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Moving pictures, #61

The USA has crept back into this post, although I think I’m currently watching on average more non-Anglophone movies than Anglophone ones. Mind you, I did recently re-organise my LoveFilm rental lists, so I now receive two non-Anglophone movies and one Anglophone movies each week.

midnight_in_parisMidnight in Paris, Woody Allen (2011, USA). I am really not a fan of Woody Allen and tend to avoid his films as much as possible. But David Tallerman spoke approvingly of this one, it was free to watch on Amazon Prime, and it didn’t actually star Allen himself… Also, the story sounded sort of interesting. Owen Wilson – who turned out to be Woody Allen in all but name – is a successful Hollywood scriptwriter holidaying in Paris with his fiancée and future in-laws. They don’t seem well matched – he to his fiancée or to his in-laws. While wandering the streets of Paris one night, an old-fashioned car stops and offers him a lift. He’s taken to a party, where he meets F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. And from the party, they move onto a bar, where he meets Ernest Hemingway… and so on, to Gertrude Stein, Pabo Picasso, Man, Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali… And the next morning, he’s back in twenty-first century Paris. And so it goes: he spends his nights with the literati of 1920s Paris, falls in love with a young woman, and slowly realises his fiancée is not for him. But neither is the woman from the 1920s, as the two of them travel back to 1890s Paris and she decides to stay there. Wilson is Allen in all but appearance, and he’s one of the things I find most annoying about Allen’s films. Michael Sheen plays a hugely irritating and patronising friend, and the fact fiancée Rachel McAdams likes him tells you how unsuitable she is for Wilson. Midnight in Paris is by no means a subtle film. The big names of the 1920s and 1890s who make an appearance are little more than caricatures, and the whole edifice is plainly meant to be carried by Allen Wilson. It’s entertaining enough, I guess, and the central conceit has its charm. But it hasn’t caused me to reassess my opinion of Woody Allen’s films.

kings_speechThe King’s Speech*, Tom Hooper (2010, UK). I’d managed to avoid watching this, despite the fact it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, because I really don’t want to watch films about the British royal family which don’t treat them as anything other than the historical embarrassment they are. (I have nothing against the Windsors per se, but “divine right” is primitive nonsense and the whole concept of royalty has no place in the modern world.) Anyway, The King’s Speech popped up for free on Amazon Prime, so I went for it since it was going to cost me nowt. And… it was entirely as I expected: a super-entitled twonk seeks help for his speech impediment, and ends up turning to an untrained Australian therapist with a pet theory. Which apparently works. One of the conditions of the treatment is that the therapist treats his patient as an equal and vice versa – but King George VI (as will be) seems to have real trouble with that. He hides it well, but he’s better than everyone else on the planet because’s a King Emperor. Of course. For all that, the film was pretty innocuous. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the mise en scène, and while the movie had a first-rate cast most of them looked they were going through the motions. How it ended up on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery, as it’s little more than a competent historical drama about an uninteresting topic. Meh.

classic_bergmanSo Close to Life, Ingmar Bergman (1958, Sweden). Three women are in a ward at a Swedish hospital to deliver babies. One is in a loveless marriage, another isn’t ready for a child, and the third is eagerly awaiting motherhood. Bergman keeps the story confined to the ward – and a few other rooms in the hospital – but it’s all about the three women, and their visiting partners; and fortunately Bergman’s cast have chops to spare in delivering the story. In fact, the three female leads – Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson – all won the Best Actress Award at Cannes that year; Bergman walked away with the Best Director Award. So despite being his first work after the critically-acclaimed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, released the previous year and still considered among his best works (and possibly the two of the best-known films made by Bergman), So Close to Life manages not to embarrass. It has that theatrical atmosphere many of his films never quite managed to avoid, although in this case it’s heightened by the restricted sets. This sort of film-making does throw a lot of onto the cast’s shoulders, but one thing youn can say about Bergman’s films is that he was never let down by his actors. I can’t say So Close to Life was especially memorable, but it was a superior piece of intense and up-close drama, and certainly worth watching.

strangerStranger than Paradise*, Jim Jarmusch (1984, USA). I think this is the last of the Jarmusch’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is a relief. Perhaps I saw his films in the wrong place at the wrong time, ie, not the USA in the mid-1980s. Because I don’t get the appeal at all. In this one, which in parts feels like a complete rip-off of Cassavetes, a pair of musicians play lowlifes in New York who befriend a young Hungarian woman, and later drive to Cleveland to visit her after she has moved there to be with her mother. And, er, that’s it. Oh, they drive to Florida as well. But it’s basically jazz musician John Lurie and Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, who look confusingly alike, ad libbing at each other. The cinematography is black and white, and pleasingly clean; but I can’t see the appeal of the supposed plot, which I have seen described as both surreal and minimalist – and while I’m in no way chained to the necessity of plot (I love video installations, for a start), I think a feature film has to offer something more if it’s going to skimp on plot – and Stranger than Paradise doesn’t really. Some similar films shift their emphasis to their soundtrack, and use that to carry the film – but Stranger than Paradise didn’t. It just felt meandering, dull, its appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Yoyu Die list is baffling, and Jarmusch’s appeal still escapes me.

shop_on_high_streetThe Shop on the High Street*, Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos (1965, Slovakia). In occupied Slovakia, a man is told to take over a sewing shop owned by a senile old Jewish woman, because Jews cannot own property or businesses. But the old woman’s shop has been doing badly for years and is only kept afloat by donations. The Jewish community persuade the man to keep the shop going and they will pay him a weekly payment. So he stays on… but the old woman has got it into her head he’s her nephew and he’s only there to help her out, and he doesn’t disabuse her. But then authorities round up all the town’s Jewish population, and the man can’t decide if he should turn in the old woman… There’s nothing particularly special about The Shop on the High Street. It’s a blackly comic film was about one of WWII’s lesser known aspects, played well by its cast and well-shot by its directors. Its story, however, is one that certainly should not be forgotten – now more than ever. How long in Trump’s USA before businesses owned by Muslims are handed to “Christians”? (I use quote marks because there’s fuck-all that’s Christian about most of the stuff done by the US Christian Right.) Anyway, Second Run have an excellent eye for good films – I don’t think they’ve released a dud yet – and this is no exception. Definitely worth seeing.

cowboysLes cowboys, Thomas Bidegain (2015, France). An odd film, this. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take it, and as it progressed I found myself changing my perspective on its central premise. In the 1990s, a French family at a local country & western festival discover their teenage daughter has disappeared. They spend several days searching for her, before receiving a letter from her: she has run away with her Muslim boyfriend and plans to live in Pakistan with him. The father is convinced his daughter was kidnapped by white slavers, and spends years tracking down clues to her location. To no avail. It costs him his life in a traffic accident. The son takes over, and even ends up as a relief worker in Pakistan, where he tracks down hs sister’s husband. Except they’re not married anymore, and in a struggle, the son accidentally shoots the husband. He is caught by the police and imprisoned. The French authorities arrange for his release. He buys the release of the dead man’s wife and takes her back to France with him. She would have been killed had she remained in Pakistan, but she’s an outsider in France – indeed, she’s the subject of racial abuse during a visit to the country & western festival. The son marries her, they settle down and have a kid… and then he hears from someone who has seen his missing sister… A good film that manages to remain objective, despite its emotive content, but allows the viewer to see that the behaviour of the characters is often not acceptable, no matter what provocation. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 826


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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817