Another mixed bunch from all over the world, and only one from the US. And from a mix of decades too.
Germany Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini (1948, Italy). I may have mentioned before how I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism, and Rossellini is a big name in that movement – this is the sixth film by him I’ve seen – but I have to admit Germany Year Zero took me by surprise. He has four films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You list, but this is not one of them. But to my mind it deserves a place more than any of the others. Obviously, it’s set in Germany, not in Italy, and its cast are German and speak that language. Even though it’s an Italian Neorealist film. A twelve-year-old boy in Berlin shortly after the Allied victory and occupation gets involved with some very dodgy people. The only way for his family to survive is selling stuff on the black market (it’s implied the daughter has taken up with GIs). The boy bumps into his old teacher, who asks him – in a scene that shows the teacher is a total paedophile – to sell a record of a speech by Hitler to some American soldiers. But it’s not enough. The boy’s ill father is admitted to hospital but is discharged a few days later. The teacher, who is clearly still a Nazi, says the weak must be sacrificed for the good of the strong, and so the boy poisons his father. No one realises the cause of the death, but the boy is dejected. The movie was filmed on location, on the streets of what was left of Berlin. Until you watch films like Germany Year Zero, it never quite sinks in how destructive WWII was. True, cities on both sides, and in many countries, were destroyed. Well, except for the US, that is. But popular culture has taught us to remember only the combatants, and we conveniently forget that more Germans died of starvation and illness after the fighting had finished than were killed by Allied bullets. Or indeed that WWI was not won by the armies on the Front but by an uprising by the socialist sailors of the Imperial German Navy. Germany Year Zero deserves a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, much more so than the four films by Rossellini that are on the list.
The Day of the Triffids, Steve Sekely (1962, UK). I have the book, although it was only recently given to me; and despite being British and a sf fan, I managed to reach half a century without actually reading a novel by John Wyndham. Which is a peculiar omission, given his position in British genre fiction. (I read a Wyndham collection back in the 1980s and was unimpressed.) But then, Brits don’t really need to read Wyndham, as they sort of absorb the plots of his books through a sort of cultural osmosis. Whether they’ve actually watched the film adaptations or not. The Day of the Triffids has been adapted three times, and this is the first of them. It’s since been followed by two TV series, in 1981 and 2009. This film stars Howard Keel, who manages to not look like Howard Keel but sound just like him, as a merchant seaman in hospital for eye treatment following an undisclosed accident. As a result, he misses the meteorite shower which blinds almost the entire population of the planet. Um, I’m starting to realise why I’ve never bothered reading Wyndham… Anyway, Keele releases himself from hospital and discovers London in chaos – including a scene which features the most feeble train wreck ever committed to celluloid. He rescues a young orphan girl, and the two head out of London. Where they find refuge at a girls’ school. Not knowing the book, I’ve no idea how well the film adapts it, although the Wikipedia article does point out some discrepancies, such as the origin of the Triffids. The film has its moments, although it never looks more than cheap and Keele sort of lumbers through his part. I have the book now, in the SF Masterworks edition, so I guess I’ll be reading it at some point. I doubt I’ll bother rewatching the film, however.
Che Guevara As You’ve Never Seen Him Before, Manuel Pérez (2004, Cuba). This is the final film from the Viva Cuba collection, which I see is now going on Amazon for £149.90. I’m glad I bought it when I did. Despite the title this is a straight-up documentary about Che Guevara, using a lot of archive footage, archive photographs, interviews with those who knew him (some of which are from older programmes), and Che’s own words from his letters and journals. There’s also a voiceover which narrates Guevara’s life. Like most of my generation, I know of Che Guevara, and that he was involved in the Cuban Revolution, although he was not Cuban himself. I had always thought he was Bolivian, but he was actually Argentinean. He died in Bolivia, captured and executed by CIA-backed Bolivian troops. I also knew of Guevara’s motorbike ride, if only from seeing mention of the film adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries. I had not realised how much Guevara accomplished, both before joining the Cuban revolutionary forces, and after when he was made a member of the Cuban republic’s government. He had always felt like a tragic figure, a revolutionary who died young (aged 39), and whose image had since become iconic. But he was a great deal more than that – a doctor of medicine, a military theorist, a diplomat, a government minister, and he wrote a number of books and journals. He not only left a mark on the world, he left a considerable legacy, and it’s a shame he’s likely known to most people these days as little more than a stylised face on a T-shirt or poster.
Uzumasa Limelight, Ken Ochiai (2014, Japan). This was recommended by David Tallerman, so I put it on my rental list and… it was an excellent call. The title refers to an area in Kyoto where a large film studio was located. For decades the studio churned out television series, including a samurai drama that ran for so long the lead actor’s son took over his role. The studio employed dozens of actors in (mostly) non-speaking parts. Like Trek redshirts, they were there to fight the hero and be killed. And some of those bit-part actors have been doing that since the series started. When the studio decides to cancel the samurai series, one such actor, in his seventies but still spry, finds himself being cast less and less often. He ends up performing as a samurai in the studio’s attached theme park. Meanwhile, a young extra persuades the old actor to train her in stage-fighting. The studio decides to launch a new samurai drama, but they cast some sort of comic idol in the lead and he turns the whole thing into a joke. And when his co-star falls out with him and leaves, the young extra, who had been her stunt double, takes over the role, and becomes a big star. Although the old actor is very much the centre of the film, this is really an ensemble piece, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong. The comedian star of the new samurai series is a horrible piece of work, and while the film makes you want the old actor to become a star he’s really not star material. An excellent film.
Twilight, Robert Benton (1998, USA). It had been a long day and I didn’t fancy watching anything too taxing, so when I found this on Amazon Prime, it seemed like a good candidate. And so it was: a gentle thriller, with a cast that seemed to be mostly in their sixties or seventies… but it turned out to be the usual Hollywood thriller about film-making type of bollocks. But mildly entertaining with it. Paul Newman (73 at the time the film was released) works for Hollywood couple Susan Sarandon (52) and Gene Hackman (68). He’s an ex-cop and an ex-PI. When Hackman asks him to deliver money to a blackmailer, it uncovers a decades-old crime – the disappearance of Sarandon’s original Hollywood star husband – and the clumsy “cleaning up” of it all by fixer James Garner (70). Also in there is ex-lover police lieutenant Stockard Channing (54), and a very young Reese Witherspoon as the daughter. There’s a dumb joke about Newman supposedly having been emasculated when shot “rescuing” Witherspoon from her boyfriend, which really shouldn’t have made the final cut. Hackman’s character is all over the place, changing tone and register from one scene to the next. Sarandon is the femme fatale but isn’t in the film enough to justify the role. Newman more or less shuffles through his part, and although he has the screen presence his eyes have always looked vacant to me. The ending comes as no real surprise, and the only real mystery is why the police never managed to solve the original crime. Okay, for a wet Sunday afternoon, I guess, but that’s about it.
The Color Out of Space, Huan Vu (2010, Germany). As the title indicates, this was adapted from a HP Lovecraft story. I’ve read the story, it’s one of his better ones, and certainly one of his more memorable ones (many of them have a tendency blur into one other). The action is shifted to Germany, where the film was made. The protagonist is searching for his father, who disappeared while on active duty in the region after WWII. The rest of the plot more or less follows that of the story, although the discoverers of the farm affected by the “colour” are GIs on patrol. The acting is variable at best, and the US accents by the German cast are from convincing. The film is shot in black-and-white, but it only really works when the “colour” makes its appearance, although admittedly the effect used is done quite well. But it all feels very amateur and rough, and though the changes to the story might actually improve the plot a little, the film is probably only of interest to Lovecraft completists.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932