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Moving pictures 2017, #18

I don’t seem to have watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list for weeks. But then I have got to the point where, bar a few really populist movies I’m not especially keen on watching (The Lion King, The Sound of Music, etc), the films I’ve yet to see are getting hard to find. I suspect I may never actually watch all 1001 – not that I want to die, either – but if I can get pretty damn close to completion I’ll be happy. And then I’ll move onto a different list…

The Last Man on the Moon, Mark Craig (2014, UK). The title refers to Gene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to land on the surface of the Moon. Cernan died earlier this year, although this film about him, and sharing a title with his autobiography, was made three years ago. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – talking heads, including Cernan himself, discussing his career prior to NASA, his career at NASA, and his flight to the Moon, intercut with archive film of naval aviators and astronauts. The footage shot on the Moon’s surface is, of course, fantastic, and the nearest anyone will ever get to an actual alien planet this century. (I suppose there might be a commercial, or Chinese, or even Indian, flight to the Moon before 2199, but the way things are going I suspect climate crash will get us all first.) There are a handful of documentaries about the Apollo programme made over the last 45 years, which had theatrical releases, and they’re all very good indeed. Later ones have perhaps featured more talking heads, but then they’ve been more about the people involved than just the achievement itself. Which is hardly surprising, given technological progress since 1972 and the complete lack of political will to contribute to human space exploration. Recommended.

The Man in the Sky, Charles Crichton (1957, UK). I like films whose plots heavily feature aeroplanes, although I much prefer Cold War fighters and bombers than other types of aircraft. The plot summary of The Man in the Sky mentioned a rocket plane, so I bunged it on my rental list and… Well, it’s not really a rocket plane. It’s a Bristol Type 170 Freighter, a late 1940s prop-powered cargo plane, that has had JATO rocket pods attached to give it a much shorter take-off run. Jack Hawkins plays the chief test pilot who takes it up for a demonstration flight for the owner of a freight airline who is planning on buying the plane. The aircraft manufacturer desperately needs the sale, or he will go out of business. So it’s a bit of a downer when one of the engines catches fire during the flight. The crew and passengers parachute to safety, but Hawkins has to figure out how to bring the aircraft down safely because the fire has damaged the ailerons on one wing. It’s all very British Stiff Upper Lip drama, making light of a crisis, etc, and Jack Hawkins plays Jack Hawkins the way he always has done. It’s a mildly entertaining British drama and very much of its time.

Uniform, Diao Yinan (2003, China). This is the second Diao film I’ve watched, after the excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice (see here). A slacker tailor, with an ill father and nagging mother, tries to return a uniform left by a policeman who needed it ironing. But the policeman isn’t home, and a neighbour tells the tailor he was in an accident. On his way back home, the tailor is soaked in a rainstorm, so he swaps his shirt for the policeman’s. And he discovers that people treat him differently when they think he’s a policeman. So he starts doing it more often. And when his father has to go into hospital, but he has no money to pay for it, so he impersonates a policeman and shakes down people for money. He starts seeing a girl who works in a CD shop, but then he discovers she works for an escort agency as well. This is a pretty bleak film – and, to be fair, a lot of the Sixth Generation Chinese directors seem to go for bleak – but it also has that documentary air I find so appealing about recent Chinese films. The protagonist of Uniform is hardly admirable, or even sympathetic – he’s a slacker who turns into a bully. But his situation is certainly sympathetic, and not just unique to twenty-first century China. I’ve said before that China has an especially strong cinema at present, and this film is ample evidence.

Lenny, Bob Fosse (1974, USA). I wanted to see this since the editing of Lenny plays such an important part in Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, a film I really like. I know very little about Lenny Bruce as he was a) American, and b) before my time. Dustin Hoffman plays the title role, and the film follows his career, intercut with excerpts from some of his later stage performances. It’s astonishing how badly he was treated by the authorities – repeatedly arrested for using words like “cocksucker” in his act – but then the hypocrisy and corruption of the US establishment is hardly news. (Of course, the same can be said of the establishment of pretty much every country.) As biopics go, it’s a good one. But biopics are also dependent on the person being covered, and Lenny Bruce wasn’t all that interesting a person. He was a professional arsehole who ran afoul of the establishment, which hardly makes him unique; but the subject of his comedy seemed fresh and necessary, and was also the reason he was targeted. It makes for a good story. The problem is that when this is real, and the heroes are so deeply flawed, it often invalidates the point being made. Lenny Bruce was a knob. He also had important things to say. So what does that say about his message? Very little, sadly. Most of what he complained about is, these days, generally  acknowledged to be true, but no one seems especially interested in changing things. So US society remains sexist and racist, even more so now than when this film was made.

Marriage Italian Style, Vittorio De Sica (1964, Italy). This is the fifth film by De Sica I’ve seen, and I think most of the earlier ones were Italian Neorealist, a film genre of which I’m not a big fan. Marriage Italian Style, however, is very much a 1960s drama, although it opens in the late 1940s. Sophia Loren plays a prostitute frequently visited by successful businessman Marcello Mastroianni, and he eventually sets her up in his own house, ostensibly to look after his ageing mother. But when Mastroianni plans to get married to another woman, Loren feigns a mortal illness and extracts a promise from him to marry her instead. Then she “recovers”. He marries her, she moves her three sons into the house (one of which was fathered by Mastroianni, but she refuses to tell him which). They start shouting at each other. The two leads are experienced actors, and very good ones too, and they play their parts as well as can be expected. Burt none of it actually adds up to much, and the story never really ignites. Sadly, you don’t much care what happens to the marriage. I’m not sure why I stuck this one my rental list, and having now watched it I’m even less sure.

The Class, Ilmar Raag (2007, Estonia). After Georgia in the last Moving pictures post, it’s now the other end of Europe and another country I can cross off the list of nations whose films I’d never previously seen. The Class is set at a high school in an unnamed Estonian town. One boy in the class is consistently bullied, first by a group of jocks but then by pretty much everyone in the class. But then one classmate decides enough is enough, and he fights the bullies. Which makes him a targe0 toot. Which eventually ends up with the two of them walking through the school with guns, shooting those who had bullied them. It is, sadly, these days a somewhat clichéd story – at least in certain parts of the world – Estonia, it has to be said, not being one of them (but the Wikipedia page mentions two school shootings in Finland which quote the film as inspiration). The problem here, of course, is not kids shooting up schools with guns, but bullying. The Class presents a story that feels very European – this could never be mistaken for a Hollywood film – even if the story is one Hollywood has covered several times. It is also an extremely polished piece of work. Pretty much all nations have a film industry, but not all of their output makes it out of their country – and for some, none of it does. I saw something recently about Jia Zhangke, a Chinese director whose films I rate highly, and whose first three films were made without official approval. It was the international film festival circuit at which his movies were shown which helped finance his later films and also persuaded Beijing to give him their approval. And while I realise there’s been a cinema underground as long as cinema has existed – Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man are evidence of the US’s own underground avant-garde cinema scene – the twenty-first century has made it much easier for the armchair enthusiast to access previously hard-to-find material. While I’ll happily travel to Sweden or Iceland for a science fiction convention, I’ve yet to work up the enthusiasm to travel to London to see a specific film (damn you, Curzon for showing Francofonia only in London).  Which is, I admit, a purely personal fault. But while I can continue to explore the world’s cinema from my armchair, I will do so – rental, if I can, and I’ll buy them if I think them good enough (as I have done). Because I think it’s important to watch films from as many nations as possible.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures, #36

Of the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die, 533 are from the US. That’s not an exact figure, of course – these days, with film production companies from different nations often doing deals to back a movie, it makes it difficult to say a movie is categorically from one nation or another. Even so, for over half of the list – which, admittedly, is clearly aimed at Anglophone film-goers – to be from a single country is a bit much. And, as I’ve discovered, a lot of the US movies just aren’t really that good.

For the record, France scores next highest, with 102 movies; then it’s the UK at 82; then Italy at 42; Germany at 33; Japan 26; USSR/Russia 19; Australia and Sweden 13 each; Hong Kong 12; and Spain and India with 10 apiece. The countries of the rest of the world have less than ten films each on the list.

Think about that: India, which Wikipedia describes as “the largest producer of films in the world”, provides only 1% of the list – and of those ten movies, four are by Satyajit Ray and two by Ritwik Ghatak (both of whom have been critically lauded in the West), one is a silent (and actually by German director Franz Osten), and only three are Bollywood. There is also a single film from Egypt – the largest film producer of the Arabic-speaking world (three-quarters of all Arabic-language films were made in Egypt). While I will admit the only Bollywood films I have seen are two of the three on the list – and I really liked Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge – but I have seen a number of Arabic films – I’m a big fan of Palestinian director Elia Sulieman – though not very many from Egypt.

But then the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list seems to be a weird mix of populist movies and popular auteur films. Some directors appear far too often, some not often enough. There are some films which are historically important, and some which display innovative cinematic techniques. But a good many of the movies on the list really don’t deserve to be on it, and there are far better, and more important, choices the list-makers could have chosen…

And as if in illustration, this post features four US movies from the list, none of which rightly belongs on it.

phantom_carriageThe Phantom Carriage*, Victor Sjöström (1921, Sweden). I can appreciate films that are clearly important in the development of cinema, and while they may prove difficult viewing to present-day audiences, it does not usually take too much of a leap of imagination to realise how the film might have played to a contemporary audience. And so to The Phantom Carriage. I suspect “Pepper’s ghost” was an illusion not unfamiliar to audiences in the 1920s, but to see the cinematic equivalent – double exposure – no doubt impressed because of the newness of the medium. And it’s certainly used to good effect in this film. The story itself is a typical piece of Gothic hokum, although it makes extensive use of flashbacks – which is certainly daring in a silent film. I suspect this is a movie which will need a couple of watches to fully appreciate. Worth seeing.

orphicTestament of Orpheus, Jean Cocteau (1960, France). I really like Cocteau’s Orpheus, the middle film of his Orphic Trilogy, although I wonder how coherent a trilogy the three films make. Testament of Orpheus, for example, is actually Cocteau revisiting the themes and motifs of Orpheus, but without actually bothering with plot, characters or anything else so bourgeois. None of which is especially a bad thing. But Orpheus has the advantage of subtext – one that the film actually makes text at certain points – which is the German Occupation of France. And Testament of Orpheus often turns to the surrealist imagery of The Blood of a Poet, and fails to make good use of it in the context of its story. Cocteau has been travelling through time, but materialises in 1959 and persuades a scientist to kill him with a special gun so that he can remain permanently in that time. But it doesn’t go as planned, and Cocteau finds himself halfway between the real world and a fantasy world in which elements of Orpheus appear – including its characters. There’s plenty of dream-logic at work, which is heightened by the use of camera tricks such as filming in reverse. The use of a sound-stage and assorted ruins as sets only adds to the meta-fictional nature of the film. It’s a talky movie, more concerned with philosophy than drama, which makes for slow viewing. But it’s also a clever film, and makes some witty points about the medium of film and even poetry. I still prefer Orpheus, but this one comes a close second.

glenn_gouldThirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould*, François Girard (1993, Canada). I knew nothing about this film or its subject before watching it. I don’t listen to classical music, and wouldn’t know one eighteenth century composer’s works from another’s. But good documentaries make you care for their subject irrespective of any actual interest you might have had previously. And in that respect Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould succeeds admirably. It is helped by two factors: one, its subject is actually an interesting person, and two, it has chosen to document its topic in an unusual mannner. Glenn Gould was a renowned concert pianist from Canada, but also an insightful and prolific commentator on a number of topics. The film is structured, as its title suggests, as a series of short movies about Gould, ranging from fly-on-the-wall to talking heads to weird animation. And it totally works. Hunt down a copy and watch it.

ballad_narayamThe Ballad of Narayama*, Shohei Imamura (1983, Japan). There are some films that are clearly well-made, admirable even, but something about the story prevents you from liking them. Such is the case with The Ballad of Narayama. It is a nasty, horrible film. Albeit a well-made one. It’s set in a small village in nineteenth century Japan. It is the practice in the village for old people when they reach the age of seventy to walk to a nearby mountain and remain there until they starve to death. And if they won’t go voluntarily… One old woman is approaching her seventieth birthday, and much of the film is about her family as they scrabble to survive in poverty. She has decided she will go with dignity, and so spends her last year arranging her affairs. The various characters are mostly mean and despicable. One smells so bad, no one will have anything to do with him. A young woman with a burn scar on her face will happily sleep with any man, and is treated badly them by all as a result. One man has already tried starving his old father, in an effort to encourage him to head for the mountain. I really didn’t like this film, and I have no desire to ever watch it again.

short_cutsShort Cuts*, Robert Altman (1993, USA). Altman appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list six times – as well as Short Cuts, there’s The Player, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe And Mrs Miller and M*A*S*H. There’s perhaps one that actually belongs there – I’d vote for McCabe And Mrs Miller. Short Cuts, however, is one of those films were a number of intersecting stories sort of, er, intersect and er, prove, well, nothing really. The cast list is impressive, as is indeed the case for most Altman films. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of small stories which cross and intersect , which seems to be an Altman thing, but I can’t barely remember the details – and I suspect some of them I’ve confused with The Player. The problem is that all the stories seem little more than scenes in a larger story, when in fact there is no larger story. So you’ve no real idea what the point of the film is, or what happened to beginning, middle and end. I am all for non-traditional narrative structures, but a braided narrative is hardly non-traditional and for it  to be effective it really needs to be put to good use. Meh.

how_greenHow Green Was My Valley*, John Ford (1941, USA). Because of a little thing called World War II, this movie about a small mining village in Wales was actually filmed in California. And in black and white – so the difference wouldn’t be too obvious. Hollywood apparently also had a problem casting actors who could manage a Welsh accent, as most of the cast sound more Irish than Welsh. Except for male lead Walter Pidgeon. He didn’t even try, he just sounds American. Unbelievably, How Green Was My Valley swept the Oscars in its year of release, beating out Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Suspicion to Best Picture, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks to Best Director, and also taking home Best Supporting Actor, Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction. And yet it’s sentimental tosh. It reminded me in many ways of The Quiet Man – another John Ford film starring Maureen O’Hara – whose high regard I find mystifying. I’ve no idea what How Green Was My Valley‘s source novel is like – I imagine it has plenty of social commentary, which Hollywood has buried beneath layers of schmaltz. And yes, there’s lots of singing…

Artists___ModelsArtists and Models*, Frank Tashlin (1955, USA). I don’t believe this is actually available on DVD – I ended up buying a ripped version of it on eBay for a couple of quid (the seller sent me You’re Never Too Young, another Martin & Lewis film, by mistake, then told me to keep it and sent the right movie). There are many films – and this is becoming an all too common refrain – whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. It’s possible to make a case for Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man – it’s an awful comedy, but the way the camera pulls back and reveals the set as a giant doll’s house is innovative. But I can see nothing in Artists and Models which makes the film in any way interesting or important. Martin plays an out-of-work artist, and Lewis is his comicbook-fan friend. It turns out the artist responsible for Lewis’s favourite character, Bat Lady, lives in their apartment building (her friend, Shirley MacLaine, is the model for Bat Lady). When the artist resigns, Martin applies for the job, using a character invented by Lewis – who dreams the stories, and describes them aloud while sleeping. I find Lewis’s OTT gurning hard to take at the best of times, and he’s in full flow in this movie. Martin is much more watchable – but stick to the Matt Helm films if you want to see him in action. Not a good film.

cabaretCabaret*, Bob Fosse (1972, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz had taken me by surprise – I had not expected to like it as much as I did. Cabaret, I thought I knew more about. I am fairly sure, for one thing, that I have seen the film before, although most likely only in snippets over the past few decades. Sadly, despite my familiarity with bits of it I didn’t take to Cabaret very much. Possibly because Liza Minelli’s character I found annoying, and because it’s impossible to take Michael York seriously as an actor. The musical scenes at the Kit Kat Club were well-staged, although Joel Grey’s emcee was creepily over-the-top. One of All That Jazz‘s strengths was its meta-fictionality, the fact it was a film about making a film, based quite heavily on Fosse’s own experiences – and the final extended dance sequence was the perfect capstone to the high-intensity story which had preceded it. Cabaret, on the other hand, is a straightforward drama enlivened by musical numbers, and not even Minelli, the movie’s setting or its score lifted it for me above other films of its ilk. All That Jazz rightly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’m less convinced Cabaret does.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 681


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Moving pictures, #5

And now it seems the Blu-ray player is starting to act up. Bugger. Annoyingly, I recently discovered it’s also region-locked for DVDs, although I was sure it was region-free when I bought it. I definitely need to get myself a new one – region-free for both formats. Sigh.

allthatjazzAll That Jazz*, Bob Fosse (1979, USA). There are some movies I’d never have come to watch if they hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and not just because I’d otherwise never have known about them. On first pass, All That Jazz doesn’t really seem to be my sort of film. It’s a semi-autobiographical musical, based on Fosse’s own experiences staging a big Broadway musical and editing a feature film, a work-load which led to health problems and hospitalisation. I am not much of a musicals-type person – in fact, there’s only one I actually rate, High Society – and if I were I think I’d prefer ones from the 1950s… But All That Jazz is also one of those films in which an unexpected dance sequence makes something very interesting of it. And “unexpected” is not a word associated with dance sequences you’d think would apply to All That Jazz. But there it is. As Roy Scheider lies in his hospital death, he hallucinates a big dance production number featuring the Angel of Death, and it’s cleverly and affectingly done. I found myself really liking All That Jazz, and I hadn’t expected to.

onthewaterfrontOn the Waterfront*, Elia Kazan (1954, USA). Marlon Brando is apparently one of the great actors, but I’ve seen him now in two of his most famous roles – in A Streetcar Named Desire and this one – and, well, he’s just annoying. That stupid voice. I guess that must be Method Acting. Brando plays a dim-witted ex-boxer whom circumstances force into going up against his chapter of the longshoremen union and its corrupt chief. It’s the sort of story which is, I guess, meant to celebrate a good man, but all it does to me is demonstrate that the capitalist model is corrupt, open to abuse and a piss-poor end-result after ten thousand years of civilisation. Seriously, we’re meant to just accept the injustice and violent coercion which was apparently standard operating procedure on the docks of New York some sixty years ago? We shouldn’t be cheering on Terry Malloy as he battles the union, we should be asking why the US government is apparently so inept, corrupt or just plain evil to have allowed the situation to arise in the first place. Either way, this doesn’t really meet my criteria for a good movie.

paradeParade, Jacques Tati (1974, France). I’ve almost finished the Tati box set, and it was definitely one of my better purchases – even if this isn’t one of Tati’s better films. It’s a made-for-TV piece, set in a circus, in which Tati himself occasionally appears as a clown. It is also a film chock-a-block with dungarees. I’ve never seen so many pairs in a single movie before. There are some amusing set-pieces, but if this weren’t Tati it would be just another fly-on-the-ringside documentary, albeit a very 1970s one. Worth seeing, but buy the Tati box set for the other films.

motherkustersMother Küsters Goes To Heaven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). And I’m about halfway through the Fassbinder box set. I like box sets. (I received a Bergman one for my birthday, only a week or so ago, incidentally). One thing I’m coming to realise from watching these Fassbinder films is that he definitely made use of a stable of actors. Brigitte Mira, who played the female lead in Fear Eats the Soul, plays the title character, a working-class widow who loses everything when her husband kills his supervisor and commits suicide at the factory. She and her family are interviewed by the press, who then libellously paint the dead man as a drunk who was violent toward his wife and a bully to his children. A pair of middle-class communists offer to help Mother Küsters clear her husband’s name, although her family are suspicious of the communists’ motives. But they prove too slow for Mother Küsters and she falls in instead with some anarchists… who invade the local office of the newspaper which published the libellous article. This isn’t exactly the most subtle Fassbinder film I’ve watched so far – he sets out to show the perfidy of the press and the way they monster people, and does precisely that. Interestingly, the film has two endings. One is represented by stills, while a voice-over reads the script, but the other was actually filmed. The latter apparently was written especially for the US market (it’s the happier ending), but I do wonder why the first ending was never actually put on film.

White_HeatWhite Heat*, Raoul Walsh (1949, USA). “Look at me, ma! I’m on top of the world!” Yup, this is where that line comes from. It’s a classic gangster film, in which Cagney plays a complete psychopath – albeit a somewhat tame one by today’s standards, in fact superheroes in twenty-first century films show about as much remorse as Cagney’s character does after killing someone. That’s progress for you. Anyway, Cagney gives himself up for a crime he didn’t commit because it provides an alibi for one he did, a particularly brutal train robbery. A cop goes undercover in the prison, breaks out with Cagney and joins his gang. The film ends with an attempt to rob the payroll from a refinery, and Cagney ends up stuck on the top of a storage tank, starts of a gun battle… which causes the storage tank to blow. KABOOM. A good bit of classic noir.

lesmisLes Misérables*, Tom Hooper (2012, USA/UK). Here’s another film that I’d have otherwise assiduously avoided if it hadn’t been for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but unlike All That Jazz I can’t really say I’m glad I watched it. I knew going in it wasn’t going to be the sort of film I like and, lo and behold, I really didn’t like it. The singing was terrible, the songs were awful – even that brain-burning one popularised by Susan Boyle – the characters were unredeemable, and the CGI was so over the top it might as well have taken place in some fantasy world. Rubbish.

labelleLa Belle et la Bête*, Jean Cocteau (1946, France). I thought Cocteau’s Orphée really good, but this retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale was a bit dull. While the staging was cleverly done, particularly for the time, the production design did resemble some amateur dramatic pantomime production (although the Beast’s make-up was good). Perhaps it deserves a second watch – but it was a rental disc and it’s gone back. On the other hand, I’m only just over halfway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although I would like to see more films by Cocteau.

mother-and-sonMother And Son, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Russia). I’ve watched this a couple of times now, and I continue to find it completely mesmerising. A young man cares for his mother as she lies on her death-bed. He reads to her, he carries her outside and shows her the surrounding countryside, he feeds her and nurses her. There is a dream-like quality to the visuals, so much so that some of the landscape shots actually resemble oil paintings. This is a beautiful film, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever watched. I’d place it a close second after The Second Circle as my favourite Sokurov, and while it doesn’t quite make my top ten it certainly makes my top twenty. But I also suspect that more often I watch it, the more my opinion of it will rise. I’ve been watching a lot of Sokurov recently, and have even tracked down copies of some of his hard-to-find DVDs. I think he’s one of the most interesting directors currently making films. There’s something very… literary about his movies. Watching them is like reading a beautifully-written short story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 567