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From silver screen to silver disc

I’ll continue to post these DVD hauls posts, I think, since I seem to be spending as much time on this blog writing about movies as I do books. Er, actually probably more about movies, this past twelve months or so. And so here are the latest batch to join the collection…

I decided it was about time I completed my collection of Bergman DVDs, so I went hunting on eBay… and found myself cheap copies of The Virgin Spring, Port of Call, Three Strange Loves, To Joy and Music in Darkness. Some of them are currently deleted. And I’m still missing about a dozen or so titles. I’ve only watched To Joy so far. It was not very joyful.

A pair of sf Blu-rays picked up in the recent Amazon Prime Day. Colossus: The Forbin Project, a classic giant-computer-starts-WWIII movie, was on my rental list. Mars, a National Geographic docudrama about the first mission to Mars, clearly designed to cash in on the success of The Martian, was already on my wishlist.

After watching Arabian Nights (see here), I wanted to see more Pasolini, although I’d been tempted back in January when I’d watched Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom… But I’d managed to resist temptation then. Except, well, you know how it goes… relaxing of an evening in front of the telly, laptop on your knees, bottle of wine… and oops I’ve gone and bought Six Films 1968 – 1975 by Pasolini on Blu-ray. But I don’t begrudge buying films on a whim that I know I’ll watch several times. Having saidthat, I’m not sure why I bought Orson Welles’s Macbeth – well, I put a bid on it, and actually won it – but I do like Welles’s films.

A pair of out-of-copyright Fritz Lang movies, bought on eBay for a couple of quid. Neither are especially good. I wrote about Clash by Night here and Moonfleet will be in the next Moving pictures post.

This set was a lucky find on eBay. Second Run have released several films by Miklós Jancsó, but these six Pepe and Kapa movies are from the end of his career and are unlikely to ever be released in the UK (these are Hungarian editions, with subtitles in a variety of languages, including English). The titles translate, approximately, as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest, Mother! The Mosquitos, Last Supper at the Arabian Grey Horse, Wake Up, Mate, Don’t You Sleep, The Modhács Evil and Eddie Has Eaten My Lunch.0


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Moving pictures, #7

For all my efforts to watch films from different countries, there seem to be a handful that appear more often than others – and they’re all in this one: India, China, Sweden, Germany and the US. And the UK too, of course, although there’s no British film in this post. Having said that, Poland might be turning up in quite a few Moving pictures posts over the next few weeks…

herzogFitzcarraldo*, Werner Herzog (1982, Germany). The thing with special effects is that none of it is real. With physical effects, it’s faked by physical means. These days, with CGI and digital effects, none of it exists outside a computer. But sometimes, film-makers do exactly what they show on the screen. And one of the famous things about Fitzcarraldo is the central portion of the film, where the cast drag a steamship over a mountain ridge from one river to another. And that’s what they actually did. The story of the film seems almost incidental to that one achievement. Basically, the title character – his name is a Hispanisation of “Fitzgerald” – is an opera lover and plans to bring Caruso to the Amazonian town he calls home. In order to do that, he needs money. So he buys a tract of land that cannot be reached by river – or rather, it can, but the river in question is blocked by fierce rapids. So Fitzcarraldo plans to drag his boat over the ridge between the navigable river and the unnavigable one. And he enlists the help of a local Amazonian tribe to do so. Of course, this is a Herzog film, so nothing goes as well as planned. By all accounts, the filming was as difficult as that of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – there is even an equivalent “making of” documentary, Burden of Dreams (due to appear in a Moving pictures post later). And so the film itself is more or less incidental in the face of that central event – which is every bit as astonishing as you would think. They physically drag a steamship of three hundred tons up and over a mountain ridge a good three or four hundred metres high. The whole film screams difficult shoot right from the start, and the fact the film works, is even successful, is probably more due to the insane ambition of Herzog in attempting it and the unforgiving landscape in which he chose to shoot. It’s one of those cases where everyone suffered for their art, but their act of suffering produced art over and above the norm. And it shows. And that’s without Kinski going completely off the rails during the film – so much so, the crew offered to kill him for Herzog. Definitely in the top five of Herzog films.

hometownPlatform, Jia Zhangke (2000, China). The final film in the Hometown trilogy, although, to be fair, I’ve not watched them in the order in which they were released. In fact, the order goes Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002). Having said that, all three films share a common story: disaffected youth being disaffected youth in different circumstances. In Platform, the cast are a theatre troupe, and they travel about the province putting on state-sanctioned plays. One member forms a relationship with a man, who stays behind when the troupe goes on tour. As China changes, so does the material the troupe performs, until they end up performing rock songs. There’s a definite consistency of vision and approach to the three films in the trilogy, and seeing them in quick succession can feel like too much of a thing in too short a time. Jia has an excellent eye, and his use of mostly amateur cast members and real locations gives the films a documentary feel he has managed to maintain throughout his career so far (both 24 City and A Touch of Sin possess it). I have in recent months found myself becoming a fan of the new cinema coming out of China – not just Jia, but also Zhao Liang, and films like Black Coal, Thin Ice, rather than Hong Kong art house directors like Wong Kar-wai, who I do still like. According to Wikipedia, Jia is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese directors, so I guess I should try films by other members of that group…

pat_mikePat and Mike, George Cukor (1952, USA). In classic Hollywood films, there are great screen partnerships, and there are those that occasionally achieved greatness… Tracy and Hepburn made nine films together, and one or two are judged classics, like Adam’s Rib (1949), although I do have soft spot for the one where Hepburn is in charge of a GIANT COMPUTER BRAIN,  Desk Set (1957). Pat and Mike follows a similar pattern to the other films in which the pair appeared – and pretty much to any screwball comedy / rom com of the period. Hepburn plays a natural athlete who wins lots of competitions… providing her husband is not present. As soon as he appears, she slices the ball, hits the net, etc, etc. And so along comes sports agent Tracy, who spots this and needs to keep the two apart in order to profit from Hepburn’s sporting skill. Naturally, the two fall in love. Naturally, this results in snappy dialogue. I’ve watched a lot of George Cukor films, and a lot of them have been very good… but I can’t say I’ve spotted a George Cukor vision, which is not something I’d say of many directors whose careers I’ve been following. Given his oeuvre, I’d have expected something more consistent from Cukor – he has, after all, made some bloody good films, and you’d expect more of them to be of that quality. Pat and Mike, sadly, is pretty forgettable, not a film you’d be reccommending should you find yourself putting together a list of George Cukor films worth seeing. One for fans of screwball comedies.

classic_bergmanA Ship Bound for India, Ingmar Bergman (1947, Sweden). Apparently, “Classic Bergman” means minor Bergman films you will forget ten minutes after watching them. Now, by definition, any Bergman film is worth watching – he’s one of the best directors the twentieth century produced, and that’s a fucking large field in which to excel – but this box set hasn’t really showcased Bergman’s best. “Classic” then, in this case, means “for completists”. And while I’d happily count myself in that category, I’m not so much a fanboy I can actually remember much of this film despite watching it. The main character was a sailor, or wanted to be a sailor, and had a bad relationship with his parents… and okay, I may not have been entirely sober when I watched this film but at least I own the box set so I can watch it again. But from what I remember nothing in it particularly engaged me, so I’m guessing it’s much liked the other films in the box set, ie, a polished theatrical piece shot in stark black and white, starring some of Bergman’s usual stable of actors. I’ll probablyh have to watch it again.

name_riverThe Name of a River, Anup Singh (2003, India). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m no wiser. I had thought it was a documentary on Ritwik Ghatak and his works, but instead it appears to be a somewhat plotless actual feature film, and a nicely shot one it is too, which was inspired by Ghatak’s movies. Parts of it are sort of restagings of some of the scenes in the movies – the ones set on the distinctive fishing boats of the Titas River, for example, I recognised immediately. There are also interviews, staged more like conversations, between members of the films’ casts – such as the two female leads from A River Called Titas. I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s eight films – although I do have a fourth to be watched now – which is not enough to spot all the references in The Name of a River. But from the section based on A River Called Titas, and the conversation between its two female leads, there’s a lot in here to unpack. I’ve made my opinion on Ghatak more than clear on this blog in other posts, and I admit I was looking for a little more insight into his career than The Name of a River offers – in fact, now I think about it, it didn’t seem to offer any insight at all. I did enjoy it and it is pretty good – it sucessfully replicates Ghatak’s visuals, and makes clear his politics, and there’s some interesting anecdotal stuff from actors who worked with him. But I guess if I want insight, I ought to read Ghatak’s own writings on cinema.

kahaaniKahaani, Sujoy Ghosh (2012, India). This was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I’ve no idea why I stuck it on my rental list, but when I shoved it in the player I was expecting three hours of typical Bollywood entertainment. And then it opened with a gas attack on the Kolkata Metro in which a carriage full of people died. Well, that was pretty dark. Not Bollywood at all. The story then jumps forward two years, and a pregnant woman flies into Kolkata from London and makes her way to a district police station. Her husband had been sent to the National Data Centre on assignment, and then vanished. She has come to look for him. She enlists the help of Rana, one of the police officer, but their investigation goes nowhere. But then the HR manager of the National Data Centre remembers another employee, Milan Damji, who resembled the pregnant woman’s husband. So they start looking for him. But it all spirals out of control – the HR manager is murdered, an Intelligence Bureau officer turns up and starts ordering people about, and then it turns out Damji’s was responsible for the gas attack two years earlier… Kahaani turned out to be a good film, a solid thriller which made excellent use of ts location, and had an especially good lead in Vidya Balan, who plays the pregnant heroine. There’s neat twist at the end, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that hard to spot. Apparently, there’s a sequel, Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, released late last year, so it’s not available for rental yet. But when it is, I’ll be sticking it on my list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 847


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Moving pictures 2017, #5

I’d say this time it was an odd mix of movies, but I’m pretty sure that applies to most of the film posts I’ve been sticking up here…

4_months4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007, Romania). After being embarrassed by a Romanian friend at not having seen any films from his country, I’ve now seen three in the space of a couple of months. And I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best of those three. It’s not only that all three are excellent films – the other two, for the record, were 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mr Lazarescu – but they all tell stories of importance: about the collapse of the Ceauşescu regime, the pressure the Romanian public health system finds itself under, and, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Ceauşescu regime’s handling of abortion. (And no, I don’t consider abortion a sensitive or offensive topic, I consider the choice a right all women should have; on the day I can grow a foetus inside me, then I’ll be qualified to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in the 1980s. A student at university is pregnant and needs to have an abortion. But it is illegal in Romania. She enlists the help of her room-mate, and the two track down someone who is willing to do it secretly for money. He gives them a series of instructions. They manage to screw them up – they book a room in the wrong hotel, they don’t have enough money, they lie about how long the woman has been pregnant… However, while the abortionist’s increasingly offensive demands on the two young women are, well, offensive, what is also scary about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the invasive control the Ceauşescu regime had on the daily lives of Romanians. The Ceauşescus were overthrown in 1989 – I was in my early twenties then, and remember it on the news. But I’ve never asked my Romanian friends what they remember of it – they’re younger than me, true, but not too young; and they lived it. Movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are important in that they are a window on bad times, and keep the horror of them alive in the hope that no one is daft enough to bring them back. A decade or from now, I suspect there will be a fuckton of films made about the Trump years in the US.

alfredo_garciaBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia*, Sam Peckinpah (1974, USA). This was apparently a critical and commercial failure on its release, but has since become a cult favourite, so much so it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but I’m not convinced any “critical re-appraisal” in the years since 1974 justifies a place on the list. The title character is – off-stage – the preferred heir of a Mexican jefe, but he deflowers the jefe’s daughter and flees when her pregnancy is discovered. The jefe issues the titular order. A pair of, it must be said, somewhat effete US goons stumble across ex-GI bar-piano-player Warren Oates, who happens to know Garcia. Oates decides to try for the reward on Garcia’s head himself, a task made easier when he discovers that Garcia died in a car crash and is now buried in a country graveyard. So, with girlfriend in tow, he heads off to find Garcia’s grave, intending to dig him up, cut off his head, and take it to the jefe to claim the reward. Needless to say, it does not go as smoothly as planned. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, quite frankly, a B-movie – it looks like a B-movie, it plays like a B-movie. True, I’ve yet to be convinced of the genius of Peckinpah, but I can see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia flopped on release. In many respects, it feels like a made-for-TV movie, with its stock footage and stock villains, although it is considerably more graphically violent than any US television network would allow. I think you have to be a fan of a particular type of film, which I am not, as should be blindingly evident from the movies I document in these Moving picture posts, to appreciate something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or even to hold it in any kind of positive regard. I have watched films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die which I have subsequently purchased for my own collection, and even some where I’ve purchased everything by the director for my own collection. I won’t be doing that for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Even if Arrow have recently released a remastered limited edition Blu-ray of the film…

naked_spurThe Naked Spur*, Anthony Mann (1953, USA). This film isn’t available on DVD in the UK, not for rent or for sale, but fortunately, one evening, while flicking through cable channels I found it playing on TCM… So I watched it. Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter determined to capture murderer Robert Ryan and bring him to justice in Abilene, Kansas. He misrepresents himself as a sheriff to an old prospector and an ex-Cavalry soldier, and the three succeed in capturing Ryan. The four, plus Janet Leigh, the daughter of an old friend of Ryan, who had been with Ryan, set off for Abilene. En route, Ryan does his best to undermine Stewart, break up the group and so engineer his escape. And that’s pretty much it – a bunch of cowboys bitching at each other for 91 minutes. Well, except for the last act, where Ryan does escape but dies crossing a river swollen by floods. There are a lot of Westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can understand that they’re the closest the US gets to a homegrown mythology, and a handful of Western films are bona fide cinema classics but… I’m not convinced this is one of them. There are Western films which mythologise the landscape, there are Western films which have had their story patterns followed by many other Westerns… And while The Naked Spur certainly puts a novel spin on your average Western story, I don’t think that’s enough – despite the presence of Jimmy Stewart – to make this more than just above average. Perhaps a fan of Western films could explain to me why The Naked Spur is one of the 1001 films a person must see.

satyajit_ray_3The Home and the World, Satyajit Ray (1984, India). And that’s The Satyajit Ray Collection volume 3 box set completed, and while I consider fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak a genius film-maker, I’m still unconvinced Satyajit Ray is no more than a very, very good one – albeit considerably more prolific. He is, I suppose, an Ingmar Bergman rather than an Andrei Tarkovsky. Which is not to say that neither Bergman nor Ray did not make superior films. But there is more than just their respective positions in my own mental map of world cinema that the two have in common. Like Bergman, many of Ray’s films are theatrical. This is one of them. It is set almost entirely in the home of a Bengali noble in 1907, just after the 1905 Partition of Bengal. A UK-educated noble tries to introduce Western ideas into his home, and into his dealings with his wife, on his return home. But this opens her up to the fiery independence rhetoric of the nobleman’s best friend… which leads to a romantic triangle between the three. Since the marriage was arranged, the noble allows his wife her emotional freedom… which, of course, because this is how such stories pan out, pushes her back toward her husband. The film is based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, a prolific Bengali writer, who Ray adapted on a number of occasions. I really need to try reading some Tagore. As for the film, it sets up a fascinating situation, but it slowly settles out into a somewhat stereotypical romantic triangle. On the whole, I don’t think this volume 3 has been of as high quality as volume 1… which does make me wonder what volume 2 will be like and why I bought volume 3 before I bought volume 2…

memoriesMemories of Underdevelopment*, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968, Cuba). I rented this film from Cinema Paradiso, but a week after sending it back, and when it came to write this post, I decided I needed to watch it again. So I had a look on Amazon and discovered it was one of four films in Mr Bongo’s 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set. The box set also included Lucía, which I already own, but that was no problem, I could give my copy away. So I ordered 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution… The following morning, I remembered I had 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution on my LoveFilm (ie, Amazon) rental list. Oops. I’d better remove it. Too late! As luck would have it, they’d dispatched a film from the box set with my next set of rental DVDs. And it just happened to be… Memories of Underdevelopment. Oh well. Both copies of the film arrived on the same day, but I watched the one I’d bought. And… on second viewing I thought it much better than I had first time around. This has happened before with some of the movies I’ve watched – the appreciating it more on second viewing thing, not the buying only to be sent it on rental as well thing, although to be honest the latter has happened once or twice before too. Anyway, Memories of Undevelopment follows an intellectual, a writer, as he tries to survive and make sense of the new Cuba post-revolution. It does this by focusing on his relationships with women – interspersed with some historical commentary and a long sub-plot about a friend who inherited a furniture store. As the film opens, Sergio’s wife has left him and fled to Miami to escape the revolution. Sergio has stayed. He is, to put it bluntly, something if a lecherous pig. He flirts with his young housekeeper, Hanna, and has a sexual fantasy about her adult baptism. He then meets aspiring actress Elena and seduces her. But her family are far from happy about this, especially since Elena is only sixteen (or seventeen). Sergio promises to marry her, but doesn’t so, he is arrested and charged with rape. I’m still not sure if Sergio’s relationships are intended to be allegories – Alea was apparently pro-revolution, and Memories of Underdevelopment is certainly critical of Cuba’s Spanish occupiers. Which does mean it’s a little hard to tell where the film’s sympathies lie. A negative stand seems too obvious a reading, but then a broadly positive critical reading doesn’t seem to fit either – in terms of the film’s response to the Cuban revolution, that is. Perhaps it needs another rewatch…

classic_bergmanDreams, Ingmar Bergman (1955, Sweden). Havng now seen four of the five films in this “Classic Bergman” box set I’m starting to wonder what “classic Bergman” actually is. After all, his most-celebrated film is The Seventh Seal, and that was made only two years after this one. And Bergman’s first film appeared in 1946 (he did not direct 1944’s Torment, only wrote the screenplay), and the earliest film in this box set is… well, 1946’s It Rains on Our Love, but the latest is 1958’s So Close to Life… Anyway, in Dreams, the owner of a model agency travels from Stockholm to Gothenburg for a commission with her most popular model, Doris. The model finds herself a sugar daddy in Gothenburg, while the agency owner has hooked up with an ex-lover (who turns out to be married). The film has all the ingredients of a typical Bergman film, and manages them all in a typically Bergman-esque fashion. I’ve said in the past that watching a Bergman film is like reading a story by a classic literary author. It’s a good story, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be thinking about it for weeks afterwards. And this is one of Bergman’s films like that – which is why, I guess, it’s in a “Classic Bergman” box set, and not given a premier release, like Smiles of a Summer Night, also released the same year. True, an also-ran from Bergman is always going to be worth seeing, but this entire box sert has shown itself to be more for Bergman fans than cineastes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 846


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Moving pictures 2017, #1

The first film post of 2017. I’m not planning on watching as many films this year as last, since I’m hoping Ill be spending that time doing other things, like writing. I’m also going to try and watch two non-US films for every US one. I sort of managed it in this post – two US films, although admittedly one was a short, and the rest from the UK, Sweden, Italy and Russia.

meet_john_doeMeet John Doe, Frank Capra (1941, USA). The world was not a nicer place when Capra was making his films, but the solutions to its problems did seem so much easier to implement. And, of course, the same obstacles to those solutions existed then as now – greed, and the need for the rich to keep the poor in a place where they can control them and keep them poor. Meet John Doe is typical in that regard, so typical its story pretty much iterates that entire philosophy. A newspaper reporter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is fired when a new owner takes over her newspaper. She retaliates by publishing a suicide letter in her last column, in which a “John Doe” promises to leap from the newspaper building because of man’s greed and inhumanity to man. The new owner likes the letter, so much so it prompts a hunt for a real John Doe. And Garry Cooper, a homeless ex-baseball player, is cast in the part. Cooper’s homespun neighbourliness strikes a chord, and people form John Doe clubs… and next thing you know there’s an entire political movement wrapped around it. Except the John Doe Clubs refuse to allow politicians as members. But then the newspaper owner who backed the campaign reveals he had planned to use it all along to create a third political party under his control. And when Cooper objects, they monster him in front of  his followers at a rally in a stadium – because, well, they’re scumbags, because that’s what rich people do when they don’t get their way. The whole grassroots movement then falls apart, and Cooper is driven into hiding. But the sheep-like people eventually see the error of their ways and the John Doe clubs start reforming… There’s a lot in Meet John Doe that maps onto twenty-first politics, proving only, I guess, that twenty-first century politics is not all that much different to twentieth-century politics. The homespun neighbourliness Cooper sells doesn’t play in the present day, what with assorted demagogues whipping up xenophobic and racist hate for their own ends – stand up, Mr Farage, Mr Trump.  Of course, this is a Capra movie, and he was a master at leaving the viewer feeling good about life. Which is where, I suppose, his films differ from real life…

masters_of_venusMasters of Venus (1962, UK). I remember the Children’s Film Foundation films you used to see at the cinema before the main feature, although this one predates me by quite a bit and was apparently shown on telly anyway. But it sounded worth a punt, so I stuck it on my rental list… and so it arrived and… it was pretty much completely as expected: the sort of science fiction film and television churned out until the late 1960s, and which never really convinced but then no one ever expected it to. A teenage boy and girl often visit their father’s work – he’s a rocket scientist, in charge of the first flight to Venus. On one particular visit, two sinister agents of an unknown power – they have six fingers on their hands, so it’s clearly not the Soviets – try to sabotage the rocket. They succeed in sabotaging the control centre, but the rocket – with two of its crew and the two teenagers – launches prematurely and sends the four off to Venus. Once they reach Venus, something seizes control of the rocket and prevents them from returning to Earth. The two astronauts investigate, and are captured by Venusians. So it’s up to the two kids to rescue them. Venus was apparently colonised by people from Atlantis and they’re afraid of conquest by Earth. There are two factions, Men of Action and Men of Science, and the former plan to destroy Earth to safeguard Venus. The latter would sooner reach an accommodation. Once on Venus, the story pretty much runs along well-established rails – captured, escape, captured again, find allies among Venusians, escape, turn tables, save the day, etc, etc. It’s fun, in a very dated sort of way, and does sort of make you pine for the simpler days of science fiction and story-telling. I mean, watching it fifty-plus years later as an adult, you’re going to get a different experience, and nostalgia is going to be ninety-nine parts of it. Which sounds a little like damning with faint praise as, like most of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, Masters of Venus is well-made, pacey, and ticks (for the time) most of the right boxes. It’s an historical document, no denying that, but given that perspective it’s worth seeing.

maya_derenAt Land, Maya Deren (1944, USA). After watching Meshes of the Afternoon by Deren and Alexander Hammid, I had a look round on Youtube and it seems most of Deren’s output is on there. There’s been some controversy over who exactly contributed the most to Meshes of the Afternoon, with it generally being seen as chiefly Deren’s work, but Stan Brakhage claiming that Hammid was mostly responsible for it. But given that Deren went on to make nearly a dozen further films, and Hammid only made two more, and she spent decades lecturing on film-making, she’s clearly the more important figure of the two in American avant-garde cinema. And At Land, which has only her name attached, is not dissimilar to Meshes of the Afternoon in approach. It opens with reversed film of Deren emerging from the sea, but then she finds herself at a dinner party. There’s a chess game between two women on the beach, and lots of rolling around in the sand. It’s all completely silent – as was, in fact, Meshes of the Afternoon, until a soundtrack by Teiji Ito, who was married to Deren at the time, was added in 1959. I’m enjoying my delves into avant-garde cinema, although, to be honest, I’m not big on symbolic story-telling in the medium. I guess in that respect it’s little different to my taste for plain prose – prose claire, if you will – inasmuch as I’m all for evoking strangeness, but through the use of clear imagery. And, while Deren’s films are striking, I’m not sure I agree with obfuscation of story by telling it through symbolic imagery. It should be a value-add, not the be-all and end-all. Nonetheless, I plan to watch more of Deren’s films. If I can find them…

classic_bergmanSawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman (1953, Sweden). The title is a bit of a clue – and the DVD cover art would be even more of one, but my copy was part of the box set depicted – but this movie is set in a circus. But it’s not a happy movie. Well, it is a Bergman movie. Yes, yes, I know, he made some light-hearted comedies as well as his usual dour Nordic tragedies, but Sawdust and Tinsel falls firmly into the latter camp. A circus arrives in town, and the owner tries to patch things up with his ex-wife who lives in the town. But it goes badly, resulting in the man his current lover is having a fling with challenging the circus-owner and subsequently getting badly beaten up by him. There’s a certain flavour to Bergman’s films, no matter where they are set – a circus, a maternity ward, a holiday home – that tends to overpower any story he might tell. It’s not just the stark black and white cinematography, which is only true for about two-thirds of his oeuvre; or the “staginess” of many of his films, which give them the feel of theatre plays or literary short stories (although in a different fashion to, say, Orson Welles’s adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story). I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bergman’s work, although I’ve managed to collect quite a bit of it. Some of his films are blindingly good, and he amassed a hugely impressive body of work… but I’m not sure yet how much value I put on many of his works. I think I need to know him better, I need to rewatch some of the films I’ve watched, perhaps with some sort of structure or purpose. I think he deserves it, and I think it would be rewarding doing so. And, to be fair, there are not that many directors you could say that about.

saloSalò, or the 120 Days of Sodom*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1975, Italy). I didn’t go into this film completely ignorant of what it would be like, which was just as well, as it’s a brutal and horrible film, and while it certainly makes some important points, it nonetheless makes for very uncomfortable viewing. During World War II, Salò, a town on Lake Garda, became the centre of Mussolini’s last fascist state, from 1943 to 1945. Then there’s the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which the title references, although the film takes place over three days. It all seems relatively innocuous at first. Four men, referred to only by their titles, take a group of teenagers, and then pretty much treat them and all those about them with a complete lack of morals. During a meal, for example, one of the soldiers starts to rape a waitress. There are repeated scenes of a woman telling stories of her past to an audience of the teenagers; sometimes she sings. It’s the end of the film which is most brutal. I’m squeamish, I freely admit it, and I dislike watching horrific scenes in films – in fact, I deal with them best when they’re obviously special effects (ie, pre-CGI). But even Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom tested by tolerance for squeam, particularly toward the end when many of the teenagers are physically tortured. Having now seen Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, I’m in two minds about the film. It’s a horrible film to watch, but it makes important points. Pasolini was an important director, and his work should be treated accordingly. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, amongst many others, so it’s clearly a film regarded highly by many… I’m glad I watched it, but I’m not so sure I could watch it again. And yet I find myself conflicted over buying the shiny new BFI Blu-ray release…

banishmentThe Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2007, Russia). This is the third Zvyagintsev film I’ve seen, after the earlier The Return and the later Leviathan. So I knew what to expect: glacial pacing, long static takes, close-ups on actors who barely change expression… And I like that sort of stuff, I really do. But for some reason The Banishment seemed like more of a watching ordeal than the other two films by Zvyagintsev I’ve seen. A family travel out into the country to spend time at his childhood home. The wife reveals she is pregnant, but the husband does not believe the baby is his. He forces his wife to have an abortion, but she deliberately overdoses on pain medication afterwards and dies. A flashback reveals that the baby was the husband’s, after all. There’s a subplot involving the husband’s brother, who is a gangster of some sort, and who turns up and then promptly has a heart attack – but there’s not much to it. The cinematography is gorgeous, with some beautiful shots of the Russian countryside (actually, not entirely Russian – The Banishment was filmed in France, Belgium, Moldova and Russia; in fact, the countryside home was built from scratch in Moldova. But never mind: we all know movie geography does not map onto the real world, and that an exterior shot of a building in movieland is not necessarily the location of the following interior shots…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures, #61

The USA has crept back into this post, although I think I’m currently watching on average more non-Anglophone movies than Anglophone ones. Mind you, I did recently re-organise my LoveFilm rental lists, so I now receive two non-Anglophone movies and one Anglophone movies each week.

midnight_in_parisMidnight in Paris, Woody Allen (2011, USA). I am really not a fan of Woody Allen and tend to avoid his films as much as possible. But David Tallerman spoke approvingly of this one, it was free to watch on Amazon Prime, and it didn’t actually star Allen himself… Also, the story sounded sort of interesting. Owen Wilson – who turned out to be Woody Allen in all but name – is a successful Hollywood scriptwriter holidaying in Paris with his fiancée and future in-laws. They don’t seem well matched – he to his fiancée or to his in-laws. While wandering the streets of Paris one night, an old-fashioned car stops and offers him a lift. He’s taken to a party, where he meets F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. And from the party, they move onto a bar, where he meets Ernest Hemingway… and so on, to Gertrude Stein, Pabo Picasso, Man, Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali… And the next morning, he’s back in twenty-first century Paris. And so it goes: he spends his nights with the literati of 1920s Paris, falls in love with a young woman, and slowly realises his fiancée is not for him. But neither is the woman from the 1920s, as the two of them travel back to 1890s Paris and she decides to stay there. Wilson is Allen in all but appearance, and he’s one of the things I find most annoying about Allen’s films. Michael Sheen plays a hugely irritating and patronising friend, and the fact fiancée Rachel McAdams likes him tells you how unsuitable she is for Wilson. Midnight in Paris is by no means a subtle film. The big names of the 1920s and 1890s who make an appearance are little more than caricatures, and the whole edifice is plainly meant to be carried by Allen Wilson. It’s entertaining enough, I guess, and the central conceit has its charm. But it hasn’t caused me to reassess my opinion of Woody Allen’s films.

kings_speechThe King’s Speech*, Tom Hooper (2010, UK). I’d managed to avoid watching this, despite the fact it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, because I really don’t want to watch films about the British royal family which don’t treat them as anything other than the historical embarrassment they are. (I have nothing against the Windsors per se, but “divine right” is primitive nonsense and the whole concept of royalty has no place in the modern world.) Anyway, The King’s Speech popped up for free on Amazon Prime, so I went for it since it was going to cost me nowt. And… it was entirely as I expected: a super-entitled twonk seeks help for his speech impediment, and ends up turning to an untrained Australian therapist with a pet theory. Which apparently works. One of the conditions of the treatment is that the therapist treats his patient as an equal and vice versa – but King George VI (as will be) seems to have real trouble with that. He hides it well, but he’s better than everyone else on the planet because’s a King Emperor. Of course. For all that, the film was pretty innocuous. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the mise en scène, and while the movie had a first-rate cast most of them looked they were going through the motions. How it ended up on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery, as it’s little more than a competent historical drama about an uninteresting topic. Meh.

classic_bergmanSo Close to Life, Ingmar Bergman (1958, Sweden). Three women are in a ward at a Swedish hospital to deliver babies. One is in a loveless marriage, another isn’t ready for a child, and the third is eagerly awaiting motherhood. Bergman keeps the story confined to the ward – and a few other rooms in the hospital – but it’s all about the three women, and their visiting partners; and fortunately Bergman’s cast have chops to spare in delivering the story. In fact, the three female leads – Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson – all won the Best Actress Award at Cannes that year; Bergman walked away with the Best Director Award. So despite being his first work after the critically-acclaimed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, released the previous year and still considered among his best works (and possibly the two of the best-known films made by Bergman), So Close to Life manages not to embarrass. It has that theatrical atmosphere many of his films never quite managed to avoid, although in this case it’s heightened by the restricted sets. This sort of film-making does throw a lot of onto the cast’s shoulders, but one thing youn can say about Bergman’s films is that he was never let down by his actors. I can’t say So Close to Life was especially memorable, but it was a superior piece of intense and up-close drama, and certainly worth watching.

strangerStranger than Paradise*, Jim Jarmusch (1984, USA). I think this is the last of the Jarmusch’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is a relief. Perhaps I saw his films in the wrong place at the wrong time, ie, not the USA in the mid-1980s. Because I don’t get the appeal at all. In this one, which in parts feels like a complete rip-off of Cassavetes, a pair of musicians play lowlifes in New York who befriend a young Hungarian woman, and later drive to Cleveland to visit her after she has moved there to be with her mother. And, er, that’s it. Oh, they drive to Florida as well. But it’s basically jazz musician John Lurie and Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, who look confusingly alike, ad libbing at each other. The cinematography is black and white, and pleasingly clean; but I can’t see the appeal of the supposed plot, which I have seen described as both surreal and minimalist – and while I’m in no way chained to the necessity of plot (I love video installations, for a start), I think a feature film has to offer something more if it’s going to skimp on plot – and Stranger than Paradise doesn’t really. Some similar films shift their emphasis to their soundtrack, and use that to carry the film – but Stranger than Paradise didn’t. It just felt meandering, dull, its appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Yoyu Die list is baffling, and Jarmusch’s appeal still escapes me.

shop_on_high_streetThe Shop on the High Street*, Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos (1965, Slovakia). In occupied Slovakia, a man is told to take over a sewing shop owned by a senile old Jewish woman, because Jews cannot own property or businesses. But the old woman’s shop has been doing badly for years and is only kept afloat by donations. The Jewish community persuade the man to keep the shop going and they will pay him a weekly payment. So he stays on… but the old woman has got it into her head he’s her nephew and he’s only there to help her out, and he doesn’t disabuse her. But then authorities round up all the town’s Jewish population, and the man can’t decide if he should turn in the old woman… There’s nothing particularly special about The Shop on the High Street. It’s a blackly comic film was about one of WWII’s lesser known aspects, played well by its cast and well-shot by its directors. Its story, however, is one that certainly should not be forgotten – now more than ever. How long in Trump’s USA before businesses owned by Muslims are handed to “Christians”? (I use quote marks because there’s fuck-all that’s Christian about most of the stuff done by the US Christian Right.) Anyway, Second Run have an excellent eye for good films – I don’t think they’ve released a dud yet – and this is no exception. Definitely worth seeing.

cowboysLes cowboys, Thomas Bidegain (2015, France). An odd film, this. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take it, and as it progressed I found myself changing my perspective on its central premise. In the 1990s, a French family at a local country & western festival discover their teenage daughter has disappeared. They spend several days searching for her, before receiving a letter from her: she has run away with her Muslim boyfriend and plans to live in Pakistan with him. The father is convinced his daughter was kidnapped by white slavers, and spends years tracking down clues to her location. To no avail. It costs him his life in a traffic accident. The son takes over, and even ends up as a relief worker in Pakistan, where he tracks down hs sister’s husband. Except they’re not married anymore, and in a struggle, the son accidentally shoots the husband. He is caught by the police and imprisoned. The French authorities arrange for his release. He buys the release of the dead man’s wife and takes her back to France with him. She would have been killed had she remained in Pakistan, but she’s an outsider in France – indeed, she’s the subject of racial abuse during a visit to the country & western festival. The son marries her, they settle down and have a kid… and then he hears from someone who has seen his missing sister… A good film that manages to remain objective, despite its emotive content, but allows the viewer to see that the behaviour of the characters is often not acceptable, no matter what provocation. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 826


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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


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Moving pictures, #45

More movies!

suffragetteSuffragette, Sarah Gavron (2015, UK). I’m surprised it’s taken until 2015 to make a film like this. Actually, I’m not surprised, just disgusted. True, this film is bsed on fictional characters, and real historical people such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emil Davison do make brief appearances (the former is, in fact, played by Meryl Streep). The film tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK through a pair of invented characters – a working-class laundress played by Carey Mulligan, who more or less accidentally becomes a suffragette. Well, inasmuch ,as she rebels a clear injustice and that brings her into contact with the suffragettes and so she reluctantly joins their campaign. To me, it seems incredible that women should ever have been denied the vote, but I’m not stupid, I realise that historically men have been complete scumbags, and many still are today. I remember thinking while watching Suffragette that most social progress has come about because of violent action, and that decades of insistence on “peaceful demonstration” has only slowed the rate of social progress – if not driven it backwards, as twenty-first century culture seems in many ways less progressive than that of the twentieth century. I have to wonder sometimes if the twentieth century was only a social experiment, and now it’s over. But I suspect what’s more likely is that WWI killed off great swathes of the upper classes and so opened up management of society to the middle classes, but now the upper classes are back in charge once again. But Suffragrette… An important film, I think, because of its subject, but not a great film; and though played well by its cast and directed well, it did all feel a bit meh. Recommended because of its subject, if not as a film per se.

jeremishJeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack (1972, USA). I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I find myself liking several Western films that don’t follow the usual Western story-lines. Like this one. Not a brilliant film, by any means; but there’s lots of lovely scenery in it, and the story is sufficiently distant from your typical Western story that I found it interesting… but I’m not convinced Robert Redford was suitable for the title role. He looks too, well, urbane. The title character heads off into the mountains for a new life. Fortunately, he stumbles across an old timer before he dies of starvation, and the old timer teaches him how to survive. Taking his leave after learning all this is to learn, he finds a homesteader family that had been attacked by Blackfoot. The wife has been driven mad with grief and she insists Johnson take her young son with him. So he does. He then comes across a trapper who had been buried neck-deep in sand by Blackfoot, and rescues him. They track down the Blackfoot who attacked the trapper and steal back his possessions – and killed the Blackfoot braves. This apparently makes Johnson something of a hero among the other Native American tribes of the area. He ends up married to the daughter of a Flathead chieftain, and they and the boy start to make a life for themselves. But the US Cavalry asks for Johnson’s help to resuce a wagon train, and this requires a ride, against Johnson’s better judgement, through a Blackfoot sacred burial ground. The Blackfoot respond by killing his wife and adopted son. There then follows many years of Blackfoot sending young braves to test their mettle against Johnson, all of whom, of course, he kills. We like to think of the Wild West taking place in the scrub and desert of south-west USa, but there’s other scenery which falls within the genre – the Rocky Mountains in this case. And it’s hard to film such landscapes badly… but when they’re filmed well, they’re gorgeous. Pollack had always struck me as a Hollywood stalwart – a director of commercially successful films, with the odd critical success thrown in, but by no means an auteur. And while Redford may not convince as the title character in Jeremiah Johnson, Pollack does a really good job at presenting the landscape (I can’t say “capture” but I have no personal experience of it). The end result is a superior Western, albeit perhaps high second-tier rather than first-tier. But worth a watch.

uchoUcho*, Karel Kachňya (1970, Czech Republic). I wanted to like this film more than I did. For many reasons. For the fact it was banned for many years in its home country, and only shown for the first time after the Velvet Revolution. For its subject: the lives of people in a totalitarian state. For its story: the paranoia endemic in totalitarian states is heightened for a couple after they return from a party and find their front door unlocked, and that tears their marriage apart. And for its use of New Wave cinematic techniques to tell its story. But something about it didn’t quite click for me. Possibly because I have a positive view of the trappings it presents as totalitarian, which I’ve taken from films like Eolomea and Wings. If that makes sense. This is not to say what happened to the Czech Republic – Czechoslovakia as was – at the USSR’s hands is in any way condonable. But in the Eastern Bloc the signifiers they presented for success and happiness I actually find quite appealing, and though they’re all utopian surface, cleverly hiding the totalitarian reality underneath, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the dream. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that Ucho reveals that horrible reality underneath as a commentary by someone who actually lived it. In terms of technique, Ucho has much to recommend it – the use of ambient light, the tight focus on the central charaters… a variety of New Wave techniques, in fact. But the shifting of focus of totalitarian depradations to married-couple dynamics feels at times like diminuation of what should be a major dramatic point. There is, for example, a point in the film when the doorbell rings and the husband and wife work themselves up into such a frenzy believing the secret police have come to take him away that he walks down to open the gate carrying a suitcase of overnight things. But it turns out it’s only a bunch of drunken colleagues from the minsterial party which opens the film. The threat remains – and the movie is clear on that – but the decaying relationship between husband and wife seems to be used a little too often to ratchet up a more existential fear than is deserved by the story. Ucho is an important film, but it is somewhat disappointing as a piece of cinema. Worth seeing – once, at least.

three_coloursThree Colours: Red*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). And so the Three Colours trilogy, and my rewatch of it, comes to a close; and Red is generally considered the best of the three… and so it is, but by considerably more of a margin than I’d remembered. Yes, yes, that final scene where all the major characters from all three films are paraded across the screen is silly and unnecessary; but there’s still a focus and tightness to the story of Red which is so much stronger than that of the other two films. Irene Jacob, who was so good in The Double Life of Veronique, plays a model in Geneva with an absent boyfriend. One night she hits a dog in her car, and it turns out the dog’s owner is ex-judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who cares nothing for the dog. So Jacob pays for the vet bills and adopts it as a pet. But it turns out Trintignant is a bit of a misanthopric oddball, who listens in on the phone calls of his neighbours… and he draws Jacob into his obsession. But she also has problems of her own. I’d started watching Red expecting something similar to my rewatches of Blue and White, so I was surprised to discover how much better than them it is (final scene notwithstanding). There is, now I think back on it, not much that stands out in terms of cinematography – a lot of use of the titular colour, and some nice photography of night-time Geneva. And, to be fair, the cast in all three films have been excellent – but I think it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Trintignant that works so well and lifts the film above Blue and White. The film is supposed to represent fraternity, yet most of the relationships in it have failed by the end – Jacob and her absent boyfriend, a neighbour and his girlfriend… And the strongest relationship in the film, between Jacob and Trintignant, is between two characters who have nothing in common, in fact Jacob is vehemently opposed to Trintignant’s practice of phone hacking. But when Jacob leaves to visit friends in the UK, Trintignant is the only one to wish her good fortune. This rewatch has amended my opinion of the Three Colours trilogy. They’re undoubtedly good films, but having watched so much more non-Anglophone cinema since I first watched them I find them more excellent examples of a particular type of film than merely excellent films. Kieślowski was a gifted film-maker and left an enviably impressive body of work, but I find myself thinking better of his earlier Polish films than I do his later French ones. Go figure.

waiting_womenWaiting Women, Ingmar Bergman (1952, Sweden). Bergman wrote a number of films about women, and while I don’t know enough to call his attitude to women into question, I do wonder sometimes. In Waiting Women, we have a group of women reminscing about the situation which led to their current state of affairs. And it’s all about relationships. The movie opens with a group of women preparing a meal together, before then flashing back to stories of their relationships, the longest and most memorabe of which is that featuring Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – although it does also include a nasty line in misogynistic cracks from Björnstrand. And the infamous elevator scene. Which is, to be honest, one of the highlights. The two are trapped in a lift, and over the course of some ten minutes their rancour turns to humour. The flashback structure at least meant Waiting Women didn’t feel like a televised play, which a lot of Bergman’s films do (even those with scenes that take place outdoors). Not great Bergman by any means, but even his sub-par films are still a cut above most film-maker’s best.

riverRiver of No Return, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). I mentioned in a previous post that Preminger only made one Western… and this is it. And it’s a curious beast. It has many reasons to like it, and yet to fails to, well, impress. The story is an adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves, which is a point in its favour; and the landscape in which the film is set is gorgeous, and often extremely well-photographed… but it’s the things that make it a Hollywood film which spoil it. The close-ups are done in a studio, not on location, and it shows – badly. Marilyn Monroe was a big draw at the time, but she doesn’t bring anything special to this film. In fact, she’s a bit crap – and only seems to really shine when she’s at her most artless (although I guess that was part of her talent as an actress; having said that, by all accounts, she was pretty insufferable during this shoot). Mitchum turns up to a gold-diggers’ camp to pick up his ten-year-old son, who had been left there by arrangement. It turns out the son had been looked after by saloon singer Monroe. Mitchum and son go off to Mitchum’s homestead beside the eponymous river… only for Monroe and fiancé gambler to turn up on en route to stake a claim at Council City. Their raft founders, but Mitchum rescues them. Gambler responds by stealing Mitchm’s horse to continue his jounrey, but Monroe remains behind. Gambler never returns so the three of them make their own way, by raft, to Council City. The location shooting ias lovely, the studio shots anything but. In fact, it seems for much of the film the continuity people were given the day off, as close-up shots often seem to take place in completely different environments. River of No Return is an odd beast. Preminger was a skilled director, and he manages a solid narrative with (mostly) good turns from his cast. But the mix of location shooting and studio shots never quite match and the discrepancy jars badly. One for completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 796


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Moving pictures, #42

More films. So it goes.

fanThe Fan, Otto Preminger (1949, USA). I have a fondness for Preminger’s films, although that may well be simply because he was a name I fastened onto when I started tracking my film watching… but I started out watching his movies so I may as well carry on and complete his oeuvre. Of which this is not a good example. It is an especially unwitty adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, which inadvertently has the advantage of making the story much simpler to parse – although, to be fair, I’ve not seen Wilde’s play, so the loss of his dialogue is not one I’d notice. (There are, of course, more faithful adaptations of the play, but I’ve not seen any of those either.) It opens shortly after WWII, when an old woman in an auction room objects that the fan which is for sale, found in the ruins of a bombed house and unclaimed, is hers. The auction house tells her that if she can verify her claim, they’ll hand it over. So she goes looking for Lord Darlington, a friend from many years before… And after a bit of banter (very little of which is Wildean), we’re in flashback territory, and it’s the last decade of the nineteenth century and the “adventuress” Mrs Erlynne has arrived in London and attached herself to the company of Lord Darlington and the young Windermeres. And when Arthur Windermere puts up for a London residence for Mrs Erlynne, and is often seen her company, tongues begin to wag, and a nasty rumour eventually reaches Margaret Windermere. It all comes to a head at a fancy party at the Windermeres, to which Erlynne is invited, and at which she reveals her secret (she’s Margaret Windermere’s black sheep mother, who ran away decades before). As historical drama, this is a pretty solid, if unadventurous, movie, but you expect more from Wilde and the bowdlerisation of his lines has done it few favours. One for Preminger completists, I think.

new_worldThe New World, Terrence Malick (2005, UK). I don’t know what to make of Malick. His films are beautifully shot but also complete nonsense. There is, for example, a brilliant idea at the heart of The New World, but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. It may be that Malick’s use of Hollywood stars, and their highly-promoted identities, works against what he is trying to achieve… The New World tells the story of Pocahontas, although focusing mostly on the English men with which she had relationships. Malick has gone for a completely authentic look and feel to his story – even going as far as getting a professor of linguistics to reconstruct the extinct Powahatan language spoken by the Native Americans of the period and location the film takes place. But the real genius of The New World – or rather, what could have been the real genius – is that the bulk of the dialogue is actually voiceover and is the characters, all of whom are real historical figures, speaking the text from their own diaries and journals. But. It doesn’t quite work because this is not a documentary and the real historical figures are played by recognisable Hollywood actors such as Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis or Christian Bale. True, the pivotal role of Pocahontas is played by an unknown, Q’orianka Kilcher, a German actress, in her first major role. And she’s very good in it too. It goes without saying that The New World is mostly gorgeous to watch, and it looks and sounds exactly how you would expect a English colony in North America in the early seventeenth century to look and sound (well, except for the drama school kids, but we won’t mention them)… I remain conflicted about Malick and his films. They look lovely, he’s probably the closest the Hollywood system has come to slow cinema, but… there’s always something slightly off about them. Perhaps it’s simply that his style of film-making doesn’t work in Hollywood, is fatally compromised by Hollywood’s use of familar names and faces in roles where the baggage they bring undermines their parts. It doesn’t help that Malick’s reputation in the US as “auteur supreme” likely gives him the freedom to be self-indulgent, and a little self-indulgence goes a long way. But whatever it is, there’s something about Malick’s films that rubs the wrong way, and I wonder if it’s the friction between the Hollywood system and the sort of films Malick’s movies try to present themselves as being.

city_of_womenCity of Women, Federico Fellini (1980, Italy). As male writers get older, they enter a Dirty Old Man phase – cf John Fowles’s Mantissa, or anything by Robert Heinlein after the mid-1960s… – and creators in situations which give them more than the usual artistic freedom are especially susceptible. True, Fellini has been self-indulgent since day one, but I do love that self-indulgence in his colour films – or, at least, I loved those I’d seen… But Fellini has made many films, and bizarre as Satyricon is, or Casanova… others would no doubt fall either side of that indulgence divide (to coin a phrase). I had very little idea of what to expect from La città della donne, except perhaps something like a cross between Giuglietta della spiriti and something created by a middle-aged Italian male… And, er, that’s a bit what it’s like. It feels like it can’t decide if it’s an attack on feminism or a celebration of it, and the fact it sends mixed messages is clearly not to its credit. There are things to like in City of Women – and they’re the same sort of things to like in Fellini’s career – but there’s also that weird undercurrent that feels like a, well, MRA attack on feminism. Which is like watching a comedian whose every other joke falls flat, but you’re never entirely sure if that’s deliberate. Things have changed in the four decades since the film was made, and it renders some of its complaints weirdly old-fashioned, others weirdly trivial, and some even more relevant now than they were then. A man on a train (Marcello Mastroianni playing, well, Marcello Mastroianni) flirts with a woman, and when the train stops in the middle of nowhere and she disembarks, he follows her… through some woods to a sort of isolated hotel where a conference on feminism, attended entirely by women, is taking place. And, er, that’s it. This is Second Wave Feminism as the butt of an extended joke… except, there’s a sense throughout that the joke is on those who see the feminism as the joke. I don’t know. Given Fellini’s career I’m inclined to think he was having fun at the expense of anti-feminists (while not subscribing to feminism himself), but parts of City of Women are so bonkers – the final third of it, pretty much – that it’s hard to be sure what he meant. Given his previous films, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, I think; but City of Women still remains the least satisfactory of his colour films I have seen so far.

septemberCome September, Robert Mulligan (1961, USA). I do love me some Rock Hudson rom com, and he was at his best in these during the 1960s. And, let’s face it, how can you go wrong with Gina Lollobrigida as the female lead? And Italian locations? (Although apparently Lollobrigida was not keen on returning to Italy.) Anyway, Hudson plays a successful industrialist who, each year, spends the month of September in his large villa on the Genoese coast. But one year he decides to go in July instead… which promptly screws up a few things. For a start, his girlfriend, Lollobrigida, is about to get married to some English wet, but breaks it off when she gets his call. And his butler, played superbly by Walter Slezak, has been runnnig the villa as a hotel for eleven months of the year. And, en route to his villa, Hudson has a run-in with a bunch of American rowdies led by Bobby Darin. So Hudson finds his girlfriend wavering, his house occupied by a group of young American women and their chaperone, and he has Darin’s rowdies camped outside on the road because Darin fancies one of the guests of the “hotel”, Sandra Dee (Darin and Dee actually married after the film)… Aside from Hudson’s massive sense of entitlement, this is a pretty straightforward 1960s rom com. It has its charms, and some of its jokes are quite good, but it’s hamstrung by the fact that Hudson’s character is actually a nasty piece of work. It’s watchable because Hudson is eminently watchable – and there are probably only a handful of actors of the time who could have got away with playing such a role – but not even Lollobrigida’s screen presence and charm, Darin’s cinematic surliness, or even Dee’s all-American bland chirpiness, can make this more than a middling rom com of the period, even for Rock Hudson.

phoenixPhoenix, Christian Petzold (2014, Germany). I don’t chose my viewing entirely from lists of best films. Sometimes it’s stuff I stumble across that takes my fancy, and sometimes it’s movies recommended by friends. As this one was. By David Tallerman. Who has recommended good films to me in the past (some, it must be said, better than others). In fact, Phoenix had not pinged on my radar at all, and having now watched it I’m glad David recommended it. A Jewish woman who survived the camps returns to Berlin to discover what happened to her Gentile husband. She had been badly wounded in the face, and she requires plastic surgery, which results in her appearance changing. So when she tracks down her husband, he does not recognise her. But he does think she looks enough like his “missing” wife that she could impersonate her and so claim the inheritance left to her. The woman does not reveal her true identity and plays along with this subterfuge, partly to disprove the lie of a friend who insists the husband was the one who gave up the woman to the Gestapo. Phoenix is based on a 1961 French novel, Le retour des cendres, but, to be honest, to my mind it seems to work better with a German setting – it certainly gives the central premise a bigger emotional payload. A good film and definitely worth seeing. It might well make a future 1001 Movies list, if it hasn’t already.

lessonA Lesson in Love, Ingmar Bergman (1954, Sweden). Bergman made a lot of films and some of them are bona fide classics of the medium. Others are little more than cinematic adaptations of middling stage plays – or, at least, that’s how they come across, even if they’d been written directly for film. As far as I know, A Lesson in Love was conceived of and produced purely as a film. But it’s not that easy to tell with Bergman. A Lesson in Love is also minor Bergman, inasmuch as it’s entertaining and has something to say, but when all’s said and done, it sort of fades into that middle Bergman ground where so many of his films reside and where it’s hard to tell one of them from the other. I could put together a list of a dozen top-notch Bergman films, and even for a director who made over sixty films, that’s an enviably large list. Sadly, A Lesson in Love would not be on that list. It’s a 1950s Swedish comedy about a gynecologist and his patients and marriage and affairs, and to be honest it all sort of blurs into one after a bit. There’s some good witty dialogue and some on-target points, but nothing in it really stands out. It probably needs a rewatxch, to be fair, but if there’s one thing about Bergman’s oeuvre that is true it’s that it can stand multiple rewatches. And not many directors can say that.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: 793


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Moving pictures, #38

Wa-hey, I did it! An entire Moving pictures post without a single US film. Which is not say I watched zero US films during the period, just that they were so shit they weren’t worth documenting (and, to be honest, there were only one or two of them). But still, it’s an achievement. And one I hope to repeat.

lonelyThe Lonely Voice of Man, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978, Russia). This was Sokurov’s first feature-length film, created as his thesis at the prestigious VGIK film school – but the school authorities wouldn’t accept it, and despite requests to do so by a number of big names, Sokurov had to submit something else in order to graduate. The Lonely Voice of Man, meanwhile, became an underground film; and it wasn’t until glasnost that it finally saw official release – although Sokurov took the opportunity to “reconstruct” it first. It had already built up a reputation from its underground showings, but post-glasnost it picked up several awards, and much critical acclaim, at numerous festival showings. It’s roughly based on the writings of Platonov, in much the same way, I guess, that Whispering Pages is based on the writings of Gogol or Save and Protect is based on Madame Bovary. Sokurov takes a very loose approach to “adaptation”. To be honest, I know nothing about Platonov – had not even heard of him until watching this film – but I don’t doubt that familiarity with his oeuvre would add more to the viewing experience, much as it would for the aforementioned films (which, to be honest, is not something I’ve tested – although I did drunkenly buy a collection of Chekhov’s stories while watching Stone; and when I found a copy of Gogol’s collected short stories in a charity shop, I bought it…). Anyway, The Lonely Voice of Man opens with the historical footage depicted on the poster I’ve used on this post, before moving onto the plot of Platonov’s novella ‘The River Potudan’, in which a young man returns home after fighting for the revolution. His girlfriend has since qualified as a doctor, and their two changed circumstances affect their relationship. So he runs away and becomes a manual labourer in a nearby town. The cast are non-professionals, and the picture is distorted – although to a much lighter extent than Sokurov uses in later films. The cinematography is dark, with a muted palette, and a camera that focuses on objects as often as it does the characters, not to mention a non-chronological narrative. While not everything in the film is immediately parseable, the sudden switches between seasons seem, to me, to signal, changes from one narrative to another – ie, boyfriend and girlfriend getting married, and after the husband has left. In Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szianawski considers The Lonely Voice of Man a masterwork, but it seems to me more of an apprentice piece, a working-out of the themes and techniques Sokurov goes on to make extensive use of in his career (although both Szianawski and myself agree that The Second Circle is a masterpiece). There’s no doubt in my mind that Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently making films – and that’s as much a result of his contradictions as it is of the idiosyncratic approach he has taken to film-making.

subarnarekhaSubarnarekha*, Ritwik Ghatak (1965, India). Although this film appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (one of two Ghatak movies to do so; the other is The Cloud-Capped Star), it has apparently never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Which is a shame. Having now seen it, I think it’s a better film than The Cloud-Capped Star, but not as good as A River Called Titas (which is not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; go figure). But I own all three films now, so I can watch them again at leisure. Ghatak directed eight films in total, and is highly-regarded – if not of the same stature as Satyajit Ray, he’s not far from it – so it’s weird that only The Cloud-Capped Star and A River Called Titas are available on DVD (and the first is not that easy to find – Amazon third-party sellers have it at £80 (but you can get it direct from the BFI for £20)). Anyway, Subarnarekha, AKA The Golden Thread, opens with a woman being taken away from a refugee camp, but her son is left behind. A young man takes the boy in hand, and takes him with him, and his daughter, when they leave and settle in West Bengal. Jump ahead a few years and the orphan boy and the daughter are now in love, but the father is told his career at the factory, amd his rise to manager, could be threatened if his daughter marries someone from a lower caste (ie, the orphan). Then it gets sort of complicated – but that difference in caste, and how it impacts the father’s career, is the axle on which the story revolves. It might well be heresy, but I think I prefer Ghatak’s films to Ray’s. To date, I’ve seen three by Ghatak and four by Ray – but Ray was both much more prolific and is more readily available on DVD in the UK, so perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more of Ray’s films. I do wish more by Ghatak were available, however.

sils_mariaClouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas (2014, France). I’ve followed Assayas’s career on and off since first seeing Irma Vep back in 2000, although, annoyingly, the film of his that has sounded most interesting to me was 2002’s Demonlover, which was never released on DVD in the UK. He’s a film festival favourite, and his last film, Personal Shopper, won him the Best Director Award at Cannes this year (a joint win with Cristian Mingiu). Clouds of Sils Maria is an English-language film despite being set in Switzerland and with a French actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role. Binoche plays an actress who has been asked to accept an award in Zurich on behalf of a reclusive Swiss playwright. Her own career began when she played one of the two lead roles in the stage and screen versions of the playwright’s most famous play, which is about the relationship between a young woman and an older woman. Binoche is travelling with her assistant, Kristen Stewart, an American, and the mirroring of their relationship with that of the two women in the play is, er, well, a bit obvious. Fortunately, both actresses are good in their roles – Stewart is especially good – and if the shape of the story unfolds all too predictably, the script provides more than enough material for the cast to get their teeth into so they put on a good show. But, for all that, the film comes across as a somewhat dull story that just happens to be especially well-made. Perhaps it’s the milieu in which it’s set – the European great and good, swanning about in swanky hotels, and arguing over a past, and career histories, that don’t feel especially well-seated in the plot. Assayas strikes me as a more consistent director than François Ozon – although it may be unfair to compare the two as Ozon belongs to a later generation of French film-makers – but I think Ozon’s oeuvre is the more varied and interesting of the two, and Ozon’s best films are better than Assayas’s.

days_whenThe Days When I Do Not Exist, Jean-Charles Fitoussi (2002, France). This film was sent as a “bonus” with a purchase made on eBay, so I had no idea what to expect. And the internet was no real help – there’s no Wikipedia page for Fitoussi, and the imdb page for Les jours où je n’existe pas is surprisingly free of information. Whch is a shame, as it proved to be an excellent movie. It opens with a funeral, and an actor discussing the life of the person interred in the grave. The conversation – well, monologue – continues in the car as they drive away from the cemetery. And it’s only then that the main narrative begins: a man meets a woman in a park, and the two begin a relationship. But he only exists on alternate days. To him, it’s an unbroken succession of days, but for her – she’s alone every other day, and it begins to pall. So much so that she asks a friend to help try and prevent her husband (I think they’re married by this point) from appearing. But it doesn’t work. The story is told chiefly through voice-over narration (framing narrative aside), and there are occasional breaks away from the characters when the camera shoots landscape (although there’s something Benning-like about these scenes, the camera is not static but slowly pans and zooms). The whole effect feels a little like Patrick Keiller and a little like Godard (when he’s being experimental, but not too off-the-wall), but it works really well. Definitely a pleasant surprise. According to imdb, Fitoussi has made almost a dozen films, although only three or four are feature-length. I’ll definitely keep an eye open should any of them appear in editions with English subtitles.

veroniqueThe Double Life of Veronique*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1991, France). On its release, a film critic said of The Double Life of Veronique that it made “little or no sense on paper”, and she was pretty much spot-on. It doesn’t. The story is complete tosh. And yet it’s a beautifully-shot and beautifully-played piece of cinema. It not only works, it works exceedingly well – so well, in fact, it won both the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. (Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or that year, and La belle noiseuse the Grand Prize of the Jury.) The film’s title refers to young women, both played by Irène Jacob. The first is Weronika, who travels to Kraków to stay with her sick aunt, auditions for a conductor and is chosen by him as lead soprano for a planned concert. On the way home from the audition, during a violent protest, she spots a young woman who looks exactly like her. This second woman takes some photographs and then gets on a coach and drives away. This is Veronique, who teaches music at a school in Paris. Twenty minutes into the film, during the concert, Weronika collapses and dies on stage. The focus shifts to Veronique, who is suddenly overcome with sadness. A series of strange events seem to link her to the dead Weronika but transpire to be a “test” by a puppeteer and writer of children’s books Veronique has met. His last such test is sending her a cassette of ambient sounds. The postmark on the envelope leads her to a Paris railway station, where she finds the puppeteer in a café. He has been waiting there for her for two days. Angry, she leaves him – but he follows her to her hotel and the two become involved… The Double Life of Veronique is, quite frankly, made by Irène Jacob in the title role. Though the cinematography is pure Kieślowski, as is the ultra-careful timing of the story, the plot feels thinner than Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s usual material. None of which is to say The Double Life of Veronique is a bad film, or even disappointing for Kieślowski, because I thought it a better film than Three Colours: Blue, even if it did feel like the story was forever about to topple into nonsense. I need to watch Kieślowski’s other films to see if they’re also as good as I remember them – especially No End, which I seem to recall liking a great deal – although it seems not all of them have been released on Blu-ray… although Arrow Academy are going to release Dekalog in a dual edition box set later this year – it’s on my wishlist.

equinoxEquinox Flower, Yasujiro Ozu (1958, Japan). I must be getting into Ozu’s films – I recognised the characters in this movie as the same ones from Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. And because the plot was about marrying off daughters, a subject shared with those other two films, I initially thought it followed on from them. But it was actually made two years before one and four years before the other. (Although, just to confuse matters, the main character has the family name Hirayama in each film, but is played by a different actor… each of which plays a differently-named character in the other two films.) In Equinox Flower, Hirayama must deal with his own two daughters, neither of which want arranged marriages – and the boyfriend of one, in fact, approaches Hirayama to ask for the hand of his daughter – as well as trying to reconcile an old friend with his estranged daughter and also help  a female acquaintance find a husband for her daughter… The film is set mostly in Hirayama’s office, home and a Ginza bar called Luna, where the estranged daughter works. There is also a scene in the same inn which appears in the later two films (with the same landlady too). I’ve said before that Ozu’s films are very domestic – and it’s not just that they’re chiefly uchi, but more that the stories are driven by the interlinkage between several families who seem to be undergoing the same trials and tribulations. And yet there’s a telling moment in Equinox Flower, toward the end, which admits the outside world, when Hirayama and his wife are at seaside, sitting side-by-side on a bench (it’s the cover image of the DVD), and she tells him that WWII was a wonderful time for her, and he replies that he hated it. And this is after differences of opinion over their daughters’ futures and the one’s impending marriage. It’s in the small things that Ozu excels – it is, in fact, where he finds his stories. And I’m not entirely sure if the fact they’re Japanese makes them more domestic than they would be had they been set in another nation. I think it might well. Good stuff.

summer_interlideSummer Interlude, Ingmar Bergman (1951, Sweden). Bergman is a Swedish institution – at least from the outside – perhaps so much so that he overshadows everything else produced on film or television in the country (twenty-first century Nordic crime TV series notwithstanding). And, despite the size of his output, Bergman’s oeuvre isn’t all that varied. His many films are usually three- or four-hander plays, typically about relationships or families, played out with a bit more scenic freedom than a theatre offers. Summer Interlude, considered among his best by some, is a case in point. The lead character is a ballerina, who goes to stay with relatives in the country for a holiday, and subsequently has a holiday romance. But the unsophisticated boyfriend doesn’t understand the dancer’s sophisticated world – especially her relationship with her urbane “uncle” – and it all ends badly. It’s all very, well, play-ish, a story driven by relationships which are laid out in dialogue rather than through visual clues – although Bergman certainly uses his scenery to good effect (and I have to wonder if the scene involving wild strawberries inspired the later film of that title). Criticising Bergman would be like criticising Shakespeare, but nothing should be sacred – and, like Shakespeare, some of Bergman’s output works better, or at least appeals to me more, than others. Summer Interlude has its moments, but I think I’d place it in middle-tier Bergman – neither a stand-out nor one of the forgettable ones.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 791


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Moving pictures, #31

Bit of an odd bunch, this. Nothing from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A few rentals, a couple from my own collection, a charity shop find, and one I found on Amazon Prime and initially thought was bloody awful but found myself enjoying by the end of it.

nebraskaNebraska, Alexander Payne (2013, USA). Bruce Dern is a crotchety old man, not entirely all there, who receives a letter telling him he’s been entered into a draw for $1 million and he thinks it means he’s won the prize. So he heads south to Lincoln, Nebraska, from his home in Billings, Montana… Or rather, he tries to, as he can’t drive. After several attempts to walk south to Lincoln, Dern’s youngest son reluctantly agrees to drive him to collect his “winnings”. The family all know there’s no prize money, but all they can do is humour Dern. En route, the pair stop off in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Dern’s home town. Once his family and old friends discover Dern is rich, they all want a piece of the money. Which doesn’t exist, of course. Dern is great in the lead role, and Will Forte – also responsible for the fucking awful MacGruber – puts in a good turn as his son. But it’s Dern’s film, and he’s more than up to the job. It’s filmed in black and white, which initially feels like an affectation, but soon seems to suit the material. Payne is not a director I especially rate – his previous movies I’ve seen have all been lightweight Hollywood comedies – but Nebraska is actually not bad. Like many films which show working-class white Americans, it demonstrates they can be not very nice people – while also suggesting they’re worse than depicted. The same might be said of working-class Brits, of course; or indeed those of any nation. But there is a particular mix of wilful ignorance and uncritical patriotism which seems characteristic of the white American working-class which is really unpalatable.

ship_of_foolsShip of Fools, Stanley Kramer (1965, USA). A group of assorted characters are crossing the Atlantic just prior to World War II, hoping for Oscars in what they hope might be, in 1965, an Oscar-bait movie. The star-studded cast says so, the weighty themes say so, filmed in black and white says so, the 149 minutes running time says so… In the event, Ship of Fools was nominated for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, but won only for Best Art Direction – Set Direction Black and White and Best Cinematography Black and White. Having now seen the film, I’m not surprised. It’s so full of itself, it’s astonishing the ship didn’t sink the second the director shouted “Action!”. As is the case in most ensemble films, there are a variety of interlocking plots being worked out. They’re supposed to have added weight because the voyage takes place just before the outbreak of WWII and José Ferrer’s character is a straight-up German Nazi. Then there’s the Jew, with the mordant sense of humour, whose misplaced optimism seems somewhat tasteless. And Vivien Leigh was apparently suffering full-blown paranoia, but managed to put in a passable performance. Oskar Werner plays the good German – on the one hand, he’s trying to improve the conditions of the passengers in steerage; on the other, he’s feeding La Condesa’s drug habit. The film was apparently adapted from a 1962 novel by Katharine Anne Porter, who based it on a journey she actually took across the Atlantic in 1931. It took her 22 years to write the book. Porter was apparently disappointed with the film. I’m tempted to try the novel, but I can’t recommend the movie.

faithWinter Light, Ingmar Bergman (1963, Sweden). A married couple live happily in a small Swedish village, and the local vicar is their very good friend. They consult him on all manner of things, and he sets their hearts at rest every time… Of course not. This is a Bergman film. It’s not cheerful. It’s as miserable as the most miserable-looking git caught without an umbrella in a cold and miserable thunderstorm. I don’t think cheerful was in Bergman’s cinematic vocabulary. What Winter Light is, is the study of a married couple who are suffering existential qualms due to China’s development of an atomic bomb, and who are not comforted by their local vicar’s words of reassurance. But then the vicar has his own problems, chief among which is an ex-lover he no longer loves… And then the husband of the couple shoots himself and… I’m reminded to some extent of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, which also has a plot enabled by the threat of atomic bombs (the phrase “atomic bomb” sounds so much better than “nuclear bomb” – the former sounds like a wonder of science, the latter just another war toy). In The Sacrifice, the threat of nuclear war persuades Joseph Erlandsson – a member of Bergman’s stock conmpany at one point – to bargain with God: he will give up everything he owns if the holocaust is averted. It does, of course, somewhat depend on believing in a god. Winter Light plays the same existential game with the implied threat, but rather than apply it to a man’s possessions it makes play with his religious convictions instead. Of the three films in the The Faith Trilogy, I enjoyed The Silence the most, perhaps because it seemed most recognisably experimental in format; but on reflection, I wonder if Winter Light, being a much weightier story, is not the better one. [2]

black_goldBlack Gold, Jean-Jacques Annaud (2011, Qatar). Also known as Day of the Falcon, which is just as vague a title. It’s basically the life of ibn Saud, but with oil as the cause of the war between the two royal houses. The film was panned on release, chiefly because of its casting – Antonio Banderas plays one emir, Mark Strong the other; Frieda Pinto plays the love interest, and Liya Kebede the other major female character. The star, the young prince who becomes an ibn Saud-like leader, is played by Tahar Rahim (which was weird as I’d watched him in A Prophet only a week or so before). Banderas, the sultan of Hobeika, and Strong, the sultan of Salmaah, have just signed a peace treaty, and have agreed to keep the “Yellow Belt” as a buffer zone between their two sultanates (I assumed this is taking place somewhere in Nejd). Salmaah also has to hand over two of his young sons to Hobeika to ensure the peace. (I’m not sure whether Banderas or Strong are sultans or emirs, the two terms seemed to be used interchangably during the film – probably they were ra’ees, usually translated as “ruler”). Anyway, some years later Americans discover oil in the Yellow Belt. Salmaah rejects them, but Hobeika is happy to profit from the “black gold”. But then the elder of Salmaah’s two sons who is living with Hobeika tries to escape and is killed. The younger, Auda, played by Rahim, who is a bookish sort, is sent to his father as peace envoy. His father persuades Auda to help in his plan to conquer Hobeika and shut down the oil wells. Auda must lead a diversionary force into the Yellow Belt, while Salmaah himself leads another force right up to the gates of Hobeika. Except librarian Auda proves to have real tactical genius, and defeats Hobeika’s armoured cars with a force of prisoners on camels. And when he then attacks the Bani Sirri and frees their slaves, he earns the loyalty of all the other desert tribes… And so turns up to Hobeika with an enormous army at his back. There are a few elements here taken from the life of ibn Saud – such as his attack on Riyadh and defeat of the House of Rashid – but the Hijaz is ignored, Mecca is ignored, and the history of oil in Saudi didn’t start until later (see Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and sequels). But despite its fancification of the real history of the interior of the Arabian peninsula (and did the Bedu tribes really dress that colourfully?), and the failure to cast appropriately (Strong at least manages an Arabic accent; Banderas doesn’t even try), I sort of found myself enjoying Black Gold. It was daft, but it was colourful and the references to ibn Saud’s life added an extra dimension.

szamankaSzamanka, Andrzej Żuławski (1996, Poland). Gosh, what to say. There is something about Żuławski’s films which… er, defies explanation. They are completely bonkers, but bonkers in such an emotionally intense and intensely watchable way that’s it’s hard not to feel something for them. The sight of Valérie Kaprisky burning up the screen in La femme publique had burned itself into my memory, and now Iwona Petry, as the (titular) heroine of Szamanka, who throws such an idiosyncratic performance at the screen it’s hard to forget it. She’s a student who rents a flat from an academic, but right from the moment they meet it’s l’amour fou. And it gets more fou as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the acadmic has discovered the well-preserved body of a two-thousand year-old shaman. The historical investigation and the affair become confused, so much so that the academic hallucinates the shaman telling him he was killed by his mistress. And so, as often happens in Żuławski films, the plot echoes the psychological dimension. Petry’s performance treads a fine line between plausible and outright weird, and the fact it works is more down to the tense atmosphere Żuławski manages to keep going for the length of the film – despite the lack of an obvious thriller plot. There are moments when it all feels like OTT posturing… but then something sort of clicks into place, and the film’s trajectory toward its tragic end is once again on course. As with La femme publique, I bought the Mondo Vision special edition DVD, which comes in a fancy box, with included OST CD, booklet and collectible bits and pieces. The presentation suits the material – I can think of many directors who deserve such releases, but Żuławski is certainly on that list. Worth buying. [1]

kingsmanKingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn (2014, UK). A couple of weeks after watching this and I still haven’t decided if this is a clever satire of 007 and other British secret agent movies, or a horrible affirmation of their worst aspects. The title refers to a private intelligence service which cleaves to an image of stereotypical British upper class manhood from about sixty years ago. And then they meet a stereotype of 1990s British working class manhood… But, of course, the establishment eventually assimilates him. En route, we have a dumb plot to kill off 90% of the global population via free SIM cards in their phones (so, er, not really 90% then) as planned by squeamish lisping zillionnaire Samuel L Jackson. Tonally, Kinsgman is all over the place – it can’t decide what values it should be promoting, and as a result ends up saying very little that makes sense. The Bond-ish villain is presented as a spoof without actually being much of a commentary, which renders it toothless as satire. Firth is even stiffer than usual in the lead role, Taron Egerton is forgettable as the everyman bruv, and the supporting cast are more noticeable for who they actually are rather than the parts they’re playing. Kingsman will kill a Satruday evening if accompanied pizza and beer, but it’s never going to make any list celebrating the best of cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 776