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Moving pictures 2019, #1

We’re a month into the new year, and I’m still having trouble coming up with something more interesting to post than reviews – if that’s the right word – of obscure, and not so obscure, films I’ve watched. But then I’ve been busy: trying to declutter prior to my move. Five thousand books and two thousand DVDs, it transpires, take a lot of sorting out…

Anyway, until all that’s out of the way, have half a dozen movies I watched in January…

Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland (2006, USA). My mother lent me this one and the only reason I agreed to watch it was because it was by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director whose few films I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. Copying Beethoven is not her only English-language movie, nor even her first. In fact, she’s made quite a few, most of them not in Hollywood, and several of them starring Ed Harris, who plays Beethoven in this one. The story is simple enough. Beethoven requires someone to produce neat copy of his manuscripts. A young woman, with ambitions of being a composer herself, despite the fact women composers are exceedingly rare at that time, manages to persuade Beethoven to take her on. And later co-composes one of his pieces, as well as composing her own. The problem is, it’s all historical nonsense. It’s a nice idea, and it’s well played by its leads, although Ed Harris does overplay his part somewhat, but it’s entirely invented and it’s supposed to be an historical film. Some of us, you know, look this shit up. And when something pretends to be historical, I want to know if it is and go visit Wikipedia. Which is where Copying Beethoven fails. Badly. It would be nice – it would be great – if it had really happened, and I like the idea of pretending as if it had happened by making a film about it. But… Maybe I’m being as bad as those arseholes who complain about female blacksmiths in fantasy novels… except the worlds in fantasy novels are entirely invented, and this purports to be real, and yet it’s a story I’d sooner was true than invented…  So let’s pretend it really was like that. History is, after all, written by the winners. And if from 2006 onward it’s accepted as actual history that Beethoven had a female amanuensis, then good, excellent in fact. Which makes this adaptation of our new history (and I’m not being sarcastic there, I hasten to add) somewhat disappointing inasmuch as  the leads are, well… Harris is OTT and Diane Kruger is a bit of a blank. The previous films I’ve seen by Holland were ensemble pieces, so perhaps she let the reduced cast in this one get the better of her.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007, France). The title of this film is a reference to a French short, Le ballon rouge, from 1956, in which a young boy finds are balloon, which then follows him around. And Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon opens with a young boy also finding a red balloon, but it proves to have a mind of its own, resists his please for it to follow him and goes off on its own way. The film then shifts to the boy’s mother, Juliette Binoche, who is a puppeteer, and has just employed a Chinese student in Paris as a nanny for her son. And, er, that’s it. The balloon has drifted off, and whatever purpose it played in the plot seems pretty much and over and done with ten minutes in. Bar the occasional brief appearance. Perhaps the Chinese nanny is the red balloon – except, no, that doesn’t really work either, as the film is about Binoche, her son, and the boy’s older sister, who had been living with Binoche’s divorced partner in Brussels but has moved to Paris for college. It’s all very low-key, with much of the film taking place in Binoche’s tiny apartment. The performances are very natural, as is the lighting; and the movie manages that trick Hou has down to a fine art of making the quotidian feel like it’s important, making small drama feel like it should be melodrama. I do like Hou’s films, but some of them I find more successful than others. Flight of the Red Balloon struck me as middle-tier Hou, but perhaps that’s because it’s a French family drama, set in Paris, and that’s hardly an under-subscribed genre of film…

The Predator, Shane Black (2018, USA). It’s the Decade, maybe even Century, of Reboots, I mean Spider-Man has been rebooted like thirty-five times in the past eight years, so why not reboot a piece of low-brow populist sf crap from the 1980s and hope its macho bullshit finds a new audience in Trump’s America? What could go wrong? And anyway there’s always the marketing machine to make sure it sure it earns a profit even if it is a piece of shit. And this reboot certainly is. A piece of shit, that is. It opens with the protagonist on a mission to kill some unspecified baddie in, I think, Mexico. Which is not the US, and is a separate sovereign nation. But that doesn’t matter because this is the US and the only national boundaries they recognise are their own, with or without a wall. Said protagonist witnesses a Predator spaceship crash, and steals some of the armour. Back in the US, he’s taken in for questioning because of what he saw and then dumped with a bunch of soldiers incarcerated for various offensively stereotyped mental conditions. So he breaks them out, they become his squad, and it’s all so macho and fucking American it makes you want to do that thing from The Exorcist and projectile vomit while your head spins around. I was rooting for the Predators; I wanted them to wipe out the US. Because every single US character in this film was a total shit and deserved to be ripped into pieces by an alien. The Predator also did a shitload of retconning when it came to the franchise, and not entirely to the franchise’s benefit. This is a film that has no brains, revels in its brainlessness, and proclaims its lack of brains as the epitome of American manhood. And manages some pretty offensive characterisation to boot. It can get fucked.

Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry (2003, UK). Since I was going through a phase of reading Evelyn Waugh, it made sense to watch the film adaptations of his novels. So I found a copy of Sword of Honour (see here) and… Vile Bodies, that last under the title Bright Young Things, which is the term used in Waugh’s novels for the dissipated twentysomethings of the 1930s and 1940s he writes about in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Put Out More Flags and so on. Fry you would expect to have a feel for the material – and I say that based on his public persona and nothing else – and so it proves. Bright Young Things does  feel a bit like an early who’s who of UK thesps, as it’s full of familiar faces – including Sir John Mills in his last ever part, a non-speaking role – but as an adaptation of its source material it actually scores pretty well. Waugh doesn’t seem to adapt well – his satires become dull dramas; well, except for Brideshead Revisited, where a dull-but-clever drama is adapted as a dull-but-clever drama. But Fry clearly does not take Vile Bodies seriously and it shows. Most of the comic set-pieces from the novel are there, although not all, and some are changed and not to their benefit. But the end result is probably the most faithful adaptation of Waugh’s oeuvre I’ve so far seen. Worth seeing, but you’re better off reading the books.

The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou (2016, China). I remember the fuss when this was released. OMG whitewashing a Chinese movie! Matt Damon stealing a role from a Chinese actor! All complete bollocks. This was a Chinese film, made by Chinese film-makers with Chinese money, who just happened to cast Matt Damon in one of two roles for European characters. Having said all that, I was expecting an historical film and, er, The Great Wall is certainly not that. I think the first clue was the demon-like creature that attacked Matt Damon and his colleagues, but by the time the army of demons attacked the Great Wall of China I was pretty sure this was outright fantasy. It is, unsurprisingly, for a twenty-first century big budget Chinese film by a big-name director, a polished piece of work. The story may well be bollocks, but it makes damn sure it’s entertaining bollocks. And the film does so many things Chinese cinema does so well, and Hollywood quite frankly has no clue about, and though the story is completely risible it all hangs together with an economy of, well, action, because that’s what drives the story, and it provides as few opportunities as it can for the audience to sit back and think about it what it is watching. It’s very entertaining. Complete bollocks, but very entertaining. Sort of like a MCU film – but without the dodgy politics.

Opening Night, John Cassavetes (1977, USA). You know how you want to like a director’s films, and some of their films you even do like quite a bit and think are really very good, but you still have this overall impression that the director’s oeuvre is not one that appeals to you… And then you watch a film by them and you wonder maybe they really are your thing after all. I think I just did that. I’ve seen half a dozen films by Cassavetes, and some of them I’ve thought are really quite good. But the first few movies by him I saw poisoned by view of his oeuvre. Much as I liked Too Late Blues, I really didn’t take to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And yet, I loved Opening Night. It is much like his other films – thin on plot, reliant on his cast, especially the lead (usually his partner, Gina Rowland, or a friend), with dialogue that feels more improvised than scripted. Rowland plays an actress in a stage play, opposite Cassavetes himself, who has her age abruptly brought home to her when a young female fan is hit and killed by a car after a performance. It doesn’t help that the play is about a woman who is having trouble accepting that she is ageing. Rowland’s stage role and “real life” echo each other, and her response to her realisation impacts her behaviour and performance. And it’s a bravura performance from Rowland. I mean, it’s not like she hasn’t shown her chops in other Cassavetes films, but she carries this one above and beyond. Opening Night made me want to watch the other Cassavetes films I’ve seen all over again.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #40

Bit of an odd mix this time.

Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Philip Sgriccia (1999, USA). A while ago I put together a list of all films that featured deep sea diving, and this was on it. I knew nothing about it, other than that. I didn’t know it was a private project by a star of Baywatch, Parker Stevenson. I didn’t know it was released straight-to-video. I didn’t know it was pretty bad. Stevenson plays an oceanographer who is called in when an island mysteriously explodes and creates a “black tide – a “harmful algae bloom” or “HAB”, because, of course, world-killing events always have acronyms. But apparently it’s all to do with a Mayan god, who threatens extinction every 5,000 years… or is it? A diver disappears in the deeps, and when he reappears he’s different, like alternate world version of himself different. Oh, and there’s a big hole, with an “intense magnetic field”, in the ocean bed. So maybe not Mayan gods after all. Surprisingly, Stevenson managed to get use of some pretty state-of-the-art diving hardware for his film – not just a diving support ship and a ROV, but also an actual DSV (which never gets used) and an atmospheric diving suit (which does). This film apparently never made of it off VHS, which is a bit of a shame given much worse films have had DVD, and even Blu-ray, releases. It is perhaps a bit too much of a cut-price The Abyss, and Stevenson probably found his level when he appeared in Baywatch… but there’s some nice hardware on display and some pretty good underwater photography (but also some bad CGI).

The Steamroller and the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky (1966, Russia). Prior to the release of his first feature film, Andrei Tarkovsky made four short films, the last of which, The Steamroller and the Violin, was his diploma film at VGIK. It’s a simple enough story: a seven-year-old music student is bullied by the other boys in his apaprtment block, and is one day saved by the driver of a steamroller working on the road outside. The two become friends. They spend the day wandering around Moscow, and agree to meet up to see a film that afternoon. But the boy’s mother won’t let him out because she doesn’t know the steamroller driver. Who insteads goes to the cinema with his female driver colleague who has completely by coincidence of course turned up. The one thing that’s noticeable about The Steamroller and the Violin is all the camera tricks Tarkovsky managed to squeeze into it. On his way to music school, the boy looks at the mirrors in a shop window, and we’re treated to a montage of split-screen fractured moving images, as if reflected in multiple mirrors. When the boy and the driver watch a house being demolished, the camera follows the path of the wrecking ball. And when the boy plays his violen for the driver, the camera is placed near the floor looking up at the boy as he plays. Given it was a diploma film – it was awared “excellent”, apparently – then I suppose it’s good to display technical proficiency, but it all does seem a bit… imposed, a bit too much for the story to carry. Worth seeing, however.

Interlude, Douglas Sirk (1957, USA). My admiration for Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” know no bounds, and not only is All That Heaven Allows my absolute favourite film but I also love Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. But not every film made during that period by Sirk worked quite so well. On paper, Interlude should have done. A young American woman, hungry for adventure, gets a job in post-war Germany with a cultural organisation. Through her job, she meets a tortured genius German conductor, whose wife is mentally ill. She has an affair with him. But eventually realises the error of her ways and returns to the US. It has all the ingredients, and the cast were certainly up to the job – June Allyson and Rossano Brazzi. It even had European locations. And yet… I note that the three films I like had Russell Metty as cinematographer, but Interlude has William H Daniels. Is that all it is? The cinematography? Because Interlude has its moments, but doesn’t enthral to same extent as those other films. Perhaps it’s because Allyson’s character is too nice – Wyman in All That Heaven Allows at least stands up for herself – or perhaps it’s that Brazzi never quite convinces as the tortured maestro, although he does make a good romantic lead. Interlude feels like a film that could have been a pure slice of Americana, with an entirely US cast, but was made in Europe for no other reason than to show American audiences that such a place existed. It’s by no means the worst film Sirk ever made – some of his early Hollywood films are clearly “work for hire” – but it lacks something that lifts up among the best of his “women’s pictures”.

Forbidden Kingdom, Oleg Stepchenko (2014, Russia). It wasn’t until I was about thirty minutes into this film that I realised it was a remake if Viy (see here). It didn’t help that the opening was completely different – Jason Flemyng is a cartographer in eighteenth-century England, who is a caught in flagrante delicto with Charles Dance’s nubile daughter, and so forced to flee the country. He heads east in his steampunk carriage, and so finds himself in the Ukraine… Which is where he ends up in a village currently being haunted by a young woman who died at the hands of a demon. Her body is lying in state in the local churchm and people who spend the night in the church witness all manner of demonic activity. But then it begins to spread into the village. Flemyng is at a dinner where all the other guests turn into monsters. There are sightings of a horned demon. It’s all very OTT and CGI, and while bits of it certainly reminded of Viy there was so much more of it. It didn’t help that the actors who dubbed into English all sounded like they were acting in a bad TV advert. In the end, it all turns out to be some sort of weird mass hallucination, and then there’s a rational explanation for everything, although I must have blinked and missed the point where the film turned from fantastical horror to historical drama. There’s also a framing narrative, in which Flemyng writes to Dance’s daughter – the implication being that the story is told through his letters, which might at least explain the change from horror to drama, but is spoiled by the fact we see it visually on-screen. It was an entertaining enough film, but the original is much better.

The Green, Green Grass of Home, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1982, Taiwan). This is the second film Hou prefers not to remember, and also a vehicle for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee. In this film, Bee plays a substitute teacher sent to a provincial town, who falls in love with a fellow teacher. It’s not all smooth-sailing, as his girlfriend form Taipei turns up and he’s too much of a coward to tell her his attentions now lie elsewhere. He also has to get permission from the woman’s father. And then there’s the class he’s teaching, particularly three young lads he refers to as the “Three Musketeers” (or at least the subtitles do, and I have to wonder what cultural referent the actual dialogue uses). The Green, Green Grass of Home at least doesn’t have the horrible ear-wormy song of Cute Girl, although it does have a song which is repeated throughout the film – on several occasions it’s even sung by the schoolkids. But it’s still lightweight stuff, and it’s easy to see why Hou would sooner it was forgotten.

Cairo Station*, Youssef Chahine (1958, Egypt). The Egyptian film industry is, more or less, the Hollywood of the Arabic-speaking world. It churns out endless dramas, almost none of which – or perhaps even none – ever get released in the Anglophone film world. The only Egyptian film I’d seen prior to this one was The Yacoubian Building, which was also a best-selling novel in the UK. Cairo Station, AKA Bab al-hadid or The Iron Gate (a literal translation of the Arabic title), is an early neorealist film in an industry which hasn’t much gone in for neorealism. The story is straightforward enough – it’s a day in the life among the workers at Cairo’s railway station, focusing particularly on the porters and the women who sell soft drinks to passengers. The porters are attempting to unionise because they’re sick of the gang master who controls all the porter jobs. And the soft-drink sellers don’t have a licence and so are continually running away from the police. Also living at the station is Qinawi, a disabled man who does odd jobs and is nominally looked after by the newspaper seller. But he fancies Hannuma, but she is betrothed to the man trying to unionise the porters. And it all comes to a violent head. All of the action takes place in the station, and mostly on the tracks. The plot didn’t hold any real surprises, but I was surprised at how well the film hung together. The cast were variable, but the lead characters were well-drawn and sympathetic, and the story managed to keep its different threads running along together. I think I’d have to see more Egyptian films to decide whether or not it should represents the country’s cinema in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it’s certainly a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 924


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Moving pictures 2018, #39

I should stop trying to explain my choices in film-watching. It is what it is. Yes, mostly obscure movies, but there’s also the occasional crowd-pleaser, and a classic or two…

La La Land, Damien Chazelle (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of musicals and, aside from half a dozen Busby Berkley films, the only ones I really like are High Society, Les Girls and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. On the other hand, I did watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers recently and was surprised to find myself enjoying it… Anyway, La La Land, a musical, surprised everyone by winning shedloads of awards a couple of years ago, although Hollywood movies about making movies in Hollywood, musical or otherwise, always seem to do well at awards time. The film follows aspiring actress Emma Stone and jazz pianist Ryan Gosling as they each try to make a success of their chosen careers, which, naturally, involves doing things they don’t want to do simply in order to put food on the table – well, in Gosling’s case it means joining a successful jazz fusion band. The musical numbers are completely forgettable, and even the flights of fancy, despite their Technicolor palette, aren’t that interesting. In fact, the only interesting thing about the film is the bittersweet ending, in which the two split up and are subsequently successful. I have no idea why this film won all the awards it won.

Judith, Daniel Mann (1966, Israel). Lawrence Durrell was not well served by the film industry. The first book of the Alexandria Quartet was adapted as Justine by George Cukor, but it was a financial and critical flop (it had been Joseph Strick’s project but he fell foul of the studio, and they replaced him with Cukor). This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Durrell’s novels would be very difficult to adapt – not that this has prevented Hollywood before with other properties. However, Durrell did provide a story for a movie made by the Israeli film industry, Judith. It was also turned into a novel, which remained unpublished until a couple of years ago. I’ve yet to read it. The story is set in Palestine, just before Israel’s unilateral declaration of statehood. The Jews are worried about the Syrians massing on the border, and have information that a tactical genius Wehrmacht tank commander is now working for the Arabs. But no one knows what he looks like. So they smuggle Sophia Loren into Palestine, since she was married to him and can identify him. But Loren doesn’t fit into the kibbutz where she’s pretending to be a member, arousing the suspicions of the other kibbutz members and the British authorities. Given the way Hollywood framed her career, it’s easy to forget that Loren was a bloody good dramatic actress, streets ahead of her contemporaries also imported from Europe. This is the second early Israeli film I’ve watched this year, and the second whose plot is based around the country’s creation. In this one, however, the threats are chiefly external, although it’s clear there’s an internal organisation more than qualified to investigate and, if necessary, prevent. Perhaps the scenes at the kibbutz tend to reinforce the popular, and hugely incorrect, image of hardy settlers building a homeland in an inhospitable wilderness, but the thriller elements of the story at least show that Palestine was a country under occupation – except, of course, it wasn’t the Jews that were being occupied (although they were certainly the most policed by the British). I’ve yet to read Durrell’s novel – but from the Alexandria Quartet alone, it’s clear where his sympathies lay – but on the whole I’d have to say I thought Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (see here) the better film.

Circle of Deception, Jack Lee (1960, UK). And from watching a film because of the writer who provided the story to watching a movie because of its star. Which I don’t do very often. But Suzy Parker made only a handful of films, and she’s the best thing in them. Most people will probably remember Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield in Kiss Them for Me, but Parker played the female lead. The Best of Everything is a superior 1950s film, and Parker is better than her fellow leads, Hope Lange and Diane Baker, although not as good as Joan Crawford… Anyway, Circle of Deception is a hard-to-find British film set during WWII starring Suzy Parker, who plays a Brit… and I think it’s her voice, although she was dubbed by Deborah Kerr in Kiss Them for Me, and her accent is pretty much spot-on for much of the film, although it does occasionally drift (which is what persuades me it’s her own voice). Anyway, Parker is the assistant of military intelligence captain Harry Andrews. They need to feed disinformation to the Germans, so they decide to parachute into France someone they know will break under interrogation. They feed their patsy – played by Bradford Dillman – with misinformation, then shop him to the Nazis. Everything goes as planned. Well, except for Parker falling for Dillman during his training. But she remains professional, and sends him off to his doom. The film actually opens several years after the war has ended, when Parker wants to track down Dillman and apologise to him. He’s now living in Morocco, and still suffers after his war experiences. There’s a nasty thread of expediency running through the film, which is I guess the whole point of it, and while both Andrews and Parker are good in their roles, Dillman struggles to keep up. Circle of Deception is an interesting, if minor, British WWII drama, but I suspect its story was seen as more shocking in the decades before 9/11 and Gitmo and extraordinary rendition.

Air Force, Howard Hawks (1943, USA). I don’t know why Hawks didn’t serve during WWII – he was 45 in 1941, was that considered too old for combat duty? – although he did apparently serve as a flying instructor during WWI. Anyway, he spent the war years doing what he had been doing before the war: making films. Five between 1941 and 1946. Three of which were explicitly military: Sergeant York in 1941 (which is actually about WWI; see here), and Air Force and Corvette K-225 in 1943 (see here). Air Force – it was, of course, the Army Air Corps at the time – is about the crew of a B-17 in the Pacific theatre. It’s apparently based on a true story. A crew are ferrying a B-17 from San Francisco to Hawaii when they get caught up in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Pretty much all the external shots of the B-17 are model work, and not entirely convincing model work either. And the scenes set inside the Flying Fortress… well, I had thought the aircraft’s interior much more… utilitarian than is shown. I like feature films set on and about military aircraft – Strategic Air Command is one of my favourites – but nothing in Air Force felt especially convincing. Which is ironic, given it’s a true story. There are a couple of interesting scenes featuring state of the art computing in 1943, and the film features all of Hawks’s trademark dramatic elements… But it’s a minor work in his oeuvre, and probably only worth seeing for completeness’s sake.

Cute Girl, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1980, Taiwan). Hou has said that he doesn’t consider his film-making career to have really begun until his third feature, The Boys from Fengkuei (see here), which makes you wonder why eureka! chose to include his two earlier films, Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home, in this new Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien blu-ray box set. Especially since both Cute Girl and The Green Green Grass of Home are really just vehicles for Taiwanese pop star Kenny Bee, and actually not very good films. With extremely annoying soundtracks. The signature pop song from Cute Girl ended up stuck in my head for at least a week after watching the film. The plot is some rom com gubbins about a wealthy young woman who falls for a penniless young man (Bee) who pursues her relentlessly. There are, I seem to recall, a couple of good set-pieces, but the whole thing is so lightweight it’s a wonder it doesn’t blow away. And that fucking annoying song… Hou is a brilliant director but I can understand why he’d sooner this film was quietly forgotten.

Cinderella, Nadezhda Kosheverova & Mikhail Shapiro (1947, Russia). I found this one Amazon Prime, and thought it worth watching. Which it was. In an odd sort of way. It’s a musical and, strangely enough, Soviet musicals in the 1940s were not much like, say, Meet Me in St Louis (1944, see here). So the songs weren’t exactly memorable, or exactly a pleasure to listen to. But the plot pretty much follows Charles Perrault’s version, although it’s explicitly set in a magical kingdom. But otherwise, it all goes down just like the pantomime. What was interesting, however, was the mise en scène, in which the setting resembled some sort of toy town, with overtly designed scenery that gave the whole film a fairy tale atmosphere. The colourful costumes did the same. Some the choreography was quite balletic, and the big set-pieces were effectively staged, but it was definitely the set design where the chief appeal lay. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 923


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Moving pictures 2017, #36

I watch on average two films a night. I’ve pretty much given up on broadcast and cable television, which is a shame as there are programmes on there I’d like to see. But with 200-odd channels, it’s almost impossible to find when and where they might be. I used to buy a newspaper every Saturday so I had a TV guide, but it was a piss-poor guide and only included about a tenth of the channels. I tried buying one of those TV guide magazines, the one that’s only about 65p and seems to be mostly about soap stars (oh wait, they’re all mostly about soap stars)… Anyway, they have schedules for far more channels than I have access to, so finding what I wanted to watch was no easier. I’ve also tried using tvguide.co.uk, but it’s horribly designed and never seems to remember my settings. I suppose these days people use Tivos and YouView boxes and such, and they have the facility to calendar and/or record programmes… but Virginmedia refuse to give me a Tivo and I even had to wait until my old set top box broken before I was given a HD one. Bah, technology.

On the other hand, I do get to watch a large number of (mostly) great films, with a much greater variety in topics, locations and languages. So it’s not like I’m losing out.

To Catch A Thief, Alfred Hitchcock (1954, USA). Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors, I have about eighty percent of the films he made – and he made a lot of films. As far as Hitchcock movies go, To Catch A Thief is a bit of fluff, which has been over the years its chief appeal. It’s the Hitch equivalent of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” – although that would presuppose Hitch made other films of the same ilk, and it’s hard to think of which might qualify – The Trouble with Harry, perhaps? Nonetheless, To Catch A Thief is so much lighter than his usual fare, which is probably why it’s great fun. Cary Grant, at his most teabag-tannish, is a retired cat burglar living on the French Riviera. But someone has been stealing the jewellery of wealthy guests to the region and everyone assumes Grant has come out of retirement. He’s determined to prove his innocence. So he teams up with an agent of an insurance company, and gets to know a rich US widow and her nubile daughter (Grace Kelly). Grant is at his most oleaginous, but it actually feels a little creepy in this, which is not something I’d noticed before. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many early Grant films since last watching To Catch A Thief. Kelly is great – it’s one of her three best roles, along with Rear Window and High Society  – and the supporting cast are all top-notch. It’s all pure Hitchcock from start to finish, from the adept use of location shooting to studio close-ups, from the script full of misdirection to hints at a back-story.  It’s the setting more than anything that makes it feel like fluff. I only mention this in this film post because I recently bought a Blu-ray copy of the film – it was only a fiver (but not anymore, I see) – and I have to admit it’s a very nice transfer. The richer colours don’t work in everyone’s favour – Grant looks like he’s been creosoted – but it’s a superior print to the one on my DVD. Well worth £5.

Tabu, Miguel Gomes (2012, Portugal). I think I stuck this on my rental list because it was a Portugese film, although apparently it was at some point one of the most internationally successful Portugese films of all time. And while it reminded me in several ways of another Portugese film I’d seen, Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (see here), so much so I wondered if the similarities were actually a characteristic of Portugese cinema, it also reminded me a great deal of Jauja (see here), which is from Argentina… Tabu opens with a prologue set in the nineteenth century in Africa – it doesn’t say where, but it’s implied it’s Lusophone… so Angola or Mozambique? – in which a man hunts a crocodile following the suicide of his wife, is killed by the crocodile, and henceforth there are sightings of a ghostly woman and a crocodile. The film abruptly shifts to present-day Lisbon and a trio of women. The oldest of these, Aurora, is eccentric, and when she goes into hospital and is near to death’s door, the other two women at her request track down a man called Gian-Luca… and the film flashes back to Aurora’s early twenties in Portugese Africa… where she married a local land-owner, but then had an affair with Gian-Luca, and nearly died in childbirth. The whole film is shown mostly with a voice-over standing in for dialogue. It gives the story a literary feel, but also distances the viewer, something I also noted about Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. The thing is, it’s so different to most popular narrative cinema that, if it is a peculiarity of Portugese cinema (and, admittedly, I don’t know that it is), then I have to wonder how Portugese film-goers actually, well, view films. Imagine someone who had been brought up on entirely on nineteenth-centiry literature being given a modern best-seller to read. It feels like that. Which is not to say that Tabu is a bad film. On the contrary, it’s very good indeed. And if the prologue never really quite justifies its place in the story, it’s well presented and entertaining. Otherwise, the present day sections are not so interesting, but the flashback is good – the actor playing the young Gian-Luca, Carloto Cotta, is especially good. I added Tabu to my rental list on a seeming whim, you can add it to yours knowing it was recommended. Worth seeing.

Daughter of the Nile, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1987, Taiwan). I’m a big fan of Hou’s films, and have been ever since stumbling across his name somewhere, ordering a box set of his DVDs from Korea on a whim, and watching them and discovering how bloody good they are. He’s made a lot of films, and their availability in the UK is… Random, at best. Perverse, possibly. Happily, eureka! have just released a dual edition of one of his films, so that’s one I can cross off the list. Daughter of the Nile is a very Hou film, amost emblematic of his style without being representative of his oeuvre – if that makes sense. Hou makes films about the disaffected, as do the Sixth Generation Chinese directors, although Hou is, obviously, Taiwanese not Chinese. But Daughter of the Nile is also about affluence and adulthood, and while Hou does his thing with static shots and long shots – and it’s a style I very much like myself – Daughter of the Nile does feel more… kinetic than others films by Hou I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the gangster sub-plot… The main story describes a young woman who works at KFC, attends night school, and must look after her younger brother and sister. He’s the gangster. And he provides the film’s few moment of real drama – a shooting touside a night-club being one. I’d forgotten while watching the film that it was released in 1987… until a character pulled out a pager and then rang someone on a dial telephone. The fashions weren’t especially eighties, and usually films made in the 1980s look very eighties. But that’s more of an observation than a criticism. I think I’ll have to watch Daughter of the Nile again some time. Happily, Hou’s films bear repeated watchings.

Goodbye Gemini, Alan Gibson (1970, UK). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD, Say Hello to Yesterday (see here), and thought it worth seeing… and luckily managed to find a copy on eBay for a few quid. And, well, it’s okay, I guess. It’s very much a film of its time. A pair of twins arrive in London from South America, immediately arrange for the – murder? I’m not sure – of their housekeeper/guardian, go out pubbing and run into an unsavoury crowd. Well, not really unsavoury. They’re movieland 1960s swinging Englanders, into Johnnie Walker, flares, sideburns, fatuous dialogue and a social scene in which all men over the age of thirty are depicted as camp chickenhawks but no one is actually gay… Anyway, it seems the twins like each other a bit too much, and when the female of the pair falls for a gambler and wastrel, who then tries blackmailing the male of the pair, it all ends badly. While Goodbye Gemini was every bit as 1970 as Say Hello to Yesterday, it didn’t have Minis or silver birches. In fact, it looked generic 1960s. It did well on ther fashions, but less well on the scenery. So-so.

Sia, The Dream of the Python, Dani Kouyaté (2001, Burkina Faso). There are, to date, four volumes of Great African Films, each containing a pair of movies, and I plan to get hold of copies of all four. But they’re not easy to find. Well, in the US they seemingly are, but the company responsible for them seems reluctant to sell outside North America… Which is a shame, as these are are Region 0 DVDs and well worth seeing. I tracked down a second-hand copy of the first volume – Haramuya by Drissa Toure (Burkina Faso) and Faraw: Mother of the Dunes by Abdoulaye Ascofaré (Mali) (see here and here) – and  the raw potential of the two films more than justified the hassle and expense in finding copies. And while this second volume was no easier to find, although at least this one was new, the pure film-making story-telling of, at least, Sia, The Dream of the Python, proves it was another good purchase and well worth the expense. The story is relatively straightforward. It;s based on, apparently, a seventh-century myth, but there’s no real indication of when it is set. Some elements of it feel contemporary, some feel historical. Basically, a man’s daughter is earmarked for sacrifice to the python god, but she runs away the night before. The king’s troops fail to find her. Then her boyfriend, a powerful warrior, returns from the front, and overthrows the king and takes the throne. And it’s like watching half a dozen bog standard fantasies played out in their ur-version in a world that is richer and more real than the authors of said fantasies could ever conceive. It’s a not a perfect film, by any means. Some of its cast are plainly amateur, and it often promises more than it can deliver on its budget. But these Great African Films DVDs are definitely worth tracking down, and certainly belong in the library of self-respecting film fan.

Footprints on the Moon, Luigi Bazzoni (1975, Italy). Sometimes you see a film and you think, I’ll have a bit of that, and then when it arrives you wonder why you picked it in the first place. I’ve watched several giallo over the years – both those classified as thrillers and those classified as horror – and some I’ve enjoyed while others I’ve thought were trash. Footprints on the Moon certainly has arresting DVD cover art, and an opening credit sequence in which a black-and-white LM descends onto the lunar surface, so surely it has to appeal… And I’ve watched it twice now and I think goddamnit I’m going to buy myself a copy because it’s a hidden gem and bears rewatching. It’s a giallo,  no doubt about that; but it’s one of those rare giallos that falls into no known genre. A woman who works as a translator discovers she has mysteriously lost three days. She finds a postcard from a holiday island that has fallen on hard times, and goes there. Where she is repeatedly mistaken for a woman who looks exactly like her but who was on the island several days previously. The plot resembles a psychological thriller with a twist in which the writer hadn’t quite thought everything through properly. But the decision to film the scenes on the “island” in Istanbul gives the whole film a sort of, well, Hav-ish feel, which, unintendedly, has made the place much more interesting. The invented island has become an even more so invented place. This is only confused further by the protagonist finding, and then wearing, a wig which makes her look precisely like the woman for whom everyone is confusing her. Add in a bizarre subplot, which gives the film its title, in which the woman dreams of a secret project where an astronaut is left to die on the Moon, and which is where top-billed star Klaus Kinski briefly appears… And, well, it’s completely insane. I can see I’ll be spending a lifetime defending this film, but I really do think it’s a forgotten classic. Go and rent 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, #69

The last Moving pictures post of 2016 (although it’s appearing in 2017), and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact I wrote 69 of these bloody things in twelve months. While I didn’t write about every film I watched, at 6 films on average per post, that’s still a big whole pile of movies. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, and some of them became favourites. Most of them I’m at least glad I watched. Let’s hope the same can be said during 2017.

last_tangoLast Tango in Paris*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1972, France). I’m still convinced Bertolucci is just a gifted copyist, and Last Tango in Paris is just Bertolucci doing Nouvelle Vague, but with some very dodgy sex scenes. Okay, so the first clue is Marlon Brando as the male lead, an actor whose appeal continues to mystify me and whose adoption by Hollywood is quite baffling. The only thing to be said in his favour is he has shown a little more critical acumen than his colleagues in choosing the projects he worked on… But Last Tango in Paris is a blot on his copybook. It’s an “erotic drama”, which means there’s lots of simulated sex – and all involved have repeatedly insisted it was simulated – but lots of dodgy sexual politics. Even for 1972. Brando plays an American in Paris who owns a run-down hotel and whose wife has just committed suicide. He falls in with Maria Schneider, a carefree twentysomething Parisian. They have hot sex. Brando sets the rules and gets unreasonably angry when Schneider breaks them – sexual politics, 1972-style. There are lots of intense close-ups, New Wave style, and even that bit where Brando taps Schneider on one shoulder then pops around the other, doesn’t Azanvour do that in Tirez sur le pianiste or am I misremembering? The film sparked controversy on its release, but was a critical and commercial success. I’ve always known of it, of course, it’s like the first big mainstream “dirty” film that everyone of my generation knows about; the second is 9½ Weeks, which I saw back in the 1980s and I’m sure would be a major disappointment if I ever rewatched it. Of course, whatever reputation might have attached to Last Tango in Paris as far as a callow youth was concerned, that no longer holds true for me, and I took the film as I found it. And having seen it, and read up on the actual controversy regarding its making – it pretty much destroyed Schneider, those simulated sex scenes were as near as dammit to rape… it’s hard to consider it worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. To be honest, Andrzej Żuławski does it much better with l’amour fou as a theme, and at least manages such stories in a style all his own… Bertolucci, on the other hand, is a bit of chameleon, and while he certainly has an excellent eye – I’m thinking of both The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, but there are many good shots in Last Tango in Paris – I’m not convinced the sum of Last Tango in Paris‘s good bits outweigh the extensive and less than salubrious baggage it carries.

flowers_shanghaiFlowers of Shanghai, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1998, Taiwan). So I bought this “box set” – it was five DVDs in a cardboard box – because I wanted to see two of the films in it. But having now watched four of them, I’ve become a bit of a Hou fan, because he really is very good. Flowers of Shanghai is the most gorgeous-looking for Hou films I’ve seen so far, with perhaps the exception of The Assassin. The film takes place in four late nineteenth century brothels in Shanghai, and is divided into four sections, each named for the central courtesan of that section: Crimson, Pearl, Jasmine and Jade. The film chiefly consists of a static camera focusing on a group of people, courtesans and their most frequent patrons, and so telling the story of their lives and the realtionships between them, some of which are defined by those patrons. Plot-wise, it’s perhaps not the most gripping of stories, but if there’s one thing my travels in Hou territory have taught me it’s that he prefers to lay out his story in the incidentals. The dialogue defines the relationships between the characters, the mide en scène defines the setting, and the story comes out of the interplay between the two. So it’s just as well that Hou scores so highly on presenting his mise en scène, it is in fact one of his strengths as a director. He frames gorgeous shots because he has set up gorgeous shots – and Flowers of Shanghai shows that off to an impressive extent. I’m still not entirely sure why I bought the Hou “boxed set”, given that I’d only seen one of Hou’s films before, but it was a wise purchase. I now count myself a fan of his work and plan to purchase everything else he made – because, of course, only two or three are actually available for rental in the UK…

the_pastThe Past, Asghar Farhadi (2013, France). And from a new director I now admire to… well, Farhadi’s About Elly is a brilliant film, a clever drama/thriller and wholly Iranian. I loved it the moment I saw it back in 2013. His Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation were also very good. But The Past is, well, it’s not an Iranian film. It’s a French film. And it suffers as a result. It’s about Iranian immigrants in France, but their concerns, the plot, is all the sort of stuff that would drive a French film. I know the immigrant experience is important, and that documenting it is not only worthwhile but important… But, to a non-native eye I freely admit, The Past did seem to resemble more the experiences of non-immigrants than immigrants. If that makes sense. Perhaps it was a sense that the, er, sensibility seemed suited to the language and setting, when the nationality of the director and cast suggested it should have been otherwise. I firmly believe cinema is a powerful tool for documenting life across the planet, in all its manifest forms, in all its various societies and communities. That’s why I treasure world cinema. It provides an insider’s view. I’m not interested in a French-style drama that just happens to be made by an Iranian director and happens to feature a cast of Iranian extraction, because I’m more interested in seeing life as experienced by Iranians, yes, even Iranians living in France. Perhaps I’m doing The Past a great disservice, perhaps I’m completely missing a huge part of this film, but I’ve seen a number of Iranian films and I’ve seen a number of French films and to my eye this smelt like a French film. Which is not to it was a bad film – Farhadi is bloody good, after all – but I do prefer Iranian cinema to French cinema, and would rather this film had tended to the former than the latter…

meshesMeshes of the Afternoon*, Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid (1943, USA). Most discussions of avant garde cinema often focus on US avant garde cinema, possibly because most European avante garde film-makers went on to become commercially successful, such as Luis Buñuel. And of those US avant garde films, Meshes of the Afternoon from 1943 is generally noted as one of the most seminal. While on the one hand the experimental films of Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage might fit into the commonly-held view of the history of cinema – it was the 1960s! everyone experimented! – but no one really expects the same of two decades earlier. Common sense dictates there must have been people experimenting with film in the 1940s just as much as there were in the 1960s (for the all the latter decades reputation for experimentation, etc.), but popular history tends to elide such experiments. Meshes of the Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is one such experiment whose reputation has withstood the test of time. I found a decent copy of Youtube and watched it there. And watching it, well, there’s a lot of Lynch in there, or rather, Lynch was clearly influenced by this film, if not others by Deren. A woman dreams about a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She follows it along a path, but loses it. She returns home and finds a key. The key morphs into a knife. There are several versions of her sitting at a table. She sees the hooded figure in her bedroom. Some of this is a dream, some of this seems to be a re-enactment of something she dreamed. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about avant garde cinema, and its history, in order to understand why Meshes of the Afternoon is considered so important. It’s good, certainly; but I’ve no way of judging its historical importance. Given the year… although Buñuel’s Un chien Andalou was released in 1929… there’s clearly some early importance there, and Deren went on to make more films and lecture extensively in film-making. Some of Deren’s other films are available on Youtube – I’ve watched one, At Land, already – and I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring… But with Benning, Bailie, Brakhage and now Deren & Hammid, this is obviously an area of cinema I need to spend a bit more time on…

good_menGood Men, Good Women, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1995, Taiwan). That’s the last of the “box set”, so now I’ll have to get me some more Hou DVDs. This is the third film in Hou’s Taiwanese History trilogy, which also includes A City of Sadness (not seen) and The Puppetmaster (see here). Like the second, and possibly the first, it’s a biopic, this time about Chiang Bi-Yu, who left Taiwan in the 1940s to fight the Japanese in mainland China, and after WWII returns to Taiwan, becomes a communist and so comes into conflict with the Kuomintang regime. The film depicts Chiang’s life in black-and-white, but is interspersed with sections in colour documenting the life of the actress who plays Chiang in the film that is Good Men, Good Women… And I have to wonder if this is where Stanley Kwan got the idea for the structure of Center Stage (see here). Both are great films, of course; and it’s no surprise that China, and other areas speaking languages of the Chinese family, should produce movies that are more than kung fu actioners or gorgeous wu xia spectacles, but we rarely get to learn that over here in the UK… So mark both those films down on your list as superior films – even if, er, they’re not actually available in the UK or US.

ride_lonesomeRide Lonesome*, Budd Boeticher (1959, USA). I couldn’t find a copy of this in the UK or US, so ended up buying a rip from someone on eBay because the film had passed out of copyright. Fortunately, it proved to be a good transfer – to be fair, most these days for sale on eBay are pretty good transfers. And as I started watching Ride Lonesome I sort of understood why it had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but then the further into the film I got the less I understood why it had earned its place on the list. Partly that was down to Randolph Scott, the star, who seems a pretty solid centre around which to plot a Western story, but he does, well, have an unfeasibly big head, in fact, he looks a bit like a puppet. Some actors make great Western heroes – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart… Randolph Scott just seems proportioned wrong. As for the story… He plays a bounty hunter, taking a killer to Santa Cruz, Arizona, to be hung. They stop off en route at a desert rest-stop – and the scenes set in and around that are lovely to look at and well played – and pick up a pair of freebooters, and the rest-stop’s widowed female owner, as companions. All of which leads to complications later. The story is not much, but this is a Western. The desert scene cinematography is very good, and I’d love to have seen it in full-on restored Technicolor. Later scenes, in landscape more familiar from Western television series, were less impressive. And the story’s final twist was not quite as unexpected as the story had suggested it might be. A good Western, I suspect, although I’m not so sure it deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 842


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Moving pictures, #67

An entirely world cinema Moving pictures: six films, six different countries… and not a single Anglophone one among the lot. Admittedly, as the DVD cover art below indicates, three of the films were from a single box set, the Criterion Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 1, which is definitely worth getting. (No volume 2 has appeared yet, however.)

world_cinemaDry Summer, Metin Erksan (1964, Turkey). During a drought, the tobacco farmer on whose land the local spring can be found decides to keep all the water for his own crops. So he blocks off the irrigation ditches – it all looks like some sort of falaj system – to the other farmers’ fields. Obviously, they’re not happy about this. Nor is the farmer’s younger brother. There are fights, the farmers without water kill the dog of the farmer with water, the falaj is repeatedly attacked and its sluices broken. For all that the film repeats its simple story, and the story is clearly a metaphor for greater struggles, it works well and doesn’t feel stretched or over-long at ninety minutes. Dry Summer apparently won awards at both Berlin and Venice film festivals, and was submitted to the Oscars but not nominated. (Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won.) I’ve seen a few recent Turkish art house films, but this was my first experience of mid-twentieth century Turkish cinema – although not, I suspect, popular Turkish cinema of the time. Worth seeing.

xlXL, Marteinn Thorsson (2013, Iceland). This doesn’t appear to have been released on DVD – I saw it on Amazon Prime – which is a shame, as it’s a pretty good film and worth seeing. Leifur is a member of the Icelandic parliament. He’s also an alcoholic and a womaniser, with a history of public drunken incidents. After his last escapade, starting a fight at a performance art thing, the prime minister tells him he must go into rehab. Leifur resists. The film is told in non-chronological order, with flashbacks and montages, which sort of mimic Leifur’s own drunken memories of his adventures. Because Leifur is a MP, there are several scenes filmed in the area around Reykjavik’s Parliament House… which is a couple of hundred metres away from the Icecon 2016 venue, and the hotel where I stayed… So that was cool, seeing a bit of Reykjavik I actually knew. XL is pretty brutal in depicting Leifur’s antics and their effect on his family and friends. He’s completely in denial, which only makes matters worse. The jump cuts and montages don’t make for easy viewing, and occasionally feel a little overdone, but they certainly help embed the film in Leifur’s POV – and, in fact, there are several scenes, including the opening, which are actually shot from Leifur’s POV. Worth seeing.

onibabaOnibaba*, Kaneto Shindo (1964, Japan). In forteenth-century Japan, two women live alone in a hut in a meadow of thick reeds. Two soldiers fleeing a battle make their way among the reeds. The women kill them, take their arms and armour, and then throw the bodies into a deep hole in the meadow. The women’s neighbour returns from fighting and admits that the husband of the younger of the two women did not survive. Some samurai enter the reeds, and are killed and robbed by the women. The neighbour and the young woman start a secret sexual relationship. A samurai in a demon mask appears. The older woman kills him. The woman wears the mask to scare her daughter away from the neighbour. After being caught out in a downpour, the woman cannot remove the mask. She reveals herself to her daughter, and the two of them try to remove the mask. Eventually, they succeed, but the older woman’s face is covered in weeping sores… The simplicity of the setting – reeds, rude huts, deep hole – works well with the stark black and white photography. The demon’s appearances (whichn it’s the old woman) are staged well, if a little over-theatrical. A good film, worth seeing.

goodbye_southGoodbye South, Goodbye, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1996, Taiwan). I’ve mentioned Hou’s soundtracks before, but this has the best one I’ve heard so far. It’s a mix of techno and rock, and there’s probably more music in this film than there is dialogue. Not that the film needs much in the way of dialogue anyway. A pair of Taiwanese low-lifes get involved with gangsters when they set up a gambling den in Pingxi. This is only first in a series of schemes of dubious legality intended to make the pair money, all of which fail to do so. There are several performances by the nightclub singer girlfriend of one of the pair, and a number of dialogue scenes set in cars as the pair drive about Taipei. There’s not much in the way of plot here – not that there was in Hou’s The Boys from Fengkuei – just a string of incidents that blur one into the other. As mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is excellent, and the cinematography is very much like that in Hou’s other films, with lots of static long shots, often with odd choices for camera placement. I now want more of Hou’s films on DVD.

world_cinemaTrances, Ahmed El Maamouni (1981, Morocco). Apparently, the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project began when Scorsese was working on one of his films in 1981 and he saw Trances on TV. He loved it so much, he tracked down the distributor and director, and arranged for the film to remastered… and here it is, on DVD and Blu-ray (US-only, sadly), in a box set with five other films. And unlike those other films, it’s a documentary. It’s about a Moroccan band called Nass el Ghiwane, which started life in avant garde political theatre, but, at the time of filming, tours the country playing Moroccan folk music (chaabi), and apparently kicked off a new social movement. The film mixes concert footage, interviews with band members and fly-on-the-wall documentary. It’s a film that fascinates due to its topic rather than the way it was put together, although I suspect that’s an occupational hazard for all documentary films. I can understand why Scorsese was attracted to it, as it’s especially good at capturing a moment, and a movement, encapsulated and defined by the music of Nass el Ghiwane. A good film.

world_cinemaTouki Bouki, Djibril Diop Mambéty (1973, Senegal). And another from the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, this time from Senegal. I’ve seen Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé, another Senegalese film, which is excellent, but Touki Bouki is a very different film. It’s about men, for a start, and not women – in particular, one young man, and his girlfriend, who dream of a better life, but have neither the money nor the ambition to better their lot. Eventually, they steal some money from a rich man, and use it to buy passage to France. But the man finds he can’t leave, and his girlfriend goes on without him. This is a very brightly-coloured film, especially in the scenes which show animals being slaughtered for food, and which makes them particularly gruesome. I had to look away, they’re far more graphic than you’d see depicted in a film these days. Despite that, it’s a good film and I’ll probably be watching it again in 2017.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 838