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Moving pictures 2017, #53

I’m still trying to catch up on my Moving pictures posts. There have been a couple of weeks where I’ve watched as many as three movies in a single night.

Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse (1969, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz is I think a great film. Sweet Charity, his first movie behind the camera, flopped – and it’s not hard to see why. Shirley Maclaine plays an innocent in New York, a young woman who works as a hostess at a dance hall and has had a string of a bad boyfriends – the films opens with her latest pushing her off a bridge in Central Park and stealing all her money. In an effort to better herself, she visits an employment agency, but has no skills or qualifications. She ends up trapped in the lift on her way down with a claustrophobe, who then proves so taken with her he woos her. She’s never had a normal boyfriend before, so she revels in his courting. And even accepts his offer of marriage. But when he discovers what she does for a living, he jilts her. This is a Fosse movie, so it’s all about the musical numbers, and most of them are pretty good. Sammy Davis Jr as evangelist Big Daddy is definitely memorable. I hadn’t known ‘(Hey) Big Spender’ came from this musical, and Fosse’s version is a prime example of repressed, well, something. Not a great film, but certainly a Fosse film.

Their Finest, Lone Scherfig (2016, UK). I’d seen this advertised on the sides of buses and trams for months, so when I saw a copy of it in a charity shop I thought it might be worth a go despite not expecting much of it. Another jingoistic pre-Brexit comedy, I thought, using WWII and the Blitz to sway public opinion, as if the two situations in anyway map onto each other. But I was wrong on several counts. It’s not a comedy. And while it takes place during WWII and is about Dunkirk, it’s very clear on the differences between the reality and the political narrative. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to write “slop” (women’s dialogue, as the misogynistic screenwriter calls it) for a film unit put together to produce uplifting films for the British public. Her first project is the story of twin sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to take part in the Dunirk rescue. Except they didn’t. The boat broke down. But Arteron lies, and the project gets the greenlight… and Their Finest turns into a pitch-perfect depiction of film-making in the 1940s, given it all felt very Archers. I’d been expecting some horrible Richard Curtis rom com set during the Blitz, but this was a little gem of a film. It’s by no means the comedy it has been sold as, but instead a solid drama of WWII – more like that Berkof drama than the comparisons its marketing was keen to draw. I liked it. Worth seeing.

Law of the Border, Ömer Lütfi Akad (1966, Turkey). I bought the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. But it proved an excellent box set, so when a second volume was released I immediately bought it. Like the first, it’s a varied mix, not all of which I’d heard of before. Like this Turkish film which is as old as I am. It apparently had a profound affect on Turkish cinema, with its mix of pseudo-western action and sociopolitical commentary. It’s set in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border, and many of the villagers survive by smuggling things across the border. But the authorities have put down new minefields, and now the border is virtually impenetrable. Then a new police lieutenant arrives in town, and a young and attrative schoolteacher persuades the village to open a school. Meanwhile, one of the local farmers has found himself with a flock of 3,000 sheep trapped on the wrong side of the border. So he tries to get master smuggler Hidir to bring the sheep across. But Hidir’s father died in the border minefield and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him. So he tries to accept the new order – sharecropping the local landowner’s fields. But that flock of sheep still presents quick riches to anyone who can get them across the border… Law of the Border was apparently pretty much lost – only a single copy survived Turkey’s 1980 coup, and it was in a parlous state. But not it has been restored – although only to the best that could be done given the state of the surviving negative. The film has its charm – it does that declamatory thing so many sociopolitical dramas do, and that I like. But it also wears its western inspiration on its sleeve, and there are lots of shoot-outs. Which does tend to make the last third of the film a bit busy. Hidir’s not exactly well-drawn either, and his character arc is a bit muddled. But for a 51-year-olf film from Turkey, it holds up pretty well.

Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavan (2007, India). Five men invest large sums of money in a scheme which will double their money in a handful of days. It’s never directly said what the deal is, but it’s probably drugs. One of the five, Shiva, the biggest and strongest of the five, will take the train from Mumbai to Kolkata with the money, collect the goods, and then return with them. But Vikram has other ideas. He sets up an alibi, and then attempts to rob Shiva on the train – but it goes horribly wrong and he ends up killing Shiva. And that’s how it goes. As each member of the five discovers the truth, so Vikram is forced to kill them in order to protect himself. Except for the detective investigating the whole thing on behalf of the leader of syndicate, who is murdered by someone else in an act of self-defence. It’s all very cleverly done, and while Vikram was obviously a bad sort right from the start – and his opening murder, meaning the rest of the film was flashback, seemed a forced start, it did leave a mystery right to the end that provided quite satisfying. This was an entertaining comedy/thriller. As far as I’m concerned, modern Bollywood needs to get equal rating in my watching with modern Hollywood – although I do need to watch more classical Bollywood, having loved Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam and everything by Guru Dutt – and I shall adjust my rental list accordingly.

The Crimson Pirate, Robert Siodmak (1952, USA). You can blame Hal Duncan for this one. There was a discussion on Twitter about best pirate movies and he insisted this was the one. So I bunged it on my rental list, and they actually sent it a week later. And… I’m prepared to entertain it as a candidate. I’m not an expert on pirate films by any means, and the high point of Hollywood swashbuckling to my mind is probably The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is, er, not a pirate film… But The Crimson Pirate is certainly a viable candidate. I’m not entirely convinced – it tries to be clever, by introducing anachronistic technology, which is indeed amusing, but it gets it wrong, which kind of spoils the intended effect. And Burt Lancaster in the title role is a just way too much a goody two shoes to convince as a pirate in the first place. His bo’sun, a dour Brit, is great. Nick Cravat, as Lancaster’s silent sidekick, provides some excellent physical comedy. But the villains are paper-thin clichés, and the grand finale is a triumph of spectacle over plausibility. A hot air balloon that goes where directed? Yeah, right. Bonus points for getting the ballast thing right, but in a balloon you’re pretty much in the hands of the wind. Best pirate movie? Not convinced. On the other hand, I can’t think of any reasonable candidates for the top spot.

Céline and Julia Go Boating*, Jacques Rivette (1974, France). Rivette is a singular talent. When a limited edition box set (3,000 copies) of some of his films came out last year, I bought it – back in January 2016. I notice it’s still available. It’s worth buying. Céline and Julie Go Boating is one of his best-known films, but the title is a complete misnomer. It’s a literal transalation ofthe French title, which is better translated as “get caught in a shaggy dog story”. Um, yes. The original phrase has no such connotations in English. Which is unfortunate, because the film is all about two young women who find themselves in a story and discover they can affect its narrative. Julie is sitting in a park reading a park when Céline wanders past and inadvertently drops her sunglasses. So Julie picks up the sunglasses and follows Céline, with the intent of returning them… which turns into a weird sort of voyeurism into her life… before the two end up sharing an apartment… At which point the story jumps the rails when the two visit an abandoned house in which Céline once worked as a nanny… and they find themselves in the house’s past, but able to change what happened… Which they subsequently set out to do. This is where the title is of relevance. I like Rivette’s films. I’ve no idea what they’re about, but I find much in them that is appealing. I bought the aforementioned box set, and it was a worthwhile purchase. I suspect I may end up getting my own copy of Céline and Julia Go Boating. I’ve a feeling the movie requires a few more watchings…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 882

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Moving pictures, #50

Another odd selection this time around. None, sadly, from the 1001 Movies list, not even the Disney.

kingdom_bothThe Kingdom II, Lars von Trier (1997, Denmark). The Kingdom is a great piece of television (the original Danish version, of course; I’ve not seen the US remake), and though it was about as subtle as a punch in the face it worked really well (that’s part of von Trier’s genius, of course: punching you in the face and making you wonder why you never saw the punch coming). The title refers to Copenhagen’s most prestigious hospital, which was built on a bleaching pond and is haunted by the people who died in it. The first series revolved an old woman who refused to be discharged because she was in contact with a ghost, and needed to save the hospital from malicious ghosts. There was also a pathologist who wanted to research a patient’s cancerous liver, but could not get permission to do so from the patient’s family… so ends up having the liver transplanted into him temporarily after the patient’s death but it goes wrong and he ends up stuck with it. And there was a Swedish consultant who hated all the Danes in the hospital, and in fact the entire country. The Kingdom II is pretty much more of the same. One of the first series’ weirder plot threads was a pregnant doctor whose embryo grew at fantastic speed (and was apparently a reincarnation of one of the hospital’s ghosts), but the foetus was taken over by an evil spirit… who turned out to be Udo Kier. And in series 2, the baby has grown bigger and bigger and is now some weird human giant creature. The’Swedish consultant is back, and just as obnoxious as ever – although a seeming change of heart doesn’t last long. And there are weird ghosts and even weirder ways of dealing with them. The Kingdom II doesn’t quite have the shine of the first series, perhaps because the first series seemed genuinely weird and comparisons between the two are inevitable. There’s no rule that says sequels are always inferior – indeed, there are some that are superior to their predecessor. The Kingdom II doesn’t match the heights of The Kingdom, but it’s still worth seeing.

dads_armyDad’s Army, Oliver Parker (2016, UK). Sometimes, everything in a movie is understandable except the reason why it was made. This film is a case in point. Did we really need a new version of Dad’s Army, given that the television series regularly pops up on television? Obviously, we need to show the world that the UK is really a very pleasant and admirable country, full of tea and jam and bumbling old soldiers and everyone pulls together and we’re still the upright hardy folk who saw off the Nazis – although if you’re a dirty foreigner we apparently don’t want you, at least that’s the message coming out of the Conservative Conference, who seemed to have actually turned into the Nazis. Oops. But, I hear you say, it’s only a comedy, a remake of a much-loved sitcom from forty years ago. And why shouldn’t the British film industry recycle its past successes, since Hollywood seems to do it all the time? But, you know, just because Hollywood does it, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And no matter how polished this version of Dad’s Army is, or how polished its cast (there’s some serious thesping chops in there), and one or two of the jokes might evince a smile and perhaps even a chuckle or two, it’s still peddling the same old Little England shit, the land of jam and scones and those old Routemasters and and everything so fucking quaint. Which is total bullshit. And it’s one thing to see Angela Lansbury turning up and causing murder in Ye Olde Englande, another to spend millions of Pounds Sterling advertising the same lie in a pathetic globally-distributed comedy movie, and even worse for a government to base their entire policy for their term in office on the same shameful xenophobic bullshit.

one_moneyOne for the Money, Julie Ann Robinson (2012, USA). I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD and it looked like it was worth watching, so I stuck it on my rental list. It’s an adaptation of a Janet Evanovich novel, which is probably why it feels a bit like an Elmore Leonard film (not that she copies his style, just that they both write comedy crime/thriller novels). Katherine Heigl plays a young woman in need of cash who becomes a bail bond agent to earn some money. And the big fish she plans to land is a cop on the run, who’s wanted for murder, and who she dated in high school. Of course, he’s innocent – it’s why he did a runner, so he could prove his innocence. Of course. And her fruitless attempts to take him into custody help flush out the villains who stitched him up, so it sorts of turns into a buddy cop movie, with that extra frisson of will-they-won’t-they romance (of course they will, have you ever known them not to?). It’s a smart sassy thiller, with more sass than smarts (in film-land, a “smart” film is one that’s not irredeemably dumb… which I guess limits it to about 5% of Hollywood’s output then…). I enjoyed this film… but not enough to want to read the novel it was adapted from, despite being a big fan of Sara Paretsky and enjoying crime novels featuring female leads.

q_planesQ Planes, Tim Whelan & Arthur B Woods (1939, UK). This was an odd film – a comedy-thriller – a “mighty spy thriller” indeed – starring Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier, about agents from an unnamed country, where everyone speaks with German accents, trying to steal British aircraft-engine technology by using some sort of science-fictional ray to blow up the planes’ radios and cause their engines to stop working. But it’s not Germany. Honest. Richardson plays the eccentric head of the intelligence services – who allows himself to be arrested in the opening scenes for apparently murdering someone – and Olivier is a somewhat earnest test pilot who doesn’t get the good flights because he’s mouthy and unapologetic and usually right. And there’s Valerie Hobson, who plays Richardson’s sister, she’s a journalist working undercover at the aircraft factory who helps unravel the conspiracy despite publishing everything she learns on the front page of her newspaper. Oh, and Richardson’s girlfriend, who keeps on ringing up to arrange dates but he never manages to make them, and when they finally get together she admits she’s married someone else. Very odd. But weirdly entertaining. It was pretty much complete nonsense from start to finish – and, surprisingly, Olivier and Richardson didn’t over-power their roles (well, okay, maybe Richardson did; but he did it well), although to be fair Hobson was probably the best of the three. Worth seeing.

make_mine_musicMake Mine Music, Kinney, Geronimi, Luske, Meador & Cormack (1946, USA). This is one of six “package films” Disney made during WWII to keep its feature film division active despite the loss of personnel to the armed services. It’s basically a series of unrelated cartoons strung together, each of which was inspired by a piece of music. Make Mine Music has ten segments, opening with a joke song about two hillbilly families, then covers, among others, ‘Peter and the Wolf’, a couple of Benny Goodman pieces, a story about two romantic, er, hats, and a tale of an opera-singing, er, sperm whale. Bits and pieces of the film have appeared over the decades as discrete cartoons, either released independently or as part of  a television programme. It was… fun. Some of the anmiation was particularly good, reminding me of Sleeping Beauty, some was more like you’d expect to find in a five-minute Disney cartoon. I’m glad I watched it, and I did enjoy it, but I doubt I’ll be rushing out to buy my own copy on DVD…

rivetteNoroît, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). Twice now I’ve watched this and I still can’t make head nor tail of it. It opens with Geraldine Chapman weeping over the dead body of her brother on a beach. He was killed by pirates who inhabit a nearby castle. But they don’t look like your average pirates, as they seem to prefer wearing flares and sequinned waistcoats. The pirates are also mostly women, and it all feels a bit Shakespearean, particularly a Shakespeare play that has been “modernised” to the, er, 1970s. It even quotes from ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ – “it is the Judas of the hours, wherein honest salvation is betray’d to sin” – so not quite the Bard, but certainly around his time. (I’m not sure if the plot of Noroît maps onto that of ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’.) There’s still something odd about the films in this box set, they feel like polished rehearsals of incomplete plays – despite the windswept castle at which most of the action in Noroît takes place, despite the often lovely landscape photography, Noroît still feels like it’s on a stage…. and that’s right from the start, when the film opens with Chapman raging over the dead body of her brother on a beach. The various staged fights only increase the likeness. Of course, it doesn’t help that the cast also put on a play for the pirate leader. A movie staged like a play is hardly unusual – there’s even a movie of a “black box” play, von Trier’s Dogville – but Rivette’s movies, the three from this box set I’ve seen so far, don’t feel like they were deliberately filmed to resembled stage plays. It makes for a weird disconnect, which means the films require quite a bit of concentration to follow. And that at least means the box set wasn’t a wasted purchase, as I’ll be rewatching the movies in it several times…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 805


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Moving pictures, #46

Yet more movies… All but one are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but two of them I’d seen previously.

solarisSolaris*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972, Russia). I first saw Solaris back in the early 1980s when I was at school. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was on, I think, BBC2, and the junior common room had a single television set but I somehow managed to persuade a half a dozen of my fourteen-year-old peers to sit and watch three hours of Russian sf film. Whatever leadership qualities I had then which allowed me to manage that have long since gone. But I’ve treasured Solaris ever since. In fact, it was one of a handful of films I was determined to own once DVDs appeared on the market (I never liked VHS, and refused to buy videocassettes). I’ve watched it few times since buying it on DVD back in 2002, but this most recent rewatch was triggered by upgrading my copy to Blu-ray. And I still love the film, although it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky. Despite the odd moment which is wildly implausible – such as when Kelvin’s launches Hari in an escape rocket from the station, and Kelvin survives being in the same chamber as the launch – the entire film looks astonishingly believable. There’s something about the production design (rocket launch notwithstanding) that makes the space station look like a real place. The story is loosely based on Lem’s novel of the same title, so loosely Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation; but, to be frank, when having someone of the calibre of Tarkovsky adapting a work it seems churlish to complain it’s not especially faithful. And it’s true the film does mostly ignore the Solaris organism, which is the focus of the book, and instead spends its time documenting the effects of the organisms on the scientists aboard the space station. But it looks gorgeous, and even the moments of black and white – Tarkovsky ran out of colour film stock – seem to fit in with the overall look and feel of the movie. Solaris works so well because it doesn’t do the science-ficiton thing and focus on the novum, the Solaris organism, as the book does, but focuses instead on Kelvin’s relationship with Hari. In the book, the Solaris organism manifests fantastical cathedral-like islands; in the film, it manifests a single enigmatic woman from Kelvin’s past. I know which story I prefer.

deer_hunterThe Deer Hunter*, Michael Cimino (1978, USA). I’d seen this many years ago, but other than it being about Vietnam, and containing a scene featuring Russian roulette, remembered pretty much nothing of it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Because, to be honest, I thought The Deer Hunter merely okay. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are two of a group of steel workers who regularly go hunting in the mountains and generally behave like swaggering macho working-class Americans. And then they sign up to fight in Vietnam and, well, there are a million films about that, in fact until 9/11 it pretty much defined a big part of the US psyche… But things don’t go well in Vietnam and they’re captured together – in one of those coincidences that plots require – and tortured by the Viet Cong… before escaping. But all of them have been damaged by their Vietnam experiences. Well, all except De Niro. Although perhaps he is, as he can no longer no shoot defenceless deers when hunting. Christopher Walken forgets who he is and begins playing Russian roulette for money… and winning. John Savage loses both legs and the use of an arm, and ends up in a VA hospital. I can see how at the time this movie took a number of chances, and they paid off. But from forty years later, there’s little in it to impress all that much. It concerns a topic which is the hangup of a nation that is not my own and a generation which is not my own. I have to judge it as a film and only that. There is no baggage. And in that respect, it has its moments – Cimino’s ambition is plain, and it mostly pays off; but the characters are thinly-drawn and there’s too much reliance on the cast to bring them to life (some, notoriously, weren’t even scripted but had to improvise). It’s a good cast, of course, and they mostly went on to greater things – but this is early in their careers. The Vietnam scenes do not compare well with those in other films (my only comparison, of course), and there’s little subtlety in the war’s effects on the characters. I’m in two minds whether this belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There are better Vietnam War films, there are better war films… but it captures something – even if it’s only its director’s ambition – that might be worth preserving.

all_quietAll Quiet on the Western Front*, Lewis Milestone (1930, USA). The most surprising thing about this film, I guess, is that it’s a US film with US actors who play Germans fighting for Germany during World War I. Has Hollywood ever made a movie about Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS soldiers? I don’t think so – at least not where they’re playing the heroes (and we’ll nip the “good Nazi” discussion in the bud right now, thank you very much). All Quiet on the Western Front is essentially a “war is hell” story, and it happens to be written by a German and set during WWI. Which clearly wasn’t seen as a commercial obstacle by Hollywood – although, to be fair, Hitler didn’t seize control of Germany until 1931, but surely it was obvious what was going on in Germany at the time (for a start, half of Britain’s aristocracy were supporting Hitler by then). Despite all that, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly unexciting war film, if that doesn’t sound odd. What I mean is, it doesn’t offer any astonishing insights – perhaps it did in 1930, although I find it hard to believe; perhaps it did in 1928 when Remarque’s novel was first published in the Vossische Zeitung, although given the effects of WWI on the German population away from the Front (especially given the blockade by the British Grand Fleet), so maybe not… True, it humanises the enemy of WWI, and that may have been something new to US audiences, which I guess makes it anti-propaganda and not something which Hollywood normally does. And, after all that, the trench warfare it depicts seems a little sanitised compared to the reality as documented, or indeed in later films set during the war.

rivetteDuelle, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still no clearer as to what it’s about. There are apparently two women, the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun, and they fight a magical battle in mid-1970s Paris over a magical diamond. I tweeted while watching this that in most films there’s always a sense the director is playing to the gallery, but that sense was completely absent from Duelle (as indeed it was in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round too). You feel like a Peeping Tom, watching something without knowing the context. I was, I admit, beguiled by the “limited edition” status of the collection in which this appears, and having been impressed by La belle noiseuse; but two films in and I’m beginning to question my purchase. It’s not that Duelle is a bad film – it’s not, it’s well-shot and well-acted… but, well, it’s a bit like watching someone’s home movie (with extremely high production values, that is). If the synopsis given on Wikipedia is the story Rivette thought he was telling, the film is a little too confused for it to stand as a description of its plot. I quite liked Merry-Go-Round‘s inability to resolve itself – it was very L’Avventura, and I admire Antonioni’s film, and indeed his oeuvre. But Duelle often feels like assorted episodes from an incomplete series. I’m going to have to watch it again, I think; but I’m convinced I’ll never make real sense of it.

gospelThe Gospel According to Matthew*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964, Italy). I was looking for something on Amazon Prime to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and stumbled across this, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t quite the easy watching I was hoping for, but never mind. It’s a pretty much straight-up telling of the eponymous gospel, its southern Italy locations making a good fist of standing in for Biblical Palestine. I’m not entirely sure why the film exists, to be honest. It’s not a new spin on the gospel, and as commentary it’s remarkably thin. The neorealist style works well with the material, but we’re still talking about a 2000-year-old fantasy that a substantial portion of the world’s population think is historical fact. Here are a few facts: Jesus was Jewish; he spoke Aramaic; Jesus is not an Aramaic name, so he can’t have been called that; he probably wasn’t born in Nazareth either, because there’s no archaeological evidence the town existed before the third century CE. But then Pasolini’s film tells it as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel, which was written at least two generations after the Crucifixion, and has undoubtedly been rewritten many times since. But that’s the source material, this is the film. And it, well, it tells a story, and it does it well. But the source material is always going to overshadow it, and while I salute Pasolini’s bravery in tackling it, and I admire the understated way he told the story, it does all feel a bit unnecessary. Does it belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list? I honestly don’t know.

haxanHäxan*, Benjamin Christensen (1922, Sweden). Um, I could perhaps have better planned my viewing… to go from saying I have no interest in a movie about Christ straight into one about Satan and witchcraft… Especially when Häxan proved well-made and fascinating. I’ve no idea what prompted Christensen to make it – surely Sweden in the 1920s wasn’t that bad a place? Häxan opens with a history of witchcraft, before then illustrating that history with a series of re-enactments. One part involves the trial of an old woman for witchcraft, and the final part of the film attempts to give modern explanations to behaviour classed in less enlightened times as witchcraft. And this is in a film made in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. Silent movies were very much a thing of the past when I was born. And, I suppose, I inherited the general response to them that my generation had – sound was better, so why bother watching silent films? Of course, I’ve seen quite a number of them since then. Indeed, I’ve become a fan of Murnau’s films, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a bona fide classic, as is Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, not to mention Ponting’s The Great White Silence, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Dovzhenko’s Zemlya. Okay, I’m not a big fan of the Keystone Cops, and while I’ll happily watch Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel & Hardy, they’re pretty much watch-once-and-enjoy experiences; and that’s even true of early Hitchcock… but there are silent films – and I don’t just mean Metropolis – that every cinephile should have in their collection… and yes, Häxan is probably one of them. Happily, there’s a good edition from Tartan readily available in the UK.


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Moving pictures, #44

More viewing, only one from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list this time, and it’s an American film… although, once again, half of the films below are from the US. I need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch.

idahoMy Own Private Idaho*, Gus Van Sant (1991, USA). The only thing I knew about Gus Van Sant prior to deciding to work my way through the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list was that he’d made a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Which sounds like an interesting exercise, except, well, that’s pretty much what a play is, the same story with a different cast. And since I’d seen Hitchock’s film a number of times and was familiar with it, Van Sant’s experiment proved even more disappointing. Van Sant’s most-famous film, however, is My Own Private Idaho, which, okay, I may have heard of before, but knew nothing about. And it turns it’s about a pair of street hustlers, played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, except Phoenix has narcolepsy, and Reeves’s father is rich and the mayor of Portland. Oh, and the story is roughly based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays… which is fine as far as it goes, but when Van Sant starts using Shakespeare’s dialogue it really doesn’t work. Having Reeves call the Falstaff figure, Bob Pigeon, “a horseback-breaker, a mountainous tub of lard”, just sounds really silly in 1990s Oregon. In fact, it’s the Shakespeare-isms which spoil My Own Private Idaho. Okay, so Reeves’s character is not entirely believable (make him actual royalty, though, as Shakespeare did, and it weirdly seems okay), although it does make for an effective ending. But it’s that mix of Rechy’s City of Night and old Bill’s Henry IV Part 1, etc, which doesn’t gel. It’s like oil and water, or even a lava lamp. It’s just too obvious when Reeves et al start spouting the Bard’s couplets, and it upsets the balance of the film. I can see how My Own Private Idaho might appeal to some, but it wasn’t a movie I rated highly.

holidayHoliday, George Cukor (1938, USA). An early screwball romance starring Cary Grant and “box-office poison” (as she was at the time) Katharine Hepburn? What’s not to like? Quite a bit, according to audiences when it was released. Grant plays a man who plans to quit his job as soon as he can afford to and do nothing, and Hepburn plays the sister of his fiancée, who is stinking rich. This was during the Great Depression. Hollywood: super-sensitive, as usual. Grant meets Doris Nolan while on holiday in Lake Placid, and the two get engaged. He doesn’t realise she is filthy rich and the youngest daughter of an eminent New York banker. He turns up to the family home, learns the truth, but manages to charm the father and so get permission to marry. But it seems Nolan is a bit of a stuffed shirt, and it’s her libertine sister, Hepburn, who’s a better match for Grant. This one is early in Grant’s career, so he hasn’t got the polished urbanity of later films. If anything, he’s a bit of a galumpher, more of a tail-wagging puppy. Hepburn is Hepburn – did she ever change? – and it’s hard to believe she was ever box-office poison. By all accounts, this film did much to rehabilitate her. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon provide excellent comic relief as Grant’s best friends, a pair of cycnical academics. Both stars, and director, made much better films, but Holiday has its moments. It’s not great, but if you’re into films from the era, it’s probably worth seeing. But I can understand why it flopped at the box office.

rivetteMerry-Go-Round, Jacques Rivette (1983, France). I watched Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, because it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it very good; and then Arrow Academy released a limited edition Blu-ray collection of some of Rivette’s films, none of which I knew anything about… but the collection was a limited edition, and I’ve learnt to my cost previously it’s best to buy things like this straight away because when you finally come to realise you want a copy they’re either not available or cost silly money. So I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection. On the basis of having seen a single film by the director. So it goes. And yet there’s nothing in Rivette’s movies that immediately appeals to me. They’re well-crafted, certainly; and very French. And, er, very long. Especially the centre-piece of this collection Out 1 – 12 hours and forty minutes! fucking hell – which I admit I have yet to watch. In fact, I’m working my way through the the collection in installments, beginning with Merry-Go-Round, which clocks in at a mere 2 hrs and 40 mins. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. A woman sends a telegram to her sister in Rome, Léo, and an ex-boyfriend in New York, Ben, asking them to meet her at a hotel in Paris. But when they turn up, she’s not there. They follow a series of clues and end up at her old home, where she tells them that her father, who died two years previously after embezzling $4 million, isn’t dead. And then she’s kidnapped and taken away in an ambulance. There then follows an almost dream-like quest, in which Ben and Léo try to track down the not-dead father and his millions. Much of this involves running through woods. Including being chased by a knight on horseback. Or exploring empty houses, particularly ones where doors give onto different landscapes – breaking that compact between director and viewer in which the spaces depicted on screen connect in a logical and plausible manner. (Sokurov does something similar in Faust, by having characters enter the frame from parts of the space the camera has already shown do not have entrances.) So the world of Merry-Go-Round doesn’t quite follow the “rules”, but then neither does the quest narrative. There are long extended scenes which do nothing to advance the plot. There are also plot-holes. And interludes in which two odd-looking blokes play noodley jazz on double bass and bassoon. In parts, Merry-Go-Round feels like an early-1980s L’Avventura – or rather, it sets up an expectation of being a 1980s L’Avventura, perhaps on little more than its lack of plot momentum. I am, on balance, glad I bought The Jacques Rivette Collection (it’s still in stock! Get it now while you can! Only 3,000 copies!), and I think they’re films which will bear rewatching, if not demand it; but I’ve a way to go yet before I call myself a Rivette fan.

ladyThe Lady, Luc Besson (2011, France). Of all the subjects about which Luc Besson might make a film, I must admit a biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is not one I’d ever have guessed. But then, in many respects, The Lady doesn’t feel much like a Besson film. There’s a moment of almost cartoon-like violence when paramilitaries of the former prime minister assassinate the Executive Council (ie, the government-in-waiting for when the British withdraw), including Suu Kyi’s father. But in most other respects, The Lady is pretty restrained. Michelle Yeoh is especially good in the title role, and if David Thewlis was a bit too thespian as her husband, it didn’t detract overly much from the film. I will admit to knowing only the broadest details about Suu Kyi and Myanmar, and so films such as The Lady are eye-openers. Seriously, military juntas are not governments. The UN could surely make a legal, ethical and moral case for overthrowing such governments. But, of course, military juntas are excellent customers for arms dealers, and selling weapons is what it’s all about in the twenty-first century. The UK is now second only to the US as a seller of armaments. Mostly to the same countries we bomb or which have created the current refugee crisis. If you truly did reap what you sow, this country would neck-deep in salt.

streets_of_fireStreets of Fire, Walter Hill (1984, USA). I had vaguely fond memories of this, after seeing it back in the 1980s, so despite its somewhat negative reputation I thought it might be worth watching. And having now seen it… I think my memories were a little imprecise. It looks great, mostly, no doubt about that; and the music, while of its time, is quite listenable. But that script. It’s fucking awful. It’s totally misogynistic, and it puts words in the mouths of its cast – Rick Moranis, especially – they should have been embarrassed, if not fucking offended, to speak. Diane Lane plays a rock star who is kidnapped by a bike gang led by Willem Dafoe. A young woman persuades her ex-soldier brother, Michael Paré, an ex-boyfriend of Lane’s, to come home and rescue the rock star. And it pretty much goes as you’d expect. I’d hoped time had been kind to Streets of Fire, that it’s 1980s macho posturing might seem more like kitsch thirty years later. It hasn’t. Rick Moranis snarling misogynistic comments at the camera is still a horrible thing to see. Paré does his best with a bad part, Dafoe does even better with a worse part, but Lane does nothing with a nothing part. Visually, the film still scores, and its influence on later films is easy to see. But the reasons why it flopped it 1984 are also obvious, and not even thirty years is going to make it a cult hit.

mr55Mr & Mrs 55, Guru Dutt (1955, India). The more of Dutt’s films I watch, the more I appreciate them. Admittedly, this was not a good transfer – BFI, why are you not all over Dutt’s films? – and the plot was pretty much a Hollywood staple (never mind a Bollywood staple), but even so… Rich playgirl Anita is living the high life but then discovers she has to marry before the age of 21 in order to inherit seven million rupees. And she only has a month to do it. She approaches her friend, tennis pro Ramesh, but he’s off to Wimbledon. In desperation, her mother pays cartoonist Dutt Rs 10,000 to marry Anita, with the promise of a quickie divorce soon after. Of course, the two fall in love after the ceremony. But then careful lying by the mother ensures each thinks the other doesn’t really love them, so the divorce goes through… But they get together and realise they do actually love each other after all. It’s all keyed off American signifiers of success – not just Anita hanging around a posh tennis club and worshipping pro Ramesh at the beginning – but also the trappings of wealth enjoyed by Anita’s family are familiar to Western audiences. And yet, there’s also something indefinably Indian about it – and I don’t mean the fact it breaks into song at assorted moments. It feels like an Indian film based on a Hollywood template, by someone who was quite aware of, and more than capable of using, the story patterns of both Indian and Hollywood cinema. Dutt makes good films. He really needs transfers worthy of his work.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 795


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Moving pictures, #32

The films I watch, and document in these moving pictures posts, are pretty much dictated by the rental services I use. While I might set the priorities for the various movies on my rental lists, it’s still random what actually gets sent to me. But then, of course, there are those DVDs and Blu-rays I’ve actually purchased for myself (usually because I want to see them and they’re not available for rental, like the, er, Benning DVDs). So, anyway, more films, of varying degrees of obscurity and/or classic status.

rrRR / casting a glance, James Benning (2007/2007, USA). RR stands for “railroad” and that’s pretty much what you get – 77 minutes of middle-distance shots of US locomotives travelling across the screen, some on urban railways (not “railroad”, because I am British) and some on tracks passing through some amazing landscapes. There is no voiceover, no scrolling text, just ambient noise. I now have some experience with Benning’s films, and while I can certainly sympathise with his desire not to compromise in art, RR is much harder film to watch than others by Benning I’ve seen. It follows in broad form his other works, but its lack of concessions to the viewer can make for difficult viewing. It is, like his other films, often mesmerising (I keep on using that word, I must find another one), and the landscape of the North American continent is in places absolutely stunning (yes, even with a railway track running through it). Benning’s films are an acquired taste, but totally worth it. And yet… casting a glance even manages to test a fan’s endurance. It is a series of shots over two years of Robert Smithson’s artwork ‘Spiral Jetty’. Which is exactly as its name says – a jetty made of stone, in spiral form, in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. What makes this film especially interesting is that although Bennig filmed the artwork over a two year period, he actually documents its lifetime since its creation in 1970 – as the sixteen shots of it depict “the historical water levels (mathematically reconstructed)”. The end result is more like a screensaver than any other Benning film I’ve seen, but still manages to keep interest. Narrative does intrude at one point, when the ambient noise is replaced by the song ‘Love Hurts’, a film released in the same year that Smithson died. I totally agree with making the viewer work to understand a film – culture is not babyfood, it should not be spoonfed – but Benning’s extra-textual references are often just too… extra. I still love his films – and the more about them I learn, the more I love them. But like Sokurov’s movies, there is a story taking place outside of the story on the screen, and knowledge of that totally changes the viewer’s perspective. I have maintained for years that X-Factor is a cross-platform event – the television show makes little sense unless you’ve been following the various dramas in the gutter press. I love the idea of cross-platform and extra-textual intellectual properties – a sort of implementation of Frank Zappa’s “interconnectedness of all things” – but it all needs to be available. Without the booklets in these Österreichisches Filmmuseum DVDs, I’m pretty sure I’d miss a lot of the commentary Benning embeds in his films. Which is a shame.

The-Blue-Angel-1930-Front-Cover-95283The Blue Angel*, Josef von Sternberg (1930, Germany). This is the film from which Marlene Dietrich’s public persona likely depends. It’s certainly the source of the most iconic presentation of her. The title refers to a nightclub in Weimar Republic Berlin, at which Dietrich’s character performs. However, the actual focus of the story is the schoolteacher who falls under Dietrich’s spell. Initially, he goes to the club to remonstrate with its star because naughty postcards of her (which she sells as souvenirs) are distracting his students. But he falls under her spell, and returns to watch her so often that he marries her, loses his job and ends up working as a clown in her show. The film was banned by the Nazis, which is obviously a point in its favour – but for all that it seems a fairly unexceptional film. I’ve no way of judging if it was more titillating than was the norm in the 1930, but there’s little enough in it that clearly signals it as belonging on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’ve seen a number of films from the same era that were clearly innovative, if not seminal, for the period, or that simply stood out for a variety of reasons. The Blue Angel, sadly, is not one of them.

labellenoiseuseLa belle noiseuse*, Jacques Rivette (1991, France). I suspect I may like the idea of Rivette’s films more than I like Rivette’s films – although that’s hardly fair as La belle noiseuse is the first film by Rivette I’ve ever seen, But it is also 237 minutes long – and not that much actually happens during it. A young artist and his girlfriend turn up at the rural retreat of a famous artist who has not produced any new work in years. The girlfriend is asked to model for the famous artist. We see the artist make lots of sketches of the girlfriend, as well as start but not finish a number of paintings. Eventually he does finish one, and everyone assures him it’s a masterpiece, but the viewer doesn’t get to see it. I liked the film, it is very French, and like many of the best French films it subjects its characters’ relationships to much intense analysis. But it did test my patience at times – we see each of the sketches the artist draws, line by line, and it’s not exactly exciting viewing. But I liked that Rivette chose to show us that, I liked that he decided this was the way his film would proceed. As has no doubt become obvious over these Moving pictures posts, I like films by those who do things differently… I see there’s a Rivette Blu-ray box set now available, and it’s definitely tempting me…

ex_machinaEx Machina, Alex Garland (2015, UK). I’d seen this film highly praised, and while I may be perverse, I’m not so perverse I’ll dislike a movie because it is popular – although certainly what I value in a film is not what most film audiences seem to. But ten minutes into Ex Machina, a movie I was expecting to be about AI, and all it appeared to be about was some ultra-rich knob who lived in the middle of nowhere (how did they supply his house?) and I was already thinking bad thoughts… only for it be pointed out on Twitter that this was the desired response. The person behind Ava, the AI robot (as seen on the DVD cover, because of course you’d give an AI a human face and a chicken-wire body), is meant to be an entitled prick. Because that then pushes the viewer’s emtional engagement onto Ava. The poor old programmer, Caleb, invited by Nathan to his billionaire hideway – and who has to be asked, “Do you know what the Turing Test is?” Of course, he does, he’s a programmer – finds himself a patsy for both Nathan and Ava by turns, and the fact he is emotionally engaged with the AI only makes you wonder why Garland chose to stack the deck so heavily in Ava’s favour. And having done that, the end of the film can hardly come as a surprise. I really didn’t like Ex Machina. I found it annoying, crude and a not very intelligent study of its premise. I much preferred the far less pretentious Chappie.

eisenstein_1October* Sergei Eisenstein (1927, Russia). I picked up a copy of Sergei Eisenstein Volume 2 at the end of last year – it contains Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 – but volume 1 proved much harder to find (since it had been deleted several years ago). Admittedly, I already owned a copy Battleship Potemkin and Strike, and October wasn’t exactly hard to find on DVD… but I wanted Volume 1 to go with my Volume 2, so I hung on until one popped up on eBay. Which it did. For a reasonable price. So I bought it. And I’ve now watched October twice and I’m still not sure what to make of it. For a start, it’s unashamed propaganda, a cinematic reconstruction of the October 1917 revolution, featuring many of the people who were involved in the actual event itself. Also, Eisenstein uses a surprisingly large number of modern cinematic techniques – or rather, techniques that have become standards in film-makers’ lexicons and are now used so unthinkingly that their origin is ignored. Anyone looking to put together a DVD collection of important films really should include both the Eisenstein collections (assuming they can find copies, that is).

sennaSenna*, Asif Kapadia (2010, UK). This was available on Amazon Prime and since it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I watched it, despite motor racing being a sport in which I have zero interest. (Not that there is in fact any sport in which I have a more-than-zero interest.) Unsurprisingly, I found much of Senna not especially interesting, although I’d known almost nothing about Ayrton Senna prior to watching the film and he at least did come across as an interesting person – although chiefly through his work to improve the safety of F1 Racing – a sport in which a handful of rich pricks risk the lives of drivers in order to further line their own pockets, which is frankly disgusting. In fact, F1 comes across as little more than a playset for billionaire regressives. It’s telling that since Senna died and the increased safety he campaigned for came into effect, there has been only a single death during a race – and that was last year, ten years after Senna’s death. Having said all that… I’m not really sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 658