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Moving pictures 2017, #11

An even odder selection than usual. Two US films that are on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, another film by a favourite director, and a film I knew nothing about but which blew me away when I came to watch it…

nemuritoriiNemuritorii, Sergui Nicolaescu (1974, Romania). I had thought this was a science fiction film, although I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the translation of the title, which means “The Immortals”. It is, in fact, an historical drama, set during the Middle Ages, and about a group of mercenaries who return to their homeland, Romania, and attempt to oust its current ruler. And, er, that’s it. There’s a running joke about a wooden chest which carries a great treasure, and which all their enemies are keen to possess… but the chest proves to be empty. In places, Nemuritorii reminded me of Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood – it has that same earthy and violent approach to Middle Ages history – and Nicolaescu’s reputation as a good filmer of battle scenes is amply demonstrated. But Nicolaescu’s relationship with the Ceaușescu regime was problematic at best, and though he entered politics after the 1989 revolution, I’m told he’s not held in especially high regard by modern Romanians. I can’t say that Nemuritorii struck me as a great film, although it was entertaining enough and shot well enough. That earlier mention of Flesh and Blood was not entirely unwarranted – this film felt much the same: an entertaining Middle Ages adventure, with numerous battles, a cast of near-stereotypes, and a carry-through gimmick. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it’s a good film.

shes_gottShe’s Gotta Have It*, Spike Lee (1986, USA). I don’t think I’d actually watched any Spike Lee films until this watching this one, his debut, although I knew full well who he is and am aware of some of the films he has made. and while I can’t say the film appealed to me a great deal, I can see why it belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – so I’m glad I saw it. It’s not just that’s it’s an entirely African-American film, made wholly within the African-American culture of the US, but that it also takes a nicely meta-cinematic approach to its story and plays around with cinematic narratives and conventions. For a debut film, that’s pretty ballsy. And it works. The title refers to Tracy Camilla Johns, a young African-American woman living in Brookyln. She has three suitors (all three of which she regularly has sex with), but she cannot decide which one would be best-suited as her permanent partner – and, to tell the truth, she likes having three boyfriends. Characters in the film frequently talk directly to camera, there’s plenty of character assassination, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The acting is not great – John Canada Terrell is especially bad – and the artificiality of the narrative structure is occasionally pushed a bit too much in the viewer’s face… but for a debut piece of work this is an astonishingly ambitious movie and its success rate is amazingly high. On top of that, She’s Gotta Have It was also one of the films that led to the resurgence of US indie films in the 1990s. I suspect its narrative experiments have been overlooked because of its importance as an African-American film and an indie film (and Lee’s character’s later appearances in Nike adverts), but She’s Gotta Have It has a lot to recommended it. Worth seeing.

reasonReason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India). This was Ghatak’s last film – he died in 1976… although according to the University of California Press edition of A River Called Titash, Ghatak’s adaptation, A River Called Titas, an earlier film, was not released until after his death, although Wikipedia claims otherwise. Whatever the truth, Ghatak made only eight feature films, and I’ve now seen half of them. And though they’re black and white and mostly exist only in bad transfers or prints, and were probably produced and shot on tiny budgets, I find them fascinating. Not just because they depict life in India – or rather, Bengal, and now Bangladesh – in a fashion not commonly seen in Indian films… but also because they were as much political and sociological essays about Indian life as they were dramatic stories. A River Called Titash, the book, has been described as an ethnological account as much as it is a novel, and that’s equally true of the film. Reason, Debate and a Story is not an historical film, although it is in parts ethnographical, particularly when it documents the dances by Bengali villagers. Ghatak himself plays a drunkard writer who has been critical of the partition of Bengal – and I suspect he was pissed in several of the scenes (he was an acoholic, after all). His wife leaves him so he decides to leave Kolkata, and as he wanders out of the city he picks up assorted waifs and strays. There’s his brother-in-law, who is educated but cannot get a job; an extremely handsome young woman; and a teacher of Sanskirt teased as “mad” by his pupils. The woman is, I think, a metaphor for Bangladesh, which desires reunification with West Bengal (and later does one of the worst lip synchs of a playback singer I’ve seen in a film). The Sanskrit tracher is obviously the history of India. And later, when they meet up with a villager who makes masks for dances, you have literate suburban India versus uneducated rural India. Ghatak doesn’t disguise his arguments, and as avatars his characters are hardly subtle. But there is also some very nice landscape cinematography (badly served by the poor quality film stock used), and I will admit to having thought Bangladesh was chiefly delta and alluvial plain before seeing this film. The aforementioned dances, which appear to be based on mythology, with dancers in masks dressed as Hanuman, Durga, Ganesh, etc., are fascinating. Ghatak’s message on the reunification of Bengal gets a little lost, although I’m doubtless missing lots of references as my knowledge of the area is quite poor. Weirdly, the film opens with a trio of dancers in black zentai outfits dancing on a set meant to represent a desert. They reappear two-thirds of the way through the film, and at the end. I have no idea what they’re intended to signify. But I still think Ghatak is a genius director.

broadcast_newsBroadcast News*, James L Brooks (1987, USA). Nope, don’t get it. This is an average drama, well played by its cast – although with Hurt and Hunter, that’s a pretty high-powered cast – but I have no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s just not that interesting. Hurt plays a sports anchor from a regional station who has landed a job as news anchor of a national station. (It’s probably worth pointing out that no other country has the US’s bizarre regional/national broadcasting set-up, and we non-USians have no fucking idea how it works.) Hunter is a top news producer, and Albert Brooks a gifted TV journalist. Hurt wants to pick Hunter’s brains to make himself a better anchor, but she won’t have it.  Brooks wants his try in front of the camera. It’s all completely boring and trivial, and Brooks’s career as an actor continues to mystify me. Hurt and Hunter are both good, but they’re in the top rank of Hollywood talent (not that they can draw salaries commensurate with their ability; that’s not how Hollywood works). But even so top talent needs a story more interesting than this. Broadcast News is a Sunday-afternoon film, or maybe a Saturday-afternoon-instrad-of-football film, it’s not 1001 of the top films ever made.

asthenic_syndromeThe Asthenic Syndrome*, Kira Muratova (1990, Russia). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still not sure what it’s about, or indeed if it’s any good. It’s two films with unconnected stories. The first is black-and-white (well, more of a sepia colour) and opens at a funeral. The widow is grief-stricken, and, it seems, slightly unhinged. She attacks a man at a bus-stop, she bumps into people, she shouts and rants at no one in her flat, she drops wineglasses on the floor and breaks them… As if that weren’t baffling enough, the dialogue is completely bizarre. People shout at each other, and over each other’s voices, and what they say usually has no relevance to what’s happening in the story. Halfway through The Asthenic Syndrome‘s 153 minutes, the film appears to end, and the camera pulls back to reveal a man on a stage in front of a cinema screen in an auditorium. He introduces the actress who played the widow in the black-and-white film, but the audience are uninterested and file out noisily. One man remains after the others. He’s a teacher and the protagonist of the second film, which is in colour. The dialogue in this film is much like it is in the first. The teacher has narcolepsy – in fact, he fell asleep during the film-within-a-film (Wikipedia mistakenly implies the title refers to his narcolepsy, but asthenia is just a medical term for “weakness”). The Soviet Union depicted in the film is a grim and run-down place – I like the phrase someone used to describe The Asthenic Syndrome, “the last Soviet film and the first post-Soviet film” – but I  find it more interesting as a contrast to earlier optimistic Soviet films such as, say, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, made only a decade earlier. The Asthenic Syndrome‘s avant-garde approach does wear a bit thin over two and a half hours, although there’s some quite arresting imagery, and there’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the dialogue. I’m going to have watch The Asthenic Syndrome again, I think, to get a proper handle on it, but I sort of fell on balance that it belongs in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. And I’d like to see more of Muratova’s films.

50_cubanI Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the Mr Bongo 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because it included Lucía and Memories of Underdevelopment, and I knew little or nothing of the other two films. Well, one was by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed Memories of Underdevelopment; but I knew nothing about I Am Cuba (AKA Soy Cuba). So late one night I stuck it in the player, expecting an earnest documentary of communist Cuba, likely something of a chore to watch… but I loved it. And I don’t understand why it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s one of the most technically innovative films I have ever seen. It is a documentary about Cuba, but it uses some of the most astonishing camera techniques I’ve seen since first watching Eisenstein or Vertov. Obviously, some of the shots are almost routine these days, and done using CGI, but back in the early 1960s, they didn’t have that – and there are several where you have to wonder how the hell Kalatozov managed it. There’s one where the camera swoops from the street up the side of a building, then from the rooftop through windows and down to the street, that is quite astonishing. I Am Cuba is not a documentary in the usual sense of the word – there’s no earnest voiceover explaining what’s shown on the screen, just people and events in Cuba being filmed almost fly-on-the-wall. Apparently, the film didn’t go down very well when it was made, and was pretty much forgotten for thirty years, and only rediscovered in the early 1990s – and championed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution turned out to be an excellent buy – three excellent films and one very good one.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures, #35

One of these days, I’ll put up one of these posts and it will not contain a single English-language film. But this time, I’m batting two from six for foreign-language films, which is an improvement on one from seven like my last Moving pictures post…

romaRoma, Federico Fellini (1972, Italy). When I picked up copies of Casanova and Satyricon, I decided to throw in Roma as well, even though I’d not seen it. I had thought, from the title and cover art (though, to be fair, I’d not looked especially closely at the latter), that Roma was set during, well, Roman times. Like Fellini Satyricon. I was, in fact, expecting something similar to that film, which is why I’d bought it – Fellini in all his 1970s indulgent colour. But it turns out Roma is about a young Fellini, who was actually from Rimini, arriving in Rome, and falling in love with the city. The end result is something which has the freedom and plotlessness of a New Wave film, but is in glorious colour and contains a strong thread of Fellini’s somewhat earthy humour. I had expected to like the film for the same reasons I’d like Fellini Satyricon – ie, because it was, basically, bonkers – but actually found myself liking it because it felt like a string of vaguely-related Nouvelle Vague scenarios shot with the sureness and control of a master director and in which the process of filming itself became one of the story’s narratives. One particular scene springs to mind: Fellini is filming something on Rome’s ringroad, and it begins to rain… Apparently, it was shot entirely on a soundstage, although it doesn’t look like it is. A featurette on the Blu-ray points out that a lot of the Roman locations were actually shot on soundstages – and that the same was true of many of the street scenes in Fellini’s . So there you go. I’d sort of added Roma to an order on a whim, but I liked it a lot and I’m glad I bought it.

futureworldFutureworld, Richard T Heffron (1976, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and while I can remember seeing Westworld, I wasn’t so sure if I’d ever seen this sequel. And having now watched it, I’m still not sure. Some bits seemed familiar, other bits didn’t. I suspect I probably did see it – the scenes with “Clark”, the robot rebuilt by the janitor, seemed familiar, and they’re not scenes that would normally be excerpted or trailed where I might have otherwise seen them. Anyway… after the oops-we-appear-to-have-killed-a-lot-of-our-paying-guests of Westworld, Delos is determined to push ahead with its robot-serviced fantasylands, and so has another go with a big promotional splash. Included in said splash are old-school newspaper reporter Peter Fonda and up-and-coming TV reporter Blythe Danner. Of course, there’s more going on than Delos’s PR department want people to know… Well, no, not really: the robots are perfectly safe, and are unlikely to run amuck and slaughter guests. Instead, Delos is planning to replace state and industry world leaders with robot replicas, although how people would tell the difference is never explained. Or indeed why they should be any different. Robot replicas reporting to a corporate overlord versus our current generation of politicians… Nope. Same thing. Aside from a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Blythe Danner has sex with rogue robot gunfighter Yul Brynner, Futureworld is a bog-standard 1970s sf film in which frankly rubbish sfx are married to a hackneyed plot that some sf author probably covered two decades before. It’s not like the production design is anything special either – and I really like 1970s production design. Meh.

endearmentTerms of Endearment*, James L Brooks (1983, USA). Jack Nicholson is an ex-astronaut and a sad ageing womaniser. Shirley Maclaine, after being introduced via an entirely pointless prologue featuring her and her daughter, Debra Winger, and their relationship, is Nicholson’s neighbour. For reasons he does not appear to understand, he invites her out for a drink. The two are initially repelled by each other, for, it must be said, fairly good reasons. But they too fall in love, and Maclaine somehow succeeds in rehabilitating Nicholson, although her own snobbery survives more or less intact. As for Winger, who swoops into the story at various points, as if her life and relationships are germane to the central plot and not episodes that interfere in the central relationship between Maclaine and Nicholson. Terms of Endearment apparently won five Oscars – for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay – which no doubt explains its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See  Before You Die list, but it is a pretty boring film. Maclaine is reasonably good, Nicholson does his usual gurning, Winger is good but her presence feels like an attempt to shoehorn a second plot in (perhaps it had more space in the original novel), and I totally forget who else was in the movie. I can at least now cross it off the list… but without any real sense of accomplishment.

red_desertRed Desert*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). This was a rewatch, and I normally don’t bother mentioning them – especially when I’ve written about the film before on this blog, as I did here… But Red Desert is so good, it’s one of my top ten films, and I rewatched it because I finally got around to upgrading my DVD copy to the Blu-ray edition and… It’s a beautiful film, it’s a painterly film. And it shines on Blu-ray. The film is all about industrial landscapes and their effect on the environment – as translated through Monica Vitti’s damaged character – and never has pollution looked so pretty. The scene where the group of friends gather in a hut on the jetty, and a ship draws up alongside… The ship seems even more over-powering, so close and so huge… It completely overshadows the sexual games the couples had playing in the hut earlier. The white fog which covers everything when they leave seems like a fitting commentary. Red Desert is a favourite film – hence the purchase of it on Blu-ray and this additional review of it – and it not only survived a rewatch, but the rewatch only increased my admiration for the film. A genuine piece of cinematic genius.

horizonswest11Horizons West, Budd Boetticher (1952, USA). When this dropped through the letter-box, I assumed I’d stuck it on my rental list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But it’s not. And it’s not a Howard Hawks western. So it must have been because it stars Rock Hudson. Except he’s not actually the star. Robert Ryan is the star. He and Hudson are brothers. After returning from the civil war (they were on the losinig side, you know, the side that thought it was okay to own slaves), they settle down to farm the family homestead. But Ryan has ambition. So he enlists the help of some local disaffected veterans, begins rustling cattle and selling them to the Mexicans, and so builds up a fortune. Raymond Burr plays the local grandee, who is a nasty piece of work, and provides additional motive to Ryan to earn his fortune – other, that is, than Burr’s wife, whom Ryan falls for, and who later proves the driver of his worse actions. Hudson meanwhile takes over as marshal and ends up attempting to bring his brother to justice. It’s an interesting situation, but it’s given the usual shallow Hollywood treatment. And there’s nothing else to recommend it. Missable.

shineShine*, Scott Hicks (1996, Australia). A biopic, and you know how much I love them… The subject in this case is David Helfgott, an Australian concert pianist. The film opens with Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush in fine form) demanding entrance to a closed restaurant during a storm… and over the course of the film he gets to know its staff, one in particular, and becomes a regular there playing the piano. He is a psychiatric patient, and it is a friend of one of the waitresses – Lynn Redgarve – who eventually marries him and so rehabilitates him. Before that, we have his history: his teen years as a gifted pianist, driven by his tyrannical father, arguments over competitions, over whether he can study in the US, his move to London to study at the Royal College of Music, his eventual breakdown and admission to a psychiatric hospital… This is a polished piece of biopic-ery, but I can’t honestly see anything in it that lifts it above others of its ilk. How it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a mystery. Which is hardly something I’ve no said before… I watched it, that’s enough. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 786