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Moving pictures 2016, #6

Cracking on with these…

yeelenYeelen*, Souleymane Cissé (1987, Mali). I had to buy a copy of this as it’s only available on DVD in the US. That seems to be true of a number of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. In fact, the cinema of African nations is poorly represented on DVD in the UK altogether. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad has three titles available out of six; Ousmane Sembène from Senegal also has three out of a dozen; and Souleymane Cissé from Mali has none – to name only three directors. Having now, with Yeelen, seen films by all three of these film-makers, I wish more of them were available. Haroun’s Daratt and Sembène’s Moolaadé are both excellent, but Cissé’s Yeelen is something special. It’s based on a Malian legend, probably from the thirteenth century, and depicts a young man with magical powers as he passes through various kingdoms, pursued by his father. It’s all slightly mad, in a way that makes sense within the story. When the young man, Nianankoro, tells someone they can’t move because of his magic, then they’re frozen. And remain so until he tells them otherwise. I’ve had to buy a number of DVDs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list simply in order to watch them, but not all of them have been keepers. This one, however, definitely is. I loved the world it presented, I loved how well it presented it. Recommended.

road_to_corinthThe Road to Corinth, Claude Chabrol (1967, France). I’ve seen a number of Chabrol’s films, but I don’t think this one is held in especially high regard, even by his fans. It was free on Amazon Prime, which is why I watched it. It wasn’t very good. A magician entering Greece by car is stopped by the police, who search his vehicle… and find a mysterious black box full of electronics. During interrogation, the man admits the box is one of many scattered throughout Greece will jam a NATO radar network; the man then bites on a cyanide pill. Then there are two CIA agents, and when one is killed, his wife investigates his death, despite being told not to by the CIA and the Greek authorities. With the help of the other agent, she figures out where the black boxes are hidden, there’s a showdown with the villain, who gets his just desserts. A particularly charmless thriller: not even the setting could make up for the lacklustre performances and nonsense plot.

demyLady Oscar, Jacques Demy (1979, Japan). Demy obviously liked a bit of variety – Lady Oscar is an historical film set in France, filmed in the UK with an English cast, and based on a Japanese manga. Some mentions of the film claim that Lady Oscar hides her gender, but she is openly a woman, she just dresses like a man and plays a man’s role as body guard to Marie Antoinette. She’s even in a sort of relationship with her childhood friend. But that doesn’t go so well, and they don’t meet again until the Revolution and the assault on the Bastille. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film – it seemed well enough directed, although never quite wholly convincing as the plainly low budget had prevented a serious recreation of the period. The cast were passable in their roles, without standing out. But it all felt a bit, well, uninspired. Like an historical film lacking that certain something to make it spark. I’ll no doubt watch it again at some point, but a first pass didn’t impress.

immortalThe Immortal Story, Orson Welles (1968, France). I didn’t realise until five minutes into this that it was an adaptation of a Karen Blixen story I’d read only a month or so before. Unfortunately, that pretty much spoiled it for me. The story, as the title implies, is quite memorable. A nasty rich man hears a story about a sailor who is approached one day ashore by an old man who tells him that he needs his services and will pay for them. The old man has a young wife but is without an heir. He’d like the sailor to sleep with his wife and hopefully make her pregnant. But the rich man, who is near death, is told by his assistant that the story is an urban myth – every sailor knows a sailor it has happened to. So the rich man decides to make it come true, so at least one sailor can tell the story truthfully. He hires Jeanne Moreau to act as his wife, and then goes looking for a sailor… I really should watch more of Welles’s films – those I’ve seen I’ve thought generally good, and while this is one of his lesser works, his oeuvre is certainly one that few US directors can boast (although commercial success seems to have mostly eluded him, given that his films were made in a variety of countries). Having said that, in this case I think you’d be better off reading the Blixen story (and, to be honest, I’d sooner Welles had adapted ‘The Tempest’, a better story, I thought, than this one).

fassbinder1The American Soldier, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1970, Germany). Not to be confused with Wim Wender’s The American Friend, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith Ripley novel. The American Soldier is an early Fassbinder, filmed in black-and-white, about a man hired by three police officers to kill various villains in the city. Having worked my way through the second volume of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder collection, I’m discovering that’s no real preparation for the first volume. The films in this collection date from 1969 to 1972, when Fassbinder was starting out. On the one hand, they include experimental works which appeal to me – The Nicklashausen Journey, for example – but on the other they also feature early black-and-white films that feel like student works. This one feels too consciously a commentary on US noir films, borrowing their imagery and tropes – and there is, sadly, nothing ironic in appropriating tropes from a popular artform and giving them a local application. Or rather, it might seem like a good idea at the time, and even for a year or two afterwards, but it doesn’t stand the test of time – and while the films from this collection I have so far watched certainly showcase Fassbinder’s excellent eye for cinematic drama, some of his early works could clearly have done with more New German Cinema and less Hollywood plagiarism. Nonetheless, it’s worth picking up both volumes if you’re a cineaste.

londonRobinson in Space, Patrick Keiller (1997, UK). Robinson in Space follows the same pattern as London (see here), with Paul Scofield recounting anecdotes about Robinson as the camera focuses on various part of England. To be honest, I don’t recall what the film is actually about, it’s a bit like listening to that really interesting bloke telling his stories down the pub, but instead of looking at his ugly mug you see the towns and countryside of England. I plan to watch more Keiller, and indeed watch this film again – and I think it bears repeated rewatchings. Like Benning’s films, despite Scofield’s narration, there is so much more there than appears on the screen, and part of the appeal is in figuring out the narrative which accompanies the voiceover and visuals. Having said that, I suspect there is something very personal about one’s reponse to this film – it is about Thatcher’s Britain, and I lived through that period, it affected me directly, and I also saw its effects on others on a daily basis (but then I fled the country, but we won’t mention that). My point being that Robinson in Space felt somewhat academic in criticising Thatcher and her legacy, when I felt it needed to be more visceral. Perhaps it’s Scofield’s voice – he sounds too erudite and, well, comfortable. Surely a film about Thatcher’s Britain should involve pain and misery and deprivation? But now I’m probably projecting and I should move on…

chinese_ghostA Chinese Ghost Story*, Siu-tung Ching (1987, Hong Kong). I thought I’d seen this several years ago, but I think that might have been The Bride with White Hair, which I think I owned many years ago and which is also a Chinese ghost story but isn’t actually titled A Chinese Ghost Story. A young tax collector tries to collect his first debt and discovers his book of records has been ruined by the rain. Without any money, he is forced to spend the night in a haunted temple, where he meets a young woman and falls in love with her. But she’s actually a ghost, and even though he knows this he still goes back to spend another night there. And from that point on, it all gets a bit frantic, with a priest and master swordsman who helps the tax collector, a battle with a powerful tree demoness, lots of zombie-like ghosts, and a promise to bury the young woman’s remains somewhere more auspicious but which urn is hers? This is one of those films that, while enjoyable and perhaps even ground-breaking in its time, seems to struggle to justify its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I mean, I enjoyed it; but I also remember enjoying The Bride with White Hair, which is not on the list.

pret_a_toutPrêt à tout, Nicolas Cuche (2014, France). I’d actually tried watching some Richard Gere thriller on Amazon Prime, something about a Russian assassin long believed dead who kills a senator, so they bring in retired CIA agent Gere to track down the assassin except Gere is the assassin, and this twist is revealed in the first fifteen minutes… So I went looking for something else to watch and stumbled across Prêt à tout. Which proved to be much better. A slacker at college is in love with fellow student Alice, an activist. She, of course, is oblivious. But then the slacker and two of his mates invent a website which they sell for millions of dollars, and they decamp to Thailand to live the lives of the indolent rich. One day the slacker sees Alice on television, leading a strike at the failing powdered drink factory where she works. So the slacker buys the factory, but pretends to be just one of the workers in order to get closer to Alice. It doesn’t go quite as well as intended – she is still oblivious, even after he babysits her young son and the two become fast friends. Then the money runs out… An undemanding rom com, with a couple of likeable leads and a nice socialist spin on the usual rags to riches tale.

adalineThe Age Of Adaline, Lee Toland Krieger (2015, USA). A young woman crashes her car into a freezing lake, but a lightning strike revives her… and stops her from aging. That was in 1937. And throughout the decades following, she has remained twenty-nine years old, changing identities when needed. But at a New Year’s Eve party she meets an old beau, who doesn’t understand why she hasn’t aged… And there are lots of ways this film  could have gone, but it chose to take a good idea and turn it into mush. Which is a shame. It handles the period detail mostly well, the lead is a bit of a blank but I’ve seen worse, there are even a couple of familiar faces knocking about… but it all amounts to nothing since a week later I’ve completely forgotten what it was all about. And that’s despite liking the central premise and wanting to like the film. Hollywood does that to you – it says, here’s a neat idea that would make a good story, and here are some actors you’ve watched in the past and liked… and then you watch the film and you realise you can’t remember any of it. They should score films on that, decide if a film is a classic if someone can remember the plot a week after watching the movie. This one would fail.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 719

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Moving pictures 2016, #5

Still catching up on these…

tere_nammTere Naam, Satish Kaushik (2003, India). After watching Deewaar, I stuck a bunch of Bollywood films on my rental list and the first to arrive was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which I really enjoyed… but the next one, Tere Naam, turned out to be something altogether different. The title means “in your name”, and the story is roughly based on that of Romeo and Juliet. Which makes it pretty dark for for what I’d expected of Bollywood – although the songs are still there, of course. Radhe is a “college rowdy” and head of the Student Union. Nirjara is the daughter of a priest, poor but a Brahmin. Radhe falls in love with Nirjara, but she doesn’t return his feelings. So he kidnaps her and forces her to fall in love with him. But then gangsters beat up Radhe, including repeatedly bashing his head against a railway locomotive’s buffer plate and giving him brain damage. He is consigned to hospital and then an ashram. In one of his infrequent moments of lucidity, he tries to escape but badly injures himself. Nirjara visits him but he is in a coma. So she goes home and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Radhe recovers – the coma has somehow fixed his brain damage – and escapes in order to see Nirjara… but, of course, she is dead. In amongst all this, we have typical Bollywood song and dance routines, the sorts of songs that rush through half a dozen musical genres in five or so minutes. There’s also lots of over-the-top fight scenes, with over-the-top sound effects. I’ve said before that Bollywood is “Hollywood turned up to eleven”, and this is as good an example of that as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It was dark, surprisingly dark, but still fun.

ashes_diamondsAshes & Diamonds*, Andrzej Wajda (1958, Poland). Wajda is one of Poland’s best-known directors but I seem to have missed out on most of his films – although I’ve watched a quite number of Polish directors; and have been a fan of Kieślowski’s work for a decade or more. Ashes & Diamonds is not Wajda’s only film to appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, both Man of Marble and Man of Iron are on there – both of which I’ve seen, and both of which I rate highly. But then the topic of those two films – a Stakhanovite worker, socialism, and the failures of Stalinism – appeals to me, but Ashes & Diamonds is set shortly after WWII and is about the war and its immediate aftermath, a subject I find less interesting. A group of resistance fighters, formed during the war to fight the Russians but still fighting into the 1950s – plan to assassinate a minor government official. The first attempt fails, when they gun down the two occupants of the wrong jeep. so they plan an attack during a celebratory dinner for the official. But one of the assassins falls in love with the barmaid at the hotel where he is staying, and has second thoughts. The other assassin gets pissed with a report, gatecrashes the dinner and causes havoc. The first assassin – who wears sunglasses because he ruined his eyesight during the Warsaw Uprising by spending so much time in the city’s sewers – manages to kill the target but is then chased and gunned down by soldiers. The film is shot in black and white and the damage the war caused is plain to see in every frame. Ashes & Diamonds is generally reckoned to be one of the best films to come out of Poland but, to be honest, I preferred the other two Wajda movies I’ve seen. It all felt a bit too obvious and self-conscious, a bit too similar to the US films which inspired it. But it probably still belongs on the list.

howtoHow To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, David Swift (1967, USA). You know when they take a Broadway musical and put it on the silver screen and use the original cast and the film sinks without trace because no one knows who the stars are… well, that’s probably what happened to this particular film. Who remembers Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee? Admittedly, the female roles were recast for the movie, although it doesn’t appear to have been a springboard to fame for any of them either. The plot follows a window cleaner who uses the advice in the eponymous self-help book to rise up the corporate ladder at the Worldwide Wicket Company (“wicket”, of course, means something completely different outside the US, so was a piss-poor choice of word). The film is meant to be humourous, but it’s hard to find the laughs in a story that not only encourages, but actually celebrates, back-stabbing, character assassination and workplace deception. Even if it does feature songs. None of which are memorable. I’m not sure why I rented this, it’s not like I’m a fan of musical films – although there several I like quite a bit – so perhaps it was because it looked like it might be one of those stylised 1960s technicolour films which can be fun. It wasn’t. Avoid.

wake_in_frightWake in Fright*, Ted Kotcheff (1971, Australia). With a title like Wake in Fright, and that somewhat lurid artwork on the eureka! edition DVD, I think can be forgiven for letting this film slip down the rental list. But eventually it arrived… and proved to be not at all what I’d expected. And very good indeed. A teacher at some godforsaken Outback station heads for Sydney for the Christmas holiday. This requires taking the train to Bundanyabba, a small town, and catching a flight from there. But in Bundanyabba, he falls in with the locals, spends all his money gambling – a game called “two-up”, which entails flipping two coins up in the air from a small wooden paddle – and then goes on a drunken binge which ends up with a group of them haring around the Outback in a ute, pissed as farts, shooting kangaroos. As a chronicle of one man’s descent into drunken depravity and degradation, this is pretty scary stuff. Donald Pleasance plays a good part as the alcoholic doctor the teacher falls in with, and even Chips Rafferty as the jocular local constable successfully exudes macho menace while ostensibly helping the teacher. A good film, worth seeing.

demyModel Shop, Jacques Demy (1969, France). I bought the Intègrale Jacques Demy box set just so I could see films like Model Shop, which weren’t available in UK editions. And while the DVDs in the set are well-presented, I’ve yet to be convinced Demy’s oeuvre was, in total, especially good. He was certainly variable. Model Shop is set in California, with a US cast. and filmed in English, and feels like the product of a US director. A young architect is called up for the Vietnam draft, goes to a model shop (a photographic studio specialising in erotica), spends a night with one of its models, only to find the next morning that his girlfriend has left him and his car has been repossessed. Model Shop is considered one of Demy’s most-underrated movies but to be honest all I can remember of it was that it felt very Californian and surprisingly not much like the Demy films I’d seen up to that point. Still, I have the boxed set so I can always rewatch it…

killing_fieldsThe Killing Fields*, Roland Joffé (1984, UK). I’ve had a copy of the soundtrack of this movies for, well, since its release, as it was composed and performed by Mike Oldfield and I was a Mike Oldfield fan (I suppose I still am, just not to the same level). So I knew the music, but not the film. But I knew mostly what the film was about – which was the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power in Cambodia in the early 1970s. It focuses on a US journalist covering the civil war – played by Sam Waterson of Law & Order fame – and his Cambodian translator/guide/assistant, played by Haing S Ngor. When Khmer Rouge win the war and take power, Pol Pot begins his Year Zero policy. Waterson escapes back to the US, as does Ngor’s family, but Ngor himself is sent to a labour camp – and though Waterson tries to find him, he fails to do so. Fortunately, Ngor escapes and treks through the jungle to the border with Thailand, and is eventually re-united with his family. There’s not much you can say about Pol Pot’s regime – it was brutal, resulted in the death of a quarter of the country’s population, and so corrupted the high ideals which prompted it that those ideals themselves have been tainted by association. Joffé’s film is an efficient telling of the story, but I have to say Oldfield’s soundtrack is really intrusive. I used to like the album, but it felt completely out-of-place as I watched the film. A film that belongs on the list, I think, but not because it’s a great film.

chronicleChronicle of a Summer*, Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch (1961 France). An odd beast, this one. Two film-makers sent out a bunch of students to interview working people about their happiness. Later, they showed the interviewees the film and asked their opinion. And that’s pretty much it. Filmed in black and white, with a 16 mm camera and a prototype portable tape recorder, it’s little more than a series of conversations between people, some prompted by questions – which range from the banal to the pretentious – while those answering try not to appear too stupid but instead come across as pretty typical for the time and place. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it reminds me of Godard films like Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée, which I didn’t especially like or enjoy; and the banality of some of the encounters in Chronicle of a Summer make you wonder why you’re watching it. Meh.

demyLa baie des anges, Jacques Demy (1963, France). I said earlier that Demy’s output was variable – it’s not just the spoken-word versus sung-word films, more that some seem iconic whereas others feel anything but. Lola is an iconic film, with spoken dialogue; Les demoiselles de Rochefort is an iconic film, with sung dialogue. La baie des anges (The Bay of Angels) is just like Lola, a black and white film, starring Jeanne Moreau, which manages to perfectly capture a particular emotion of the time. A young man holidays in Nice, where he spends time gambling in the casinos. There, he meets Moreau, who looks and acts about as early-1960s French cinema as is humanly possible, a gambling addict who hangs around the casino. The two enter into a relationship. She tells him gambling will always come first for her. And so it does. This is a movie that relies style and presentation as much as it does story and, as mentioned earlier, comparisons with Lola are inevitable. And it compares favourably. Lola is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but it’s probably a toss-up between it and La baie des anges as to which should have made the cut.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 717


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Moving pictures, #13

I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…

darlingDarling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.

demoisellesLes Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.

deepseaJames Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…

sokurovSave and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.

spivetThe Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.

thiefofbagdadThe Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.

jeuneJeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m trying to get caught up on these, since I’ve been watching so many films recently – all that bloody sportsing on television. Damn sportsing. Have never understood its appeal.

murderMurder, My Sweet*, Edward Dmytryk (1944, USA). Despite the title, this is pretty much a faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Dick Powell plays Marlowe and he doesn’t look quite rumpled enough to pull it off. Apparently, the studio changed the title from that of the book because they thought audiences might otherwise think it was a musical. Um, yes. The only other adaptation stars Robert Mitchum as Marlowe, and I seem to remember that being a better version than this. Incidentally, I have a lot of time for Chandler’s fiction – and yes, I’ve read this one – but I’ve found most of the movie adaptations disappointing in some way, even the Humph ones.

largo-winchLargo Winch, Jérôme Salle (2008, France). This is what we used to call a “Euro-thriller” – ie, lots of different locations around the world, very glossy production design, plenty of action… and a plot that doesn’t make much sense. It’s adapted from a bande dessinée by Philippe Francq and Jean van Hamme (the latter, incidentally, has written several of the Blake and Mortimer bandes dessinées). The title character is an orphan secretly adopted by billionaire Nerio Winch. Some twenty-eight years later, Nerio is murdered and it triggers a fight for control of his Hong Kong-based company. Largo, meanwhile, has been bumming around the world. He’s arrested in Brazil but manages to escape, and heads to Hong Kong, where he declares himself to the board of directors. Some of them, however, don’t believe him. Handily, Nerio invested his stocks in some sort of bearer bonds, which he then hid. If Largo presents these to the board, then the company is his. Of course, the same is true if anyone else does. And the rival for Largo’s position turns out to be his adoptive brother. Plus there’s a shady rival who wants to buy the Winch corporation… and Largo makes a deal with him to secure his position. It’s all very cosmopolitan, with lots of action and exotic locales, and a plot that sort of lurches about in search of a coherent narrative. But it was also reasonably entertaining, and it didn’t take a pair of steel toe-capped boots to your intelligence, as Hollywood is wont to do.

umbrellasThe Umbrellas Of Cherbourg*, Jacques Demy (1964, France). I really liked Demy’s Lola, and despite knowing that this was a musical – even more, the dialogue is sung throughout – I sort of thought I might like this too. But I didn’t. Oh, it’s French and it’s 1960s and it looks mostly lovely and Catherine Deneuve is eminently watchable in one of the lead roles, but… Maybe it was because I’d watched Les Misérables only a week or so before, but the sung dialogue turned irritating quite quickly, and though the visuals were often quite eye-catching, I sort of lost interest. I think it deserves a rewatch, and given how much I liked Demy’s Lola, there’s a Demy DVD collection that looks quite tempting… except it’s bloody expensive. I shall stick some more Demy on the rental list, and see how I get on with them.

esisensteinAlexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein (1938, USSR). I seem to have ended up with quite a few Eisenstein films, despite not being especially a fan. Several years ago, The Guardian gave away a free DVD each weekend – remember when newspapers used to do that? – and one of them was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Which is considered a classic of cinema. And I picked up a copy of Stachka (AKA Strike) because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… and now I have a box set containing Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible parts 1 and 2. (It’s volume 2, and volume 1 appears to almost impossible to find. Argh.) Anyway, Alexander Nevsky… It’s about the eponymous prince, who led the Russians of Novgorod to victory against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice (which takes place on a frozen lake). It’s a good solid historical epic, with a few more personal story arcs thrown in, but I couldn’t help comparing it to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, and it didn’t wear the comparison especially well. Worth seeing, but I’m a little puzzled by the extremely high regard in which it’s held.

fearoffearFear Of Fear, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). This was a made-for-tv film, and having now seen three or four Fassbinder films I don’t think I could have mistaken it for anything but a Fassbinder film. Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen plays a housewife who becomes addicted to Valium and alcohol following a series of increasingly stronger anxiety attacks. Her husband’s family, who live in the same apartment block, treat her as though she’s not good enough, which only worsens her condition. Eventually, she is committed, whereupon she seemingly recovers. A good, solid family drama, without much that struck me as essentially Fassbinder; but I enjoyed it and I thought Carstensen was especially good in the lead.

jour-de-feteJour de fête, Jacques Tati (1949, France). I have now seen all of Tati’s feature films, and of course I left his first until last. In this one he plays a postman in rural France and the film is a series of set-pieces in which first Tati does his usual round, and then, in the second half, he tries to introduce “American” methods in order to deliver letters faster. There are some excellent gags – in that respect, Jour de fête scores higher than Mon Oncle or Playtime, although it does not have the visual genius of those films – but a number of the set-pieces were recycled from the short L’école des facteurs (1947). Anyway, the Tati box set was an excellent buy, and despite never having watched any Tati before August last year, I can now happily call myself a fan.

giantGiant*, George Stevens (1956, USA). This is one of those films I always thought I’d seen but when I came to watch it very little of it actually proved familiar. It’s the sort of nonsense dynastic family saga the US – and especially Hollywood – likes to tell itself is proper art… especially when it involves oil. It’s not, of course, It’s not even melodrama. They try to throw in some social commentary – in this particular case, a Texan rancher turned oilman (Rock Hudson) discovers all his fellow whites are racist after his son marries a Latina woman. This, of course, comes as no particular surprise to, well, the rest of the planet. Hudson I could watch all night, and I do like films from the fifties, but this was long and not very inventive and all a bit thuddingly obvious from the start. James Dean was a bit rubbish in it, and not at all convincing – but then he’s another actor, like Brando, whose reputation mystifies me.

unbelievableThe Unbelievable Truth*, Hal Hartley (1989, USA). There are several Hal Hartley films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’m not sure why. There are more interesting independent directors – such as John Waters, or John Sayles – but I guess the list-makers are fans of Hartley’s movies. I can’t say I am. I’ve seen two now, and they’ve both been pretty forgettable, certainly not something that’s worthy of the 1001 list. In this one, a man returns home after years in prison for manslaughter. He takes up with a local girl, while rumours after his “crime” grow ever wilder, but his putative girlfriend goes off to be a model in New York. There’s a family crisis, and relationship difficulties and… yawn. Not very interesting.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 571


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Moving pictures, #14

These are the last films I watched during 2014 – or at least, the last films I watched worth noting. One or two you might have heard of. As on previous Moving Pictures posts, asterisked titles are on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list.

josephine-and-menJosephine and Men, Roy Boulting (1955, UK). I bunged this on an order from Amazon as a) it was cheap, b) the write-up sounded interesting, and c) I like 1950s films. Unfortunately, it proved less good than expected. The title character is played by Glynis Johns, who was apparently big in her day but was new to me. She plays the sort of woman who is attracted to men in need – fortunately, she comes from a well-off family, so she doesn’t have to suffer while attaching herself to them. Her first is a struggling playwright who, after marrying her, becomes a commercial success, so they retire to the country. Then an old beau who’s a rich and successful investment-something turns up, and apparently his firm has collapsed owing lots of money and his partner has probably done something fraudulent. So Josephine falls for him and… There’s probably a word for these sort of 1950s Brit rom coms, where everyone is terribly-terribly and the women all wear mink coats and you know the men all went to the best schools. It’s all very frothy and no more representative of this country than any contemporary Hollywood film or indeed a present day Conservative Party political broadcast. A film for a wet Sunday afternoon when you can’t be arsed to switch your brain on.

xmendaysX-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer (2014, USA). From what I’d read, I was expecting a twisty-turny plot that was more twisty and turny than a twisty-turny thing. Not quite up to Primer‘s level, but something a bit like, say, Looper. So my expectations were somewhere around the middle, and yet X-Men: Days of Future Past still failed to meet them. There’s no cunning time-paradox plot. The film opens in a future Earth decimated by the Sentinels, and the surviving X-Men use some magic superpower to send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to prevent the Sentinels from being built. It’s mildly amusing, although perhaps chiefly entertaining for the po-faces pulled by the cast as they speak their ridiculous lines or strut about in their ridiculous costumes. I remember being really impressed with the first X-Men film when I saw it. I’d always had a fondness for the group and used to buy the comic as a kid. (I did try later rereading the Dark Phoenix Saga – I shouldn’t have done. It was shit. Don’t piss on your childhood heroes, keep them safely dry under rose-tinted glass.) Anyway, X-Men: Days of Future Past was I suppose entertaining, but this superhero movie thing, it’s all getting very silly now and I think it should stop.

lastdaysonmarsThe Last Days on Mars, Ruairi Robinson (2013, UK). I sort of feel a very tiny sense of ownership of Mars since I’ve written a novella and several short stories set on the planet’s surface, and I researched them all thoroughly… But seriously, having researched Mars, I’m somewhat sensitive to attempts to portray it realistically – and there have been several attempts. Sort of. Who remembers Red Planet and Mission to Mars? The Last Days on Mars makes a reasonable effort to depict the Martian surface – it was filmed in Jordan, apparently – but the plot is your usual sci-fi cinema nonsense. One of the scientists disobeys orders to go on one last survey – why are astronauts and scientists in films so unprofessional? Seriously, no one’s going to spend billions of dollars putting some maverick prick into space or on another planet. Anyway, said scientist discovers a weird hole in the ground, falls in and gets contaminated by some alien gunk that turns him into a zombie. And it’s contagious! And it’s zombies on Mars! And that’s it!

Les-DiaboliquesLes Diaboliques*, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954, France). The only reason I watched this was because it’s on the 1001 Movies To Watch Before You Die list, but it’s one of those films which proves the worth of such lists. I’d seen another Clouzot earlier in the year, Wages of Fear, which I’d thought good if somewhat over-shadowed by later uses of the same formula. But when I shoved Les Diaboliques into the DVD player, I knew nothing about it. The title promised… Well, pretty much like Wages of Fear, the title promised a different story to that which unfolded as the film progressed. An abused wife of a schoolmaster gets her revenge, with the her husband’s mistress, also a teacher at the school. They drown him in a bath-tub, then roll his body into the school swimming-pool so it looks like an accident, but the body is never discovered… Casting his actual death into doubt. It’s all very cleverly done, but I did think it took a while to get going.

Space-Station-76-2014-R2Space Station 76, Jack Plotnick (2014, USA). A person of my acquaintance encouraged me on Twitter to watch this film by telling me how bad it was, because they quite clearly knew I’d be unable to resist it from their description. In actual fact, it wasn’t quite as bad as advertised, it was just mostly very dull. I can see how someone might have thought the central premise – it’s set on a space station! but like a space station from a bad 1970s sci-fi show! – might have sounded awesome for about, oh, a nanosecond or so. But really, this film should never have been green-lit. I’m having trouble remembering the actual story – in fact, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. Some of the jokes, piss-takes of 1970s sensibilities, were either not funny or borderline offensive. Like the gratuitous nude woman who appears a couple of times. She’s a hallucination by one of the male characters and serves no purpose in the plot. It was all a bit like an episode of one of those 1970s science fiction television shows, where you look away for five minutes, look back and it’s like you never looked away at all except it’s just struck you that you no longer give a fuck what’s happening.

lolaLola*, Jacques Demy (1961, France). I think this is the first Demy I’ve ever watched. When this movie opens with a big American convertible driving around the streets of a French port, the first thing it put me in mind of was Aki Kaurismäki. But then it sort of turns into a Nouvelle Vague drama, with a US sailor who falls for the eponymous singer/dancer in a bar – which looked a bit too wholesome and clean, to be honest – but Lola is still pining for her previous boyfriend, who left seven years before to make his fortune. There’s also an ingenu, who knew Lola as a teenager and bumps into her in the bar where she works. There are one or two musical numbers, which are cleverly integrated into the story. It’s all very charming and not what I was expecting. There was a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism, to Lola, which contrasted well with the various concerns of the supporting cast. By the time the film had finished, I’d decided I’d like to see more films’by Demy… but, of course, only two or three of them are available in the UK. Typical.

element_of_crimeEuropa, Lars von Trier (1991, Denmark). This is the third film in the E-Trilogy box set and it’s so much better than the first, Element of Crime (see here). An American, played by Jean-Marc Barr, visits Germany just after the end of WWII, and gets a job as a sleeping car attendant with the Zentropa train line. (Von Trier later named his production company for the train line.) Germany at this time is suffering due to a crashed economy, blasted infrastructure, demoralised population, heavy-handed and brutal occupiers, pogroms against anyone with Nazi connections, and a group of resistance fighters known as Werewolves. Barr gets involved with the daughter of Zentropa’s owner, and through her becomes embroiled in a plot by the Werewolves to bomb the train on which a new mayor is travelling to his town. Europa consciously mimics the old pulps – and it’s especially interesting comparing it to Kerry Conran’s un fairly-maligned Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow. Europa is B&W, and often superimposes characters and action against blown-up backdrops, something pulp serials often did. Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, on the other hand, was filmed in colour, and used that back-screen technique less. The later film’s plot, however, better suits pulp cinema techniques than does the post-war noir of Europa. So far, I seem to hate one von Trier film and then like the next. Europa definitely falls in the “like” column.

transcendenceTranscendence, Wally Pfister (2014, USA). Johnny Depp is like top of the field in AI research, but he’s sort of at odds with everyone else because, er, because no one in the film actually seems to know what AI is. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer and he hasn’t gone long to live, so he records his consciousness, and his wife and best friend/colleague upload him into his superfast quantum computer. And that sort of gives him god-like powers, not to mention overweening arrogance. And yes, it all pretty much plays out how you’d expect. Actually, bits of this film I liked. I thought the attempt at utopia versus AI-led autocracy made for an interesting story, which, of course, rapidly devolved into a shoot ’em up, but never mind. Depp never really convinced in the, er, title role, but to be honest there’s only a handful of films where he has done – which doesn’t actually make him either a bad actor or one that isn’t entertaining to watch. Transcendence wasn’t anywhere near as smart as it liked to think it was, and while it looked pretty in places, it was still as shiny and glossy and plastic as any Hollywood product. Meh.

realmofsensesIn The Realm of The Senses*, Nagisa Oshima (1976, Japan). This is perhaps chiefly famous for being, well, pornographic. And it is, it really is. I was expecting something typically 18-rated (if that rating still exists), plenty of artfully-framed sex scenes that reveal little but suggest plenty; but it’s not, it’s outright porn. The plot is based on a true story, about a maid at hotel in 1930s Tokyo who enters into an affair with the hotel’s owner.’The affair soon turns obsessive, before eventually ending badly with some consensual, er, bondage. To be honest, I found it all a bit slow and not every engaging. Despite being a period piece, it felt somewhat 1970s. The characters felt a bit flatly drawn and the scenery all looked a little washed out. I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – honest! – but at least now I can cross it off.

athrowofthediceA Throw Of Dice*, Franz Osten (1929, Germany/India). Apparently, in the 1920s and 1930s, Osten made 19 silent films in India – although he was arrested in 1939 as a Nazi and held until the end of the war. Many of his films were based on stories from the Mahabharata, with an Indian cast but mostly German crew. A Throw Of Dice tells the story of two kings who want to marry the same woman. They gamble for her hand, evil king wins, good king becomes his slave. To be honest, I don’t recall a great deal from this film – it’s been a few weeks since I watched it. It’s not especially long for a silent film, and the intertitles were neither too intrusive nor too opaque. It all looked very good, although a hunting scene I recall being a little, er, over-acted. But I’m glad I watched it. I’d watch more by Osten.

guardiansGuardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn (2014, USA). I have a soft spot for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Back in the 1970s, I used to buy the occasional Marvel comic, and when they weren’t X-Men ones, they were usually the anthology UK reprints which included Guardians of the Galaxy. And I quite liked the Guardians – I liked that they were actually science fiction, I thought Star Hawk an interesting character, I liked Vance Astro… Of course, this movie is based on the rebooted Guardians from the mini-series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the early 2000s, although Disney have made a number of changes to the property. Cosmo the telepathic dog is out, although he does make a cameo, Knowhere is not their headquarters but some clichéd lawless frontier place, and the Guardians aren’t actually the Guardians but a group of roguish criminal misfits who sort of band together in adversity and become the Guardians. Which is just fucking nonsense. It would be a bit like the Kray Twins being made police commissioners. It only happens in stupid films. And, er, comics. But the film… It all felt a bit formulaic. New character, quick give us the back-history! There were huge indigestible chunks of exposition. Not to mention lots of things that made no logical sense. A galactic prison. And guards who wander among the prison population carrying powerful firearms. And the watch-tower can sort of detach and turn into a spaceship… except there’s no way out for it to go except the normal entrance. And, of course, prisons normally park inmates’ vehicles in their own parking lot, don’t they. And… why bother? Guardians of the Galaxy was a text-book script-writing in parts, narrative tools that really need to be retired in others, and the usual Hollywood nonsense when it came to world-building or logical story progression. Whatever they’re teaching scriptwriters these days, it’s complete bollocks.

snakepitThe Snake Pit*, Anatole Litvak (1948, USA). The title refers to a ward at a mental institution to which Olivia de Havilland is sectioned (although I don’t think they use that term in the US). De Havilland does legitimately suffer from a mental illness, and a sympathetic doctor eventually uses regression therapy to figure out the event which led to her condition. Which is not to say, of course, that all such conditions are the result of past trauma. The institution was a pretty uncivilised place, with the inmates either treated like criminals or wild animals, most of the staff were stuffed shirts, although the nice doctor and the husband were sympathetic. De Havilland screamed a lot, and it all seemed a bit overwrought in places – but I actually thought it much better than I’d expected. And one scene where de Havilland is interviewed by the staff to see if she’s ready to leave, but a doctor’s wagging finger sets her off, was done well. I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movie list, but I’m glad I watched it.