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Moving pictures 2018, #46

I like it when there are six movies and six different countries. And one of the movies is from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. True, one of the films below is by a director I’ve been a fan of for many years – that’s Kaurismäki – and for reasons that still escape me I’ve been working my way through the Marx brothers films… but the others were completely new to me.

Horse Feathers, Norman McLeod (1932, USA). After moaning in my last Moving pictures post that I no longer understand why I continue to watch the Marx Brothers, my excuse for Horse Feathers is that was on the same rental disc as Monkey Business… although I can think of no good excuse for, a week later, watching A Night at the Opera (although, to be fair, it is a better film than these early ones). Anyway, Horse Feathers is about… er, a college (ie, university) with a shit football (ie, American Football) team, which always loses, and the Marx Brothers con themselves into positions of power at the college and then hire pro players for their team, all so they can beat a rival college. I can’t remember any especially amusing scenes from this film, only an overriding memory of feeling sorry for Zeppo for having to play the all-American clean-cut college-boy hero. Groucho wise-cracks (often not very funny), Harpo is creepy as fuck, and Chico, embarrassingly, plays a comedy Latino but delivers the best lines. The Marx Brothers comedy has not aged as well as some of their contemporaries.

The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismäki (2017, Finland). I already had everything in this new Blu-ray box set except The Other Side of Hope (and The Man Without a Past, which I’d already seen), but Kaurismäki is definitely worth upgrading from DVD. So I did. And gave my DVD Kaurismäki box sets to a friend. Anyway, The Other Side of Hope. There needs to be more books and films about refugees in Europe, because how we treat them increasingly defines us – and is certainly defining the current era. You have the racists and fascists becoming increasingly normalised in the press, and yet a recent poll claimed the UK was a more welcoming country than it was ten years ago. I suspect that poll doesn’t include the Home Office, which seems to staffed entirely by racists enacting racist policies put in place by arch-racist Theresa May. Happily, not everyone agrees with such Nazis, and people are writing novels – like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – and making films – such as The Other Side of Hope – which address European nations’ inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. (There would, of course, be fewer refugees moving into Europe if we stopped bombing their homes.) In The Other Side of Hope, Khaled, a Syrian, enters Helsinki illegally and applies for asylum at a police station. He tells them his story (through an interpreter): he returned home from work one day to find his house destroyed by bombs, and his wife and child dead. Like many other Syrians fleeing the civil war (and British bombs), he and his sister travelled north, but he lost her in the Balkans. His application is rejected and he escapes from the facility where he’d been put. He’s found sleeping rough by a businessman who has just sold his shop and bought a neighbourhood restaurant and which he’s failing to make a go of (their attempt at re-inventing themselves as a sushi restaurant is hilarious). The restaurant owner hires Khaled and arranges for him to get a fake ID. Meanwhile, another refugee Khaled met in the facility has had word of Khaled’s sister. She’s in Lithuania. So Khaled arranges to have her smuggled to Finland. But then Khaled has a run-in with a group of neo-Nazis… The Other Side of Hope is probably the most Kaurismäki of his films. It’s both tragedy and farce, and all played completely deadpan. The restaurant owner is played by Kaurismäki regular and ex-Leningrad Cowboys member Sakari Kuosmanen, and there are few other familiar faces in there too. Khaled is played by Sherwan Haji, a Syrian actor who emigrated to Finland. An excellent film.

The Visitor, Giulio Paradiso (1979, Italy). I get these text messages every now and again, usually late at night, from David Tallerman, in which he tells me to add certain films to my rental list (I do the same to him, of course). The Visitor was one such film. It was also completely bonkers. It’s an Italian film, but set in the US with a mostly US cast, including Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. Yes, really. There is apparently an ages-long cosmic conflict between evil, Zatteen, and good, Yahweh. But Zatteen was killed on Earth centuries ago, and survives only through the descendants of children he had with human women. One of which is apparently a young girl with telekinetic abilities, which she is using to help the basketball team owned by her mother’s boyfriend win games. It’s all a bit Damien, and the Christian references are laid on thick. And like most Italian films of the 1970s, it’s all very intense, a bit like Cronenberg turn up to eleven but without the body horror. There is, for example, a scene in which they try to kill Shelley Winters by wrapping a wire around her neck and the sending her down the stairs on a stairlift. Despite all this, The Visitor isn’t especially memorable. Batshit insane, yes; and that’s probably why so little of it sticks in memory.

The Mad Masters*, Jean Rouch (1955, France). Rouch was a name unknown to me, despite having directed 109 films between 1947 and 2002. But then, none of his films appear to have ever been released in the UK, and most of them were semi-documentary – what he called “ethnofiction” – films about people and places on the African continent. The Mad Masters is a case in point: it depicts the Hauka rituals, in which participants go into trances, froth at the mouth and claim to be possessed by their colonial administrators. The film was banned in Niger, and then in other British territories in Africa of the time, including Ghana, where it was filmed. Wikipedia states that the film has also been criticised by “African” students and critics (Africa is not a country) for presenting “exotic racism”. Given that the first quarter of the film is about how very ordinary is the city of Accra and its inhabitants – although it’s likely that’s to contrast it with the later depictions of Hauka possessions. Rouch was in important figure in French cinema, and probably deserves a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I don’t know that this is the film to represent his oeuvre. I’d certainly like to see more by him.

Bad Cop, Kai Jiang (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime – I say “found”, as if it were actually possible to look for things there and find them, which it’s not as Amazon appears to use the worst search engine on the planet and is about as effective as throwing a dart at a dartboard from several kilometres away and in a different room. So. I stumbled across it. As well as a bunch of stuff I hadn’t known was on there. Bad Cop is not a good film. A policewoman (you can also find the film as Bad Policewoman) who doesn’t take orders very well is sent undercover to a high school to discover why several of the female students have disappeared. She ends up in a relationship with the hot teacher. And the friendly fellow female student turns out to be the villain. Ho hum. Like the other Chinese films dumped on Amazon Prime I’ve seen, the subtitles were… creative. Fun, but not a very good film.

Tramontane, Vatche Boulghourjian (2016, Lebanon). I think it was trailer for this on another rental DVD that prompted me to add it to my list. Or it may have just been that it’s a Lebanese film and I’ve not seen many of them, so I stuck it on my rental list. Whatever, it was a good call. Rabih is blind and a musician in a band. The band has been invited to play in Europe (no one specifies which country or city), so Rabih goes along to the police station to apply for a passport. But they take his ID card off him because it’s fake. He clearly didn’t know, so they tell him to provide proof of his birth and they’ll let him off. But the hospital where he was allegedly born has no record of his birth. At which point his mother admits he was rescued by her brother – then a captain in the army – from a village in the south destroyed during the war. He travels to the village and learns it was never destroyed during the war, and no babies went missing. A member of his uncle’s platoon tells him he was rescued from a car crash in which his Armenian parents died by his uncle, handed to an Armenian orphanage, but then taken from that by his uncle. But the orphanage has no record of an orphan from that time. Through his uncle’s ex-fiancée, he tracks down another member of his uncle’s platoon, who tells him he was “allowed to live” after an operation on a village. At the village, he learns that a man and woman were killed in an attack and their baby disappeared, long since presumed dead. When Rabih asks if the baby could still be alive, he is told, yes, he could be but he would have another family by now and they buried the missing baby decades ago. Rabih’s uncle then presents him with a birth certificate – real, so obviously sourced from “contacts” – but documenting his fake birth as per his fake ID. Rabih has no choice but to accept it. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 930

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Moving pictures 2016, #5

Still catching up on these…

tere_nammTere Naam, Satish Kaushik (2003, India). After watching Deewaar, I stuck a bunch of Bollywood films on my rental list and the first to arrive was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which I really enjoyed… but the next one, Tere Naam, turned out to be something altogether different. The title means “in your name”, and the story is roughly based on that of Romeo and Juliet. Which makes it pretty dark for for what I’d expected of Bollywood – although the songs are still there, of course. Radhe is a “college rowdy” and head of the Student Union. Nirjara is the daughter of a priest, poor but a Brahmin. Radhe falls in love with Nirjara, but she doesn’t return his feelings. So he kidnaps her and forces her to fall in love with him. But then gangsters beat up Radhe, including repeatedly bashing his head against a railway locomotive’s buffer plate and giving him brain damage. He is consigned to hospital and then an ashram. In one of his infrequent moments of lucidity, he tries to escape but badly injures himself. Nirjara visits him but he is in a coma. So she goes home and commits suicide. Meanwhile, Radhe recovers – the coma has somehow fixed his brain damage – and escapes in order to see Nirjara… but, of course, she is dead. In amongst all this, we have typical Bollywood song and dance routines, the sorts of songs that rush through half a dozen musical genres in five or so minutes. There’s also lots of over-the-top fight scenes, with over-the-top sound effects. I’ve said before that Bollywood is “Hollywood turned up to eleven”, and this is as good an example of that as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. It was dark, surprisingly dark, but still fun.

ashes_diamondsAshes & Diamonds*, Andrzej Wajda (1958, Poland). Wajda is one of Poland’s best-known directors but I seem to have missed out on most of his films – although I’ve watched a quite number of Polish directors; and have been a fan of Kieślowski’s work for a decade or more. Ashes & Diamonds is not Wajda’s only film to appear on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, both Man of Marble and Man of Iron are on there – both of which I’ve seen, and both of which I rate highly. But then the topic of those two films – a Stakhanovite worker, socialism, and the failures of Stalinism – appeals to me, but Ashes & Diamonds is set shortly after WWII and is about the war and its immediate aftermath, a subject I find less interesting. A group of resistance fighters, formed during the war to fight the Russians but still fighting into the 1950s – plan to assassinate a minor government official. The first attempt fails, when they gun down the two occupants of the wrong jeep. so they plan an attack during a celebratory dinner for the official. But one of the assassins falls in love with the barmaid at the hotel where he is staying, and has second thoughts. The other assassin gets pissed with a report, gatecrashes the dinner and causes havoc. The first assassin – who wears sunglasses because he ruined his eyesight during the Warsaw Uprising by spending so much time in the city’s sewers – manages to kill the target but is then chased and gunned down by soldiers. The film is shot in black and white and the damage the war caused is plain to see in every frame. Ashes & Diamonds is generally reckoned to be one of the best films to come out of Poland but, to be honest, I preferred the other two Wajda movies I’ve seen. It all felt a bit too obvious and self-conscious, a bit too similar to the US films which inspired it. But it probably still belongs on the list.

howtoHow To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, David Swift (1967, USA). You know when they take a Broadway musical and put it on the silver screen and use the original cast and the film sinks without trace because no one knows who the stars are… well, that’s probably what happened to this particular film. Who remembers Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee? Admittedly, the female roles were recast for the movie, although it doesn’t appear to have been a springboard to fame for any of them either. The plot follows a window cleaner who uses the advice in the eponymous self-help book to rise up the corporate ladder at the Worldwide Wicket Company (“wicket”, of course, means something completely different outside the US, so was a piss-poor choice of word). The film is meant to be humourous, but it’s hard to find the laughs in a story that not only encourages, but actually celebrates, back-stabbing, character assassination and workplace deception. Even if it does feature songs. None of which are memorable. I’m not sure why I rented this, it’s not like I’m a fan of musical films – although there several I like quite a bit – so perhaps it was because it looked like it might be one of those stylised 1960s technicolour films which can be fun. It wasn’t. Avoid.

wake_in_frightWake in Fright*, Ted Kotcheff (1971, Australia). With a title like Wake in Fright, and that somewhat lurid artwork on the eureka! edition DVD, I think can be forgiven for letting this film slip down the rental list. But eventually it arrived… and proved to be not at all what I’d expected. And very good indeed. A teacher at some godforsaken Outback station heads for Sydney for the Christmas holiday. This requires taking the train to Bundanyabba, a small town, and catching a flight from there. But in Bundanyabba, he falls in with the locals, spends all his money gambling – a game called “two-up”, which entails flipping two coins up in the air from a small wooden paddle – and then goes on a drunken binge which ends up with a group of them haring around the Outback in a ute, pissed as farts, shooting kangaroos. As a chronicle of one man’s descent into drunken depravity and degradation, this is pretty scary stuff. Donald Pleasance plays a good part as the alcoholic doctor the teacher falls in with, and even Chips Rafferty as the jocular local constable successfully exudes macho menace while ostensibly helping the teacher. A good film, worth seeing.

demyModel Shop, Jacques Demy (1969, France). I bought the Intègrale Jacques Demy box set just so I could see films like Model Shop, which weren’t available in UK editions. And while the DVDs in the set are well-presented, I’ve yet to be convinced Demy’s oeuvre was, in total, especially good. He was certainly variable. Model Shop is set in California, with a US cast. and filmed in English, and feels like the product of a US director. A young architect is called up for the Vietnam draft, goes to a model shop (a photographic studio specialising in erotica), spends a night with one of its models, only to find the next morning that his girlfriend has left him and his car has been repossessed. Model Shop is considered one of Demy’s most-underrated movies but to be honest all I can remember of it was that it felt very Californian and surprisingly not much like the Demy films I’d seen up to that point. Still, I have the boxed set so I can always rewatch it…

killing_fieldsThe Killing Fields*, Roland Joffé (1984, UK). I’ve had a copy of the soundtrack of this movies for, well, since its release, as it was composed and performed by Mike Oldfield and I was a Mike Oldfield fan (I suppose I still am, just not to the same level). So I knew the music, but not the film. But I knew mostly what the film was about – which was the Khmer Rouge’s seizure of power in Cambodia in the early 1970s. It focuses on a US journalist covering the civil war – played by Sam Waterson of Law & Order fame – and his Cambodian translator/guide/assistant, played by Haing S Ngor. When Khmer Rouge win the war and take power, Pol Pot begins his Year Zero policy. Waterson escapes back to the US, as does Ngor’s family, but Ngor himself is sent to a labour camp – and though Waterson tries to find him, he fails to do so. Fortunately, Ngor escapes and treks through the jungle to the border with Thailand, and is eventually re-united with his family. There’s not much you can say about Pol Pot’s regime – it was brutal, resulted in the death of a quarter of the country’s population, and so corrupted the high ideals which prompted it that those ideals themselves have been tainted by association. Joffé’s film is an efficient telling of the story, but I have to say Oldfield’s soundtrack is really intrusive. I used to like the album, but it felt completely out-of-place as I watched the film. A film that belongs on the list, I think, but not because it’s a great film.

chronicleChronicle of a Summer*, Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch (1961 France). An odd beast, this one. Two film-makers sent out a bunch of students to interview working people about their happiness. Later, they showed the interviewees the film and asked their opinion. And that’s pretty much it. Filmed in black and white, with a 16 mm camera and a prototype portable tape recorder, it’s little more than a series of conversations between people, some prompted by questions – which range from the banal to the pretentious – while those answering try not to appear too stupid but instead come across as pretty typical for the time and place. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but it reminds me of Godard films like Masculin féminin and Une femme mariée, which I didn’t especially like or enjoy; and the banality of some of the encounters in Chronicle of a Summer make you wonder why you’re watching it. Meh.

demyLa baie des anges, Jacques Demy (1963, France). I said earlier that Demy’s output was variable – it’s not just the spoken-word versus sung-word films, more that some seem iconic whereas others feel anything but. Lola is an iconic film, with spoken dialogue; Les demoiselles de Rochefort is an iconic film, with sung dialogue. La baie des anges (The Bay of Angels) is just like Lola, a black and white film, starring Jeanne Moreau, which manages to perfectly capture a particular emotion of the time. A young man holidays in Nice, where he spends time gambling in the casinos. There, he meets Moreau, who looks and acts about as early-1960s French cinema as is humanly possible, a gambling addict who hangs around the casino. The two enter into a relationship. She tells him gambling will always come first for her. And so it does. This is a movie that relies style and presentation as much as it does story and, as mentioned earlier, comparisons with Lola are inevitable. And it compares favourably. Lola is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but it’s probably a toss-up between it and La baie des anges as to which should have made the cut.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 717