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Moving pictures 2018, #2

I plan to watch less films in 2018 than I did in 2017, and already I’m spending an hour reading when I get home from work, and only putting a film on afterwards. And yet I’m three dozen films in and it’s only the 17 January as I type this, and I’ve a third and fourth post, with another dozen movies already lined up… Oh well.

Nightfall, James Benning (2011, USA). I found this on Youtube, which seems to be the place to find Benning films, as the Österreichisches Filmmuseum has only released half a dozen or so DVDs of his work. Some of his films are apparently available via Mubi, but I’ve yet to subscribe to it. Meanwhile, there are (often low-quality) copies uploaded to Youtube by various fans, plus Benning’s own Youtube account. Nightfall has nothing to do with Asimov, thankfully, but is 98 minutes of a forest high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the sun sets. That’s it. Benning locks off his digital camera, and leaves it running. It’s about as stripped-back Benning as you can get. Unfortunately, there’s an extra-textual element to much of Benning’s work – the juxtapositon of sound and vision, for example, and the reasoning behind it – and watching one of his films on Youtube means you don’t have access to that extra-textual knowledge. You can google for it… and I did. But all I could find claimed that Nightfall was precisely what it presented to be. But, knowing Benning’s work, I suspect there’s more to it than just that. I shall have to look further.

Elle, Paul Verhoeven (2016, France). This was a Christmas present. The last I’d heard, Verhoeven was working on some project back in the Netherlands after his successful Black Book, and it seemed pretty certain his Hollywood career was on hiatus as, despite the success of his Hollywood films, I suspect he was too idiosyncratic and the sequels by other hands to his movies had seen diminishing returns. Now, the movies he made in Hollywood were (mostly) top-notch, and while the Starship Troopers live-action franchise (not to be confused with the CGI one) upped the satire with each new installment, it also lowered the audience figures. The Robocop sequels went into a death spiral in terms of both quality and commercial success. And the sequel to Basic Instinct was a Sharon Stone vanity project, and rightfully bombed. (There was also an unofficial sequel to Showgirls, made by a porn actress who had a bit part in the original; it’s absolutely fucking dreadful.) So, Verhoeven: no longer Hollywood. And now he appears to have reinvented himself as French cinema’s successor to Andrzej Żuławski. Because Elle pretty much plays like Verhoeven channelling Żuławski. Which is no bad thing, I hasten to add. Plus, it stars La Huppert. Which is also a good thing – she is probably the best actor currently making films. In Elle, she plays the CEO of a video games company which has a fairly typical testosterone-driven nerd culture. One night, she is raped by a man who breaks into her house. Afterward, she carries on as if nothing had happened – but now she is suspicious of every man in her life: employees, friends, neighbours… The violence is played flat and brutal, which is a Verhoeven trademark, but the way the story pans out feels more Żuławski… although Verhoeven doesn’t have his cast acting as emphatically as Żuławski does. It’s an odd film, a very French drama into which these violent incidents erupt. Which is, I suppose, very Verhoevenesque.

Utamaro and His Five Women, Kenji Mizoguchi (1946, Japan). David Tallerman, who likes his Mizoguchi, gave me this box set as he had upgraded his copies of the films it included. (I’ve done the same for him when I’ve upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray.) Utamaro and His Five Women is set during the Edo Period in, er, Edo. The film opens with a samurai art student taking issue with the text on a print of a painting by Utamaro. He tracks him down and challenges him to a duel. Utamaro challenges him to a drawing contest instead… which he wins so handily, the art student joins him as an apprentice. And it’s the new apprentice’s girlfriend who becomes the first of Utamaro’s women, each of whom are combinations of model and muse. The second is a famous courtesan who has him paint on her back for a tattoo artist to use as an outline (as per the box set cover art). Another of his women is a lady’s maid he spots at the beach, diving into the sea among a large group of women and bringing out fish. One of the interesting things about this film – and it’s a good film if you like Japanese historical films – is that it was made under American Occupation immediately following WWII, and the Americans didn’t like the Japanese to make historical films as they thought they were militaristic and nationalistic (according to Wikipedia). But they let Mizoguchi make this.

Mystery, Lou Ye (2012, China). Another Christmas present. Lou is a Sixth Generation director from China, and I’m a big fan of those films by the group I’ve seen. Other members include Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan,  whose films I’ve seen and much admire; and Lu Chuan and He Jianjun, whose movies I haven’t seen. Lou’s Suzhou River is a thriller/drama with a very clever structure; Mystery, a later film, also uses a non-linear narrative to tell its story. It also has that same documentary style approach to its narrative, which is, I freely admit, one of the real draws of Sixth Generation films. The movie opens with a young woman wandering out into a road and being hit by one of two racing sportcars. Except it may not have been an accident, as she appears to have been fatally assaulted beforehand. Lu Jie makes friends with Sang Qi at a playground where both their kids play. Sang is convinced her husband is having an affair and asks Lu to meet her at a coffee-shop to discuss the advisability of hiring a private detective. But it turns out the coffee shop overlooks the hotel where Sang’s husband meets his mistress. Except… Lu sees her own husband entering the hotel with a young woman. So Lu investigates, and discovers that Sang is also her husband’s mistress and Sang’s young son was fathered by him… You have to keep your wits about you to follow this, although the way the story is presented is deceptively simple. It’s the flashbacks, you see. The situation is complicated, and only revealed piecemeal. Definitely worth seeing.

Notre musique, Jean-Luc Godard (2004, France). I’m almost done with this Godard box set, and I’m really glad I bought it. These are films to watch again and again. Godard’s films have never been exactly traditional. Even in his early Nouvelle Vague movies, he played around with narrative forms. Later, he experimented even further. And continues to do so. Notre musique is from Godard’s phase when he mixed fact and fiction, and often played the protagonist himself. After an opening non-narrative section of documentary war footage, the film presents Godard waiting at an airport prior to flying to an arts conference in Sarajevo. He meets a man who will be an interpreter at the conference, French, but originally Israeli, whose niece will also be at the conference. Godard is interviewed by an Israeli journalist, who later interviews Mahmoud Darwish. Both interviews concern Israeli-Palestinian relations. For all his cleverness and cinimatic tricksiness, Godard was never especially subtle. His films are always about something, and if it’s not that which drives the narrative, then you can be sure the characters will discuss it a number times during the movie. Some of his films in fact are little more than discussions among members of the cast. In order to make a point, Godard not only uses language, ie, the spoken word, but also the language of narrative, and even the language of cinema. The epitome of this being, of course, his film Goodbye to Language (see here). (Although I prefer his Film Socialisme (see here), which is similar.) It’s not necessary to agree with Godard’s argument to appreciate his films, but then I don’t think he expects his films to be persuasive per se, more that they’re presented as arguments and their chief purpose is to provoke discussion (but from a sincere position). Anyway, this is by no means Godard’s best film of this sort, nor his most intriguing; but it certainly bears rewatching.

Emperor, Peter Webber (2012, USA). My mother lent me this one. I’ve watch a film about General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito before, but it was Sokurov’s The Sun (see here), which could not be more different to this US take on the same historical events. Emperor is told from the point of view of Brigadier-General Bonner Fellers (a real person, like everyone in this film), who was a member of MacArthur’s staff and tasked with discovering Hirohito’s complicity in declaring war on the US. Before the war, Fellers had been in a relationship with a Japanese woman studying in the US, but she had returned home hurriedly for family reasons. He followed her back to Japan, weathered anti-Western sentiment from newly-militarised Japanese society, and met her father, a decorated general. As a Japanist, he’s a good choice to investigate Hirohito, although he did abuse his position during the war so that his girlfriend’s town was avoided by US Army Air Force bombers. MacArthur, meanwhile, is more concerned about using his occupation of Japan as a stepping-stone to the US presidency. To that end, he runs roughshod over Japanese imperial protocol. I happen to think humans are not gods, divine right is a con, and anyone who thinks royalty is any way different to anyone else is stupid. Despite that, Emperor was based on historical events and, as far as I can tell from some quick online research, quite accurate. Okay, Tommy Lee Jones somewhat overwhelmed MacArthur, but the remaining cast were, I guess, sufficiently unknown to me they could be seen as the historical characters they played. The CGI showing a devastated Japan was quite effective but, to be honest, the whole felt more worthy than it felt notable.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 895

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2017, the best of the year: films

A couple of years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try and watch all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition). This year I also decided to try and watch a film from as many countries as I could. Both challenges have been going quite well: I’ve watched 897 of the 1001 so far, 56 of them seen for the first time this year; and I’ve watched movies from 53 countries… although only Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania were new to me in 2017.

It also occurred to me in 2017 that most of the films I watched were directed by men. So I started to track the genders of the directors whose films I watch in an effort to see more films by female directors. Unfortunately, female directors are hugely outnumbered by men, especially in Hollywood, and I managed only 43 films by women during the year. Having said that, a couple of those female directors became names I plan to keep an eye on, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo.

films
I watched 602 films in 2017, although only 532 were new to me this year. I also decided in 2017 to watch more documentaries, and ended up watching so many that I thought it best to split my film best of the year lists into two, one for documentaries and one for “fictional” films… except I’m not sure what to call the latter, but I think “narrative cinema” is the preferred term.

documentary
1 I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba) [1]. I loved Humberto Solás’s Lucía after watching it, and I wanted to see Tomáz Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment a second time, and there was this box set from Mr Bongo that included both, as well as I am Cuba and Strawberry and Chocolate. So I bought the box set… and was blown away when I watched I am Cuba, a documentary commissioned by the Soviets to promote Cuba, but which was so innovative it was never actually released. Kalatozov reportedly strung cameras on wires, but even knowing that it’s hard to work out how he achieved some of his shots. And this was in 1964, when there was no CGI. I am Cuba also presents the island as a near-utopia, and while the USSR and its satellite nations were never that, they at least aspired to it – which is more than can be said of the West. The American Dream isn’t utopia, it’s a deeply mendacious justification for the success of the few at the expense of the many. Even now, 53 years after I am Cuba was made, Cuba remains poor, but has one of the best free healthcare systems on the planet, and the US is rich and its healthcare system is unaffordable by the bulk of its population. Some things are more important than giving a handful of people the wherewithal to buy their own Caribbean island.

2 The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not watched a film by Guzmán, why not? The Pearl Button is a meditation on the universe, water, the history of Chile, especially the Pinochet dictatorship, and the genocide of the country’s indigenous people. It’s a mix of stock footage and gorgeously-shot film, all tied together by the calm voice of Guzmán. He describes how Pinochet’s goons would torture people and then dump their bodies offshore from helicopters. He interviews supporters of Salazar, president before Pinochet’s coup, who were put in concentration camps. He speaks to the handful of survivors of the Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes of Patagonia, which in the late 1880s were infected with Western diseases, and the survivors hunted for bounty, by settlers. He discusses Jeremy Button, a a Yaghan tribesman taken back to Britain on the HMS Beagle in 1830 (it was when returning Jeremy Button to Patagonia a year later that Darwin first travelled aboard the HMS Beagle). The Pearl Button is not only an important film because of what it covers, but a beautifully-shot one too. You should watch it.

3 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China) [2]. This year I went on something of a China/Taiwan cinema kick. I forget what started it off, but I discovered lots of new names to watch and lots of excellent films. Zhao Liang I had, I think, put on my rental list because his films sounded like Jia Zhangke’s , who was already a favourite. But Zhao makes documentaries, and Behemoth is about coal in China, the mines and those who live on their periphery and survive by gleaning. Zhao’s earlier work has been very critical of the Chinese authorities – meaning his films are not wholly official – but they are also beautifully framed. And in Behemoth, he goes one further and uses split-screen, but also arranging his screens in such a way they’re not initially obvious as split-screen and then suddenly turn kaleidoscopic. It’s not a technique I’ve seen before, and it probably wouldn’t work in most situations, but it’s absolutely brilliant here. Zhao Liang is a name to watch.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France) [4]. I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s films for many years and own copies of much of what he’s directed during his long career. I’d heard about Francofonia some time in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 it appeared, and not until 2017 it was released in the UK – and only at Curzon cinemas, but, annoyingly, only the Curzon cinemas in London. FFS. I’d liked to have seen it on a big screen. But I had to console myself with the Blu-ray. Which was pretty much as I expected – a typical Sokurovian mix of documentary, meditation, narrative cinema and autobiography – although the production values were a distinct cut above his previous work. It’s a good entry in Sokurov’s oeuvre, if not one of his best ones, but even merely good Sokurov is still so much better than most film-makers can manage. It’s also been heartening seeing how well it has been received… because that means we might see more films from Sokurov. Because I want more, lots more.

5 Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). I loved Koyaanisqatsi when I watched it last year, and I later learned that its director of photography, Ron Fricke, had made a pair of similar non-narrative films himself: Baraka and Samsara. They’re basically footage of various parts of the planet, with only the most tenuous of links and no over-arching story. The emphasis is entirely on the imagery, which is uniformly gorgeous. Of the two, I thought the second, Samsara, much the better one.The footage is beautiful, the parts of the world it covers fascinating, and it’s one of the few films out there which gives you faith in humanity. I quite fancy having my own copy of this.

Honourable mentions: The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK) astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Baraka, Ron Fricke (1992, USA) gorgeous non-narrative cinema from around the world; Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (2003, UK) 1970 tour across Canada aboard a train featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others; Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA) Johnson’s life stitched together from outtakes from her documentaries and privately-shot footage; Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria) affecting fly-on-the-wall film of an ambulance crew in Sofia’s beleagured healthcare system; Petition: The Court of Appeals, Zhao Liang (2009, China) filmed in the shanty town outside Beijing where petitioners lived while waiting the years it took for their appeals to be heard, if ever.

narrative
1 The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). I loved this film – it’s perhaps a stretch to call it narrative cinema as it’s also partly a documentary. Anyway, I loved this film… so much I went and bought everything by Ben Rivers that was available (no surprise, then, that his two other feature-length films get honourable mentions below). The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – the title is taken from a Paul Bowles story, which partly inspires it – opens as a documentary of Olivier Laxe filming Mimosas. But then Bowles’s story intrudes, and Laxe, a real person, and his film is indeed real and has been released… Laxe’s story morphs into the plot of Bowles’s short story. This is brilliant cinema, an unholy mix of documentary, fiction, literary reference, art installation and narrative cinema.

2 Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). I knew Watkins from The War Game and Punishment Park, both mock documentaries about very real horrors; so when I watched Privilege it came as something of a surprise. True, it’s similar, in as much as it’s a mock documentary, set a few years ahead of when it was made; but it also seems a more tongue-in-cheek film, and plays up the ridiculousness of its premise. The segment where the star is filming a government commercial for apples, for example, is hilarious. In the movie, Watkins posits a fascist UK in which a pop star is used as a symbol to make unpleasant government policies more palatable. We’ve yet to see that happen here, if only because politicians foolishly believe they have media presence. They don’t. They’re as personable as a block of rancid butter. And often as intelligent (BoJo, I’m looking at you; but also Gove, Hammond, Davies, Rudd…) We should be thankful, I suppose, because if they ever did decide to use a media star with actual charisma, we’d be totally lost. On the other hand, satire apparently died sometime around 2015, so perhaps Watkins may prove more prophetic than he knew…

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia) [3]. I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and stuck it on my watch list. It was later recommended to me, so I sat down and watched it, and… it was excellent. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematography is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). 2017 was a bit of a Pasolini year for me. I bought a boxed set of his films on Blu-ray, and worked my way through them – although a number I’d seen before. Arabian Nights feels like an ur-Pasolini film, in that it does so well some of the things some of his films were notable for – a non-professional cast acting out elements of a story cycle in remote locations. The title gives the source material, but the look of the movie is pure Pasolini – although much of it comes down to his choice of locations in North Africa. Of all the Pasolini films I’ve seen, this is by far the prettiest; and if its treatment of its material is somewhat idiosyncratic, 1001 Nights is far too complex a source for honest adaptation.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China) [5]. I “discovered” Jia in 2016, but it was obvious he was a director to keep on eye on, and so I sought out his other works. Including this one. Which I thought worked especially well – not that this other films are bad, on the contrary they’re excellent. But something about this one especially appealed to me. It’s set at a theme park containing famous buildings from around the world. The movie follows two workers there, one a dancer and the other a security guard. The film is a sort of laid-back thriller, in which the cast move around the artificial world of the theme park, trying to make ends meet, and trying to keep their relationship together. The World has a documentary feel to it, and often seems more fly-on-the-wall than narrative drama. But I think it’s its literalisation of the term “microcosm” that really makes the film.

Honourable mentions: Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic) grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia)  languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India) more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China) grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China) cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru) affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan) a lovely piece of Japanese animation; Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France) a thinly-veiled retelling of the Virgin Mary Godard turns into a compelling drama; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand) the best of Weerasethakul’s atypical fractured-narrative films I’ve seen so far, mysterious and beautifully shot; O Pagador de Promessas, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil) the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’or, an excellent piece of Cinema Novo;  Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France) enigmatic meditation on memory presented as a laid-back domestic drama; The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA) pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s B-movie supernatural thriller that also manages to be feminist; Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK) see above.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #67

I seem to have built up another backlog of these again. Cracking on…

Passion, Jean-Luc Godard (1982, Switzerland). Some people consider this one of Godard’s best, although he seems fixed in the minds of the general cinema-going public only as the Nouvelle Vague director of films such as À bout de souffle, Bande à part and Une femme est une femme. Of course, he’s made many more films than that, and is still making them. Passion marked Godard’s return to mainstream cinema after a period making experimental pictures. A Polish film-maker in Switzerland is exasperating his backers by staging huge, and expensive, tableaux based on famous paintings, none of which suggest a commercial narrative movie. Meanwhile, Isabelle Huppert is fired from her job at a local factory, and subsequently tries to organise a strike. The film-maker, played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, is in a relationship with Huppert; he’s also in a relationship with the wife, played by Fassbinder favourite Hanna Schygulla, of the owner of the hotel where he is staying. It’s an odd mix of a film. The Huppert narrative is very much realist social drama, but the Schygulla elements feel a bit like a bedroom farce and the tableaux scenes are more Peter Greenaway than anything Godard has done previously. It works, because Godard is good at this stuff. And he also has an excellent cast – Huppert, probably the best actor currently making films, is on top form, even with the stutter with which her character is lumbered. The tableaux are… odd. As I said, more Greenaway than Godard. But unlike Greenaway, Passion shows how they are constructed – their existence is part of the narrative, rather than them actually being the narrative. I rate other films by Godard higher than Passion (although I’m not that much of a fan of his Nouvelle Vague movies). Um, thinking about my favourite Godard films, they’d probably look like this: 1. Le mépris, 2. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 3. Je vous salue, Marie, 4. Week End, and 5. either Passion, Détective or Film Socialisme.

The Mortal Storm*, Frank Borzage (1940, USA). A write-up of this film somewhere – Wikipedia? imdb? – states that it rarely mentions the country in which it was set in order not to offend German audiences. Except that’s completely untrue. It makes it abundantly clear it’s about Germany and the average Germans’ complicity with Hitler and the Nazis. The whole point of the film is a relationship between a non-Nazi and the daughter of a Jewish intellectual. No effort is made to disguise this. Jimmy Stewart is friendly with the daughter of college professor Frank Morgan, who is Jewish. She’s already engaged to a Nazi party member, but when her step-brothers start spouting the party line, she realise her mistake. This is a good film because it’s totally not subtle. It’s not a great film – some of the opening shots have that sort of artificial grandeur Hollywood managed every so often with its studio shots… but once the plot gets into gear they disappear. Given its subject – even more timely now than it has ever been – The Mortal Storm probably deserves its spot on 1001 Movies you Must See Before Die list, even though technically there’s nothing that’s special or important about it.

Gold Diggers of 1937, Lloyd Bacon (1936, USA). A theatre owner wants to put on a new show but his partners have spent all on his money on the stock market. So they get his life insured, planning to bump him off and then collect to make good on their debts. But the insurance salesman – Gold Diggers regular Dick Powell – who sold him the policy is keen on him staying alive. So the corrupt partners try to kill the theatre owner, but Powell has to keep him alive in order to earn his commission. Cue hilarity. There are some entertaining set-pieces, but the humour is all a bit obvious and some of the acting closer to mugging. There’s one of Berkeley’s big routines at the end, but the way the final act gives everyone the happy – or not, in the villains’ case – ending does feel over contrived. I don’t know if the Gold Diggers series was killed by the Hays Code or the declining quality of the films, but they’re not bad examples of their time and type, and they’re usually entertaining. If you find copies of these two Busby Berkeley collections, they’re worth having, although volume one much more so than volume two.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand). I’d known Weerasethakul’s name originally as the director of The Adventures of Iron Pussy, a film I’ve never seen, but a spoof of 1970s Thai action films and musicals didn’t sound like it would appeal. But then earlier this year I came across mention of the film he made after that, Tropical Malady, and it seemed much more like the sort of movie I enjoy watching. So I stuck it on my rental list (see here). And followed it with Syndromes and a Century (see here). And then it turned out Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included Weerasethakul’s first film, Mysterious Objects at Noon… So I’ve now seen four films by Weerasethakul, and they’re very good. They’re slow and elliptical and often beautifully shot. Sort of my thing, really. Okay, so sometimes the parts don’t quite fit together, but I really like the fact Weerasethakul ignores the three-act structure. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives consists of six linked stories about the title character. They’re odd, but odd in a way that is presented as completely normal. The dead  sister of Uncle Boonmee’s wife joins them for dinner and they treat her appearance as completely unremarkable. A nephew who disappeared returns as a forest spirit – covered head to toe in fur and with red eyes that glow in the dark – and they treat him as if he were just a lost nephew. It’s beautifully laid-back. True, not much, if anything, happens; but Weerasethakul presents worlds in which strange things take place and they are treated as completely ordinary. And the slow dead-pan delivery not only makes their ordinariness within the world of the film more believable but also makes them even more extraordinary to the viewer. I think I’m becoming a bit of a Weerasethakul fan. And yes, now I want to see The Adventures of Iron Pussy.

Silver Lode*, Allan Dwan (1954, USA). That’s some cover art. Silver Lode is actually a relatively ordinary 1950s Western, and that cover art looks more like some twenty-first century Western romance, with its artfully-designed typeface and artfully-placed lens flare. A US marshal and three marshal deputies ride into the eponymous town with a warrant for the arrest of John Payne, a pillar of the local community. The marshal tells everyone that Payne killed his brother – shot him in the back during a poker game – and stole the pot of $20,000 dollars. At first, the people of Silver Lode are on Payne’s side and are keen to ensure he is conveyed safely to California, where the warrant was issued, in order for his innocence to be proven. But then one of the marshal’s deputies admits to Payne that it’s all a fake – the marshal is no marshal and the warrant is forged – and it’s all for revenge… but the marshal kills the deputy and pins it on Payne… Public opinion turns and Payne finds himself hiding from the mrshal and his deputies and the townsfolk. It’s an interesting spin on your usual Western story, and it’s handled well – Payne’s actual guilt is left in the air until the very end – but in terms of presentation there’s nothing special about Silver Lode. I’d sooner its position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list went to a better non-Hollywood film.

O Pagador de Promessas*, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil). Another highly-regarded film that doesn’t seem to have ever had a DVD release – at least not in the UK – so I ended up having to buy a rip on eBay from a US seller. O Pagador de Promessas, variously translated as Keeper of Promises and The Given Word, is the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’Or. Like some of the other Brazilian films I’ve seen, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I do wonder if I’m seeing the cream of the crop – Vidas Secas, the films of Glauber Rocha… These are excellent films and it’s criminal they’re not better known in the Anglophone world. But O Pagador de Promessas… A poor farmer promises to carry a crucifix from his farm to a church in Salvador (like those other excellent Brazilian films, O Pagador de Promessas is set in Bahia) if his donkey survives its illness. But the church are unhappy with the farmer’s “pagan” promises, and various other groups try to use him to promote their own anti-Catholic causes. From my limited exposure to Brazilian culture, Bahia seems to be fertile ground – Vidas Secas is set there (see here), as are Rocha’s Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes (see here and here), not to mention Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent novel, The War of the End of the World (see here). It’s not all carnivals and football. Duarte made half a dozen feature films between 1947 and 1967 – I’d like to see them all. And watch the rest of Glauber Rocha’s oeuvre, of course. I should make more of an effort to track these films down.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 893


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Moving pictures 2017, #64

Six films from three countries – two of each. Odd, how it works out sometimes.

Two Women, Vittorio De Sica (1960, Italy). I found this on Amazon Prime which, in among the populist crap and, well, the just plain crap, throws up the odd gem. This is no gem per se, but it’s De Sica so it’s quality Italian cinema. It’s also typical De Sica fare. Loren plays a mother who attempts to save her daughter from the invading Germans by travelling out into the country. But none of her relatives are keen to harbour the two of them. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays, bizarrely, an Italian-dubbed male lead, although Italian cinema alway preferred to film without sound and add it later through looping, which certainly helped with foreign markets but also explains why so many non-Italian-speaking stars appeared in Italian films, such as Burt Lancaster in The Leopard. I will freely admit I had initially thought Sophia Loren one of those European actresses adopted by Hollywood chiefly because of their looks, but she was a talented actress and a great deal better than many of her contemporaries, Italian or otherwise. Belmondo, on the other hand, is… Belmondo. Even in an Italian film, he smoulders. His character is a teacher with communist sympathies, which leads to several political arguments. There’s a brutal scene in which both Loren and her daughter are raped by German troops, and it’s quite harrowingly shot. Given how lightly commercial media treat rape, it always dismays when it appears. True, in Two Women it’s a vital part not only of the plot but of the protagonists’ character arcs, which is more than can be said of the vast bulk of commercial media, but that doesn’t mean I have to like its presence. Two Women is a good film… but it’s not a pleasant film, and I’d sooner people knew that before they started watching it.

Le petit soldat, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). When I bought the 10- DVD Godard box set, I also bought this 13-DVD one. Unlike the other, it was a UK release, not a France release; but, like the other, it did include many films I’d seen before. In fact, Le petit soldat was the first of its 13 films I’d not seen before. There are identifiable phases to Godard’s films – to an outsider, at least – although I suspect I’m missing some subtle distinctions. But, to my eye, his early films were very much influenced by US noir movies, so much so he actively spoofed the genre several times, such as in Made in U.S.A. (see here), but in earlier films the homage was much more straightforward… As it is in this one, which is pretty much a French take on a US noir film but filmed in Switzerland. Bruno Forestier plays a French agent in Geneva, who is asked to murder someone. But he meets Anna Karenina, and, well, so much for principles. The more Godard I watch, the more I appreciate Godard as a film-maker. In his early days, he was one of the Nouvelle Vague, and perhaps a little more in love with US cinema, especially noir, than his peers. Except… how then to explain Le mépris, made only three years after this. Huh. I don’t think Godard was ever as technically proficient as Truffaut, but I think he had a better handle on the medium’s possibilities – and a fondness for narrative experimentation, which definitely appeals to me. Le petit soldat is pretty straightforward – the twists and turns of the plot are there in the noir playbook, so I’m not really convinced any changes Godard rings are all that innovative. It’s a more disciplined film than, say À bout de souffle, and it works best as a Nouvelle Vague than a noir/thriller film. Worth seeing.

La note bleue, Andrzej Żuławski (1991, France). I’m a big fan of Żuławski’s films, although probably On the Silver Globe more than others; but his idiosyncratic approach to film-making, even if the results are, well, odd, appeals to the curmudgeon in me. And it’s for that reason I’ve been picking up the Mondo Vision releases of Żuławski’s films – six  to date, the first they released was Possession, which took me a while to track down… And it was finding a copy of that which reminded a Mondo release of La note bleue was due in 2017… So I checked, it’d been released, and I ordered myself a copy. La note bleue covers the last days of Chopin, during which many of his friends visit. He apparently had a somewhat odd family situation. And many famous friends – oh, and his wife was famous too, George Sands. Among those who appear in this film are Dumas, Turgenev and Delacroix. They visit Chopin’s villa in the countryside, only to discover all the staff have left and they have to help with the cooking. Chopin’s two children – played by Sophie Marceau, Żuławski’s partner after appearing L’amour braque (see here), and Benoît Le Pecq – worship and cosset their father. And… things happen. The performances, as in most Żuławski films, are OTT, some a great deal more than others. There are also, well, personifications, I guess, of aspects of the human personality, such as “demogorgon”, “spirit of fire”, and 8-feet-tall masked figures in gauzy cloaks, which appear in scenes but are ignored by the cast (some even have dialogue). Despite the seriousness of its topic, La note bleue is as mad as Żuławski’s other films. It’s also an especially good-looking film, more so than others of his, I think, and Mondo have done an excellent job on the restoration and transfer. Żuławski is an acquired taste, but La note bleue is worth seeing nonetheless.

Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). Fricke was director of photography on Koyaanisqatsi (see here), which I loved, and he obviously decided to have a go of his own. Which resulted in two films – Baraka and Samsara… but I could initially only find Samsara for rental, which was a bit weird, but I think it was sort of between releases, and Baraka is now available and on my rental list. None of which is entirely relevant, because this is a gorgeous film and I want them both. I want Blu-ray editions of them both. They’re just like Koyaanisqatsi, non-narrative cinema shot around the world, with the focus on the cinematography, which is, well, gorgeous. Samsara is, like Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, is pretty much just footage of different places, which I hesitate to call “exotic”, because I believe the word has been so abused it should be considered in the same light as “oriental”, but Samsara does include beautifully-shot footage of assorted parts of the world not otherwise seen in cinema. I loved it, I want my own copy. I will buy one too, see if I don’t.

Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins (2017, USA). This is the one film in this post that most people will want to read about. Which is a bit sad. Because it’s probably the worst of the six films in this post. Okay, so the giallo below, Death Walks at Midnight, is no masterpiece, but it’s arguably better at being what it is than Wonder Woman is. I’d heard a lot of comments about Wonder Woman, so I was keen to see it. I was, and still am, very much for a female-led tentpole movie, superhero or otherwise. Initial commentary on Wonder Woman praised its feminist content. And so I stuck it on my rental list, and went it arrived I stuck it in my player and… it had me for the first thirty minutes or so. A functioning all-female society – hand-wavey as fuck, but who cares, it’s presented entirely without comment and it looks like it works – but then a man appears and mega-warrior Diana suddenly turns into a battlefield liability. He pretty much saves her, which is not the message up to that point. Later, the writers have fun with that particular aspect of her character – but, to be honest, it’s the 21st century, and even for stories set in the 1910s, having a woman save a man from peril should not be a plot point, espcially not one that’s player over and over and over again. I mean, for fuck’s sake, grow up. And that’s the biggest problem with Wonder Woman: once she leaves Paradise Island, she’s treated like some sort of clothes horse, even by those who know of her powers; and then, when she does use them she becomes some sort of sexless super-being. Not to mention that by the end of the film her powers are stupidly OTT. I loved the first half-hour of this film, I wanted to give it a fair shake, so I watched it twice. But it really does fall apart once Diana arrives in London. It doesn’t help that the villains are weak, but that’s a common failing with superhero movies. They were at least well-placed in the period, which is something superhero movies don’t always do well. There has been some fuss online recently on the change in Amazon armour between Wonder Woman and the new Justice League movie. How difficult is it to design costumes for women that look plausible? I mean, if I were leading an army I wouldn’t be concerned with whether they looked like sexy women but whether they looked like fucking kick-ass fucking warriors and capable of winning the battle. This is not rocket science. Wonder Woman is not a great film, it’s not even a good film, but for superhero films it’s a welcome step forward. Hollywood should a) put out a shitload more female-fronted tentpole films, and b) give those films to female directors. Then we might start getting actual good superhero films.

Death Walks at Midnight, Luciano Ercoli (1972, Italy). There was a sale on the Arrow website recently, and among the DVDs and Blu-rays I bought was this, the sequel to Death Walks in High Heels (see here), which I’d bought earlier this year and enjoyed. And this is more of the same – also starring Susan Scott, AKA Spanish actress Nieves Navarro Garcia, the wife of Ercoli, although she appeared in many Italian films of the 1970s and 1980s. In Death Walks at Midnight, she plays a model who experiments with LSD and hallucinates the murder of a young woman by a man using an armoured fist with nails. Except there really was such a murder. But six months earlier. And when her experience appears in a low-rent magazine, those involved in the crime are keen to silence her. This is giallo, so it’s cheap and cheerful, and sense is one of the first things to end up on the cutting-room floor. But it does actually hang togehter, albeit only just, as Scott’s character maintains a solid forward trajectory, even if not everything in the film actually adds up. It struck me while watching Death Walks at Midnight, and based on a number of other giallo films I’ve seen, both horror and thriller, that many of their plots rely on gaslighting their female leads. Throughout this film, Scott is misled as to what she has seen and knows, by someone very close to her. It makes for a suspenseful story, and Scott eventually overcomes, despite all the men with which she interacts offering either scepticism or threats. I don’t know that this was a defining characteristic of giallo, and it seems odd that such a feminist take on the thriller/horror genre would come from Italy. If anything, I suspect it’s an accidental consequence of a genre which sought to put women front and centre in order to titillate a male audience. Films like this, Footprints on the Moon, much of the oeuvres of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and numerous titles from both Shameless and Arrow Video… But then there’s all those Italian Neorealist films which featured strong female leads, not all played by Sophia Loren (see above), it has to be said, by the likes of Robert Rossellini, Vittori De Sica and Federico Fellini… And then I remember there are many many more Italian films like Spaghetti a mezzanotte, and I realise it’s foolish to generalise…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886


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Moving pictures 2017, #57

Following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has proven an interesting experience. It’s introduced me to films and directors I might otherwise not have seen – although I’d already started exploring “world cinema” a long time before. And it’s not, to be honest, a great list – too much Woody Allen (one is too many), too many Hollywood classics whose time has passed (anyone who says the same is true of All That Heaven Allows will be punched, or at least roundly insulted), too many obvious picks as representatives of other nations’ cinemas… But it’s been worth using it to guide my viewing, even if the two movies from the list in this post were exactly the sort of films I have little time for…

Breaking Away*, Peter Yates (1979, USA). A coming-of-age film set in small-town USA, specifically Bloomington, Indiana, whose name I know but I’ve no idea where from. A bunch of townies, centred around cycle-mad Dennis Christopher, have various run-ins with university students, culminating in a university-only bicycle race in which a townie team is finally allowed to compete… and manages to win. It’s all thuddingly obvious, for all its attempts at depicting the real life of townies – “cutters” – in Bloomington. Small-town America is not a place that holds any interest for me, and the lives of the people who inhabit it strike me as poor fodder for stories. Okay, so there are universal themes that can be explored, and in the right hands, that of a literary author like Joyce Carol Oates, say, there might be something there I’d be interested in. But US cinema is a (chiefly) commercial medium, so there’s a demand for accessibility built-in, and the life depicted in this movie, well, that’s a wide swathe of the audience. And they’re welcome to it. Seriously, Breaking Away is dull and mind-numbingly predictable, and I’m completely mystified by its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s not even as if Yates is some sort of auteur – I mean, the only film he ever made that managed some sort of character was Krull. On the other hand, Breaking Away was apparently nominated for five Oscars, and actually won one (best original screenplay). Having said that, the gong that year went to Kramer vs Kramer (WTF?), despite the shortlist also including Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz. So, a fucked-up year for the Oscars, for sure. If you never ever see Breaking Away, you’ll have missed nothing.

La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan (2007, UK). This is a straight-up biopic of Edith Piaf, and it stands or falls on its depiction of its subject. Which was apparently good enough to get it nominated for a raft of awards. To be fair, I know nothing of Piaf or her music – I didn’t even know “piaf” meant “sparrow” until watching this film. And, well, it’s a biopic, it seems weird to comment on the story as it’s someone’s life. But you can comment on how it is presented, and this felt completely straightforward and, well, a bit dull. Piaf apparently started out busking during the interwar years, before being recruited by impresario Gérard Depardieu, and steadily growing in fame thereafter. The film leaps about chronologically, depicting scenes from later in her life in between the historical bits. Piaf was not, apparently, a very nice person. Earthy, I can understand, given her background; in fact I admire her for maintaining that element of her character. But she also became a bit of a diva, and did not respond well when crossed. But that that’s the gamble with “warts and all” biographies – does the subject survive the airing of their faults? Piaf clearly did – this film was hugely successful. I knew almost nothing about Edith Piaf before watching La vie en rose, and I know more having now seen it… but I’m still never going to buy one of her albums. Shrug.

Crimes and Misdemeanors*, Woody Allen (1989, USA). Why are there so many Woody Allen films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? Not only do I dispute his alleged greatness, the man also abused his daughter and his existence, never mind career, should not be celebrated. I watched Crimes and Misdemeanors only so I could cross it off the list; I would not otherwise choose to watch an Allen film. I do not like them, I do not wish to support his career (this was a charity shop DVD, so happily he did not profit from my purchase). And yet, ignoring Allen’s presence, which pretty much renders this film nothing as he wrote and directed it, it’s just not all that interesting a movie. Martin Landau plays a wealthy and influential Jewish opthamologist, who has a grasping mistress murdered. Allen plays an unsuccessful documentary film-maker, who is hired to film his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a highly successful TV producer, but Allen spends most of the film trying to get into Mia Farrow’s pants despite being married. It is creepy as fuck. Landau’s and Allen’s stories don’t really intersect – they have friends in common, and the whole point of the film is that they meet at the end and sort of confess their sins to each other and so give each other entirely unearned absolution. Except Landau hired a contract killer, and Allen is a grade-one shit. So not much resolution there for anyone with an ounce of morals. Of the Allen films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, none of which belong in the list, this is the least worthy of inclusion. Avoid.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Irving Lerner (1969, UK). I found this in a charity shop and thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s based on a play by Richard Shaffer. Christopher Plummer, who appeared in the play, swaps role to appear in the film. It’s about the meeting between Inca leader Atahualpa and conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who is played in the film by Robert Shaw. It starts with Pizarro trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund another expedition to the Americas, which he sort of agrees to do. There’s then a bit of exposition in which Pizarro explains in voiceover how he actually managed to put his expedition together… And then it leaps to South America and the conquistadors’ encounter with the locals and their plan to pillage the kingdom of Atahualpa by trickery. Pizarro claims godhood in order to get close to Atahualpa, who, as played by Plummer, is not all there. The conquistadors strike and Atahualpa is taken prisoner. But Pizarro comes to respect the man as he holds him prisoner, and when he insists the Inca should not be killed he argues against it. The film was shot on location, and it shows. Unfortunately, the script is too heavily based on the play, and the dialogue is far too stagey. On top of that, few of the actors convince in their roles – perhaps they might have done in a more obviously theatrical stage play, but in a movie shot on location they frequently over-act. There’s very little here worth watching, so it’s not worth going out of your way to find a copy.

JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, Jean-Luc Godard (1995, France). This is allegedly a documentary about Godard by Godard, but I’m not entirely convinced it is what it claims to be. Godard stars as sort of himself, inasmuch as he’s readily recognisable but the film refers to “JLG” in the third person. And yet it’s clearly presented as JLG, the voiceover is his train of thought, the topic of the piece his career and oeuvre… And the figure which appears in every shot is indeed Godard… but it seems odd that a director whose career is so focused – at least in its early days – on appearance should look so unkempt. Late in his career, Godard also seems to have discovered the usefulness, and the beauty, of static nature shots, and there are several very effective ones in JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December. The end result is a film that seems late Godard in appearance but early to mid-Godard in content. True, that latter element is explicit – Godard listening interviews from earlier in his career, faux interviews throwing quotes from earlier in his career back at him. And then, in the middle, you have Godard reading from a French edition of AE Van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Godard is a sf fan, that much is known. The House That Stood Still is the most noir of Van Vogt’s novels, and quite easily his best. In the right hands, it would make an amazing film. Is Godard the right hands?  He’s done US noir in the past, several times, and he’s done sf noir; but I can’t say I found the results especially convincing. Godard would certainly make an interesting adaptation of it, but I’m not convinced it would be a good one. None of which has anything to do with JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, which is a fascinating look more at Godard’s thought processes – at the time JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December was shot – than his career, and nonetheless manages to some lovely cinematography, almost as if it were determined to demonstrate Godard could do it. Get this box set – if you’re a cineaste, it’s worth it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885


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Moving pictures 2017, #55

The Godard box set has proven an excellent purchase. I’ve watched the films in it a couple of times each, and I suspect I’ll be watching them several more times as well. And I have another Godard box set to watch after this one as well. I guess I’m turning into a Godard fan. I don’t think every one of his films work – and the one here was especially mauled by critics – but sometimes it really does come together exceedingly well; and his continual experimentation, and facility with the language of cinema, to my mind makes him one of the most important European directors of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, not everything he made is currently available on DVD or Blu-ray – and he made a lot of films…

For Ever Mozart, Jean-Luc Godard (1996, Switzerland). I think I can safely say that drunkenly buying this box set has proven one of my smarter film purchasing decisions of 2017. It’s taken me a couple of watches of each film to get a handle on them, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen and I know I’ll watch them again. The films are also obscure, defy easy categorisation, and are the product of someone who has spent their entire career experimenting in the medium, and may well have contributed more to cinema narrative forms than any other living director. Having said all that, For Ever Mozart – apparently a phonetic pun as it sounds like faut rêver, Mozart, “dream, Mozart” – acually feels more like a Jacques Rivette film at times than it does a Godard one. But perhaps that’s because so many Rivette films are about rehearsal and narrative, and For Ever Mozart is about a theatre group who stage a play in Sarajevo during the years of ethnic cleansing. It’s a piece which revels in its tone-deafness, because the the whole point of the piece is that it’s tone-deaf. Unfortunately, one of Godard’s weaknesses appears to be the people-running-through-a-wood-in-fear-of-their-lives scenario, and that happens here. A little too often. Fortunately, there is also a lot more going on. Not least of which ties back to the title and the use of Mozart’s music as a theme. Godard is probably best known among non-Francophobe cinephiles for his work during the 1960s, especially that associated with the Nouvelle Vague. But I must admit I find his later stuff far more interesting. I still have the other Godard collection to watch, and it contains many of his better-known films, but I’ve very much enjoyed seeing the lesser-known films in this particular box set. Definitely worth getting.

Highly Dangerous, Roy Ward Baker (1950, UK). After sending me one Margaret Lockwood film, LoveFilm went and sent me another the following week. This one was a British thriller, written by Eric Ambler, which nonetheless managed to be quite dull. Lockwood plays an entomologist sent to an invented Balkan state to discover if their rumoured biological beetle-based weapon is real. But she’s an amateur and inept at spycraft. She screws up meeting her contact at the railway station, and later is immediately spotted as a ringer by a US journalist. Whose help she enlists in in breaking into the secret laboratory to steal samples of the potentially lethal beetles. It’s all very earnest, and very British, and if the invented Balkan country fails to convince it’s because, well, they weren’t very good at that sort of stuff in those days – and I’m not entirely sure why they bothered to invent countries to stand in for, well, actual enemies of the West (of the time). Who knows. Maybe some Yugoslavian trade deal might have been jeopardised. Lockwood is, well, Lockwood, although it’s good to see a female lead in a thriller, and though she has to occasionally defer to her male colleague, she’s very much presented as an expert, which is something you still don’t see that often these days. Given Lockwood is just about the only female character in the film, it’s not going to pass a Bechdel Test… but a female heroine who doesn’t have superpowers who nonetheless drives the film? Um, I seem to remember Lockwood was a lead with agency in the last film by her I watched, The Wicked Lady (see here). I knew there was a reason I put that Lockwood DVD collection on my rental list…

Jackie, Pablo Larraín (2016, USA). I really wanted to like this – it seemed like an interesting subject, and I’d been much impressed by Larraín’s No (see here), enough to want to watch more of his films… Although, to be fair, I would not have expected Larraín to have made Jackie… But… It’s Jackie Kennedy, of course. In the years just before, during, and immediately after, JFK’s assassination. Not being American, I have never understood the fascination with JFK, or the bizarre insistence that he was the best president the US “never had”. True, he created the political will to put a human being on the Moon, and his presidency did much for women’s rights… but he was also responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie, however, is about his wife, and JFK only makes occasional appearances. Natalie Portman is really quite astonishing in the role. Jackie Kennedy comes across as a not very nice person at all, and her fixed grin and wide-mouthed way of speaking feels more like a caricature than an actual character study. “Feels”, because I can’t judge its accuracy. Larraín’s direction seemed as good as that I’d noted in No, and even the back-and-forth-chronological structure seemed to work quite well, although there seemed ample opportunity to ramp up the emotional payload through clever cutting and that didn’t happen… The biggest problem I had was that I’d expected Jackie Kennedy to be a sympathetic subject, and she wasn’t. I should probably watch the film again.

Revenge, Yermek Shinarbayev (1989, Kazakhstan). Beware of films with bland uninformative titles. Further, beware of films with bland uninformative titles from other languages where the film is generally known by its bland uninformative English title. Like Revenge. Because that’s not a title to encourage interest. And yet, Revenge is actually a lovely piece of film-making, a Kazakhstani film about the Korean disapora throughout east Asia, and which ends up on Sakhalin Island. It opens with a prologue set in seventeenth-century Korea, then jumps to 1915 and a Korean village. A schoolteacher murders one of the young girls in his class, and the father vows vengeance on him. He almost has it, but is thwarted at the last minute. So he takes a second wife, has a son, and raises the son to be the instrument of his revenge. The story moves through the decades of the first half of the twentieth century, as the murdering teacher, and the son, now a man, follows him – into China and then the USSR, to Siberia and Sakhalin Island. As the film progresses, so the protagonist and antagonist develop a relationship which is never quite consummated, and each in turn lives out the experience of Koreans in the areas into which they move. The acting is, it must be said, a bit hammy in places, but the mise-en-scène is thoroughly convincing in each of the periods it depicts, and the cinematography is mostly good but occasionally great. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 has a number of excellent films in it, but I did like this one a lot. It’s a movie that bears, perhaps even demands, repeated watches. Recommended.

Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson (2014, USA). I hadn’t realised until I started watching this that it was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel. I know who Pynchon is, of course, and I’ve heard no end of praise about his fiction – but I’ve never actually read any of it. I have Gravity’s Rainbow on the TBR, and I will tackle it one day, buy Pynchon is pretty much unknown territory to me… Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson is not and, well, I’m not a fan of his films. Oh, they’re well-made films; but they’re entirely steeped in the American idiom and that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Which might well explain why I found Inherent Vice a bit dull and uninvolving. I’m supposed to care about a dopehead American who manages to hold together a career as a private detective? Jaoquim Phoenix plays the aforementioned dopehead, who is asked to investigate an ex-girlfriend’s disappearance, only to get sucked into a state-wide conspiracy. I really didn’t get this. The dopehead lifestyle was presented as comical, without actually being funny, which rendered Pynchon’s worldview – something I have not experienced myself as I’ve not read any of his books yet – as weird and incomplete rather than just off-kilter. Pynchon is, I am reliably informed, famous for his erudition, but there was no evidence of that here. The whole thing came across as a gonzo thriller featuring potheads, and while Hunter S Thompson cuold be very funny indeed with his tales of excessive drug-taking, the humour here didn’t amuse me at all. Meh.

The Collector, William Wyler (1965, UK). This is an adaptation of John Fowles’s first novel. I have mixed feelings about Fowles – I consider him a middlebrow writer all too often mistaken for highbrow, and yet he wrote a handful of classic novels. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a bona fide classic, A Maggot is a novel of notable ambition that only just doesn’t quite make the grade… the rest are middlebrow books du jour whose moments have passed, or even Dirty Old Man books. The Collector is a polished thriller novel, which was adapted by a US director and turned into an attractive, if implausible, UK thriller movie. This is not always the case.  Robert Wise shot The Haunting in the UK and it’s a classic piece of cinema. Terence Stamp plays a bullied young man who wins the pools and ends up buying an isolated house in the country. He is also a lepidopterist. And a stalker. He stalks Samantha Eggar, kidnaps her, and imprisons her in his basement. He hopes to make her love him. Which, of course, isn’t going to happen. None of it ever quite adds up, it all feels like it takes place in movie-land, where common sense doesn’t apply, and it’s not as if the cinematography lifts it above the usual as it feels mostly like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror (worth getting; they were of their time but surprisingly entertaining). There’s not much in the way of surprises, and the local colour resembles no UK known to a Brit, even in 1965, but it manages to be entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 883


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Moving pictures 2017, #52

My viewing of late has been partly dictated by LoveFilm’s imminent demise and a desire to watch as many films on my list that only it offers for rental. I can guess why it’s shutting down: there’s more money to be made in streaming. Let’s charge someone £2.49 to watch a film once instead of allowing them to rent up to twelve DVDs for £9.99 a month. Although, of course, you can pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services. And I would… if their selections weren’t so shit. There are now apparently dedicated streaming services – for Curzon, for Mubi, etc – which show the sort of films I want to watch. But I have to pay for each of them. Technology: finding more ways to separate you from your money for things that were cheaper, or even free, in the past…

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA). Another recommendation from David Tallerman. Johnson is a documentary director, and Cameraperson is excerpts from the films she has made, assembled as a testament to her life and career to date. Er, that’s it. There is footage of Johnson’s children, or footage from, for example, her documentary about bin Laden’s driver… I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work, I admit; in fact, I really should watch more documentaries. I tend to watch only those on topics which interest me, like James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep, or the Apollo missions, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… But documentaries, of course, cover a vast range of subjects, and I should know this because I live in a city that has an annual documentary festival (at which, incidentally, Cameraperson won the Grand Jury Award in 2016), and Johnson’s body of work covers some important topics. For the last year or two, I’ve split my rental DVDs between US/UK films and movies from the rest of the planet. But since I receive three at a time, perhaps I should introduce a third category for documentaries, and take one from each for each mailing. That sounds like a good plan, actually.

The Thin Man*, WS Van Dyke (1934, USA). William Powell plays an ex-private eye, married to wealthy socialite Myrna Loy. While visiting New York, a man they know disappears, and then his secretary is murdered. The disappeared man is assumed to be the murderer. The press repeatedly asks Powell if he’s investigating the case, but he points out time and again that he’s retired. But, of course, he starts looking into it, and, of course, he figures out what happened… resulting in a dinner party to which all the suspects are invited, and at which he reveals the murderer. Both leads were cast against type, but have real on-screen chemistry – although Powell does seem like he’s had a few too many throughout the film. But the way Loy and Powell actively take the piss out of each other is entertaining to watch. Loy is especially good. Apparently, director Van Dyke pushed Loy into a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party to see how she would react before casting her. Which is a pretty mean trick. Incidentally, the title refers to the disappeared man, not Powell’s character, but was mistakenly believed to be the latter – so much so, it led to five Powell and Loy sequels, all featuring the phrase “the Thin Man”. Not to mention a TV series that aired from 1957 to 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I’m not entirely sure why The Thin Man is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was certainly entertaining, but not I’d have thought an important film. True, it spawned a legacy that lasted a quarter of a century – but it’s mostly forgotten now.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax, Alexandre Aja (2016, Canada). I rented this because I’d read the book – it’s not one of Liz Jensen’s best, but she’s always worth reading. In fact, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a higher profile. Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy who is in a deep coma after falling off a cliff at a family picnic. His father has disappeared, and it’s not clear if Louis’s fall was accidental or deliberate. Louis, who narrates the film, considers himself accident-prone, and several such incidents are shown in flashback. Actually, much of the film takes place in flashback. Louis was actually pronounced dead after his fall, but came back to life on the mortuary slab – but is now in a coma. A pediatrician who specialises in comatose children becomes interested in Louis’s case and has him moved to his clinic. Louis’s mother starts to take an interest in the handsome doctor. Meanwhile, Louis meets with a rock monster in his coma dreams, and in the real world threats are made against his mother. I’d forgotten the novel’s plot when I watched the film, but it wasn’t difficult to see where it was going. It was one of those films where everything felt a little fake, the outside scenes more like a studio set plus CGI than open air, the ward in which comatose Louis is kept not looking anything like a hospital… A triumph of set-design over actual realistic surroundings. But not a bad film.

Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969, Italy). There are two types of Pasolini film: one I like a great deal, one I’m less keen on. Pigsty does both. It has two seemingly unrelated narratives. In one, a young man wanders naked across a volcanic landscape (last seen in Pasolini’s Theorem), before finding a sword and armour. And then it’s a series of fights, as he meets up with other soldiers, kills them, builds his own army, and so on. But there’s nothing in the blasted landscape to eat, so he turns to cannibalism, but is eventually arrested. The other narrative is set in the 1960s, and features a German industrialist who is clearly intended to be Hitler, even down to the toothbrush moustache and virulent anti-semitism. But his wife would sooner breed pigs, which later come in useful in getting rid of a rival. The problem with Pigsty is that the Hitler narrative is too silly to have much bite, and while the one set in ancient times is effective and looks pretty damn good, it takes too long to get to its point. This year has been the Year of Pasolini for me (well, among a couple of other directors), and from knowing nothing about him and his films I’ve worked my way through at least two-thirds of his oeuvre in around twelve months. And I like it. Some more than others, it has to be said. But I don’t doubt his importance as a director, or the uniqueness of his vision. I suppose in some respects I find him a bit like Fellini, another Italian director whose importance is beyond doubt but whose oeuvre I personally find a bit hit and miss – I love Fellini’s more self-indulgent films and find his Neorealist ones a bit meh, but that’s just me.

Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard (1987, France). Godard’s films from the 1980s and 1990s, that I’ve seen, seem to be structured in parts, which I suppose is little more than more overtly delineated acts. Soigne ta droite has several, er, parts. It opens with a man instructed to carry a film can to another city, but he’s abused by another man, and left to fend for himself. And then there are several scenes set on a small prop airliner, in which the passengers behave like children. There are musicians rehearsing, discussing music, and performing it. There are some aerial shots of the (Swiss, I think) countryside. And there’s a voice-over narration for much of the film, which explains little and confuses more. Some of the dialogue is declamatory, and tries to be philosophical but doesn’t always make the grade. Unlike in, say, Miklós Jancsó’s films, the dialogue in the scenes often feels unlinked, a sequence of non sequiturs – in one scene, some passengers are haranguing a ticket agent at an airport, but what they say to her does not match what is being acted out in the scene. Despite watching this film two or three times, I’ve yet to work out what it’s about. Godard apparently described it as “a fantasy for actor, camera and tape recorder”, which is not very helpful. I shall probably have to watch it again.

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss (1945, UK). For some reason I do not recall, I added a couple of Margaret Lockwood films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “quota quickie”, although it displays all the attributes – including James Mason in a leading role (as a Quaker and pacifist, he did not fight during WWII). (Um, it seems “quota quickies” only lasted from 1928 until 1938, so British films made during WWII don’t qualify – although Mason did make a lot of films during the period.) Lockwood plays the title character, an adventuress who steals her friend’s beau, only to find herself in a dull marriage… which she enlivens by taking up highway robbery, eventually teaming up with the infamous Captain Jackson (Mason). In many respects, it’s the dictionary definition of a bodice-ripper – apparently, it was considered very racy at the time. I would have thought the concept of a female leading lady who not only has agency, but pretty much breaks every rule of acceptable female behaviour for the time the film was set and also the time it was made (although the war would have changed some of those attitudes)… that I’d have thought more notable. And yet, for all that, the film is bit, well, dull. I think maybe the pacing is off or something. Certainly the plot is entirely predictable. And Lockwood makes a good leading lady, although somewhat bland at times. Mason is, well, Mason. The rest of the cast are your usual 1940s British actors with either cut-glass accents or put-on random regional accents. So, a bit meh, really.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 881