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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


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Moving pictures, #66

A mostly far eastern Moving pictures post this time, with films from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Plus some Italian melodrama, a classic piece of Disney, and a recent Hollywood blockbuster which generated a ridiculous amount of stupidity on release.

center_stageCenter Stage*, Stanley Kwan (1992, China). I couldn’t find any copies of this film for sale in the UK, and while it had apparently been released in the US at some point, it had also long since been deleted. So I bought a copy from Hong Kong… on Blu-ray. Bizarrely, Hong Kong is region A, because it counts as a “dependency” of, I assume, the US, despite being a British Crown Colony from 1842 to 1997 (region B) and before that part of Imperial China (there were, of course no Blu-ray regions then), and since 1997 a Special Administrative Region of China (region C). Fortunately, I have a multi-region Blu-ray player. As for the actual film… All I knew about Center Stage, AKA Actress, was that it starred Maggie Cheung and was a biopic of a famous actress in the 1930s Chinese film industry. What I hadn’t expected was that the film includes a framing narrative, to which it occasionally breaks, in which Cheung and the director discuss how she will approach the role of the actress, Ruan Lingyu, in the film which is Center Stage. So you have Cheung as Lingyu and Cheung as Cheung. It’s surprisingly effective. Especially since Kwan has made an effort to make the 1930s part of his film as convincing as possible. The end result is a character study of a tragic figure from China’s cinematic history as well as a commentary on that character study, and it’s all carried magnificently by Cheung, who deservedly won a best actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival (surprisingly, the film was not entered for Cannes or the Oscars). The film looks exceedingly good, Cheung looks exceedingly good, and I’m surprised the only edition currently available is a Hong Kong Blu-ray. This really is a film which deserves to be seen more widely.

before_revolutionBefore the Revolution*, Bernardo Bertolucci (1964, Italy). Another film I watched solely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list although, to be fair, Bertolucci’s name was known to me – ever since seeing The Last Emperor at a cinema in Nottingham back in 1987, in fact. But the year, the country, the black-and-white film stock… led me to think Before the Revolution was an Italian Neorealist film – about which I have mixed feelings, inasmuch as I take the films as I find them rather than liking the genre – but Before the Revolution proved to be more Nouvelle Vague than anything else. A pair of young men, carefree to the extent you only see in New Wave films, but one drowns in a swimming accident and the other finds himself attracted to an older woman, an aunt, although I don’t think a blood relative, and it all seemed very Nouvelle Vague… I especially remember one scene, shot through the window of a car which was quite effective, but had more in common with Godard than it did, say, De Sica or Rossellini. Which is not to say that Before the Revolution was a bad film – just that it reminded me of Godard or Antonioni, and not any Italian Neorealist director, and while I much prefer the first two names, I found this a bit of a lacklustre copy. Given Bertolucci’s oeuvre, I suspect him of being a gifted copyist – The Sheltering Sky is a lovely-looking film, albeit not a great adaptation of the novel, but what is it that makes it a Bertolucci film? I wonder if 1900 was as close as Bertolucci got to a personal film, and even that felt like it borrowed from many sourcres. I can’t say Bertolucci has ever impressed me that much – he doesn’t seem to have an individual vision, and those of his films I’ve liked I’ve done so because of the films themselves. I suspect Before the Revolution deserves more attention than I gave it, but after watching a whole bunch of Italian Neorealist films it did seem a bit of a capitulation to the commercial forces they had set out to resist.

lady_trampLady and the Tramp, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1955, USA). I know I saw this once as a kid, but when I came to watch it again I realised I’d forgotten a couple of important things about it. One, it was released in 1955, at a time when Disney were on a roll with their feature films; and two, it’s set in 1909. I also keep on thinking it should be called “The Lady and the Tramp”. Which it shouldn’t. Because “Lady” is the name of a female cocker spaniel pup given to the wife in a middle-class US family. All goes well until the wife becomes pregnant, and Lady subsequently comes second in the family’s affections. The Tramp, on the other hand, is a mongrel who lives on the street, and he explains to Lady that when a baby arrives, the dog is no longer wanted. And so it proves. Lady and the Tramp spend time together, a sort of doggy romance. But one of their escapades goes wrong and she’s caught by the local, er, dogcatcher (even though she’s wearing a collar). In the pound, she learns about the Tramp’s other “girlfriends”, and so spurns him on her release. But then a rat sneaks into the house and threatens the new baby, and the two dogs’ successful attempt to kill the rat is misinterpreted by Lady’s owners… although they soon learn their mistake. And the Tramp becomes a member of the family and breeds with Lady. Happy ending. The animation is, as you would expect from 1950s Disney, and Geronimi and Luske, really very nice. The dog’s eye view is also done effectively. But the story suffers because it doesn’t have the fairy-tale quality that Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for example, both possess. And, to be honest, I’m not all that taken with animals as protagonists. Lady and the Tramp was better than I was expecting, but I’d class it as an also-ran in the Disney classics category.

boys_fengkueiThe Boys from Fengkuei, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1983, Taiwan). This is the second film from the Hou “box set”, and much as I was impressed by The Puppetmaster I find this film much more to my taste if not quite as obviously classic film material. If that makes sense. A group of youths in a fishing village leave school with little in the way of education or prospects. They spend of their time gambling and fighting. Three of them head for Kaohsiung, a major city, to look for work. One of the three falls in love with a young woman living in a nearby flat. Nothing quite works out. Like the other Hou films I’ve seen, The Boys from Fengkuei makes extensive use of static camera placement and long shots, which is, I admit, a style of cinematography I like. I like that distance, that sense of the screen as a window on the story… and while I can also appreciate the effectiveness of a close-up, I’ve only really seen it used all that effectively in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste – in other films, you just don’t notice it, which makes you wonder why they bothered to use it. Hou seems to like static viewpoints, usually carefully-chosen, and while it’s not as obvious, or stagey, a technique as that used by, say Peter Greenaway, it does impact the film. There is a scene, for example, where the “boys” fight, and the fight spills off-screen, so all the viewer sees is an empty alleyway with the noise of a violent fist-fight on the soundtrack. Hou also – and this I admit surprised me – does great soundtracks. I should have guessed from the first film of his that I’d seen, The Assassin, and its really quite wonderful closing credits music. But all of the films I’ve seen by Hou so far have excellent incidental music. Stick him on your list of directors worth seeing, because he surely belongs there. I think he’s becoming one of my favourite directors…

ghostbustersGhostbusters, Paul Feig (2016, USA). And so we come to the explosion of stupidity that was the remake of Ghostbusters. It seemed quite simple – remake Ghostbusters, a mildly amusing 1984 Hollywood comedy with something of a cult following, for the twenty-first century. Put a comedy dream-team on it. Solved. Except the dream-team picked was that responsible for Bridesmaids, a successful twenty-first century comedy… which meant the Ghostbusters central cast would be female. Normal people went, okay, cool, go for it. A handful of right-wing dickheads decided they didn’t like this, and they kicked up a stink. The level of stupidity in their complaints was hard to believe. Especially when you consider that the film about which they were complaining was pretty much fan service from start to finish. The thing about Ghostbusters (3) is that it’s a pretty ordinary film of its type. It has a handful of good jokes, but, as many twenty-first century comedies seem to do, it also relies overmuch on the characters developed by its cast in other films. In other words, if Melissa McCarthy plays the most sensible role in your film, then you have a problem. But when every Ghostbuster-related joke is a fan service, and everything around it is a stable of actresses playing their best-known characters… you don’t have an especially good film. It entertained. Just. But the one thing the film certainly didn’t deserve was the moronic criticism by right-wingers who objected to a female Ghostbusters. It’s such a feeble complaint, you have to wonder at the intelligence of those who supported it. (To be honest, I don’t wonder: I consider them all quite stupid.) If you enjoy the sort of comedies which have been released in the last five or six years, you will enjoy Ghostbusters. If you enjoyed the original Ghostbusters you will probably get added value from the fan service and references. It’s not an especially good film – but to criticise it solely because the central cast are female just makes you a complete fucking idiot.

world_cinemaThe Housemaid*, Kim Ki-young (1960, South Korea). I bought the Criterion box set of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a remastered version of A River Called Titas (on both DVD and Blu-ray). But there are a further five films in the set, including The Housemaid, a film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and which I’d not been able to find a copy elsewhere. (Eureka! released a UK edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project in 2013, but their version only includes three films – none of which are The Housemaid or A River Called Titas; they also called their edition volume 1 but there doesn’t appear to have ever been a volume 2. Bah.) Anyway, The Housemaid, AKA Hanyo… a Korean family hire a housemaid, but over time she gets a little too friendly with the husband. And then next thing you know, she’s pregnant with his child. As is his wife. Which puts him in something of a quandary. Well, at least that sort of quandary experienced by men with zero or low morals. Upset that her child will not be treated in the same way as that of the wife, the housemaid threatens one of the children with poison. and so the housemaid and the wife engage in a downward spiral of threats while the husband makes all the wrong decisions and so makes the situation worse. The Housemaid has been described as horror and erotic horror, although to me it played out like a drama, albeit a somewhat dark one. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 837


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Moving pictures, #64

Another mixed bag of films. I seem to be sticking to my plan of seeing more world cinema than Hollywood cinema, however…

the_bowThe Bow, Kim Ki-duk (2005, South Korea). David Tallerman had recommended Ki-duk’s 3-Iron and it was very good, but he also pointed out that not all of Ki-duk’s movies would be to my taste… although this one might be. Yes, it was to my taste; no, it wasn’t as good as 3-Iron. An old man and a teenage girl live on a boat, which they hire out to people wanting to deep sea fish. The old man plans to marry the girl when she is seventeen. He also has a bow, which he sometimes uses to keep unruly cusotmers in line. The girl says nothing. She also helps him with his party trick, in which she sits on a swing before a target painted on the hull of their boat, while he stands on another boat and shoots arrows at the target. And, er, that’s about it. Well, there’s a romance plot, when a student falls in love with the girl. And the old man sometimes turns his bow into a musical instrument and plays it. But this is not a film which makes an effort to ensure the viewer knows what’s going on. But then, the film works mostly because Ki-duk keeps things enigmatic. Worth seeing.

4a-dog-star-man-preludePrelude: Dog Star Man*, Stan Brakhage (1961, USA). Avant garde cinema has been around as along as, well, cinema, and yet the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list features only a handful of examples – early Buñuel, who probably doesn’t count anyway, Meshes of the Afternoon from the 1940s, Baillie and Brakhage from the 1960s, Benning from the 1990s… and all but Buñuel from the US, as if no one but Americans made experimental or avant garde films. Which is nonsense. (Not that I know enough about avant garde film to name directors from other countries, but there are plenty of books on the subject available from a large online retailer…) Having said that, Dog Star Man is apparently highly regarded and considered a watershed work in American avant garde cinema. It’s a sequence of six short films made between 1961 and 1964, but only the first, Prelude, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I found a copy of it on Youtube, I think the entire series is on there. Prelude: Dog Man Star is a montage of soundless moving images, many superimposed: prominences on the sun, clouds, a  city at night, trees, washes of colour, scratches, even some bubble-bath. It’s not as mesmerising as the static shots in Benning’s films, but there’s definitely a poetry to the play of images. I guess I should watch the rest of the sequence sometime.

i_clownsI Clowns, Federico Fellini (1970, Italy). I have become a fan of Fellini’s films after many years of only knowing La Dolce Vita and, later, . It was Satyricon and Casanova that did it, of course. They’re so bonkers, how could I not want to see more films by their director? And Roma was good too. But it’s not like I rushed out and bought every Fellini film available on DVD or Blu-ray, and, in fact, I only bought I Clowns because it was going cheap in a Black Friday sale. (I did have it on my rental list, however.) The title is not a veiled reference to Graves or Asimov but simply the Italian for The Clowns. And the title pretty much describes the film. It opens with an extended performance of a group of clowns in a circus, before showing those clowns out and about out of costume. It’s part documentary and part fiction. Wikipedia claims it was “incorrectly referred as the first mockumentary”, although, to be honest, it doesn’t come across as a mockumentary. Clowns are strange creatures, their personas and appearance deliberately designed to generate laughter, but they can also be creepy as fuck. The ones in I Clowns are pretty typical in that regard.

beyondStar Trek Beyond, Justin Lin (2016, USA). The original Star Trek movies were pretty bland, and turned blander as the series progressed, but at least they weren’t stupid films. And if there’s one thing the rebooted Trek films are, it’s stupid. The first two films made no sense and had plot holes you could fly the Enterprise through. Star Trek Beyond is slightly better than the previous two, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It opens with Kirk bored after three years of his five-year mission and applying for a promotion to vice-admiral. This is the cadet who failed to graduate from Starfleet Academy, but they put him in command of their best ship anyway, and now he expects to make vice-admiral three years after not graduating? WTF? Anyway, before Kirk can be leapfrogged over all those Starfleet officers with the decades of experience necessary for the job, the Enterprise is sent to retrieve an escape pod, which results in them trying to rescue a lost crew on a world hidden behind one of those asteroid belts you only ever see in bad sf, you know, the ones where the rocks are metres apart instead thousands of kilometres. And then a villain makes mincemeat of the Enterprise, and I sort of lost the plot around then, or probably the film did, as it turned into the usual bollocks with the hardy upright folk of Starfleet completely out of their depth against a super-powerful alien but they still manage to win the day anyway. Not that the asteroid belt was the only bollocks in the film. I noted at one point that the Enterprise’s artificial gravity worked fine except when it looked cool if everyone was thrown about the ship when it crashed. Other than that, villain Idris Elba was under so much much alien make-up you have to wonder why they bothered casting a marquee name, the Enterprise’s crash totally ripped off the same thing from the previous franchise, Karl Urban still does a mean Bones but the rest of the cast are rubbish, and the whole thing feels like an over-extended episode from a crap TV show.

puppetmasterThe Puppetmaster*, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1993, Taiwan). One thing that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has shown me is how piss-poor the UK is at making films available on DVD. The latest Hollywood shit, no problem; but world cinema, or even classic Hollywood, and it’s absolutely useless. Most of Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre is available – no doubt because he was championed by Merchant Ivory – but only two of Ritwik Ghatak’s films (and the remastered edition of one is available in the US but not here). There’s plenty of wu xia and Chinese historical epics available on DVD in the UK, but only a handful by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien… so I ended up buying a box set of five Hou films on eBay from South Korea (and the “box set” proved to be five DVDs in the cardboard box in which they were sent…). The Puppetmaster is one of Hou’s best-known films, and is essentially a sort of dramatised reminiscence by a, er, puppeteer who was forced to propagandize for the Japanese during their occupation of the country in World War II. The film opens with the puppetmaster discussing his birth, and how he came to be registered twice under two names. At intervals, as an old man, he talks directly to camera, as if being interviewed. Hou has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list I’m using, although others by him regularly crop up on other lists. The Puppetmaster certainly belongs on the list, and I’m now looking forward to watching the rest of my “box set”.

heroesHeroes, Samir Karnik (2008, India). Bollywood is not all 3-hour-long rom coms with songs and dances, it tackles other genres and subjects too. In fact, but for the inclusion of song and dance routines, it pretty much covers the same bases as Hollywood. In Hollywood, Heroes would be a serious drama, with a po-faced cast all gunning for an award. In Bollywood, it’s just as serious, but it also features broad comedy and dance routines. A war reporter interviews three soldiers in the Indian Army fighting in, I think, the Kargil War. The soldiers each give the reporter a letter to post on his return to civilisation, but the reporter later learns all three were killed in action. Three years later, a pair of slacker student fail to graduate from film school and need to make a graduation film. A friend in the army prompts them to make their topic “why you shouldn’t join the armed forces”, and the girlfriend of one of the pair puts them in touch with someone who could help… the war reporter from earlier. He gives them the three letters he was given by the dead soldiers – throughout the film they’re referred to as “martyred”, which is just… odd – and suggests they deliver them by hand and make that the subject of their graduation film. So the two load up their motorcycle, and head off to the Punjab to deliver the first letter, written by a Sikh soldier. They discover that the widow and young son are extremely proud of the soldier, as indeed is the whole village. The second letter, they deliver to the wheelchair-using brother of the dead soldier, who used to be a fighter pilot. The ex-pilot now teaches kids to stand up for themselves, but is proud of his brother’s sacrifice. There’s also a jaw-dropping action sequence in a bar when the ex-pilot takes on a gang of rowdies and beats the crap out of them, and pretty much demolishes the bar, first from his wheelchair, and then from the floor after they’ve managed to tip him over. The final letter is addressed to the dead soldier’s colonel and proves to be a request for leave. There’s an unposted card in the soldier’s file, so the colonel gives it to the film students for them to deliver to the family. But the family don’t seem especially bothered, and one of the film students accuses the dead soldier of cowardice for wanting leave during the height of the war. The dead soldier’s mother plays them a tape of her son, proving he was a hero. Heroes is all a bit jingoistic, deliberately so, but it’s palatable because the film is based on the Bollywood model, with songs and dances and daft comedy. Entertaining, but it did lay its “love your country” message on a bit thick.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 833


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Moving pictures, #51

There have been too many movies of late – typically Hollywood action or thriller movies – which I’ve started to watch on Amazon Prime, only to give up ten minutes in because of their macho stupidity and lack of resemblance to anything approaching the real world. So I guess in that respect the service is proving useful, since I haven’t wasted rental DVDs on those films. Unfortunately, it does mean I have to look further afield for the sort of films I do want to watch – and I was already watching pretty obscure ones… It’s also proving annoying how few non-Anglophone movies are released on DVD in the UK – and some are released in such low numbers, they’re deleted less than a year later. Several years ago, I used to operate what I called “The Rule of DVD” – ie, don’t buy a DVD unless it was priced under £10. At the time, it made sense since most DVDs were released at £19.99 or £16.99. Unfortunately, the cheapest ones were generally the big Hollywood blockbusters, so it meant waiting for a sale or picking up second-hand ones on eBay… Nowadays, DVDs under £5 are pretty common, but again it’s the blockbusters (or really shit straight-to-DVD films). And the ones I now want are even more expensive than they were. Argh.

Having said all that, this bunch of films is mostly obscure – with one glaring exception, which, unbelievably, I’d never seen before (I thought I had but, watching it, nothing was familiar).

kumikoKumiko, the Treasure Hunter, David Zellner (2014, USA). I think this was a recommendation from David Tallerman. It’s certainly not a film I’d have put on my rental list. And despite the first half being set in Japan. and entirely in Japanese, it’s an American film. It’s based on an urban legend, that a young Japanese woman who was found dead in Minnesota in 2001 had been searching for the ransom money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Kumiko, an introverted office lady, finds a videotape hidden in a cave on the shore. It’s a copy of Fargo, but she convinces herself it’s real, uses her employer’s credit card to buy a plane ticket to the US, but the card is cancelled, so she starts walking toward Fargo. She’s picked up en route by a friendly sheriff, but her English is poor and when he learns her purpose he can’t get across to her that Fargo is fiction. An odd film. Zellner manages to get across Kumiko’s alienation pretty effectively – both in Japan and in the US – and Rinko Kikuchi’s slightly-bewildered but blank-faced expression throughout convinces you she is precisely the sort of person who would fixate on something fictional as fact. Worth seeing.

assassinThe Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Tsien (2015, China). And another recommendation from David Tallerman. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. I’m not an especially big fan of wu xia, although many of those I’ve watched have been gorgeous spectacles. The Assassin, however, takes a different approach – it’s very slow, very quiet, and a lot of it takes place indoors. Shu Qi plays the title role, who after failing to kill her target (because he had his baby son in his arms), is sent to the province of Weibo to kill the governor… to whom she was once betrothed. While The Assassin doesn’t have the colourful and kinetic cinematography found in a lot of wu xia, it is beautifully shot, and makes a great deal of use of stillness – which is only emphasised by the cast’s deliberate lack of affect in playing their parts, and which also makes the sudden eruptions of violence all the more visually shocking. Definitely worth seeing.

classic_bergmanIt Rains on Our Love, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This was the second film Bergman directed, with a script co-written by himself and based on a Norwegian play by Oskar Braaten. A young woman runs away to a provincial town after becoming pregnant, and a young man, fresh out of prison, is looking for a new life. The woman misses her train and bumps into the young man. They decide that since luck brought them together then they are fated to be together. After leaving their train, they stumble along a lane during a downpour, and end up breaking into a small house for shelter. But the owner catches them. He offers to rent it to them. The young man goes looking for a job, finds one, and the two settle down. But every time good luck comes their way, it’s followed by bad. Fortunately, there is a man with an umbrella, who appears every now and again and speaks to camera, who helps them out of their difficulties. I can’t say this was especially memorable – it was interesting seeing how Swedes lived in the country back in the 1940s, but the whole thing felt like a somewhat unsubtle play. One for fans only, I suspect.

starA Star is Born*, George Cukor (1954, USA). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before – as I mention above – but perhaps I just thought I had because I knew the story from the Barbra Streisand / Kris Kristofferson version, which I definitely remember seeing. Oh, and I’ve seen the Janet Gaynor / Fredric March version too – this time last year, in fact. The story is simple enough: matinee idol on the way down spots young talent and helps her to become a star, and as their careers head in opposite directions so their relationship suffers. In this version, the upwardly-mobile star is Judy Garland in a comeback role, although apparently still suffering from chemical dependencies, and the star heading downwards is James Mason, who was not the first choice by any means but despite being a little too urbane for the role proves capable of a surprisingly good drunk. The film was shot in glorious Technicolor, and Cukor makes good use of it. But it was by all accounts an unhappy shoot, and the studio then butchered Cukor’s cut in an effort to chop it down to a “more commercial” length. The version I watched is the 176-minute restored version from 1983, which uses still photos and voice-over dialogue to fill in the scenes lost on the cutting-room floor. And judging by which scenes were cut, I’m surprised the theatrical release made any sense at all. I’m not a Garland fan, and this film is pretty obviously her star-vehicle, nor did I think the musical numbers all that good – the overly-long ‘Born in a Trunk’ number, filmed after Cukor had left the production, was especially self-indulgent. Still, at least I can cross it off the list.

detectiveDétective, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France). I am mostly indifferent to French cinema, I have discovered, except for a handful of exceptions – Ozon, of course; and some Renoir; Demy; Rivette, perhaps; Tati, obviously; Denis, Assayas, assorted migrant directors like Kieślowski and Żuławski; and, I’m surprised to discover, quite a bit of Godard. I had a theory that I liked colour Godard but not black-and-white Godard, but what I hadn’t expected was that I’d like colour Godard so much. True, I count Le Mépris as a favourite film, but it’s his “commercial” film and not typical of his oeuvre. But I’ve found myself liking, and admiring, some of Godard’s later work, like Two or Three Things I Know About HerWeekend, Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language. I find him… interesting. In the positive sense of the word (as it’s used by Brits). Détective is a case in point. It’s ostensibly several thriller plot lines entangled together, all of which revolve around a single hotel in Paris. But it’s also almost impossible to parse in a single sitting. I’m going to have to get a copy of my own, because I want to watch it again – it’s a film that demands rewatching. And to make a film that can’t be parsed with a single viewing is such an astonishingly arrogant thing to do that I can’t help admiring Godard for doing it.

returnThe Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2003, Russia). I’d seen Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan last year, and thought it very good – although I did prefer Lungin’s Ostrov, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films are easier to get on DVD in the UK (in fact, all of Zvyagintsev’s feature films are available for rental, none of Lungin’s are) – so I added The Return, The Banishment and Elena to my rental list… and The Return duly arrived. And… it is bloody good. I liked it more, I think, than Leviathan. Two boys return home one day to discover that their father, who disappeared twelve years before, has returned. He takes the two on a fishing trip in an attempt to reconnect with them, but his methods are harsh and brutal. He stands by, for instance, when the two boys are mugged for the wallet of cash he has just given them. When the muggers escape, he goes after them, and brings the ringleader back for his sons to have revenge on – but they can do nothing. One son is keen to earn the father’s approval, the other is resistant. The trip ends in disaster, when the younger son climbs a decrepit watch tower, echoing the opening scene of the film in which the boy is too scared to climb down from a similar tower, and the father climbs up to fetch him down but falls to his death. The film is beautifully photographed, with a a washed-out colour palette that suits its story and setting. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805