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Moving pictures 2018, #50

Work has been very busy the past few weeks, and likely to remain so for at least another month. Hence the paucity of content here other than Moving pictures posts – and the occasional Reading diary post – since they’re a) pretty easy to write, b) it doesn’t take long to watch a movie, and c) I watch two films a night on average…

I’ve never claimed these are full-on reviews, and half the time I’m just trying to string a series of vague impressions into a description that’s somewhat recognisable and, er, informative. But most of them sort of turn into mini-rants. Oh well.

The Idol, Hany Abu-Assad (2015, Palestine). A young boy in Gaza forms a band with his sister and two friends. They play at weddings, that sort of thing. Then his sister dies of kidney failure. The story jumps ahead a decade or so, and the boy is now a young man, paying his way through university by driving a taxi. But he’s desperate to escape Gaza, and singing is his only possible means of escape. But, of course, Israel has Gaza locked up, and its inhabitants do not have freedom of movement. The young man – his name is Muhammad Assaf – arranges to audition for a Palestinian talent show, but he has to Skype his audition as he can’t leave Gaza and the studio is in Ramallah (on the West Bank). But just before the audition, the Israelis cut off power to Gaza… but Muhammad manages to source a generator; but it catches fire during the song… The “success” of the audition persuades Muhammad he needs to audition for Arab Idol, but it takes place in Cairo and he can’t get a visa to attend. He uses his contacts to get himself a forged visa, but then breaks down and admits it’s forged when he gets to the border post. When asked why he’s travelling to Cairo, he tells the border officer that he’s going to a Qur’an recital competition, and recites so beautifully when asked that the officer approves his fake visa. But when Muhammad gets to the auditions, he discovers all the tickets have gone. He breaks into the building and hides out in the toilet. In desperation, he starts singing when he hears someone else enter. The guy who hears him is so impressed by his singing that he gifts him the ticket he had queued for – he’d only applied “for the experience”. So Muhammad gets to sing in front of the judges. And he impresses them so much, he shoots up through the various stages of the competition… And all it seemed a bit too good to be true. Not the Gaza bits – they rang all too sadly true (it looks like a bombsite, basically; and at one point, a Palestinian parkour team go past, jumping from one wrecked building to another). Muhammad had, against all odds, made it to Arab Idol, but he seemed to do so well so easily in it – he was even nicknamed “the Gaza rocket”. And then it’s the Arab Idol final and there are three contestants remaining… but Muhammad Assaf looks, well, different. It’s not the same guy as earlier in the film. Because The Idol, it turns out, is a true story, and the final stages of the film show the real Assaf’s victory on Arab Idol. A postscript explains that Assaf became a UN Goodwill Ambassador and was given a diplomatic passport. But he can only visit family and friends in Gaza with special permission from the Israeli authorities, who still occupy the territory despite it being mandated to the Palestinians. What is it with right-wing governments, that they’re not happy until they’ve burnt everything down to the ground? At the rate they’re going, they’ll bring on the apocalypse before the climate or the economy crashes – both of which, of course, they’ve been happily bringing about sooner…

Death of a Bureaucrat, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1966, Cuba). There is a sensibility, I have found, common to those Cuban films I’ve seen, and it is mostly critical of the regime while also acknowledging its social and political ambitions, all in a blackly comic way. And Death of a Bureaucrat is a pretty explicit presentation of that sensibility. A well-respected worker is killed by a piece of experimental apparatus he has been building, and is buried with his labour card as a mark of respect. Unfortunately, it seems his widow needs the card to claim the pension she is now owed. So the son tries to get it all sorted out. But the authorities won’t allow an exhumation unless the body has been interred for more than two years without special dispensation. He digs up the body himself and retrieves the card, but now he can’t re-bury it… because it hasn’t been officially exhumed. So he still needs that special dispensation, but this time so he can bury his father. He fails to get it because the bureaucracy just sends him round in circles. Even breaking into the offices one night to steal the necessary form only results in him being chased by the police because he climbed out of a window and was thought to be a suicide. Eventually he fakes the paperwork, but the cemetery refuses to let him bury his father because he has the body with him even though he has a permit for exhumation. This results in a fight in the graveyard, and they fail to complete the funeral… The bureaucratic comedy of errors is a well-established subgenre, and it’s not just found in the cinemas of communist regimes. There have been several made in the UK, where the civil service has often been an object of fun; and possibly even a few in the US, although none spring immediately to mind (corporate versions are, I suspect, much more common in US cinema). Death of a Bureaucrat judges its absurdities well, and if one or two people are overly officious – particularly those at the cemetery – most are victims of the system as much as everyone else. I’ve seen three films by Alea now, and thought them all good. Must try and track down some more.

Ocean’s 8, Gary Ross (2018, USA). This was an idea just waiting to happen – an all-female heist movie – and in the hands of a less-than-stellar director, it could have been fucking awful. Oh wait, it was fucking awful. The sister of Danny Ocean (star of Ocean’s 11 and sequels) is released from prison and is determined to get her revenge on the crooked art dealer who put her there. This involves persuading a dimwitted actress (Anne Hathaway) to wear the most expensive Cartier necklace ever to one of those stupidly expensive charity dos, that cost more money than they raise, at a museum, where the sister (Sandra Bullock) plans to steal the necklace. So she recruits a bunch of people, as you do, to pull off this majorly implausible sting. Which only works because – surprise, surprise – one of the principles is a ringer. Gosh. Never saw that coming. Other than that, it’s a showcase of the sort of ridiculous meaningless affluence that makes you want to stick the heads of the ultra-rich on pikes and let off a string of EMPs over Panama. Bullock doesn’t even look human, Blanchett is completely wasted in her role, Hathaway is too smart to play dumb although she plays dumb well, and the others are a hair short of stereotypes. In all other respects, it’s your usual glossy heist flick, and while it’s good to see a female-fronted version, it would have been better if it hadn’t relied on them being used as clothes horses. It’s one of those films where it looks like the cast had a lot more fun making it than viewers have watching it – although with Bullock it’s hard to be sure. With Bullock, it’s hard to be sure of anything she’s feeling. Me, I’d have just machine-gunned everyone at the charity gala and sod the necklace.

Salvatore Giuliano, Francesco Rosi (1962, Italy). The title refers to a bandit in Sicily in the latter half of  the 1940s. He started out selling food on the black market, the only way Sicilians could obtain food during and after WWII, but soon became leader of a powerful gang. He was seen as something of a Robin Hood figure, despite being wanted for killing the police officers sent to apprehend him, and being implicated in the Portella della Ginestra massacre, in which 11 people were killed and 27 injured during May Day celebrations. He was also a contributor to Sicily’s independence movement, which resulted in the island gaining autonomous status, and which won four seats in the 1946 general election but lost them in the 1948 general election. The film, however, opens with Giuliano’s death – considered suspicious even now – and then jumps back and forth in time, covering the court proceedings against the surviving members of Giuliano’s gang and the events leading up to Giuliano’s death. First, it’s worth noting that the restoration of this film has been done well – the transfer is lovely, and I can’t think of any other 55-year-old black-and-white Italian films that look as good on Blu-ray. But its a good film and worthy of the treatment it’s been given. It’s Italian Neorealist – not my favourite film movement, it must be said – but it’s also semi-documentary and uses a fractured timeline to tell its story. It keeps Giuliano something of an enigma – his character is built up from hearsay – and yet is also deeply critical of Italy’s treatment of Sicily, especially during the courtroom sequences (in which American actor Frank Wolff rants angrily in dubbed Italian). I must admit, when I stuck the film on my rental list I was expecting another giallo or poliziottesco, like Milano Calibro 9, but it’s nothing like either of them. Worth seeing.

The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch (1940, USA). This appears on one or another Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or maybe a They Shoot Picture Don’t They list – although not the 1001 Movies You Must Before You Die list from 2013 that I’m using – and so it seemed like it was worth seeing. Also, Jimmy Stewart. The story is set in Budapest in, er, the 1920s? the 1930s? It’s certainly not 1939, as there’s no mention of war, and it’s unlikely to be a few years before that as there’s no mention of the likelihood of war. Having said that, it’s a US film… Anyway, Jimmy Stewart is chief salesman at a prestigious leather goods store in Budapest. A young woman, Margaret Sullavan, approaches him and asks for a job. He tells her he can’t offer her one, so she goes above his head and persuades the shop’s owner to employ her. Christmas comes around and a private detective tells the shop’s owner that his wife is having an affair with one of his employees. So the shop owner fires Stewart, believing him to be the culprit. Meanwhile, Stewart has been conducting a postal relationship with a woman he met through a newspaper advert, and they’ve finally agreed to meet IRL. Guess who she turns out to be. Yes. Yawn. And of course it wasn’t Stewart boinking the shop owner’s wife after all, it was the oily creepy shop assistant. Unfortunately, discovering this prompts the shop owner to commit suicide, but he is saved by the delivery boy. Jimmy Stewart gets his job back, and gets to publicly fire oily shop assistant. And he turns up to a date with Sullavan but does not reveal he is the man she has been corresponding with. But the two get chatting and… fade to black. As rom coms of the period go, this is quite a good one, but then it has a good cast and a slightly-off-the-wall setting  – leather goods shop on Budapest? WTF? – but that setting also slightly works against it as you have to wonder why they bothered setting the story there and then. I mean, I’m all for introducing parochial US audiences to the concept that there are other nations on this planet and they’re inhabited by people very much like them (biologically at least, although it would be nice if US culture acknowledged they were different culturally), but sometimes it feels like the setting is a hangover from a previous iteration of the story and is rendered pretty much meaningless by the Hollywood treatment. Hungarians you would expect to behave like Hungarians, and only an idiot, or an American (#notallamericans), would expect their sensibilities to be exactly the same. Of course, this is a Hollywood movie aimed at a US audience… but that does again beggar the question, why set it in Budapest? I suspect  the only answer that will ever make sense is: because. The Shop Around the Corner is a fun rom com for its time, not one of Jimmy Stewart’s best pieces of work, but it will entertain.

Youth, Feng Xiaogang (2017, China). The only place the subtitle of this film “Medal of Courage” seems to appear is on the Blu-ray artwork. The film is known as Youth, and in Chinese territories as 芳华 (fang hua), which apparently can be translated as “young/blooming flowers/young women”. So, Youth is sort of relevant, but Medal of Courage is completely irrelevant. So the dumb wargame subtitle is a shame, as this is a film is nothing like that might suggest but is actually totally worth seeing. The film opens in the mid-1970s when a young woman, He Xiaoping, joins an army entertainment troupe as a dancer. The first act introduces the main characters – He, who is bullied by the members of the troupe; Liu Feng, who repeatedly turns down military academy as he prefers to be a dancer than an officer or commissar; Lin Dingding, the sweetheart of the troupe, and she knows it; and Xiao Suizi, who narrates the film, and seems to often act as mediator. Liu injures his back and can no longer dance, and eventually becomes a military doctor. He Xiaoping is bullied out of the troupe and joins a military nursing unit. Both end up on the frontline in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. This is act two. It is pretty brutal (and possibly the justification for the film’s subtitle), with graphic depictions of battlefield injuries. For example, a soldier is shot, but the bullet hits one of the grenades on his belt. Seconds later, he explodes messily and blood and guts rain down on all those around him. Both Liu and He survive, although Liu loses an arm to a Vietnamese bullet. He is given a medal for her work, including the care of a soldier suffering severe burns from a flamethrower (he did not survive). The third act takes place years later, in Reform-era China. Everyone has gone their own separate way. Lin married a Chinese-Australian and moved to that country. Liu is now an impoverished haulage contractor. Xiao works in a bookshop. She witnesses Liu being extorted by the local branch of commissars, who have impounded his truck and are demanding an expensive fine to to release it. Admittedly, the film sort of peters away, as Xiao then explains how Liu and He later met up and recognised they had both been damaged by their war experiences, and so sort of drifted together. But the first act is a fascinating portrait – and yes, it’s pure propaganda – of life in a military entertainment troupe, including a visit to a division in the mountains, where the performers suffered from altitude sickness (as, apparently, did some of the film’s cast). If you like war films, and the gorier the better, then act two will appeal. I’ve seen reviews that declare act three unnecessary but I don’t think it is. The thing far too many war films forget is that war heroes do not prosper: medals one day, homeless sufferers of PTSD five years later. That’s the true reality of war. But then the sort of people who lionise war are the same fucking idiots who have neither fought in one nor actually expended much thought in anything other than what to shoot next in their FPS game. Cinema, like any artform, can address truths, but that doesn’t mean viewers will necessarily understand or assimilate what they have to say. Youth makes it explicit – and still idiots complain the third act ruins the movie. FFS. Maybe they should stick to cartoons.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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Moving pictures 2018, #29

Ha. For all my promises this blog would not continue as just movie post after movie post, it’s more or less gone and turned into that. And we’re not even halfway through the year. Not, I must admit, that I’ve posted anything else of any real interest during the last five months – the usual reading diary and book haul posts… oh, and a con report back in early April, and a bit on the BSFA Award and a general rant about sf in February and a more recent rant on sensibilities embedded in fction, and… Er, that’s about it. Oh well.  And it’s an entirely Anglophone bunch of films this time around. Oh well.

Actress, Robert Greene (2014, USA). This came bundled with Kate Plays Christine, as, er, indicated by the DVD cover art. It’s an earlier documentary by Greene, documenting a period during the life of actress Brandy Burre, who was in The Wire, as she tries to get an acting job after several years away raising a family. I believe the technical term is “resting”. It plays like a documentary, it also plays like a social drama. We see Burre at home dealing with family matters, we see her preparing for auditions. She’s very forthright about her intentions, and indeed her feelings. Greene has said that Burre took to the “role” so much that the line between acting and her real life became blurred. Greene’s decision to film fly-on-the-wall but to also direct the progress of event no doubt also contributed to this. I admit, I’ve never seen The Wire, so Burre was completely unknown to me. I suspect I would have viewed Actress slightly different had she been familiar to me, the actress who played an important character in a TV series I loved a great deal. Because of my unfamiliarity with Burre, Actress in parts seemed little more than a straightforward documentary about an unsuccessful actor. And the film industry is notoriously incestuous, even more so than a literature, and more than overly fond of making movies about making movies. But Burre in this film is such a real presence – which seems somewhat daft to have to say – that she not only carries it but lifts it above what it ostensibly is. It’s perhaps not as technically interesting as Kate Plays Christine, but Burre is a much more interesting character than either Shiel or Chubbock. Another 5 stars from me, then.

In the Shadow of the Sun, Derek Jarman (1981, UK). And with each film I watch by Jarman, so my understanding of his career changes. I had always thought of him as someone like McLaren or Westwood, someone whose aesthetic or ethos had been embraced by the punk movement, chiefly I suspect because Jubilee had been labelled a punk film and I hadn’t seen it. But I’d seen some of Jarman’s other films and they didn’t contradict this impression I had. But then I watched Jubilee – from this very box set – and discovered it wasn’t really a punk film. And having now seen several more films from the collection, including In the Shadow of the Sun, I can see I got Jarman pretty much all wrong. In the Shadow of the Sun was edited together from Jarman’s earliest films, shot between 1972 and 1975 on Super *, and then given a Throbbing Gristle soundtrack. The end result is a series of distorted and colourised images that have little or no narrative, but demonstrate an eye more tuned to the visual than the cinematic. If that makes sense. In effect, In the Shadow of a Sun is a video installation, and in that format – multiple screens in a darkened room, Throbbing Gristle soundtrack turned up loud – I imagine it would be very effective. It succeeds as it is because Jarman has a good eye – what he’s actually filming has been done since the 1940s, perhaps even the 1930s – and a willingness to please himself above his audience. It is proving interesting exploring Jarman’s cinematic oeuvre – I’ve not mentioned in any of these posts the short films by him provided as extras on the discs that I’ve watched – and a fascinating lesson in the use of cinema.

To Be or Not to Be*, Ernst Lubitsch (1942, USA). Having watched a bunch of Lubitsch silent comedies, I wasn’t entirely what to expect of this film. The fact it is set in Poland also briefly confused me. But it stars Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, so it’s pure Hollywood. They are the stars of a theatrical troupe in Warsaw in 1939. The film opens with them rehearsing a play which takes the piss out of Hitler. The imminent German invasion puts a stop to that, and they turn to fare more palatable to Nazi tastes, like, er, Hamlet. A Polish air force pilot fancies Lombard, and they agree to meet in her dressing-room whenever Benny begins Hamlet’s soliloquy – hence, the film’s title. Then the Germans invade, and the pilot escapes to London and joins the RAF. Some time later, he meets a Polish intellectual who is returning to Poland to deliver some messages to the underground. The pilot mentions Lombard, a famous actress, but the intellectual has never heard of her. The pilot smells a rat. The intellectual is a Nazi spy! Which leads to the pilot back in Warsaw undercover, while members of Benny and Lombard’s troupe impersonate the Nazi hierarchy to the intellectual, and the intellectual (whom they accidentally kill) to the Nazi hierarchy… It’s all very cleverly done, and there’s some excellent snappy dialogue. But I’m not sure why it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There’s nothing brave about Hollywood making a film during WWII which pokes fun at the Nazis, and the film does suggest the Nazi occupation of Poland was less brutal than it actually was. It’s an entertaining film, but it feels a bit like it’s treating a serious subject a little too lightly.

This Happy Breed, David Lean (1944, UK). Lean is generally considered one of the premier British directors of the last century, perhaps because he had several big hits, certainly much bigger than any of the Archers… and I can’t think of a UK director from the middle of last century who had the same level of success as Lean, other than, of course, Hitchcock. Anyway, Lean was a very British director and this between-wars drama, which covers several generations, and two World Wars, is a very British film. It’s set in London among the working class, a sort of well-spoken historical Eastenders, if you will, and follows the Gibbons family from their arrival in the new home in Clapham through to 1939 and the uotbreak of World War II. It’s an adaptation of the play by Noël Coward of the same title. I’m not really a fan of Lean’s films – I like Lawrence of Arabia a lot, but that’s as much because of its subject as it is the movie itself. I find the Archers – Powell and Pressburger – much more to my taste, perhaps because they’re more idiosyncratic. And, to be honest, I’m not especially interested in films, or indeed plays, which whitewash the British national character – all that plucky Englanders muddling through bollocks. They can rewrite WWII to pretend the UK won it – but without the US’s industrial backing at first, and direct involvement later, the Allies would have lost. Not to mention the USSR, who probably contributed more to the Nazis’ defeat than any other nation. True, all nations, all peoples, have a rose-tinted view of their own history, and the arts are as likely to celebrate the lie as they are to comment on the truth. But it’s harder to see where the merit lies in the former…

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). These days Hedy Lamarr is more likely to be known as the “inventor” of Bluetooth as she is as a famous Hollywood actress of the 1930s and 1940s. And that chiefly because the idea of a Hollywood actress actually inventing something seems incredible to most people. But why should it? In actual fact, Lamarr did not invent Bluetooth. She invented, and patented, frequency-hopping, which is used these days in everything from secure military communications to GPS to Bluetooth. However, it was not picked up and developed until after her patent had expired in 1959. So she received nothing for it. Anyway, Lamarr led a fascinating life. She was born in Vienna to a well-off Jewish family, and was a precocious child. In her late teens, she became an actress, and in 1933 starred in Ecstasy, a film famous for its controversial scene in which she seemingly orgasms. The film was later banned in Germany by Hitler. She retired from films when she married a munitions manufacturer, the third-richest man in Austria. Who had ties to the fascists and Nazis. He was very controlling and treated her like a trophy wife (he was 15 years older). She escaped and fled to London. She auditioned for Louis B Mayer, but turned down his offer as too low. Afraid she’d made a mistake, she booked passage on the ship Mayer was returning to the US aboard, and so charmed everyone on the liner that Mayer offered her more than double what he had in London. She accepted. Her film career was nothing to really boast about. Her most famous role was as a “seductive native girl” in White Cargo (1942). Bored with being cast in such roles, she decided to finance her own film, and in the early 1950s she made an historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, in Italy. It flopped, possibly because no one would distribute it in the US. It sounds like a remarkable film – copies are really hard to find these days, the only one available appears to be a bad transfer of an unsympathetic edit – a schlocky historical epic and yet astonishingly feminist for its time. Lamarr had no idea how to run a production, and she lost her entire fortune on it. Back in the US, her career in ruins, she retreated into seclusion, and by the time of her death in 2000, her only link to the outside world for the last couple of decades had been the telephone. She was also a pioneer in plastic surgery – as a patient – making demands of surgeons that helped develop several procedures now common. In her later years, some of these surgeries went badly, leading to further surgeries to correct them… Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is based around a taped interview with Lamarr from, I think, the 1980s, by a magazine and that had been lost for years. But there’s also lots of archive footage and interviews with her family and those who knew her. She was a remarkable woman who led a fascinating life, and while I must have seen her in one film or another of the years I can’t actually bring one to mind. I guess I’ll have to add a couple to my rental list. Anyway, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is an excellent documentary about a fascinating woman. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 911


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Moving pictures 2018, #28

My viewing of late has been a bit all over the place, as this post no doubt demonstrates. But at least I managed to cross a couple off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield (2012, USA). David Siegel made his money in timeshares, in fact his company was one of the largest timeshare companies in the world. And he chose to put some of that money into a new home for him, his wife and their eight children. The house was inspired by the Palace of Versailles, but they actually modelled it on the penthouse floors of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel – which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the family’s taste. Once finished, the Versailles House would be one of the largest private homes in the US (but not the largest, as some of the film’s marketing claims). Unfortunately, the market crash in 2008 wiped out Siegel’s company, and he went from having more money than he could spend to not having enough money to pay his bills. And one of the assets he tried to sell was the unfinished Versailles House. For $50 million. But no one would buy it. The Queen of Versailles is basically a film about a rich family trying hard to cope with having considerably less money. On the one hand, neither Siegel nor his wife, an ex-beauty queen who qualified and worked as a computer engineer before turning to modelling as it was more lucrative, and who is thirty years his junior, came from riches. On the other, they’ve become so used to wealth, their lifestyle epitomises senseless spending. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, despite the fact they’re utterly useless and stupid with their vast riches. The film ends with their future looking bleak. In fact, things did pick up for them afterwards. The economy recovered, Siegel’s company recovered, they never did manage to sell Versailles House but once their fortunes had recovered they restarted construction. It’s still not finished, but at least it now will be.

The Horse Thief*, Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986, China). The only film I’ve seen by Tian prior to this one was his remake of Springtime in a Small Town. I’m a big fan of the original, Spring in a Small Town, released in 1948 and directed by Mu Fei, but I couldn’t honestly see the point of the remake, much as I enjoyed it (see here). The Horse Thief is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and Tian has said he intended for it to be low on dialogue and more of an ethnographic film, a document of Buddhist rituals among the Tibetans. There’s not much in the way of plot – a viewpoint character, who opens the film as a horse thief but tries to change his ways – but lots of footage of landscape and rituals and people. It’s a fascinating film, and often looks quite beautiful. But its lack of a plot does tell against it somewhat, and even though only 88 minutes long, it palls a little in places. Unfortunately, the copy I watched wasn’t an especially good transfer, which tends to diminish the value of good cinematography. I think I’ll add some Tian to my rental list, and I suspect The Horse Thief does indeed belong on the 1001 Movies You See Before You Die list.

Secret défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France). I came to Rivette relatively late, only a few years ago, after watching a rental copy of La belle noiseuse, which prompted me to further explore his oeuvre. Which I initially did by buying the Blu-ray box from Arrow Academy which included Out 1, a 773-minute film – and which I have yet to watch. (at least that particular film).. But I added other of his films to my rental list, and this was  the first to arrive. And… it’s good. It’s not what I expected. It’s longer than it needs to be, although with Rivette that’s given, but it’s certainly a well-plotted thriller that manages several twists. Sandrine Bonnaire is a scientist, whose father committed suicide several years before. Her brother has come across evidence that it was murder: a photograph showing their father’s assistant, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, at the station where their father caught the train from which he fell to his death, despite Radziwilowicz claiming to have been miles away at the time. Radziwilowicz is now the head of their father’s company and a rich man. While confronting Radziwilowicz at what used to be their family estate, Bonnaire accidentally shoots his secretary and lover. Which is where things get complicated. Because then the twin sister of the murdered lover turns up. And Radziwilowicz admits he did kill the father, but for good reason… Rivette makes long films; he does not make “taut thrillers” – “baggy thrillers”, perhaps… There’s a good solid mystery in Secret défense central to the plot, with some satisfying twists and turns – did Radziwilowicz really kill Bonnaire’s father? Yes, he did, but why? And what does that motive tell Bonnaire about her own past? It’s padded out a bit, particularly by the sub-plot involving the twins, but it’s all resolutely mimetic, which is something I hadn’t expected, given the other films by Rivette I’ve seen. I liked it, I liked it a lot; which is something I’m finding myself doing with Rivette’s films. They’re definitely worth seeing.

Die Bergkatze, Ernst Lubitsch (1921, Germany). I enjoy early silent films, especially German, although they were, to be fair, pretty much the market leaders back in the day, unless you fancied slapstick comedy like the Keystone Kops or Buster Keaton, in which case Hollywood was the market leader… and certainly when it comes to humorous silent movies I suspect US ones have weathered the years better than German ones. I bought this Lubitsch collection – in a sale, I seem to recall – because one or two of its contents seemed intriguing. And one or two were. But there were other films on the three Blu-ray discs. And some of them have proven not so intriguing. On the one hand, there’s clearly very much a Lubitsch… thing – I hesitate to use the word “vision”, given the youth of the medium at the time – and he was equally clearly technically skilled. But I can’t say Die Bergkatze, subtitled “A Grotesque in Four Acts”, struck me as especially comical. A Lothario officer is assigned to a remote outpost in the mountains. En route he is attacked by bandits, but let go by the daughter of the bandit chief. At the fort, the officer is given a detachment to fight the bandits. They lose the fight but are believed to have won, so the fort commander gives his daughter’s hand in marriage to the officer… And somewhere around there, I lost the plot. Or the film did. There was a scene in which the officer and, I think, the bandit chief’s daughter, are played music by a group of snowman who actually looked more like Cybermen. And the entire film was shot through weirdly-shaped cut-outs, but if there was a pattern, or plan, to them, I couldn’t work it out. There is a documentary about Lubitsch’s work in Berlin in this collection, which I have yet to watch. Having recently seen one of Lubitsch’s Hollywood films – To Be or Not to Be from 1942 – I can’t say I’d ever have classified him as one of the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood, unlike some of his German compatriots; and I have to wonder if some of his later films are not held in higher regard than they deserve.

The Astronaut Wives Club (2015, USA). Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club, published in 2013, was one of the many books I used as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Koppel had done some of my work for me, but I found the book unsatisfactory in its somewhat superficial treatment of the titular women and their lives. Nonetheless, when I heard they were making a television series based on it – clearly to cash in on the success of Mad Men and the, er, failure of Pan Am – I was keen to see it. But it did not fare well and, like many such US television series, doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through. But I managed to see it anyway. The book covers the wives of several of the intakes of astronauts, but the TV series is all about the wives of the Sacred Seven, the original Mercury astronauts: Rene Carpenter, Trudy Cooper, Annie Glen, Betty Grissom, Jo Schirra, Louise Shepard and Marge Slayton. It takes some liberties with actual events – yes, Trudy Cooper was a pilot, the only astronaut wife to hold a pilot’s licence, but none of the Mercury 13 were friends of hers… but inventing such a relationship did at least allow the writers to devote an episode to the Mercury 13, congressional sub-committee and all, and I think bending history to include it was a good call. The astronauts were also painted as probably a good deal nicer than they actually were. The only reference to the “icy commander”, for example, is when Louise Shepard finds a sign reading that on her husband’s office door. In fact, everyone is so nice, it beggars belief. Even when Donn Eisele spends his time at the Cape living with another woman, everyone is very nice about his adultery. I don’t know if The Astronaut Wives Club was intended to last more than a season – certainly, the astronaut-related lives of the wives of the Sacred Seven are pretty much covered during the show’s ten episodes. (Um, I see from Wikipedia it was intended to complete in a single season. But had it been picked up for a second season, it would have shifted focus to the wives of another group of men.) I can see why it wasn’t picked up – put simply, it’s not very good. The astronauts and their wives were anything but bland people, and this series makes them bland. And yet they’re also all so good-looking! The astronauts were not chosen for their looks, and their wives were who they were. Rene Carpenter was known for her glamorous looks – and she capitalised on them, as well as her talent as a writer, by becoming a TV presenter – but the actress playing her is outshone by several of the other wives. In fact, they’re all so good at everything, absolute paragons, as if the writers of the programme had mistaken the time and effort the wives put into projecting the right image so their husbands would get flights was the actual reality. It wasn’t – as Mary Irwin’s autobiography clearly shows. Also, and I’ve no idea why the writers/producers chose to do this, but The Astronaut Wives Club uses present-day music, not music contemporary with when it was set. It feels… wrong. Disappointing.

Yol*, Yılmaz Güney & Şerif Gören (1982, Turkey). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, the only Turkish film on it. I’ve seen half a dozen Turkish films, most in the last decade, including a couple from the 1960s that were… interesting. The more recent stuff I’ve seen has been very good, and probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, films such as Uzak or Night of Silence – certainly more so than Yol, which probably made the cut because it was openly critical of Turkey’s military junta of the time. So much so, in fact, that Güney was in prison during the actual filming – Gören followed Güney’s instructions in directing – but later escaped, took the negatives to France, where he edited them. Yol follows five prisoners given week-long passes to visit home. One story is about honour killing, another is about a man taking responsibility for his brother’s family after his brother is killed. A third sees a husband and wife attacked by an angry mob after being caught having sex in a toilet on a train. It’s not that Yol is a bad film – but the sole representative of Turkish cinema on the list? AS one of three or four films, it would probably have made the cut. It’s a bit soap opera-ish in parts, and it’s hard not to suspect Güney’s dissidence was not a major factor in its selection. (Okay, so it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well – but even that was likely influenced by Güney’s situation.) The same is also true of the issues it covers, like honour killing. Which is not to say that films which cover important issues should not be lauded for doing so. But cinema is a visual medium, and features films are a narrative form, so it’s not unreasonable to expect excellence in both from an acclaimed film. Worth seeing, but it’s not the best ever film to come out of Turkey – and I can say despite having seen only half a dozen Turkish films.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 910


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Moving pictures 2018, #17

After a month of watching mostly television series – the first three seasons of Game of Thrones, a season of Rebecka Martinsson, the latest series of Endeavour and Shetland… – I had expected my movie consumption to slow down a bit. But it doesn’t appear to have done so. So I’ve got three or four of these to post before I’m caught up. I know, I know… I promised this year wouldn’t be repeat of last year, with just posts about the movies I’d watched – it was even a New Year’s Resolution, FFS – but I still find myself consuming lots of films… On the plus side, SF Mistressworks is up and running again, and I’m back reviewing for Interzone. Now I just have to start writing some critical posts, and maybe even write some of that made-up stuff, you know, fiction

Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, USA). I read Vandermeer’s novel last year, but never bothered with the two sequels, even though they made a nice set. To be honest, it’s not a novel I would have thought open to a film adaptation, so when news that it was indeed being turned into a movie surfaced, I was surprised. And… it’s turned out to be a bit of a Marmite movie. It’s not the book, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It dials back on the much of the strangeness, which is also not necessarily a bad thing. It remains strange, and its “Shimmer”, the film’s version the book’s “Area X”, does much the same job. There’s something about it all which reminds me a little of Apocalypse Now or Embrace of the Serpent, but that may be just the fact it’s an exploration story. On the plus-side, Annihilation has an all-female cast, and it’s presented as perfectly normal, and more films should be like that.

The Fencer, Klaus Härö (2015, Estonia). This was apparently based on a true story, a teacher who upset the authorities in Leningrad and so moved to Estonia, where he ended up teaching kids, many of them orphaned by the Nazi occupation, how to fence. So it’s a bit like Dead Poets Society (I still cringe every time I hear “O Captain! My Captain!” after that film), which I suspect is just one version of a story that goes back considerably farther – Goodbye, Mr Chips, anyone? – perhaps even to ancient Athens or Rome. Anyway, by teaching these kids in 1950s Estonia how to fence, the hero gives them self-respect and ambition, and also jeopardises his own freedom. Because they want to enter a competition in Leningrad, but if he returns there he’s likely to be arrested by the secret police. You can guess what happens. It’s apparently based on a true story, an Estonian hero from the days of Soviet occupation. Not a bad film.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts (2017, USA). Spider-Man, Spider-Man, just as annoying as a teenager can, er, be… It was certainly refreshing to see a Spider-Man re-re-re-reboot aimed at the actual demographic matching Peter Parker’s rather than that of the people who remember reading him when he debuted in a Marvel comic… Peter Parker has been on a mission with Iron Man, but now it’s back to school and he can’t wait to be called up again to help out the Avengers. Except they never call. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton sees his lucrative contract to clean up alien tech after The Avengers (AKA Avengers Assemble!) taken over by a shadowy government department. So he becomes the Green Goblin. I think. He flies, and he’s sort of evil. Oh, and he’s the father of the girl Peter Parker really fancies and wants to take to the prom. I hate that: when the girl you fancy has a supervillain for a dad. Total bummer. To tell the truth, I hated the selfie video opening of Spider-Man : Homecoming, but really enjoyed it once the film had settled down into its story. The third act, unfortunately, was the usual MCU bollocks, which was a shame. But overall I enjoyed it and I hadn’t really expected to.

Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA). See there on the DVD cover where it quotes from a review, “his funniest film by far”… because of course it’s fucking hilarious pointing out that the US is a completely fucked-up country run for the benefit of a rich handful on the misery of millions – which is pretty much also what the Tories want here, and have been driving the UK toward. Moore visits half a dozen European (and one African) countries and investigates one of their social policies, interviewing ordinary people and asking how they feel about it. He does this as part of a running joke about “invading” the country, because the US military hasn’t actually won a war since WWII. The countries he visits are: Italy, to learn about paid holidays and maternity leave; France, for school dinners; Germany, employee rights; Portugal, decriminalisation of drugs and abolition of the death penalty; Norway, the prison system and rehabilitation; Slovenia, free university education; Finland, which has the best pupils in Europe; Tunisia, women’s rights, free healthcare and abortions for women; and Iceland, the role of women in business and government. None of this stuff is difficult to understand, but apparently Michael Moore had to make a film about it so that Americans would get it. I remember some moron from the US tweeting something like “hate speech laws are immoral and public healthcare is imprudent”. FFS, it’s the twenty-first century.

Anna Boleyn, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). The title alone should be enough to indicate what this film is about. Lubitsch does a silent version of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. (Why “Anna”? I don’t know.) Emil Jannings plays the king and Henny Porten the title role. The story seems to stick reasonably closely to the historical record, although the depiction of Henry VIII follows the usual bullshit portrayal of a carousing fat man, who enjoyed wine, women and hunting, and not the despot he really was. They say he killed more people during his reign than any other English monarch. Much as we Brits – well, English, but I don’t really think of myself as either – like to think well of Henry VIII for breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the UK, let’s not forget he only did it because he was a serial adulterer. Although, to be fair, the Roman Catholic Church has hardly been a force for good throughout the centuries, so booting them out was a good thing. A shame Henry VIII didn’t go the all the way and ban religion altogether.

Attraction, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2017, Russia). Commercial cinema in Russia has been churning out some solid sf blockbusters in recent years – not to mention films about its space programme – and Bondarchuk is a name known to me. His The 9th Company from 2005 was a good film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan; and 2008/2009 Dark Planet (AKA, The Inhabited Island) was an interesting adaptation of the Strugatsky brothers’ Prisoners of Power, which was annoyingly cut by almost half in its English-language sell-through release. Attraction has been described as YA, and perhaps it is, although it doesn’t feel much like YA properties such as Divergent or Maze Runner. An alien spaceship crashlands in a suburb of Moscow, the local youth take advantage of the alien tech thrown off during the crash, while the military tries to control the situation. One of the aliens – they only look alien in their armour, they’re really human underneath – is attacked on a scouting mission, escapes, and is helped by a young woman (it stands to reason he’s a cute guy). And, ho hum. The alien ship rebuilds itself – it attracts water to itself, for, I think fuel. See what they did there… attraction. The film looks good, the sfx are impressive, the cast are, er, attractive, and it’s all very Russian. You could watch worse. But I hope Bondarchuk’s next movie is better than this.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures 2018, #8

A nice geographic spread of films, which is the sort of viewing I’d like to be normal for me.

Salyut-7, Klim Shipenko (2017, Russia). At the time I watched this, Salyut-7 had not been released on sell-through and was only available for streaming – I watched it on Amazon Prime, inexplicably as a three-episode series: they split the feature film in two, and then added a making of featurette as a “third episode”. Which is bonkers. Happily, Salyut-7 – stupidly marketed as “the Soviet ‘Apollo 13′” – is excellent. The previous mission to Salyut – the USSR’s space station during the 1980s – had had a few problems, but when the space station completely shut down after its solar panels were hit by micrometeoroids, and resisted efforts to be restarted from the ground, the only solution was to send up a pair of cosmonauts to fix it. The mission is generally considered one of the toughtest ever attempted – although, of course, the West knew nothing of it publicly until after glasnost. In some respects, Salyut-7 is clearly a Russian attempt to outdo Gravity – at which it happily succeeds. The bulk of the action is set aboard Salyut 7, and the presentation of micro-gravity is just as convincing, if not more so, than in Gravity. True, there’s not much in the way of drama – I mean, even though the mission’s details were kept from the public, the death of the cosmonauts could never have been covered up. So it’s obvious they succeeded – well, to anyone who knows anything about the Space Race. But it was far from easy, and the film makes a meal of the difficulty. But it is, above all, really convincing in its presentation of microgravity and the hardware involved, Soyuz and Salyut. Much as I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, I do find the Soyuz spacecraft an interesting piece of hardware, and it was good to see it in detail on the big screen (so to speak). If Salyut-7 set out to beat Gravity at its own game, then it succeeded admirably: the effects were as good, if not better; but it was also a true story. I can’t wait for it to be released on Blu-ray. Recommended.

Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). Do I classify this is a documentary or an animated film, because, well, it’s both. And it’s not like there are that many animated documentaries they can form a genre of their own. Folman served in the Israeli Defense Force (hah) during the invasion of Lebanon, but it’s not until he’s contacted by a friend from those days that he realises his own memories of his army service are suspiciously free of trauma. So he investigates, and discovers that he was present during a massacre of Lebanese prisoners of war by Falangists but had wiped it from his memory. The film implies the IDF was not complicit in the massacre but allowed it to happen – not because it had been unaware of what might occur, but because the consequences suited them. Years later, Folman has to make sense of memories he has suppressed for nearly thirty years. He travels to the Netherlands to talk to another survivor from his tank squadron, who has made a comfortable living from selling falafel. His friend too has been happy to forget what occurred during the war, although he has not actually blocked the memories. As Folman talks to people who were involved in the circumstances which led to the massacre, so he starts to remember himself what happened. Because the film is animated – it’s a sort of Rotascoped animation, unique to Waltz with Bashir – so it’s easy to tell the flashbacks and present day narratives apart. The film pulls no punches, it depicts the IDF conscripts as ill-trained and clueless, happier having barbecues on the beach than fighting… and completely unprepared for the brutality they encounter. This is not news… but it was suppressed by the Israeli authorities. Not that any other country would not have done the same. All nations did it repeatedly during WWII. The UK and US continues to do it in regard to the Middle East. I remember reading once about a first-hand account by an Israeli soldier in Lebanon and because he described soldiers stealing cars it was not published in Western newspapers as that would undermine the the reputation of Israel. Wars happen; but wars would not continue without a continual supply of weapons… and the same nations who publicly condemn those wars are happy to sell weapons to the combatants. To my mind, that makes them war criminals. They need to be prosecuted. And yes, if that means people like Folman are tried for war crimes – because they were certainly involved in them, whether they remember it or not – then so be it. I would hope the sentencing would reflect their level of involvement and culpability. That’s the proper way to do it.

Wittgenstein, Derek Jarman (1993, UK). I have, over the years, watched several of Jarman’s films, and have often wondered why his reputation was so high in certain circles. I remember thinking Caravaggio was quite good, but The Tempest felt a bit amateur-ish, and Blue was pretty much unwatchable. So I’m not sure what prompted me to put Wittgenstein on my rental list – perhaps a desire to give Jarman a more serious look? If so, I picked a good one for it. Because I actually thought Wittgenstein pretty good. The entire film is filmed against a black background. It’s not black box theatre staging because it doesn’t even make an effort to suggest scenery. It’s actors in front of a black screen. And it works really well. Wittgenstein is shown as a young boy and as a young man, played by two different actors. I know very little about philosophy, I never studied it at school and certainly not at university. And, to be honest, I’ve never felt inspired to explore the subject in the decades since I left full-time education. But Jarman’s Wittgenstein had some choice dialogue on philosophy, like “philosophy is just a by-product of misunderstanding language” and “Professor Wittgenstein, I recommend you read more Hegel”. The script was actually written by Terry Eagleton, although Jarman apparently heavily rewrote it. I’m not especially interested in how films are made, at least not as much as I’m interested in the final product. Sometimes, the genesis of a film can be as interesting as the film itself, but in most cases… Movie-making is a collaborative venture in which various creative types apply their vision to the project… and it’s a toss-up as to which vision finally makes it to the released product. At least with auteur cinema you can be fairly sure it’s the director’s vision. But in Wittgenstein alone, there’s that gap between script and film, between what Eagleton wrote and what Jarman has his cast say. As a film, I liked Wittgenstein – I found it informative and enjoyable. The black background totally worked. If I had wondered about Jarman’s reputation before seeing it, the film at least suggested he deserved his reputation. I plan to watch more Jarman, although I suspect I may have seen the best… (Gah, I now see the BFI are releasing a limited edition box set of his first six films on Blu-ray next month.)

Sumurun, Ernst Lubitsch (1920, Germany). Described as an “Oriental pantomime in six acts”, and also known as One Arabian Night, Sumurun is actually based on a play by Friedrich Freksa (do they have pantomimes in Germany?). A travelling group of performers arrive at an unnamed city. A slave trader wants to sell the troupe’s dancer to the sheikh for his harem. Meanwhile, the sheikh’s favourite from his harem, Sumurun, has fallen in love with a cloth merchant. The sheikh wants the dancer, Sumurun wants the cloth merchant. And then it turns out the dancer falls in love with the sheikh’s son. It’s all very tangled and frenetic and, er, tinted. I’ve no idea why they tinted early films. It doesn’t seem to add anything to the experience. Nor does there seem to be any reason for the tint – sometimes it’s blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes red… Sumurun was apparently filmed entirely in Berlin, using sets, which makes the external shots of the city an impressive achievement – and the desert even more so. Pola Negri is good as the dancer, and Paul Wegener makes a menacing sheikh, but the rest of the cast gurn at the camera like, er, championship gurners. Lubitsch himself, who plays the hunchbacked member of the troupe, is one of the worst. He was apparently so disappointed by his performance he swore never to act again. I’ve now seen four of the six films in this box set, and I must admit the first two were easily the best. Still, there are two films to go – Anna Boleyn and Die Bergkatze– so we shall see…

Mammon (2014, Norway). My mother, who is a big Nordic Noir fan, lent me this. She’d found it in a charity shop. It’s one of those television series where you’re not sure where it’s going for much of its length, which can be an advantage, inasmuch as it promises much. But, of course, it has to make good on that mystery in the finale. And Mammon didn’t quite pull that off. A newspaper publishes allegations of fiscal malfeasance at an investment company, and the CFO resigns under a cloud. It turns out he’s the brother of the journalist who broke the story. A few days later, the CFO commits suicide. The narrative jumps ahead five years. The journalist has dug deeper, with the help of a police officer from the financial crimes unit (they were together for a while during those five years but it’s over now). Their research leads them to a conspiracy centred around a class at a prestigious business school in Bergen twenty years earlier. Then two more important businessmen commit suicide when their finances are questioned… It’s all to do with that group at the business school – and the journalist’s brother was the leader – who decided to use insider trading to create fortunes and so beat the old boy network. And when one of their number decided to grass them up, they murdered him by tying him to a chair and setting fire to his house, also killing the man’s young son in the process… And so creating the creating the defining philosophy of the group – that they would not, like Abraham, sacrifice their sons but would sooner commit suicide. Helping the journalist is a billionaire who gained his wealth suspiciously, and he’s trailed several times before the viewer as a possible villain. But. And it’s why Mammon ultimately dissatisfied – there’s a good conspiracy at the heart of the story, and an excellent mystery… but it over-eggs the cake. We never learn the source of the billionaire’s fortune, for example – and then turns implausibly violent in the final episodes, with men in black SUVs murdering people with impunity. For four of its six episodes, Mammon was good telly. Then it threw it away. There is a second series, broadcast in 2016, and the show has been renewed for a third series.

The Pirogue, Moussa Touré (2012, Senegal). The title refers to a type of open boat used by the Senagalese to travel up the west coast of Africa to land illegally in Spain, and so make a better life for themselves in Europe. Some are realistic about their chances, some imagine Europe as a land of gold. The captain of the pirogue knows he is responsible for all those on the boat – about thirty people all told. He had initially refused the job, but he needed the money. At first, all goes well during the journey. They come across another pirogue whose engines (main and spare) have both failed, but decide they cannot stop to render assistance without jeopardising their own survival. But then there’s a big storm, and one of the men is swept into the sea. Unfortunately, he had the GPS on him. So they continue on, navigating by blind reckoning… but they’re as likely to be heading for Brazil as they are Spain. Fortunately, they’re picked up by the Spanish coast guard a day or so after their water runs out. After a couple of weeks in a camp in Spain, they’re repatriated to Senegal, none the worse for their ordeal. Except for the two who died, that is. The bulk of the film takes place in the boat, and it does an excellent job of setting out the characters, their reasons for being in the pirogue and their hopes for the future. There’s a tribal element to it, with the passengers coming from two tribes, one of which seems predominantly muslim, but it doesn’t generate conflict. There’s also a stowaway, a young woman, who causes some tension when she’s discovered – there is only so much food and water, after all. For all that The Pirogue is set on a boat in the open sea, it’s convincingly done. And the storm is especially convincing. I’m surprised this film isn’t better know, it’s a solid piece of drama and it is hugely relevant as an antidote to the racist scaremongering over immigration and refugees put out by the right. (A country without immigrants is a stagnant country. Easiest way to stop the refugee problem? Stop bombing the shit out of their homes. It’s very simple. Refutations that “it’s complex” are just excuses to not do anything.) Anyway, The Pirogue is very good, and there are two more films on this Great African Films Volume 4 DVD. It’s a shame the series is so hard to find, as it contains some excellent films (only one, Daratt, from Chad, was independently released on DVD in the UK). More films like this should be released in the UK.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #7

Things don’t change overnight, much as we’d want them to. Okay, so I did manage to post a rant about science fiction on this blog recently… but I’m still watching – more or less – a movie a night, and most of those I think worth documenting. So the Moving pictures posts haven’t quite dialled back as much as I’d expected. And I’m still a little behind with getting them up on the blog. But I hope to be in a position to basically post one a week, with content covering other topics either side. But, like everything, it’s a work in progress…

Black Jack, Ken Loach (1979, UK). I have Loach all over my rental list because I think he’s a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring, even if not every film he made is actually any good (also true of many directors, to be fair). But then David Tallerman texted me, “Have you seen Black Jack?”, and I hadn’t so I moved it up my rental list. And lo, it appeared in the next set of discs. Which happens sometimes. Black Jack is based on a 1968 children’s novel of the same title by Leon Garfield, although I’m not sure the film was aimed at children per se. It’s set in 1750 in Yorkshire. A well-off couple, Quality in other words, hand their daughter over to a pair of doctors who run a sanatorium, because the daughter is unmanageable – there are hints it’s mental illness, but in other parts of the film it seems to be behavioural. Meanwhile, a lad is paid to look after the corpse of the title character by a “Tyburn widow”, a woman who bribed the men who fetched the bodies of criminals from the gallows so she could display the dead men in her front-room and charge money for the privilege of viewing it. But Black Jack is not dead. And he escapes, taking the boy with him. After helping a stuck coach, Black Jack conceives the idea of boobytrapping a ford so travellers would require his help. For a fee. And the first coach he waylays is the one carrying the two doctors and the daughter… The boy and the daughter escape and join a travelling medicine show. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast search for the missing daughter… This is low-budget film-making at its best. Although set nearly 230 years before it was made, Loach manages to present a convincing eighteenth-century England. The main actors, who are all teenagers, are uniformly good in their roles, although none of them went on to greater fame. And yet it all feels a bit like a Children’s Film Foundation movie – no bad thing, it must be said – although I don’t believe it was made as one. It has that sort of sophisticated approach to telling a story through film coupled with a really low budget that characterised a lot of CFF films. I thought it really good – and I hope that was why David texted to me to ask if I’d seen it…

Manderlay, Lars von Trier (2005, Denmark). I really didn’t like von Trier’s Dogville, and Manderlay is the sequel to it, so why, I hear you ask, would I want to watch this film? Okay, I picked it up for 99p for a charity shop, so it was worth a punt… But… I have a lot of time for von Trier as a film-maker, even if I really don’t like some of his films. He has a very interesting oeuvre. And while I didn’t like the rape and violence in Dogville, I thought the use of black box theatre staging a fascinating way to present the story. The good news is that Manderlay uses the same black box theatre staging. The bad news is that the story is possibly even worse. Grace Mulligan, played in Dogville by Nicole Kidman but now by Bryce Dallas Howard, passes by the eponymous Alabama plantation on her way home from Dogville. A woman approaches them and tells them a man is about to be whipped for stealing a bottle of wine. They enter the plantation and discover that slavery still seems to pertain within its borders. Except not really. The owner’s ancestor had emancipated his slaves, but they chose to continuing living as slaves because… well, because… I don’t know. Is von Trier trying to say they were so unsophisticated they had no idea what emancipation meant, or that they could be hoodwinked into believing they were better off unemancipated? And that it need a crusading young female like Grace Mulligan to teach them the error of their ways? Which she fails to do, because they seem bizarrely sceptical of freedom, as if the institution of slavery were no more than the Stanford Experiment writ large, which is, quite frankly, deeply offensive. As I said earlier, von Trier is an interesting film-maker, and the staging of Manderlay as black box theatre is certainly interesting… but the story is such a bad take on slavery it’s almost impossible to watch… and you have to wonder if that was deliberate, and if so, why would someone make a film that was difficult to watch? Unless von Trier was daft enough to think that black box theatre was the only “difficult” element of the film… It’s not like Manderlay could be categorised as a noble failure. It’s an awful film, made in an interesting way – and I can’t think of a phrase that might make that description palatable, or any reason why I should think of a phrase to make it palatable. It’s a film best avoided, but you shouldn’t write off von Trier because of it.

That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel (1977, France). I’m not a big Buñuel fan, although I’ve watched a number of his films. Um… checks records, discovers it’s actually ten Buñuel movies… A few of them I thought really good. But my finger sort of slipped on a near-monopolistic online retailer just after Christmas, and I ended up buying the Buñuel: The Essential Collection because some of the movies in it I’d not seen, and some of them I wanted to see again. The most recent film in the box set – it was actually Buñuel’s final film – is That Obscure Object of Desire, which was one I’d not seen. Initially, it appeared much like his other films from the 1970s – the same actors, the same presentation, the same sort of story… But like those other 1970s films it had that, well, genius twist that made it much more than the sum of its parts. That Obscure Object of Desire opens with Fernando Rey leaving Seville by train. A young woman tries to join the train, but he throws a bucket of water over her. He explains to the passengers in his compartment that he had been seduced by a woman called Conchita. The genius element of That Obscure Object of Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Caroline Bouquet and Angela Molina, who play the character entirely differently – at different random times during the film. Rey is an unreconstructed 1970s male, and the film is presented from his viewpoint, but the use of two actresses as Conchita highlights their side of the story and so demonstrates the one-sidedness of Rey’s narrative. These films by Buñuel are not especially striking in the way they are filmed – the staging seems fairly unexemplary, to be honest – but the stories Buñuel chose to tell using cinema are excellent. Some are even pure genius. Not this one, perhaps; although it makes a series of pointed observations because of its peculiar presentation. I had bought this box set on a bit of a whim, having liked some of the films in it. But now I own it, and have seen more of its contents, I’m starting to realise it’s a bloody good collection to own. These are fascinating films and worth seeing.

Die Austernprinzessin, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I bought this collection during Eureka’s Boxing Day sale, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Okay, so I am interested in early European silent cinema – which pretty much means early silent German cinema, and directors like Lubitsch, Lang. Murnau, and even Dreyer, who was Danish but made several silent films in Germany. The princess of the title – it translates as “The Oyster Princess” – is the heiress to a millionaire who built his fortune on oysters, and she is deeply unhappy that a rival will be married before her. So her father promises to find her a more impressive husband, and employs a matchmaker to do just that. And he finds an impoverished prince who is more than happy to marry a millionaire’s daughter… The film is apparently a comedy, although other than an element of slapstick to some of the action sequences, it’s hard to see why. True, it’s taking the piss out of the rich, and the American rich in particular, as the characters are all American – but that makes it new money which is the object of derision, as is explicitly shown in the fact an impoverished prince is seen as suitable marriage material. It feels like the film’s targets are just too obvious and over-used. I suspect even in 1919, they were obvious and over-used. The excessive consumption of the US, and its desire for validation by old world aristocracy, is lampooned to a ridiculous extent – there’s a scene, for example, in which a small carriage is pulled by ten horses, nine of which have liveried riders. The daughter is played by Ossi Oswalda, who is even more peremptory than she was in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it’s clear why she was such a popular star at the time – both the humour and drama are broad, and she plays them broad. But she is good on the screen, and looks to be having a great deal of fun, which is infectious. Die Austernprinzessin is probably the least satisfactory of the films I’ve watched so far from the collection – its humour felt too obvious, and there was nothing in its staging whcih made it stand out, other than a propensity to play every joke to the hilt. Watchable, certainly; but not especially memorable.

Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo (2016, Canada). I really liked Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, but I’d heard mixed reports about this one, his first film made outside Spain. And, let’s face it, the story didn’t sound like all that prepossessing – woman with a drink problem who works in a bar discovers when she walks through a playground the morning after finishing work, a monster appears in Seoul and apes her movements. I mean, how does that work? What does it mean? The answer to the first is: bizarre lightning strike. The answer to the second is: well, I suspect the only metaphor in action here is so obvious that most viewers would discount it: woman destroys Seoul like she destroys her own life. I mean, really? None of this is helped by having Anne Hathaway, a well-known actress, in the lead role. She is good, no doubt about that; but the rest of the cast are nobodies (so to speak) so she stands out. Things get complicated when the bar owner, and old friend, discovers that he materialises in Seoul as a giant robot. And he’s less concerned about hurting Koreans. So where Hathaway’s monster apologises for her actions, his robot goes on a rampage – and she is forced to fight him to stop him. To some extent, Colossal feels like an extended comedy sketch without a punchline. The fact that it’s well-played and the sections set in Seoul look really good seem immaterial. Meh.

Border, Alessio Cremonini (2013, Italy). I forget how I stumbled across this film, but it sounded like it might be interesting, so I rented it. A woman in Syria learns her husband has deserted the Syrian army and joined the rebels, meaning she is now in danger from the Secret Service and the Shahiba. So she and her sister hire a man to take them across the border into Turkey, where they hope to meet up with her husband. The man they hired introduces them to a driver, Bilal, a fugitive in his own right. But en route they are forced to abandoned their pickup truck after being followed by an army patrol. And then the two sisters are separated… Bilal and one of the sisters stumble across a village that was slaughtered by rebels. The only survivor is a young girl, who they take with them. But things do not go well for them… I’veseen a review of the film online that complains it fails “to adhere to clasic story structures”, which tells me more about the critic, and what’s wrong with the Hollywood film-making, than it does the film. The review also complains that because the two sisters wear the niqab for much of the film, and so only their eyes are visible, it makes it difficult for the viewer to identify with them. But it seems to me that’s actually one of the points Border is making, that’s it’s easier to dehumanise those suffering in wars in the Middle East, which in turn makes it easier for Westerners to ignore their complicity in creating, and fuelling, those wars in the first place. Border tell a straightforward story, in as much as the three characters head for the Turkish border and have random encounters along the way, but that reflects the arbitrary nature of survival in a war zone. I thought Border a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #5

I swore I’d wouldn’t be posting just reviews of films all this year, but I had bad flu for a week, which meant I watched a lot of films and did very little blogging. So I’ve a backlog to clear. One more of these and I’ll up to date, and hopefully after that, their frequency will decrease… and lots of other content will start appearing instead. Hopefully.

Princess from the Moon, Kon Ichikawa, (1987, Japan). The only other Ichikawa film I’d seen before watching this was The Burmese Harp, which is excellent. So I expected good things of Princess from the Moon, despite the awful title and cover art. Sadly, the latter were indicative of the contents. As the title suggests, a baby arrives myteriously – well, in a meteorite – in Japan, and a family adopt the baby and bring her up as their own. It’s the Superman origin story without the superpowers. Okay, with the superpowers. Because the young woman does have strange powers. However, unlike Superman, she is eventually reunited with her people when a UFO, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or is it ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, comes to Earth and she departs on it. Meanwhile, she proves so popular among the local menfolk, and indeed further afield, that she has to set them tasks in order to manage their advances. The film aparently did not do well and, despite the presence of Toshiro Mifune as the man who discovers the “princess”, it’s not easy to see why. The tone is all over the place, and Ichikawa adds nothing to a well-used story. Apparently, the dragon was originally going to double as the Loch Ness Monster in a Hammer film but the project fell through.

Viva, Anna Biller (2007, USA). I’d rented Biller’s The Love Witch on a whim, and been impressed enough by it to add her first feature film, Viva, to my rental list. It’s nowhere near as polished a piece, and in many respects a much less subtle pastiche. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – Biller is certianly a singular talent, devoted to pastiching 1970s aesthetics and B-movies, but with feminists sensibilities. It can make for an uneasy mix. While her sensibilities are unimpeachable, her dedication to the look and feel of the films she’s spoofing does tend to place them closer to their inspirations than the twenty-first century. Biller plays a Los Angeles housewife in the early 1970s who, with a friend, is persuaded to expand her sexual horizons by moonlighting as an escort (using the name “Viva”). There are a lot of very stilted conversations between the characters, and everything is colourised to an eye-bruising degree. Later, Viva ends up at an orgy, and it’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a Russ Meyer, although without the focus on women’s chests. The end result is far less clever than The Love Witch, and embarrassingly gauche in places, but certainly shows what Biller is about and attempting to do. Seen before The Love Witch, I suspect it might misinform viewers as to Biller’s intentions; seen after it, the films feels like a work in progress. She will go on to amazing things, I’m sure of it. Viva is part of the process.

A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). My previous experience of Imamura, The Ballad of Narayama (see here), I really did not like, but I suspect I added A Man Vanishes to my rental list based on the description rather than the name of the director. And I’m glad I did. The film starts out as a straightforward documentary on the case of a Japanese salaryman who simply disappeared. Bu then the documentary begins to question its own remit, and in a scene toward the end, the set is demolished around the filmmakers as they discuss what they have filmed, revealing the documentary itself to have been a fictional construct. It is astonishingly meta, and astonishingly informed about its own nature. I’m not sure what to make of it – it deconstructs itself from the inside in a way that I had frankly not thought within the vocabulary of 1960s film-makers. It’s clever in a way that far too few films are, and even fewer documentaries are. I thought it excellent.

Die Puppe, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I think it was this film, of all the ones in this box set, which persuaded me to add it to my shopping basket during Eureka’s Boxing Day Sale. Ossi Oswalda plays the daughter of a toymaker who takes the place of a life-size doll bought by the local baron’s son who needs to marry but is not interested in doing so. So he marries the doll. Which is not a doll. He only married her because he had fallen under the spell on a local friary who hoped to use the dowry to fund their gluttony. So of course they’re a bit upset when it transpires the doll is a real woman. And he falls for her, so they’ll be keeping the dowry, thank you very much. Like the previous film in this set, Ich möchte kein Mann sein (see here), Die Puppe is played strictly for laughs, and Oswalda in the title role makes the film. It’s a thin premise, and not especially plausible, but the movie totally commits to it. It’s a more stagey film than the earlier one, with the action taking place on what are clearly stage-sets – and that includes the town square which features in the opening. Fun, but one for fans of silent movies, I suspect.

Dekalog*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1989, Poland). In terms of Polish cinema’s exposure to the English-speaking world, Kieślowski is a giant. Poland had a huge film industry, and has produced a great number of world-class directors, many of which have been released in Anglophone markets. So quite why Kieślowski has come to be seen as the quintessential Polish director is something of a mystery, especially given the paucity of his oeuvre compared to others such as Andrzej Wajda or Agnieska Holland. The same, I suppose, might also be said of Satyajit Ray and Bengali cinema – Ray is comprehensively released on DVD on the UK, but none of Mrinal Sen’s movies are available in UK releases. But then Ray had Ismail Merchant proselytising for him in the West, probably because Ray was helpful toward Merchant and Ivory during the early days of their career. I don’t know that Kieślowski did the same for an Anglophone director, but I’ve seen no evidence he did. Which does make his selection as the face of Polish cinema somewhat inexplicable. He’s good, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ve come to feel, middle-brow and you’d expect a director with such a high profile to be more, well, cerebral. But then perhaps Kieślowski’s reputation was formed by his TV work, which this box set has shown is superior to his feature film work. The Dekalog itself, ten one-hour long episodes, each of which illustrates one of the Ten Commandments, and all of which are set in the same block of apartments in Warsaw. Some are better than others; some are even somewhat opaque, with a far from obvious link to the Commandment they are intended to illustrate. Two of the episodes, five and six, were later remade as feature films, A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love. They’re probably the two strongest episodes. This box set was definitely worth getting, just as much for the TV films and special features as for the Dekalog series itself.

Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi (2016, USA). The US is very good at making films that show racist it once was but which reveal how racist it still is. On the surface, Hidden Figures cannot be faulted – women of colour were involved in the US space programme and they have a story worth telling, if only to show people they were involved. But in an effort to create drama, Hidden Figures creates situations which undo the achievements of the people it is trying to celebrate. It’s not as blindingly obvious as Kevin Costner ripping down the “Whites Only” sign on the women’s toilet, an entirely invented scene since the NASA facilities were not segregated so there was no need of a white saviour… but also the fact the film’s event are implied to take place during the late 1950s when Katherine Johnson is promoted to the Mercury Task Group, but she had been made a supervisor over a decade before in 1948. There’s no doubt the contribution of women of colour, or indeed women, to the Space Race has been forgotten, if not outright written from history; but the real histories of these people are dramatic enough without having to make changes. The fact the US practiced segregation some fifty years ago is frightening, and yet not all that much has changed – hence the need for films such as this. Black people have been so written out of history – US especially – they cannot see themselves in it, despite their many and varied and important contributions to it. They are there, doing their bit, and only a racist or a fool would say otherwise. On the one hand, I think Hidden Figures‘s purpose is admirable and I welcome the film’s existence; on the other, I rue that it has to exist in the first place, and that it has to warp history to provide a narrative acceptable to the public. But it’s not a great film, and I suspect you’d get more from the book on which it was based.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895