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Moving pictures 2018, #60

It’s been a while now, but I’m at the stage where I’m not so much wondering why films appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list as I am watching films and wondering why they do not appear on it. One of the films below is from the list, and I’m not entirely sure why it made the grade – early Chinese cinema, and for the 1930s a good piece of drama, but it’s basically just a retread of The Phantom of the Opera. Bambi, on the other hand, was a surprise – not the over-sentimental Disney blockbuster I expected, but an animated film with some lovely design work in it…

The Debut, Gleb Panfilov (1970, Russia). I started watching this film thinking it was a more recent piece of work than it was. The Amazon Prime blurb suggested it was some sort of Russian art house black and white film, and while it was certainly black and white and Russian, it was actually nearly fifty years old and a mainstream USSR release. None of which makes it likely to be a bad film. Which it certainly wasn’t. Panfilov made a bunch of films, and usually cast his wife, Inna Churikova, in the lead. This is one of them. She plays an amateur actress who is cast as Joan of Arc in a professional production filming in her town. It’s her dream role. She is also in a relationship with a married man. I like Soviet films – they may present a somewhat rose-tinted view of life in the country, but I expect they’re a damn sight closer to the reality than anything Hollywood has produced set in the USSR, or indeed the USA. I especially like the fact that equality – both gender and race – seems pretty much baked into Soviet society. Yes, Churikova is seeing a married man, but in terms of her acting career she’s not expected to accept less pay even though she’s playing the title role. It’s hard not to consider Western society a step backwards in some respects. As a movie, The Debut (AKA Начало AKA Nachalo AKA The Beginning) has its moments and Churikova is generally good in the title role. It feels like a solid film of its type, with nothing that stands out. I’d watch more by Panfilov, and The Debut is definitely worth a punt if you’re interested in Soviet cinema.

The Man with the Iron Heart, Cédric Jimenez (2017, France). The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is certainly one of the more dramatic stories of WWII which might be considered worthy of film adaptation, especially since it comprises plucky underdogs killing an evil Nazi monster (and how long before that is considered offensive by the right-wing commentariat?). But of all the books to use as a source for the story, Lauren Binet’s HHhH is the last one I’d have chosen. Chiefly because it’s about Binet researching his subject – ie, Operation Anthropoid – and the impact of his project, and what he discovers, on his life. It’s an excellent book, neither fiction nor autobiography but something of both. Which is all very good, as Binet is an excellent writer. But the film adaptation turns it into, basically, a biopic of Heydrich. And we do not need biopics of evil Nazi monsters. When a film is about the assassination of a high-ranking Nazi officer, then the assassins are the heroes. The Man with the Iron Heart either does not understand that or has chosen to ignore it – and neither position is defensible. To be fair, the film covers the major elements of the assassination. But it also spends far too long establishing Heydrich as a sympathetic character. We’re told he’s a monster, and we witness some of his monstrosities, but the film is invested in him as the protagonist to the extent it feels like we’re supposed to be upset when he’s attacked and dies. Disappointing. Read the book, it’s way better.

The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen (1968, China). I found this on Amazon Prime. There’s a shitload of really quite good stuff hidden away on Amazon Prime… but, of course, most viewers are only interested in the Hollywood crap. The Arch is an early Hong Kong historical drama and is generally recognised to be one of the first Hong Kong “art house” films. Fifty years later, it’s hard to determine what might back then have been considered art house, especially with Hong Kong cinema, which during the 1960s was dominated by rom coms and wuxia films made by the Shaw Brothers (at least to Western observers). And while the time it was made is important when considering a film, from half a century away The Arch doesn’t seem substantially different to other art house movies of its time. But Hong Kong had no such tradition then, nor any female directors (Tang also graduated in film studies from the University of California), and it may well be that Tang’s gender is a major reason why The Arch exists. This is a good thing, of course. The film is set in a small village during the 1900s. The chief pillar of the community is a widow, who is so revered an arch in her honour has been erected on the lane leading into the village. But then a troop of soldiers arrive and the widow finds herself drawn to the troop’s captain… The Arch is also in Mandarin, not Cantonese, which is another difference to commercial Hong King cinema of the 1960s. Tang made only four feature films – The Arch was her first – but she definitely seems like a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring.

A Jester’s Tale, Karel Zeman (1964, Czechia). I know of Zeman from his excellent adaptation of the adventures of the Baron Munchausen, which has a singularly Czechian mix of live action and animation, in a way that is so obviously an inspiration for Anglophone animators like Terry Gilliam (who does cheerfully cite Zeman as an influence). Anyway, Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (see here) was great, but I forget why I added his A Jester’s Tale to my rental list. But I’m glad I did. In fact, I like both films so much I think there should be a collection of Zeman’s movies. He made only six features films, plus a whole bunch of shorts, so he’s an excellent candidate. I’d certainly buy it. A Jester’s Tale is based on the work of seventeenth-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian and is about two warring nations, and the principality located between them, during the Thirty Years’ War. A peasant masquerades as a duke, his girlfriend as a jester, and they’re accompanied by a man-at-arms. After stealing a coach full of silver and gold, they find themselves in the principality’s castle. But every time the wind changes direction – shown graphically by a face in the clouds blowing – the principality swaps allegiance… and the “duke” is either a prisoner or a welcome guest. There’s lots of clever animation, plenty of broad comedy, and a clever use of matte paintings to create the sets. I found A Jester’s Tale a more entertaining film than The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, although both have similar plots (A Jester’s Tale was made after The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). I now want to see the rest of Zeman’s films.

Song at Midnight*, Ma-Xu Weibang (1937, China). This film is pretty much a Chinese version of The Phantom of the Opera. I had a ripped copy for a while (it’s public domain, don’t worry), and then a copy appeared on Amazon Prime… and it was close call as to which had the most… creative subtitles. I have seen nearly a hundred Chinese films and the quality of the subtitles varies immensely. I can’t actually vouch for the quality of the translations as I don’t speak either Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other Chinese language. But I can certainly vouch for the quality of the English used in the subtitles and “The fish can make a wave” and “You are the water in the pond, and I am that duckweed aquatically” don’t, er, make much sense. But then interpreting the subtitles is part of the experiencing of watching non-Anglophone movies (although it’s more fun when you do understand the language being spoken and can spot the differences). Anyway… the Chinese film industry is huge, and has been around since the medium’s early days. Certainly the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list should include some early Chinese classics – and it does – but I’m not convinced this warmed-over take on The Phantom of the Opera is a good candidate, especially since the earlier adaptation by Rupert Julian is so good. There must have been other films that could have been chosen – although many early Chinese films may have been lost. Neither copy of Song at Midnight I had access to was especially good, and I have to wonder if a remastered copy might have led to me being more impressed. But if you want to see an early Chinese film, then The Goddess (see here) or Spring in a Small Town (see here) are much better examples.

Bambi, David Hand (1942, USA). I have a very clear memory of seeing The Jungle Book for the first time on a screen in the main hall of the Doha English Speaking School, which would make it somewhere between 1972 and 1973. I can also remember bits and pieces of Pinocchio and 101 Dalmations from my childhood. But, while I’ve convinced myself I must have seen Bambi at some point while I was a child, I can’t call up any corroborating memories. And having now actually seen the film, none of it, I must admit, seemed especially familiar. I suspect I knew of it, and that was it. But I have now seen it… and it was not at all what I was expecting. Or rather, my expectations were quite low and the film exceeded them. I shouldn’t have to describe the story, but… Bambi is a deer, the “prince of the forest”, hunters turn up, his mother dies, he grows up, there’s a forest fire, then more hunters, but all the animals live happily ever after… Which sort of implies the message of the film is that it’s okay to kill animals. After all the hunting and forest fires, the film ends with a repeat of the opening scene – except Bambi is the father and not the newborn – as if the film is trying to point out that Nature carries on. Kill all the deer, but more will be born. Yet for much of its length, Bambi feels like a paean to the simplicity and noble savagery of the animal world and its right to be left undisturbed by humankind. Okay, so the animals are characterised as, first, American kids, and then as American teenagers – but that’s the nature of Disney films and they’ve even characterised alien creatures as American kids… And yet… I’d put Bambi in the top five Disney film for beautiful animation and design. I’d still rate Sleeping Beauty top, and Cinderella second, but it would be a toss-up between Bambi and 101 Dalmations for third place. Bambi doesn’t have 101 Dalmations‘ charm but it does have these abrupt shifts to almost abstract art – which was one of the things Disney used to do back in the day and which really did add to the movie. When the forest fire takes hold, the art on screen is really quite striking, not in an especially realistic way, but it looks lovely. It’s not much – the use of silhouettes, an abstract representation of the threat… But it’s hugely effective. It’s when animation turns into animated art. When Bambi is at its most, well, mainstream it’s less appealing, although the character design is excellent and the animation has that clarity of line I wish Disney had not later dropped…  I was surprised, as mentioned earlier, to discover after watching Bambi that I’d rate it in the top five of the Disney animated films I’ve so far seen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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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, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809


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Moving pictures, #38

There’s probably another two or three of these posts to come before the year is out. I’ve yet to decide if I’ll carry on with them next year – I might choose to just write about a single film in a post, as I’ve done in previous years. We’ll see. Of course, there’s still a good 300+ films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But meanwhile…

sleep_bSleeping Beauty, Clyde Geronimi (1959, USA). There was a trailer for this on a rental DVD, I seem to remember, and something about it persuaded me it would be worth watching. I might well have seen the film as a child, but I have no memory of it. A Blu-ray copy appeared in Amazon’s Black Friday sales, so I bought it. And… it’s probably one of the most Technicolor movies I’ve ever watched, second only to The Adventures Of Robin Hood. So, of course, I loved that about it. I also liked that the songs weren’t intrusive – the cast didn’t break into singing per se, the songs sort of grew out of the background music. And the style of the animation is that sort of stylised 1950s, er, style which I find much more appealing than the normal Disney style. So, despite the over-done Disney DVD cover, Sleeping Beauty is actually a gorgeous piece of animation. But, interestingly, it’s an odd take on the story, because it’s told through the viewpoints of three meddling middle-aged women, the good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. They hide Princess Aurora from bad witch Maleficent, although, of course, fairy tale curses have a way of coming true… But that sleeping bit, it’s only like part of the final act, it’s the shape of Aurora’s life which is the backbone of the film. And it works really well. As does Maleficient’s actually quite scary transformation into a dragon when she tries to prevent Prince Philip from reaching the sleeping Aurora. Without watching all the other Disney animated features films, and going only on what I remember of them, I think I can safely say Sleeping Beauty is the best of them. Although I would like to watch The Jungle Book again…

nightofthecomet-bdNight of the Comet, Thom Eberhardt (1984, USA). I suspect this may be the most eighties film made during the eighties. I remember first seeing it in the mid-eighties on television – it was introduced by either Jonathan Ross or Alex Cox, as part of a cult film series, I forget which; but I’ve always fancied a copy of it… and then late last year Arrow released a dual-format edition. So I bought it. And… it’s pretty much how I remembered it and, as I mentioned earlier, so very eighties. It’s not just the soundtrack – little of which was actually familiar to me even though I remember much of the decade, although the songs did sound very much of the time. Nor the clothing. But I seem to remember Valley Girls appearing in several cult films at the time – the other one that springs to mind is Julien Temple’s Earth Girls are Easy – and the two main characters of this, played by Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, are pretty much perfect casting. There’s a sequence in the film which more or less defines it for me – and certainly proved the most memorable – and yet has nothing to do with zombies. (Oh yes, the plot is: a comet flies close to Earth, all those who did not spend the night in something with steel walls turned into dust… or a zombie.) Anyway, the two girls decide that since they’re now apparently the only inhabitants of Los Angeles they can do what they like… which includes trying out everything which takes their fancy in a department store – all to, of course, the strains of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Fun’. Anyway, the pair have their ups and downs, their moments of jeopardy, being rescued and as well as rescuing others – they’re good strong female leads… and it’s a shame films like Night of the Comet are not bettered remembered. Worth getting hold of.

early_cinemaThe Great Train Robbery*, Edison Manufacturing Company (1903, USA). To be honest, I don’t remember much about this – it was one of about twenty or so films on a DVD collection of early cinema, Primitives and Pioneers – a mixture of US, French and British movies, all of which were identified by the company which made them rather than the person who directed them. Some of them were quite good – ‘Explosion of a Motor Car’ by the Hepworth Manufacturing Company was pretty good, if surprisingly, and comically, gruesome. Some of the others were mere fragments. However, one thing which did stand out – and I suppose The Great Train Robbery is as good an example as any – was the desire by the film-makers to tell stories using this new medium. So rather than documenting the world around them, they staged little vignettes and scenarios. A train being robbed, a woman’s baby being stolen from its pram, even the use of fantasy (hand-coloured too) in some of the early French films. In fact, while there’s little to say about the movie which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the actual collection itself is totally worth watching.

blueBlue is the Warmest Colour, Abdellatif Kechiche (2013, France). There was apparently some fuss when this won the Palme d’or at Cannes, although I was not aware of that until after I watched it. But having now read some of the criticisms of the film, I can understand what the critics meant. The film is based on a well-regarded French bande dessinée about a young woman’s sexual awakening and subsequent lesbian relationship with a blue-haired artist. And, of course, the homophobia she experiences – from family as well as school friends. Much has been made of the sex scenes in this film, and it’s certainly true they play far too… straight to be convincing. It’s hard to explain, and I’m no real position to judge the veracity (although plenty who are have said what I am about to), but they don’t ring true, in the same sort of way that sexual encounters in pornographic films don’t ring true as real sex. The two leads, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, are excellent, but the whole films still feels like a mistreatment of its source material and the lifestyle on which its source material – Julie Maroh’s 2010 Le bleu est une couleur chaude – is based. I can understand why the film has proven controversial, and I can’t help but agree with those who find fault with it. I’ve seen it now, but, you know, it wouldn’t have bothered me if I never had… and I can’t really recommend it to anyone.

happyHappy People, Werner Herzog & Dmitry Vasyukov (2010, Germany). The subtitle of this film, “A Year in the Taiga”, pretty much tells you all you need to know about this documentary. Assuming, of course, you know what “taiga” means. I admit it, I think Herzog is a genius, and while not all of his films are great, he’s never made a dull film. And that’s as true of Happy People as it is of any film he’s made, even if it’s just a documentary about the inhabitants of Bakhta, a small village in the middle of Siberia, which can only be reached by air or river (and the latter only during the summer when the river isn’t frozen solid). It’s a hard life that Herzog and Vasyukov document, but appealingly simple. True, the values and attitudes of the village’s residents are equally simple, but they seem to suit the lifestyle. There is, for example, one moment where one of the native Ket people accidentally burns down his house because he’d been drunk and left a cigarette burning. But he and his mother are more concerned about the loss of their home’s fetishes than anything else. There’s a sad overtone to much of the proceedings inasmuch as the Ket’s traditional lifestlye has been overwritten by the USSR, but the film’s title is no lie and all those involved seem to be inspiringly happy despite the hardship of their lives. Another charity shop find that’ll be a keeper, I think.

purpleThe Purple Rose of Cairo*, Woody Allen (1985, USA). I am not a fan of Woody Allen’s films. Actually, I can’t stand them. But this one was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so I sort of had to watch it. (He has several – and far too many – films on the list.) From what I knew of the film, I guessed it would be less irritating than most of his oeuvre – he’s not in it, for a start. And the central premise sounded quite good: a character from a film steps out of a cinema screen and runs away with a lonely woman, only for the actor who plays the character to come searching for the pair. That description, however, proved somewhat incomplete. The woman, played by Mia Farrow, is a battered spouse. And she goes to the cinema to escape her husband as much as she does to watch movies. On the plus side, the idea of a character stepping out of a film, leaving the remainder of the movie’s cast to figure out how to proceed, is handled well and proves mildly amusing. The fish-out-of-water romance by the film character and Farrow is less amusing and trades a little on cliché. And when the actual actor turns up and proves to be self-centred and career-minded, well, that is an actual cliché. My opinion of Allen’s films remains completely unchanged having seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, and I still don’t understand why so many of his movies are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 688