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Moving pictures 2018, #43

I’ve been a bit lazy with my choices of viewing of late. I blame the weather. Although I have an air-conditioner, it’s not very effective, and it’s often too hot in the evenings to sit and concentrate on a movie. Not that any of the below could be described as moving wallpaper… But you know what I mean.

Love Me Tonight*, Rouben Mamoulian (1932, USA). Given the power of Hollywood, it’s often easy to forget – in the Anglophone world, that is – that Hollywood was not the only place where films were being made during the medium’s first few decades. Germany had a strong film industry in the 1920s – Alfred Hitchcock learnt much of his trade there. Then there’s the UK: during the same decade, HG Wells wrote three short silent films especially for Elsa Lanchester, as I recently learnt. And France, where Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made some of his best films; not to mention local directors such as Abel Gance or Georges Méliès. And China, which produced The Goddess (see here) and Song at Midnight in the 1930s. And the USSR… In fact, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list contains 83 films from the 1930s. Fifty-seven are from the US! France is next highest with 12, then Germany with 5, the UK with 3, and then China with 2. The remaining nations are Brazil, Spain, Japan and the USSR. But 57 from the US! Okay, so it’s easier for the US-based list makers to find early US films than early films from other nations, but that shows a piss-poor effort to track down non-US examples. One of which, Limite (see here), from Brazil, wasn’t even available at the time the list was first made, and its reputation existed mostly as hearsay (bolstered by Orson Welles declaring himself a fan after a private showing back in 1942!). All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I cannot honestly see why Love Me Tonight made the list. It’s basically a fairy-tale recast as an early Gene Kelly musical, but with Maurice Chevalier in the lead role. You know what I mean – there’s something fairy-tale about all of Gene Kelly’s musicals, whether it’s the plots or the dream-like dance sequences or the character Kelly usually plays. Chevalier is a tailor, who is owed a great deal of money by an aristocrat (this is a recurring motif in Western European history and fiction, you’d think we’d fucking learn not to trust the nobs), so he sets off to demand what he is owed. He bumps into a princess, declares his undying love, is presented as a baron at the chateau because his debtor doesn’t want to embarrass himself… and, well, it’s a story which should end with a tumbril and not with the two lovers re-united. And I really can’t understand the appeal of Chevalier, who galumphs about like a Cary Grant cast in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and whose singing voice was nothing to, er, shout about. I have enjoyed, and even admired, some of the 1930s US films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’ve been baffled by the inclusion of most of them. This definitely falls into that latter group.

The Odyssey, Jérôme Salle (2016, France). The more sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the three actors on the cover of the DVD have the wrong names underneath. Which seems like a pretty dumb mistake to let through on the packaging. Anyway, The Odyssey is a biopic of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as played by Lambert Wilson. I remember Cousteau from my own childhood. His films seemed to always be on television, although whether that was UK television or UAE television, I can’t remember. But I certainly remember his ship Calypso, the diving saucer, and the divers with their distinctive streamlined yellow scuba gear. I’m not young enough to remember his Conshelf underwater habitats, although I’ve read up on them in the last few years, and even have a  copy of the film made about Conshelf II, World Without Sun (see here). So Cousteau was not a figure that was unfamiliar to me, and I was aware of many of his achievements. Having said that, I knew little about his career, just the highlights really. I hadn’t known he was partly funded by the French Ministry of Petroleum, and was responsible for discovering a number of oilfields in the Middle East. Or that his business was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars during the 1980s. Unfortunately, The Odyssey wants to be about JYC’s (as his friends called him) relationship with his youngest son, Phillippe, who initially turned his back on his father and his career, but later joined him and became Cousteau’s lead cinematographer. He also died in a seaplane crash in 1979 – this is no spoiler, as the film opens with the crash. On the one hand, The Odyssey wants to be a biopic of JYC; on the other, it wants to be a father-son drama (because apparently the French think that’s what cinema should be about too); and on the other hand, you have Audrey Tatou as the put-upon wife who acts as “mother” and “shepherdess” (her nickname) to the crew of Calypso… The end-result is a film which has plenty of drama but none of the wonder of Cousteau’s own films about the oceans. The leads are good in their roles, but the focus feels too… land-bound. It comes as no surprise that Cousteau was a bad businessman, or that he was bad at picking business partners. He was a dreamer, and his films get that across much better than The Odyssey does. I enjoyed it, and I find Cousteau an interesting person, but I’d sooner watch one of JYC’s own films, if I’m honest.

The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau (2016, USA). Disney has been on a mission this century to remake all its classic animation feature films as live-action. I’ve no idea why. Earlier attempts, like 1996’s 101 Dalmations, were hardly successful. Having said that, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from 2015 (see here) isn’t half bad, and Sleeping Beauty (see here; the greatest Disney film ever made) was not so much remade as, er, sequelised with Maleficent. But The Jungle Book is not a film you’d expect to be given the live-action treatment. Chiefly because all of its character but one are, well, talking animals. And while WC Fields may have said, “never work with animals or children”, animals can’t actually, er, talk, which pretty much fucks up the entire story of The Jungle Book. So Jon Favreau uses CGI animals. And they look very realistic. But, of course, each animal character – Baloo, Arkela, Shere Khan, Bagheera, King Louie, and so on – needs a human actor to provide their voice. And that’s where Favreau screwed it up. It’s a good cast, an excellent cast, But so hugely miscast. Idris Elbas as Shere Khan? WTF? Bill Murray as Baloo? What the actual fuck? Disney’s original The Jungle Book is a film from my childhood. I remember seeing it in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School in the early 1970s. We also had a LP of songs from Disney films, which featured the best-known song from The Jungle Book abd other films, and which we played relentlessly when we lived in Rumeilah (an area of Doha). So, on the one hand, it’s “mess with my childhood icons at your own peril”, but, on the other, some previous attempts had actually been quite good. I wish I could say The Jungle Book fell into the latter category. The CGI animals are, unsurprisingly, fantastic to look at – even if their voices are so badly chosen. And the story sticks mostly to the Disney animated film. The musical cues make use of the songs from the animated film, without actually being, well, sung. Which feels sort of half-hearted and is disappointing. King Louis is converted into a Gigantopithecus (which allegedly existed from the late Miocene to the mid-Pleistocene), which is no more plausible than the animated film’s orang-utan but does, I have to admit, look pretty cool. But, despite all that, The Jungle Book feels mostly like a showreel for CGI. It’s like an advert for the state-of-the-art. Kipling’s collection of short stories has been well and truly buried. Instead of making a “better” The Jungle Book, Favreau should have gone back to the source. Instead, he’s produced a photo-realistic version of Disney’s 1967 animated film, but taken all the fun out of it. I admit The Jungle Book is not a Disney animated film I hold in especially high regard, but it deserved a better remake than this.

Devil Girl from Mars, David MacDonald (1954, UK). There are a lot of sf B-movies available on Amazon Prime, probably because they’re all out of copyright and watchable copies have been digitised at some point somewhere. Whether they should have been is an entirely different matter. I’d argue that Devil Girl from Mars, which is British rather than American, is one that deserved being better known, even if it’s not that good a film and was roundly panned on its release. Perversely, it is its failures to abide by sf B-movie clichés which makes it interesting. It is, sort of, an Alien precursor. A group of people are trapped at a remote Scottish hotel when a flying saucer lands nearby. They are terrorised by the UFO’s crew, the so-called “Devil Girl”, and her crap-looking robot. They plot among themselves to save the Earth from the threat represented by the Devil Girl – she is, apparently, the scout for an invading force from Mars. The plot is enlivened by the trapped guests’ dynamics. One is an escaped murderer under an assumed name. Another is a scientist sceptical of UFOs. True, the story is somewhat formulaic – N’yah, the Martian, appears in the hotel, tells the trapped guests what they can and cannot do, and leaves. They then discuss what she has said. But the focus is on the characters trapped in the hotel, in response to the threat posed by N’yah, than it is in the N’yah and the threat she poses. In the end, the scientist figures out a way for N’yah’s flying saucer to be destroyed… but only by someone willing to sacrifice themselves. Which leads to, well, a competition among the men to decide who should be the one to blow up the UFO. The acting is not especially good, the special effects are risible (especially the robot), and the studio sets aren’t very convincing. N’yah’s fetish wear doesn’t much resemble what you’d expect the captain of spaceship from Mars to be wearing. This is by no means a great film, but for all its faults it’s not a bad B-movie.

By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet (1936, Russia). I mentioned films from the 1930s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, sand that there was only one from the USSR – it’s Zemlya by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (see here). Which is an excellent film. But Boris Barnet also made some excellent films during the 1930s. Not just By the Bluest of Seas, but also Outskirts (see here). Not to mention Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see here). Eisenstein does appear on the list – several times, in fact. But not Barnet. Which is a surprise. This film has been accused – by Western critics – of being propaganda, which shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, if not honesty, on the part of those critics, as Western, especially Hollywood, movies have been propaganda for, variously, the American Dream, capitalism or consumerism since the early days of cinema. And in these times of overt product placement and merchandising, they’re even more propaganda tools. But, of course, when it applies to capitalism, it’s not propaganda. Because propaganda is political but capitalism is not. If you think that, I suggest you go back to kindergarten as you’ve entirely missed the point of the modern fucking world. Anyway, in By the Bluest of Seas, two sailors are washed ashore a Caspian Sea island during a storm, and join the collective farm located there. Both of them are attracted to the leader of the kolkhoz – that’s her on the DVD cover – and so vie for her attentions. But, after various attempts to win her favour, including a fishing trip during which she is washed overboard and believed lost, but then washes ashore later, they learn she has a fiancé off fighting in the Pacific. It’s not the most original of stories, and its depiction of kolkhoz life probably understates the hardships, but Barnet’s cinematography is really quite good, especially the scenes set on boats during storms. And, for all that, nothing in it felt like propaganda. I could argue that not only is all cinema propaganda, but that it should be more overtly propaganda. And sf should be didactic. But I like my propaganda honest about its intentions – which is more than can be said for Hollywood’s product placement deals, etc – so that at least I can decide how to take it. If, as stated earlier, By the Bluest of Seas presents an overly rosy view of life in a kolkhoz, not to mention the benefits of such a system, then what’s the problem? By the Bluest of Seas is an extremely well-shot, if somewhat hackneyed, romantic triangle set in 1930s USSR. This film should certainly have been considered for the 1001 Movies  You Must See Before You Die list; all of Barnet’s film probably should have been.

Desert Ark, Mohamed Chouikh (1997, Algeria). I now have all four of these Great African Films DVDs. ArtMattan are continuing to release DVDs, but the fourth volume seems to be the last in this series. Their DVDs are also really hard to find – ie, expensive – on this side of the Atlantic, and their website is so 1990s you can only order on it and pay by “check”. Sigh. A big shame, because Africa – which is a continent – has a rich tradition of film-making, some African nations perhaps more than others, but pretty much all of which are hard to find in the UK. This particular volume of Great African Films also includes Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a Chadian director, whose movies are released on DVD in the UK (and for good reason – they are excellent) The other film in this set is Desert Ark, by Algerian director Mohamed Chouikh (that’s French orthography, so in English orthography it would probably be Shwaykh). The story pits two tribes, one nominally Berber, against each other over an illicit love affair between a young man from one and a young woman from the other. On the one hand, it’s all intended to be figurative; on the other, artificial tribal affiliations aside, this is something that happens in real life and, despite the attempts of reconciliation by a local mullah, it quickly escalates to violence and outright war. Chouikh’s film is clearly meant to be cautionary, but in the twenty years since it was made the world has become much more violent and intolerant. Which means that Chouikh’s flights of fancy – casting the film as an allegory of life aboard Noah’s Ark – actually mean less than the narrative as presented. The final scenes, in which the two lovers stumble across a ship becalmed in the desert, feel like whimsy rather than the culmination of an allegorical commentary. There is, of course, nothing allegorical about a bullet. Or indeed metaphorical. If anything, bullets are items that are usually turned into metaphors. But when you have two tribes using guns to protect something as nebulous and worthless as “honour” – even worse than that, male honour as embodied in women as chattel – then you have a conflict that is never really going to be resolved until all the men involved have been re-educated as human beings. Desert Ark tells a story specific to its country of origin, but its themes are universal. It really deserves a wider release than it received.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 927

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Moving pictures 2018, #34

Not a single US film in this bunch, although two are still Anglophone – British and Australian.

Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou (1990, China). Although I’m a big fan of films by Chinese Sixth Generation directors, such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in earlier generations – and I don’t just mean early classics like Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934, see here) or Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948, see here). There was also – obviously – a Fifth Generation, to which Zhang Yimou belonged, and those films of his I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. He also has two entries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: Red Sorghum (see here) and Raise the Red Lantern (not currently available on DVD). Ju Dou is Zhang’s third film (he’s better known these days for films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall), and had I not read in the movie’s Wikipedia entry that it was filmed in Technicolor – in 1990! – I’d not have known it from the copy I watched. So can we have a restored edition, please? Because this is an excellent film, irrespective of the motion picture process used. The title refers to a young woman, played by Zhang favourite Gong Li, who is married to a cruel dyer. The dyer’s adopted nephew returns after a weeks-long trip to discover his uncle has remarried… and he begins to obsess over Ju Dou, who is being abused by her husband. It doesn’t end well, these things never end well, especially when Ju Dou has a son, and the dyer is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke and learns the son is not his own… It was clear watching this that colour had been uppermost in Zhang’s mind, and yet the DVD transfer had made a mockery of the Technicolor, washing out many of the colours and, in some scenes, giving the whole frame a faint tint. Now I love Technicolor, especially Technicolor landscapes – the New England autumnal landscape of All That Heaven Allows, the wide open spaces of Shane – and since much of Ju Dou took place in a dye works, there was no shortage of colour. Which, sadly, wasn’t especially obvious on this transfer. A good film, but I’d like to see a restored copy.

Outskirts, Boris Barnet (1933, Russia). I forget where I came across mention of this, and having now seen it I’m surprised it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A Soviet film from 1933 that covers the period prior to the October Revolution via the lives of ordinary Russian villagers? Barnet made several early Soviet films, but only Eisenstein, Vertov and Vsevelod make the list. Which is not to say they shouldn’t. But Barnet belongs on there too. More so than some early Hollywood films anyway. It’s not just that Outskirts documents the lives of villagers in early twentieth-century Russia, which it does very effectively, but also that it is dramatically impressive too. Part of it is set at the front during WWI, or Second Patriotic War, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it’s the equal of any other WWI movie of the time, if not better. Barnet, by all accounts, was in the top rank of Soviet directors, but seems to be pretty much forgotten these days. Eisenstein’s oeuvre is readily available, but I can find only three of Barnet’s twenty-seven films, including this one, on DVD. A shame. On the strength of Outskirts, I’d say his films are definitely worth seeing.

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short*, André Delvaux (1966, Belgium). Govert Miereveld is hired to replace a departing teacher at a school. He begins to obsess over a female student, played by Polish actress Beata Tyszkiewicz (dubbed into Flemish?). He leaves the school and enters the law. Some years later, he accompanies a colleague who needs to attend an autopsy of a body washed ashore in another town. They suspect the body of being a suspect in a case, but in the event it turns out to be a completely different man. At the hotel, Miereveld bumps into the student he had obsessed over, who is now a famous opera singer. She remembers him from school and is surprisingly open to his, er, overtures. He spends time with her and she admits she knew of his obsession at school. She also admits the teacher he replaced had been asked to leave because he had been in a relationship with her. And her father, who had disappeared shortly after she left school, well, his description matches that of the body in the autopsy… The first time I watched this, I liked its focus on its protagonist – including the scene which lends the films its title – but I hadn’t realised how vital to the plot that focus was. Because Miereveld is badly affected by what he learns, and the final third of the film shows the aftermath. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s not entirely clear for much of its length what sort of film it is. It opens as an introspective drama, turns into a thriller, and then becomes something completely different. I liked it so much on second viewing, I considered picking up a copy of the book from which it was adapted… which is, of course, almost fucking impossible to find…

Brick Lane, Sarah Gavron (2007, UK). This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Monica Ali, set among the Bangladeshi community in London on, er, Brick Lane. I’ve not read the book, so I’ve no idea how the film differs from it. Nazneen is the wife of Chanu Ahmed, a man who seems convinced he can succeed in the UK, and is equally blind to the country’s racism – the film opens with him convinced he is about to be promoted, only to learn he has been fired. He’s keen on improving himself, and is evidently a voracious reader, but his wife is not happy, and his two kids seem to have little in common with him. Except Brick Lane is not about him, it’s about Nazneen, who has an affair with an Anglo-Bangladeshi (ie, born and bred in the UK, unlike Nazneen) who is part of a local group agitating for Muslim solidarity. And this is around the time of the 9/11 attacks. I was resident in the UAE when 9/11 happened, and working for a government-owned oil company… so the only version of events I heard was that told by Arabs who had been affected. So I can sympathise with the Bangladeshis depicted in Brick Lane and even understand the drivers which lead to the film’s more dramatic elements. White people are racist. That’s a simple fact. Sometimes it’s ameliorated by experience, sometimes by education, and sometimes by both. I like to think I fall into that last category, thanks to my years in the Gulf. But I also accept that all white people are racist, it’s merely a matter of degree and constant self-policing. And I try my best to self-police. So films like Brick Lane are important, if not the most compelling drama ever. On the one hand, Tannishtha Chatterjee is compelling in the lead role and Satish Kaushik makes her husband seem a lot more sympathetic than he deserves to be… But not much of it feels like it connects with Islam, despite an impassioned speech by Chanu Ahmed; and Nazneen’s lover, Christopher Simpson, comes across more as a paper-thin wide boy than anything else… I don’t know; maybe I was expecting more than the film was prepared to deliver, than the original novel was prepared to deliver. But it all felt a bit shallow and glib to me.

The Last Wave*, Peter Weir (1977, Australia). Richard Chamberlain is a corporate lawyer in Australia – the reason for his American accent is never explained, although his parents are introduced as his adoptive parents – who is assigned by legal aid to defend an Aboriginal man from the charge of murdering his friend. Something about the Aboriginal man Chamberlain finds striking, an inexplicable connection the two seem to have. The crime itself remains a mystery – five men in a bar, they’re thrown out for being Aboriginal, one ends up dead. The barrister assigned to the defence resents Chamberlain’s naivete – he can’t claim tribal murder for non-tribal Aboriginal people, ie, those living in the city. But Chamberlain is convinced it’s tribal murder, and through his dreams becomes swept up in the life  of his defendant, and the crime for which he was charged. There’s an obvious use of Dreamtime here, and Aboriginal beliefs, and perhaps the framing narrative is somewhat banal – it even has the “strange black man” outside the house, which was never an acceptable trope – but Weir handles the way Chamberlain gets sucked into the Aboriginal world-view quite effectively, so much so in fact that the final scene, to which the title refers, remains ambiguous. The Last Wave feels like a film with good intentions that has not aged well. It’s overlong, it’s choice of Chamberlain as the protagonist weakens its story, and its borderline positioning of Aboriginal people as “magical negros” only just manages not to be racist. The fact it has subsequently proven hard to find seems almost fitting. I’d say it was worth seeing, but only for those willing to track it down.

The Whispering Star, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Another random film that looked interesting so I bunged it on my rental list. I suspect I may have thought it was anime and, from the title, sf anime, like 2001 Nights or Voices of a Distant Star. It’s sf, alright, but it’s not anime. It’s filmed in black and white. The director’s partner, Megumi Kagurazaka, plays an interstellar delivery person, although it’s not clear how real this is. Her spaceship resembles a house from the outside, and the opening scenes feature her repeating both a number of simple household tasks and her dialogue. It turns out she is delivering items to survivors of the Fukushima nuclear incident, played in the film by real life survivors. I don’t know if The Whispering Star was filmed in the areas abandoned as a consequence of the nuclear meltdown, but it certainly looks like it. To add to the strangeness, all the dialogue is looped, and delivered in whispered tones. Almost as if it were intended to represent telepathy. There’s no plot as such. The end result is an experimental film that overstays its welcome, and reminds me in many respects of Lukas Moodysson’s Container (there is also something container-like about Kagurazaka’s spaceship), but nonetheless makes a number of valid points about Fukushima. As a result of seeing The Whispering Star, I looked into Sono’s other films, and it looks like he has an oeuvre worth exploring…

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 918