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Moving pictures 2018, #65

Cor, look at that: no Extruded Hollywood Product. Two new British films – one that most people will think is American, and another in that long line of recent films celebrating British pluck during WWII, as if that has fucking anything to do with Brexit. Sigh. Plus two very different French films, an excellent Swedish comedy (I think I’m starting to get their sense of humour), and another from the master Sembène.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Felix Herngren (2018, Sweden). I’d had this on my Amazon watch list for a while but had put off watching it, perhaps because I expected it to be similar to Roy Andersson’s movies, which are a bit odd. Well, more than a bit. But good nonetheless. However, you do need to be in the right sort of mood to appreciate them. But The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (Amazon can’t seem to decide on the exact wording of the title and varies it between DVD, Prime video, Blu-ray and source novel) proved to be a brilliantly dry comedy about a Swedish man who managed to stumble into a number of historic moments in, er, twentieth-century history, all told as flashbacks after he escapes from his old people’s home on his one-hundredth birthday and ends up on the run from gangsters after a mix-up involving a suitcase containing millions of kroner. The flashback scenes involve, among others, Stalin, Einstein, Roosevelt, Oppenheimer, and I forget the other historical persons who appear. The present day plot thread is just as funny, with the eponymous character surviving through a combination of luck and ineptitude. I really enjoyed this. Recommended.

Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, Jean Renoir (1936, France). I’m not sure what to make of Renoir’s films. A couple of his films are extremely highly regarded by cinephiles, and I can see how they’re well-made and espouse politics which roughly align with my own… But his movies don’t seem very interesting, and cinematographically they don’t really stack up well against those by some of his contemporaries, such as Max Ophüls. In other words, he’s a director whose films I want to like much more than I find myself doing so. Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is a case in point. In it, a pulp publisher takes advantage of his misreported death only to discover that his publishing company is doing much better without him. He reappears, and is shot dead by the company’s most successful author. A response many in publishing could probably understand. The story is told in flashback by the fleeing author as he is about to cross into Belgium. Where he is arrested, but as he tells his story so his audience begins to sympathise with him. As, I suppose, the cinematic audience was also intended to. It’s a neat narrative trick, but I can’t say it worked on me. For all that I sympathised with M Lange’s plight, the film never really got me invested in his story. Meh.

Another Mother’s Son, Christopher Menaul (2017, UK). All this dwelling on plucky British spirit during WWII is definitely unhealthy. In the years immediately following the war, it made sense: it was a way to deal with the trauma and ever-present evidence of destruction created by an event that was within living memory. But those days are long past, and if there’s any lesson to be learned from WWII, it’s that Nazis deserve to die. Oh, and that the British would never have survived without outside help, and were so deeply incompetent in the opening stages of the war it’s a miracle we weren’t immediately wiped out. But, instead, we get stories of British heroes and heroines who stood up to the Nazi menace, as if they need to show the same stiff upper lip and fortitude in order to survive Brexit. But Brexit is not about survival because it’s destructive. Self-destructive. Staying in the EU is survival. And while the true story told in Another Mother’s Son is certainly uplifting, and the principals deserve to have their story told to a wider audience, this new-found fascination for WWII dramas is neither applicable to the present day and deeply misrepresents what actually happened over seventy years ago. Here, we have a principled woman who hides a Russian POW (the Soviets were allies at this point, obvs) from the Nazi occupiers on Jersey. And, er, that’s it. She gets found out, and her and her family are shipped off to the death camps. She does not survive, and is posthumously awarded a medal for her actions. It’s all heart-warming stuff, and actually manages to paint the Nazis as evil scum, which is a bonus in this day and age. Not a badly-made film, but let’s have some films showing what the Europeans did for us for a change.

You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay (2017, UK). I’ve seen a lot of love for this film in the last month or so, from friends and from total strangers. And yet… I prefer Andrea Arnold’s work to Lynne Ramsay’s, although it may well be unfair to compare the two. But You Were Never Really Here is a brutal US thriller with an arthouse touch, and reminded me a bit of Pete Travis while still being very US. Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who rescues kidnapped girls for a fee. He’s approached by a senator whose young daughter has been kidnapped and is being abused in a paedophile brothel. He rescues the girl, but finds himself up against a well-organised opposition, seemingly centred around the man most likely to be elected New York mayor, who is at the heart of it all. To be honest, it felt like an ordinary thriller, with the odd moment that lifted it way above that, but in the end it’s one of those pointless the-powerful-people-always-win stories that makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t just rise up and shoot the fucking lot of them – after all, isn’t that why the right to bear arms is enshrined in the US constitution? Except, of course, these days firearms are only used for spree killing, and that’s no reason to ban them… Pointing out that the US is fucked-up is so banal, I’m surprised people bother to make films about it still. But Lynne Ramsay apparently did. Meh.

Faat Kiné, Ousmane Sembène (2000, Senegal). The title is the name of an unmarried mother of two children who now runs a successful petrol station in downtown Dakar. Being unmarried and in possession of a profitable business – as Jane Austen famously might have said – she is an obvious target for suitors. Which, had Jane Austen said something like this, would have completely changed her novels. Perhaps for the better. Who knows. I do love Sembène’s films, and while this one doesn’t have a plot as robust as, say, Mandabi or Moolaadé, it still exhibits all his trademark themes – ie, women doing a better job at navigating life than men. Venus Seye is good in the title role, although there’s a cheerful amateurishness to much of the acting – also true of other films by Sembène. The copy I watched wasn’t a very good transfer, and I suspect good transfers of it are pretty much impossible to find. Which is a shame. Someone really needs to put together a remastered box set of Sembène’s films. He didn’t make that many, only eleven (of which I’ve seen seven), and his movies really are very good. He’s an excellent candidate – BFI? Curzon Artificial Eye? Please.

The Lady and the Duke, Éric Rohmer (2001, France). After complaining that the French couldn’t do historical films – and in reference to a Rohmer film too – I’ve only gone and been proven wrong. By Rohmer. Because The Lady and the Duke is set during the Terror, ie, the late eighteenth century, and it’s really very good, perhaps even among my favourites of the films by Rohmer I’ve seen to date. It is, to be honest, all a bit Greenaway, which is no bad thing, in as much as the scenery is CGI and presented to mimic paintings of the time. Everything looks fake – and deliberately so. The interior scenes have walls like theatre flats, where everything is painted to look 3D but isn’t. The exterior scenes have the actors perform in front of what are plainly matted-in during post-production paintings of scenes from eighteenth-century France. I loved it. I’m a big fan of that deliberately artificial presentation of narrative used by some films, where the presentation itself is a tool used by the narrative. The story is about an English woman who has settled in France and is a friend of certain high-placed aristocrats. Which subsequently lands her in trouble post-Revolution. She is arrested and interrogated, but proves to have well-respected pro-Revolution friends. Even so, she seems more concerned with her friend the Duke of Orléans than is healthy. The film is based on the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish courtesan who was the mistress of the Duke of Orléans and, later, King George IV of Britain. She’s played by Lucy Russell, who demonstrates an impressive facility with both English and French. I’d been going off Rohmer a bit, I must admit, but this film has rekindled my interest in his oeuvre.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #51

Another eclectic bunch of movies in this post. Six films and four countries, half of which are Anglophone. I’ve seen films by four of the directors – Greengrass makes good action films, but they’re not my thing, and I’ve never been a fan of Bresson’s work, for all his critical acclaim. Anyway, see below…

United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006, USA). I was living in Abu Dhabi when the World Trade Center was attacked. From what I remember, I was at home – I’d finished work a couple of hours earlier – when I heard on the radio that a plane had hit one of the towers. I turned on CNN and watched as the second plane hit the South Tower. The world changed on that day – and not for the better. And now, seventeen years later, there’s little doubt who has done more damage in the years since: the US. The Middle East is pretty much fucked up completely, and even the Arab Spring seems to have failed to improve things. Which is not to say the UK does not deserve its fair share of the blame. Wars will continue to be fought as long as people are willing to sell the combatants weapons – and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that many of the ultra-rich are pretty much war criminals in that regard. Anyway, United 93 is the most celebrated film about the events of 9/11 (an event which has been treated surprisingly rarely in film and television, although it’s far from uncommon in literature). United 93 is named for the one flight of the four hijacked which failed to hits its target, and that was because the passengers aboard fought back against the hijackers and managed to overpower them, albeit too late to prevent them from crashing the aeroplane. United 93 uses a lot of the actual people who were part of events, and a cast of relatively unknown faces in other roles. I don’t have a problem with non-professional actors, particularly in films that are trying for a documentary feel, as this one is. In fact, often dramatisation through the use of actors robs the depicted events of their authenticity. Greengrass, however, successfully keeps everything very real. But what had not occurred to me before watching this film, and which surprised me, was quite how brutal it was. It’s not just the raw emotion of the scenes aboard the eponymous flight, but also the violence when the passengers take back control. United 93 is on one or the other of the 1001 Movies list, although I don’t recall offhand which one. I think it belongs on the list, and not just because of its subject matter. True, such an important event in world history should be represented, but United 93 does it in a way that successfully evokes the emotional turmoil of 9/11. Which is why it should be on the list.

Lancelot du Lac, Robert Bresson (1974, France). Bresson is a highly-regarded director – he’s a favourite of my favourite director Aleksandr Sokurov, for example – but even after seeing some of his most celebrated films I’m not entirely sure I “get” his work. And yet, he does things I like in other directors’ films. In Lancelot du Lac, for example, he uses a mostly non-professional cast. He’s not the first French director to do that – I’ve a feeling Jacques Rivette did, but looking up his films apparently not – but I’m pretty sure some French director, beside Bresson, made extensive use of non-professional actors. Which is, to be fair, a comment more on my bad memory than it is this movie. The film covers the main points of the Lancelot / Arthur / Guinevere legend, focusing particularly on the Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere. A bad thing, obviously, as she was Arthur’s wife at the time, and a part of the mythos that feels more invented than the rest of it, if only because an adulterous queen feels like imposed commentary (and misogynistic commentary at that, given Guinevere is just about the only woman mentioned in the mythos). The setting doesn’t really convince – if anything, the cast look more like Larpers in a French wood than actual knights of the Round Table. King Arthur also appears a little too saturnine, and more resembles a villain than Mordred. There have been plenty of films made about the Matter of Britain, from musicals to Roman re-imaginings to Guy Ritchie’s mockney mediaeval fantasy. I don’t think any of them have been any good, or presented interesting treatments of the mythos. I think perhaps the most interesting one that comes to mind is a book, and that’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Maybe someday someone will make a good King Arthur film. This one certainly isn’t it.

Battle for Sevastopol, Sergey Mokritskiy (2015, Russia). I’d tried half a dozen films on Amazon Prime but given up on each after ten minutes as they were either really bad or I wasn’t in the mood to watch them. But Battle for Sevastopol pretty much dragged me in from the opening minutes, and I find it slightly worrying that I should find a war film more engrossing than the other films I tried watching. Although perhaps that says more about those other films… Anyway, Battle for Sevastopol is based on the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet army sniper who killed over 300 men and survived the siege of Sevastopol. The film opens in 1957, with Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the USSR and asking her minder to let he visit an old friend. The film then flashes back to 1942where Pavlichenko is being introduced to an audience in the US. She is there to drum up support (financial, of course; also armaments) for the USSR – this is after the siege, incidentally. Eleanor Roosevelt, on meeting Pavlichenko, takes a shine to her and invites her to stay in the White House. The film then flashes back again, this time to just before the war. Pavlichenko is studying history at university. Annoyed when some male friends are trying to show off on a rifle range, she insists on having a go herself. She proves to be a crack shot. She is sent off to sniper school – even though war has yet to break out. War breaks out. She serves on the Eastern Front as a sniper. The battle scenes are done extremely well. The film flips between Pavlichenko’s wartime experiences – including the loss of her lover, and the loss of a second lover – and her time in the US. I’m not a big fan of war films, although I’ve probably seen all the big WWII ones over the years – it was a popular subject in the 1950s  and 1960s… Not only is Battle for Sevastopol told from a perspective not often seen in Anglophone cinema – if at all – although it’s a little sanitised, after all Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler did, but it also tells its story from an interesting viewpoint: a female sniper. The special effects are pretty much what you would expect for a big budget of the second decade of the twenty-first century; and if the Americans in the film mostly have weird accents, that’s hardly a deal breaker. Worth seeing.

Bright Star, Jane Campion (2009, UK). I remember years ago – back in the 1980s some time – reading a Tim Powers novel and discovering that the Romantic poets were quite fascinating people. I certainly hadn’t learnt that at school when I’d studied Wordsworth’s The Prelude for O Level. I’m not sure who led the most interesting life of them, Byron probably, or the Shelleys perhaps. But Keats is a possibility, a doctor who was also a lauded poet, and who died young, at the age of twenty-five, of tuberculosis. Literature, especially poetry, venerates creators who die young. I’ll admit I know little of Keats’s poetry – I vaguely remember ‘To Autumn’ from school – and what I read after seeing this film I thought pretty awful. I didn’t, to be honest, think much of the film either. It recounts Keats’s betrothal to Fanny Brawne, the daughter of his neighbours in Hampstead Heath. Unfortunately, Brawne is played by Abbie Cornish, who has a noticeable Australian accent. And Keats’s housemate, Charles Brown, is played by an American actor who puts on a Scottish accent, despite Brown apparently being from Lambeth. Keats, incidentally, is played by Ben Whishaw, who is of course the voice of Paddington. While Bright Star does a good job of presenting early nineteenth-century England, the cast aren’t entirely convincing, and the story is extremely dull. Meh.

French Cancan, Jean Renoir (1955, France). Jean Renoir, he made films like La grande illusion, Boudu saved from DrowningLa Règle du jeu… The last thing I’d have expected him to make is this over-colourised fluffy French mid-fifties musical. The title pretty much says it all. It’s 1890s Paris and a nightclub owner’s business is failing, and his main attraction, a belly dancer, is not pulling in the punters. But then he discovers that the cancan is still being performed in Montmartre, so he decides a cancan chorus is just what he needs. As is usually the case in these sorts of films, he manages to magic up the cash for a new nightclub – he calls it the Moulin Rouge – plus costumes and props for a chorus of cancan dancers. One of which proves to be a star and draws in the punters. It’s based on a true story, of course, but it does seem the bulk of the problems he encountered were emotional. I’m not even sure if this is one for fans of Renoir or French musicals. It’s definitely colourful, very colourful. Meh.

Letters from Baghdad, Sabine Krayenbühl (2016, UK). A few weeks ago I watched Werner Herzog’s biopic of Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert (see here), and was not impressed. I knew of Bell, but thought Herzog had been indulging in artistic licence when he showed Bell visiting Bedouin tribes in what is now Saudi Arabia. But, as I discovered in this documentary about Bell’s life, she did indeed go there. To Ha’il, a town in the Nejd, ruled by the House of Rashid (later deposed by ibn Saud). Letters from Baghdad has Tilda Swinton reading out Bell’s correspondence to her parents, interspersed with talking heads acting people who knew her and some archive footage of her or representative of what she experienced. It’s fascinating stuff, and a clever technique that prevents the film from being too dry. But then Bell led a fascinating life. She graduated from Oxford with a first in history, which was not awarded as women could not earn degrees, and was sent out to Baghdad to stay with her uncle, a British minister there. She fell in love with the country and travelled around it extensively. She learnt Arabic and made friends among the tribal leaders. She was not, however, the first foreign woman to visit Ha’il, as Lady Anne Blunt had done so a couple of decades earlier. Bell was one in a long line of British Arabists during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of them, like Bell, provided instrumental in creating the nations which now exist there. Letters from Baghdad is an excellent film about a fascinating person.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 931


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Moving pictures, #10

I think I maintain a good spread of films in my viewing – current movies, classic movies and art house movies. Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to some good films I might otherwise have never seen, as well as some right crap I’d have been better off avoiding. Either way, I recommend using the list to supplement your own viewing. However, one thing has been readily apparent over the past few years, and it’s that I find current Hollywood product less and less appealing. I used to watch US films, as most people do, it was pretty much all I knew. But movies from other countries do exist, other nations do have cinematic traditions… and many of them are, well, actually much better than Hollywood. You can’t call yourself a film fan if you only watch Hollywood films. That’s like describing yourself as a gourmet despite only eating burgers.

So here is some haute cuisine (with a little fastfood thrown in):

vampyrVampyr*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1932, Germany). Subtitled “The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray”. This eureka! edition is actually the German print, although, as was common at the time, multiple language versions were filmed – in this case, German, French and English. Gray is a somewhat saturnine-looking young man, who visits the village of Courtempierre and rents a room at the local inn. Vampyr uses both intertitles and spoken dialogue to tell its story – which in terms of vampire mythology is relatively straightforward. The lord of the manor’s oldest daughter is ill, and it transpires it’s from the bite of a vampire. Gray tries to help, gets sucked into events as they unfold… but it all ends well. Dreyer is especially good on atmosphere in this, and even though the pace is somewhat slow he manages to lay it on thick. The ending, in which the vampire’s servant is drowned in flour, is also pretty effective. On balance, I much prefer Dreyer’s later work – his three Danish films are superb – but this one, on the cusp of his early German silent work and later Danish films with sound, is still very good.

Boudu-PosterBoudu Saved From Drowning*, Jean Renoir (1932, France). There are films which clearly belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there are also other movies on there, by directors of films which deservedly belong on the list, whose presence is, quite frankly, a bit of a puzzle. La Règle du jeu and La Grande illusion are stone-cold classic movies… but Boudu Saved From Drowning? Really? It’s mildly amusing, and even though the social commentary is biting, it’s still somewhat obvious. Technically, it’s clearly ahead of its time – at no point while watching it does it seem like a film made in 1932. But its story of a tramp rescued from, er, drowning, who his saviours then try to turn into a useful member of society, is a little too broadly comical to be pointed – if that’s not a contradiction. It didn’t help that Boudu with a beard bore an uncanny resemblance to Stephen Fry. Whatever – a diverting film even if not one that clearly belonged on the list.

catsmeowThe Cat’s Meow, Peter Bogdanovich (2001, USA). This is apparently based on a true story. In 1924, a group of people spent the weekend aboard William Randolph Hearst’s luxury yacht, ostensibly to celebrate the birthday of Thomas H Ince, a cinema pioneer who owned one of the first movie studios. Other guests included Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, writer Elinor Glyn, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. Allegedly, Ince died of a heart attack but rumour has it he was shot by Hearst over Marion Davies. The film suggests his death was an accident – Hearst thought he was firing at Chaplin, who had been trying to persuade Davies to leave Hearst and marry him. The film is a well-played period piece, although Eddie Izzard as Chaplin is actually pretty bad. The story is the sort of ultra-rich privileged crap that all too often gets accepted as the natural order of things, which is just offensive bollocks. Entertaining but forgettable.

chineserouletteChinese Roulette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1976, Germany). Fassbinder, I think – and I say this having only seen eight of his films – did better when the plots of his films were more tightly constrained, either by their literary origin, as in Effi Briest, or the need to present an historical period, as in The Marriage Of Maria Braun, or by, as in this case, the tight focus of the story. An affluent husband and wife make arrangements for separate trips away, only to turn up together with their lovers at the family holiday home in a piece of really bad planning. But never mind, they all get along fine, and so behave as two couples – even if they’re not quite coupled as their marriage certificate defines it. At which point the crippled young daughter and her mute nanny arrive, and events take an odd turn… culminating in a parlour game among them all, in which each asks a speculative question demanding an honest answer from everyone. It’s a living-room drama, with some externally-filmed scene-setting, but it does a beautifully-paced job of setting up its situation and characters, and as a piece of writing probably betters the two Fassbinder films mentioned earlier. If the final frame of the truth or dare game feels a bit seventies television drama, with the cast walking about too much while speaking their lines, Chinese Roulette is certainly a masterclass in defining a dramatic situation. Definitely one of the good ones in the box set.

InWhichWeServeIn Which We Serve, Noël Coward and David Lean (1942, UK). Allegedly, this was based on the wartime exploits of Lord Mountbatten. Noël Coward plays the captain of a RN destroyer during the first two years of WWII. It’s careful to show life both for the ratings and the officers of the ship – the film was made with the assistance of the Ministry of Information. The model-work is a bit naff – the UK film industry never did quite manage to make model warships look like the real thing – and Coward is far too fruity to be a steadfast navy officer, no matter how plummy his background. The film is at its best when it’s belowdecks, and John Mills puts in a good turn as an ordinary seaman. But, to be honest, In Which We Serve is not even a wartime curiosity, just one in a long line of not very good war films the UK churned out during the 1940s, mostly for propaganda purposes. Not even Lean directing the “action scenes” is a saving grace (although, to be fair, I can never make up my mind about Lean – he made a handful of excellent films, but a number of very ordinary ones too). If you’re interested in UK wartime cinema, you’re probably better off checking out a few “quota quickies”.

FromUpOnPoppyHillFrom Up On Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki (2011, Japan). I’ve enjoyed the Ghibli films the most when they are not genre – such as this one is. Er, isn’t. I mean, it’s not genre. It’s a relatively straightforward – and genre-free – story about a pair of students in early 1960s Yokohama, who are attracted to one another and then learn they may in fact be brother and sister. Wrapped around this is a student protest to prevent a building used by the various student clubs, called the Latin Quarter, from being demolished by a Tokyo businessman. From Up On Poppy Hill is at its best when it’s about the relationship between the two leads, Umi and Shun, but the comedy antics as the students clean and refurbish the Latin Quarter feel like they detract from the real story. Enjoyable, but I don’t think anyone will be calling this their favourite from Studio Ghibli.

edgeoftomorrowEdge of Tomorrow, Doug Liman (2014, USA). Confused. I saw this film advertised on theatrical release as Edge of Tomorrow, but it seems to have been retitled Live Die Repeat for the sell-through (which is the name of the Japanese source text), so obviously it’s such a good film it can’t even decide what its title is. And, okay, perhaps it was a little facile to describe it as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, but that’s pretty much the plot in a nutshell. Nasty aliens invade Earth, obviously the only way to defeat them is to throw human cannon fodder at them, although strangely enough this strategy doesn’t appear to be working. As Tom Cruise repeatedly discovers because he keeps on waking up back on his first day of basic training (although no training actually takes place) and all because he was covered in a particular type of alien’s blood on the battlefield. But that’s okay, since it allows him to figure out there is a hidden mega-alien thing somewhere running the whole show and if he kills that then humanity wins – stop me if you’ve heard this before. Oh, you have? Lots of times? Seriously, if Edge of Tomorrow is being held up as a good sf film, then that says a lot about the piss-poor state of sf cinema – oh, wait, Interstellar was supposed to be the best sf film of last year, so yes, it looks like sf cinema is in a piss-poor state…

bela_tarr_collectionDamnation, Béla Tarr (1988, Hungary). I think I’m going to have to withhold judgement on Tarr’s films for now. I’ve now seen all three in the pictured box set – and while Tarr is noted for the glacial pace of his movies, and I actually like films that take time to tell their stories, I’ve not yet plugged into Tarr’s languorous way of movie-making. Damnation is, I suppose, the most straightforward of the three films, but there are long stretches where no one speaks, there is only music… And then characters speak dialogue that feels more like it should be… declaimed, like in a Jancsó film. Their naturalistic speech is… odd, perhaps even a little off-putting. Having grown up reading science fiction, I’m all too familiar with mouthpiece characters – but where Jancsó’s are overt, Tarr appears to sneak his into the story in the guise of ordinary people engaged in ordinary activities. Tarr’s films will not only bear rewatching, I strongly suspect they demand it. Meanwhile, I shall sort of hover on the edge of liking and admiring them.

nightcrawlerNightcrawler, Dan Gilroy (2014, USA). Watching this film prompted an interesting discussion on Twitter. Since thrillers depend upon violence and fear to drive their plots and maintain viewer interest, I suggested they were morally bankrupt, if not morally corrupt. In order to generate “story”, they over-state the incidence of violence and harm in the real world. And while the protagonist of Nightcrawler – played by a frankly creepy Jake Gyllenhall – does cover road traffic accidents, it’s his relationship with violent crime which comprises the plot of the film. He’s a freelance cameraman – or rather, he starts on a career as one after witnessing Bill Paxton at work – who forms a business, and increasingly poisonous and misogynistic, relationship with news channel producer Rene Russo. When Gyllenhall gets too close to his subjects, and starts crossing the line between reportage and incitement… it all goes horribly wrong. Yawn. This sort of moral conundrum is completely banal, and has been covered repeatedly in both books and films. Perhaps Nightcrawler‘s take on it rings a few trivial changes, but all we’ve really got here is a creepy update of His Girl Friday. Without the wit.

spiritualvoicesSpiritual Voices, Aleksandr Sokurov (1995, Russia). I have no idea how to write about this. I was lucky enough to find a copy on eBay going for a reasonable price – it typically goes for $95 or more, but at 327 minutes split over five episodes, I suppose that’s not bad value for money (I paid less than half that). Spiritual Voices is a documentary filmed at a Russian army dugout in northern Afghanistan – but its opening episode consists of forty minutes of time-lapse photography of a village in Siberia, as night falls and dawn breaks, while Sokurov talks about Mozart and then Beethoven. The second, and following, episodes are hand-held documentary footage of Russian soldiers going about their duties night and day, sometimes interacting with the camera, but usually ignoring its presence. The soldiers, of course, are conscripts; they are also young men. And though they wear the uniform, and spend their days following orders, there is something not quite real about their situation. Sokurov also films the landscape surrounding them, and he’s extremely good at using landscape to paint a moral picture of the story he’s telling. Spiritual Voices is a long film, a very long film, and after a single viewing I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. That first episode is an amazing work of art – I’ve now watched it three times – but I’ve yet to determine how it fits in with the piece as a whole… This is just one of the reasons why I find Sokurov one of the most fascinating directors currently working, and why I’ve tracked down as much of his oeuvre on DVD I can find.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 584


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Moving pictures, #7

If it weren’t for rental DVDs, I’d have been in a cultural vacuum this past couple of months. All that sportsing on television. Just when one ended, another began. And it’s still going on. It’s interminable. And, truth be told, so were some of the films I’ve watched over the past few weeks. But not all of them.

There’s books too, of course; though obviously I don’t get through as many of those per month. And I’m reluctant to write about every book I’ve read because a) I’m not a book blogger, b) not all of them are worth writing about, and c) quite a few of them are for review anyway – either for SF Mistressworks or for Interzone. Having said that, I really ought to write about books that have blown me away… except they seem to have been in somewhat short supply this year.

But, films. Movies. Moving pictures. Cinema. I continue to get my money’s worth from Amazon rental (Lovefilm as was), and if I chuck the occasional twenty-first century Hollywood blockbuster on my rental list because everyone’s talking about them, I usually end up wondering what all the fuss was about. But then, I do have an odd taste in movies. I recently had another look at my ten favourite films and made a few changes to it – and now it looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA), 2 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA), 3 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA) 4 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia), 5 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland), 6 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany), 7 Dune, David Lynch (1985, USA), 8 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine), 9 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Robert Wise (1979, USA), 10 Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks (1959, USA)… but it’ll likely change. It seems to do so every year or two anyway. Which is, I guess, a sign of a healthy list of favourites…

Anyway, on with the last few weeks’ worth of viewing:

Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor (2013, USA) Perhaps they should have just called it Thor: The Dark Film, because this is not a film to watch on a television on a summer evening. There were these dark shapes doing something in darkness, and it was all to do with Christopher Ecclestone in trollish make-up being evil. Or something. I don’t know, I couldn’t honestly give a shit. Marvel have mangled Norse mythology so much it’s frankly embarrassing they continue to use names like Thor and Loki. And the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a huge step backwards in terms of both comic rigour (not hugely adhered to, in the first place) and blockbuster cinema. Comic fans, they have taken something you admire and made something dumb of it. Do not celebrate that.

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The Barefoot Contessa, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1954, USA) An archetypal rags-to-riches story, told after the fact by laconic screenwriter Humphrey Bogart, who was there at the start and also there at the end. Ava Gardner plays a flamenco dancer who catches the eye of a Wall Street millionaire (that’s all they were back in those days, millionaires) who dabbles in movies. Turns out she’s photogenic and she becomes an international film star… and then marries an Italian count. But it all ends very badly. A Hollywood melodrama, with a nice voice-over by the Humph but very little substance.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence (2013, USA) This series baffles me. The games themselves are clearly the core of the story, and the dystopian world exists to justify their existence… but the obvious plot – that Katniss becomes some sort of rebel figurehead due to her success in the games (and no, I’ve not read the books) – seems to be taking so long to get moving you spend most of the time waiting for a whole marching band’s worth of shoes to drop. Instead you get a bunch of caricatures carefully plodding through a plot which refuses to engage with its central theme. But then, when the most memorable thing in a film is, ooh! Her dress is on fire!, it seems churlish to complain about thematic depth…

Nights Of Cabiria, Federico Fellini (1957, Italy) Truth be told, the best parts of this film are the beginning and the end. It opens with Cabiria, a Roman prostitute, being pushed into a river and then being saved from drowning; and finishes with her stumbling onto a group of happy young people playing music after her fiancé has admitted to trying to kill her for her money. And yet, despite that, this is not a dour movie. Cabiria, played by Giulietta Masina, is irrepressibly optimistic, and it rubs off. It feels like a happy film, like a corner is forever about to be turned… even though it never does, even though Nights Of Cabiria is never as grim as Cabiria’s profession would suggest. This could be Fellini having his cake and eating it, but I prefer to think it’s the character of Cabiria rising above the material. Not my favourite Fellini film, but a good one.

Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes (2011, USA) This is actually a five-part mini-series, adapted from the James M Cain novel of the same name, as was the 1945 Joan Crawford film also of the same name. I’ve always wanted to like Haynes’ films more than I end up doing, but this one proved excellent from start to finish. Kate Winslet plays the title character, and she’s very good in the role. Haynes also manages to portray a convincing 1940s Los Angeles, and it’s certainly a less glamorous one than in the Crawford film. Recommended.

Mrs Miniver, William Wyler (1942, USA) Despite being an American film, this is set in the UK. Although Mr Mininver is American (Walter Pidgeon). It’s about a housewife during WWII, played by Greer Garson, and to be honest I remember almost nothing about it. Garson was, I seem to remember, very good, if somewhat terribly terribly… but I have zero memory of the plot. I think their house got bombed? If you’re looking for cinema verité about the Second World War, this is not the film to get.

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The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012, Denmark) The “elevator pitch” for this did not deserve to work – or rather, in the real world it should not have worked. But it did. The director took a team to Indonesia and interviewed those responsible for the huge numbers of killings of “communists” (over half a million) between 1965 and 1966, and asked them to re-enact those killings. The film starts by interviewing one of the gang leaders during that time, Anwar Congo, before exploring the Indonesian paramilitary organisations known as “preman”, especially the largest one, Pancasila Youth. The scenes acted out by Congo and his associates turn increasingly strange as they explore through cinema conventions what they did and how it affected them. That Congo at the end has an epiphany as a direct result of his re-enactments – what he did, he now realises, was bad – feels like too neat an ending, almost a cliché, and yet the murders committed by the preman back in the 1960s, and the stuff they get up to even now, are anything but trite and should not be forgotten.

Stranded, Roger Christian (2013, Canada) You see a crap straight-to-DVD sf film these days, and chances are it was made in Canada. Most are best avoided. Like this one. Christian Slater – whose career is clearly no longer what it once was – stars as the commander of a base on the Moon. A meteor strike damages the base shortly before the crew of four are about to rotate out. One of the meteorites contained some alien gunk, which impregnates the sole female character and overnight she becomes nine months pregnant. Then whatever it was she was carrying vanishes, I think it was an alien which was impersonating another member of the crew but by that point my brain was dribbling out of my ears.

The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia) This was a rewatch, and it’s probably my favourite Sokurov film (and, of course, one of my ten favourite films). The subject matter and cinematography perfectly complement each other, which is not always true of his movies (another in which it does is Confession, but that’s also incredibly slow and long). A young man travels to Siberia to bury his father, and he has to deal with his loss as he deals with the local bureaucracy. I’ve tried to work out why this film appeals to me so strongly – I have an aversion to films with father-son narratives as I find Hollywood’s use of the trope typically stretches from the banal to the inane. But The Second Circle seems to me to give due emotional weight to its topic – it’s a father-son narrative that’s about grief and loss, not disappointment or approval. It is, in other words, real. Too many Hollywood films by male directors feel like they can be reduced to the director (or perhaps the writer) acting out in disguised form the issues they had with their own fathers; but this is one of the few movies that tackles the subject head-on and does it with intelligence. Oh, and why aren’t all of Sokurov’s films available in UK editions, eh? For example, he’s made a quartet of films about “the corrupting effects of power”, and one of them, the third, has never been released in this country.

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The Golden Coach, Jean Renoir (1952, France) This was unexpected; I mean, I’ve seen several of Renoir’s films and they’re excellent – La Règle du jeu, La Grande Illusion, Partie de campagne… So I had high expectations for The Golden Coach. But it turned out to be a dodgy Hollywood-style historical film, with none of Renoir’s wit, a mostly wooden cast, and the only real touch of Renoir was the start, which was framed as the beginning of a play on a stage, but as the camera moved onto the stage, so it all opened out into a cinematic world. Avoidable.

Le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès (1902, France) I was surprised to discover this was only around fifteen minutes long, and that its story is quite mad. Though, to be honest, the documentary about Méliès also on the DVD was more interesting than the film. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it (and you can too, in fact, as there’s loads of versions of it on YouTube).

The Lego Movie, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (2014, USA) I’d heard lots of good things about this, even from normally sensibly people – so, despite it not being my thing at all, I borrowed it from a friend. There were a couple of laugh out loud moments, and more references to sf films than you could shake a reasonably-sized stick at… but in places it felt a bit by-the-numbers and, sigh, it all boiled down to a son and his relationship with his father. Even bloody toys can’t escape the father-son Hollywood narrative. Mildly entertaining.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I watch some of the films I’ve written about, it’s because I’m working my way through this list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It’s not an especially good list – lots of spelling mistakes, for a start – and I’m finding many of films that I don’t think belong on it, and some not on it that I believe should be. To date, I’ve seen 494 of them – most of them as rental DVDs, but some of them are proving hard to source…