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Moving pictures 2017, #43

One of these days I should do a themed week in my movie-watching – films from one country, perhaps, or by a single director. Well, maybe, not an entire week, maybe just six movies in a row. Since I’ve just purchased a Jean-Luc Godard collection, I could do it with his films, pick half a dozen straight out of the box. Some would be rewatches, but I’ve been wanting to rewatch some of his movies anyway. It’s an idea. Meanwhile, another mixed bag…

Medea, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1969, Italy). This is what I know Pasolini for, and why I bought this box set – an historical, well, almost fantasy, film like Fellini at his most self-indulgent. I mean, given that I love Fellini’s Satyricon (see here) and Casanova (see here), it should come as no surprise that Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (see here) and Medea also press my buttons. The story – which is based loosely on the Ancient Greek character of the same name – is more or less incidental. It’s the visuals which count. And Pasolini goes full out on those – much of the movie was filmed on historical sites, such as the Göreme Open Air Museum in Turkey. It looks fantastic, and even convincingly accurate – although I suspect it bears little resemblance to actual Ancient Greek society. But Medea is one of those films where you can just bask in the wonderful mise-en-scène, and perhaps feel a little smug for consuming some Ancient Greek culture, without caring over much about the story. Maria Callas, in her only movie role, makes for a striking Medea, but to be honest it doesn’t really matter who plays who. This a film that just looks great. In fact, Arabian Nights and Medea alone would justify the purchase of the the Six Films 1968 – 1975 Blu-ray box set, but, as below indicates, Theorem is also another film in the set that presses a lot of my buttons. And, let’s face it, the other three films are no slouches either.

Up in Smoke*, Lou Adler (1978, USA). This is a film I would normally go nowhere near, but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and so I guess I gotta watch it… It’s credited with being the first stoner comedy, which is not a genre I find appealing. Or amusing. Which was pretty much the case here. Up in Smoke is the first film appearance of dope-head comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who went on to make a further six films, seven if you include an animated feature released in 2013, twenty-eight years after their last movie. Cheech and Chong play a couple of stoner Angelinos, who meet when Chong’s car breaks down on a highway and Cheech gives him a lift in his lowrider. Chong admits he’s a drummer, and Cheech invites him to join his band. They then spend the rest of the movie driving around parts of LA on the hunt for marijuana, inadvertently managing to avoid being arrested by inept cop Stacy Keach at every turn. At one point, the pair are deported to Mexico (it’s deliberate) and offer to drive a van back to the US, not knowing that the van’s bodywork is made entirely out of marjuana. The film ends with a battle of the bands, which Cheech & Chong do not win, but by then everyone is so high from the burning van no one really cares. Including the viewer. Jack Nicholson apparently thought the film was hilarious, perhaps he was under the influence. I don’t recall a single chuckle in it. True, my sense of humour is more of the Confucian variety – as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof. Slapstick, in other words. This is not slapstick. Still, at least I can now cross it off the list. I very much doubt I’ll be bothering with the six/seven sequels…

The Soft Skin, François Truffaut (1964, France). A well-known literary critic and editor catches a plane to Lisbon to give a talk at a conference. In the hotel where he’s staying, he meets a beautiful flight attendant he remembers from his flight. They ride up in the lift, but to her floor not his… and when he reaches his own room, he telephones her and apologises for not helping her with her bags and asks her for a drink. She refuses, but then rings back and accepts… And so begins an affair between the two. Some time later, the critic accepts an invite to a film festival in Reims, and takes the flight attendant, his mistress, with him. But the trip doesn’t go very well – he has difficulty getting away from the festival organisers – and on the way back to Paris they stop off at a country pension. The critic’s wife later discovers photographs of this weekend tryst, and subsequently demands a divorce…  I’m finding myself increasingly a fan of Truffaut’s films, but I also find myself having trouble getting a handle on his film-making. He doesn’t have an identifiable style – or rather, he has many. And his chameleon nature, which is never less than skilfully done, makes it hard to think of Truffaut’s films as a single body of work. The Soft Skin is a well-drawn character study of its two leads, well-shot, and with some nice observations. But it doesn’t seem of an ilk with Two English Girls or Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me until now to appreciate Truffaut’s excellence, the fact his films seem to undermine auteur theory, despite the fact Truffaut is a Nouvelle Vague director, and in fact it’s Truffaut himself who invented the concept in his 1954 essay, ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma français’. The Soft Skin seemed like a polished French adultery movie of the 1960s, which is almost a genre itself, and so its appeal is limited to the appeal of its type. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t see that it was an explicitly Truffaut film.

TO 2001 Nights, Fumihiko Sori (2009, Japan). It’s an anime film, so guess who recommended it… Although at least this one was recommended in conversation, rather than snuck onto my rental list. And David Tallerman (for it was he, of course) did point out it looked good but was pretty naff. Which turned out to be more or less spot-on. It’s not actually a feature-length movie, but two stories from a manga series. The first, ‘Ellpitical Orbit’, has a spacecraft returning from an exoplanet colony stop off at a space station in, I think, LEO. The captain of the spacecraft is the ex-wife of the station commander, although interstellar travel now means they have aged at different rates. And then space pirates attack and… I was too busy wincing at the awful dialogue, so I’m not entirely sure how it all panned out. The second story, ‘Symbiotic Planet’ is about a colony on an exoplanet, or rather several colonies, each of which seem to recapitulate 1980s Cold War tensions. The exoplanet is notable for its fungi, and when a member of the staff is infected with the fungi, it proves beneficial rather than fatal… TO 2001 Nights looks lovely, albeit not always entirely plausible in the way media sf never really does, but its stories are a bit crap. David called it right. Worth seeing, perhaps, but eminently forgettable.

Theorem, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1968, Italy). I was expecting something much like the other Pasolini films I’d watched when I put this in the player. What I got was something that reminded me much more of Antonioni’s films. It opens with journalists interviewing workers from a factory that has just become a collective. The film then flashes back to the house of an affluent Italian family. Ninetto Davoli – a familiar face in Pasolini’s films – plays a dancing postman who heralds the arrival of Terence Stamp, an enigmatic stranger, who moves into the house, and then sleeps with each of the family members, including the maid. All of them are healed in some way after sex with Stamp. And when he leaves, they each do something their previous view of their lives had prevented them from doing – the father giving his factory to his workers, for example, as in the opening shots. It’s all very late sixties, and apart from Davolini doing his arm-flapping dancing about, much more like Antonioni than Pasolini, except… while it’s certainly enigmatic, like Antonioni, it doesn’t have his glacial pace, nor his focus on his characters – Stamp is, after all, a cipher. And I’m pretty sure Antonioni would never have included a shot of a naked man running around on the slopes of a volcano – Zabriskie Point notwithstanding. I considered Six Films 1968 – 1975 worth buying for Arabian Nights and Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom alone, but having now seen both Medea and Theorem I’m even more glad I bought it. And I really ought to watch more of Pasolini’s works.

Queen, Vikas Bahl (2014, India). I suspect people who don’t watch Bollywood films underestimate the range of movies produced by the Hindi film industry. It’s true many are boy meets girl boy loses girl boy gets girl back, with singing and dancing, but a lot of the more recent, and very successful, Bollywood films I’ve watched have been anything but that. Like Queen. The title character, Rani, is about to get married, but her fiancé dumps her two days before the wedding. So she decides to go on the honeymoon on her own, to Paris and then onto Amsterdam. In Paris, she is befriended by a Franco-Indian maid, who’s a party girl and takes Rani to various night spots, introduces to her friends and generally shows her how to have a good time and how to be an independent woman. Rani then moves onto Amsterdam, where she finds herself staying in a hostel and sharing a room with three guys, a Russian, a man from Japan, and a Frenchman. They soon become friends, and explore the city together – including a trip to visit a friend of the Parisian maid, who is a sexworker in the red light district. While there were plenty of songs in Queen, unlike in other Bollywood films I’ve seen the action didn’t stop for a dance routine. The more Bollywood films I watch, the more surprised I am that people in this country don’t watch them as often they would watch, say, French or Japanese films. True, they’re in Hindi, and rarely dubbed, although the cast do code-switch a hell of a lot, and even more so in Queen, but refusing to watch a film because it has subtitles is just wilful ignorance. (I should check my own collection one of these days, to see what percentage are non-Anglophone.) A lot of the Bollywood films I’ve watched were fun, but Queen was charming too. It was entirely carried by Kangana Ranaut in the title role, although Lisa Haydon was also good as the Franco-Indian maid. It’s rare you reach the end of a Bollywood film without feeling cheered, and Queen made you feel good about enjoying it too. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878

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Moving pictures 2017, #41

It has occurred to me I should perhaps start a separate blogs for films, but then this blog would be be tumbleweeds all the time, so I don’t think I will. For the time-being, it’s likely to be mostly movies, but as the year progresses I’m hoping that will change. Meanwhile, more, er, films…

Gimme Shelter*, Albert & David Maylses (1970, USA). There’s that meme, back before the days of internet memes, and it asks: Asterix or Tintin? Dogs or cats? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? As if it’s a handy way to categorise people… For the record, I prefer Tintin to Asterix, cats to dogs… and I’m not really a fan of either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But Gimme Shelter is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so watch it I must… The Maylses’s schtick was that they just filmed stuff, edited it, and then presented it without commentary (totally disingenuously, of course, as the editing itself created narrative out of the raw footage and so implied commentary). Gimme Shelter plays at fly-on-the-wall, and was originally intended to be simply a documentary in the putting together of a free concert. But the murder at Altamont during the Stones’ set obviously bent that out of shape, and so Gimme Shelter becomes a documentary about that, created from footage shot for other reasons. The end result is a powerful and interesting documentary, but also a somewhat disingenuous one, so much so it makes you wonder about the “truth” of all documentaries. To be fair, documentaries suffer from having to impose narrative on topics that have no natural narrative (narrative is an instrument of bias, by definition; a story teller chooses the story they tell), but in this particular case, the post-facto narrative proved more compelling than that which had prompted the project in the first place. Which is not to say that Gimme Shelter is a bad film, it’s a good one, but it does misrepresent itself… and indeed misrepresents the event it ostensibly documents. There is truth, there are documentaries that strive for truth, and there are documentaries that, well, appear on lists like 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die… I enjoyed Gimme Shelter, despite not liking the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s more an entertaining film than it is a valid witness to the events of the time it depicts.

A Short Film About Killing, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988, Poland). Kieślowski is an excellent entry point to cinephilia. There, I said it. But he’s also the “director’s director” most cinephiles have moved on from, and his work, to them, to us, seems in hindsight somewhat middle-brow. He was undoubtedly an excellent film-maker, and his notorious perfectionism is evident in every frame of every work that bears his name. But his mix of stark realism and whimsical fantasy has not aged especially well, and for all the beauty of his framing, and the excellence of the performances he elicited from his casts, it all these days seems a bit past-it. Which is doubly unfair, when applied to A Short Film About Killing, which is entirely realist, but also shot entirely in a way that emphasises its realism. And which, sadly, ultimately undoes its intent. The story is simple: a listless drifter brutally murders a taxi-cab driver, is caught, tried, sentenced to death and hanged. That’s it. Kieślowski dwells on the murder, showing it as a brutal, drawn-out affair, as if it bolster the credentials of his villain – and it’s true that an argument against capital punishment needs to show an acceptable victim because it would otherwise be compromised… But to then display the moral scaffolding put in place to justify capital punishment by those who execute it does undermine the argument. True, it would be cowardice to have someone whose crime, or circumstance, might mitigate, or who might even be innocent – something most anti-capital punishment films seem to do. Kieślowski’s films is all the more powerful because the crime committed is so heinous. But he also shows that the system is fixed, reprieve is impossible, and the flat, affectless way the story unfolds fails to reinforce the logic of the film’s message because Kieślowski invests too much in the circumstances of his three main characters – the murderer, his victim, and the advocate who defends the murderer. He connects them. And that makes it personal – but the film’s argument against capital punishment remains impersonal. Kieślowski was once among my top ten directors, but he has since fallen from that list. I will almost certainly watch his films again some day, so I’m glad I own good copies. Speaking of which, the three Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema have proven an excellent purchase, and I’m really glad I took the plunge, even if they were quite expensive…

Sleep, My Love, Douglas Sirk (1948, USA). I can’t find UK DVD cover art for this, because it’s never been released on DVD here. The copy I watched was a legal out-of-copyright rip bought on eBay, of pretty good quality, way better than VHS, but by no means official. And, to be fair, it’s not a film that deserves all that much to be remembered. Sirk was one of several German, or Teutonophone, directors who had successful careers in Hollywood during the 1940s to 1960s, and his All That Heaven Allows is my all-time favourite film (and the so-called women’s melodramas he made during the late 1950s are among Hollywood’s best films), but for much of his career he churned out Hollywood potboilers… and this is one of them. It’s pretty much Gaslight by another name and with a slightly different plot. Claudette Colbert is an heiress married to a wastrel, Don Amerche, and Ameche has been using drugs and hypnosis to try and set her up to murder someone and so be sent to prison, allowing him, and his mistress, to abscond with her money. So he gaslights her, and when the murder plot fails, he tries to hypnotise her into jumping from her bedroom window. But that fails too… thanks to the lucky appearance of a China-based US businessman, Robert Cummings, on leave back home, whom befriends Colbert, and then becomes the love interest. Ameche and his co-conspirators are pretty inept, and only really get as far as they do because Colbert can’t see what’s going on (despite the gaslighting). Even then, it’s only because the conspirators fall out that their plot eventually falls apart. Not one of Sirk’s best; not even a good noir film, to be honest.

Two English Girls, François Truffaut (1971, France). I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I think Truffaut is great… I don’t think Truffaut is great… I’m not really sure what to make of him. Some of his films I think are brilliant and I love them. Others, it’s hard to believe the same guy made them. True, no one loves all the films a particular director has made – I mean, no director is that good. Although one or two might come close. I love Sirk’s melodramas, for example, but his other films I find eminently forgettable. So, liking and admiring some of Truffaut films but not others, well, I’m unlikely to be alone in that. But to go from pretty much complete indifference to multiple watches of some of his movies, that’s not so common. Although I wonder if Two English Girls, AKA Anna & Muriel, a title that appears only on the Blu-ray packaging, which is a bit random, will be one of the latter. It’s a very Truffaut film, inasmuch as it’s seamlessly put together. But it’s also slightly odd in some respects. There are, for instance, a lot of long shots, and landscape shots, neither of which Truffaut normally uses. And there are the anachronisms. Two English Girls is a period piece set at the start of the twentieth-century and yet in one shot, quite deliberately, the two sisters are on the beach and plain on the horizon are – oil platforms? electricity pylons? I’m not sure. But whatever they are, they definitely didn’t exist in 1902. And in the opening scene, one of the young girls on the swing has quite visible orthodontic braces. And yet… the eponymous characters are well-drawn, and if Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the young Frenchman who becomes a de facto brother, and then lover of one, seems to act his role somewhat stiffly and with little visible emotion, his voice-over – text from the novel from which the film was adapted? – helps chart his character. It all felt very DH Lawrentian, which is no bad thing to my mind, but with an undercurrent of stiffness that is entirely foreign to Lawrence’s stories and prose… You know, I think Two English Girls might be one of the Truffauts I watch several times…

Endless Poetry, Alejandro Jodorowsky (2016, Chile). This film follows on directly from The Dance of Reality (see here), as it covers Jodorowsky’s early twenties, when he moved to Santiago and became part of a group of artists and poets. Jodorowsky is played one of his sons. Another son plays his father, as he did in the previous film,, which no doubt says all sorts of Freudian things, especially given that Jodorowsky himself makes several appearances, as himself, to give his young self advice– but what am I saying? Any Freudian who read any of Jodorowsky’s bandes dessinées would probably wet themselves at the stuff he puts in them. Endless Poetry is, like the earlier film, a succession of incidents in Jodorowsky’s life, centred as it was at that time on poetry. But after his parents’ shop burns down, and they lose everything, Jodorowsky consults Nicanor Parra (an important Latin American poet, now 102 years old!), but dissatisfied with his advice, Jodorowosky decides to leave Chile for France, in order to “save surrealism”. Leading to one of the film’s most powerful scenes, where Jodorowsky’s father confronts him on the jetty, the two argue, and separate unreconciled… only for Jodorowsky himself to appear and have the two play out how, in hindsight, he wished the encounter had gone… which involves twentysomething Jodorowsky shaving his father’s beard and head, so he resembles one of the male/female characters which appear in several of his comics. Jodorowsky then steps onto a boat, which backs out to sea – although it’s obviously heading towards the camera but the film is running in reverse, and which seems an entirely fitting end to a pair of movies which have charted Jodorowsky’s beginnings, as a child and as a poet, while also recapitulating his entire career. I’ll admit I had previously considered Jodorowsky a director notable more for the weirdness of his vision than as a maker of good films. (And I’m a fan of his sf bandes dessinées too.) But The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry really are very good films, and it’s a shame Jodorowsky had to resort ot crowdfunding to finance them. Hopefully, he won’t need to for his next one. Perhaps he might even try making a sf film…

The Lesson, Kristina Grozeva & Petar Valchanov (2014, Bulgaria). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental, and it looked worth watching. Which, happily, proved to be the case. A teacher in a town in Bulgaria translates documents on the side to make ends meet. Her husband has a camper van he is trying to sell, but he can’t get it working. One day, someone in her class steals some money, but no one will admit to the deed, or return the money when given the opportunity to do so anonymously. Then a repossession agent turns up at the teacher’s home and tells her they’re in arrears and the bank will auction off the house in three days – because the husband spent the mortgage payment money on a gearbox for his crappy caravanette. Then the translation company, which owes the teacher money, starts dragging its feet on paying her… and so she’s forced to go to a loan shark for the money to pay off the bank. (And then, after she’s made payment and returned to the school, the repossession agent rings to tell her he miscalculated and she owes a further 1.37 lev… which she has to borrow from a bus conductor on her way to the bank… but even that’s not enough because there’s a bank fee on top for the additional payment… and so she’s forced to scoop out coins from a good luck fountain.) At which point, the translation company declares bankruptcy, and the owner runs off with the money, so now the teacher can’t pay off the loan shark… The ending comes as no real surprise, but the build-up is cleverly done. Nor is the behaviour of the bankers and the loan shark all that much of a surprise, although they are disappointingly too much bastards. In fact, the teacher’s situation is pretty much created by the actions of total bastards – her husband, the owner of the translation company, the bank, the loan shark… Nevertheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 876


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Moving pictures 2017, #38

I had a Reading diary post lined up next after my last Moving pictures post, but it takes me longer to write about books – chiefly because books take longer to read than films to watch, so I need to remind myself of the earlier ones in a post, and, also, a lot more happens in a book than in a film. I’m also working on a post about the Clarke Award, perhaps even the current state of awards, but I’m not even sure I’ll bother publishing that one. These days, no one gives a shit about honest criticism, reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hype, and fans are more concerned with protecting the ego of their creator friends than they are in any sort of real conversation about the genre. But who knows, perhaps I’ll end up in a ranty mood one evening… and publish and be damned…

But, until then, it’s…. the return of the film post! Only a couple of days after the last one! And the one before that! And it’s only the thirty-eighth I’ve written so far this year alone! (Out of probably about forty-two actual blog posts. Oh well.) The movies in this batch were all a bit random, chosen chiefly because I wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about what to watch.

The Woman Next Door, François Truffaut (1981, France). So I went and bought the François Truffaut Collection Blu-ray box set, because it was going cheap and I’d found myself increasingly drawn to his films, and of the eight films in the set I’d only seen four, so it was pretty much a bargain. And the first disc I pulled from the box was The Woman Next Door, a film about which I knew nothing. Although from the cover art, it clearly starred Fanny Ardant, whom I’d watched only the week before in, er, Truffaut’s Finally, Sunday, also in this collection (see here). The male lead is Gerard Depardieu, and while I’ve always thought him a good actor, in this film he seemed to shift between blank-faced and hyper-emotive, with nothing in between. He and his wife and small boy live in a house in a village near Grenoble. The empty next-door house is rented by a couple around the same age… and the wife, Ardant, turns out to be a woman Depardieu had had a turbulent relationship with before getting married. Their affair rekindles, but it doesn’t go well. He kicks off at a barbecue with the neighbours, she has an incident at the local tennis club… Much as I enjoyed The Woman Next Door, it felt like many of its narrative hooks were left unexplored or unresolved. Ardant was good, as indeed were the supporting cast, but I wasn’t convinced by Depardieu… And the end result was a film that promised more than it delivered. Even the final shock twist felt a bit meh, given what had gone on before. I still admire Truffaut for his films, but this isn’t one of his best ones; and though its slick performances might convince some that is the case, he’s made much better.

The Lavender Hill Mob*, Charles Crichton (1951, UK). I had a feeling I’d seen this before, but I couldn’t remember the details… and when I came to watch it, pretty much everything in it was immediately familiar. Alec Guiness plays a mild-mannered bank clerk whose job entails fetching gold bullion from a foundry, and accompanying it in an armoured lorry to the bank. He’s completely trusted, but he’s planning to steal a shipment of gold just before he retires. His only problem is how transport the stolen gold out of the country. When the owner of Gewgaws Ltd, a company that makes tourist trinkets, moves into the boarding-house in which Guiness lives, he has his answer. Among the souveniers Gewgaws manufactures are gold-painted lead miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, sold in Paris. By making a consignment out of real gold, they can send them to France undetected. To help them in the robbery, the two recruit a pair of criminals, using the Gewgaws premises as a honeypot by talking loudly about a broken safe there, full of wages, on the Tube. The robbery goes more or less according to plan – there are a few hiccoughs, but the police are clueless, so it all comes right in the end. Until they get to France… and discover their Parisian contact has sold six of the real gold Eiffel Towers… to a party of British schoolgirls. And it’s the robbers’ attempts to get back those missing Eiffel Towers that proves their undoing. Ealing Studios have always been well-branded, and it’s easy to see why – their films are very distinctive. There’s a breeziness to the comedy in them, despite their obvious Britishness, that no other studio of the time managed. It’s almost a a sketch-show type of humour, but grounded in quickly- but effectively-drawn characters that carry over from one set-piece to the next. It is, in other words, jolly good fun. And if it all seems a bit implausible in places, that’s the part of the charm. But I’m not entirely sure why it rates a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Blow Out, Brian De Palma (1981, USA). I’ve never really known what to make of De Palma. He’s pretty much a straight-to-video director who manages to get theatrical releases, a sub-B-lister who is treated like a low-level A-lister. It’s not as if he makes bad films, although his use of split-screen is an affectation too far, but his movies mostly seem massively unoriginal. Blow Out is, apparently, De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but if it is then De Palma has either never seen Blow-Up or has completely misunderstood it. Travolta plays a sound technician who is out one night recording ambient sound for the latest straight-to-video schlock horror movie he is working on, when he witnesses a car plummetting into a river. He dives in and rescues one of the passengers, a young woman. The other, who dies, proves to be a politician tipped to be the next president. Travolta analyses the recordings he made on the night, and realises there is a gunshot before the car lost control – someone shot out a tyre. The rest of the movie is Travolta trying to figure out what’s going on, while a hired assassin runs round trying to clean up the mess he has inadvertently made, and it’s all pretty much by-the-numbers thriller material. Lithgow is creepy, but not especially plausible, as the assassin, the parts about the film industry feel more like in-jokes than character development or background, and the dimwittedness of some of the characters contradicts their ability to avoid the noose the conspiracy is drawing about them. I have no idea why I stuck this on the rental list.

Clash by Night, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I mentioned several Moving pictures posts ago that I’d been making an effort over the last few years to see every film directed by Otto Preminger. The same is true for Fritz Lang. Their shared nationality is a coincidence. As are their Hollywood careers as chiefly directors of well-regarded noir films. With Lang, you have those early silent classics, not to mention the Mabuse trilogy, or even the frankly bizarre India-set pulp adventure movies on which he finished his career. But, like Preminger, during his Hollywood years Lang made a wide variety of films – yes, including a couple of Westerns… and melodramas… like Clash by Night. Which is, er, not very good. Barbara Stanwyck plays the wild girl who returns to her fishing port home after years living it up away. She falls in with simple trawler captain Jerry, who introduces her to his wise-cracking mate, Earl, the projectionist. Earl is clearly more Stanwyck’s type, but she marries Jerry. But then Earl is a nasty piece of work, so it’s easy enough to understand why she rejects him. Although only for a few years… and then the marriage begins to fracture when Stanwyck does indeed take up with Earl… This is one of those gritty urban melodramas the US churned out by the yard back in the first half of the twentieth century, in which middle-class problems were ascribed to working-class families, but with added domestic violence. There is a horribly offensive thread running throughout this film in which men claim the only way to control their spouses is through violence. The relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes (Stanwyck’s “brother”) basically consists of him controlling her through threats of violence. It’s nasty stuff. There are some classic US melodramas from the 1950s. This is not one of them. Despite its director. Best avoided.

In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili (2013, Georgia). I can’t remember where I came across mention of this Georgian film, but I suspect it was a trailer on another DVD. The directors are actually given as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, but given that the former has a Wikipedia page and the latter does not, and the latter is also credited as a producer, I’m tempted to cast Groß as more of a facilitator… except it turns out the two are a couple, so perhaps it’s even more complicated. Still, this is a film set in Georgia, about Georgian people, and Ekvtimishvili is given preference as director, and she is actually Georgian, so I will do the same and credit her with the lion’s share. (And kudos to Groß, he seems content to let his partner represent the two of them.) Two fourteen-year-old girls get into trouble when one of them gets hold of a gun and uses it to rescue a younger kid from a bullying. Except it’s not about that, it’s about growing up during the Georgian Civil War, and about being a teenage girl during those turbulent times, and this is by no means a cheerful film, and certainly not one likely to re-affirm your confidence in humanity’s good nature – these days, the only films which do that are superhero ones, and they only do it for superheroes, so how fucked up is that? But there’s a rawness to Ekvtimishvili’s vision that lends her story a verisimilitude Hollywood could only dream of (this is not something unique to In Bloom, but it is something Hollywood strives for and fails to achieve). A depressing story, but worth seeing.

Two for the Road, Stanley Donen (1967, UK). Apparently eureka! have released a dual edition of this film, but the rental copy I watched was a terrible transfer, no better than VHS quality in places. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it deserves the treatment eureka! have given it. It’s pretty much a couple bickering, in cars, over a decade. Okay, so the chronology jumps back and forth quite cleverly, and the way the film signals at which stage of the relationship/marriage it is set works really well (er, it’s the model of car). But it’s still two people bickering. And it’s not helped by the choice of leads. I’ve never really taken to Albert Finney – he plays everything flat and snide, and it makes him unlikeable. When he tries for charm, as he often does here, it often falls flat, especially when he’s doing his terrible Bogart impression. Finney does some things really well, but romantic lead isn’t one of them. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, should be a natural romantic lead – and indeed has been in many films. But here she’s playing a woman from callow teenager to jaded housewife, and it’s beyond her range. She does either end of the spectrum well, but she can’t manage the transition – or rather, the transition doesn’t seem convincing when it happens to her. Of course, it doesn’t help that the version I saw was a terrible transfer. Perhaps there were subtleties I missed. Certainly, the film’s structure was cleverly done, and there were some good lines of dialogue (and an amusing running joke about Finney and his passport), but the couple also went from young and hapless to privileged and insulated with a speed and lack of commentary that is almost breathtaking (although not altogether surprising given the time the film was made). I wanted to like Two for the Road, either as fluff or as something a bit more serious… but it failed on both counts. One for Audrey Hepburn fans only.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 874


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Moving pictures 2017, #35

I was described recently as a “film nerd”, which felt wrong somehow. I’m a “film fan”, certainly. In much the same way I’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been a subscriber to Sight & Sound since the late 1990s, and when I’ve liked a director’s work I’ve tried to watch as much as their oeuvre as I can find. The first director for which I did this was Alfred Hitchcock. Back in the late 1990s, when I was living out in the Middle East, I visited the UK one leave, and bought two DVD box sets of his films – the box sets, in fact, I recently upgraded to Blu-ray. My taste in movies has changed a bit in the years since I bought those Hitchcock DVDs, so much so that I now have to look a bit further afield for the sort of films I like to watch. Although I do still think Hitchock is an excellent director. But sometimes – often – I have no choice except to purchase a copy from some obscure source, because it’s not available for rental, streaming, or in your local HMV. I don’t think that makes me a film nerd – although, to be fair, I do currently own rather a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays…

Cyclo*, Tran Anh Hung (1995, Vietnam). There is only one Vietnamese film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s this one. I’ll admit I’ve seen very few Vietnamese films – in fact, this is only the second. Although, weirdly, it’s the second film I’ve seen by Tran – I reviewed his 2009 film, I Come with the Rain, actually a French film, for videovista.net several years ago. Anyway, I find it hard to believe the compilers of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list could find six films by Vincente Minnelli to include but only one from Vietnam. But it is, it must be said, a good one. The title refers to the profession of the main character – he pedals a bicycle taxi, or “cyclo”, about the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. He is not named throughout the film. His father died in a traffic accident some time before. He lives with his grandfather, who repairs bicycle tyres for a living, his older sister, who carries water in a local market, and his young sister, who shines shoes in local restaurants. They are dirt poor and pretty much live hand-to-mouth existence. But then the cyclo gets involved with gangsters, and his prospects start to look up. But it all goes horribly wrong when he is asked to kill someone but fails after overdosing on the drugs he was given to “calm him down”. This is all pretty grim stuff, and the way the lower levels of society prey on each other, facilitated by those with means, is hard to watch. At one point, the cyclo driver stops for a piss, and while he’s peeing against a fence, thieves run up and steal his cyclo. Given how much he depends on his cyclo, and how little he earns, and the fact hge doesn’t even own it but has paid a deposit to the owner of a cyclo company so he can use it… well, that’s pretty low. Of course, it’s always in the monied classes interests to have the lower classes fighting amongst themselves, because then they’re not fighting for what should rightfully be theirs. Cyclo certainly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d like to have seen more films from Vietnam on it. I shall definitely be keeping my eye open for more movies from that country that I can watch.

Forever Amber, Otto Preminger (1947, USA). For some reason, I decided to work my way through Preminger’s oeuvre… and it’s not a bad oeuvre for a Hollywood director, especially a non-US-born Hollywood director (of which there were, and are, many). Although best known for noir movies, Preminger’s films are especially interesting because of their variety, and their varied levels of success at whatever he made – Preminger’s one Western for example, was River of Now Return (see here), which was something of a failure but is still quite an interesting film. And Forever Amber, despite being a historical romance based on a schlocky best-seller, is nearly an interesting film. The same might also be said of Preminger’s attempt at a Euro-thriller, Rosebud. But, Forever Amber… The title character is the adopted daughter of a farmer in seventeenth-century England. After the Restoration, Amber, now a sixteen-year-old beauty (played by the twenty-three-year-old Linda Darnell) meets a Cavalier captain, and follows him to London. She starts moving in high circles, but no sooner has she found wealth then she is conned out of it and sent to Newgate. Her cavalier captain, meanwhile, has been a given a ship and sent privateering. She breaks out of Newgate with a footpad, and the two go into partnership, she luring and he mugging fops in dark alleys. The Watch catch her, but the captain gets her a job as an actress so she won’t hang. An earl takes a fancy to her after seeing her on the stage and marries her. But she still pines for her absent cavalier captain… The film is an adaptation of a 1944 best-selling romance by Kathleen Winsor. It was her first novel. Wikipedia says of the book: “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long.” WTF. Winsor went on to write a further seven novels, the first appearing six years after Forever Amber, and the last in 1986. It’s clear from Forever Amber, however, that she didn’t know much about seventeenth-century England. Rags to riches might be a romance staple plot, but Amber’s ups and downs beggar belief. And for a farm girl to end up married to an earl! While working as an actress! True, this is around the time Nell Gwynn first started appearing on stage  and later became the king’s mistress – but she was still under twenty and Amber would be almost a decade older. I suspect Gwynn might have been an inspiration for Amber. Even so, Gwynn’s career was far more… calculating than Amber’s history of lucky breaks. Foolishly, I went and bought a copy of the book on eBay for a couple of quid. One day, I might even get around to reading it.

A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, François Truffaut (1972, France). I’ve been enjoying the Truffaut films I’ve been watching, but this one was hard work in a way that made me think that perhaps it was me at fault. So I watched it again. And felt the same. I still don’t know why I bounced out of it, although I’m not apparently the only one to do so. A young sociologist arranges an interview with female inmate Camille Bliss, and records her as she tells her tale of woe – which is then presented in flashback. He decides she is innocent and finds sufficient evidence to prove her innocence, and she is duly released. After her release, Bliss becomes a singing star but a fling with the sociologist ends badly when her husband catches the two in the act. She kills her husband and frames the sociologist. Who is then sent to prison for the crime. I’m not sure why I didn’t click with A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. The more Truffaut I’ve been watching, the more I’ve come to appreciate his films. But not all of them. The Last Metro I thought a bit dull, despite a good story and high-powered cast. Shoot the Pianist I decided was the New-Wavest film that ever New-Waved. Day for Night had bags of charm, and Mississippi Mermaid had bags of gallic cachet. But A Gorgeous Girl Like Me just seemed to fall flat. Perhaps it was the self-centredness of Bliss, or the fact that some of her adventures just didn’t ring true, or even plausible. Fortunately, I went and bought The François Truffaut Collection on Blu-ray, which includes A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, so I’ll be able to watch it again and decide wther it really does work for me or not…

Miss Hokusai, Keiichi Hara (2015, Japan). I think it’s pretty clear who recommended this film, if not actually added it to my LoveFilm rental list one afternoon in the pub. The title refers to the daughter of the historically-famous artist, who was a reknowned artist in her own right. There is no plot as such to the film, just a series of incidents from her life. Some of them are fantastical, like the one where her father recounts a series of dreams where his hands sort of astral-project and travel all over the city, and he tells this to a famous oiran whose face, it transpires, astral projects while she is asleep. The animation is mostly very attractive, although there’s a lot of that anime-style mugging whose appeal bounces off me. In particular, there’s a student who works in Hokusai’s studio who’s played for laughs, and the comedy doesn’t work for me. The visiting artist who’s put forward as a love interest was a much more interesting character. Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the film works against it, because while it’s very nice to look at, and the characters quite clear, none of it is in service to a plot. True, I’ve not seen a great deal of anime, but I’ve seen a number of anime feature films I’ve thought very good – good enough, in fact, to pick up copies for myself. Miss Hokusai was somewhere around in the bottom of the top third, I think – much better than meh, but not quite really good.

Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade (2016, Germany). I had this on my rental list after hearing positive things about it (Sight & Sound were very complimentary, I seem to recall), but then discovered it was free on Amazon Prime. Result. And… it was one of those films which are quite obviously good, but you’re not sure if you’re enjoying it much. One minute, it’s engaging; the next you wonder why you’re watching it. But then, after it’s over, you decide on balance that it was actually a pretty good film. The title refers to someone who does not exist. A man in his sixties, a bit of a slob and a practical joker, decides that his workaholic daughter, currently working as a consultant on an asset-stripping project in Romania, needs to lighten up. Well, ostensibly, she’s helping a Romanian oil company outsource the maintenance of its oil refineries, but we all know that’s the first step in selling off national assets cheap to plutocrats so they can profit at the taxpayers’ expense… Anyway, he travels out to visit his daughter, but his presence is not really welcome – nor is it helped by him playing silly jokes, like handcuffing himself to his daughter and losing the key. So he leaves. Except he doesn’t. The day after, he introduces himself to the daughter and two of her friends in a restaurant, wearing a wig and false teeth, as “Toni Erdmann”. And he continues to pop up. It’s clear everyone thinks he’s a complete buffoon, but they’re not really sure if they should take him at his word, no matter how implausible it often is. And that’s part of the problem with the film, because Erdmann is a comic character who’s not all that comical. He’d be tragicomic, except there’s no tragedy here, only a father-daughter relationship that has eroded over time to almost nothing, and is now being strained by his intrusion into her life. But, of course, something has to give, and in Toni Erdmann it’s her resistance to his buffoonery and attempts to rebuild their relationship. Despite that, Toni Erdmann never manages to feel like a, er, “feel good” film. It makes for a weird disconnect, and it only really succeeds because everyone plays their part completely straight. A good film, but it takes a while before you realise it.

Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). I wasn’t sure what to make of Pasolini after seeing two of his films, but after watching Arabian Nights I think I have a better handle on his work, and I sort of like it, but I’m still not entirely convinced… If that makes sense. Arabian Nights has been described as the best cinema adaptation of (some of the stories in) The Arabian Nights. It’s true that it keeps the nested narrative structure of many of the stories, which is confusing enough when reading them… although Pasolini somehow manages not to confuse the viewer. And the locations in the film – Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and Nepal – are fantastic. Arabian Nights looks fabulous, but… like the other Pasolini films I’ve seen, the acting seems amateurish at best, the plotting somewhat haphazard, and the dialogue often just repeats what is plain to see there on the screen. But everything looks so, well, appropriate to the story, so much more so than in, say, The Thief of Bagdad from 1924, with its ersatz Arabian studio sets and made-up script standing in for Arabic (or Farsi). And yet, although the cover art suggests Arabian Nights is pure spectacle, it never quite seems like it. I’m not sure how Pasolini manages it, but there’s power in his films and that overcomes all the bits that don’t add up – the acting, the dialogue, the plotting. Also, Pasolini seems to like long shots, and I’m a sucker for long shots. Whatever the reason, I really liked Arabian Nights. Pasolini has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but this isn’t one of them; I think it should be. There’s a Blu-ray collection of six films by Pasolini available from the BFI, only two of which I’ve seen, Arabian Nights and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  I’m sorely tempted by it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 872


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Films, glorious films

I threatened in my last book haul post I might start posting my DVD and Blu-ray hauls. And, well, I got a bit bored on Saturday morning, and before I knew it I’d taken photos of the films I’d purchased over the past month or so and was banging out a post on them…

Three Blu-rays from Curzon Artificial Eye, one of the best sell-through publishers out there. They even have their own chain of cinemas now. But they still didn’t show Francofonia in the Sheffield Curzon Cinema. Grump. The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are Alejandro Jodorowsky’s return to film-making after many, many years and are apparently based on his childhood in Chile. The François Truffaut Collection – so, yes, more than three Blu-rays, more like ten – was one of those “accidental” purchases you have after a glass too many of wine. All three were bought from a large online retailer.

Two more Blu-rays. To Catch A Thief was only £5, so I thought it worth upgrading my old DVD copy. It’s a pretty good transfer, although the improved colours do mean Cary Grant looks like he’s been creosoted. Daughter of the Nile is a new release, the first time in the UK, I think, of a Hou Hsiao Hsien film from 1987. Both were purchased from a large online retailer.

The Bad and the Beautiful is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but having now seen it (see here), I’ve no idea why. It’s a typical Hollywood melodrama, although apparently not typical enough to be available on DVD in the UK or US – so I had to buy a Korean release on eBay. Goodbye Gemini is a 1970 British thriller, found for a third of the price on eBay. Mississippi Mermaid I actually watched on rental (see here), but I found this Blu-ray edition copy going for a great deal less than the Amazon price on eBay.

Three non-Anglophone/European films – well, four, actually, since the Great African Films Vol 2 package contains two films on two discs. They are Tasuma, the Fighter and Sia, the Dream of the Python. Both are from Burkina Faso. Cyclo, on the other the hand, is from Vietnam, and also on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. In the Room is from Singapore. I stumbled across it on eBay, and thought it looked intriguing. All three were bought on eBay, in fact. I wrote about In the Room here.


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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