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Moving pictures, #62

These posts are starting to back up, so I’m going to have to get a few of them out. But hey, you like reading about films, right? It can’t be science fiction all the time, after all. Er, not that it has been this year. Anyway, movies… The US keeps on creeping back in – although in this case it’s two classic Hollywood movies. I’d like to keep my viewing on a 2:1 basis – ie, two non-Hollywood for every one Hollywood… but it doesn’t always work out that way. Oh well.

rome_open_cityRome, Open City*, Roberto Rossellini (1945, Italy). I thought I’d seen several of Rossellini’s films, but it seems this is only the second – the first was Journey to Italy, back in 2014. Rome, Open City was apparently financed by a wealthy old lady, as the war had pretty much destroyed the Italian film industry. She wanted Rossellini to make a documentary about a Roman Catholic priest who’d helped the partisans against the Nazi occupiers. Rossellini then persuaded her to fund another documentary about Italian children who had planted bombs and fought against the Germans. Fellini’s screenwriter suggested combining the two documentaries into a single feature film, and work began on that two months after the Allies had driven the Nazis from Rome. Rome, Open City pretty much tells the stories of those two documentaries in Neorealist style, and it does it quite effectively. A lot of the cast were non-professionals, and that, and the black white photography, actually gives the film a documentary feel. I’m still not a big fan of Italian neorealism, at least not of the  films under that label I’ve seen so far, although I like them enough to want to continue to explore the genre; but Rome, Open City was pretty good. Interestingly, some of the stock Rossellini used was supplied by a US Army private called Geiger stationed in Rome. Geiger claimed to have contacts in the US film industry and some have credited him with the global success of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini, however, called him a “half-drunk nobody” who claimed to be a producer. Geiger sued Fellini for defamation in 1983 but lost the case.

nostalgiaNostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky (1983, Russia). And so the Tarkovsky rewatch continues, with this, his next to last film, made in Italy but starring a cast from various countries. A Russian writer is travelling about Italy, researching the life of an eighteenth-century Russian who lived in Italy but committed suicide after returning to Russia. The writer is accompanied by an Italian interpreter; and during their travels about Tuscany, they hear of a man who repeatedly tries to cross a mineral pool while carry a lit candle, and his story fascinates the writer. The old man (played by Swede Erland Josephson) had been in an asylum, but was released when the state closed them all. He’d been committed because he had imprisoned his family inside his house for seven years. (There’s more than an echo, and not just from the casting, with Tarkovsky’s next film, The Sacrifice.) I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I think Nostalgia might be the least satisfying. It looks lovely, of course; and the glacial pacing is pure Tarkovsky from the first frame. But it suffers because it has two male centres of attraction. Tarkovsky’s films are typically told from a single male viewpoint (he didn’t do female characters, more’s the pity). Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are about the title character, Solaris is about Kris Kelvin, Mirror is about the director, The Sacrifice is about Erland Josephson’s character… the nearest he gets to more than one is in Stalker, but it’s still the title character who provides the real focus. But in Nostalgia, you have the focus bouncing from the Russian writer to Josephson’s character, and it makes the movie feel unbalanced. The final scene, in which Josephson lectures a crowd and then self-immolates, also comes across as a weird change in tone, and though it feeds back into the emotional and narrative closure of the Russian writer’s story, it results in an ending that provides only a limited resolution. I think every self-respecting film fan should have Tarkovsky’s movies in their collection, but that doesn’t mean all Tarkovsky films are equal. Or indeed that I will feel the same way about each and everyone of them if I rewatch them all five years from now.

gunga_dinGunga Din*, George Stevens (1939, USA). Despite the title, the film is not just based on Kipling’s poem but also some of the stories from his collection Soldiers Three. In the film, the three are Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, and they’re NCOs in the Royal Engineers on the Northwest Frontier of India in the 1880s. In the first half of the movie, the three are sent with a company of sepoys to a British outpost which had ceased transmitting on the telegraph mid-message. They find the outpost deserted, but are then set upon by Thuggee bandits. They manage to fight them off, and return to their garrison. Fairbanks is all set to leave the army, marry Joan Fontaine and become a tea planter. But his old buddies still need him, especially when they learn the Thuggee guru is holed up in a gold temple. Their plan to capture him (and steal the gold) goes wrong, and they’re taken prisoner… but they turn the tables and capture the guru. But they can’t escape. And when the British army comes marching toward the temple, the guru reveals the whole thing is a trap and he has an army of his own hidden in the hills. He gives an angry speech about British imperialism and Indian self-rule, but it means nothing because the title character, a humble water carrier played by a US actor in blackface, manages to warn the British army. The poem’s race relations are pretty shit to start with, and the film only amplifies them. And yet there’s that bizarre speech by the Thuggee guru – an Italian actor in blackface, incidentally – which riffs on some pretty unpleasant truths about the British empire, and you have to wonder about sentiments more common now in the twenty-first century (except perhaps among Trump voters and Leave voters) appearing in a seventy-seven-year-old American film…

grapes_wrathThe Grapes of Wrath*, John Ford (1940, USA). Hollywood has a long history of churning out worthy adaptations of classic American novels, much like the BBC does for dramatising English nineteenth-century literary classics, although by the 1980s I suspect Hollywood had managed to cover all the major works. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. To be honest, I’d not expected much of this film, and I’d probably taken onboard a few too many stereotypes about the story, and the period of history it covers, over the years; and I’m fairly sure I read a Steinbeck novel back in my early teens but I can’t recall whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men… Anyway, I had relatively low expectations for The Grapes of the Wrath movie, and so the selfishness of US society it depicted came as little surprise… but the story also showed a side to the Okies – intentionally, obviously – in which they displayed a lot more human kindness and fellow feeling than those most at that time, and certainly more than those who were exploiting them. There’s even a government camp which looks after the migrant workers, provides them with shelter, hygiene and safety. Of course, all the local growers try to close down the government camp, because they want the Okies as desperate as possible so they will accept their rock-bottom wages. Despite a long history of films like this which show the dirty underbelly of capitalism (actually, more like the unvarnished reality of capitalism), US audiences still seem to revere the sociopaths who succeed materially in their flawed system – hell, they even make them president. Trump is not fit material for a folk hero. Tom Joad, the character played by Henry Fonda in this film, who is an ex-con returning home when the film opens, after being sent down for killing a man in a bar fight… well, Tom Joad would make a much better folk hero. And probably a better president too.

hijackHijack, Kunal Shivdasani (2008, India). Until watching this, I’d forgotten how shamelessly entertaining Bollywood movies are. I’ve been watching a lot of art house/world cinema this year, more so than in previous years certainly, and though I like such films as much because they show other parts of the world, as well as telling stories I find more appealing, it had slipped my mind how brain-switched-off entertaining some films can be. Hollywood does it well. But Bollywood does it better. With songs. Seriously, there’s no comparison. I can’t even remember what Hijack was about – a plane hijack, I guess – but I do remember starting to grin at the ludicrously cheesy opening credits, and the lyrics to the song played over the credits, and not stopping until the film had finished. I don’t even remember the song and dance numbers, and you’d think they at least would be memorable. But I don’t think it matters all that much – in the same way it doesn’t matter when you see a tentpole blockbuster: you’re there for the two to three hours of experience, and why should it matter if you can remember nothing five minutes after leaving the auditorium? Except, well, cinema – or at least film – is an artform, and it succeeds as an artform when it is memorable. Nothing happens in James Benning’s movies but they are memorable, they are art. Hijack punches all the buttons for mindless entertainment, but will probably be ignored by those most likely to enjoy it because it’s in Hindi. And has songs. But it was fun, it was dumb, and it was entertaining. And if that’s all you’re looking for then Bollywood is as valid a source as Hollywood.

bandeBande à part, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I’m slowly working my way through Godard’s oeuvre, and while I have a lot of time for what he tried to achieve I do tend to find his films a bit hit and miss. This one, despite being highly regarded, I found a miss. The plot is nominally based on that of an American noir novel. Two men and a woman, all in their twenties, decide to rob the woman’s aunt, who has a large stash of cash. But one of the men’s uncle finds out, so they bring the robbery forward a day. It goes wrong – they kill the aunt and cannot find the money. So they leave. One of the men goes back, as he thinks he knows where the cash might be hidden. His uncle follows him. They find the money and kill each other. The aunt reappears, not dead after all. She, and her lodger, take the money. The young woman and the surviving young man ride off in disgust. It’s all filmed in black-and-white, and very Godard-seque – he was married to the film’s star, Anna Karenina, at the time, and I find his films suffer when he’s more interested in his stars than in his movie – although Bande à part is not as consciously Nouvelle Vague as, say, Truffaut’s Tirez le pianiste (which I suspect is going to be my yardstick for New Wave-ness from now on). Worth seeing, but only middling Nouvelle Vague and slightly-above-middle Godard.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 829


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The year in moving pictures

In 2015, I decided to try and watch as many films as I could on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, started subscribing to a second DVD rental library, and bought myself an Amazon Fire TV Stick. As a result, I watched 571 films during the year, of which 115 were rewatches (some more than once). In among those were 170 from the aforementioned list.

The bulk of the movies I watched were DVDs or Blu-rays I’d purchased myself. (I bought a multi-region Blu-ray player so I could watch Region A Blu-rays.) But I also watched quite a number from Amazon’s Lovefilm by Post. See below.

2015_films_by_source

Kinopalæst is the cinema in Denmark where I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and The Light is the cinema in Leeds where I saw SPECTRE. Yes, they were the only two films I saw at the cinema. I did quite well on my Amazon Fire TV Stick – 48 movies, all of which were included free with Amazon Prime.

In terms of genre, drama seems to have done especially well, although admittedly it’s a broad term and perhaps some of the films I’ve categorised as drama might better be labelled something else. Anyway, see below.

2015_films_by_genre

The two Bollywood films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – or rather, one of them was: the other, Deewaar, proved to be a 2004 film of that title and not the 1975 one on the list (although both starred Amitabh Bachchan). Although last year I rented several of the plays from the BBC’s Shakespeare Collection from the late 1970s/early 1980s, the one Shakespeare movie this year was Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which I thought very good.

By decade, the films I watched pretty much follows the same graph for books read: the current decade is the most popular (surprisingly), and there’s a steady increase through the decades which peaks at the 1960s. See below.

2015_films_by_decade

The late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century were a result of watching some early Dreyer silent movies and a DVD collection, Early Cinema – Primitives and Pioneers, because one of the films on it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

By nation makes for an interesting graph. Although I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which includes movies from many different nations (but over half are from the US, sadly), I’ve been a fan of world cinema for years and many of my favourite directors work in non-Anglophone cinema. See below.

films_by_country

The high number from Russia is no doubt due mostly to Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director; for Denmark because of Carl Theodor Dreyer, and for Germany it’s probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Only two from Sweden – I obviously need to watch more Bergman…

Speaking of favourite directors, Sokurov comes out top for 2015 with 33 (most, it has to be said, were rewatches). Second is Jacques Tati, a 2015 “discovery”, at 15, then James Benning, another 2015 “discovery”, at 13. The remaining top ten goes as follows: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (12), Alfred Hitchcock (11), Carl Theodor Dreyer (10), Lars von Trier (8), Sergei Eisenstein (6), and lastly George Stevens, Michael Curtiz, Leni Riefenstahl, Jean-Luc Goddard and Jean Cocteau (5).

I finished the year having seen 703 movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and a quite large pile of DVDs and Blu-rays on my To Be Watched list. I plan to keep on with the list in 2015, although I think I’ll take it a bit slower, perhaps spend some evenings each week reading rather than film-watching. Plus, it’s getting to the stage now where I have to purchase titles in order to watch them as they’re not available for rental. We’ll see how it goes.


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Moving pictures, #33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665


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Moving pictures, #27

Almost caught up with these. Although no doubt I’ll go and watch another half a dozen films one afternoon and end up behind again. Sigh. (Um, have just noticed: after my last Moving pictures post contained no US films, this one is entirely movies from the USA. Ah well. Must do better.)

deseretDeseret*, James Benning (1995, USA). Ever watched a film and loved it so much you go online and buy every other film by that director you can find? I knew nothing about Benning, only that Deseret was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list. I didn’t even know what the title meant. I couldn’t find a rental copy, so I ended up buying the film on DVD. And then I watched it one evening. The title actually refers to the name of a provisional state, proposed in 1849 by Mormon settlers but never accepted by the US government. Deseret-the-film is about Utah, which is one of the states in what would have been Deseret-the-territory. While a static 16mm camera records the Utah landscape, and later urban areas, in shots of no more than two or three minutes duration, a voice reads out stories about the state from the New York Times, starting in 1851 and through each year to 1994. Initially shot in black and white, when the voice-over reaches the 1990s the film becomes colour. The images show the changes wrought on the state by the presence of humanity; and some of the newspaper stories are quite critical of the people in Utah (although apparently the Mormon Church are happy with the film). I loved the use of imagery and voice-over, I found it mesmerising. It reminded me of Sokurov’s elegy films. I loved it so much I looked online, discovered the Österreiches Filmmuseum in Vienna has to date released five DVDS by Benning, including this one, featuring eleven of his films. So I bought the other four DVDs:  American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide, casting a glance / RR, California Trilogy and natural history / Ruhr.

bigskyThe Big Sky, Howard Hawks (1952, USA). This film is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the amalgamated list – meaning it either got added after 2013, or dropped in favour of a more recent film. But it’s a Howard Hawks film, which is why I rented it. Unfortunately, the copy I saw proved to be a terrible transfer, pretty much a VHS quality picture. It’s set in 1832, Kirk Douglas is a hunter who has run in with another hunter, the two become friends and travel together to New Orleans, where they sign up on a trip to travel 2000 miles up the Missouri River to trade with Blackfoot Indians. And they can do this because they have with them a Blackfoot princess rescued years before from an enemy nation. This is US history as told by whites for whites. The Native Americans are treated sympathetically – more so than you would expect for a Hollywood film – but this is still manifest destiny in action, the continent for its conquerors, etc. Douglas is at his smirking best, the nasty fur trading company is nasty, Arthur Hunnicutt does a good line in drunk hunters who have done it all and actually know quite a bit… A film worth seeing once but not a great film, and probably not really good enough to make any instantiation of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

swingtimeSwing Time*, George Stevens (1936, USA). You can’t go wrong with Fred and Ginger. They are, in fact, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon when I bunged this disc in the player, but a Sunday afternoon film was what I was expecting. And so it seemed to be. Fred misses his wedding because the rest of his dance troupe conspire to delay him as his marriage would lead to the troupe disbanding. When Fred does make it, after the wedding has been called off, he promises his angry father-in-law-to-be that he will return to wed his fiancée when he has earned $25,000. So he heads off to New York, bumps into Ginger but gets off on the wrong foot with her, follows her to the dance studio where she works as a teacher, buys a lesson with her so he can apologise, but when he fumbles his dancing she is fired by the studio’s oleaginous owner, so Fred demonstrates she really has taught him astonishingly well in such a short lesson… leading to a quite brilliant Fred and Ginger dance routine… And from that point on, the film couldn’t put a foot wrong. Okay, so it went a bit all formula, but it had built up such a bank of charm it would have had to really fuck up to lose it. Fred and Ginger audition for a club to put on a dance routine, but there are obstacles to overcome, not least Fred’s love of gambling… But it all works out in the end, as it must. A fun film.

deseretFour Corners, James Benning (1997, USA). This is the second film on the DVD mentioned above (see cover art to the left). It follows a similar pattern to Deseret, although it’s not quite as successful. The film is based on the works of four artists – Claude Monet, Moses Tolliver,Native American wall-painter “Yukawa” and Jasper Johns – and opens each of its four sections with on-screen text about the artist’s life. It then shows a series of 16mm shots of landscape from one of the four states which make up the four corners region: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Mostly the voice-over focuses on the Native Americans who once lived in the region, the discovery and subsequent exploitation of their artefacts by local families, and the eventual disposition of the sites. Shots are often longer than in Deseret, which can test your patience, but the voice-over is always interesting. According to the DVD booklet, “I wanted to be entirely democratic, and so each section is exactly the same as all the others, down to the number of letters in the text biographies of the artists [total 1,214] and the number of words [1,186] in the voice-over stories”. I can’t wait to watch the other Benning films.

hitchcock1The Trouble with Harry, Alfred Hitchcock (1955, USA). A couple of months ago, Amazon had a “Prime Day” and offered a bunch of bargains to Prime members. On offer were Blu-ray editions of two Alfred Hitchcock collections for £15 each. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever bought, back in the 1990s – but I fancied upgrading. And so I’ve been rewatching them on Blu-ray at irregular intervals. I’ve always rated Hitchcock as one of the most consistently entertaining of directors, a master craftsman who made a lot of excellent movies, including a couple of stone cold classics. This one, sadly, is neither. But what I had forgotten about The Trouble with Harry is the gorgeous Technicolor. It’s shot in New England in autumn, just like a favourite film of mine, and it looks beautiful on the screen. Unfortunately, the story is thumpingly light-hearted – Hitchcock’s only outright comedy, apparently – and the male lead, John Forsyth, can’t manage the lightness of touch required by the script. As I’ve rewatched these Hitchcock films I’ve found myself re-evaluating them. He was remarkable in how little footage he discarded  – in other words, he shot precisely as much footage as he needed and no more, and planned each shot so thoroughly retakes and reshots were unnecessary. And his films are brilliantly framed – even when it doesn’t go right, he still stuck to his plan (in this film, the trees were apparently embarrassingly free of leaves when the crew arrived to shoot, so Hitchcock had leaves glued to them – er, the trees, that is). But some of the stories he chose to film are, frankly, not very interesting. This one is a case in point – it’s like he tried for a screwball comedy but instead shot it as a melodrama. The end result is identifiable as neither. Another male lead might have been able to pull it off, especially given that the supporting cast are so good, but I doubt it – Hitchcock’s hand lays a bit too heavy on the movie. Still, it is, as I said, a beautiful-looking film.

m_verdouxMonsieur Verdoux*, Charles Chaplin (1947, USA). Chaplin plays the title role, a bank clerk turned bigamist and serial killer of wealthy middle-aged women. I’m not sure where the humour comes from in this, although there are a number of nice slapstick routines – a fall out of a window, for example, surprised a laugh out of me – and Chaplin does play his role well. But. But. It all feels a bit like a traveller from a different era. I can see the film working as a silent movie in the 1920s, but by the late 1940s it’s inability to decide if it’s a drawing-room farce, a slapstick comedy, or just plain black humour results in far too many shifts in tone. And Martha Raye’s character is just plain weird. I’m glad I went to the trouble of seeing it, but I’ll not be dashing out to buy all of Chaplin’s DVDs…

project_almanacProject Almanac, Dean Israelite (2014, USA). Is it possible to put a new spin on the time travel story? And no, doing it as found footage doesn’t count. In fact, that’s a strike against it. Because found footage needs to be part of the story, not just a gimmick for telling it, and it’s been so over-done now it’s lost all currency. But never mind, because at least Dean Isrealite thinks it’s a smart way to tell his story. Which in this case involves a high schooler whose deceased father turns out to have built a time machine – or very nearly one. But inventor son completes it, and he and his friends start travelling back in time, initially for shits and giggles, then kicks and Groundhog Day style romance, then personal gain, then to fix the dreaded Hollywood father-son issue. Twenty years ago, perhaps, this would have been an interesting film, but time is a friend to no one (oh the irony), and instead we have something not quite original enough, nor derivative enough, to be interesting, which pretends to scientific credibility while making a sixteen-inch pizza with all the trimmings of its pseudo-science, and whose central scene is set back-stage at a Lollapalooza festival as if the film-makers don’t want anyone the slightest bit confused about their audience demographic. This is a film whose window of relevancy is about five seconds long, and even shorter for anyone not in their early twenties, and whoops one year later it’s gone. Shame, as it had its moments.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 643


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m trying to get caught up on these, since I’ve been watching so many films recently – all that bloody sportsing on television. Damn sportsing. Have never understood its appeal.

murderMurder, My Sweet*, Edward Dmytryk (1944, USA). Despite the title, this is pretty much a faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Dick Powell plays Marlowe and he doesn’t look quite rumpled enough to pull it off. Apparently, the studio changed the title from that of the book because they thought audiences might otherwise think it was a musical. Um, yes. The only other adaptation stars Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, and I seem to remember that being a better version than this. Incidentally, I have a lot of time for Chandler’s fiction – and yes, I’ve read this one – but I’ve found most of the movie adaptations disappointing in some way, even the Humph ones.

largo-winchLargo Winch, Jérôme Salle (2008, France). This is what we used to call a “Euro-thriller” – ie, lots of different locations around the world, very glossy production design, plenty of action… and a plot that doesn’t make much sense. It’s adapted from a bande dessinée by Philippe Francq and Jean van Hamme (the latter, incidentally, has written several of the Blake and Mortimer bandes dessinées). The title character is an orphan secretly adopted by billionaire Nerio Winch. Some twenty-eight years later, Nerio is murdered and it triggers a fight for control of his Hong Kong-based company. Largo, meanwhile, has been bumming around the world. He’s arrested in Brazil but manages to escape, and heads to Hong Kong, where he declares himself to the board of directors. Some of them, however, don’t believe him. Handily, Nerio invested his stocks in some sort of bearer bonds, which he then hid. If Largo presents these to the board, then the company is his. Of course, the same is true if anyone else does. And the rival for Largo’s position turns out to be his adoptive brother. Plus there’s a shady rival who wants to buy the Winch corporation… and Largo makes a deal with him to secure his position. It’s all very cosmopolitan, with lots of action and exotic locales, and a plot that sort of lurches about in search of a coherent narrative. But it was also reasonably entertaining, and it didn’t take a pair of steel toe-capped boots to your intelligence, as Hollywood is wont to do.

umbrellasThe Umbrellas Of Cherbourg*, Jacques Demy (1964, France). I really liked Demy’s Lola, and despite knowing that this was a musical – even more, the dialogue is sung throughout – I sort of thought I might like this too. But I didn’t. Oh, it’s French and it’s 1960s and it looks mostly lovely and Catherine Deneuve is eminently watchable in one of the lead roles, but… Maybe it was because I’d watched Les Misérables only a week or so before, but the sung dialogue turned irritating quite quickly, and though the visuals were often quite eye-catching, I sort of lost interest. I think it deserves a rewatch, and given how much I liked Demy’s Lola, there’s a Demy DVD collection that looks quite tempting… except it’s bloody expensive. I shall stick some more Demy on the rental list, and see how I get on with them.

esisensteinAlexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein (1938, USSR). I seem to have ended up with quite a few Eisenstein films, despite not being especially a fan. Several years ago, The Guardian gave away a free DVD each weekend – remember when newspapers used to do that? – and one of them was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Which is considered a classic of cinema. And I picked up a copy of Stachka (AKA Strike) because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… and now I have a box set containing Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible parts 1 and 2. (It’s volume 2, and volume 1 appears to almost impossible to find. Argh.) Anyway, Alexander Nevsky… It’s about the eponymous prince, who led the Russians of Novgorod to victory against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice (which takes place on a frozen lake). It’s a good solid historical epic, with a few more personal story arcs thrown in, but I couldn’t help comparing it to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, and it didn’t wear the comparison especially well. Worth seeing, but I’m a little puzzled by the extremely high regard in which it’s held.

fearoffearFear Of Fear, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). This was a made-for-tv film, and having now seen three or four Fassbinder films I don’t think I could have mistaken it for anything but a Fassbinder film. Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen plays a housewife who becomes addicted to Valium and alcohol following a series of increasingly stronger anxiety attacks. Her husband’s family, who live in the same apartment block, treat her as though she’s not good enough, which only worsens her condition. Eventually, she is committed, whereupon she seemingly recovers. A good, solid family drama, without much that struck me as essentially Fassbinder; but I enjoyed it and I thought Carstensen was especially good in the lead.

jour-de-feteJour de fête, Jacques Tati (1949, France). I have now seen all of Tati’s feature films, and of course I left his first until last. In this one he plays a postman in rural France and the film is a series of set-pieces in which first Tati does his usual round, and then, in the second half, he tries to introduce “American” methods in order to deliver letters faster. There are some excellent gags – in that respect, Jour de fête scores higher than Mon Oncle or Playtime, although it does not have the visual genius of those films – but a number of the set-pieces were recycled from the short L’école des facteurs (1947). Anyway, the Tati box set was an excellent buy, and despite never having watched any Tati before August last year, I can now happily call myself a fan.

giantGiant*, George Stevens (1956, USA). This is one of those films I always thought I’d seen but when I came to watch it very little of it actually proved familiar. It’s the sort of nonsense dynastic family saga the US – and especially Hollywood – likes to tell itself is proper art… especially when it involves oil. It’s not, of course, It’s not even melodrama. They try to throw in some social commentary – in this particular case, a Texan rancher turned oilman (Rock Hudson) discovers all his fellow whites are racist after his son marries a Latina woman. This, of course, comes as no particular surprise to, well, the rest of the planet. Hudson I could watch all night, and I do like films from the fifties, but this was long and not very inventive and all a bit thuddingly obvious from the start. James Dean was a bit rubbish in it, and not at all convincing – but then he’s another actor, like Brando, whose reputation mystifies me.

unbelievableThe Unbelievable Truth*, Hal Hartley (1989, USA). There are several Hal Hartley films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’m not sure why. There are more interesting independent directors – such as John Waters, or John Sayles – but I guess the list-makers are fans of Hartley’s movies. I can’t say I am. I’ve seen two now, and they’ve both been pretty forgettable, certainly not something that’s worthy of the 1001 list. In this one, a man returns home after years in prison for manslaughter. He takes up with a local girl, while rumours after his “crime” grow ever wilder, but his putative girlfriend goes off to be a model in New York. There’s a family crisis, and relationship difficulties and… yawn. Not very interesting.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 571