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Moving pictures 2018, #39

I should stop trying to explain my choices in film-watching. It is what it is. Yes, mostly obscure movies, but there’s also the occasional crowd-pleaser, and a classic or two…

La La Land, Damien Chazelle (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of musicals and, aside from half a dozen Busby Berkley films, the only ones I really like are High Society, Les Girls and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. On the other hand, I did watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers recently and was surprised to find myself enjoying it… Anyway, La La Land, a musical, surprised everyone by winning shedloads of awards a couple of years ago, although Hollywood movies about making movies in Hollywood, musical or otherwise, always seem to do well at awards time. The film follows aspiring actress Emma Stone and jazz pianist Ryan Gosling as they each try to make a success of their chosen careers, which, naturally, involves doing things they don’t want to do simply in order to put food on the table – well, in Gosling’s case it means joining a successful jazz fusion band. The musical numbers are completely forgettable, and even the flights of fancy, despite their Technicolor palette, aren’t that interesting. In fact, the only interesting thing about the film is the bittersweet ending, in which the two split up and are subsequently successful. I have no idea why this film won all the awards it won.

Judith, Daniel Mann (1966, Israel). Lawrence Durrell was not well served by the film industry. The first book of the Alexandria Quartet was adapted as Justine by George Cukor, but it was a financial and critical flop (it had been Joseph Strick’s project but he fell foul of the studio, and they replaced him with Cukor). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Durrell’s novels would be very difficult to adapt – not that this has prevented Hollywood before with other properties. However, Durrell did provide a story for a movie made by the Israeli film industry, Judith. It was also turned into a novel, which remained unpublished until a couple of years ago. I’ve yet to read it. The story is set in Palestine, just before Israel’s unilateral declaration of statehood. The Jews are worried about the Syrians massing on the border, and have information that a tactical genius Wehrmacht tank commander is now working for the Arabs. But no one knows what he looks like. So they smuggle Sophia Loren into Palestine, since she was married to him and can identify him. But Loren doesn’t fit into the kibbutz where she’s pretending to be a member, arousing the suspicions of the other kibbutz members and the British authorities. Given the way Hollywood framed her career, it’s easy to forget that Loren was a bloody good dramatic actress, streets ahead of her contemporaries also imported from Europe. This is the second early Israeli film I’ve watched this year, and the second whose plot is based around the country’s creation. In this one, however, the threats are chiefly external, although it’s clear there’s an internal organisation more than qualified to investigate and, if necessary, prevent. Perhaps the scenes at the kibbutz tend to reinforce the popular, and hugely incorrect, image of hardy settlers building a homeland in an inhospitable wilderness, but the thriller elements of the story at least show that Palestine was a country under occupation – except, of course, it wasn’t the Jews that were being occupied (although they were certainly the most policed by the British). I’ve yet to read Durrell’s novel – but from the Alexandria Quartet alone, it’s clear where his sympathies lay – but on the whole I’d have to say I thought Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (see here) the better film.

Circle of Deception, Jack Lee (1960, UK). And from watching a film because of the writer who provided the story to watching a movie because of its star. Which I don’t do very often. But Suzy Parker made only a handful of films, and she’s the best thing in them. Most people will probably remember Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield in Kiss Them for Me, but Parker played the female lead. The Best of Everything is a superior 1950s film, and Parker is better than her fellow leads, Hope Lange and Diane Baker, although not as good as Joan Crawford… Anyway, Circle of Deception is a hard-to-find British film set during WWII starring Suzy Parker, who plays a Brit… and I think it’s her voice, although she was dubbed by Deborah Kerr in Kiss Them for Me, and her accent is pretty much spot-on for much of the film, although it does occasionally drift (which is what persuades me it’s her own voice). Anyway, Parker is the assistant of military intelligence captain Harry Andrews. They need to feed disinformation to the Germans, so they decide to parachute into France someone they know will break under interrogation. They feed their patsy – played by Bradford Dillman – with misinformation, then shop him to the Nazis. Everything goes as planned. Well, except for Parker falling for Dillman during his training. But she remains professional, and sends him off to his doom. The film actually opens several years after the war has ended, when Parker wants to track down Dillman and apologise to him. He’s now living in Morocco, and still suffers after his war experiences. There’s a nasty thread of expediency running through the film, which is I guess the whole point of it, and while both Andrews and Parker are good in their roles, Dillman struggles to keep up. Circle of Deception is an interesting, if minor, British WWII drama, but I suspect its story was seen as more shocking in the decades before 9/11 and Gitmo and extraordinary rendition.

Air Force, Howard Hawks (1943, USA). I don’t know why Hawks didn’t serve during WWII – he was 45 in 1941, was that considered too old for combat duty? – although he did apparently serve as a flying instructor during WWI. Anyway, he spent the war years doing what he had been doing before the war: making films. Five between 1941 and 1946. Three of which were explicitly military: Sergeant York in 1941 (which is actually about WWI; see here), and Air Force and Corvette K-225 in 1943 (see here). Air Force – it was, of course, the Army Air Corps at the time – is about the crew of a B-17 in the Pacific theatre. It’s apparently based on a true story. A crew are ferrying a B-17 from San Francisco to Hawaii when they get caught up in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Pretty much all the external shots of the B-17 are model work, and not entirely convincing model work either. And the scenes set inside the Flying Fortress… well, I had thought the aircraft’s interior much more… utilitarian than is shown. I like feature films set on and about military aircraft – Strategic Air Command is one of my favourites – but nothing in Air Force felt especially convincing. Which is ironic, given it’s a true story. There are a couple of interesting scenes featuring state of the art computing in 1943, and the film features all of Hawks’s trademark dramatic elements… But it’s a minor work in his oeuvre, and probably only worth seeing for completeness’s sake.

Cute Girl, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1980, Taiwan). Hou has said that he doesn’t consider his film-making career to have really begun until his third feature, The Boys from Fengkuei (see here), which makes you wonder why eureka! chose to include his two earlier films, Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home, in this new Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien blu-ray box set. Especially since both Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home are really just vehicles for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee, and actually not very good films. With extremely annoying soundtracks. The signature pop song from Cute Girl ended up stuck in my head for at least a week after watching the film. The plot is some rom com gubbins about a wealthy young woman who falls for a penniless young man (Bee) who pursues her relentlessly. There are, I seem to recall, a couple of good set-pieces, but the whole thing is so lightweight it’s a wonder it doesn’t blow away. And that fucking annoying song… Hou is a brilliant director but I can understand why he’d sooner this film was quietly forgotten.

Cinderella, Nadezhda Kosheverova & Mikhail Shapiro (1947, Russia). I found this one Amazon Prime, and thought it worth watching. Which it was. In an odd sort of way. It’s a musical and, strangely enough, Soviet musicals in the 1940s were not much like, say, Meet Me in St Louis (1944, see here). So the songs weren’t exactly memorable, or exactly a pleasure to listen to. But the plot pretty much follows Charles Perrault’s version, although it’s explicitly set in a magical kingdom. But otherwise, it all goes down just like the pantomime. What was interesting, however, was the mise en scène, in which the setting resembled some sort of toy town, with overtly designed scenery that gave the whole film a fairy tale atmosphere. The colourful costumes did the same. Some the choreography was quite balletic, and the big set-pieces were effectively staged, but it was definitely the set design where the chief appeal lay. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 923

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Moving pictures, #34

Damn, more American films. Bit of a relapse here, although to be fair four of the US films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

pattonPatton*, Franklin J Schaffner (1970, USA). George C Scott won an Oscar for his portrayal of the title character in this biopic, although he famously refused to accept it. But the rest of the cast and crew were happy to accept Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Art Direction. In Best Film, it was up against Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story and M*A*S*H, so not an especially strong year (although the smart money would likely have been on M*A*S*H), because there’s not much in Patton that actually seems like Oscar-material. The script was written without the approval of the family and mostly from the memories of Patton’s friend and aide General Omar Bradley – and despite that still invented a number of incidents. It was filmed in Spain, and not in North Africa or Italy. The historical details are often inaccurate – it’s not just the use of tanks that weren’t built during WWII. but that the Luftwaffe only appears to possess two Heinkel bombers… and they weren’t capable of strafing the ground, which they do multiple times during Patton. Admittedly, the film was made before CGI – in the twenty-first century, they’d no doubt fill the skies with zillions of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters (which would, of course, be just as ridiculous). Patton was by all accounts an odd bloke, and Scott manages to get that across… but much of the film seems like little more than a spat between Patton and Montgomery as each chases after the glory of defeating the Axis. Hardly the most edifying motivations for waging war, but I guess it plays better than tactical and strategic opportunism. There are a vast number of WWII films, but there only a handful I’d rate, and this isn’t one of them. Watch Das Boot instead, or The Big Red One.

whiplashWhiplash, Damien Chazelle (2014, USA). Numerous positive reviews persuaded me to add to this my rental list, despite the subject not appealing. A student at a famous New York musical school is training to be a jazz drummer. He is talent-spotted by one of the lecturers, a well-regarded composer – and an abusive arsehole. And the film is all about how he abuses the student – and the other students in his jazz band. It’s one of those films where you can recognise how well it was played by its cast, and how well-written the story, but you still wonder why the fuck you watched it. JK Simmons – probably best-known in this country as Dr Skoda from Law & Order – plays the composer, who is a real nasty piece of work… and he thinks his methods are justified because only by driving people to breaking point are true muscial geniuses made. Which is, of course, complete bollocks. But, of course, the student initially responds to Simmons’s abuse, before eventually being pushed too far and cracking. And dropping out of music altogether. Only to later bump into Simmons, accept his flattering offer of drumming for his band at a jazz festival – but it’s all a trick to humilate the ex-student on stage, except he then turns the tables, which segues into one of the longest and most boring drum solos ever recorded (and I say that despite being a fan of prog). Whiplash was not a film I would normally have watched, and I can’t say I’m glad I watched it. Put it down as one of those films or books that you don’t like even though you recognise that they’re good (because, of course, how you respond to a work is an entirely different thing to its actual quality). Meh.

wingsWings*, William A Wellman (1927, USA). This was the first film to ever win an Oscar, which is of course about as much an indication of quality as winning the first ever Hugo. And yet… I believe Wings has a somewhat mixed critical legacy, but I admit rather enjoyed it. True, Clara Bow was somewhat clumsily inserted into the plot, and it showed. And, bizarrely, although it’s Gary Cooper’s first appearance on film, he looks pretty much the same as he did throughout his entire career. Basically, two rivals for the love of the same woman join up when the US finally decides to enter WWI (please don’t call it the 17-18 War, it erases the three years of fighting by all the other nations that were involved). During basic training as pilots, the two beat each other to a pulp and so become fast friends. They are shipped to Europe, where they begin flying sorties against the Germans. On one such sortie, one of them is shot down. But he manages to steal a German biplane to return to the allied line… only to be shot down and killed by his best mate. Wings is justifiably praised for its aerial sequences, which are pretty impressive for a 1927 silent movie – and, I suspect, would still have been impressive had the film been made fifty or sixty years later. Perhaps the romantic triangle – the two male leads and Jobyna Ralston; Clara Bow is the over-looked love interest – is hoary and clichéd, even for the 1920s, and perhaps the trench warfare doesn’t resemble depictions since put on celluloid or, er, televisual æther, but those are minor quibbles – the film is called Wings because it’s about a pair of aviators, and in that area it scores highly. Worth seeing.

educationAn Education, Lone Scherfig (2009, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since it’s on at least one edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I gave it a go. It’s based on a memoir by a British journalist, who, apparently, was seduced as a sixteen-year-old by a thirtysomething con man and so was introduced to a life she had only previously dreamt of – sort of. Teacher-pupil romances are nothing new, and have been a staple of literature and cinema for centuries (well, at least one century), but there is still something skeevy about a man in his late thirties in a relationship with a 16-year-old schoolgirl. An Education is set in the 1960s, when, we are supposed to believe, “things were different”, as if that’s supposed to excuse them… Although, of course, such relationships likely still happen today. I note that only recently – in 2016, for fuck’s sake! – has Virginia made it illegal for men to marry 12-year-old girls. Anyway, the heroine of An Education, Carey Mulligan, is clever and plans to go to Oxford – but after falling for the oleaginous charms of smooth talker Peter Sarsgaard (who does a pretty good British accent, it must be said), she drops out of school. After several adult adventures, including a dirty weekend in Paris, she learns he is already married – and tries to return her previous life, except it’s not that easy (but she succeeds anyway). An Education was slick and sixties and about as believable as an episode of Danger Man. It feels like a watered-down version of The Servant, without the menace, the suspense or the commentary on class and society. Meh.

touch_sinA Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China). This is on later editions of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (obviously it hadn’t been released when they put together the 2013 edition of the list), but it sounded like it was worth renting… And so it proved. It’s bloody good, easily the best film of the seven in this post. I’ve not seen anything by Zhangke before, but I’ll be adding his other films to my rental list. A Touch of Sin comprises four stories, all based on real events, and linked only by the similarity of their documented effects on those involved. In the first, a man in provincial town rebels against the rich man who has bought the village’s coal mine but not redistributed its riches as promised. The episode opens with a violent encounter and ends with one. The second episode is the slightest of the four and details one man’s murderous robbery spree. The third has a young woman travel to a provincial town, where she ends up working as a receptionist in a massage parlour. But when a local VIP demands she “service” him and tries to rape her, she responds violently. The final story is the most interesting. A young man leaves his job after inadvertently causing an industrial accident – the employer assigns his wages to the injured party as recompense – and ends up working as a host and waiter in a hotel catering to rich businessmen from Hong Kong. He then leaves that job and goes to work in a factory. Shortly afterwards, he commits suicide. China apparently has a very high rate of suicide, and the fourth story is based on one company where 18 employees attempted suicide (14 succeeded) within a year. This is the unadvertised cost of your cheap computers and and smartphones (not to mention the pollution). Western consumers are happy to accept the low prices resulting from company practices which lead to 18 staff suicides in one year, but then have the gall to moan about these products no longer being manufactured in Western countries. But don’t worry, people of the West! Soon, you will have a nation populated entirely by workers on zero-hour contracts with no rights, where only the air is free, and the environment, well, companies won’t have to siphon off funds from CAPEX to make sure the birds and bees don’t fall out of the sky. So you’ll still get your cheap smartphones and tablets, and on the back they’ll say “MADE IN ENGLAND”. Ahem. A Touch of Sin (a daft title, and the deliberate nod to A Touch of Zen does it no favours) is a beautifully-shot and altogether real study of the effects of capitalism on China. Recommended.

living_deadNight of the Living Dead*, George A Romero (1968, USA). I think I did this wrong – I watched Dawn of the Dead before watching Night of the Living Dead. Both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve no idea why I did it in that order. Okay, dawn comes before night, but Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978 but Night of the Living Dead was Romero’s first film and released a decade earlier. Also, I don’t get zombies. I don’t get the appeal, I don’t get the position they occupy in Anglophone 20th/21st-century culture. I didn’t, for example, even realise that the big thing about 28 Days Later is that the zombies run. So fucking what. In Night of the Living Dead, a couple visit the woman’s mother’s grave in a cemetery. A zombie attacks them and kills the man. The woman finds refuge in a house with a black man with a good head on his shoulders (a rarity in US cinema back in 1968). It transpires there are also people hiding in the cellar. Zombies attack the house. They fight them off. An escape attempt goes badly wrong. People die. Yawn. This is allegedly a classic of the genre, and for an independent film it has a couple of things to recommend it. But I suspect it’s one for fans of the director and/or zombie films; and not for me.

vietnamGood Morning, Vietnam*, Barry Levinson (1987, USA). Is there no phrase in cinema more likely to cause the heart to sink than “biopic”? Well, “directed by Chris Columbus”, perhaps. Or “from the producers of…”, as if the ability to bring in a film on time and on budget is any kind of artistic recommendation. Except, well, Good Morning, Vietnam, isn’t actually a biopic. Adrian Cronauer was a real person, and he really was a DJ in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He tried pitching a sitcom based on his experiences to TV networks, but tyey – conveniently forgetting that M*A*S*H was one of the most successful sitcoms of the time, and so proving that television executives have always been remarkably stupid – turned it down as they didn’t think war a fit subject for comedy. So Cronauer wrote a TV movie script, which passed across Robin Willams’s desk, and Williams liked it so much he turned it into a film project. The actual plot of the film, Cronauer has said, bears very little resemblance to his actual experiences; and all of Williams’s on-air performances were improvised during filming. Which does make you wonder why they bothered basing it on a real person. Or insisted it was true. After all, back in 1987 there was no social media, there was no “post-truth” politics; back then, words meant what the dictionary said, expertise was valued, and demagoguery had not been successful since 1930s Germany. Still, at least Williams got a shedload of award nominations out of Good Morning, Vietnam, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 784