day.

effiebriestEffi Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Another film from the Fassbinder collection. The title character is a callow young woman who marries well, to a baron twice her age, but then has an affair with a male friend. Later, the family move to Berlin as the baron has got himself a position in government, but he finds the letters between Effi and her lover – this is many years after the affair finished – and so divorces her. Her parents won’t take her back because her reputation is in tatters. The baron meanwhile challenges the lover and kills him in a duel. Effi succumbs to illness, and her parents let her come home. She dies. There’s much more to it than that, of course, and in many respects the story bears similarities to Gertrud. It was adapted from a 1894 novel, of the same title, about which Thomas Mann apparently said that if a person’s library were reduced to six novels, Effi Briest should be one of them. This film also boasts one of the longest titles in cinema, although it wasn’t used by distributors; it is: Fontane Effi Briest oder Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen.

throneofbloodThrone Of Blood*, Akira Kurosawa (1957, Japan). I will admit that Japanese cinema does not appeal to me as much as the cinema of some other countries, and while I’ve watched films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, I’ve never felt the urge to watch everything in their oeuvres. But it’s no good watching the same sort of stuff all the time, so I occasionally bung a piece of classic Japanese cinema on my rental list… Throne Of Blood is, famously, Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. That the final scene with the archers, as depicted on the cover of the BFI DVD, really is quite astonishing. The scenes set in the forest looked a bit stagey, but the rest of it – filmed high up on Mount Fuji – looked really effective. I think this is the Kurosawa I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the most of the ones I’ve seen, although – according to my records – the last one I saw before this was Ran in May 2009. I really should watch more of his films.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 558 (they’re the ones with the asterisked titles)