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Moving pictures 2017, #6

This was going to be a post without a US film… But I had to do a bit of juggling after realising that  I’m going to have watch The Name of a River again, which is a sort of drama-documentary about Ritwik Ghatak’s films, before I can write about it. So I bounced that film into my next post, and pulled Midnight Special into this one… and spoiled my entirely non-US run. Oh well.

baaxzBaaz, Guru Dutt (1953, India). I do like me some Dutt, but I wish there were decent transfers of his films available. Yes, they’re over sixty years old, and Bollywood has not been as assiduous in preserving old films as Hollywood has – and Hollywood has been far from perfect in that regard anyway. In fact, no one has, to be fair: just think of all those TV series from the 1940s and 1950s the BBC went and erased… But Dutt’s works are definitely worth restoring, although as far as I know none of his work has been earmarked for restoration. True, I’d sooner Ritwik Ghatak’s entire oeuvre was restored and made available first, but Dutt would be my second choice for such a project. Having said that, Baaz is perhaps the most disappointing of Dutt’s films I’ve seen so far, and that’s chiefly because it’s an historical movie. It’s set in the sixteenth century, when the Portugese had conquered parts of India, and is in most respects a swashbuckling tale recast locally. Yes, I know, not an entirely fair description as it’s based on the real history of India. But Dutt’s genius lay in his ability to reshape Western movie templates to suit an Indian audience. And that’s what he has done here. The local Portugese potentate is a nasty piece of work who cracks down on local traders. A handsome prince, played by Dutt himself, is sent to Portugal for tutoring, but is captured en route by a local firebrand turned pirate, the daughter of an imprisoned merchant, the two fall in love, and the story falls out precisely as you would expect. This is not a brilliant print, although that’s unsurprising for an Indian film more than sixty years old. And the production is occasionally of its time – in one scene, Dutt and his lover ride a horse along a beach… over the tyre tracks left by the film crew’s vehicle. This is not Dutt’s best film, probably one for completists, but I’ve yet to find any evidence to contradict his label as “India’s Orson Welles”…

marketa_lazarovaMarketa Lazarová*, František Vláčil (1967, Czech Republic). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and now I’m tempted to buy the Second Run František Vláčil box set because I think it’s a film that bears, if not requires, rewatching. The film is set in the Middle Ages, and opens with a group of bandits attacking a caravan travelling through the countryside in winter, in deep snow, in fact. They slaughter most of the caravan but take one hostage, the son of the Bishop of Hennau (not a Catholic bishop, then), although the bishop himself escapes. The plot then dives off into an attempt by a troop from the king to wipe out the bandits, and it’s not until half an hour into the film before the title character appears. She’s the daughter of a local, and the son of the bandit chief falls in love with her. It’s not worth giving a plot summary, not because it’s especially complicated but because the bits don’t quite join up – you can get a full summary on Wikipedia. The fact the story seems more like a group of characters blundering from one plot to another doesn’t actually detract from the film, and, if anything, adds to the chaotic nature of the time and place it depicts. The movie is brutal, in the way that many films about the Middle Ages are, and uncomprising in its depiction of greed, corruption and all the baser instincts of humanity. In parts, it reminds me of similar films I’ve seen, including Vláčil’s own The Valley of the Bees, but also in some weird way Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God. Marketa Lazarová‘s stark black and white cinematography, like in the other two films, suits the material well, especially given it takes place entirely in winter, with deep snow on the ground. And now I’ve been thinking about this film as I write this, I’m even more inclined to get that box set…

hometownPickpocket, Jia Zhangke (1997, China). The second film in the Hometown trilogy box set and, I have to admit, these films are proving a little disappointing after Jia’s A Touch of Sin and 24 City. Like Unknown Pleasures – and, I later found, PlatformPickpocket follows a group of disaffected young people in an industrial town in north China. In this case, it’s mostly the title character, who ran with a gang of pickpockets as a teen but now just drifts aimlessly about while his peers are all settling down (such as the one who gets married, but doesn’t invite Xiao Wu, the title character, and the film’s alternative title, to the wedding celebration; and Xiao Wu is incensed when he finds out). Xiao Wu enters into a half-hearted relationship with a prostitute, but she soon drops him for someone with more of a future. Eventually, Xiao Wu, who has refused to change his ways, is arrested for theft, and it seems his punishment will be especially harsh. Pickpocket is Jia’s first feature-length movie, shot on 16mm, and with an amateur cast. None of that can be held against it, even though it lacks the crisp cinematography, and the more expansive eye, of his later films. But its biggest flaw is, I think, the fact it’s a glum film. That didn’t seem quite so bad when watching Unknown Pleasures, perhaps because that film had a bit life to it, if only from the Mongolian King beer marketing events with the singing and dancing, and some of its characters felt a little more lively. Jia is definitely a name worth watching, and I’m keen to see his latest, 2015’s Mountains May Depart, which, because this country is so shit, is not yet available here…

jaujaJauja, Lisandro Alonso (2014, Argentina). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD and stuck it on my list as it looked like it might be interesting. And so it was. It’s an Argentine/Danish co-production, and stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish cartographer in Patagonia in the 1880s. He is there with his teenage daughter, and the lieutenant of the local Argentine army detachment has designs on her. But she’s already in love with a soldier. She runs off with him into the desert because the soldier has been dared to provide proof that a missing officer, Zuluaga, is now leading a troop of bandits. Mortensen heads off in pursuit to rescue his daughter. Eventually he meets an old woman living in a cave, and it seems she is his daughter. As can undoubtedly be seen from the DVD cover art, Jauja looks very distinctive. The aspect ration is almost square, with rounded-off corners, and the colour palette has been clearly heightened. There’s also an odd theatrical aspect to the staging of each scene, even though almost all of the film takes place out in the country, either in the Patagonian desert or among the rocks by the shore of… a lake? the ocean? I enjoyed this. It was nicely weird and had some lovely photography. Worth seeing.

fedoraFedora, Billy Wilder (1978, Germany). I bought this as a Christmas present for my mother since Sunset Boulevard is one of her favourite films and this is a belated sequel to it. And even then, despite the similar topic, and the shared presence of both Wilder and William Holden, there isn’t all that much in Fedora that’s an actual sequel of Sunset Boulevard, if anything it’s more of a reboot that shares a similar plot. For a start, it’s set in Europe, rather than Hollywood… although that may well have unintended. Hollywood wasn’t too keen on financing the film, so it was made with Germany money and a pan-European cast… and has pretty much been forgotten since its release. There’s also the fact it’s not all that good. The title refers not to a hat but to a Garbo-esque movie star who inexplicably retired some years before, after a long and illustrious career in which she never apparently aged, and who now lives in seclusion on a Greek island. Fedora opens with news reports of her death – she had thrown herself in front of a train. The film then goes straight into extended flashback, as William Holden, a film producer desperate for a break, tries to arrange a meeting with Fedora so he can persuade her to sign up to his new film project. The two had briefly been lovers back in the 1940s. Holden beards Fedora in the local town. She seems distracted, almost skittish, and tells him she is a virtual prisoner of the Countess Sobryanski, an old woman confined to a wheelchair. The secret to Fedora’s agelessness is not hard to guess, although the fact the plot hinges on Fedora’s affair with Michael York, played by himself, feels more like it belongs in a comedy than a serious drama. I enjoyed the film, but it seems one hell of a come-down for Billy Wilder.

midnight_specialMidnight Special, Jeff Nichols (2016, USA). Annoyingly, I can’t find a copy of the UK DVD cover art for this anywhere online, and even Amazon has the Blu-ray cover art on its DVD page. I’ve seen mixed reviews of the film online, either 1-star or 5-stars, no inbetween, and that’s from film critics in newspapers not your average punter on Amazon. And I can see why it’s polarised opinion, because it’s an essentially daft story that actually looks pretty compelling. And yes, that final reveal is impressive, although it did remind me a bit too much of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland: A World Beyond. Basically, a young boy is being chased across the US by the members of an evangelical cult and the FBI. He is with his father, and a friend of his father, a state trooper. The cultists want him because they think he can see the future, and the FBI want him because he apparently has access to secret spy satellites. This is because he has magical – perhaps even alien – powers and he can shine blue light out of his eyes. He can also make satellites crash to earth. For much of its length, Midnight Special is a taut thriller with some neat, if not entirely comprehensible, special effects. As the film progresses, the boy reveals he isn’t human and is a member of a race who live “elsewhere” and have been watching humanity for a very long time. (I don’t recall an explanation for why he has a human father, though.) As each group of chasers closes in on the boy – there’s a FBI agent who goes rogue, as well – and at one point the cultists manage kidnap the boy, but the father soon get him back… As they all converge, everything all comes to a head. And, well, I won’t say “everything is revealed”, although it is, sort of, but the resolution does very little to explain the world of the film. I don’t think Midnight Special deserves much of the praise heaped upon it, but I think it’s an above-average film of its type.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 847


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Moving pictures, #19

Yet more movies, of varying quality, worthiness and entertainment value. Which I shall continue to document, even if a year from now I read what I’ve written and wonder why the hell I watched a particular film.

scarlet_streetScarlet Street, Fritz Lang (1945, USA). Godard’s Le Mépris has almost spoiled Lang’s films for me. There I was, picturing him as some sort of industrious Modernist German film-maker but in that movie he played a louche Prussian aristocrat with monocle and cigarette holder. And yet he made some wonderful noir films, full of Modernist sets and starkly-lit shots. Scarlet Street boasts plenty of the latter, but none of the former. Edward G Robinson plays a meek cashier. After a party celebrating his twenty-five years of faithful service, Robinson gets involved with femme fatale Joan Bennett, and is consequently persuaded to commit various crimes to support her… while he indulges in his hobby of painting. And then his art suddenly becomes desirable, but Bennett claims to be the painter and… well, it all gets a bit complicated after that. Scarlet Street is a well-made film, of course, but there’s nothing in it that makes it stand out from others of its time and genre.

picnic_at_hanging_rockPicnic at Hanging Rock*, Peter Weir (1975, Australia). So I’ve watched several of Weir’s films over the years and he’s not a director who’s really stood out for me – I mean, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Mosquito Coast… er, Green Card? This is middle-brow, if not lower, Hollywood entertainment, sometimes with a nod at worthiness – Gallipolli, for example – but just as often not. But Picnic at Hanging Rock is on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, and I was aware of the regard in which it was held, so… Okay, the mystery is never solved and I can see how that sort of bounces you out of your typical Hollywood box, and the movie is also resolutely Australian, to a degree that a film such as Mad Max most certainly isn’t, so that perhaps some people thought better of the film than it deserved. Because it is, to be honest, a bit dull. It is also, to be fair, a period piece and it does present its period well. But, meh.

orientalelegyA Humble Life, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Japan). The third of Oriental Elegy‘s three documentaries – did I mention I managed to buy a copy for £25 and currently copies go for £200 to £300? Anyway. Like the other two films, it was made in Japan and takes as its topic an old Japanese woman who lives alone in an old house in a small mountain village. It is also engimatic, features Sokurov’s trademark distortion of the image, such that it often appears like a painting, and lots of intense close-ups. Sokurov documents the woman’s daily activities, often without voice-over, and achieves more in setting tone and mood than incidental music could have done (although Sokurov often makes excellent use of music). This is perhaps the most elegiac of the three films on the disc, and I’ll be watching again. Several times, no doubt.

bird_crytals_plumageThe Bird with the Crystal Plumage*, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). This was apparently Argento’s first film, and it’s pretty obvious it’s a giallo right from the start. An American writer resident in Rome – you can only tell he’s American because he mentions it in conversation, as, of course, his dialogue is dubbed into Italian – witnesses a man attack a woman in a gallery late one night. He fails to break into the gallery, but does scare off the attacker. Another passer-by calls the authorities, who arrive in time to save the woman, who had been knifed. Then further murders following the same modus operandi take place, and the inspector in charge of the case asks the American for help in solving it. It’s all very giallo, and there’s a twist in the end which I probably should have spotted, but it’s probably closer to Mario Bava’s Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil than it is to Suspiria. I’m not entirely sure why it makes the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, but there’s a lot of films on there I could say the same about.

bamboleLe Bambole, Franco Rossi et al (1965, Italy). This is another one of those Italian anthology films, which are, of course, about women – well, women as men see them – and perhaps might once have been described by Brits as “sex comedies” given that at some point the actresses usually end up clad in only their lingerie. The first of the four “episodes” is about a young woman on the telephone to her mother while her husband slouches about the apartment trying to amuse himself until she is ready to accept his sexual advances. The second has Elke Sommer looking for the ideal father for her child – something to do with the shape of his ears – before eventually recognising the suitability of her young and virile guide about town. The third sees a wife trying to rid herself of her husband so she can be with her lover, only for her various plans for his demise to go awry. And the final section is apparently an adaptation of a segment of Boccaccio’s The Decameron and stars Gina Lollobrigida, but to be honest I can’t really remember what it was about.

ace_in_holeAce in the Hole*, Billy Wilder (1951, USA). Oof, this was nasty one, not the sort of thing you’d expect from Billy Wilder. A disgraced big city reporter pulls into a small New Mexico town and persuades the local paper owner to take him on. A year later, while covering a rattlesnake hunt he learns of a local man trapped by a rockfall in a cave. It’s the story he’s been waiting for. If it gets syndicated, it could get him back into the big time. So when a mining engineer proposes shoring up the cave and then digging out the trapped man, the reporter vetoes it and instead they start to drill down from the top of the cliff. Meanwhile, the media has picked up the story and descended on the region. It becomes a complete circus. The reporter, of course, is loving it as he controls access to the trapped man. Meanwhile, the days pass, the trapped man weakens… The ending hardly comes as a surprise – people who play with others’ lives in flms generally get their comeuppance. Although, of course, it’s the trapped man who pays the bigger price. I can sort of see why this is considered a classic, but it leaves a nasty after-taste and for that reason I couldn’t like it.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 606


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Moving pictures, #11

Here’s more of those silvery round things with the moving pictures cunningly encoded on them. To date, I’ve watched 520 of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although many of them I’d seen before I came across the list and decided to make an effort to complete it. (Again, asterisked ones are on the list.)

amourAmour*, Michael Haneke (2012, France) I bought this the moment it was released since I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films, but I never actually got around to watching it until recently. I’m not sure why. I think it was perhaps because I’d bounced out of Funny Games the first time I tried to watch it and was afraid I’d do the same with this. I needn’t have worried. A retired couple in Paris, the wife suffers a stroke, and then surgery for a blocked artery goes wrong and leaves her semi-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, the husband finds it increasingly harder to cope. Haneke doesn’t do cheerful films, but this is a completely cheerless one. Good, but not his best.

Tsotsi*, Gavin Hood (2005, South Africa). The title character is a young hoodlum in Soweto who steals a woman’s car, only to discover her baby in the back. He strips the car but keeps the baby, but soon realises he doesn’t know how to look after it. So he terrorises a young woman he sees at a public water pump into helping him. Meanwhile, the police are hunting for the car thief, and Tsoti’s friends have taken up with the local gangster. No one is really likeable in this film, they’re mostly thugs; but Hood manages to make the title character sympathetic. There’s an especially telling scene where he attacks a disabled ex-miner, but then realises that preying on the weak and helpless is no way to live. Worth seeing.

Stachka*, Sergei Eisenstein (1925, Russia). AKA Strike. This is Eisenstein’s first full-length film, made the same year, but before, Battleship Potemkin. It’s pure propaganda, but I was surprised to see how many modern film techniques, such as jump cuts and montages, that Eisenstein uses. The film depicts a strike in a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia, and its suppression by the capitalist owners and tsarist authorities. It’s pretty brutal in places and, sadly, less than a century later, its premise is not one we can consign to the dustbin of history.

Taza, Son Of Cochise, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made a handful of brilliant films, but he also made a lot of crap ones. This is one of the latter although, to be fair, it was slightly better than I expected – and it is subversive for a western as it’s told entirely from the Native American side and it shows them trying to seek peace with the US. Well, not all of them. The title character, played by Rock Hudson, certainly is, he’s trying to stick to the treaty his father signed, and he even becomes the first officer of the “Indian police”. But one of the other members of the tribe is not so willing to bend over backwards – the Americans have forced the tribe to move onto a reservation, for example – and kicks off a rebellion. The film’s heart may be in the right place, but it’s hard to ignore that so many of the cast are whites playing Native Americans.

zero_theoremThe Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam (2013, UK). It’s been a while since Gilliam made a film that blew me away – in fact the last few have been pretty lacklustre, and I think his most interesting piece in the last two decades has been a documentary on his failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. The Zero Theorem has been called a return to form, a phrase which always make me suspicious. I’ve seen mostly positive reviews of the film, which, unfairly, had led me to expect something as good as his earlier masterpieces. It’s not. The metaphor used for the “entity crunching” doesn’t make much sense and Bainsley feels like the sort of character only a dirty old man would think is necessary. But David Thewlis plays his part well, and Matt Damon’s wardrobe is quite amusing.

The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie*, Luis Buñuel (1972, France). This is one of the those films that slowly sucks you into its somewhat off-kilter world. It starts unremarkably enough: two couples turn up to another couple’s house for a planned dinner party, only to discover they’ve got the wrong day and the husband is away that night. So they take the wife to a nearby auberge with a good reputation, but it’s closed. They persuade the maître d to let them – only to learn the proprietor died that day, which is why the restaurant is closed. The film then follows the three couples as they arrange other dinner parties, including one with a contingent of military officers, a party that turns into a play on a stage… and it all becomes increasingly surreal as the film progresses. I had not expected to like this film as much as I did.

Lady For A Day, Frank Capra (1933, USA). Capra later remade this in 1961 as Pocketful Of Miracles, with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford – that was, in fact, Capra’s last feature film. An old woman who sells apples on the street to make ends meet has a daughter she gave away when young and who is now living in Spain. And who now wants her aristocratic Spanish fiancé to meet her mother who, she believes, is well-to-do and lives in a posh hotel. Fortunately, a local gangster considers the old woman is his good luck charm and is happy to help out. So they turn the old woman into the “lady” her daughter believes her to be, rent a big penthouse and organise a big bash… but it doesn’t go quite according to plan. Fortunately, everything works out… The very definition of a feel-good film.

Ponyo, Hiyao Miyazaki (2008, Japan). I find many of the Studio Ghibli films unbearably twee and this one is little different. The title character is a magical fish, who falls in love with a young boy who captures her and so returns to land as a young girl. So it’s basically The Little Mermaid. But Ponyo’s father is not happy, not just with her betrayal but with the humans’ pollution of the ocean. Happily Ponyo’s mother, the Goddess of Mercy, saves the day.

Sansho_Dayu_DVDSansho Dayu*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan). Feudal Japan, and a manorial estate managed by the titular character has a slave labour force, among which are the children of a disgraced governor. Once the children reach adulthood, they manage to escape – at least the man does, the woman gives herself up to distract their pursuers. The young man goes looking for his mother, who was sold into slavery elsewhere. En route, he runs into his old mentor, who gives him a letter to prove his identity as he wants to appeal to the Chief Advisor. After proving his bona fides, the young man is made governor of the province containing the manor which Sansho manages. The young man tells Sansho he is outlawing slavery, Sansho retaliates, but the young governor’s soldiers prevail. Slow, but affecting.

Brüno, Larry Charles (2009, USA). If I thought Sacha Baron Cohen playing Borat in redneck country, USA, was stupidly dangerous, then playing Brüno, a camp and very dim fashionista, in Jerusalem is, well, I’m surprised he got out alive. And I certainly hope the interview with the terrorist group leader was faked. Other parts clearly weren’t – especially those where he interviews celebrities after moving to LA. Much like the earlier film, there were some moments of comic genius – the velcro suit was classic; some of the cinema verité parts were scary; and other bits weren’t so good. Although I did think it held together better overall than Borat.

The Lost Weekend*, Billy Wilder (1945, USA). Ray Milland is such an alkie he hangs his bottles of whisky out of the window on a piece of string so his brother doesn’t find them. Or his girlfriend, Jane Wyman, for that matter. Milland claims to be a writer but he’s not written a word. When his brother leaves him alone in the flat for a weekend, he finds the money left to pay the housekeeper, and goes on a binge. I’m completely mystified as to why this is considered a classic, it was pure temperance propaganda, and so overwrought I’m surprised Milland’s liver didn’t spontaneously explode. I don’t think Lowry need have worried about this movie, his novel is hugely superior.

imposterThe Imposter, Bart Layton (2012, UK). In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared from a Texas town. Three years later, a teenager in Spain claimed to be that boy, and the family flew him to the US and welcomed him into their home as their missing son – even though this teenager spoke with a French accent, was seven years older than the missing boy, and had brown eyes and dark hair instead of blue eyes and blond hair. It took a suspicious private investigator to realise something was wrong. The teenager turned out to be a con man, who had been impersonating other children for years. A very odd documentary, it’s quite astonishing the family were blind to the differences – although, as a few in the film suggest, they might have been keen to welcome the imposter to hide the fact they murdered the missing boy.

Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan). I hadn’t planned on watching this, as I hadn’t actually put it on my rental list. But it was part of a double set with Sansho Dayu, and I only discovered this when I received the disc and thought, hang on, I don’t remember this one… And, after all that, I enjoyed it more than I did Sansho Dayu. A teenage girl has left her uncle, who was supposed to look after her but instead tried abusing her, and instead up at an okiya and asks the geisha, a friend of her late mother, to take her on as an apprentice. The geisha initially refuses, but then agrees after getting a loan for the cost of tuition from her old tutor. But when the teenager, shortly after graduating from geisha school, fights off a client, it jeopardises an important business deal and she and the geisha are ostracised. Set just after WW2, the Japan depicted is on the cusp of change – the okiya and the geishas are traditional, but most of the men wear Western clothing and are involved in engineering. Really enjoyed this one.

failsafeFail-Safe, Sidney Lumet (1964, USA). This film was adapted from the novel of the same title, which also inspired Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and was released in the same year as Kubrick’s film. An unidentified plane crosses the DEW line, fighters are sent to intercept – these are the days of SAGE, by the way – and squadrons of “Vindicator” bombers head off to their rendezvous points to await the order to attack the USSR with their nuclear bombs. The UFO proves to be an off-course airliner, but the stand-down message gets garbled when sent to one of the Vindicator squadrons. Which promptly heads for Soviet airspace at supersonic speeds to drop an atom bomb on Moscow. The US president is understandably upset at this, and the USSR premier is understandably sceptical that this is actually a horrible accident. WW3 must be averted. The film was all a bit intense, Walter Matthau’s hawkish political advisor character was annoying, the Vindicator bombers were actually B-58 Hustlers… which meant the interior shots of their cockpits was all wrong… And, well, I can understand why Dr Strangelove was more successful.