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Moving pictures 2018, #69

Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine of these Moving pictures posts for 2018. Pretty much all of them with half a dozen movies per post. That’s a fuck of a lot of films. That’s pretty much two a night, and three on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes more. I expect my movie-watching to plummet following my imminent move northwards. Which will be a good thing, because I’ll have the time to do all the things I used to do – such as, er, write. And read more. Although I did manage 150 books read in 2018. Which is pretty respectable, and an improvement on the previous two years. But my record is still 220 books read in one year, in 2008, and I have to wonder why that year was so different…

But this post is about movies. It’s the last Moving pictures post of films watched in 2018. Which is why there are seven films instead of the usual six. In all other respects, it’s fairly typical of my movie-watching over the past twelve months: two Chinese films and a Bollywood one (in Hindi, but with no singing and dancing), a movie by a director I “discovered” last year, a piece of Hollywood Extruded Product tosh, and an off-the-wall film by a director completely unknown to me.

Aftershock, Feng Xiaogang (2010, China). This is the fifth film I’ve seen by Feng and I can’t really say there’s been anything that struck me as especially characteristic about his movies. He likes ensemble casts, but pins most of the story on only two or three of the characters, and they follow different threads which start out together, before going their separate ways, only to meet up later. At least, that’s true of Youth (see here) and Aftershock, but perhaps not of the other three movies by him I’ve seen. Anyway, the title of Aftershock is a clue to its story. In 1976, an earthquake completely levelled the town of Tangshan, killing nearly a quarter of a million people. The film follows a single family during it. The husband dies in the earthquake, and the two children are trapped. The mother is forced to choose by rescuers between the two of them. She chooses the boy – who is rescued, but his arm was crushed and he loses it. However, the girl manages to escape, but has lost her family. She is adopted by man and wife Red Army officers who were involved in the relief effort. The film then follows the two children as they grow up separately, unaware of the other. They both return to Tangshan, and see the brand-new city that sprung up in place of the one destroyed by the earthquake. Eventually, the two siblings track each other down and meet, but they have nothing in common. The depiction of the earthquake which opens the film is really well-staged, and extremely convincing. The remainder of the film is closer to Youth than other films by Feng I’ve seen. It was apparently originally released in IMAX, the first major commercial IMAX film produced outside the US, and, quite frankly, those earthquake scenes must have been scary as shit in IMAX. But even you don’t get to see it in that format, Aftershock is worth watching.

Black Snow, Xie Fei (1990, China). I like Chinese cinema. I like Second Run. The latter have published some excellent movies on DVD or Blu-ray over the last few years, including several of my favourite directors, Miklós Jancsó, from a wide spread of countries and directors. Okay, they might not have published everything Jancsó made, but I can hardly complain given I’ve discovered new favourites from movies they’ve published I might otherwise not have seen. None of which is especially relevant as I rented Black Snow because it was a Chinese film, although the director was unknown to me. A young man completes his prison sentence and returns to his home. He is determined to go straight, but has trouble making ends meet. He sells clothes on the black market, and manages to avoid falling afoul of the authorities. Even when a friend of his from prison escapes and comes to hide out at his flat, he still manages not to get dragged into crime. It’s all very realistic, with hand-held cameras and location shooting – Xie Fei is not Sixth Generation, but they use many of the techniques he displays here. I had not expected Black Snow to be as good as it proved to be. Recommended.

Accatone, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1961, Italy). This was Pasolini’s first feature film – he had first made a career for himself as a novelist, and was highly regarded as such. Which is weird because I know him first and foremost as a film-maker. I guess one of these days I’ll have to try one of his novels – assuming they’ve been translated into English. And why wouldn’t they be? He’s famous, right? Anyway, Accatone means “beggar” and is the nickname of a young man on the streets of Rome, who pimps a young woman. But then she is sent to prison and he finds himself without an income. I’m a big fan of Pasolini’s films – yes, even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – and I love his irreverent approach to his material, especial Catholic material, and his bizarre visuals. But Accatone, whose story is apparently an amalgamation of two of his novels, is basically Italian Neorealism in all but name. And I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism. True, Neorealism tends to use non-professional actors, and Pasolini also did in many of his films. Accatone is one for completists, I think ,and not indicative of the rest of his career. To be fair, Eureka! have done a sterling job with this dual format release, bundling Accatone with an early documentary by Pasolini, Comizi d’amore, in which Pasolini does a vox pop on sex across Italian society.

Hunter Killer, Donovan Marsh (2018, USA). I’ve no idea why I watched this. I do like submarine movies, or ones that are set beneath the sea surface, but this had big budget Extruded Hollywood Product stamped all over it, so I knew it was going to be bad. And yes, it did some things well – the CGI underwater scenes were quite effective, and the film-makers made an effort to be accurate with all the hardware… if not with the story. And for a film in which a Russian minister tries to kick off WWIII, but is foiled by a maverick USN submarine captain, it’s remarkable – and yet entirely unsurprising – that the word NATO is not mentioned even once. Anyway… Gerard Butler, a “mustang” (which I believe is the US armed forces term for an officer who started out as an enlisted), is given command of a nuclear hunter/killer sub, and unfortunately happens to be nearest when another US Navy sub goes missing in the Arctic. The viewer already knows what happened because they saw it in a prologue. A Russian sub torpedoed it. It turns out a rogue Russian minister – unfortunately, he’s the minister of defence – has kidnapped the Russian premier and is determined to kick off a war with the US. So Butler is sent in to find out what’s going on. And the US sends in a SEAL team, led by Toby Stephens, by HALO, to find out what’s going on, er, on land… And watching this you’d be forgiven for thinking either the Cold War was still going and that there were only two nations on planet Earth, which is the sort of risible crap Hollywood used to churn out to persuade the world it actually knew what it was doing as the “world’s policeman”. It was, of course, patently clear that they had no fucking clue. Now, I hasten to add, the UK would not have been any better, as we seem to have persuaded the world we know what we’re doing when we’ve been pretty much incompetent from day one. Anyway… Hunter Killer is the sort of militaristic tosh Hollywood used to produce back in the 1970s and 1980s and it’s somewhat surprising Hollywood thinks it’s relevant today. The worst enemy the US has right now is occupying the White House. Rogue Russian ministers with nuclear submarines are about as believable as alien invasions. Avoid.

Miss Violence, Alexandros Avranas (2013, Greece). I have checked and happily Amazon Prime still works in Sweden, although I suspect rights issues means I won’t have access to the same films. Which is a shame as in amongst all the crap it makes available, it throws in some little gems like this one. Comparisons with Dogtooth are inevitable, but Miss Violence actually makes sense in the end. The movie opens with Angeliki jumping from the balcony of her apartment during her eleventh birthday party. The police and social services step in help the family – grandfather, grandmother, mother, son and two surviving daughters – come to terms with their loss. But the family seems to recover suspiciously quickly. And then the film slowly reveals the family life… the ultra-controlling father, the complicit grandmother… (The mother apparently died years before.) I won’t reveal what it is that drives the plot, but when the film shows what prompted that opening suicide it comes as no real surprise – which it’s not to say it’s not shocking, just that it explains so much of what had so far in the film seemed difficult to parse. I think this film should be up there with Dogtooth, to be honest, although perhaps its clarity works against it in that comparison. Recommended.

Tumbbad, Rahi Anil Barve, Anand Gandhi & Adesh Prasad (2018, India). See my comment above re Amazon Prime. This is a Hindi film, but it contains no singing or dancing. It’s actually a horror film, which is not something Bollywood is especially known for. The title refers to a cursed village, where it always rains. But in the village is a fortress that holds a secret, which is revealed to a young man by his grandmother who has, er, grown into a tree. According to the opening credits, a god was cursed to be forgotten and imprisoned in the fortress. But adventurers from one family have learnt how to game that forgotten god – who shits gold coins when disturbed – and have so made their fortune. It’s all completely bizarre, but no more so than any Hollywood horror film. The scenes where the men of the family climb down a well into a hidden chamber like the inside of a giant stomach, feed the imprisoned god with bread effigies, and then dash out of their protective circle to grab the gold coins spilling from the god’s loincloth. Of course, as is always the way with these sorts of stories, someone gets greedy and comes a cropper. and that brings the whole bizarre enterprise to an end and seals the fate of the family. I had zero expectations when I started watching this film – other than liking Bollywood films, that is – but this was so completely unexpected, and put together so well. Recommended.

Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilović (2015, France). And this film was also from Amazon Prime. I’m not entirely what it was about, however. There is a small boy living on an island with his mother. One day, while swimming he sees a dead boy at the bottom of the sea. His mother goes to check but tells him there was no body. Later, the boy is taken to hospital where he is operated on. He finds himself in a ward with several boys of the same age, who have had the same operation. The nurses, it transpires, are implanting some sort of creature in the boys. Which they later cut out of them, an operation the boys do not survive. But one of the nurses – they’re not entirely human, obviously – takes a shine to the original boy, and eventually helps him escape the island. The whole thing is shot in mute, almost submarine, colours, and there’s definitely an undersea theme, and a hint the nurses, and the boy’s mother, are from beneath the waves. Evolution is one of those odd Euro horror movies that rely more on the visuals than any kind of plot or, well, sense. It’s hard not to be reminded of The Lure, which I loved, but Evolution has no music in its story, and there are, well, less people in it. So, a good film, although not as good as The Lure; but worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #67

I need to get these out of the way. I have three Moving pictures posts, including this one, to finish off 2018’s viewing. Posts #68 and #69 to follow soon…

Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino (1980, USA). This film is probably best known for breaking New Hollywood and ending the US’s willingness to give carte blanche to directors and instead returning to Extruded Studio Product. Which, given the fact most of Hollywood’s best films are director films, seems a step backwards. Except Hollywood is all about profit, not about making good films. Which is not to say that Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It looks fantastic. But it is overlong, massively distorts the story it tells, and was reputedly a terrible production. Legend has it Jonathan Hurt went off and made The Elephant Man in between shoots on Heaven’s Gate. It’s easy to believe, because the whole film reeks of out-of-control personal project. The story, as it goes, is yet another take on the cattle barons versus homesteaders conflict in late nineteenth-century USA. The film opens with two friends graduating from Harvard. It then jumps forward twenty years, and one of the men is a marshal while the other represents the cattle barons. In the film, the homesteaders are all European immigrants, which was not the historical case. Nor did they kill cattle because they were starving. But Cimino is making a point beyond the history he used as inspiration, so he ups the stakes all round, and has the cattlemen respond with brutal violence. And this is in a 219 minute film, so it goes on and on and on… The fact the production was so bad, and Cimino a total prima donna – he apparently wanted the street widening for one of the towns he’d had built, and instead of moving one side out six feet he demanded both sides were moved out three feet each – well, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Gate flopped so badly on release. It’s been reassessed since – but a lot of it still doesn’t work: the layered-on xenophobia, the excessive violence, the rambling plot, multitude of characters… If Heaven’s Gate is seen more favourably now, it’s probably because auteurs have been back in favour for a few decades and the success of sell-through, in whatever format, has opened up a market for auteur movies. Which Heaven’s Gate isn’t really. But as the last gasp of New Hollywood it’s worth seeing at least once.

Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (2018, USA). It is possible to accurately describe a film in such a way that it sounds like it’s worth watching but the 139 minutes spent watching it could still prove a total waste of time. Which is as good a description of Under the Silver Lake as any plot summary. Slacker Andrew Garfield is having trouble paying his bills and is threatened with eviction. He spots a young woman at the apartment building’s pool and is smitten. But then she goes missing. Meanwhile, he’s intrigued by an underground comic which shares the film’s name, and which suggest there is some secret history underlying pretty much everything. After a series of encounters, Garfield bounces from one clue to the other in his hunt for the young woman, before ending up at the mansion of some mega-wealthy recluse who claims to have written every single pop song ever heard. So Garfield brutally murders him. He eventually tracks down the missing woman, and it’s all to do with secret hermetically-sealed fallout shelters beneath the Californian desert, where members of the ultra-rich seal themselves off until they die because only by doing that can they achieve immortality, or some such bollocks. Under the Silver Lake tries really hard to be Eyes Wide Shut but pretty much fails at every point. The plot didn’t seem to go anywhere, except round in ever-pointless circles. It looked pretty, though; and the cast were quite good. But definitely not worth seeing.

Blind Shaft, Li Yang (2003, China). This is the film for which Li made his name, and the first of his loose  trilogy of “Blind” films. A pair of con men work in China’s poorly-regulated, and often illegal, coal mines. They pick some more schmuck desperate for a job, and persuade him to pretend to be their brother, and the three of them will sign up at a coal mine. They then murder the third man and claim it was an accident. And the mine owners pay them off because they don’t want the authorities investigating the mine. The films opens with a murder, and then follows the two miners as they return to the city to look for a new victim. But the naive teenager they eventually persuade to join them… one of the miners likes him too much to murder him. For all that we’re told China is a communist country, and communist countries have free healthcare and education, and the booming Chinese economy has seen giant cities grew up out of nothing, not to mention vast industrial zones… but the films made by Sixth Generation directors tell a slightly different story. Sch as this one, and Li’s later Blind Mountain. People far from the shiny new cities live in poverty, and have to pay for medical treatment and education. There’s a scene in Blind Shaft, in which the two miners, flush with the spoils of their last crime, are in the city and spot a youth holding up a sign which says he has won a place at college but needs money to pay for it. The miners are so impressed he has passed the entrance exams, they give him some money. It’s a different picture to the one painted by glossy trans-Pacific blockbusters, which likely explains why they tend not to get theatrical releases (or indeed approval from the Chinese authorities in some cases). Definitely worth seeing.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui (1984, China). There’s some good stuff on Amazon Prime. you just have to look for it. And it’s probably tempting to stick to the high profile stuff, even for foreign films, as the movies we see made in other countries depend on what’s made available to us – either by dubbing or subtitles – and often isn’t all that indicative of that nation’s cinema. This is certainly true of China, Western views of whose cinema have no doubt been chiefly shaped by first of all Hong Kong action movies, plus Shaw Brothers’ wu xia, then later wu xia films kicked off by the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon… Plus, of course, there are the films by Fifth Generation and Sixth Generation directors, and the entirely different aesthetic, and choice of subject matter, they bring to Chinese cinema… But there are yet other films, which were either never released in the West, or had such limited releases they were all but invisible, and for whatever reason, although I’m not going to complain, some of them seem to have been made available on Amazon Prime. This is not to say all such movies are undiscovered gems. One or two of them are actually quite good, but most are pretty unforgettable – and some of the more successful ones are actually pretty bad. Love in a Fallen City is an adaptation of a novella of the same title by Eileen Chang, originally published in 1943, set before and during the Japanese invasion of China in WWII. It’s a boy meets girl, girl is not sure about boy, boy and girl realise they truly love each other as disaster strikes sort of story. It’s all very well-meaning, but I suspect the source material makes a more interesting job of it than the film did. It’s been several weeks since I watched it, and pretty much nothing has stuck. Oh well.

The Legend of Tarzan, David Yates ( 2016, Australia). Tarzan must be up there with Sherlock Holmes as the white male fictional character who has had the most film adaptations and, like Holmes, each adaptation has brought contemporary concerns to the adaptation. Perhaps Tarzan movies have not been quite so “contemporary” as Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in the 1940s, but each take on the character, even if set in its correct period, has been of its time. Which is probably a good point to document my own relationship with the character of Tarzan, which is entirely overshadowed by a Tarzan annual I read in a hotel in the mid-1970s the night before an orthodontist’s appointment. It was one of the those hotels with a bathroom shared by several rooms. And one story in the Tarzan annual affected me powerfully. That, and the pain of having a brace fitted, have burned it into my memory. Other than that, it was regular showings of the 1960s Tarzan television series (that’s the one with the chimpanzee called Cheeta) on Dubai television when I was a kid, and memories of the Johnny Weismuller movies, although I can’t remember when and where I saw them. Of course, of Edgar Rice Burrough’s properties I’ve always much preferred John Carter, and I don’t recall even reading a Tarzan novel – although one of my favourite books as a kid was Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan of the Apes (I had the Pan UK reprint paperback, which apparently doesn’t even exist on Amazon). Anyway, he’s a familiar character to me, and it’s been interesting seeing how he’s been re-interpreted over the years. The Legend of Tarzan opens with Tarzan, as Greystoke, settled in England, but asked to return to the Congo to investigate slavery there – and so becomes embroiled in a plot by the Belgian envoy to deliver Tarzan to an tribal leader in return for the fabled diamonds of Opar. It’s all very twenty-first century, with lots of CGI apes, and near-superpowered protagonists, but it makes an excellent point about the slavery. It smells quite a lot like a Victorian superhero movie, and the story beats are more from that template than the source material, but it’s certainly an improvement on the last few Tarzan movies and better than the reviews it received.

Big Shot’s Funeral, Feng Xiaogang (20011, China). Donald Sutherland plays a big name Hollywood auteur in China to remake Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The production company has hired a Chinese cameraman to follow Sutherland and record everything he says and does as material for a “making of” documentary. Unfortunately, Sutherland’s character doesn’t seem to have much clue what he’s supposed to be making – or rather, he has an entirely different film in mind to the one the producers are expecting or that he signed up for. This often results in incomprehensible instructions to the cast and extras, which his translator translates as something more understandable. Meanwhile, Sutherland forms a friendship with his documentary cameraman, despite the cameraman’s rudimentary English. But as the shoot progresses, so Sutherland’s character becomes disenchanted with the project. He doesn’t want to make some commercial crowd-pleaser, but that’s what the producers want and that’s how the production is being steered. Before shooting is finished, the director falls into a coma. The cameraman is asked to arrange his funeral, and told to use sponsors to pay for it. Which is where it all turns into farce, as the cameraman’s friend, a businessman, gets sponsorship deals for everything. I’ve found Feng’s films a bit hit and miss, but this one was good. It went from laid-back self-deprecating humour to quite biting satire. Good.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933


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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, #16

Sometimes, when I come to write these Moving pictures post, I wonder why the hell I chose to watch the films I did. True, some are rentals, and so it pretty much depends on what Cinema Paradiso happen to send me (and, of course, what was going through my head when I put them on my rental list). Which is certainly true of two of the films in this batch. But some of the others… It’s not so much that I choose to watch these films, just the weird variety of them within the half dozen. And this lot are a little stranger in that regard than most of my Moving pictures posts…

Skidoo, Otto Preminger (1968, USA). Preminger is not generally known for his comedies, and there’s a reason for that. At least, there is if Skidoo is any indication. Jackie Gleason plays a retired mobster, married to Carol Channing. He’s asked to perform one last hit for mob boss Groucho Marx, on his old pal Mickey Rooney, currently in Alcatraz. Gleason is also worried about his daughter, who has dropped out, turned on and tuned in with John Philip Law amd his tribe of hippies. Meanwhile , a pair of Marx’s enforcers put pressure on Gleason, and Channing tries to lift this by seducing one of them, Frankie Avalon. While in Alcatraz, Gleason uses the high tech provided by an imprisoned hippy to contact Rooney, but then decides he can’t kill him. There’s a particular type of comedy film which sets up completely implausible situations – a mobster in prison to kill a confederate – and then fails to deliver on them due to a change of heart by the principle. It’s almost a law of comedy. Which does not necessarily make it funny. And if there’s one thing Skidoo is, that’s… not very funny. I mean, Preminger knew his stuff, he’d been making films since the 1930s, and he had a star-studded cast in Skidoo – not just those already mentioned, but also Frank Gorshin, George Raft, Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero and Slim Pickens (but no female stars, other than Channing, which is disappointing, especially for 1968). The whole thing is so horribly dated – in its targets, its sensibilities, its comedy… I’m frankly not surprised Skidoo is not readily available on sell-through in the US or UK. Eminently missable.

I am not Madame Bovary, Feng Xiaogang (2016, China). A husband and wife in China divorce so that they can purchase a second property – as couples can only own a single property – but instead of remarrying as planned, the husband marries another woman. Incensed, the ex-wife reports him to the authorities and demands they nullify the divorce so she can properly divorce. Um, yes. They point out she is already divorced. The ex-husband meanwhile has been spreading lies about her sexual history. The ex-wife keeps after the authorites over the years, being bounced from one official to another, gradually working her way up the ladder. Her campaign is fruitless, and sees her briefly sent to a “re-education camp”. After her husband dies, she settles in Beijing and opens a noodle shop. Eventually, she reveals the divorce had been concocted to get around the one-child policy and had nothing to do with buying property. But during the divorce proceedings, she miscarried. This is a long film, 137 minutes, and bizarrely presented in a variety of formats, most often a circular aperture in the centre of the screen. I’ve no idea why Feng chose to present his film like that, it doesn’t add anything to it. I’m a big fan of contemporary Chinese cinema – although perhaps not so much the CGI-heavy historical epics they’ve been churning out for the past dozen years, but certainly the scaled-back, often documentary-like, dramas of the Sixth Generation directors. Feng is not Sixth Generation, but has been making films since the mid-1990s, and very successfully. I am not Madame Bovary is a film made by a film-maker who knows his craft – I’ve seen his earlier The Banquet (see here) and thought it good – so despite being slightly disappointed with this one, I think I’ll stick some of his other films on my rental list.

Film, Alan Schneider (1965, USA) / Film, David Rayner Clark (1979, UK) / Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). Film is Samuel Beckett’s first and only foray into cinema. It’s 24 minutes long, shot in black and white, has little or no dialogue, and stars Buster Keaton. It opens with a shot of a wall somewhere in New York. A figure, keeping its face from the camera, scurries alongside the wall, eventually entering a tenement and then a sparsely-furnished room. He performs a series of actions, then sits down in a chair, looks at some photographs, tears up the photographs, and then reveals his face to the camera. I’m not actually familiar with Beckett’s oeuvre – I know of Waiting for Godot, but I’ve never seen it – or of his career, to be honest. I know he wrote several novels, and I’ve been meaning to try one for years, but I came to Film completely cold. And… I like experimental/avant garde cinema. I’ve seen works by Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, Ernie Gehr; I’m love the films of James Benning and Ben Rivers; I’m currently exploring the oeuvre of Pere Portabella; and the modern artform which appeals to me most is the video installation, and I’m a fan of works by Ed Atkins, Richard Mosse, Cécile B Evans and Tuomas A Laitinen… But Film does come across more as a laboured exercise in re-inventing the wheel. Beckett had no experience at film-making, nor was he that well-versed in the medium. He was a playwright, who later adopted television as his preferred medium. The core of Film is the relationship between O (the object, Keaton) and E (the eye; ie, the camera), and it’s all about what they can see. So Keaton spends his time in his room covering items which might “see” him, such as a painting, or the window. And when the screen projects what O sees, it does it through a gauze filter so it looks different to E. It’s hardly sophisticated stuff, and Beckett’s plodding working through of the concept is slightly painful to watch. But. As Beckett’s first and only attempt at cinema, it’s a fascinating experiment. Even more so when watching the BFI’s 1979 version, which was based on Beckett’s original script (and not the heavily-revised one used for the 1965 original), and starred Max Wall, a well-known comedic figure in the UK at the time… Having said that, Ross Lipman’s two-hour documentary on Beckett and his Film, Notfilm, is worth the price of admission alone. Lipman digs into Beckett’s career, the origin of Film, and Beckett’s production of it. It’s fascinating stuff, especially since Film is so unsuccessful a work from so successful a creator. I’m tempted to pick up a copy of this for myself.

The Millionairess, Anthony Asquith (1960, UK). My mother found this in a charity shop, and passed it onto me after she’d watched it. A comedy with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, directed by Anthony Asquith. Sounded like solid entertainment from the sixties. But… oh dear. If I said the song ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ was spun out of this film – the two stars performed it, in character, although it doesn’t appear in the actual film – then that should tell you all you need to know. Sellers plays an Indian doctor, and it’s the sort of offensive caricature that was once considered amusing and that Benny Hill more or less built a career upon. But Benny Hill was considered passé and offensive back in the late 1980s – one of the UK’s biggest comedy exports at that time and no one would show him on British TV. And rightly so. Loren plays a wealthy widow, who cannot remarry unless her prospective husband can turn £500 into £15,000 in three months, which I would have thought in 1960 ruled out pretty much everything except crime. But never mind. After various unsuitable suitors, she happens upon Sellers, a selfless Indian doctor. She decides he’s the one for her. But he tries to get ot of it by claiming his mother set a challenge that his bride-to-be must survive for three months on 35 shillings (that’s 420p, or 7 crowns or £1 and 15 shillings, or 1 and two-thirds guineas… all of which is about £37 in 2017 money). Loren bullies a pasta factory owner into letting her take over, modernises it and turns it highly profitable by replacing all the staff with machines. Sellers, meanwhile, can’t even give away his £500. But never mind, they get together in the end. The Millionairess was a massive hit on its release, but it really doesn’t play well today. To a twenty-first century viewer, it’s tasteless and not at all funny. And, to be honest, I never really understood Sellers’s appeal. Missable.

Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea). People raved about this when it was released five years ago, but since it’s never had a UK release on sell-through I’d never managed to see it. Until now. And I can’t honestly see what the fuss was all about. Some fifteen years in the future, the earth is uninhabitable, frozen solid from pole to pole after failed climate engineering to combat global warming (huh, I had a story published in 2010 based on that premise). The remnants of humanity live aboard a train which circles the globe, although I’m not sure how they cross the oceans – I assume they’re completely frozen over and so safe to lay a track upon. Anyway, the train’s society is a microcosm of the sort of neoliberal libertarian capitalist bullshit societies so beloved of science fiction. At the front end of the train are the elite, who live in comfort with all their needs met. And at the rear of the train are the “scum”, the proletarians, who are treated worse than slaves, fed on protein blocks made from insects, and brutally punished for the most minor of offences. When Chris Evans realises that the elite’s guards ran out of bullets years before, he leads a rebellion, and he and his fellow scum fight their way toward the front of the train, eventually confronting the train’s designer and leader of its society, Wilford, played by Ed Harris. Who reveals that the rebellion was engineered in order to cull the scum population as resources aboard the train are limited. Wilford asks Evans to replace him as leader, but Evans then discovers that scum kids are being used as replacement trains parts, so he kills Wilford. Oh, and it turns out the earth is thawing, so the train won’t even be needed soon. Snowpiercer looks very impressive, and the performances throughout are very good. But the tired old bollocks story just completely turned me off. In a closed environment like the train, survival is so precarious that any set-up which might lead to the environment being damaged, as in, for example, a rebellion, is just dumb. So wildyl unjust stories are just disasters waiting to happen. They’re clearly unsustainable. And only an idiot, or a sf writer, would consider building one. If Snowpiercer was trying to make a point about capitalism and capitalist societies, I didn’t care. I live in an unjust society, and while I’m no means near the bottom of it, I don’t need heavy-handed fables like Snowpiercer to tell me it’s unjust. By all means use fiction – written or cinematic – to depict such societies, but violent overthrow, followed by a deus ex machina, make for boring, and pointless, stories. Snowpiercer looked very nice – as well it might, given the amount spent on it – but I really wasn’t interested in its story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures, #16

It seemed like a good idea to document the films I watched throughout the year, especially since I was working my way through a 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. What I hadn’t considered was how many movies I’d watch. And so have to document. Ah well. Here are more. Ones from the list indicated with an asterisk as usual.

mansfaveMan’s Favorite Sport?, Howard Hawks (1964, USA). I like Rock Hudson films, I like Technicolor films, I like screwball comedies. Throw in Howard Hawks as director, and Man’s Favorite Sport? ought to be a sure-fire winner. Sadly, it isn’t. Chiefly because it was written as a Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn vehicle, but ended up with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. While both are very good in their roles, Hudson isn’t Grant and has always performed better in Hudson roles. But, by god, the Technicolor certainly makes a picture of this moving, er, picture. The comedy has its moments, the chemistry on screen does create sparks, and Hudson does his best delivering the Grant one liners… but Man’s Favorite Sport? is mostly a lovely-looking film. Hudson plays a fishing expert at Abercrombie & Fitch, who has secretly never fished in his life. And then a fishing resort – represented by Prentiss – persuades his boss to enter him in a competition for publicity purposes. When Hudson comes clean, Prentiss and resort owner’s daughter Maria Perschy have to, er, teach a man to fish. A good piece of early sixties rom com, starring a master of the form and a rising comedic actress. For all its flaws, it’s still bags of fun.

banquetThe Banquet, Xiaogang Feng (2006, China). This was apparently based on Hamlet, although you’d have to be pretty forgiving to acknowledge it. Set in China during the tenth century, a crown prince has exiled himself to a remote theatre after his father married the noblewoman the prince was in love with. But then the emperor is killed by his brother, and assassins are sent to kill the prince. They fail, but he makes his way to the imperial court anyway, where things all get a bit complicated. Like a lot of wu xia movies, The Banquet is a pretty lush production, and the story covers pretty much all the bases – there are epic sword fights, gruesome deaths, love-making with lots of gauzy veils, complicated court politics, sumptuous sets and costumes… and an ending that comes completely out of left-field. One of the better wu xia films I’ve seen recently.

the_man_in_grey_uk_dvdThe Man In Grey*, Leslie Arliss (1943, UK). Stewart Grainger and Phyllis Calvert meet up at an auction room during WWII (he’s a RAF officer, she’s a WREN), and in the process of chatting her up inadvertently bids on a box of trinkets that are all that’s left of the Rohan aristocratic family. He admits to a connection to the Rohans and is far from complimentary; she admits the last male Rohan was her brother. The film then flashes back to the Regency period, and now Phyllis Calvert is an heiress at a posh school in Bath. After leaving school, she’s introduced to the ton, where the eponymous noble, James Mason, asks for her hand in marriage – mostly for appearance’s sake. Later, she bumps into an incorrigible rake, Grainger again, and is smitten by his charms. Grainger is an actor in a company with a woman Calvert was friendly with back in her school at Bath, and she invites the woman, Margaret Lockwood, now down on her luck, into her household. So you have a situation where Mason is having an affair with Lockwood, while Calvert is secretly in love with Grainger. It’s all a bit ploddingly predictable, if you know the form, and Mason’s presence, and the year of release, suggest it’s a “quota quickie” (Mason was a Quaker and refused to fight during WWII), none of which stands against it as some of those quota quickies were actually pretty good. This one is clearly held in such high regard it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although to be honest I couldn’t see why. A watchable bit of Regency hokum, with an unneccessary contemporary (as of 1943) framing narrative, and a good turn by its leads… But it’s hard to see it as a classic.

networkNetwork*, Sidney Lumet (1976, USA). I’d assumed I’d seen this at some point in the past – the film is near enough forty years old, and it seems reasonable to assume it was on television several times during the 1980s – but if so, I’d completely forgotten everything about it… as I discovered when I started watching it. The other thing that readily became apparent was that its satire had completely lost its teeth. A corrupt and manipulative media? Driven by profit? That’s not satire, that’s reality. Turning Peter “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” Finch’s nervous-breakdown news anchor into a prophet of the modern age is a bit, well, that horse has long bolted. And it was probably leaping a fence near the horizon when this film was released. Even casting Faye Dunaway as the ratings-hungry TV executive willing to do anything for the network just plays into your standard sexist arguments about women in the workplace. Some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; some don’t. This is one of the latter. Um, maybe I should put together my own list…

2or3things2 or 3 Things I Know About Her*, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I have mixed feelings about Godard’s films. Most I’ve found a bit dull, but I absolutely adored Le Mépris. And while he’s never been afraid to experiment with the form – something I admire in directors – he was also hugely prolific. So after the disappointing Masculin Féminin (see here), I wasn’t expecting much of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. But I actually thought it really good. My second favourite Godard, so far. And I liked it enough to want to watch more of his films. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is basically a film study of Marina Vlady, who plays a bourgeois mother who also has sex for money. It follows her as she does housewife things interspersed with meetings with clients. Occasionally, she, and other members of the cast, break the fourth wall. There are also shots of building works in Paris, and some nice concrete architecture. Apparently, this was one of three films Godard made in 1967 – he’d shoot 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her in the morning and Made in USA in the afternoon. Like I said, some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, some don’t. This is one of  the former. I think I’ll get myself a copy of this film, on Blu-ray if I can.

joanofarcThe Passion of Joan of Arc*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928, France). Another director I seem to have fastened on to it is Carl Theodor Dreyer, and it’s certainly true Gertrud is a favourite film and I hold Day Of Wrath in high regard… It could be argued that The Passion of Joan of Arc is his most famous film, despite being silent and originally released in 1928. But even though nearly ninety years old it’s an astonishingly… modern film, with its reliance on close-ups and the quite brutal way it depicts Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake. In fact, even the look and feel of the film is weirdly modern. Watching the movie, it’s hard to believe it was made in 1928. Happily, eureka! have done a bang-up job on releasing it on DVD (and Blu-ray). The slipcase not only includes the disc but also a thick booklet on the film. And so it should: The Passion of Joan of Arc is an important film, and should be treated as such. It’s just a shame many other important films are not treated as well.

fatherlandFatherland, Christopher Menaul (1994, USA). Apparently Mike Nichols spent $1 million on the film rights for Robert Harris’s novel but couldn’t interest any studios in the project. So HBO made it as a TV movie instead. And although it netted Miranda Richardson a Golden Globe, it’s actually not very good. Hitler victorious is likely the most popular form of alternate history, but Harris gave his version an interesting spin – setting his story twenty years later, as celebrations for Hitler’s 75th birthday are ramping up throughout Germania, and which will culminate in an historic meeting between the Führer and US President Joe Kennedy Senior. Unfortunately, the death of a party figure starts SS Major March on an investigation which threatens to uncover the Reich’s biggest secret (hint: it’s not a secret in the real world). Rutger Hauer, a Dutchman, plays March, a German; while Miranda Richardson, a Brit, plays Charlie McGuire, an American reporter in Berlin for the festivities who gets dragged into the affair. The film was apparently made in Prague, which doesn’t stand in for Berlin especially well, and the production can’t seem to decide if it should present Germania as a German-speaking nation or, as is often the case in English-language productions, have everyone speak English so subtitles are not needed. So it does a bit of both. The plot is also thuddingly predictable, whether you know the source text or not; and Hauer is a bit too laconic to convince as a SS officer. Disappointing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 599