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Moving pictures 2018, #14

I’ve been having trouble recently getting invested in some of the films I’ve been watching. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions. Some nights I want a movie that doesn’t require much in the way of thought, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Or I choose badly. On the one hand, I want to watch as widely as possible; on the other, sometimes some of the films I’m drawn to can be a bit of a slog. A couple here were not very good, despite the names attached to them. Another was a straightforward melodrama but happened to be about a subject that interested me, so I liked it. And one was the latest film by a favourite director. In other words, the usual mixed bag…

How the West was Won, John Ford, Henry Hathaway & George Marshall (1962, USA). I’ve known of this film for many years. Who hasn’t? It’s one of those Western titles you see mentioned everywhere, even if no one you know seems to have actually watched it. I last came across a mention of it in reference to McLintock! (see here), so when I found it on Amazon Prime, I decided to give it a go. And now I have watched it. And it is… epic. In other words, it has pretty much everyone in it. Unfortunately, it’s also the bullshit narrative the US likes to believe about its invasion of the North American continent – and it’s pretty much an invasion by most definitions of the term. The movie opens with Karl Malden and his family travelling west to settle in the wide open lands in that area. They bump into fur trapper Jimmy Stewart, who falls for one of Malden’s daughters. But the trip doesn’t go as planned, and some of the family die while rafting on a river. The film follows the remainder of the family over a couple of generations as they head west and infiltrate the capitalist infrastructure which has implanted itself in the new territories. One of Malden’s daughters, Debbie Reynolds, marries a gambler, played by Gregory Peck, who turns his talents to investment, and so becomes a serial millionaire. This only happens after she’s spent time as a showgirl. Then there’s George Peppard, who joins the US Army with dreams of glory, inadvertently saves the lives of Generals Grant and Sherman, but returns home to discover his mother has died. How the West was Won pretty much features everyone, and part of the fun of watching it is identifying the stars (Jimmy Stewart’s wig is especially bad). But as narratives of colonisation of the West go, it’s pretty much up there with history textbooks that claim the US single-handedly fought and won WWII. This is not a film to be used to teach kids their heritage. Not unless it’s one of those US schools where the teacher is licensed for concealed carry and the students get an AR-15 on graduation. But the US prefers the Hollywood version of its history because, of course, it makes them out to be hardy pioneers instead of brutal conquerors… Cinematically, the film has its moments, but to be honest you’d have to be pretty incompetent to make Monument Valley look boring, and none of the directors attached to this film could be accused of that. There are better western films, even ones with a somewhat tenuous link to actual history, such as Shane or Rio Bravo, but which have better cinematography  or make more of a meal of the scenery. How the West was Won feels like a textbook for a specific, and long since discredited, view of US history. It’s a well-made film, and it looks quite lovely in places. But it’s a piece of historical hokum and should be watched with that in mind.

Spacewalker, Dmitry Kiselev (2017, Russia). I had this on my rental list, but then went and bought it by accident. Like you do. Fortunately, I remembered to remove it from my rental list. The Russians have produced a number of films in recent years about their space programme – Gagarin: First in Space (see here), Salyut-7 (see here), and now Spacewalker, this last about Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk in 1965, another Space Race first by the USSR. For all that the US likes to trumpet its space achievements, the USSR beat its hands down until Apollo. And even now, US astronauts have to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to travel to the ISS because there is no human-rated US spacecraft currently in service. Ahem. Spacewalker opens with a MiG-15 being flown by Leonov in trouble with its jet engine on fire – and it was nice to watch a film in which a MiG-15 was played by an actual MiG-15 (although I suspect it was mostly CGI) – and because he’s a complete nutter, he goes into a steep dive to put out the fire, manages to pull out in time, and lands the aircraft. So he’s not a natural fit for the Soviet cosmonaut programme when they start, but he has his champions and is recruited. When he’s picked for the first spacewalk, he trains with Belyayev, but Belyayev breaks his leg during a parachute jump. Leonov campaigns hard for Belyayev to be kept as mission commander, and succeeds. The mission is depicted pretty much as it happened. Leonov had no troubled making the spacewalk, but experienced real trouble getting back into the Voskhod spacecraft. It’s all presented with the same degree of verimilitude of the aforementioned films. It’s like Gravity has opened some sort of floodgate. And I for one welcome these films, with their convincing depictions of actual real space exploration history, and if it’s Russian self-aggrandising instead of American, so what? It’s real history and it’s fascinating. And okay, I do love me some Soviet sf films, and these are are not Soviet although they cover Soviet history. But they’re accomplished pieces of work and the equal of, if not better than, anything Hollywood has produced. Worth seeing.

Such Good Friends, Otto Preminger (1971, USA). I’ve been working my way through Preminger’s oeuvre, and three of his later films were released recently on Blu-ray in a collection in the US but unavailable here. And since I have a multi-region Blu-ray player… Of course, now I own them, they’ll probably be released in the UK… and cost less. Although maybe not. A lot of classic movies newly-released on sell-through in the US don’t get UK releases, and Preminger is better-known for his 1940s and 1950s noir films than he is his late 1960s / early 1970s melodramas and comedies. And having now seen the three films in this collection, I can understand why. Such Good Friends is based on a novel by Lois Gould. In it, a successful children’s author goes into hospital for a minor operation, but the doctors bungle it, and bungle every subsequent attempt to fix the medical problems they’ve caused. The film did not start well. The main character, player by Dyan Cannon, goes to a publishing party with her husband, and Burgess Meredith, playing a famous author, is present; and for some reason, she imagines him naked, which Preminger actually shows on film. And then the plot goes into its litany of hospital fuck-ups and… It’s a well-made film but not an especially good one. For a start, it’s a comedy but it’s not at all funny. It’s based on a novel by Lois Gould, and after watching the film I went and did some drunk ebaying and bought the book. I have done this before – watched a a bad adaptation of a novel, and gone and bought the novel. I have no real interest in reading Gould’s book, but now I have a copy I probably will. It did at least sound better than the film. We shall see.

Spies Kill Silently, Mario Caiano (1966, Italy). Released under the titles Le spie uccidono in silenzio and Los espías matan en silencio, this was an Italian-Spanish thriller set in… the Lebanon. I watched it because I visited Beirut during the early 1970s, and I wanted to see if I’d remembered anything of the city. I hadn’t. I now wish I could not remember anything of this film. The daughter of prominent scientist is mysteriously murdered in a hotel swimming pool in Beirut. An American agent is called in to investigate the case, because there have been a series of unexplained deaths of notable scientists. It’s all a plot, of course, by one particular scientist, to take over the world. This involves brainwashing people to do his bidding, so his assassins can be literally anyone. The secret agent goes undercover, with an antidote to the brainwashing serum, but the scientist spots this and really brainwashes him. Which was a bit of a twist to the formula. But it all comes right in the end. And I was probably too young to form any lasting memories of Beirut when I visited to the city, so nothing in the film struck a chord. And it was a pretty crap film as well.

Hurry Sundown, Otto Preminger (1967, USA). Preminger apparently bought the rights to the novel from which this was adapted before it was even published. For $100,000. Later, quizzed on how much he’d paid, and perhaps embarrassed at how poorly the film had been received, Preminger replied to a reporter’s “how much did it cost?” with “seven ninety-five”. This was taken to mean $795,000. Preminger had actually meant the book’s cover price, $7.95. The story is set in 1946 Georgia. A share cropper has just returned from fighting, and discovers that his cousin has been buying up land as part of a development deal. There are only two unsold parcels of land left standing in his way – the ex-GI’s, and that of another  ex-GI… who happens to be black. This was during the days of segregation and all the white people in the film – with the exception of the white ex-GI and his family – are horribly racist. Worse, however, the film was made in 1967, in Lousiana due to union reasons, and the members of the production were shot at, and the swimming pool of the motel where they were staying was bombed. Because the cast and crew were integrated. I mean, a film set in 1946 about segegration made 21 years later is the target of hate cimes. That’s beyond irony. That’s the US. Fucking racists. The book, Hurry Sundown, did not prove to be the mega-bestseller Preminger had hoped, although it was certainly epic at 1,046 pages. It now appears to be long out of print. And the film didn’t do very well either. I’m not surprised. It’s not a good film. Michael Caine plays the cousin, a Southern entrpreneur, and he’s not a good fit for the part; Jane Fonda plays his wife. John Phillip Law, who looked great but didn’t have much in the way of acting chops, plays the ex-GI, and Faye Dunaway his wife (and she reportedly hated working with Preminger). Diahann Carroll plays the local teacher who stands up for the black ex-GI (played by Robert Hooks, who was apparently in Star Trek 3) , and she’s always worth watching. But for a late 1960s movie, none of this works, and it all feels like a story that has nothing new to say about the US’s appalling record on race relations. It was not successful, and justifiably so. Fortunately, I was not so drunk watching it that I ebayed a first edition copy of the 1,046 page novel on which it was based…

Mountains May Depart, Jia Zhangke (2015, China). Jia is perhaps the most celebrated of the Sixth Generation of directors from China, and with good reason. Which is not to say the othe directors are bad. They are in fact very good. But Jia is especially good. And Mountains May Depart is his latest film, again starring his wife, Zhao Tao. The film is split into three sections. The first is set in 1999, and it’s familiar territory for Jia – a mix of documentary and drama, in which the lines between the two are blurred. The film opens in 1999 with a love triangle. Zhao is love with a coalminer. but marries an entrpreneur as China embraces capitalism. They have a son, named Dollar. The second section is set in 2014. The two are separated and Dollar visits Zhao and she tries to get him to recognise her as his mother, and not her ex-husband’s new wife. The final section is set in 2025, in Australia. Dollar is now a university student, and his father is bitter and collects guns. I’ve seen comments comparing Mountains May Depart to Sirk, but I can’t see it. When I think of Sirk, I think of films packaged as women’s pictures but which cleverly subvert and critique women’s role in society (not all of Sirk’s films, obviously). Jia’s film is more a critique of Chinese society and its response to capitalism, and, in the final section explicitly, to the Chinese diaspora. True, the central character is a woman, Zhao, and her life provides the focus of Jia’s commentary. Not all of it worked for me. There weren’t enough Australian accents in the section set in Australia for a start (they mostly sounded American). The middle section is probably the best of the the three, with Zhao trying to make sense of what her life has become. Like Jia’s other films, it has that semi-documentary feel – a difficult trick to pull off in the 2025 section, which is probably why it doesn’t quite gel for me. On balance, I think some of Jia’s earlier films are better, although he remains a favourite director. Which is not to say Mountains May Depart is a bad film – it’s a bloody good film, but it’s not Jia’s best.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896

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Moving pictures 2018, #4

I still seem to be watching a lot of films. Normal service – well, normal as of 2015 – should be resumed soon…

Cinema Komunisto, Mira Turajlic (2010, Serbia). Back in the day, Yugoslavia as was decided to attract foreign investment by opening up one of its state-run studios, Avala Film in Belgrade, to foreign film-makers. President Tito was a big movie-fan, so it gave him the opportunity to meet many film stars, such as Orson Welles or Kirk Douglas. Cinema Komunisto uses both archive footage and interviews with those who worked at Avala. The facilities are now pretty much ruins, but the massive wardrobe and props departments still exist. It’s interesting stuff, with lots of nice touches – like the bridge Avala helpfully blew up for a US war movie, only for the film-makers to use a model shot in the final cut; or the US film star who complimented Tito on his wonderful palace, only to be told it was the “people’s palace”. Yeah right. “Socialist” dictators and their insulting fiction of non-ownership of their wealth. Worth seeing.

Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961, Japan). I thought I’d seen this, but it seems I think I’ve watched more Kurosawa films than I actually have. And this was one of the ones I hadn’t actually seen. That has now been remedied. Obviously. The title means “bodyguard” and refers to the character played by Toshiro Mifune, who is never named. He wanders into a town in which two rival gangs have the local populace terrorised. Mifune decides to do something about it, by playing one gang off against the other. I’m told the story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which I’ve never read, although Kurosawa claimed it was based on Hammett’s The Glass Key. Yojimbo was certainly lifted pretty much wholesale by Sergio Leone, however, transplanted to the Wild West and made as A Fistful of Dollars. Which seems entirely approproate as, despite its setting in mediaeval Japan, there is very much a Wild West air to the film. There are guns – one of the enforcers in one gang has a revolver, makes much use of it – but most of the fight scenes feature swords. The characters seem a little caricatured, much like in a spaghetti Western, including the boar-like brother of one gangster, and the seven-foot tall enfrocer of the other. Kurosawa clevery ramps up the violence as the film progresses, until the final showdown results in the destruction of the businesses of the two merchants who back each of the two gangs. I’ve stuck a load of Kurosawa on my rental list recently, as I really should watch more of his films.

People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G Ulmer (1930 Germany). I had thought this was a documentary, but it isn’t. It’s actually a drama, made by a film club in Berlin, a fact the film actually makes a point of. It opens by introducing the main actors, and points out that once the film is over they will be returining to their day jobs, which it helpfully indicates. The story follows four friends on a Sunday, as they head for Wannsee to enjy the summer sun on the beach. As siilent dramas go, People on Sunday ticks all the boxes, but what makes the film remarkable – and it can hardly be “a pivotal film on the development of German cinema”, as Wikipedia puts it, if Lubitsch was making popular films in Berlin more than a decade earlier – but what is certainly remarkable about People on Sunday is the number of people involved in it who went on to have careers in Hollywood. Not only the two directors, Siodmak and Ulmer, but also Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Worth seeing.

The Calm, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1976, Poland). One of Kieślowski’s favourite actors, Jerzy Stuhr, plays an ex-con who tries to turn his life around after being released from prison. It’s never revealed what he was sent down for, although it seems unlikely to have been a violent crime. Stuhr leaves Kraków and heads out into the country. He gets a job on a building site, where the manager seems to trust him – although not, it transpires, for necessarily the right reasons. He meets a young woman, the two marry and a baby is on the way. His has turned his life around and everything is going well. He is a model member of society. But materials keep on disappearing from the building site, and when the manager threatens to take the cost of the missing materials out of everyone’s wages, they go on strike. Stuhr ends up as an unwilling liaison between the two. And learns that the manager himself is responsible for the thefts – and that he trusts Stuhr because Stuhr, an ex-con, would make a good patsy should the scheme be uncovered. Stuhr can’t resolve the situation and his fellow workers decide he is a scab. So they beat him up. This is not a cheerful film, although it initially appears to be. It seems Kieślowski is trying to say that no matter how hard you work to improve yourself, the system will still fuck you up in the end for no good reason. And in 1970s Poland, that was likely true. So it’s a little ironic that The Calm was banned by the Polish authorities, and didn’t get shown until 1980, because it depicted a strike and strikes were illegal in Poland.

Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China). That’s the last of the Christmas presents, and the last of Jia’s films until the box set containing Mountains May Depart that I’ve pre-ordered arrives. His films really are brilliant, so much so that each time I watch a new one I have to decide whether or not it is my new favourite Jia film. Still Life came close, perhaps just inching out 24 City but not managing to steal the top spot from The World. Still Life is set in the Three Gorges area and tells the story of Han Sanming (played by Han Sanming), who has returned to travelled to track down his wife and daughter who ran away sixteen years earlier. But the address he has for them is now underwater, part of the city that has been destroyed for the Three Gorges Dam project. Sanming joins a local demolition crew, who are demolishing buildings using lump hammers. The film then shifts to Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao, who played the lead in The World, and Han Sanming played her boyfriend), a nurse who is in Fengjie to look for her husband, who it turns out has become a successful local businessman. In fact, he runs several demolition contracts, and Sanming works for him. He also has a rich girlfriend. When Shen Hong finds this out, she asks for a divorce. In the final section of the film, Sanming’s wife turns up and reveals that their daughter is now working furthe rsouth in indentured labour to pay off the wife’s brother’s debt. Sanming offers to take wife and daughter with him, but he would have to pay off the debt – and he doesn’t have the money. so he returns alone to the coal maines of Shanxi… Although a drama, Still Life plays like a documentary – it’s one of the chief appeals of Jia’s films – and some of the scenery on display is fantastic. The Three Gorges region is astonishingly beautiful, but it is also heavily built-up and, during the period the film was made, was being slowly demolished and flooded for the dam. It makes for some striking cinematography. Excellent stuff.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein, Ernst Lubitsch (1918, Germany). The title translates as “I don’t want to be a man”. Ossi Oswalda plays the high-spirited daughter of an indulgent uncle. When he leaves, she is put in the charge of a new guardian, who is far more strict. So she dresses up as a man and goes out on the town, ending up in a posh ball, where she finds it much harder to be a man than she had expected. She bumps into her new guardian, and tries to steal his date in revenge. Unfortunately, someone else has more success, and Oswalda and her guardian drown their sorrows in drink and become great friends. So much so they begin kissing each other. When they leave the ball, the cab driver drops Oswalda off at the guardian’s house, and vice versa. But it all works out in the end. Oswalda is undoubtedly the star of the film – there wouldn’t be a film without her. Her bad behaviour in the opening section of the film does an excellent job of outlining her character; and her antics when cross-dressed, most of which are based on a complete obliviousness to her disguise, display excellent comic timing. When you consider that Ich möchte kein Mann sein was made a dozen years before People on Sunday, and there’s not all that much that’s technically different between the two… it does undermine the claims to importance of People on Sunday. The latter is undoubtedly the better film – it’s longer, 73 minutes to the 41 minutes of the Lubitsch, and it’s a drama played completely straight and which makes a feature of its amateur cast. Ich möchte kein Mann sein is a flat-out comedy, although not the fall-about slapsatick comedy Hollywood was making at the time, and it makes a meal of its “fish out of water” story. A fun film, but one chiefly for fans of silent cinema.

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.

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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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2017, Best of the half-year

It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.

The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…

books
1 Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayer here.

2 A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.

3 Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Ill here.

4 The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic). Ouředník’s Europeana made my best of list a few years ago, so I’ve kept an eye open for his books ever since. Unfortunately, Dalkey Archives have only translated three of his books to date, and I thought the second, Case Closed, interesting but not as good as Europeana. But then The Opportune Moment, 1855 is not as good as Europeana… but it’s a deal more interesting than Case Closed (on the other hand, maybe I should reread Case Closed). I wrote about The Opportune Moment, 1855 here.

5 Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winter here.

Honourable mentions Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK), a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The World of Edena, Moebius (2016, France), a beautifully drawn bande dessinée; Lord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK), the third book in a superior Norse mythos/werewolf fantasy series; The Language of Power, Rosemary Kirstein (2004, USA), the fourth book in Kirstein’s fun Steerswoman series; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK), an accompanying text for a nexhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA), the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead.

films
1 I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.

2 Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.

3 Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. 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 cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.

4 Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofonia here.

5 The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The World here.

Honourable mentions The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; 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 animation.

music
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…


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Moving pictures 2017, #15

More of the usual – China, Poland. France and Russia. I’m still trying to expand the nations whose films I watch, but I do have my favourite directors…

The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). I’ve been a fan of Jia’s films since first seeing A Touch of Sin, and if the films in Jia’s Hometown trilogy seemed a little disappointing – see here and here and here – something in the description of The World persuaded me it was closer to 24 City and A Touch of Sin and so more likely to appeal. I bought the eureka! dual edition. And so it was – much more like 24 City and A Touch of Sin, I mean. In fact, I think it might be my favourite of Jia’s films. The main character of The World, although any such description is a hostage to fortune in this film, works as “talent” at a Beijing amusement park. The movies opens with her walking along a corridor, demanding loudly if any of her fellow co-workers have a band-aid (plaster). We then see her on stage, as part of some sort of dance routine, with other women in variations on national costume from assorted nations. And Jia mantains that sort of documentary feel to the rest of the movie, as he follows the young woman through the days that follow. There’s no plot as such, just men and women interacting in a weird artificial environment – which is only enhanced by the beautifully sharp cinematography and the strange, but natural, if slightly washed-out, colour palette. It feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary shot during the making of a film, but it’s never entirely clear what the story of that film is. There’s the central character, and her relations with her colleagues; and then a friend from her province turns up and she has to look after him. We also see women being abused by a system set up to exploit them – the theme park hires some Russian dancers, for example, and their handler takes their passports, and so traps them in China (a not uncommon practice in many parts of the world). Over it all is a layer of strangeness imparted by the easily recognisable, but small-scale, landmarks which populate the theme park – the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Manhattan skyline, etc.. And several parts of the film that are animated. I really liked A Touch of Sin on first seeing it, and liked it a great deal more on rewatching it several months later. But The World I loved the first time I watched it, and I’ve seen a couple of times since and still love it. I think this film has jumped into my top ten, but I’ve yet to figure out what to displace. Recommended.

Constant Factor, Krzysztof Zanussi (1980, Poland). I’m not entirely sure precisely what the factor the title refers to, although the plot of the film seems relatively straightforward. A young man joins a firm and discovers that his honesty is a handicap rather than an advantage. He dreams of climbing Mount Everest, an ambition which killed his father. For some reason, his employer sends him on overseas jobs even though he’s done nothing to “earn” the privilege. But when he turns down routine opportunities for corruption, and then refuses to back down and so jeopardises a lucrative contract, his ability to travel is taken from him. And that includes his planned trip to the Himalayas. He gets to the airport and they won’t let him leave the country. The film works because the protagonist is sympathetic, despite his pigheaded honesty – or perhaps because of his pigheaded honesty – after all, it’s not as if his co-workers are depicted as venal and corrupt… They’re just trying to make ends meet in a system that rewards corruption better than it rewards honesty. So, just like Western society then. There is, like some of the other films in this box set, a sort of televisual drama drama – kitchen-sink drama, even – feel to the film, so much so it’s starting to feel like a Polish speciality (Kieślowski, after all, started out in television). The three Martin Scorcese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets are proving to be an excellent purchase, despite the cost.

Little Red Flowers, Zhang Yuan (2006, China). I think Zhang was one of a number Chinese directors I stuck on my rental list in an effort to explore the country’s recent cinema, but I don’t recall where I came across Zhang’s name – and LoveFilm has recently got into the habit of sending me films from a particular country one after the other. So after a run of Romanian films, it’s now a run of Chinese films. This is no real hardship – of all the countries’ cinemas I’ve been watching over the past couple of years, China’s since the late 1990s has to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest. Particularly the Sixth Generation directors and later… Little Red Flowers is a not very sympathetic film, but extremely well put-together. It follows a four-year-old boy – based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Wang Shuo – at a… boarding school? orphanage? The title refers to the school’s equivalent of “gold stars”, awarded for good work. The regime is pretty brutal for young kids, and the facilities primitive at best. I don’t recall Little Red Flowers being an especially comfortable film to watch, and I was unsure if its message was one of accommodation or staying true in a regime that saw your values as subversive. There’s a greater lesson there, of course, but I’m not sure this film is the best vehicle for it. A good film, and worth seeing – but more, I think, because it’s a good example of what China’s Sixth Generation of directors can offer than because the films offers more than its story.

Promised Land, Andrzej Wajda (1975, Poland). I know Wajda’s name as one of Polish cinemas big names, and I’ve seen several of his more celebrated films, but this was, I’d believed, one of his less celebrated, albeit still highly regarded, movies. And besides, I’ve not yet found cause to fault the choices made by these Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets – okay, where’s the Szulkin, eh? I’ll forgive the lack of Żuławski given that Mondo Vision are doing special edition rereleases of his oeuvre, and they’re pretty hard to beat –  but the films I’ve seen before which appear in these box sets I’d already categorised as excellent films… and those I’ve not seen are proving to be every bit as good. So a wise purchase all round, then. Anyway, Promised Land is an historical piece, set at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. Three men – a Pole, a German and a Jew (interesting that his nationality seems irrelevant) – all invest in a new textile factory. Their backgrounds prove important, especially when the Pole has an affair with the wife of a Jewish financier. The factory they financed is burnt to the ground. They lose everything. But the Pole bounces back by marrying an heiress. It’s very much a story of three ambitious young men from different backgrounds pooling their resources, only to find their success treats them differently. The historical aspect wasn’t entirely convincing at times – the eixigencies of filming in 1970s Poland, no doubt – and ssome of the characters were a little larger than life… But this was good stuff. I do like Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron a great deal, possibly because they feel like teleplays, and was not that taken with his Ashes and Diamonds… but Promised Land occupies that uneasy middle ground. A quality film, certainly, but I still need to see more of Wajda’s oeuvre.

Taurus, Aleksandr Sokurov (2001, Russia). After describing Francofonia (see here) as an archetypal Sokurov film – as if there were such a thing! – I watched Taurus, the second of Sokurov’s Power trilogy… and this was almost pure Sokurov cinema. For reasons I do not understand, the first and third films of the trilogy, Moloch and The Sun, were given US/UK releases on DVD (the fourth too, if you include Faust, which some do), but Taurus never was. And having now watched it I can see no good reason why it should have been ignored. The BFI have done excellent jobs on the oeuvres of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, but if they’re looking for other directors to cover then Aleksandr Sokurov should be top of their list. Whatever. I managed to get hold of a copy of Taurus, and I watched it. And it’s pure Sokurov. It depicts the last days of Lenin, who, surprisingly, died at the age of 54 after only a year in power. In the film he is recuperating from his first stroke, and after his recovery meets with Stalin – who pretended to a favouritism by Lenin that never existed – but later succumbs to another stroke. The palette is subdued blues and very painterly, and if there’s one sour note it’s that Lenin has a younger body than his face suggests – he supposed to be early fifties, but has the physique of someone two decades younger. Much of the film takes place in Lenin’s bechamber, which has all sorts of echoes with other films by Sokurov… but later, he goes for walk in the woods surrounding the dacha, and that’s another bunch of Sokurov’s films it’s referencing…Ãnd yet, the Power trilogy is, as the name suggests, about the nature of power, and by choosing three powerful figures whose powers were fading fast – Hitler toward the end of his reign, Hirohito after Japan had surrended, and Lenin on his death bed – Sokurov is in danger of belabouring his point. Except he makes each film a character study and a metaphysical treatise. This is a director who is head-and-shoulders above everyone else at the top of his game. Ten years from now, people will be comparing Tarkovsky to Sokurov, not trying to find reasons why Sokurov should be seen as of similar stature to Tarkovsky because the latter once praised him.

Éloge de l’amour, Jean-Luc Godard (2001, France). In theory, I have a lot of time for Godard; in practice, less so. I think he’s perhaps the most experimental director of commerical cinema – without being full-on avant-garde – France has produced, and I think he has not only deliberately built that reputation but also capitalised on it. Some of his early experimental as part of the Nouvelle Vague is blindingly good, but I suspect more by accident than by design. Whenever Godard was more interested in his stars than his story, the film suffered – the two contrary examples perhaps being Bande á part and Une femme est une femme – but when his focus was on the narrative, he produced some truly excellent films. And in later years, he appears to have been more concerned with cinema as an art form, which means his films became more interesting narratively without having to rely on the charismatic stars of earlier decades. So, an improvement in some respects. As many a director has discovered, you can tell any old story given a star with sufficient screen presence – as indeed Godard himself has taken advantage of in the past. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Éloge de l’amour is a film that succeeds on its own terms, but its terms are somewhat narrower than most viewers would accept. It starts out as black and white, and never quite convinces as noir, which somewhat renders the choice of of palette dubious. But then it switches to saturated colour, but never quite explains the reason for the change. Godard’sfilms usually require several viewings to fully appreciate, but this was a rental and I only gave it the one viewing. The more Godard I watch, the more Godard I want to watch. But his oevure has only been released patchily in the UK…

1001 Movies You Mist See Before You Die count: 856


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Moving pictures, #7

For all my efforts to watch films from different countries, there seem to be a handful that appear more often than others – and they’re all in this one: India, China, Sweden, Germany and the US. And the UK too, of course, although there’s no British film in this post. Having said that, Poland might be turning up in quite a few Moving pictures posts over the next few weeks…

herzogFitzcarraldo*, Werner Herzog (1982, Germany). The thing with special effects is that none of it is real. With physical effects, it’s faked by physical means. These days, with CGI and digital effects, none of it exists outside a computer. But sometimes, film-makers do exactly what they show on the screen. And one of the famous things about Fitzcarraldo is the central portion of the film, where the cast drag a steamship over a mountain ridge from one river to another. And that’s what they actually did. The story of the film seems almost incidental to that one achievement. Basically, the title character – his name is a Hispanisation of “Fitzgerald” – is an opera lover and plans to bring Caruso to the Amazonian town he calls home. In order to do that, he needs money. So he buys a tract of land that cannot be reached by river – or rather, it can, but the river in question is blocked by fierce rapids. So Fitzcarraldo plans to drag his boat over the ridge between the navigable river and the unnavigable one. And he enlists the help of a local Amazonian tribe to do so. Of course, this is a Herzog film, so nothing goes as well as planned. By all accounts, the filming was as difficult as that of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – there is even an equivalent “making of” documentary, Burden of Dreams (due to appear in a Moving pictures post later). And so the film itself is more or less incidental in the face of that central event – which is every bit as astonishing as you would think. They physically drag a steamship of three hundred tons up and over a mountain ridge a good three or four hundred metres high. The whole film screams difficult shoot right from the start, and the fact the film works, is even successful, is probably more due to the insane ambition of Herzog in attempting it and the unforgiving landscape in which he chose to shoot. It’s one of those cases where everyone suffered for their art, but their act of suffering produced art over and above the norm. And it shows. And that’s without Kinski going completely off the rails during the film – so much so, the crew offered to kill him for Herzog. Definitely in the top five of Herzog films.

hometownPlatform, Jia Zhangke (2000, China). The final film in the Hometown trilogy, although, to be fair, I’ve not watched them in the order in which they were released. In fact, the order goes Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002). Having said that, all three films share a common story: disaffected youth being disaffected youth in different circumstances. In Platform, the cast are a theatre troupe, and they travel about the province putting on state-sanctioned plays. One member forms a relationship with a man, who stays behind when the troupe goes on tour. As China changes, so does the material the troupe performs, until they end up performing rock songs. There’s a definite consistency of vision and approach to the three films in the trilogy, and seeing them in quick succession can feel like too much of a thing in too short a time. Jia has an excellent eye, and his use of mostly amateur cast members and real locations gives the films a documentary feel he has managed to maintain throughout his career so far (both 24 City and A Touch of Sin possess it). I have in recent months found myself becoming a fan of the new cinema coming out of China – not just Jia, but also Zhao Liang, and films like Black Coal, Thin Ice, rather than Hong Kong art house directors like Wong Kar-wai, who I do still like. According to Wikipedia, Jia is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese directors, so I guess I should try films by other members of that group…

pat_mikePat and Mike, George Cukor (1952, USA). In classic Hollywood films, there are great screen partnerships, and there are those that occasionally achieved greatness… Tracy and Hepburn made nine films together, and one or two are judged classics, like Adam’s Rib (1949), although I do have soft spot for the one where Hepburn is in charge of a GIANT COMPUTER BRAIN,  Desk Set (1957). Pat and Mike follows a similar pattern to the other films in which the pair appeared – and pretty much to any screwball comedy / rom com of the period. Hepburn plays a natural athlete who wins lots of competitions… providing her husband is not present. As soon as he appears, she slices the ball, hits the net, etc, etc. And so along comes sports agent Tracy, who spots this and needs to keep the two apart in order to profit from Hepburn’s sporting skill. Naturally, the two fall in love. Naturally, this results in snappy dialogue. I’ve watched a lot of George Cukor films, and a lot of them have been very good… but I can’t say I’ve spotted a George Cukor vision, which is not something I’d say of many directors whose careers I’ve been following. Given his oeuvre, I’d have expected something more consistent from Cukor – he has, after all, made some bloody good films, and you’d expect more of them to be of that quality. Pat and Mike, sadly, is pretty forgettable, not a film you’d be reccommending should you find yourself putting together a list of George Cukor films worth seeing. One for fans of screwball comedies.

classic_bergmanA Ship Bound for India, Ingmar Bergman (1947, Sweden). Apparently, “Classic Bergman” means minor Bergman films you will forget ten minutes after watching them. Now, by definition, any Bergman film is worth watching – he’s one of the best directors the twentieth century produced, and that’s a fucking large field in which to excel – but this box set hasn’t really showcased Bergman’s best. “Classic” then, in this case, means “for completists”. And while I’d happily count myself in that category, I’m not so much a fanboy I can actually remember much of this film despite watching it. The main character was a sailor, or wanted to be a sailor, and had a bad relationship with his parents… and okay, I may not have been entirely sober when I watched this film but at least I own the box set so I can watch it again. But from what I remember nothing in it particularly engaged me, so I’m guessing it’s much liked the other films in the box set, ie, a polished theatrical piece shot in stark black and white, starring some of Bergman’s usual stable of actors. I’ll probablyh have to watch it again.

name_riverThe Name of a River, Anup Singh (2003, India). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m no wiser. I had thought it was a documentary on Ritwik Ghatak and his works, but instead it appears to be a somewhat plotless actual feature film, and a nicely shot one it is too, which was inspired by Ghatak’s movies. Parts of it are sort of restagings of some of the scenes in the movies – the ones set on the distinctive fishing boats of the Titas River, for example, I recognised immediately. There are also interviews, staged more like conversations, between members of the films’ casts – such as the two female leads from A River Called Titas. I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s eight films – although I do have a fourth to be watched now – which is not enough to spot all the references in The Name of a River. But from the section based on A River Called Titas, and the conversation between its two female leads, there’s a lot in here to unpack. I’ve made my opinion on Ghatak more than clear on this blog in other posts, and I admit I was looking for a little more insight into his career than The Name of a River offers – in fact, now I think about it, it didn’t seem to offer any insight at all. I did enjoy it and it is pretty good – it sucessfully replicates Ghatak’s visuals, and makes clear his politics, and there’s some interesting anecdotal stuff from actors who worked with him. But I guess if I want insight, I ought to read Ghatak’s own writings on cinema.

kahaaniKahaani, Sujoy Ghosh (2012, India). This was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I’ve no idea why I stuck it on my rental list, but when I shoved it in the player I was expecting three hours of typical Bollywood entertainment. And then it opened with a gas attack on the Kolkata Metro in which a carriage full of people died. Well, that was pretty dark. Not Bollywood at all. The story then jumps forward two years, and a pregnant woman flies into Kolkata from London and makes her way to a district police station. Her husband had been sent to the National Data Centre on assignment, and then vanished. She has come to look for him. She enlists the help of Rana, one of the police officer, but their investigation goes nowhere. But then the HR manager of the National Data Centre remembers another employee, Milan Damji, who resembled the pregnant woman’s husband. So they start looking for him. But it all spirals out of control – the HR manager is murdered, an Intelligence Bureau officer turns up and starts ordering people about, and then it turns out Damji’s was responsible for the gas attack two years earlier… Kahaani turned out to be a good film, a solid thriller which made excellent use of ts location, and had an especially good lead in Vidya Balan, who plays the pregnant heroine. There’s neat twist at the end, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that hard to spot. Apparently, there’s a sequel, Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, released late last year, so it’s not available for rental yet. But when it is, I’ll be sticking it on my list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 847


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Moving pictures 2017, #6

This was going to be a post without a US film… But I had to do a bit of juggling after realising that  I’m going to have watch The Name of a River again, which is a sort of drama-documentary about Ritwik Ghatak’s films, before I can write about it. So I bounced that film into my next post, and pulled Midnight Special into this one… and spoiled my entirely non-US run. Oh well.

baaxzBaaz, Guru Dutt (1953, India). I do like me some Dutt, but I wish there were decent transfers of his films available. Yes, they’re over sixty years old, and Bollywood has not been as assiduous in preserving old films as Hollywood has – and Hollywood has been far from perfect in that regard anyway. In fact, no one has, to be fair: just think of all those TV series from the 1940s and 1950s the BBC went and erased… But Dutt’s works are definitely worth restoring, although as far as I know none of his work has been earmarked for restoration. True, I’d sooner Ritwik Ghatak’s entire oeuvre was restored and made available first, but Dutt would be my second choice for such a project. Having said that, Baaz is perhaps the most disappointing of Dutt’s films I’ve seen so far, and that’s chiefly because it’s an historical movie. It’s set in the sixteenth century, when the Portugese had conquered parts of India, and is in most respects a swashbuckling tale recast locally. Yes, I know, not an entirely fair description as it’s based on the real history of India. But Dutt’s genius lay in his ability to reshape Western movie templates to suit an Indian audience. And that’s what he has done here. The local Portugese potentate is a nasty piece of work who cracks down on local traders. A handsome prince, played by Dutt himself, is sent to Portugal for tutoring, but is captured en route by a local firebrand turned pirate, the daughter of an imprisoned merchant, the two fall in love, and the story falls out precisely as you would expect. This is not a brilliant print, although that’s unsurprising for an Indian film more than sixty years old. And the production is occasionally of its time – in one scene, Dutt and his lover ride a horse along a beach… over the tyre tracks left by the film crew’s vehicle. This is not Dutt’s best film, probably one for completists, but I’ve yet to find any evidence to contradict his label as “India’s Orson Welles”…

marketa_lazarovaMarketa Lazarová*, František Vláčil (1967, Czech Republic). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and now I’m tempted to buy the Second Run František Vláčil box set because I think it’s a film that bears, if not requires, rewatching. The film is set in the Middle Ages, and opens with a group of bandits attacking a caravan travelling through the countryside in winter, in deep snow, in fact. They slaughter most of the caravan but take one hostage, the son of the Bishop of Hennau (not a Catholic bishop, then), although the bishop himself escapes. The plot then dives off into an attempt by a troop from the king to wipe out the bandits, and it’s not until half an hour into the film before the title character appears. She’s the daughter of a local, and the son of the bandit chief falls in love with her. It’s not worth giving a plot summary, not because it’s especially complicated but because the bits don’t quite join up – you can get a full summary on Wikipedia. The fact the story seems more like a group of characters blundering from one plot to another doesn’t actually detract from the film, and, if anything, adds to the chaotic nature of the time and place it depicts. The movie is brutal, in the way that many films about the Middle Ages are, and uncomprising in its depiction of greed, corruption and all the baser instincts of humanity. In parts, it reminds me of similar films I’ve seen, including Vláčil’s own The Valley of the Bees, but also in some weird way Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God. Marketa Lazarová‘s stark black and white cinematography, like in the other two films, suits the material well, especially given it takes place entirely in winter, with deep snow on the ground. And now I’ve been thinking about this film as I write this, I’m even more inclined to get that box set…

hometownPickpocket, Jia Zhangke (1997, China). The second film in the Hometown trilogy box set and, I have to admit, these films are proving a little disappointing after Jia’s A Touch of Sin and 24 City. Like Unknown Pleasures – and, I later found, PlatformPickpocket follows a group of disaffected young people in an industrial town in north China. In this case, it’s mostly the title character, who ran with a gang of pickpockets as a teen but now just drifts aimlessly about while his peers are all settling down (such as the one who gets married, but doesn’t invite Xiao Wu, the title character, and the film’s alternative title, to the wedding celebration; and Xiao Wu is incensed when he finds out). Xiao Wu enters into a half-hearted relationship with a prostitute, but she soon drops him for someone with more of a future. Eventually, Xiao Wu, who has refused to change his ways, is arrested for theft, and it seems his punishment will be especially harsh. Pickpocket is Jia’s first feature-length movie, shot on 16mm, and with an amateur cast. None of that can be held against it, even though it lacks the crisp cinematography, and the more expansive eye, of his later films. But its biggest flaw is, I think, the fact it’s a glum film. That didn’t seem quite so bad when watching Unknown Pleasures, perhaps because that film had a bit life to it, if only from the Mongolian King beer marketing events with the singing and dancing, and some of its characters felt a little more lively. Jia is definitely a name worth watching, and I’m keen to see his latest, 2015’s Mountains May Depart, which, because this country is so shit, is not yet available here…

jaujaJauja, Lisandro Alonso (2014, Argentina). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD and stuck it on my list as it looked like it might be interesting. And so it was. It’s an Argentine/Danish co-production, and stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish cartographer in Patagonia in the 1880s. He is there with his teenage daughter, and the lieutenant of the local Argentine army detachment has designs on her. But she’s already in love with a soldier. She runs off with him into the desert because the soldier has been dared to provide proof that a missing officer, Zuluaga, is now leading a troop of bandits. Mortensen heads off in pursuit to rescue his daughter. Eventually he meets an old woman living in a cave, and it seems she is his daughter. As can undoubtedly be seen from the DVD cover art, Jauja looks very distinctive. The aspect ration is almost square, with rounded-off corners, and the colour palette has been clearly heightened. There’s also an odd theatrical aspect to the staging of each scene, even though almost all of the film takes place out in the country, either in the Patagonian desert or among the rocks by the shore of… a lake? the ocean? I enjoyed this. It was nicely weird and had some lovely photography. Worth seeing.

fedoraFedora, Billy Wilder (1978, Germany). I bought this as a Christmas present for my mother since Sunset Boulevard is one of her favourite films and this is a belated sequel to it. And even then, despite the similar topic, and the shared presence of both Wilder and William Holden, there isn’t all that much in Fedora that’s an actual sequel of Sunset Boulevard, if anything it’s more of a reboot that shares a similar plot. For a start, it’s set in Europe, rather than Hollywood… although that may well have unintended. Hollywood wasn’t too keen on financing the film, so it was made with Germany money and a pan-European cast… and has pretty much been forgotten since its release. There’s also the fact it’s not all that good. The title refers not to a hat but to a Garbo-esque movie star who inexplicably retired some years before, after a long and illustrious career in which she never apparently aged, and who now lives in seclusion on a Greek island. Fedora opens with news reports of her death – she had thrown herself in front of a train. The film then goes straight into extended flashback, as William Holden, a film producer desperate for a break, tries to arrange a meeting with Fedora so he can persuade her to sign up to his new film project. The two had briefly been lovers back in the 1940s. Holden beards Fedora in the local town. She seems distracted, almost skittish, and tells him she is a virtual prisoner of the Countess Sobryanski, an old woman confined to a wheelchair. The secret to Fedora’s agelessness is not hard to guess, although the fact the plot hinges on Fedora’s affair with Michael York, played by himself, feels more like it belongs in a comedy than a serious drama. I enjoyed the film, but it seems one hell of a come-down for Billy Wilder.

midnight_specialMidnight Special, Jeff Nichols (2016, USA). Annoyingly, I can’t find a copy of the UK DVD cover art for this anywhere online, and even Amazon has the Blu-ray cover art on its DVD page. I’ve seen mixed reviews of the film online, either 1-star or 5-stars, no inbetween, and that’s from film critics in newspapers not your average punter on Amazon. And I can see why it’s polarised opinion, because it’s an essentially daft story that actually looks pretty compelling. And yes, that final reveal is impressive, although it did remind me a bit too much of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland: A World Beyond. Basically, a young boy is being chased across the US by the members of an evangelical cult and the FBI. He is with his father, and a friend of his father, a state trooper. The cultists want him because they think he can see the future, and the FBI want him because he apparently has access to secret spy satellites. This is because he has magical – perhaps even alien – powers and he can shine blue light out of his eyes. He can also make satellites crash to earth. For much of its length, Midnight Special is a taut thriller with some neat, if not entirely comprehensible, special effects. As the film progresses, the boy reveals he isn’t human and is a member of a race who live “elsewhere” and have been watching humanity for a very long time. (I don’t recall an explanation for why he has a human father, though.) As each group of chasers closes in on the boy – there’s a FBI agent who goes rogue, as well – and at one point the cultists manage kidnap the boy, but the father soon get him back… As they all converge, everything all comes to a head. And, well, I won’t say “everything is revealed”, although it is, sort of, but the resolution does very little to explain the world of the film. I don’t think Midnight Special deserves much of the praise heaped upon it, but I think it’s an above-average film of its type.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 847