It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Best of the half-year, 2018

For the past several years, probably longer than I think and much longer than I’d care to know, I’ve been putting together a best of the year six months in. Partly it’s to document the good stuff I’ve read or watched or listened to during the first half of the year, but also I find it interesting to see how it changes over the following six months.

2018 has been an odd year so far. While the big project at work moved up a gear, my part in it sort of moved into cruise mode. So I started reviewing again for Interzone – three books so far, and the first book I reviewed made the top spot on my list below – and I also started up SF Mistressworks, although perhaps it’s not quite as regular as I’d like yet. On the film front, I continued to watch far too many movies, but at least it’s proven a pretty wide selection – including a number of films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, plus movies from all over the world… and some surprising new favourites.

books
1 The Smoke, Simon Ings (2018, UK). I picked this to review for Interzone having very much liked Ings’s previous sf novel, Wolves. But The Smoke, I discovered, was considerably better. It’s sort of steampunk, sort of alt history, sort of high concept sf. It’s beautifully written, and does a lot of really interesting things really well. It is probably Ings’s best book to date. I would not be at all surprised if it appears on several award shortlists next year. On the other hand, I will not be at all surprised if it’s completely ignored, as UK sf awards don’t seem to be doing so well at the moment, as popular awards are pulled one way then another by in-groups on social media and juried awards try to make sense of a genre that is now so pervasive across all modes of writing that no one has any idea what is what anymore.

2 Pack My Bag, Henry Green (1940, UK). Green wrote this autobiography at the age of 35 convinced he would not survive WWII. He did (he spent the war as an ambulance driver). But this is an amazing piece of work, a warts and all depiction of upper class education in the 1920s, and a beautifully stated meditation on writing. I’ve been a fan of Green since the first book of his I read, but Pack My Bag intensified my love for his prose. Read all of his books. If only he weren’t so difficult to collect in first edition…

3 The Rift, Nina Allan (2017, UK). This won the BSFA Award a month or so ago, and while it was not my first choice I’m happy that it won as I think it’s a worthy winner. It is, to my mind, the most successful of Allan’s disconnected novel-length fictions. It not only occupies that area between science fiction and mainstream I find interesting, but also between narrative and… whimsy? I’m not sure what the correct term is. The Rift is a story that feels like it should add up but resolutely fails to do so – and makes a virtue of its failure. It’s easily one of the best genre books I’ve read so far this year.

4 The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry (2016, UK). I read this over Christmas so technically it was a 2017 read, but it didn’t feature in any of my posts for that year so I’m counting it as a 2018 read. It’s an odd book, almost impossible to summarise, chiefly because there’s so much going on in it. It’s set in late Victorian times. A recently-widowed young woman decide to indulge her interest in palaeontology and visits a family who are friends of her friends and who live in the Essex marshes. She finds herself drawn to the man of the family, the local vicar, while her autistic son is drawn to his consumptive wife. The titular serpent makes only a brief appearance, and even then its reality is doubtful, but the way in which its legend shapes the lives of those in the books is very real. Fascinating and beautifully written.

5 Four Freedoms, John Crowley (2009, USA). I’ve been a fan of Crowley’s fiction for a couple of decades or so, but it usually takes me a while to get around to reading his latest work… nine years in this case. I should have read it sooner because it’s bloody excellent. End it worked especially well for me because the story was based around the construction of an invented WWII bomber which to me was obviously the Convair B-36 (but, bizarrely, it was mostly coincidence as Crowley did not actually base it on the B-36). Essentially, it’s the story of the workforce building the aforementioned WWII bomber, focusing on several members, and telling their stories. It’s beautifully-written, of course; and the characterisation is top-notch.

Honourable mentions – Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017, Pakistan) mysterious doors leading to Western nations appear in the war-torn Middle East, a clever look at the refugee issue facing Europe but which sadly turns into an unsatisfactory love story; The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (2014, UK) an Anglican priest is sent to an exoplanet to succour to aliens and becomes obsessed by them, while the UK, and his wife, slowly disintegrates, moving stuff and the sf element is well-handled; October Ferry to Gabriola, Malcolm Lowry (1970, Canada) more semi-autobiographical fiction from Lowry, in which a young lawyer and his wife head to the west coast of Canada to buy a house on an island, I just love Lowry’s prose; A Primer for Cadavers, Ed Atkins (2016, UK) a collection of braindumps and stream-of-consciousness narratives, some of which were written as accompaniment to Atkins’s video installations; Calling Major Tom, David Barnett (2017, UK) polished semi-comic novel about a misanthropic British astronaut en route to Mars who reconnects with humanity via a dysfunctional family in Wigan.

films – narrative
An unexpected top five in this category. One is by a director I normally don’t have that much time for, and the remaining four were by directors more or less unknown to me when I started watching the films.

1 The Lure, Agnieszka Smoczyńska (2015, Poland). I saw a description of this somewhere that said it was about carnivorous mermaids in a Polish nightclub during the 1980s. And it was a musical. That was enough for me to add it to my rental list. And it proved to be exactly as advertised. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy on Blu-ray. And loved it just as much on re-watch. It’s a film that revels in its premise and dedicates its entire mise en scène to it. The music is kitschy, and not really very 1980s – and one of the bands in the film is a punk band… that isn’t really 1980s punk either. But those are minor quibbles.

2 Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I find Nolan’s films generally unsatisfying so I didn’t bother going to see this when it was on at the cinema. Plus, the film’s subject was not one that appealed, especially in these days of Brexit and and various attempts in popular culture to spin it as a good thing because history. Not that Dunkirk was an especially proud moment in British history. Although you’d be surprised at the number of people who think, or insist, it was. It was, as this film mentions, “a colossal military blunder”. But I found myself watching Dunkirk one evening… and I loved it. It’s a beautifully shot film and completely plotless. It presents the events of Dunkirk by focusing on several different groups of people. It does not offer commentary; it is in fact almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary. And did I mention that it looks gorgeous? I ended up buying my own Blu-ray copy.

3 Thelma, Joachim Trier (2017, Norway). A young woman from a religious family moves to Oslo to study at university. One day in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit – but subsequent study by doctors cannot find evidence of epilepsy. She also finds herself drawn to a fellow student, but her upbringing makes the relationship difficult. Then odd things began to happen around her… and flashbacks reveal why these occur. Comparisons with Carrie are inevitable, but Thelma is so much better than that film. Elli Harboe is brilliant in the title role, and totally carries the film. I might even buy my own Blu-ray copy.

4 Vampir Cuadecuc, Pere Portabella (1970, Spain). I’ve no idea why I stuck this film on my rental list, but I knew nothing about it when I slid it into my player. It proved to be an experimental film, shot during the filming of Jesse Franco’s Count Dracula, but in stark black and white and with only atonal music for a soundtrack. And, er, that’s it. I loved it. I loved it so much I hunted down a Spanish release of a box set of 22 of Portabella’s films and bought it. The imagery is beautiful in the way only transformed imagery can be, and the fact it piggybacks on an existing production, and steals from its plot, not to mention its casts’ performances, only adds to the film’s appeal. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Portabella box set since I bought it. It was a good purchase..

5 India Song*, Marguerite Duras (1975, France). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the director’s name was unfamiliar to me, and I didn’t bother looking the film up before watching it. So what I found myself watching came as a surprise… which seems to be a recurrent theme to this year’s Best of the half-year… Duras was a French novelist, playwright and film-maker, who is perhaps best-known outside France for writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. But she made almost twenty films herself, and India Song is one of the better known. It is an experimental film, although it tells a relatively straightforward story in a relatively straightforward manner – that of the wife of an ambassador in India in the 1930s who affair with multiple men to alleviate the boredom of her life. But the film has no dialogue – everything is narrated by voiceover. It’s a bit like watching a bunch of people act out a short story as it is read. I found it fascinating, and would love to watch more of Duras’s films. But they are, of course, extremely hard to find in English-language releases. I really should improve my French one of these days.

Honourable mentions – Baahubali 1 & 2, SS Rajmouli (2017, India) absolutely bonkers and OTT Telugu-language historical epic, has to be seen to be believed; A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands) one of the most feminist films I’ve ever watched: three women are charged with the murder of a male shop assistant; Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK) there’s an England which exists in art which I do not recognise, and this is one of the best presentations of it in narrative cinema I’ve seen; WR: Mysteries of the Organism*, Dušan Makavejev (1971, Serbia) a paean to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich and his orgone energy, told through interviews and an invented narrative about a woman in Yugoslavia who has an affair with an People’s Artist ice skater; A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan) a lovely piece of animation about a teenager who bullies a deaf student at his school and comes to regret his actions; The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016, France) dialogue-free animated film about a man stranded on an island, with some beautiful animation; Secret Défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France) baggy thriller from Rivette which hangs together successfully over its 170-minute length; Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China) a man hunts for his wife and daughter in the Three Gorges, more documentary-style drama from a favourite director, plus gorgeous scenery; Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters*, Paul Schrader (1985, USA) fascinating, sometimes almost hallucinogenic, dramatisation of the life of famous writer.

films – documentary
1 Notfilm, Ross Lipman (2015, USA). A fascinating study of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into cinema, Film, and how it impacted Beckett’s career. The BFI release which includes the documentary also includes a copy of Beckett’s film, plus a 1979 British remake, which sticks closer to the original script. It’s fascinating stuff, not least Notfilm‘s study of Beckett’s career, including interviews with long-time collaborators, such as Billie Whitelaw. I can’t say the documentary persuaded me to search out DVDs of Beckett’s plays – he wrote a lot for television, so some must exist – although I would like to give one of his novels a try.

2 A Man Vanishes, Shohei Imamura (1967, Japan). A salaryman leaves the office for home one night and never arrives. A Man Vanishes sets out to discover what became of him, but turns into a meditation on the role of the documentary maker and the impossibility of really documenting what was going through someone’s mind. Particularly during their last moments. The last scene, in which the crew appear and dismantle the set  around the actors, is especially effective.

3 Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008, Israel). An animated documentary, partly autobiographical partly fictional, in which Folman tracks down and interviews members of his platoon in the IDF and discovers he was complicit in an atrocity which he had completely blanked. The animation allows Folman to present past events, and it’s an effective technique, even if it doesn’t work quite so well when it’s Folman in deep discussion with friends or platoon-mates in the present day. However, after a while, the animation stops being so obtrusive, and Folman’s unburdening starts to overwhelm the narrative.

4 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean (2017, USA). I suspect it’s a toss-up these days as to whether Lamarr is better known for her acting or her link to Bluetooth (given that the latter has been heavily publicised for the last few years). She was a remarkable woman, who took up inventing to stave off boredom while pursuing a career in Hollywood, and among her inventions was frequency-hopping, now used in everything from military secure comms to GPS to wi-fi to Bluetooth… After watching this documentary, I really wanted to track down a copy of her self-financed and -produced historical epic, Loves of Three Queens, but good copies are hard to find.

5 Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene (2014, USA). An actress, Kate, prepares for her role as a real-life person, Christine, who committed suicide on air back in the 1970s. The length of time that has passed since Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor, shot herself while the camera has live has meant there is little evidence remaining about her or her life. Kate interviews those who knew her, but even then she remains very much an enigma – there’s even a hint she might have been trans. Despite the details of Chubbuck’s death, this documentary is very much not salacious or in bad taste. It navigates its way very carefully, and it’s very well put together. The DVD I bought I bought came bundled with Actress, which is also a very good documentary.

Honourable mentions – Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore (2015, USA) the title’s joke wears thin very quickly, but Moore’s survey of six European nations’ civilised social policies stands in stark contrast to the regressive society of the US, despite Moore’s claims many of the policies are embedded in the Declaration of Independence; Becoming Bond, Josh Greenbaum (2017, USA) a tongue-in-cheek look at the career of George Lazenby, who played the best Bond (yes, he did), but then torpedoed his own film career; The Oath, Laura Poitras (2010, USA) two men were part of al-Qa’eda, one was a non-combatant driver, the other was a member of bin Laden’s bodyguard, the former was captured and held in Gitmo and tried as a terrorist, while the latter gave himself up to the Yemeni authorities, served a brief prison sentence and not lectures against both al-Qa’eda and the US; Dispossession, Paul Sng (2017, UK) a damning indictment of the decades-long Tory policy of neglecting social housing, so that the land can be sold off to developers… resulting in our present-day housing crisis. Fuck the Tories; The Farthest, Emer Reynolds (2017, Ireland) fascinating look at the two Voyager space probes, with interviews of those involved and some excellent CGI footage of the probes themselves; Colobane Express, Khady Sylla (2008, Senegal) set aboard a privately-operated bus in Dakar, using actors to tell the stories of the passenger’s lives, excellent stuff.

albums
1 The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II, Panopticon (2018) Panopticon is a one-man band, and plays a mix of bluegrass and black metal. It works surprising well. The two albums here, released together as one as they were intended to be, are according to the artist: “the first half of the album is atmospheric metal, the second half is more americana focused”. The acoustic “americana” sections are actually more atmospheric than the black metal sections, but it all hangs together extremely well.

2 Currents, In Vain (2018). In Vain are from Norway, and also a one-man band. They play a metal that veers from black to death to prog, and sometimes features a few other musical genres, like country. Currents is their fourth full-length album, after 2013’s Ænigma, which I think made my top five albums for that year. I’m not sure Currents is as good as that album, but it’s still bloody good stuff.

3 The Weight of Things, Entransient (2018). Entransient play something halfway between prog rock and prog metal, although one of the tracks on this album features harmony vocals that don’t really belong to either genre. It’s probably the best song on the album, in fact. This is only their second album after their eponymous debut in 205, but it’s a much better album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from them.

I’ve actually bought more than three albums during the last six months, but not that much more. The last few years I’ve not listened to as much music as I used to, nor seen as many bands perform live. In fact, I’ve only been to one gig so far this year, to see Therion, who were really good (even though I’ve not kept up with them for at least seven or eight years).

Advertisements


1 Comment

Moving pictures 2018, #28

My viewing of late has been a bit all over the place, as this post no doubt demonstrates. But at least I managed to cross a couple off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list…

The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield (2012, USA). David Siegel made his money in timeshares, in fact his company was one of the largest timeshare companies in the world. And he chose to put some of that money into a new home for him, his wife and their eight children. The house was inspired by the Palace of Versailles, but they actually modelled it on the penthouse floors of the Paris Las Vegas Hotel – which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the family’s taste. Once finished, the Versailles House would be one of the largest private homes in the US (but not the largest, as some of the film’s marketing claims). Unfortunately, the market crash in 2008 wiped out Siegel’s company, and he went from having more money than he could spend to not having enough money to pay his bills. And one of the assets he tried to sell was the unfinished Versailles House. For $50 million. But no one would buy it. The Queen of Versailles is basically a film about a rich family trying hard to cope with having considerably less money. On the one hand, neither Siegel nor his wife, an ex-beauty queen who qualified and worked as a computer engineer before turning to modelling as it was more lucrative, and who is thirty years his junior, came from riches. On the other, they’ve become so used to wealth, their lifestyle epitomises senseless spending. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, despite the fact they’re utterly useless and stupid with their vast riches. The film ends with their future looking bleak. In fact, things did pick up for them afterwards. The economy recovered, Siegel’s company recovered, they never did manage to sell Versailles House but once their fortunes had recovered they restarted construction. It’s still not finished, but at least it now will be.

The Horse Thief*, Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986, China). The only film I’ve seen by Tian prior to this one was his remake of Springtime in a Small Town. I’m a big fan of the original, Spring in a Small Town, released in 1948 and directed by Mu Fei, but I couldn’t honestly see the point of the remake, much as I enjoyed it (see here). The Horse Thief is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and Tian has said he intended for it to be low on dialogue and more of an ethnographic film, a document of Buddhist rituals among the Tibetans. There’s not much in the way of plot – a viewpoint character, who opens the film as a horse thief but tries to change his ways – but lots of footage of landscape and rituals and people. It’s a fascinating film, and often looks quite beautiful. But its lack of a plot does tell against it somewhat, and even though only 88 minutes long, it palls a little in places. Unfortunately, the copy I watched wasn’t an especially good transfer, which tends to diminish the value of good cinematography. I think I’ll add some Tian to my rental list, and I suspect The Horse Thief does indeed belong on the 1001 Movies You See Before You Die list.

Secret défense, Jacques Rivette (1998, France). I came to Rivette relatively late, only a few years ago, after watching a rental copy of La belle noiseuse, which prompted me to further explore his oeuvre. Which I initially did by buying the Blu-ray box from Arrow Academy which included Out 1, a 773-minute film – and which I have yet to watch. (at least that particular film).. But I added other of his films to my rental list, and this was  the first to arrive. And… it’s good. It’s not what I expected. It’s longer than it needs to be, although with Rivette that’s given, but it’s certainly a well-plotted thriller that manages several twists. Sandrine Bonnaire is a scientist, whose father committed suicide several years before. Her brother has come across evidence that it was murder: a photograph showing their father’s assistant, Jerzy Radziwilowicz, at the station where their father caught the train from which he fell to his death, despite Radziwilowicz claiming to have been miles away at the time. Radziwilowicz is now the head of their father’s company and a rich man. While confronting Radziwilowicz at what used to be their family estate, Bonnaire accidentally shoots his secretary and lover. Which is where things get complicated. Because then the twin sister of the murdered lover turns up. And Radziwilowicz admits he did kill the father, but for good reason… Rivette makes long films; he does not make “taut thrillers” – “baggy thrillers”, perhaps… There’s a good solid mystery in Secret défense central to the plot, with some satisfying twists and turns – did Radziwilowicz really kill Bonnaire’s father? Yes, he did, but why? And what does that motive tell Bonnaire about her own past? It’s padded out a bit, particularly by the sub-plot involving the twins, but it’s all resolutely mimetic, which is something I hadn’t expected, given the other films by Rivette I’ve seen. I liked it, I liked it a lot; which is something I’m finding myself doing with Rivette’s films. They’re definitely worth seeing.

Die Bergkatze, Ernst Lubitsch (1921, Germany). I enjoy early silent films, especially German, although they were, to be fair, pretty much the market leaders back in the day, unless you fancied slapstick comedy like the Keystone Kops or Buster Keaton, in which case Hollywood was the market leader… and certainly when it comes to humorous silent movies I suspect US ones have weathered the years better than German ones. I bought this Lubitsch collection – in a sale, I seem to recall – because one or two of its contents seemed intriguing. And one or two were. But there were other films on the three Blu-ray discs. And some of them have proven not so intriguing. On the one hand, there’s clearly very much a Lubitsch… thing – I hesitate to use the word “vision”, given the youth of the medium at the time – and he was equally clearly technically skilled. But I can’t say Die Bergkatze, subtitled “A Grotesque in Four Acts”, struck me as especially comical. A Lothario officer is assigned to a remote outpost in the mountains. En route he is attacked by bandits, but let go by the daughter of the bandit chief. At the fort, the officer is given a detachment to fight the bandits. They lose the fight but are believed to have won, so the fort commander gives his daughter’s hand in marriage to the officer… And somewhere around there, I lost the plot. Or the film did. There was a scene in which the officer and, I think, the bandit chief’s daughter, are played music by a group of snowman who actually looked more like Cybermen. And the entire film was shot through weirdly-shaped cut-outs, but if there was a pattern, or plan, to them, I couldn’t work it out. There is a documentary about Lubitsch’s work in Berlin in this collection, which I have yet to watch. Having recently seen one of Lubitsch’s Hollywood films – To Be or Not to Be from 1942 – I can’t say I’d ever have classified him as one of the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood, unlike some of his German compatriots; and I have to wonder if some of his later films are not held in higher regard than they deserve.

The Astronaut Wives Club (2015, USA). Lily Koppel’s The Astronaut Wives Club, published in 2013, was one of the many books I used as research for All That Outer Space Allows. Koppel had done some of my work for me, but I found the book unsatisfactory in its somewhat superficial treatment of the titular women and their lives. Nonetheless, when I heard they were making a television series based on it – clearly to cash in on the success of Mad Men and the, er, failure of Pan Am – I was keen to see it. But it did not fare well and, like many such US television series, doesn’t appear to have made it to sell-through. But I managed to see it anyway. The book covers the wives of several of the intakes of astronauts, but the TV series is all about the wives of the Sacred Seven, the original Mercury astronauts: Rene Carpenter, Trudy Cooper, Annie Glen, Betty Grissom, Jo Schirra, Louise Shepard and Marge Slayton. It takes some liberties with actual events – yes, Trudy Cooper was a pilot, the only astronaut wife to hold a pilot’s licence, but none of the Mercury 13 were friends of hers… but inventing such a relationship did at least allow the writers to devote an episode to the Mercury 13, congressional sub-committee and all, and I think bending history to include it was a good call. The astronauts were also painted as probably a good deal nicer than they actually were. The only reference to the “icy commander”, for example, is when Louise Shepard finds a sign reading that on her husband’s office door. In fact, everyone is so nice, it beggars belief. Even when Donn Eisele spends his time at the Cape living with another woman, everyone is very nice about his adultery. I don’t know if The Astronaut Wives Club was intended to last more than a season – certainly, the astronaut-related lives of the wives of the Sacred Seven are pretty much covered during the show’s ten episodes. (Um, I see from Wikipedia it was intended to complete in a single season. But had it been picked up for a second season, it would have shifted focus to the wives of another group of men.) I can see why it wasn’t picked up – put simply, it’s not very good. The astronauts and their wives were anything but bland people, and this series makes them bland. And yet they’re also all so good-looking! The astronauts were not chosen for their looks, and their wives were who they were. Rene Carpenter was known for her glamorous looks – and she capitalised on them, as well as her talent as a writer, by becoming a TV presenter – but the actress playing her is outshone by several of the other wives. In fact, they’re all so good at everything, absolute paragons, as if the writers of the programme had mistaken the time and effort the wives put into projecting the right image so their husbands would get flights was the actual reality. It wasn’t – as Mary Irwin’s autobiography clearly shows. Also, and I’ve no idea why the writers/producers chose to do this, but The Astronaut Wives Club uses present-day music, not music contemporary with when it was set. It feels… wrong. Disappointing.

Yol*, Yılmaz Güney & Şerif Gören (1982, Turkey). As the asterisk indicates, this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, the only Turkish film on it. I’ve seen half a dozen Turkish films, most in the last decade, including a couple from the 1960s that were… interesting. The more recent stuff I’ve seen has been very good, and probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, films such as Uzak or Night of Silence – certainly more so than Yol, which probably made the cut because it was openly critical of Turkey’s military junta of the time. So much so, in fact, that Güney was in prison during the actual filming – Gören followed Güney’s instructions in directing – but later escaped, took the negatives to France, where he edited them. Yol follows five prisoners given week-long passes to visit home. One story is about honour killing, another is about a man taking responsibility for his brother’s family after his brother is killed. A third sees a husband and wife attacked by an angry mob after being caught having sex in a toilet on a train. It’s not that Yol is a bad film – but the sole representative of Turkish cinema on the list? AS one of three or four films, it would probably have made the cut. It’s a bit soap opera-ish in parts, and it’s hard not to suspect Güney’s dissidence was not a major factor in its selection. (Okay, so it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well – but even that was likely influenced by Güney’s situation.) The same is also true of the issues it covers, like honour killing. Which is not to say that films which cover important issues should not be lauded for doing so. But cinema is a visual medium, and features films are a narrative form, so it’s not unreasonable to expect excellence in both from an acclaimed film. Worth seeing, but it’s not the best ever film to come out of Turkey – and I can say despite having seen only half a dozen Turkish films.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 910


1 Comment

Moving pictures 2018, #10

I’m trying to get up to date with these. Despite spending a couple of weeks watching mostly television series – including Agent Carter, Star Trek: Discovery, The Expanse and, er, Silent Witness – I still seem to have built up a backlog.

Diary of a Chambermaid, Luis Buñuel (1964, France). This film saw a change in pace for Buñuel, and a change in fortunes. It was his most realistic film to date, and based on a popular 1900 novel of the same title by Octave Mirbeau, which had been adapted in Hollywood in 1946 by, of all people, Jean Renoir, and before that in Russia in 1916. The Mexican star of Buñuel’s Viridiana, Silvia Pinal, was originally intended for the title role, and even learnt French to play it, but the part went to Jeanne Moreau. Who plays a young woman who is hired as a maid at a country house in the 1930s that seems to be populated by oddballs and eccentrics. Her name is Célestine but they all call her Marie. The groom is an anti-semitic right-winger, the husband chases anything in skirts and takes out his frustrations on small game, the father-in-law is a shoe fetishist with a cabinet full of women’s shoes, and the next-door neighbour is fond of throwing rubbish over the fence. But then the father is found dead in bed, and a young girl who visited the house is found raped and murdered. The chambermaid suspects the groom, and promises to marry him in an effort to make him confess… The film plays like a farce set in an upper-class home, with a mix of belowstairs and abovestairs scenes and characters from several classes. For Buñuel, it’s also played straight. Moreau is precisely what her character seems to be, a chambermaid, although as the focus of the film she displays more character than the rest of the cast. Having said that, this is closer to La Règle du jeu than it is Downton Abbey (hack spit), and not just because of the language. There’s a slightly mocking tone to it all and, watching it, it’s easy to see how Buñuel, and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, began re-introducing surreal elements into “straight” dramas, as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. I will admit to preferring the latter films, but this is still excellent stuff. A box set worth owning.

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs, FW Murnau (1924, Germany). I still think David Tallerman is being unfair in his characterisation of Murnau as an uninteresting director, although to be honest I’ve yet to get a handle on what makes a good director of silent films. True, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is really quite astonishing, but I don’t see much difference between the silent films of Murnau, Lubitsch or Lang, since all three were working in the same country around the same time. And yet… Murnau’s Die Finanzen des GroßherzogsThe Finances of the Grand Duke – was mostly filmed on location in Montenegro and Croatia – whch is not typical of German silent films. And it’s a gentle comedy too, where other silent comedies from Germany I’ve seen have tended to be broad – although certainly not like slapstick like Hollywood silent comedies. Die Finanzen des Großherzogs is set in an invented Mediterranean duchy, whose finances have pretty much given up the ghost. A US industrialist offers a large payment to mine the island’s sulphur deposits, but the grand duke turns it down as he rightly thinks it will affect the quality of life of his subjects… And that’s pretty much the plot: impoverished grand duke in danger of losing duchy to predatory capitalist interests because of lack of cash, but is saved at last minute through unlikely series of events. These events are in the person of a loaded Russian princess whom the grand duke doesn’t want to marry, but she ends up pretending to be the wife of a travelling salesman, or something, and gets to meet the grand duke in that guise, and they fall in love, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. There’s a few other bits and pieces going on in there, like the finance minister aiming to seize the duchy for himself. It’s all very, well, Ruritanian. Fun.

Le Pont du Nord, Jacques Rivette (1981, France). I’m not quite sure what to make of Rivette, as he tells fantastical stories in real-life settings, but the fantasy is all in the minds of the characters – with the occasional bit of help from the director. In other words, he finds games and conspiracies and quests in the ordinary, in such a way that the games and conspiracies and quests seems perfectly real without in any way upsetting the ordinary. And so too in Le Pont du Nord, in which two two young women meet up and follow a quest involving several different men called Max, which leads to a dragon, which is actually a playground slide, which one of them then defeats by loudly challenging it. Everything happens in and around Paris, in the quotidian world, and some of it you suspect was guerilla-filmed, even though the two women plainly don’t entirely occupy it, and there is enough strangeness in the events which befall them to suggest something other than the ordinary world. And yet the bulk of the strangeness is supplied by the two main characters, who seem to be operating in a world that doesn’t entirely exist on screen. Rivette has form in this: Merry-Go-Round is a conspiracy story with no real conspiracy in sight; Noroît is a fantasy presented with such a light touch, it might as well be mainstream. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all, and the lack of reviews seems to suggest others feel the same way. At 129 minutes, it’s short for a Rivette film. (And no, I still have not tackled Out 1, all 760 minutes of it, despite owning a copy for two years.) I came to Rivette through La belle noiseuse, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list (2013 edition), and that inspired me to seek out more of his work. At which point I found myself watching films that were not like the one that had inspired me to seek out that director’s films… And yet, I find myself drawn to Rivette’s films, that are unlike La belle noiseuse, and more inclined to put in the time to watch the really long ones… Which I really must do, one of these days.

The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn (2016, France). Refn is lauded as a talent in Hollywood, although apparently not so much after all, since he needed French money to make this film. His movies certainly look very pretty, and this one is no exception. But the stories he tells really aren’t very nice. In this one, an ingenue moves to LA, is picked up by an agency, and becomes a a successful model. Which does not go down with the two models she spends her time with. One has had a number of cosmetic surgeries to improve her looks and career, but is castigated for it. For all that it’s about a beautiful woman, this is not a film that treats women well. They are pretty much all victims. Even the young model who is the central character – she has zero agency, and her only act is to walk away from it all at the end. The other models are driven by their obsession to be admired by men, even though the men in the film are just as much ciphers as the women are. The Neon Demon is a film that’s all about how it looks, which seems apposite given it’s about the modelling industry… but it also seems to be based on misconceptions and clichés about modelling. It has its central cast of three models, including the ingenue, and it uses them to tell a story of excess, and the cannibalistic nature of the industry, making the latter real rather than metaphorical, to no good end. A film best avoided.

Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2015, Thailand). I have no idea what these films are about, but I really like them. They’re sort of slow cinema, in as much as very little happens in them. But they also exhibit little in the way of plot – and nothing in the way of a three-act structure (hack spit) – and yet… things happen. Weerasethakul also has a tendency to use the same stable of actors, so the more of these you watch the more faces you recognise. And there are other commonalities: the military seems to always play a major part, as do hospitals or clinics; some of the cast are disabled; there’s always mention of Isan province, usually self-deprecratingly; and there’s always an element of the strange, or supernatural. Weerasethaskul has a shtick. Which does not detract from his films, I hasten to add. There is an oddness to his movies that I don’t think any other director quite manages, a sort of New Weird sensibility I’m not sure any other director is currently using. In Cemetery of Splendour, a sickness is causing soldiers to suddenly fall asleep, and there is a clinic with a ward full of sleeping soldiers, all lying in beds under weird blue lights. But then one soldier wakes, but can remember nothing of the time he was asleep. There’s also the cemetery of the title, which is a wood in which people have left mythic objects… It’s one of those films that, when it’s finished, you’re not entirely sure what you’ve watched. I’ve now seen five of Weerasethakul’s and I’m no closer to understanding them. He’s a singular talent and his movies, for all their glacial pace and enigmatic stories, are fascinating. If someone released a Weerasethakul box set, I’d buy it like a shot. I only own a copy of his first film, Mysterious Object at Noon, but all of them bear, if not demand, rewatching.

The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel (1969, France). And speaking of shtick, I sort of feel like I have a handle on Buñuel’s, except… have I really? I mean, he was making films way back in the 1930s, all the way through to the 1970s, in a number of countries, and in a variety of styles. That’s one hell of a career. But The Milky Way feels like a Buñuel film. Even based on my limited exposure to his oeuvre. The title refers to the route taken by pilgrims from France to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Wat of St James. Two travellers follow the route and, en route, witness events which map onto the history of Christianity, especially its so-called heresies. It is very much the product of a Catholic mind, and I say that inasmuch as Catholicism is much more embedded in its followers’ lives that Protestantism, which is what I was nominally brought up as, but I’m completely atheist, and neither hold a candle to the integration of Islam in daily life… All of which means that not only do I not have a dog in this fight but I have a dog-free worldview (which pleases me, as a cat owner), and I suspect Buñuel, for all his mockery, was considerably more religious than I am, as it takes a certain degree of familiarity with the material to mock as much as is the case in The Milky Way. But for all that, religion is, to me, a soft target. I don’t believe a single bit of it. It’s also a completely pointless target. We l;ive in a world in which truth and facts and experts are routinely attacked because they don’t match the narrative of the authorities. There is no such thing as “fake news”. There is propaganda, which is unsupported by facts; and there is news, which is supported by facts. And the least trustworthy sources are those who are quickest to label something as “fake news”. Religion, and all the fucking tragedy it’s caused over the centuries, feels lightweight in comparison. Although, to be fair, The Milky Way does a good job in pointing out how shortsighted that view is. It’s not the best film in the box set, but, like Diary of a Chambermaid (see above), its presence is welcome. The box set doesn’t include some of Buñuel’s best films, but what it does include is bloody good. Worth getting.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 895


2 Comments

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


1 Comment

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


6 Comments

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.


Leave a comment

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