Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.
Down by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
Red Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
The Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.
Sergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.
Criminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817