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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817


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Moving pictures, #40

This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.

dialoguesDialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.

moonwalkersMoonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.

el_doradoEl Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.

too_late_bluesToo Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.

lamourL’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…

3-iron3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #36

Nope… FAIL. I started well… but then it all turned into US films. Admittedly, a few are classics but…

idaIda, Paweł Pawlikowski (2013, Poland). Despite his name, despite the fact this film was made in Poland, about a Polish subject, with a Polish cast and Polish money… the director is a Brit and his previous films were all set in the UK. None of which makes the blindest bit of difference, of course. If there’s a sensibility at play here, then it’s undoubtedly more Polish than British – and that’s not just because Ida was filmed in black and white and is paced more like East European “slow cinema” than it is, say, Gosford Park. All of which, to my mind, are good things. The title refers to an orphan about to take her vows at a convent. The mother superior tells her she has one living relative, an aunt, and she should visit her before making her final decision. Ida’s aunt proves to be a judge, and a decade before in the 1950s had a been a state prosecuter known as “Red Wanda” who sent men to their deaths at state show trials. Ida wants to learn what happened to her parents, so the two drive to the rural farm where the family lived. They were Jewish, but had been protected by the locals during the Nazi Occupation; but then one night they disappeared. The family who now run the farm – and had protected the family – are afraid Wanda and Ida want their property back, and are prepared to fight for it. But Ida is really about the relationship between Red Wanda and her niece, and while Ida herself is something of a blank – played by a non-professional in her first role – Agata Kulesza as Wanda quickly takes over the film and carries it through to her abrupt end. Ida was the first Polish film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and I think it’s on a later 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list than the one I’m using. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.

taalTaal, Subhash Ghai (1999, India). Bollywood films are now a regular part of my viewing. I admit I prefer the historical ones more than the current ones, but this one did have a good soundtrack. And from my limited experience to date, it seems most Bollywood films follow the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl. There’s also usually a class difference between the two, or at least something that makes the two lovers “star-crossed”. In this case, Akshaye Khanna is the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Aishwarya Rai is the daughter of a lowly folk singer. They meet cute (he nearly falls off a cliff, is saved by her, then inadvertently causes her to nearly fall off), and, er, fall in love, but his father is against the match, and insults her family when they visit in Mumbai. She goes off and becomes a pop star, using songs based on her father’s music, and pop-star/producer Anil Kapoor asks her to marry him. But Rai is still carrying a flame for Khanna, as he is for her; and Kapoor reluctantly realises this and gets the two back together again. So, pretty predictable stuff. But the song and dance routines are good, especially an extended number when Rai performs at a MTV Award ceremony in Canada. Fun.

dallasDallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée (2013, USA). Which is anything but fun. McConaughey apparently lost 21 kg to play the lead role, and he looks bloody awful. It’s quite off-putting. True, he’s playing a man who’s HIV+ and only a heartbeat away from full-blown AIDS… and has a lifestyle that includes heavy drinking and smoking and frequent drug use. But it’s what he does after his diagnosis which forms the plot of the film. Dallas Buyers Club is about the system Ron Woodroof – a real person, and this film is based on his life – put in place to obtain unapproved drugs to prolong his life as a HIV sufferer. He smuggled the drugs into the US by claiming they were for his personal use, and got around the law by not selling them but giving them away free to people who paid him $400 a month to be in his buyers club. It was not his idea – he picked it up from schemes being used in New York – but Woodroof did sue the FDA for the right to take one of the unapproved drugs he had been using. Much has been made of McConaughey’s side-kick in the buyers club, a transgender called Rayon, who was not a real person but based in part on a number of people known to Woodroof, and played by Jared Leto. To be honest, Dallas Buyers Club felt like a film of actors acting rather than a somewhat liberal-with-the-facts retelling of a person’s life- oh wait, of course, biopic… I mean, it felt like an artefact, not that it was helped by being about a bunch of not very nice people who had found themselves in a truly horrible situation not of their making. And while people certainly died because HIV treatment was ineffective and inadequate during the early 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club unhelpfully implies this was partly the FDA’s fault because it refused to approve drugs… Except pharmaceuticals need to be carefully regulated because without controls all manner of horrible shit would be killing desperate people in order to fatten the P&L accounts of Big Pharma. Dallas Buyers Club also apparently claims the drug Woodroof was originally prescribed is toxic and ineffective, but it’s not. And the treatment he self-administered is far less effective than the film claims. It’s bad enough to paint the FDA as the villains when they perform a vital role; it’s another to completely misrepresent drugs and drug regimens in service to drama. Meh.

twentieth_centuryTwentieth Century, Howard Hawks (1934, USA). For a film made only three-and-a-bit decades into the century, naming it for the entire 100 years is a bit of a hostage to fortune. Still, we’re talking Hawks here, and pre-Code, and screwball comedy – so it’s likely to be entertaining if nothing else. And so it proves. John Barrymore is a Broadway actor and producer, and he decides to turn lingerie model Carole Lombard into a Broadway star, despite her initial lack of apparent talent. He succeeds. Three years later, she plits from him, and his career goes into decline and he ends up in jail for debts. He escapes, disguises himself and catches the Twentieth Century train – the real source of the film’s title – from Chicago to New York. Also aboard is, of course, Lombard. The movie then turns into a drawing-room farce, only the drawing-room is very long but very narrow and is travelling across country at a high rate of speed. There are a number of running jokes featuring other passengers, such as a man known for writing cheques he can’t redeem, and he gives one to Barrymore. Of course, the plot runs along rails as set as the Twentieth Century itself, and the presence of a desperate Barrymore after one big hit and Lombard on the same train naturally leads to a new partnership and, if not a happy ending, at least one that could lead to happiness.

shanghaiShanghai Express*, Josef von Sternberg (1932, USA). When it comes to US films from the 1930s I’ll admit I’m frequently baffled why some made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and others didn’t. I could be charitable and suppose the list-makers hadn’t managed to watch every Hollywood film from the decade, but that would be unfairly assuming they’d skimped on their due diligence – I mean, you don’t produce a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die without making a serious effort to watch as many eligible films as possible. Perhaps it just comes down to value judgements – after all, “best is just subjective”… Except, of course it fucking isn’t, otherwise everything would mean nothing. But people respond differently to films, as I’ve certainly learnt during my informal project to watch all of the movies on the aforementioned list. So perhaps that’s it. True, I like me a 1930s screwball comedy much more than I like me a po-faced 1930s thriller, especially ones that wears its orientalism proudly on its sleeve and even uses “yellowface” in one of its lead characters. The title refers to a celebrated madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, who is on a train from Beijing (here called Beiping) to Shanghai during a civil war. Also on board are an ex-lover of Dietrich, a French general, a bible-basher, and a half-Chinese businessman. The last is played by Werner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan. And he proves to be more than a businessman, he’s actually a rebel warlord. And he takes the ex-lover, a British officer and brain surgeon on his way to operate on the governor-general of Shanghai, as hostage for one of his men taken by the Chinese authorities. It’s all very intense, and each character has a well-defined character arc… but you can’t help noticing that it’s played pretty damn insensitively and for all its star performances it’s still little more than Yellow Peril. If the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list must have a 1930s film set aboard a train on it, it’d have been better off with Twentieth Century – and I don’t think that’s a great film either.

road_to_gloryThe Road to Glory, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Not sure what happened here – the rental service must have suffered some sort of blip and sent me two Howard Hawks films from the thirties. But never mind. If the title of The Road to Glory reminds you of a later film by a certain Stanley Kubrick, the title is not the only thing the two (nearly) share. Both are set among French soldiers during World War I. And both far from glorify combat. However, where Kubrick’s movie was about three soldiers unfairly charged with cowardice, and the officer who fights to save them from the firing squad, The Road to Glory is about, er, two French Army officers who fall in love with the same woman. Oh well. I tend to think of Hawks as one of those directors who produced solid films with just that little bit more which showed he had a real eye for the medium. He was no auteur, but neither was he a workmanlike director. But that extra touch isn’t always evident in his movies. It’s there in Scarface, a handful of tricks and a certain eye in some of the scenes; but there’s little in The Road to Glory that doesn’t look like anything more than a dab hand at staging, lighting and blocking. I’ve watched quite a few of Hawks’s films by now, but I can’t say I’ve spotted a “Hawks vision”. Which is not something you can say of Hitchcock’s films. There’s something very distinctive about the way the Hitch staged and shot his movies, and if Hawks had an approach all his own I’ve yet to spot it. Perhaps I need to see more of his films. Perhaps no such thing exists.

battle_tankerBattle Tanker, Jeffrey Scott Lando (2011, USA). I spotted this in a charity shop and though it looked like the sort of thing put out by the Global Asymlum, I thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s shit. Really shit. There’s this mysterious weaponised substance called ICE-10, which has something to do with a meteorite that landed in the 1960s and something to do with anti-matter – like everything in this movie, it’s all confused bollocks. This ICE-10 is kept in a secure facility in Alaska, but they want to drill there so the US government has decided the safest place for it is at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The plan is to put the substance aboard an oil tanker, sail it to the trench, and then scuttle the ship. This is all helpfully explained… and the film abruptly cuts to the ship and it seems they’ve already gone and put the ICE-10 aboard and are halfway across the Pacific. We’re told the ship is a Very Large Crude Carrier, and the film’s title seems to confirm this, but VLCCs do not have holds with hatch covers because why would you put a giant deck hatch on a tank of oil? The ship is also entirely CGI, so it’s not like they couldn’t get it right – although it is very cheap and crap CGI. The interiors are just as bad, although at least they’re not tricked-out industrial plants. The character arcs and dialogue follow text-book story beats, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making the characters comes across as complete fucking idiots for most of the movie- oh wait, that’s how these sort of things work, you can’t have common sense in use too early because how else are you going to show that the characters have grown. Seriously, ban all recipes and templates from script-writing – it makes for shit movies. Having said all that, only a complete fucking idiot would expect Battle Tanker to be quality; and while I was expecting a piece of shit, it failed to even rise to those levels. At various points, the ICE-10 containment – the design of this on the monitoring software bore no resemblance to the actual CO2-wreathed hardware, suggesting a budget shortfall – is “vented”, which generates great clouds of anti-matter, or something, which makes things which encounter it blow up, such as US Navy cruisers, airliners, and, er, Honolulu… I found this DVD in a local charity ship, but I think the world would be a better place if, instead of returning it, I destroyed it.

1001 Movies you Must see Before You Die count: 787


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Moving pictures, #33

Again, more US films than I really would like to be watching. True, over half of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is American, and when I’m looking for brainless entertainment to watch of a Saturday night with a bottle of wine in hand, then the US provides more suitable films than any other nation but… I’d seriously like my movie viewing to be more global, and though I’ve been making an effort in that direction, it sometimes feels like I’ve not been assiduous enough… Oh well. Most of my favourite films and directors are not from the US, and my DVD/Blu-ray collection now certainly comprises more world cinema than Hollywood…I’m getting there.

elephantElephant*, Gus Van Sant (2003, USA). You know that thing they have in the US, and that keeps on happening, where someone walks into a place and shoots everyone, because civilised nations banned guns the first time it happened but the US is happy to sell assault rifles to any lunatic with a dollar bill… Elephant apparently started life as a documentary about a real school shooting, but turned into a fictional representation of one. The film follows the victims, witnesses and perpetrators, often criss-crossing timelines, which is quite an effective technique. But the film itself offers no commentary on its subject, other than showing the shooters being bullied by jocks. Which is weak. I mean, it’s not hard to condemn either the shooters, the culture which persuaded them shooting their peers was a conceivable response, or the society which allowed them access to the weapons to do so. But Van Sant does none of these. He humanises the victims – which is the weakest argument of all against such atrocities. We know they’re human, we know they are just like us. We also know the perpetrators are little different to us. What we want to know is: why was this allowed to happen? And what is being done to prevent it? In the US, the answer to both appears to be: very little.

evangelion_3Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). The Evangelion films are re-workings of the Neon Genesis Evangelion OVA, but rather than distillations of that 26-episode series they feel more like isolated excerpts from it, ie random episodes from a much longer story. I like that the films make no concessions to their viewers, and that despite their basic plot of high-school kids piloting mecha in fights against giant aliens, there’s so much more going on that’s left for viewers to puzzle out: the world-building, the relationships between the characters, the technology, even the family dynamics for those characters who are related to each other… In this movie, the action takes place fourteen years after the explosive end of Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. Shinji and Evangelion Unit 01 have been drifting in orbit. He is rescued by WILLE and fitted with an explosive collar. Only it turns out WILLE is fighting NERV, and they have a, er, flying battleship. Which is now powered by Evangelion Unit 01 (there are around a dozen Evangelion units by this point). And then it sort of gets a confusing, with some cast members carried over from the earlier films, and entirely new ones to figure out as well. Not to mention a circuituous route, via the weird dynamics between the Evangelion pilots, to a final battle scene, which triggers another apocalypse… I’m going to have to watch this again – if not all three films – before I truly figure out what’s going on. It’s all made for an odd viewing experience. Although superficially the same, and sharing a design aesthetic, the three movies manage to present three episodes of one story-arc in three tonally different ways. The fourth and final film is due Any Day Now, having postponed several times since its original release date in 2013.

barbarianThe Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand (2003, Canada). Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but this sequel is on a different one. I’d not been that impressed by the first film – it seemed almost a parody of an independent movie, a group of characters sitting around moaning about the state of the world – so I can’t say I was especially keen on seeing this sequel. But I must have stuck it on my rental list, and subsequently forgotten about it, because it arrived and I watched it and… It’s just as dull. It’s set seventeen years after The Decline of the American Empire, which was released in 1986, and features most of the same cast. Rémy has terminal cancer, and his family – especially his son, a financier living and working in London – and his friends (from the earlier film) come to visit him. There’s a lot about the Canadian national health system being over-stretched and ineffective, but I can’t decide if that’s done deliberately in order to enable the plot (rich son pays for expensive treatment in US), or some kind of commentary on public healthcare. There’s also a number of scenes of the friends sitting around and talking, a lot of which is reminiscences. I found it all a bit uninvolving, much as I did The Decline of the American Empire. Meh.

robinsonRobinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I really liked Keiller’s earlier two films, London and Robinson in Space, and was expecting much the same of this one. But it was so much better. It has the cinematographic beauty that comes from well-placed static shots like in Benning’s films tied to a clever voice-over narrative like something out of an Adam Curtis documentary. This time Vanessa Redgrave narrates, as the lover of the narrator, and Robinson’s friend, in the earlier two films. Robinson in Ruins opens with Robinson’s release from prison, and then describes his journey through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, remarking on the things Robinson found and their history and how it all links in to the UK’s current economic malaise (current as of 2010, of course; we all know who exactly who – Osborne’s damaging and ineffective “austerity” aside – is responsible for the UK’s economic woes in 2016). I liked London and Robinson in Space a lot, but Robinson in Ruins is so much better. Perhaps its because it’s nearer in time than those two earlier times. True, I remember Tory Britain from 1979 to 1997 (although I was abroad for the last three years of it). Of course, 2010 saw the end of thirteen years under New Labour, although Robinson in Ruins is more about the damaging effects of big business and capitalism, and the corruption in which its naturally embedded, than it is economic policies. I suspect I will be watching this again before the end of the year, and it might well make my top five best of the year by December…

misfitsThe Misfits, John Huston (1961, USA). This was both Clark Gable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, and when it arrived from the rental service I assumed I’d stuck it on my list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – except it isn’t, at least not the 2013 edition, which is the one I’m using. So I’m somewhat mystified as to why I stuck it on my rental list. Because it’s not that interesting. Monroe plays a somewhat flighty divorcee, Gable plays an ageing cowboy, the two fall in love. There’s Montgomery Clift as a rodeo cowboy who hooks up with them, and Eli Wallach as Gable’s friend, who’s a mechanic and flies a biplane. Gable and Monroe’s relationship falters when Gable decides to go capture some wild horses in the hills (to sell for dog food). He, Monroe and Wallach, plus Monroe’s friend Thelma Ritter, head off to a rodeo to find a third cowboy and so meet Clift. It all feels a bit like a cynical attempt to plug into some US myth or other, not to mention trading on its two marquee name stars. Gable is good, but Monroe looks like she’s sleepwalking half the time – and by all accounts, it was a difficult shoot as she often turned up late, and sometimes never at all. Clift isn’t too bad, although he doesn’t quite convince as a dim-witted cowboy. The final act, where the five – Wallach in a biplane, the rest in a pickup – try to round up half a dozen wild horse, and Gable gets dragged across the desert by a mare, feels somewhat over-stretched. Meh.

red_riverRed River*, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). I honestly thought I’d already seen this – I mean, I’d seen a several Hawks westerns starring John Wayne, and I was pretty sure this was one of them. But apparently not. Of course, it’s not that easy a call, given Hawks’s penchant for remaking his films under new titles… Wayne plays a typical Wayne character, who leaves a wagon-train, and his sweetheart, which is bound for California, to head south to claim land in Texas, accompanied only by a grizzled old man and a pair of steers (one male, one female, of course). Later that day, they see smoke on the horizon and dash back to discover the wagon-train destroyed by Native Americans and everyone killed. There is only one survivor, a traumatised boy called Matt. The three continue south, Wayne finds his land and claims it, killing a representative of a Mexican don who has title from the King of Spain (so much for international relations…). The film then jumps forward fourteen years, Matt has grown up into Montgomery Clift, and Wayne looks more like himself than Ronald Reagan (as he did earlier). Wayne’s ranch has proven successful and he has thousands of head of cattle. But no money. The just-ended civil war saw to that. So he needs to take his cattle to the nearest railhead in Missouri hundreds of miles away to sell them. There’s a nearer railhead in Kansas, but since no one has actually been there and see it, Wayne refuses to head that way. His high-handed tactics during the drive end up with Clift challenging him, taking over the drive and heading north along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. Fortunately, the rumoured railhead exists, and Clift gets an excellent price for the cattle. Wayne then turns up. ready to kill him, they have a big fist-fight, and make up. It’s all very manly, and just like you’d expect the Wild West to be. Of course, having seen a number of Westerns, I’m aware of the way cattle barons like Wayne’s character treated homesteaders and settlers, and that’s not even mentioned – in fact, the only town in the film is the Kansas one at the end. Admittedly, the cattle drive is pretty impressive… although the use of sound-stages for the campfire scenes do spoil all that location shooting a bit. I’m not that much of a fan of Westerns (see my comments on the genre in previous Moving picture posts), and I understand that the Chisolm Trail was historically important, and that Red River makes a good story of it, but it’s all a bit too macho and one-sided for me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before YOu Die count: 780


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Moving pictures, #11

I’m pretty much up to date now, and this post only includes a single film from the list. In all other respects, a fairly typical spread, featuring directors I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

naked_kissThe Naked Kiss, Samuel Fuller (1964, USA). Fuller’s Shock Corridor, filmed around the same time, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I watched it and was much impressed. This movie appeared as a trailer on the DVD I watched of that film, so I decided to buy Criterion Blu-ray editions of both. As you do. But only now have I got around to watching The Naked Kiss. And… it’s exactly what I expected. And exactly as good as I expected. Which is: pretty damn good. Constance Towers (the girlfriend in Shock Corridor) plays a prostitute who flees her pimp after he abuses her, and ends up in the small town of Grantville. The local head copper directs Towers to a brothel across the river, but she decides it’s time to go straight and – because the man from the big house, and most eligible bachelor in town, has financed a wing for disabled children at the local hospital – decides to become a nurse’s aide on that wing. She gets to meet the big man, the two fall in love and become engaged… The copper, of course, is convinced it’s all an act, although it does in fact seem genuine. But just before the marriage, Towers catches her fiancé abusing a child, brains him and accidentally kills him. The copper sees this as vindication, but when the child is found and confirms Towers’s story he has to re-assess his opinion of her. This is pretty strong stuff, but then Fuller was never one to shy away from difficult material. Towers is good in the lead – she carries the film, in fact – and even Fuller’s shock opening, in which Towers attacks her pimp – filmed as if the camera were the pimp – and he rips off her wig revealing she is bald, is both arresting and highly effective at establishing her character. Worth seeing.

alice_creedThe Disappearance of Alice Creed, J Blakeson (2009, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and the reviews seemed positive so I gave it a go and… It’s one of those tight little thrillers with a small cast – three in this case – which work or fail depending on the quality of the cast. Fortunately, in this case they have Gemma Arterton, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston, all of which possess the acting chops required. Arterton is kidnapped by Marstan and Compston, and the film pretty much takes place entirely within the flat where they hold her prisoner. However, there’s more going than there initially appears – not just between kidnappers and victim, but also between the kidnappers as well. Perhaps the twists were signposted a little too heavily, but I’ve seen much worse thrillers with much bigger budgets and A-list casts – in fact, I’ve given up after ten minutes on such movies. But this one is a taut little well-made thriller and worth a watch.

demyLe bel indifférent, Jacques Demy (1957, France). And so I continue to work my way through my Demy collection, and while I certainly think it was worth buying I can’t say every film in it has been a winner. This is a short film, less than an hour long, and consists of a woman wandering around an apartment giving a monologue, while her eponymous lover is, er, indifferent. It’s based on a 1939 play by Jean Cocteau, and Demy films it with a limited colour palette and stages it as if it were indeed a play (with opening and closing curtains too). I found myself somewhat… indifferent to it.

fassbinder1The Merchant of Four Seasons, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1971, Germany). And so I continue to work my way through my Fassbinder collection, and while this first volume of films from 1969 to 1972 has, I think, proven less satisfying than the second volume of films from 1973 to 1982, I’m still glad I have it. As for this film, it seems to be Fassbinder’s try at a kitchen-sink drama, inasmuch as it’s a domestic drama which contains everything but the kitchen-sink. The fruit peddler of the title is in a loveless marriage, and pines for his past career as a policeman. His mother doesn’t like him, his wife thinks he’s having an affair, he drinks heavily… and then he has a heart attack. After he recovers, he reconciles with his wife and then meets an old friend from his Foreign Legion days… who he first gives a job and then invites to live with him and his wife, and so finds himself replaced… Grim, German realist stuff. Perhaps not the most engaging Fassbinder I’ve seen so far, but a step up from some of the earlier experimental films.

trouble_paradiseTrouble in Paradise*, Ernst Lubitsch (1932, USA). Posh con man meets posh con woman, it’s love at first sight. Years later, they get involved with the profligate heiress of a perfume fortune… and why is this on the list exactly? The leads – Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis – are all perfectly watchable, the script has plenty of snappy one-liners, and there are clear character arcs. But it’s all a bit ordinary, and though it may well have done really well when it was released , I can’t honestly see what makes it a candidate for the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

barbary_coastBarbary Coast, Howard Hawks (1935, USA). A gold digger, Miriam Hopkins, arrives in San Francisco in 1850, only to discover her fiancé has been murdered. So she takes a job as a croupier at local gangster Edward G Robinson’s casino. And the rest of the film is basically Robinson strutting around like the worst kind of cinema villain, while everyone else in San Francisco runs around scared of him. Obviously – the title is sort of a clue, although it was apparently the actual name of San Francisco’s red light district from the 1860s to the 1910s – that’s the intent… but it makes for annoying viewing. He’s so reprehensible and powerful a villain that his eventual downfall is inevitable and his depredations prior to that somewhat unbelievable. There’s a good guy, of course, Joel McCrea, who plays a  complete naïf who manages to confound Robinson and win Hopkins’s heart. But it’s not enough to offset Robinson’s pantomime villainy.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 731


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Moving pictures 2016, #2

More films watched by Yours Truly, some of which might have been from a certain list, some of which might not.

amores_perrosAmores Perros*, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2000, Mexico). I hadn’t realised this was the movie which brought Gael García Bernal to fame (admittedly, I’d thought Bernal Spanish, not Mexican), but having now seen it I can understand why so much notice was taken of him. Like another South American film on the list, Meireilles & Lund’s City of God from Brazil, Amores Perros is a series of interconnected stories, in this case three, all springing from a car crash. Bernal plays a young man who discovers that his brother’s dog is an excellent fighter. So he enters it in dog fights, and it wins repeatedly (the film-makers make it clear no dogs were actually harmed during the making of the movie). But then he accepts a private fight with a local gangster, and when his dog wins, the gangster shoots it. Bernal stabs the gangster and flees, with his friend and his wounded dog… which is when the crash happens. The driver of the other car in the crash was a model, the lover of a wealthy magazine publisher. Her leg is severely broken. While recovering in the new flat she shares with her lover, her yappy dog disappears down a hole in the floor, and searching for it she injures her broken leg, which then has to be amputated. The third section centres on a homeless man who appears briefly in the previous two stories. He rescues Bernal’s dog, but it is killed after he agrees to murder a man… Like most such films, the plot is complicated and somewhat convoluted. It is also, however, well-played by its cast, and well-shot. A deserving entry on the list.

ryans_daughterRyan’s Daughter, David Lean (1970, UK). I’ve always been conflicted about Lean – I mean, I love Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but for all his plaudits I’ve never really thought of Lean as a particularly good director. And Ryan’s Daughter appears to be an attempt at making another epic movie like the two previously mentioned, except, well,… Mind you, it has to be said the cinematography is frequently gorgeous. But Robert Mitchum makes an unconvincing Irish school teacher, although he does give it a good go. John Mills’s Oscar-winning village idiot feels like an invader from a much older, and less sophisticated, film, and the story’s leisurely pace means its moments of high drama often fade away to nothing. And there are several moments of high drama, perhaps the most notable of which is when the villagers help the Irish Republican Brotherhood recover arms and munitions during a fierce storm from the German ship which attempted to deliver them but foundered. It’s a movie that feels like it lacks focus because it has so many things going on in it, and in such a short narrative time-frame and constrained to such a small geographical location. And, to be honest, the whole introduction, intermission and entracte thing, with incidental music, just feels pretentious. Yes, I know Lean did it in the other two aforementioned films, but sticking up “INTERMISSION” in big letters on the screen does not make it an epic (I’m old enough – just – to remember when cinema showings did have intermissions), and I’ve yet to be convinced it serves any good purpose.

londonLondon, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK). Given my admiration of James Benning’s films, this was recommended to me as something similar I might like, and I ended up with a copy as a Christmas present and… Yes, good call. It has more of an overt narrative than Benning’s films – here provided by Paul Scofield’s narration – although the cinematography does indeed consist of static shots. Of, er, London. As the camera focuses on various parts of the city, the narrator recounts anecdotes and aphorisms by his friend Robinson, not always as they relate to the part of London on-screen. It’s fascinating, although there’s less work required to piece together the story as the voice-over pretty much does that for you. But the Scofield’s somewhat circuitous explanation of events is its own reward, and the anecdotes are entertaining, irrespective of their relevance to the view on the screen. I plan to watch more films by Keiller – and he’s made quite a few.

man_from_uncleThe Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie (2015, USA). Having just worked my way through eight of Solo’s and Kuryakin’s theatrical adventures, I thought it worth giving this twenty-first century reboot a go. True, the director’s name didn’t bode well, although I didn’t actually know it was a Ritchie film when I bunged it on the rental list. But, it arrived in its little envelope, I stuck it in the player and… the title sequence is actually really good. And the film’s commitment to period detail is impressive. The only problem was the two leads – Henry Cavill and Arnie Hammer – have zero on-screen charisma. Cavill has a chin you could chisel granite with, and you feel he ought to light up the screen when he appears, but… he just doesn’t. His urbanity felt like a thin veneer, and not bone-deep as it did with Robert Vaughan, and his suave something he put on only when the camera was on him. Kuryakin, on the other hand, has been re-imagined as some sort of Soviet super-strong thug, and Hammer plays him like a block of Soviet wood. I can’t actually remember the plot, and I’m pretty sure there was one somewhere.

ohenryO Henry’s Full House*, various (1952, USA). I stuck this on the rental list not realising it was an anthology film, with each segment directed by a different person. It starts off strangely, with a man in a jailhouse making notes on what the other prisoners are saying. This, we are then told by John Steinbeck, who is sitting behind a desk in a book-lined study, was O Henry, a journalist who used the people he encountered during his career as fodder for his stories… and each of the short films in O Henry’s Full House is in some way a result of this. Unsurprisingly, given the age of Henry’s stories, the sting in each one’s title comes as no real surprise. Charles Laughton plays a gentleman vagrant, who is chivalrous to Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Richard Widmark plays a hugely irritating villain who gets his just desserts in a nicely ironic fashion. A young woman is convinced her pneumonia will kill her when the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window – but the leaf never falls. Two men kidnap an annoying kid for ransom, and it pretty much goes as you’d expect. And finally, a poor married couple each make a sacrifice in order to afford a decent Christmas present for the other – with ironic results. The directors involved were Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King. I’m guessing they couldn’t find five directors called Henry, although both Hawks were Negulesco are both excellent film-makers.

avengers_ultronAvengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon (2015, USA). I’m not a big fan of the MCU films (and now even less of a fan of Marvel given its CEO’s financial support of Trump) and I really didn’t like The Avengers (despite being a Brit, and despite “the Avengers” referring to the far superior group led by John Steed, I think Avengers Assemble a stupid compromise title – we’re smart enough to figure out the difference between a bunch of US near-fascist goons in Spandex and the sarcastically urbane umbrella-wielding Steed; and I also note the Lycra’d loons have lost their definite article for this sequel). Anyway, Avengers: Age of Ultron: I didn’t like this either. Awful film. A stupid movie carried by the personalities of its cast – not the personalities of its characters, but of the actors who played them. With a stupidly confusing plot plastered over the top. One of the problems with Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation was that when you have a villain so powerful, how can you realistically have dramatic conflict? Marvel’s universe suffers from the same problem – something the comics themselves often side-step by randomly ramping up heroes’ superpowers from one story to the next – and Avengers: Age of Ultron falls into the same trap. The only way the Avengers can actually beat Ultron is by Plot Hole. But, to be honest, by that point of the film I was long past giving a shit about any of them, as they came across more like a team of parodies than a serious attempt at recasting comic-book stories for the cinema. Avoid.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 706


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Moving pictures, #29

A few too many US films this time, although the Benning is actually only available on a DVD published by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. But then the Satyajit Ray is a Criterion Collection DVD, and they’re only published in the US, so…

music_roomThe Music Room (Jalsaghar)*, Satyajit Ray (1958, India). I’ve been trying to watch more Ray as he’s an important director and to date I’ve only watched two-thirds of his Apu trilogy. The asterisk indicates this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and while Ray is quite well-served in terms of UK DVD releases (thanks to the inestimable Artificial Eye), I decided to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD of The Music Room. The story is a common one, perhaps even common to Indian cinema (it’s certainly one shared with Mother India in part), in that it’s about the death of old ways and the rise of the new. The main character of The Music Room is a Bengali zamindar, wealthy and indolent, but good-hearted and more fond of music than he is looking after the lands and people he is responsible for. His decline is contrasted with the rise of a commoner who beocmes rich through business. The film cleverly shifts sympathy from the zamindar to the commoner, especially given whatever defence might be mounted of the zamindar system the example portrayed in The Music Room is far from a good advert. The film also makes  a great deal of its music, and apparently it was the use of classical Indian music in The Music Room which contributed to its success in the West (it was intended to be a commercial success in India as Ray’s previous film had flopped). I’m reminded of a night I once spent in a Bengali nightclub in Abu Dhabi, when after listening to a fifteen-minute song I asked the person sitting at a nearby table to explain the lyrics. They were surprisingly banal. That’s not something which can be said of this film, which maintains an impressive elegiac tone throughout.

prizziPrizzi’s Honour*, John Huston (1985, USA). There are a number of films whose presence on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is, quite frankly, baffling. This is one of them. It’s a fairly ordinary comedy-drama about Hollywood’s version of the Mob, notable only for Jack Nicholson’s gormless expression throughout and his tortured Brooklyn accent (at least, I think it’s Brooklyn, a native New Yorker would probably know what particular district it’s intended to portray). Nicholson’s character is an enforcer for a Mob don, and he falls in love at first sight with Kathleen Turner at a family wedding. But she’s from out of town (LA, in fact), so he never finds out who she is… Until some time later, when he’s out in LA and it turns out she’s involved in the hit he’s making. The two enter into a relationship, it transpires Turner is a contract killer, and later that she has ripped off the Mob and… well, it’s about as twisty-turny as the first two minutes of your average twenty-first century thriller movie. Turner plays a femme fatale, a role which has defined much of her career; I’m not sure if Nicholson was doing a comedy turn, it’s hard to tell. This is light entertainment, it’s not classic cinema, and you can happily live your life without having never seen it.

around_the_worldAround The World Under The Sea, Andrew Marton (1966, USA). The threat of increased, and more powerful, earthquakes, persuades the UN to back a plan to install earthquake sensors at strategic points around the globe on the ocean bottom. The plan is Lloyd Bridges’s, so he gets to lead the mission – which will involve a globe-spanning trip in a large submersible. Also aboard are five other scientists – Shirley Eaton, Brian Kelly (who doesn’t think a woman should be on board), David McCallum, Keenan Wynan and Marshall Thompson. This film is… tosh. Complete tosh. Wynan initially refuses Bridges’s invite, so Bridges goes to visit him… in his undersea home more than 700 feet below the surface of the sea. And Bridges dives to it on air. It’s also remarkably light down there, in fact the sea bottom is the sort of pale sand you’d find around, say, twenty feet below the surface. There are also other episodes where the crew go diving at depths of greater than 20,000 feet – and it’s unlikely the submersible itself would survive such a depth – on air and without bothering to either compress before or decompress afterwards. There are films which make a reluctant nod in the direction of scientific accuracy, and are those which don’t give a shit. This falls into the latter camp – and it’s not improved by it. The actual premise is complete bollocks, and the presentation of submersibles and diving is complete and utter nonsense. Best avoided.

awful_truthThe Awful Truth*, Leo McCarey (1937, USA). There are films in which Cary Grant seems to glide through the proceedings, sliding along on charm and his perfect delivery of one-liners. Not every film, or even necessarily good films – he is better, for example in Operation Petticoat than he is in North by Northwest. But The Awful Truth is an early film – actually his thirtieth, if the filmography on Wikipedia is any guide – and his first attempt at the debonair leading man in a comedy-drama, a role which later came to define him. In this, he often seems a bit too eager to deliver the punch-line, and it gives him an earnestness which sits at odds with his later on-screen persona (but that’s what you get for watching an actor’s oeuvre in non-chronological order, which is I suspect the way most people end up seeing films starring a particular actor). The plot of The Awful Truth is typical screwball romance fodder: Grant and Irene Dunn are due to divorce, but by parading unsuitable new partners in front of each other, they eventually realise they belong together. Again. The script is witty, Dunne more than holds her own, and if Grant does smirk and gurn a little too often, it doesn’t detract all that much from the film’s essential charm.

american dreamsLandscape Suicide, James Benning (1986, USA). This is cinema as art installation, although Benning pushes the definition of that by including narrative. Yet his films are also documentaries – there is nothing fictional about the material he presents. Landscape Suicide is about two murder cases: one in Wisconsin, one in California; one in 1984, one in 1957. The earlier of the two is the capture of Ed Gein. Benning has an actor play Gein and act out his interrogation by the police. The second is Bernadotte Prott, who stabbed a high school friend to death, and is again portrayed by an actor who acts out her police interrogation. Landscape Suicide is built up from these static talking head shots and equally static shots of the areas in which the crimes were committed, in Wisconsin and California. Although there is nothing in this film which actually tells a story, Benning imposes narrative through his choice of images and his editing. I’ll admit he’s not to everyone’s taste: 90 minutes of static 16mm shots of three or so minutes duration, not always with narration or even people talking – both El Valley Centro and Los, for example, are images and ambient sound only – but it’s the actual procession of images which tells the story, and it’s very cleverly done. Quite meserising too.

scarfacerScarface*, Howard Hawks (1932, USA). I’ve seen about half of Hawks’s oeuvre to date, and some of them I’ve found very good – if very much of their time and very much a product of the Hollywood system (neither necessarily being a bad thing, of course). I will admit to not having high expectations of this movie, a thinly-disguised biopic of Al Capone, even down to re-staging the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Its opening ten or twenty minutes aren’t especially prepossessing, as Paul Muni moves in on deals other gangs have made with speakeasies for their supply of beer (not that the speakeasies had much choice). But then the violence escalates, and it’s all very realistic – so much so, it captures the attention and holds it. Admittedly, I missed the whole “X equals death” thing, although I did wonder why the camera lingered on the ceiling joists of the garage where the massacre took place. Muni seems a bit too much like his role in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to convince as a ruthless mobster, and Boris Karloff is far too lugubrious and, well, English, in a similar role. Despite that, the story speeds along at a breakneck, and accelerating, pace, and it’s not hard to understand why Scarface is considered a seminal film of its genre. Worth seeing.

no_mans_landNo Man’s Land*, Danis Tanović (2001, Bosnia). The only film by Tanović I’d seen previously was Hell, his film of a screenplay by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the second of a new trilogy they were working on just prior to Kieślowski’s death (the first, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer after Kieślowski’s death; the third has never been made). All of which is completely irrelevant as that later film bears little or no resemblance to this one, which takes place mostly between the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb frontlines during the Bosnian War. After a patrol gets lost in a heavy fog, and another patrol is sent out to look for them, two soldiers, one from each side, end up trapped in an abandoned trench in no man’s land. Neither can leave, at risk of getting shot by the opposite side. Just to make matters worse, Bosnian Serbs have boobytrapped a dead Bosniak by putting a bouncing mine under his body. Except he’s not dead. A French sergeant in the UN Peacekeeping Force gets involved, but his superiors veto any resolution of the situation. But then the media arrives on the scene, especially a tenacious British reporter for a news channel. The decision to help gets bounced up the chain of command to Simon Callow’s colonel, but it seems the mine can’t be disarmed. The Bosniak and Bosnia Serb end up shooting each other, and the UN Peacekeepers lie to the media and tell everyone the third man has been rescued, even though he hasn’t. This humour isn’t black, it’s stygian. Like proper humour of this type, everything in it is completely inevitable, including the stupidity and dishonesty of the people involved. It is also completely convincing. Definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 649