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Moving pictures, #34

Damn, more American films. Bit of a relapse here, although to be fair four of the US films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

pattonPatton*, Franklin J Schaffner (1970, USA). George C Scott won an Oscar for his portrayal of the title character in this biopic, although he famously refused to accept it. But the rest of the cast and crew were happy to accept Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Art Direction. In Best Film, it was up against Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story and M*A*S*H, so not an especially strong year (although the smart money would likely have been on M*A*S*H), because there’s not much in Patton that actually seems like Oscar-material. The script was written without the approval of the family and mostly from the memories of Patton’s friend and aide General Omar Bradley – and despite that still invented a number of incidents. It was filmed in Spain, and not in North Africa or Italy. The historical details are often inaccurate – it’s not just the use of tanks that weren’t built during WWII. but that the Luftwaffe only appears to possess two Heinkel bombers… and they weren’t capable of strafing the ground, which they do multiple times during Patton. Admittedly, the film was made before CGI – in the twenty-first century, they’d no doubt fill the skies with zillions of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters (which would, of course, be just as ridiculous). Patton was by all accounts an odd bloke, and Scott manages to get that across… but much of the film seems like little more than a spat between Patton and Montgomery as each chases after the glory of defeating the Axis. Hardly the most edifying motivations for waging war, but I guess it plays better than tactical and strategic opportunism. There are a vast number of WWII films, but there only a handful I’d rate, and this isn’t one of them. Watch Das Boot instead, or The Big Red One.

whiplashWhiplash, Damien Chazelle (2014, USA). Numerous positive reviews persuaded me to add to this my rental list, despite the subject not appealing. A student at a famous New York musical school is training to be a jazz drummer. He is talent-spotted by one of the lecturers, a well-regarded composer – and an abusive arsehole. And the film is all about how he abuses the student – and the other students in his jazz band. It’s one of those films where you can recognise how well it was played by its cast, and how well-written the story, but you still wonder why the fuck you watched it. JK Simmons – probably best-known in this country as Dr Skoda from Law & Order – plays the composer, who is a real nasty piece of work… and he thinks his methods are justified because only by driving people to breaking point are true muscial geniuses made. Which is, of course, complete bollocks. But, of course, the student initially responds to Simmons’s abuse, before eventually being pushed too far and cracking. And dropping out of music altogether. Only to later bump into Simmons, accept his flattering offer of drumming for his band at a jazz festival – but it’s all a trick to humilate the ex-student on stage, except he then turns the tables, which segues into one of the longest and most boring drum solos ever recorded (and I say that despite being a fan of prog). Whiplash was not a film I would normally have watched, and I can’t say I’m glad I watched it. Put it down as one of those films or books that you don’t like even though you recognise that they’re good (because, of course, how you respond to a work is an entirely different thing to its actual quality). Meh.

wingsWings*, William A Wellman (1927, USA). This was the first film to ever win an Oscar, which is of course about as much an indication of quality as winning the first ever Hugo. And yet… I believe Wings has a somewhat mixed critical legacy, but I admit rather enjoyed it. True, Clara Bow was somewhat clumsily inserted into the plot, and it showed. And, bizarrely, although it’s Gary Cooper’s first appearance on film, he looks pretty much the same as he did throughout his entire career. Basically, two rivals for the love of the same woman join up when the US finally decides to enter WWI (please don’t call it the 17-18 War, it erases the three years of fighting by all the other nations that were involved). During basic training as pilots, the two beat each other to a pulp and so become fast friends. They are shipped to Europe, where they begin flying sorties against the Germans. On one such sortie, one of them is shot down. But he manages to steal a German biplane to return to the allied line… only to be shot down and killed by his best mate. Wings is justifiably praised for its aerial sequences, which are pretty impressive for a 1927 silent movie – and, I suspect, would still have been impressive had the film been made fifty or sixty years later. Perhaps the romantic triangle – the two male leads and Jobyna Ralston; Clara Bow is the over-looked love interest – is hoary and clichéd, even for the 1920s, and perhaps the trench warfare doesn’t resemble depictions since put on celluloid or, er, televisual æther, but those are minor quibbles – the film is called Wings because it’s about a pair of aviators, and in that area it scores highly. Worth seeing.

educationAn Education, Lone Scherfig (2009, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since it’s on at least one edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I gave it a go. It’s based on a memoir by a British journalist, who, apparently, was seduced as a sixteen-year-old by a thirtysomething con man and so was introduced to a life she had only previously dreamt of – sort of. Teacher-pupil romances are nothing new, and have been a staple of literature and cinema for centuries (well, at least one century), but there is still something skeevy about a man in his late thirties in a relationship with a 16-year-old schoolgirl. An Education is set in the 1960s, when, we are supposed to believe, “things were different”, as if that’s supposed to excuse them… Although, of course, such relationships likely still happen today. I note that only recently – in 2016, for fuck’s sake! – has Virginia made it illegal for men to marry 12-year-old girls. Anyway, the heroine of An Education, Carey Mulligan, is clever and plans to go to Oxford – but after falling for the oleaginous charms of smooth talker Peter Sarsgaard (who does a pretty good British accent, it must be said), she drops out of school. After several adult adventures, including a dirty weekend in Paris, she learns he is already married – and tries to return her previous life, except it’s not that easy (but she succeeds anyway). An Education was slick and sixties and about as believable as an episode of Danger Man. It feels like a watered-down version of The Servant, without the menace, the suspense or the commentary on class and society. Meh.

touch_sinA Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China). This is on later editions of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (obviously it hadn’t been released when they put together the 2013 edition of the list), but it sounded like it was worth renting… And so it proved. It’s bloody good, easily the best film of the seven in this post. I’ve not seen anything by Zhangke before, but I’ll be adding his other films to my rental list. A Touch of Sin comprises four stories, all based on real events, and linked only by the similarity of their documented effects on those involved. In the first, a man in provincial town rebels against the rich man who has bought the village’s coal mine but not redistributed its riches as promised. The episode opens with a violent encounter and ends with one. The second episode is the slightest of the four and details one man’s murderous robbery spree. The third has a young woman travel to a provincial town, where she ends up working as a receptionist in a massage parlour. But when a local VIP demands she “service” him and tries to rape her, she responds violently. The final story is the most interesting. A young man leaves his job after inadvertently causing an industrial accident – the employer assigns his wages to the injured party as recompense – and ends up working as a host and waiter in a hotel catering to rich businessmen from Hong Kong. He then leaves that job and goes to work in a factory. Shortly afterwards, he commits suicide. China apparently has a very high rate of suicide, and the fourth story is based on one company where 18 employees attempted suicide (14 succeeded) within a year. This is the unadvertised cost of your cheap computers and and smartphones (not to mention the pollution). Western consumers are happy to accept the low prices resulting from company practices which lead to 18 staff suicides in one year, but then have the gall to moan about these products no longer being manufactured in Western countries. But don’t worry, people of the West! Soon, you will have a nation populated entirely by workers on zero-hour contracts with no rights, where only the air is free, and the environment, well, companies won’t have to siphon off funds from CAPEX to make sure the birds and bees don’t fall out of the sky. So you’ll still get your cheap smartphones and tablets, and on the back they’ll say “MADE IN ENGLAND”. Ahem. A Touch of Sin (a daft title, and the deliberate nod to A Touch of Zen does it no favours) is a beautifully-shot and altogether real study of the effects of capitalism on China. Recommended.

living_deadNight of the Living Dead*, George A Romero (1968, USA). I think I did this wrong – I watched Dawn of the Dead before watching Night of the Living Dead. Both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve no idea why I did it in that order. Okay, dawn comes before night, but Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978 but Night of the Living Dead was Romero’s first film and released a decade earlier. Also, I don’t get zombies. I don’t get the appeal, I don’t get the position they occupy in Anglophone 20th/21st-century culture. I didn’t, for example, even realise that the big thing about 28 Days Later is that the zombies run. So fucking what. In Night of the Living Dead, a couple visit the woman’s mother’s grave in a cemetery. A zombie attacks them and kills the man. The woman finds refuge in a house with a black man with a good head on his shoulders (a rarity in US cinema back in 1968). It transpires there are also people hiding in the cellar. Zombies attack the house. They fight them off. An escape attempt goes badly wrong. People die. Yawn. This is allegedly a classic of the genre, and for an independent film it has a couple of things to recommend it. But I suspect it’s one for fans of the director and/or zombie films; and not for me.

vietnamGood Morning, Vietnam*, Barry Levinson (1987, USA). Is there no phrase in cinema more likely to cause the heart to sink than “biopic”? Well, “directed by Chris Columbus”, perhaps. Or “from the producers of…”, as if the ability to bring in a film on time and on budget is any kind of artistic recommendation. Except, well, Good Morning, Vietnam, isn’t actually a biopic. Adrian Cronauer was a real person, and he really was a DJ in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He tried pitching a sitcom based on his experiences to TV networks, but tyey – conveniently forgetting that M*A*S*H was one of the most successful sitcoms of the time, and so proving that television executives have always been remarkably stupid – turned it down as they didn’t think war a fit subject for comedy. So Cronauer wrote a TV movie script, which passed across Robin Willams’s desk, and Williams liked it so much he turned it into a film project. The actual plot of the film, Cronauer has said, bears very little resemblance to his actual experiences; and all of Williams’s on-air performances were improvised during filming. Which does make you wonder why they bothered basing it on a real person. Or insisted it was true. After all, back in 1987 there was no social media, there was no “post-truth” politics; back then, words meant what the dictionary said, expertise was valued, and demagoguery had not been successful since 1930s Germany. Still, at least Williams got a shedload of award nominations out of Good Morning, Vietnam, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 784


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Moving pictures, #9

Yet more films wot I have watched of late. This brings the moving pictures posts pretty much up to date, so I won’t need to spam my blog with them quite so much from now on. Although I’m still watching rather a lot of movies, due to a lack of anything interesting on terrestrial or cable television. Perhaps I should turn the damn thing off some evenings and read a book or something…

aharddatsnightA Hard Day’s Night*, Richard Lester (1964, UK). I think I must have seen this, perhaps back in the 1970s or something, because it seems an unlikely film to have missed. Having said that, I could remember almost nothing about it – and even now, a couple of weeks after watching it, I’m having trouble recalling the actual plot. Not, it has to be said, that there was much of one. The Fab Four travel to London with Paul McCartney’s grandfather (played by Wilfred Brambell), their manager and their road manager. The band are due to perform on a television programme. It was pretty clear the cast had fun making the film, and there was definitely a manic energy to it – but Lennon’s snidery palled quite quickly, a couple of long-running jokes ran too long, and the music was, well, frankly not that great.

dulwaleDilwale Dulhania le Jayenge*, Aditya Chopra (1995, India). This one was a surprise. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Bollywood films over the years, but I don’t think I’ve sat all the way through one. Nonetheless, I thought I knew what to expect and I suspected watching this film was going to be a chore… but I really enjoyed it, it was actually really good. Wastrel son of a wealthy NRI in London decides to go Interrailing before joining the family firm. Meanwhile, eldest daughter of a hard-working NRI who manages a petrol station will soon be married to the son of her father’s best friend back in Kashmir… so she too decides to go Interrailing first. The two bump into each other as they travel about Europe, fall in love, with much singing and dancing and comedy. Afterwards, she has to go to Kashmir for the wedding, there’s no getting out of it, but he follows and tries to win over her family (the two pretend not to know each other). A smart well-made rom com, with some fun song and dance routines, a well-handled plot and a pair of likeable leads. If you fancy trying a Bollywood film, put this one at the top of your list.

thesunThe Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005, Russia). This is the second of Sokurov’s quartet of films about men in power, and the subject of it is Emperor Shōwa of Japan. (While we in the West know him as Emperor Hirohito, that was his personal name and he’s now actually referred to using his posthumous name, Shōwa.) The Sun concerns the days immediately following Japan’s surrender and the emperor’s meetings with General MacArthur. Apparently, the film caused a bit of a fuss on release, perhaps because it suggests the emperor is almost an innocent, a mild-mannered educated man who tinkers with marine biology and lives in a hermetically-sealed world in which he is considered divine by all about him. That is, until he meets MacArthur. It’s considered likely he was actually a war criminal, and very much responsible for Japan’s conduct of the war – but he seemed to escape justice. Sokurov, however, is not concerned with the truth, or as in Moloch, an historically accurate portrayal. The Imperial Palace depicted in The Sun, for example, is simply a large 1920s villa and bears no resemblance to the actual Tokyo Imperial Palace. The film depicts the emperor’s descent from divine to human – not an actual change, of course, but a matter of perception. I’m not convinced it’s as successful as Moloch, perhaps because it follows a more considered approach, which tends to flatten the story’s affect, whereas Moloch‘s manic infantilism suited its topic perfectly. I still want to know why Taurus isn’t available in an English-language edition, however.

satansbrewSatan’s Brew, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Not the most successful Fassbinder film I’ve seen so far. A previously-successful poet, now suffering from writer’s block, shoots his mistress, and then sort of runs around manically, demanding sex from Ingrid Caven, who is married someone else, visiting his own wife and intellectually disabled brother? brother-in-law?, and charging around various places demanding money. The Wikipedia plot summary, which is not very long, concludes with, “Some more obscure things happen but in the end everyone is back on stage”. Which is as good a way of describing it as any. The contents of this Fassbinder box set have been somewhat variable, but I’m glad I’ve seen the films.

bela_tarr_collectionWerckmeister Harmonies, Béla Tarr (2000, Hungary). I’ve yet to decide what to make of Tarr’s films. That they’re slow, with very long takes, and filmed in stark black-and-white, and that sort of film-making appeal to me far more than the frenetic jump-cuts of your present-day Hollywood tentpole franchise movies. (But I also like Technicolor movies, too.) Tarr’s films are also allusive, which again is something I appreciate, in both film and literature. But I think what’s preventing me from really falling for this movie, or the other Tarr I have seen, The Man from London, is that there’s something very play-like about the way they’re put together. And for some reason the mismatch between theatrical presentation and cinematic technique never quite  works for me. In Werckmeister Harmonies, a travelling circus, whose chief attraction is a stuffed whale, appears in a Hungarian town, and triggers a wave of violence. I’m going to have to watch this film again, I think, as while some bits of it seemed to work really well, the allegorical skeleton on which the plot was hung didn’t articulate quite as well for me as it was likely intended to. But at least I bought the box set, so I can rewatch the films at my leisure. Incidentally, I also bought mysql a copy of Sátántangó, so I’ll be able to watch all seven hours of that at my leisure…

foxFox and his Friends*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). A young gay man, played by Fassbinder himself, is obsessed with winning the lottery. Which he does, shortly after entering into a relationship with an older man, an antiques dealer. When the antique dealer’s friends discover that the oick they’re looking down their nose at is worth half a million DMs, they set about swindling him out of his money, seducing him and persuading him to pay their way out of their financial difficulties. Which he happily does, wrongly impugning more than just mercenary motives to their treatment of him. Prior to receiving this Fassbinder box set for Christmas, I had never seen one of his films. And I’ve now seen seven (of the eight films in the box set), and there have been some good ones and some not so good ones. I’ve yet to decide whether I want to explore more of Fassbinder’s oeuvre – and he made a lot of films – probably because so many of the contemporary ones seem very similar in tone and presentation. Perhaps I just watched too many of his films in too short a period – like the time I watched three seasons of The X-Files back-to-back, three or four episodes a night, and could hardly sleep afterwards I felt so paranoid…

dawnofdeadDawn of the Dead*, George A Romero (1978, USA). No, I’ve never actually seen this before, and no, I probably would never have bothered if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (and how many films on the list have I said that about?), and I’ve never been a fan of zombies, a trope that’s been used intelligently perhaps a handful of times since it first appeared. And, to be brutally honest, this isn’t one of them. Something has caused the dead of the US to rise as flesh-eating zombies – your basic zombie trope, in other words – and a group of people escape various encounters with them, including an extended sequence set in a shopping mall. The film was made of the cheap, and looks it; and the some of the special effects, while gruesome, look cheap and stagey. Apparently, I watched a director’s cut but there’s some confusion over which particular one. All I remember is that it was long, and while there was plenty of action there wasn’t much plot. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of horror films – I’m far too squeamish – and I can perhaps understand how Dawn of the Dead might be seen as a “classic”… But there wasn’t a fat lot there to appeal to me, and I’m happy to just cross it off the list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 582