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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 It was also turned into a novel, which remained unpublished until a couple of years ago.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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