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Moving pictures, #33

Again, more US films than I really would like to be watching. True, over half of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is American, and when I’m looking for brainless entertainment to watch of a Saturday night with a bottle of wine in hand, then the US provides more suitable films than any other nation but… I’d seriously like my movie viewing to be more global, and though I’ve been making an effort in that direction, it sometimes feels like I’ve not been assiduous enough… Oh well. Most of my favourite films and directors are not from the US, and my DVD/Blu-ray collection now certainly comprises more world cinema than Hollywood…I’m getting there.

elephantElephant*, Gus Van Sant (2003, USA). You know that thing they have in the US, and that keeps on happening, where someone walks into a place and shoots everyone, because civilised nations banned guns the first time it happened but the US is happy to sell assault rifles to any lunatic with a dollar bill… Elephant apparently started life as a documentary about a real school shooting, but turned into a fictional representation of one. The film follows the victims, witnesses and perpetrators, often criss-crossing timelines, which is quite an effective technique. But the film itself offers no commentary on its subject, other than showing the shooters being bullied by jocks. Which is weak. I mean, it’s not hard to condemn either the shooters, the culture which persuaded them shooting their peers was a conceivable response, or the society which allowed them access to the weapons to do so. But Van Sant does none of these. He humanises the victims – which is the weakest argument of all against such atrocities. We know they’re human, we know they are just like us. We also know the perpetrators are little different to us. What we want to know is: why was this allowed to happen? And what is being done to prevent it? In the US, the answer to both appears to be: very little.

evangelion_3Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). The Evangelion films are re-workings of the Neon Genesis Evangelion OVA, but rather than distillations of that 26-episode series they feel more like isolated excerpts from it, ie random episodes from a much longer story. I like that the films make no concessions to their viewers, and that despite their basic plot of high-school kids piloting mecha in fights against giant aliens, there’s so much more going on that’s left for viewers to puzzle out: the world-building, the relationships between the characters, the technology, even the family dynamics for those characters who are related to each other… In this movie, the action takes place fourteen years after the explosive end of Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. Shinji and Evangelion Unit 01 have been drifting in orbit. He is rescued by WILLE and fitted with an explosive collar. Only it turns out WILLE is fighting NERV, and they have a, er, flying battleship. Which is now powered by Evangelion Unit 01 (there are around a dozen Evangelion units by this point). And then it sort of gets a confusing, with some cast members carried over from the earlier films, and entirely new ones to figure out as well. Not to mention a circuituous route, via the weird dynamics between the Evangelion pilots, to a final battle scene, which triggers another apocalypse… I’m going to have to watch this again – if not all three films – before I truly figure out what’s going on. It’s all made for an odd viewing experience. Although superficially the same, and sharing a design aesthetic, the three movies manage to present three episodes of one story-arc in three tonally different ways. The fourth and final film is due Any Day Now, having postponed several times since its original release date in 2013.

barbarianThe Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand (2003, Canada). Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but this sequel is on a different one. I’d not been that impressed by the first film – it seemed almost a parody of an independent movie, a group of characters sitting around moaning about the state of the world – so I can’t say I was especially keen on seeing this sequel. But I must have stuck it on my rental list, and subsequently forgotten about it, because it arrived and I watched it and… It’s just as dull. It’s set seventeen years after The Decline of the American Empire, which was released in 1986, and features most of the same cast. Rémy has terminal cancer, and his family – especially his son, a financier living and working in London – and his friends (from the earlier film) come to visit him. There’s a lot about the Canadian national health system being over-stretched and ineffective, but I can’t decide if that’s done deliberately in order to enable the plot (rich son pays for expensive treatment in US), or some kind of commentary on public healthcare. There’s also a number of scenes of the friends sitting around and talking, a lot of which is reminiscences. I found it all a bit uninvolving, much as I did The Decline of the American Empire. Meh.

robinsonRobinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I really liked Keiller’s earlier two films, London and Robinson in Space, and was expecting much the same of this one. But it was so much better. It has the cinematographic beauty that comes from well-placed static shots like in Benning’s films tied to a clever voice-over narrative like something out of an Adam Curtis documentary. This time Vanessa Redgrave narrates, as the lover of the narrator, and Robinson’s friend, in the earlier two films. Robinson in Ruins opens with Robinson’s release from prison, and then describes his journey through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, remarking on the things Robinson found and their history and how it all links in to the UK’s current economic malaise (current as of 2010, of course; we all know who exactly who – Osborne’s damaging and ineffective “austerity” aside – is responsible for the UK’s economic woes in 2016). I liked London and Robinson in Space a lot, but Robinson in Ruins is so much better. Perhaps its because it’s nearer in time than those two earlier times. True, I remember Tory Britain from 1979 to 1997 (although I was abroad for the last three years of it). Of course, 2010 saw the end of thirteen years under New Labour, although Robinson in Ruins is more about the damaging effects of big business and capitalism, and the corruption in which its naturally embedded, than it is economic policies. I suspect I will be watching this again before the end of the year, and it might well make my top five best of the year by December…

misfitsThe Misfits, John Huston (1961, USA). This was both Clark Gable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, and when it arrived from the rental service I assumed I’d stuck it on my list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – except it isn’t, at least not the 2013 edition, which is the one I’m using. So I’m somewhat mystified as to why I stuck it on my rental list. Because it’s not that interesting. Monroe plays a somewhat flighty divorcee, Gable plays an ageing cowboy, the two fall in love. There’s Montgomery Clift as a rodeo cowboy who hooks up with them, and Eli Wallach as Gable’s friend, who’s a mechanic and flies a biplane. Gable and Monroe’s relationship falters when Gable decides to go capture some wild horses in the hills (to sell for dog food). He, Monroe and Wallach, plus Monroe’s friend Thelma Ritter, head off to a rodeo to find a third cowboy and so meet Clift. It all feels a bit like a cynical attempt to plug into some US myth or other, not to mention trading on its two marquee name stars. Gable is good, but Monroe looks like she’s sleepwalking half the time – and by all accounts, it was a difficult shoot as she often turned up late, and sometimes never at all. Clift isn’t too bad, although he doesn’t quite convince as a dim-witted cowboy. The final act, where the five – Wallach in a biplane, the rest in a pickup – try to round up half a dozen wild horse, and Gable gets dragged across the desert by a mare, feels somewhat over-stretched. Meh.

red_riverRed River*, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). I honestly thought I’d already seen this – I mean, I’d seen a several Hawks westerns starring John Wayne, and I was pretty sure this was one of them. But apparently not. Of course, it’s not that easy a call, given Hawks’s penchant for remaking his films under new titles… Wayne plays a typical Wayne character, who leaves a wagon-train, and his sweetheart, which is bound for California, to head south to claim land in Texas, accompanied only by a grizzled old man and a pair of steers (one male, one female, of course). Later that day, they see smoke on the horizon and dash back to discover the wagon-train destroyed by Native Americans and everyone killed. There is only one survivor, a traumatised boy called Matt. The three continue south, Wayne finds his land and claims it, killing a representative of a Mexican don who has title from the King of Spain (so much for international relations…). The film then jumps forward fourteen years, Matt has grown up into Montgomery Clift, and Wayne looks more like himself than Ronald Reagan (as he did earlier). Wayne’s ranch has proven successful and he has thousands of head of cattle. But no money. The just-ended civil war saw to that. So he needs to take his cattle to the nearest railhead in Missouri hundreds of miles away to sell them. There’s a nearer railhead in Kansas, but since no one has actually been there and see it, Wayne refuses to head that way. His high-handed tactics during the drive end up with Clift challenging him, taking over the drive and heading north along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. Fortunately, the rumoured railhead exists, and Clift gets an excellent price for the cattle. Wayne then turns up. ready to kill him, they have a big fist-fight, and make up. It’s all very manly, and just like you’d expect the Wild West to be. Of course, having seen a number of Westerns, I’m aware of the way cattle barons like Wayne’s character treated homesteaders and settlers, and that’s not even mentioned – in fact, the only town in the film is the Kansas one at the end. Admittedly, the cattle drive is pretty impressive… although the use of sound-stages for the campfire scenes do spoil all that location shooting a bit. I’m not that much of a fan of Westerns (see my comments on the genre in previous Moving picture posts), and I understand that the Chisolm Trail was historically important, and that Red River makes a good story of it, but it’s all a bit too macho and one-sided for me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before YOu Die count: 780

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Moving pictures, #26

I need to get my cable telly sorted out. I have a nice large flatscreen TV set, but no HD channels – so everything looks blobby, and even with my piss-poor eyesight it’s off-putting. As a result, I’ve been mostly watching DVDs and Blu-rays. Sometimes as many as three or four a day on the weekends. Such as the following:

36th_shaolinThe 36th Chamber of Shaolin*, Chia-Liang Liu (1978, Hong Kong). Most movies are, of course, commercial endeavours. That’s why we have the concept of “box office”. The amount of money a film makes is taken as an indicator of its success – and, by foolish people, of its quality. And yet, commercially successful works can prove to be lasting art, even if not designed to be. Of course, there are directors – and this applies to all creatives – who can convince themselves their crass banal commercial output is real art, but their films usually go straight to DVD. Which is a long-winded way of saying that a Shaolin kung fu film is an unlikely entry to find on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, given that it was likely banged out quickly to capitalise on a particular movie craze. (We are after all talking about a film produced by a company who made 1000 films between 1958 and 1997.) And yet, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not only considered a classic of the kung fu genre but, by virtue of being on the list, a classic of cinema – perhaps because it’s so exemplary of its genre. A young man decides to seek vengeance after his friends and family are killed by Manchu soldiers, so he enrolls in a Shaolin temple and works his way up the 35 levels of kung fu. I had expected this to be a bit dull – I’m not a fan of martial arts films – perhaps a bit like A Touch Of Zen; but it actually proved a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the structure, the young man working his way up each of the 35 levels, often failing comically at first on each level. Worth seeing.

decline_americanThe Decline Of The American Empire*, Denys Arcand (1986, Canada). Four couples arrange a dinner party. The men make the food at one of the homes while the women visit the gym. They talk. You know when people joke that literary fiction is all about white middle class people and their disintegrating marriages? This is the cinematic equivalent. And it’s very dull. I’ve no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t do anything interesting or innovative, and while it has the odd moment of wit (and what film doesn’t? Um, best not answer that…) it offers no new insights – on a topic that is probably the most documented in Western literature and cinema, the white middle class marriage. Not worth seeing.

floating_weedsFloating Weeds*, Yasujiru Ozu (1959, Japan). The only other Ozu I’ve seen is Tokyo Story and that was back in 2009. I’m aware of his stature in Japanese cinema, but while I’ve watched a number of classic Japanese films I’ve not made any real effort to explore the country’s cinematic history. I know people who rate Ozu very highly, but on the strength of that previous film I wasn’t entirely sure why. Floating Weeds, on the other hand… It’s good; actually, it’s very good. It’s a little problematic – the central male character is violent towards women on several occasions, and it’s very unpleasant to watch. But the cinematography is wonderful to look at, and the relationships between the characters are handled with intelligence and nuance. Having said that, the pacing is somewhat on the leisurely side and the plot is perhaps overly stuffed. The film is set in 1958 at a seaside town. A travelling theatre troupe arrives, and it turns out the troupe’s star is the father of the young man who works in the post office and whose mother runs a local tea shop/bar. The lead actress of the troupe, who is in a relationship with the star, is afraid she’s losing him, so she pays another actress to seduce the son… Then it transpires the troupe is out of money and will have to disband, and certain relationships all start to implode quite messily. I think I might watch some more Ozu after seeing this one – and not just that one film of his on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve yet to see…

cityofgodCity of God*, Fernando Meireilles & Kátia Lund (2002, Brazil). A charity shop find. The film is set in the Rio de Janeiro favela of the title, and is apparently based on real events. The film’s narrator is on the edge of violence between rival drug dealers in City of God, and the movie is presented as a series of stories told by him about the various major players, and often jumps back and forth chronologically – in fact, the film opens with the scene which starts the final sequence of the plot. The bulk of the cast were apparently non-professionals, trained up by the directors, as they felt that would give the film a more authentic feel. And it does. I’m guessing the casual violence is also authentic – and it’s horrible and disturbing to watch, such as, for example when there are things like a young boy walking into a brothel and shooting everyone he sees. That young boy, named as “Little Dice” in the subtitles, grows up to be one of the two main drug dealers in the favela, and he only leaves his rival alone because his best friend, Benny, is friends with him. But when Benny is shot and killed, all-out war erupts. And it’s war with young men and boys as the fighters, using all manner of firearms. City of God is one of those films which makes you wonder why governments around the world insist on criminalising drugs. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to win the “War on Drugs”… The film span off a television series, City Of Men, which was itself adapted for cinema. The non-professional cast, incidentally, couldn’t return to their old lives in the favelas after filming, and so were given help to improve their situation. Which is about the only heart-warming thing about the whole film.

woman_dunesWoman of The Dunes*, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964, Japan). Teshigahara is a director new to me, as is Kobo Abe, the author from whose novel this film was adapted (and it’s not the only Abe novel Teshigahara adapted). But on the strength of Woman of The Dunes I’ll definitely be trying more Teshigahara movies and perhaps even having a go at reading one of Abe’s novels. In this film, a high school teacher on holiday is indulging in his hobby, collecting and categorising seaside insects. He falls asleep in the sun and misses the last bus home, but some men from the nearby village offer him a bed for the night. This proves to be in a house in a pit in the sand dunes, a pit that can only be accessed by rope ladder. And the following morning, he learns he is to be kept a prisoner there with the house’s occupant, a young woman. The pair are, in effect, sacrifices to the sand. As long as they remain in the house in the pit, shovelling at the sand, it won’t engulf the village – and it’s implied there are other pits too. The teacher, of course, tries to escape, but none of his attempts succeed. Eventually he resigns himself to his situation, and the film ends with a shot of a missing persons report dated seven years later. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

firemansballThe Fireman’s Ball*, Miloš Forman (1967, Czech Republic). Forman and screenwriters Ican Passer and Jarosalv Papoušek visited the town of Vrchlabí in order to work on the script of their new film, and while there attended a real fireman’s ball and were so amused by its piss-poor organisation that they decided to base a film on it. There’s a sort of black humour common to East and Central Europe – I’ve seen it mostly in Polish films, probably because I’ve seen more films of the region from that country – and The Fireman’s Ball is a beautifully-judged example. It’s not just the constant bickering and fatalism, but the way things always play out for the worse. The firemen have arranged a raffle for the ball, but as the film progresses the prizes go missing one by one. They arrange an impromptu beauty contest so the winner can present a gift to the retired chairman of the fire brigade, but the contestants all refuse to participate when called up onto the stage. An old man’s house bursts into flames, but all the firemen manage to rescue his some of his furniture. The film’s start was somewhat unprepossessing, so I wasn’t expecting much. But once the ball was in full swing, it definitely picked up and I really enjoyed it.

war_gameThe War Game*, Peter Watkins (1965, UK). From the perspective of twenty-five years later, the Cold War may seem like a weird period of global insanity, but it certainly felt very real at the time. US/USSR posturing inspired countless plots for books and films and television, and while the threat of World War III never seemed all that likely – the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for example, and the West responded by, er, boycotting the Moscow Olympics – the consequences of nuclear armageddon were all too often publicised. In films such as The War Game, Threads and The Day After. The third of those is pretty terrible, a piece of meretricious and melodramatic US tosh, marketed on its supposed accuracy but more closely resembling a soap opera. Threads is especially effective, although its low budget does tell against it. And it might well be said the same is true of The War Game. Unlike the other two, The War Game is framed as a documentary describing life after a nuclear strike on the UK. And it’s very effective. So much so, in fact, that the BBC refused to broadcast despite commissioning it and it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985 – despite winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1966. After watching this, I decided to buy a copy, but the BFI one shown is deleted. So I ended up buying a collection of Watkins films released in France. So that should make for some cheerful viewing… Definitely worth seeing, nonetheless.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 640