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Moving pictures 2017, #16

What was that about Hollywood films? I seem to have been ignoring them quite successfully of late…

Rosetta, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne (1999, Belgium). I think in retrospect I like the idea of the films of the Dardennes Brothers more than I like their actual films. They make very personal movies and I agree totally with that, ones that often use handheld cameras and a lot of improvisation by the cast… But the stories they tell often seem stretched beyond their natural length. Rosetta is a case in point. The title refers to a young woman in a Belgian town, who loses her job, and reacts violently. She is, in fact, desperate for work, because she lives in a trailer park and has an alcoholic mother. She lands a job at a waffle – gauffre – baker, but loses that when a profligate son decides he needs a job. So she shops her one friend, a waffle seller who had been making some money on the side with his own waffles, so she can have his job. This is an unpleasant film populated with unpleasant characters, and the title character’s blindness to the moral expediency of her own actions is treated so flatly it’s hard to tell what lesson the Dardenne brothers expect the viewers to take. To a European audience, it’s clearly a condemnation, but I wonder if it plays the same in other parts of the world? And I wonder if such subtlety serves any useful purpose…  Except, belabour the point so unsympathetic audiences will get it and you risk alienating your natural audience. Having said that, I suspect I fall firmly within the demographic the Dardennes expect to appeal to, but I’ve yet to see one of their films I can really take to heart. Rosetta is a good film, but not one to love.

Mississippi Mermaid, François Truffaut (1969, France). I’d not expected like this. Although Truffaut was one of the mainstays of the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve never really had all that much time for him as a director – despite loving his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. But then I watched his Tirez le pianiste and revised my opinion… Even so, Mississippi Mermaid was a surprise: a commercial film that actually really wasn’t that commercial. Truffaut may not have been as interesting a director as Godard, but when he was in love with his cast – as he plainly is with Deneuve, and possibly also Belmondo, in this movie – at least he only shows them to advantage rather than allowing them to completely derail his story. Having said that, the story of Mississippi Mermaid isn’t all that plausible. A rich plantation owner on Réunion Island has arranged a marriage with a woman whom he knows only from her letters. The woman takes a ship to the island. Except she doesn’t arrive. Instead, Deneuve claims to be the blushing bride-to-be, explaining that she’d sent a photo of a friend in order to better assess Belmondo’s intentions. They marry, they’re very much in love, but she often seems to contradict information she gave in her letters. Then she cleans out his bank accounts. She was a fake. He sets a private investigator on her trail, but some time later inadvertently bumps into her. They rekindle their relationship. But then the PI turns up, and refuses to let it lie as Deneuve was responsible for several crimes. So Belmondo kills him. The scenery is quite impressive – parts of the movie were actually filmed on Réunion Island. But the two leads shine in their roles, and Deneuve is on particularly fine form. It’s a dumb story that should not convince, but Deneuve and Belmondo carry it effortlessly. It’s no surprise’the film was a box office hit in France. And yet, for all its commercial cinema credentials, it refuses to obey the form – it’s over-long (123 minutes!), it can’t decided if its protagonists are heroes or anti-heroes, and it’s not sure if it’s a thriller or a warped romance. I really liked it.

The Hourglass Sanatorium, Wojciech Has (1973, Poland). I watched Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript last year and thought it astonishingly good, but I’m also sure few directors manage more than one such film. The Saragossa Manuscript – which I’m now glad I didn’t buy, despite wanting to, as it’s included in one of the Martin Scorceses Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – is a series of very cleverly nested stories, and The Hourglass Sanatorium uses a similar structure while also tying it to the ravings of a mad protagonist, so it’s not really clear what is what or what it means throughout the film’s 119 minutes. I tweeted while watching it that it was a film to generate nightmares, and while it may not have done it that particular night, it’s very definitely a film filled with nightmarigh imagery. A man visits his dying father in a sanatorium, but nothing is as it seems – not the country he travels through, nor the sanatorium itself. The fears of his childhood are made manifest, and yet none of it is really explained. The film is apparently an adaptation of a 1937 short story collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz, and the fact it’s based on a collection likely explains the somewhat episodic nature of the film. None of which actually detracts from it. The Hourglass Sanatorium is definitely a film that’s going to need repeated rewatchings. I’d also like to see more by Has.

Killer of Sheep*, Charles Burnett (1978, USA). I’m happy to admit I’d never have watched this film if it had not been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’m equally happy to confess I’d have missed out otherwise. I am, in fact, surprised the film is not better known. It was shot in the late 1970s in the Watts district of Los Angeles, but wasn’t actually released until 2007. Because the film-makers didn’t have enough money to secure the rights to music used in the film. Those music rights cost $150,000. The film was shot for $10,000 (around $38,000 in 2016 dollars). It is, it must be said, an excellent soundtrack, but it does help illustrate the strangehold the big media companies have on creative content. Killer of Sheep has no plot as such, it’s just a series of short vignettes set in and around Watts, with an amateur cast. It’s not a documentary because it tries to make its point – the life of working-class blacks in LA – through dramatised incidents, which often works better than a documentary. In order to persuade the viewer of its argument, a documentary needs a narrative – and some documentary makers are excellent at creating narrative, like Adam Curtis or Patrick Keiller. Another methiod is to present a sympathetic vierwpoint character, or more than one, a technique used by Joshua Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. Old style, of course, was to present facts as if building an argument – cf Hotel Terminus, The Thin Blue Line… Patricio Guzmán, on the other hand, presents two arguments, and it is the parallels between them which make his point. But making a drama of a situation has the benefit of allowing the director to control their narrative to an extent not possible with archive footage  (well, unless you’re Aleksandr Sokurov…). Killer of Sheep makes its point emphatically, and it does it with actors and staged stories. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

To Kill This Love, Janusz Morgenstern (1972, Poland).Morgenstern is pretty much unknown outside Poland. His Wikipedia page is smaller than my own, and there’s not even a link to his oeuvre on imdb.com. As far as I can determine, he directed a lot of television work, which no doubt accounts for the televisual look and feel of this film (although it is something I have noted previously about several Polish films of the 1970s). A young couple seem suited for each other, but their relationship runs far from smoothly – she is a nurse but too squeamish for some of the tasks she must perform, and he ends up in a relationship with an older woman. To be honest, not much in this film sticks in memory. It felt like a kitchen-sink drama, Polish style, and although the film justifiably made a star of female lead Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieślak, it’s a thin takeaway from a film that incorporates so much human drama – perhaps too much in places. It’s a movie that’s going to require a rewatch, so I’m especially glad it’s part of the box set I bought.

East Palace, West Palace, Zhang Yuan (1996, China). Amazon started taking the piss a bit for a few weeks, and sent me a Chinese film every week, It’s almost like they were reading my tweets… It’s true the Sixth Generation of Chinese directors, and later, have produced some of the consistently best films of the last few decades, and I’m more than happy to explore their output… But I also treasure variety in my viewing, and a constant diet of Chinese films, no matter how good, can get as wearying as a constant diet of films from any other nation (wait, most people watch US films all the time… what am I saying?). East Palace, West Palace refers to a park in Beijing frequented by gay men, who go there to pick up sexual partners. A police raid results in several of them being taken prisoner. One particular police officer takes one to his office and tries to get him to admit to his “behaviour” – homosexuality was apparently not a crime at the time the film is set, although that didn’t stop the police rounding them up every now and again. And, although it feels like a cliché – the gay man tells his the police officer his life story and so the police officer falls for the gay man – it never feels like one as the film progresses. Partly it’s because the flashback sequences are so well-staged, and partly it’s because the way the film drops into fantasy at the end, with the gay man dressing in drag and so seducing the police officer, with it all feeling like a metaphorical treatment without undermining the emotional content. I’ve watched a lot of contemporary Chinese films recently, but I can’t begrudge that because they’ve all been excellent films. True, I’ve become a fan of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Liang, but it’s not that much of a stretch to say that China’s Sixth Generation, and later, of film directors has resulted in the strongest national cinema so far of the twenty-first century.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 857

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Moving pictures 2017, #4

I’m still keeping to my resolution to watch more non-US films than US ones, but I’m not doing so well with my plan to actually watch less films – only a month into 2017 and I’m already on my fourth Moving pictures post. Oh well.

embraceEmbrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this free to view on Amazon Prime and put it on my watchlist. About a week later, it was recommended to me, so I moved it up my To Be Watched list… And I’m glad I did as it is very good indeed. In fact, it’s a serious contender for an updated version of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and would almost certainly make my own version of such a list. The film follows a split narrative, one set in 1909 and one in 1940. Their stories – indeed, the routes taken by the characters – are almost identical. The two are linked by one man, Karamakate, the sole survivor of an Amazonian tribe and a shaman. In 1909, he reluctantly helps a German ethnographer to find a sample of the semi-mythical sacred plant yakruna so that it might cure him of his illness. In 1940, an older Karamakate guides an American botanist to the location of the last surviving yakruna plant. The American claims he is only following in the German’s footsteps, but he actually wants to steal a sample of yakruna as it reputedly keeps rubber trees free of disease and the US is losing its access to sources of rubber thanks to Japanese successes in WWII’s Pacific theatre. Embrace of the Serpent is shot entirely in black-and-white, except for a colour sequence near the end which depicts the American’s drug trip after being fed some yakruna. It’s a very… Herzogian film. And I mean that as a compliment, a very great compliment. It looks fantastic, the cast are totally convincing, as indeed are the atrocities they witness – in both timelines – during their travels. Well, okay, maybe not so much the Brazilian self-styled messiah. But in telling its story, the film makes a number of important points – so much so, in fact, that the somewhat weak ending is entirely forgivable. Go watch it.

ducklingDon’t Torture a Duckling, Lucio Fulci (1972, Italy). I’ve watched a few of these giallos by now, although I still think of the genre as more thriller than horror, and Don’t Torture a Duckling falls more toward the latter than the former. A journalist covering the disappearance of a local boy in a small village notices the presence of an attractive and modish young woman, clearly not a villager, played by Barbara Bouchet, and learns she is the daughter of wealthy man who owns a house in the village, which he never uses, and to which she has been exiled after some scandal in the city. Then more boys in their early teens go missing, the two investigate, suspecting that something other than the witchcraft claimed by some villagers is the cause. Even when a woman claims responsibility for the disappearances (murders, that is, once the bodies are found), it turns out she thought she was guilty because she had stuck pins in voodoo dolls representing the victims… But the actual cause of their deaths is far more mundane and physical. Like all giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (I don’t actually recall the reason for the title) is all a bit fraught and over-emphatic. Even the gore – and this is apparently the first film in which Fulci used gory effects – is over-done, with the blood on the murder victims resemble scarlet nail polish more than it does actual blood. There are a few nods at an actual genre plot, with a number of suspects dragged in front of the viewer as the actual murderer, only for them to be almost immediately proven innocent. Even if you like giallo, or the films of, say, Dario Argento or Mario Bava, Don’t Torture a Duckling is not an especially memorable example. In fact, you’d be better off sticking to the films of Argento or Bava. Forgettable.

moniqueMonique, John Bown (1970, UK). I’m not sure how this found its way onto my rental list – I mean, “slap & tickle”? A 1970s British sex comedy? The concept alone makes me cringe. And yet, for all that, Monique proved to be pretty low-key and played more like a kitchen-sink drama than a Carry On film. I’m not saying it was a good film by any means – it was, after all, somewhat predictable, a bit dull, and quite dated. A dull and ordinary lower middle class family with two kids hires a French au pair to take care of said kids. As is the way in such films, the au pair is attractive and “sexually-liberated” (not that the phrase actually means anything – it’s really no more than code used by men who are afraid of independent women), and ends up in bed with the husband and the wife… and it all seems to work quite happily. To be honest, I don’t remember all that much: the eponymous au pair was good with the kids, kept both husband and wife happy and together, and it all looked very much a product of its time, without being sneering, prudish or prurient. If anything, Monique probably suffers because it’s lumped in with other films that have also been badged “slap & tickle”. It is, in the end, a somewhat dated but relatively sensitive domestic drama of middling quality.

two_daysTwo Days, One Night, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne (2014, Belgium). I know the name Dardenne, although I had not thought I’d seen any films by the two brothers… until I checked by records and discovered I’d watched their The Kid with a Bike back in 2013, and had thought it pretty good. Despite that, I don’t remember why I added Two Days, One Night to my rental list as it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, although it is plainly a good film and worth seeing. Marion Cotillard’s character works for a small company which makes solar panels. When it comes time to return to work after suffering a nervous breakdown, she discovers that a manager had held a ballot in her absence and the workforce voted to accept a bonus rather than Cotillard returning to work, since Cotillard’s work had been picked up by others. But she needs her job, so she persuades the company to hold a second ballot, giving her the eponymous timeframe to persuade the other employees to vote to keep her. This is capitalism at work. A one-off bonus versus an employee’s salary? Of course the company will push for the former. And accepting the bonus is so short-sighted as well. Unless Cotillard had been completely useless – and it’s implied she was not – I would’nt have voted for her to lose her job myself, no matter what my circumstances or the size of the bonus. The film is predicated on the other workers voting against her – but its attempt to present good reasons for doing so do not convince. “We need the money” is not an excuse for shafting a fellow employee. Because, of course, the next such victim might well be yourself. And, quite frankly, I find it hard to believe a bonus of €1000 would be so persuasive to employees of a successful small firm in Belgium in 2014. None of which is to say that Two Days, One Night is a bad film. It’s put together very well, and Cotillard is especially good in the lead. The one brief moment of violence is shocking, if not entirely plausible; but it’s later offset by the humanity shown by one of the firm’s immigrant workers. I stumble over the movie’s premise, so I don’t think it belongs on any list of films you must see, but it’s certainly worth seeing.

satyajit_ray_3Deliverance, Satyajit Ray (1981, India). I discovered shortly after watching this that its star, Om Puri, had died a week into 2017. Watching Deliverance, made thirty-six years ago, Puri was very recognisable – he doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years. In Deliverance, he plays a humble shoemaker. He asks the village brahmin to set a propitious date for his daughter’s wedding, but the brahmin sets him a number of tasks to complete before giving his answer. Which essentially means Puri is performing unpaid labour. And that’s pretty much it for 75 minutes. (The short running time is because it was originally filmed for television.) Of the two great directors – or, at least, internationally-renowned directors – that Bengal produced, I still much Ritwik Ghatak’s work, even though that’s based on a smaller sample – three films, or a third of his oeuvre; compared to ten films out of 36… um, which works out at roughly a third for both, but never mind. And the two collections of Ray’s films that I’ve now watched… well, the most successful films in them have been historical, and typically either adaptations of novels or plays, which gives them something of a Bergman-esque sort of feel. And when that works, it works very well indeed. But when it’s lacking, the resulting film is not always entirely successful – much like Deliverance. Which, to me, felt like it tried to be several things at once but never quite succeeded at any. It wasn’t funny enough to be a comedy, its depiction of village life wasn’t entirely convincing, and its acting was dialled too high to convince as a Satyajit Ray film but not high enough to be a Bollywood film. I shall continue to explore Ray’s oeuvre – he was an important director, and fortunately much of his oeuvre is available to explore. Much as I enjoyed The Home and the World and The Public Enemy in this Ray collection, I think the films in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1 were better. But get both, or indeed all three, just in case I’m wrong, anyway…

knight_of_cupsKnight of Cups, Terrence Malick (2015, USA). I have no idea whay I continue to watch Malick’s films. Okay, this was another free to view on Amazon Prime, but, seriously, life’s too short to sit through two hours of what pretty much resembles a perfume commercial with a breathless voiceover quoting from a variety of literary sources. It’s not as if it’s all in service to a plot, either. True, some of the cinematography is lovely, but Malick has developed a habit of swinging his camera right in close to a person’s face and then back out again, and it gets annoying fast. Christian Bale plays a successful Hollywood script writer who wanders around listlessly through several vignettes very loosely based on cards from the Tarot deck. He meets and has sex with several women, he gets into an argument with his father, he meets up with his brother and the two tell each other how their relationship works… And it’s all really dull and pretentious twaddle, and I continue to be mystified by the high regard in which Hollywood, and actors, holds Malick. Films are about more than pretty cinematography, and while I’m certainly a tart for it, I do ask for more that pretty pictures in the movies I appreciate and/or love. Hence my characterisation of Malick’s films as perfume adverts. It’s pretty people behaving in ways that do not make sense while living a lifestyle unavailable to 99% of the planet’s population. It is, to be honest, tosh. I think it’s time to swear off Malick. After The New World, I was prepared to give him a chance, but with To The Wonder and Knight of Cups, life is far too short to waste time watching such vacuous and pretentious twaddle.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 843