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Moving pictures 2017, #30

Six films, four countries… and they’re all countries from which I’ve seen many films before. Some favourite directors – including one who’s becoming more of a favourite, and one whose works I don’t like as much as I used to…

Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina (2016, Finland). I stumbled across this true story last year on the BBC website, but had forgotten a film was being made of it. So I was chuffed when I came across Diving into the Unknown, and immediately added it to my rental list. It’s intended to be a fly-on-the-wall film of a difficult cave dive. But the dive turned into tragedy, and the documentary crew continued to film those involved as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy, and what it meant to them in their pursuit of their sport. A team of Finnish technical cave divers planned to swim through a cave system in Plurdalen, Norway, which stretched some two to three kilometres but reached a depth of 130 metres, with many tight and narrow passages. At the deepest part of the dive, two of the team drowned – despite being experienced divers, and as a consequence of events not entirely explained in the film. An attempt by the authorities – aided by a team of British divers – to retrieve the bodies failed, and further entry to the caves was prohibited. So the Finns decided to illegally re-enter the caves and fetch their colleagues’ bodies. Which they did. With the original documentary crew following their every move. Their “rescue” mission was successful, and the Norwegian authorities chose not to prosecute them. The film is a combination of talking heads – the divers discussing their sport, the dive, and the tragedy – and footage from both the tragic dive and the rescue dive, with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the group preparing for each of the dives. The divers are completely normal people – mostly men, but there are some women – and not the sort of egotistical assholes you usually find in extreme sports (although, on reflection, all the documentaries I’ve seen about divers has shown them to be disconcertingly ordinary). Diving into the Unknown is the sort of story Hollywood would have a field day with (who know, there may be a fictionalisation in the works already), but the matter-of-fact presentation of the documentary I find much more effective. Definitely worth watching.

Finally, Sunday, François Truffaut (1983, France). The more Truffaut I watch, the more I like Truffaut. I’d seen Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cent Coups many years ago, and not been all that taken with them, although I did, and still do, love Fahrenheit 451. But the Truffaut films I’ve watched since, I’ve liked a great deal, including Tirez dur le pianiste, which may actually be one of my favourite New Wave films.  Finally, Sunday, or Vivement dimanche!, was Truffaut’s last film and, as I tweeted while watching it, probably “the Truffautest film Truffaut ever Truffauted”. For a start, it’s shot in black and white, which immediately suggests Truffaut’s New Wave movies, and it is, in fact, very New Wave, in look and tone and construction. A rich man is shot while hunting, and a business associate, an estate agent, is the prime suspect. The estate agent’s secretary, played by Fanny Ardant, sets out to prove her boss’s innocence. So you have that noir link, a New Wave favourite, right there in the plot. It’s also very Hitchcockian, of course, as Truffaut was an expert on Hitch, and was instrumental in rehabilitating the director and his oeuvre. I too am a big fan of Hitchcock and own pretty much all of his movies on either DVD or Blu-ray (and I’ve also seen Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, although I’ve not read the book). In places, it’s hard to tell what in Finally, Sunday is homage and what is pastiche, but then the lines between those two are often blurred in the New Wave (although perhaps more so in Godard’s films). I am becoming a bit of a fan of Truffaut, despite being initially cool to his films. I think Truffaut is the better director, but Godard is the better film-maker, if that makes sense. Happily, most of Truffaut’s oeuvre is available in the UK – including a pair of reasonably-priced Blu-ray collections – which is not the case for Godard.

Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008, Italy). The first Sorrentino film I saw was The Consequences of Love and I thought it great – the aesthetics of a European car commercial married to a, somewhat langorous, thriller plot. And so beautifully shot. And I liked The Great Beauty too, even if it felt like Fellini on prozac – because the cinematography was once again exquisite – although to be fair, the languid pace did suit the story (or rather, it suited the character of the film’s protagonist). But Youth was a disappointment, a trite story of the over-privileged at a Swiss sanatorium, albeit still with lovely photography. But my appreciation of Sorrentino’s work was definitely on the wane. And so, Il Divo… This is an earlier work than those mentioned previously, and is a lightly fictionalised account of the career, and fall from grace, of the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, prime minster from 1972 to 1973, 1976 to 1979 and 1989 to 1992. He was accused of corruption and ties to the Mafia, but was aquitted in court due to a lack of evidence. The film is as stylish, and as stylised, as Sorrentino’s later works, with beautifully-lit and -shot interiors, but Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in The Great Beauty, plays Andreotti with a weird lack of affect that seemed to make the man more of a caricature than a character. It was a bit like watching a political cartoon wandering through Rome’s many historical buildings. It all felt like it wasn’t taking Andreotti’s transgression expecially seriously – not an attempt to rehabilitate, but more of a trivialisation of his crimes. An odd film.

Gone to Earth, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1950, UK). The Archers must surely be in the top ten of British directors, if not the top five, although many of their films these days are so much of their time the sheer technical brilliance involved in their making is often overlooked. My favourite of their movies remains Black Narcissus, which is such a beautifully-made piece of cinema it’s mind-blowing it was done entirely in a studio. But the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are best known for three other films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all of which are excellent… but it does mean the rest of their oeuvre tends to get overlooked. Including this mid-career piece set in Cornwall. Although, to be fair, Gone to Earth is a bit hokey, and while there’s lots of good Archer-ish things about it, the story is somewhat over-melodramatic and perhaps even a bit bodice-ripper-ish. Jennifer Jones plays the flighty nature-loving and nubile daughter of a coffin-maker and harpist in 1890s Shropshire. She also has a pet fox. But then the local squire takes a shine to her… but she marries the new vicar instead. And then runs away to be with the squire. But the vicar wins her back, although by this point her name is mud in the community. It all comes to a head with a tragedy that was carefully telegraphed in the first act. This is not a great Archers film, although the fact it was made by them means it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries. It seems a bit chrulish to complain about the story, since most of the Archers’ films are overloaded melodramas, and part of their formula was making such melodramas play like plain dramas. Gone to Earth doesn’t manage the charisma of the aforementioned films, perhaps because it feels like a cut-price Austen story, or because the characters are just a tad too archetypal… A film worth seeing, but not a great film.

The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and a quick google persuaded me it might be worth watching. Which it was. It’s very slow, which I like; but I’m not sure on it being inspired by the films of Jess Franco. But then, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any films by Franco (isn’t he a bit like Tinto Brass? Deeply sexist exploitation films from the 1970s?). A young woman turns up at the house of a slightly older woman – I’m not sure where this was filmed, the cast speak English but it doesn’t look like the UK (and the two leads are Italian and Swedish, anyway) – where she is apparently taken on as a maid/housekeeper… although the mistress of the house appears very demanding, if not over-demanding. It transpires the maid is a student of the older woman, who is a lepidoptery expert. And the two are lovers. The film charts their exploration of a BDSM relationship, in which it is soon revealed that the submissive is actually controlling the mistress. It’s all filmed totally like an art film, and not at all like the soft porn its story suggests. In fact, in places it closer resembles video art than it does narrative cinema. Clearly, Strickland is a man with a singular vision, and the wherewithal to get projects with such, on the surface, salacious plots green-lit. The film certainly makes the viewer feel like they’re peeping on a private affair, which is clearly the effect Strickland was striving for (there are shots taken through keyholes, for example). It makes for an uncomfortable experience, that razor-edge between titillation and invasion of privacy the film manages to straddle quite successfully. Not everything in it works, but enough does to make it an interesting movie.

La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000, France). This, to be honest, was a bit of a slog. I’m fully in tune with Watkins’s objectives and sensibilities, but 345 minutes (5¾ hours!) is a lot of time to spend watching a pretty obvious story unfold. There’s a lot of good things in this – it’s a Watkins, so that’s a given – such as the insistence on historical verisimilitude but the presence of modern media. But it’s also a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the titular government, which ruled Paris for just over a month in 1871. The film is presented as re-enactments of events, using a very large and mostly non-professional cast, some documentary footage about the making of the film, fake news broadcasts by a contemporary (ie, 1871) television station (yes, really), and a series of historical notes given as lengthy intertitles. It comes across as a comprehensive documentary, or Open University film, about its subject, but with added commentary and, on top of that, meta-commentary about the media and the role of media in the sort of events which both created and led to the destruction of the Paris Commune. The film makes a large number of interesting, and important, points, but watching all 345 minutes of it is a real test of endurance. It’s going to take me several goes to digest it all, so I’m glad I have my own copy (albeit from a France-released box set – why is there no UK box set of Watkins’s films?).

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures 2017, #21

Six films from six different countries, which is quite good… and even the US one is not that embarrassing. Honestly.

Dances with Wolves*, Kevin Costner (1990, USA), Yes, unbelievably, I’d never seen Dances with Wolves. Since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I’d always planned to watch it, but I had it as low priority on one of my rental lists. But then I found a copy for a quid in a charity shop… I’d been expecting a revisionist Western and, yes, that’s very much what it is… but not precisely in the way I’d expected. Costner plays a monomaniacal Cavalry officer who insists on being assigned to the furthest outpost in US territory. Shortly after settling alone there, he encounters his neighbours, a village of Lakota Indians. He visits them in the interest of peaceful relations, and gradually learns their language. He also marries a Lakota widow. But then the US Army turns up, and decides Costner is a traitor because he has gone “native”. Unfortunately, there is such a mass of cultural material generated by the US in which the Native Americans are painted as villainous savages, and the white Americans as noble pioneers, that it’ll be centuries before the US truly accepts it committed racial genocide on all the cultures which shared the North American continent prior to their arrival. So, really, we shouldn’t be calling these films “revisionist” because they depict the Lakota as actual human beings and the occupying white Americans as vicious scumbags, because that’s probably much closer to the truth than the genre usually reckons. It is also fucking shameful that science fiction bases so many of its narratives on stories of Western pioneers and their so-called courage and fortitude in colonising distant territory, when it was usually their advanced weaponry and duplicity that won the day. Dances with Wolves was not a great film, although it won a huge raft of awards, but it was a lot better than I’d expected it to be. I actually quite enjoyed it.

Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky (1962, Russia). This was a rewatch, prompted by me upgrading my Tarkovsky DVDs (which went to a good home) to Blu-rays. Ivan’s Childhood was Tarkovsky’s first feature film for a studio. The title refers to a boy who becomes a runner for the Red Army on the Eastern Front during WWII. There’s a scene in the film which captures me every time: Ivan has just arrived at an outpost, and the commanding lieutenant is not sure what to make of him, despite the boy’s claim to importance. At Ivan’s insistence, the officer rings headquarters and is properly humbled. He then offers the boy a hot bath. Evereyone who meets Ivan wants to do right by him, which by their lights means sending him to school and officer training. But he wants to stay at the front, directly contributing to the war effort. To be honest, there’s not much on this Blu-ray release which justifies the upgrade – it’s a bloody good film, if not Tarkovsky’s best, there’s the rest of his oeuvre to compete for that, and to be honest I can’t say it looks better on Blu-ray than on DVD because it’s a fifty-five-year-old film. Upgrading was a no-brainer – Tarkovsky is one of the best directors ever – and if it’s prompted me to rewatch his films (again), then it’s done more than intended. In fact, I now want to watch them again again.

The Milk of Sorrow, Claudia Llosa (2009, Peru). My first film from Peru. And a female director too. (Incidentally, I’ve started tracking the gender of the directors whose films I watch now, but it’s embarrassingly male-heavy at present.) The Milk of Sorrow takes place in an area occupied by indigenous people – Quechua is spoken during the film more than Spanish, in fact – and the title refers to a belief that women who were abused or raped transmit their feelings through their milk to their female children. The film follows a young woman who is accused of suffering from this as she tries to avoid her mother’s fate. I had not come across Llosa before encountering this film – which was pretty much a random Peruvian film picked because I’d never seen a film from that country – but on the strength of The Milk of Sorrow I want to see more by Llosa. (And so I did, as it turns out The Milk of Sorrow was a two-disc set with Llosa’s Madeinusa, which will be covered in a later Moving pictures post). Some films are just good; some films are good and you want other people to watch them. Many of the recent Chinese films I’ve seen fall into that later category. As does The Milk of Sorrow. Highly recommended.

Innocent Sorcerers, Andrzej Wajda (1960, Poland). Another from the second Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box set. I’ve yet to get a handle on Wajda’s output – I really like Man of Marble and Man of Iron, although the latter feels more like a teleplay than a feature film; and the latter is also in the first box set of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is good as it’s apparently not available in the UK, to go with the Second Run DVD release I have of Man of Marble; but I was not all that taken with his best-known film, Ashes and Diamonds. In other words, I pretty much have to take each Wajda film as I find them. And this one was… fun, in a sort of 1960s black-and-white-jazz-soundtrack sort of way. A bit like a John Cassavetes film but more to my taste. There’s a young doctor with improbably blond hair, and a young man in sunglasses who looks like the protagonist of Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s all very New Wave, but filtered through a very Polish lens. As previously mentioned it’s a lot like Cassavetes’s films but also completely unlike them – it feels more polished for a start, less reliant on ensemble acting, with a bit more Godard in its DNA than Cassavetes was wont to show. The films suffers from unsympathetic characters – but then so do Cassavetes’s films – and very little happens during its 87 minutes. It’s considered an oddity in Wajda’s oeuvre, and it’s easy to understand why. Worth watching, but lacking something that might make it a film worth remembering.

Day for Night*, François Truffaut (1973, France). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s apparently not available for rental from either LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso. But it turned out to be an excellent film, so never mind. (It was also very cheap.) Truffaut plays a director making a film in the south of France starring a British movie star, played by Jacqueline Bisset. The entire movie is a series of in-jokes about movie-making, and the personalities involved, and it works really well. My attitude to Truffaut’s films is definitely improving. There are some great set-pieces in Day for Night, especially the one with the cat, and the cast are thoroughly convincing in their roles. The alcoholic dowager actress is fun, and the various relationships which develop among the cast and crew are amusing. Apparently, Graham Greene was an admirer of Truffaut and scored himself a walk-on part as an insurance agent. Truffaut, who admired Greene’s writing, only found out later that one of the insurance agents was Greene. As meta-cinema goes, it’s all a bit obvious – and was obvious in 1973, Vertov did it fifty years earlier with Man with a Movie Camera, for example – and some of the jokes were clearly at Hollywood’s expense, but it all seemed so genial, rather than than génial, and Bisset’s depiction of a fragile actress seemed just right for her role in the film and the “film”. My third favourite Truffaut so far.

Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China). Yet more Chinese cinema. I’ve yet to see any evidence to contradict my claim that China currently has one of the strongest cinemas of any nation. Admittedly, I’m seeing the films which get international releases, and not the purely domestic stuff, but China has a stable of amazing directors, active from the mid-1990s onwards, who have produced some of the best films of the past ten or so years. Which is not to say there are not some excellent historical films – I’m a big fan of Spring in a Small Town (1948), and The Goddess (1934) is also very good. Suzhou River is an earlier work, inasmuch as it was released at the turn of the century, and it shows a bit in its MTV-style cutting, but it’s still an excellent film. It also takes an interesting approach to narrative, opening with a voiceover in which the narrator explains how he came to love a young woman who plays a mermaid in a Shanghai bar. It then tells the story of Mardar and Moudan, a courier who ferries a rich man’s daughter about town, before being forced to kidnap her… Years later, Mardar returns to Shanghai, and stumbles across the mermaid, who he thinks is Moudan. There is, as previously mentioned, a few too many MTV-style jump-cuts, but in all other respects this is a very good Sixth Generation movie. I’ve found myself buying several of the Chinese films I’ve watched on rental after seeing them, and I think I’ll be looking for a copy of this one too. (Damn, I just went and bought one on eBay for a tenner.)

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 860


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Moving pictures, #59

It’s not all about the US, although you’d be forgiven everything was always about the US – but there’s only one American film in this post. Two from France, however, despite my previously-stated lack of enthusiasm for much French cinema (although I do prefer it to US and UK cinema).

labyrinth_liesLabyrinth of Lies, Giulio Ricciarelli (2014, Germany). Someone mentioned this film to me, and then I promptly forgot about it until stumbling across it on Amazon Prime. It’s set in the late 1950s in Germany, and is about a federal prosecutor’s attempt to prosecute surviving SS guards at Auschwitz under state criminal law (rather than international crimes against humanity). He’s hampered by the fact that the German establishment is packed to the gills with ex-Nazis, all of whom are invested in ensuring that the crimes committed during WWII are forgotten. The German public also believe the Allied films taken when liberating Auschwitz and the other death camps were propaganda. When the prosecutor learns Mengele freely travels back to Germany to visit his family, he is horrifed. He does a deal with the Israelis for Eichmann and Mengele, but once they have Eichmann they renege. Mengele is never bought to justice. The prosecutor has the blessing of the state prosecutor-general, and battles through the resistance of his colleagues, the local police, and members of the German public. It’s all based on a true story, but the ending is not especially happy. The German government decreed that a murder committed while following orders was not murder, but accessory to murder; for a death-camp guard to be charged with murder, he would have to kill someone on his own provable initiative. Of the 6,500 surviving soldiers who served at Auschwitz, only 789 were charged, and only 750 were sentenced. Most served only a few years. Worth seeing.

deadpoolDeadpool, Tim Miller (2016, USA). I don’t why I bothered. I knew going in this would probably annoy me more than it would entertain. Admittedly, from what I’d read, it seemed quite different to your average superhero movie and a lot was made of its irreverent tone… Basically, you have Ryan Reynolds in the title role cracking jokes throughout, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in voiceover, and sometimes breaking the fourth wall (gosh, how innovative). Reynolds is some sort of ex-special forces mercenary, who joins a programme which is supposed to give him super mutant powers. Which it does. But it also makes him really ugly. Which is unfortunate, because he’s in a relationship and he’s afraid his girlfriend will be horrified by his new appearance (hence the mask). But Reynolds wants the bloke who ran the programme because he thinks he can restore his previous good looks. Essentially, Deadpool is one big series of flashbacks. It opens with a fight on a freeway, in which Deadpool attacks a conovy, and then a series of flashbacks, and voiceovers, explain how Deadpool ended up in that situation. Every now and again, it cuts back to the fight on the freeway. Which Deadpool isn’t exactly winning, but one of his super mutant powers is the ability to heal almost immediately from any wound. I suppose if you were to judge Deadpool against other MCU movies, then it looks quite good. But that’s a really low bar. It was entertaining, in a marginally more than brainless way, but it’s once-watched-completely-forgotten.

shoot_pianistTirez sur le pianiste*, François Truffaut (1960, France). This was a rental and only watched because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. After all, much as I love Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, I’d thought The 400 Blows a bit meh, and besides I’d found the Nouvelle Vague more miss than hit… Anyway, I bunged Shoot the Pianist (I prefer the French title, tbh) into the player one Saturday night after I’d had some wine… and, well, I wasn’t really following the film and it all looked a bit, well, New Wave and black-and-white and French and full of itself. But the next morning it occurred to me I’d not given the film a fair crack, so a couple of days later I sat down and watched it again – and this time I watched it properly. And was surprised to find myself both enjoying it and appreciating Truffaut’s film-making. Charles Azanvour plays a concert pianist who lives his life behind after his wife commits suicide, and is now playing the piano in a bar. His brother appears one day, on the run from a pair of crooks, with whom he’d committed a crime. While helping out his brother, Aznavour meets one of the bar’s waitresses, the two enter into a relationship. There’s an extended flashback to Aznavour’s days as a feted concert pianist, and a third act that is almost pure noir. But I think what appeals about Tirez sur le pianiste is that for mit really brought into focus the elements of the Nouvelle Vague – the extreme close-ups, the voiceovers, the fascination with US cinema, especially noir, the free-wheeling plotting… There’s a scene where Aznavour and the waitress, Marie Dubois, are walking along a street and night-time, and he tries to take her hand, and it was like peak Nouvelle Vague – the only missing was a jazz score. Truffaut has gone up a little in my estimation, so I might stick more of his films on my rental list.

walkaboutWalkabout*, Nicolas Roeg (1971, Australia). A teenage girl and her younger brother are driven out into the Outback their father, ostensibly for a picnic, but he goes mental, then shoots himself. So, the two of them hike off into the bush, as you do, in an attempt to find help. Neither knows how to survive in the desert and both are woefully naive about a great number of things. Fortunately, they’re discovered by a Yolngu young man on his walkabout, and he helps them and shows them how to survive in the bush. They make their way to a town, where the Yolngu man dances a courtship dance for the girl, which she fails to understand. The next day, the Yolngu man is dead. It’s not stated how he died. Roeg has said he started filming without much of a plan and pretty much filmed whatever took his fancy. It worked. The camera is forever drifting about the bush, filming the various creatures which inhabit it. There’s also an artlessness and plotlessness to the trio’s wanderings, which makes of their journey something of a fairy tale. It has an entirely appropriate dream-logic to it, and though it clearly wasn’t intentional, it makes the film much better than it might have been. I’ve not seen all that much by Roeg – the two obvious ones, of course: Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth – but I think I’ll try more by him. Recommended.

screaming_manA Screaming Man, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2010, Chad). I’ve seen two of Haroun’s early films, Abouna and Daratt, and thought them very good, so it was a no-brainer to put this on the rental list… although it took a while before I was eventually sent it. The eponymous figure is an ex-Olympic swimmer, now many years later the attendant at a hotel swimming-pool. His son is the other poll attendant. But when a new company takes over the hotel, they do the usual and start “rationalising” the staff. So the old man is demoted to gate guard, and his son remains the sole pool attendant. So the father “volunteers” his son for the army, to fight against rebel forces. They take him away and the old man gets his position back as poool attendant. Some time later, a pregnant young woman turns up and says she is the son’s wife. They take her in. The man reconsiders what he’s done, and heads off on his motorcycleand sidecar to fetch his son from the front line. He finds him badly wounded, puts him in the sidecar and heads for home. The story of a A Screaming Man seems strung on two poles: a matter-of-factness in the telling and dark humour. It’s something I noticed in Daratt, but it seems especially prevalent in this film, although it’s a more laidback affair than that earlier movie. It’s in the small scenes, like the title character dashing back and forth to open the hotel entry and exit gates as cars keep appearing. There doesn’t seem to be anything else by Haroun other than the three films I’ve named currently available, which is a shame as he’s definitely worth seeing.

limportantL’important c’est d’aimer, Andrzej Żuławski (1975, France). This was a lucky find on eBay – after all, now that I know these Mondo Vision Signature Edition DVDs of Żuławski’s films exist, how could I not want them? Of course, by the time I did learn of them, only the two most recent of the five so far released were still available – although I’d learnt of them by buying one of the deleted titles on eBay. And now the only one I’m missing it arguably Żuławski’s most famous film, Possession, but L’important c’est d’aimer, or The Most Important Thing is to Love, is perhaps Żuławski’s least batty film. Romy Schneider plays a pornographic actress whom photographer Fabio Testi falls for. So he decides to boost her career, and gets her cast in a production of Richard III. But Schneider has a husband, and as she falls for Testi, she’s conflicted between the two. As Żuławski films go, this one is almost laidback. The performances are toned down considerably more than in his other films, and while it relies a great deal on the cast’s sexuality – as all of Żuławski’s French films seem to do – there’s definitely more drama here than melodrama. Unfortunately, it does make it a deal less memorable than Żuławski’s other films. Mondo Vision, incidentally, have another impressive job on this release, and I really need to get hold of their limited edition of Possession so I’ll have the set. They’re releasing a limited edition of The Blue Note soon. It’s on my wishlist.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 822


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Moving pictures, #33

It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.

thin_blue_lineThe Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.

being_thereBeing There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

asphalt_jungleThe Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.

last_metroThe Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the  mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.

shaftShaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…

she_done_him_wrongShe Done Him Wrong*, Lowell Sherman (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

shaneShane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…

wild_blue_yonderThe Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665