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Moving pictures 2019, #1

We’re a month into the new year, and I’m still having trouble coming up with something more interesting to post than reviews – if that’s the right word – of obscure, and not so obscure, films I’ve watched. But then I’ve been busy: trying to declutter prior to my move. Five thousand books and two thousand DVDs, it transpires, take a lot of sorting out…

Anyway, until all that’s out of the way, have half a dozen movies I watched in January…

Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland (2006, USA). My mother lent me this one and the only reason I agreed to watch it was because it was by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director whose few films I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. Copying Beethoven is not her only English-language movie, nor even her first. In fact, she’s made quite a few, most of them not in Hollywood, and several of them starring Ed Harris, who plays Beethoven in this one. The story is simple enough. Beethoven requires someone to produce neat copy of his manuscripts. A young woman, with ambitions of being a composer herself, despite the fact women composers are exceedingly rare at that time, manages to persuade Beethoven to take her on. And later co-composes one of his pieces, as well as composing her own. The problem is, it’s all historical nonsense. It’s a nice idea, and it’s well played by its leads, although Ed Harris does overplay his part somewhat, but it’s entirely invented and it’s supposed to be an historical film. Some of us, you know, look this shit up. And when something pretends to be historical, I want to know if it is and go visit Wikipedia. Which is where Copying Beethoven fails. Badly. It would be nice – it would be great – if it had really happened, and I like the idea of pretending as if it had happened by making a film about it. But… Maybe I’m being as bad as those arseholes who complain about female blacksmiths in fantasy novels… except the worlds in fantasy novels are entirely invented, and this purports to be real, and yet it’s a story I’d sooner was true than invented…  So let’s pretend it really was like that. History is, after all, written by the winners. And if from 2006 onward it’s accepted as actual history that Beethoven had a female amanuensis, then good, excellent in fact. Which makes this adaptation of our new history (and I’m not being sarcastic there, I hasten to add) somewhat disappointing inasmuch as  the leads are, well… Harris is OTT and Diane Kruger is a bit of a blank. The previous films I’ve seen by Holland were ensemble pieces, so perhaps she let the reduced cast in this one get the better of her.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007, France). The title of this film is a reference to a French short, Le ballon rouge, from 1956, in which a young boy finds are balloon, which then follows him around. And Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon opens with a young boy also finding a red balloon, but it proves to have a mind of its own, resists his please for it to follow him and goes off on its own way. The film then shifts to the boy’s mother, Juliette Binoche, who is a puppeteer, and has just employed a Chinese student in Paris as a nanny for her son. And, er, that’s it. The balloon has drifted off, and whatever purpose it played in the plot seems pretty much and over and done with ten minutes in. Bar the occasional brief appearance. Perhaps the Chinese nanny is the red balloon – except, no, that doesn’t really work either, as the film is about Binoche, her son, and the boy’s older sister, who had been living with Binoche’s divorced partner in Brussels but has moved to Paris for college. It’s all very low-key, with much of the film taking place in Binoche’s tiny apartment. The performances are very natural, as is the lighting; and the movie manages that trick Hou has down to a fine art of making the quotidian feel like it’s important, making small drama feel like it should be melodrama. I do like Hou’s films, but some of them I find more successful than others. Flight of the Red Balloon struck me as middle-tier Hou, but perhaps that’s because it’s a French family drama, set in Paris, and that’s hardly an under-subscribed genre of film…

The Predator, Shane Black (2018, USA). It’s the Decade, maybe even Century, of Reboots, I mean Spider-Man has been rebooted like thirty-five times in the past eight years, so why not reboot a piece of low-brow populist sf crap from the 1980s and hope its macho bullshit finds a new audience in Trump’s America? What could go wrong? And anyway there’s always the marketing machine to make sure it sure it earns a profit even if it is a piece of shit. And this reboot certainly is. A piece of shit, that is. It opens with the protagonist on a mission to kill some unspecified baddie in, I think, Mexico. Which is not the US, and is a separate sovereign nation. But that doesn’t matter because this is the US and the only national boundaries they recognise are their own, with or without a wall. Said protagonist witnesses a Predator spaceship crash, and steals some of the armour. Back in the US, he’s taken in for questioning because of what he saw and then dumped with a bunch of soldiers incarcerated for various offensively stereotyped mental conditions. So he breaks them out, they become his squad, and it’s all so macho and fucking American it makes you want to do that thing from The Exorcist and projectile vomit while your head spins around. I was rooting for the Predators; I wanted them to wipe out the US. Because every single US character in this film was a total shit and deserved to be ripped into pieces by an alien. The Predator also did a shitload of retconning when it came to the franchise, and not entirely to the franchise’s benefit. This is a film that has no brains, revels in its brainlessness, and proclaims its lack of brains as the epitome of American manhood. And manages some pretty offensive characterisation to boot. It can get fucked.

Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry (2003, UK). Since I was going through a phase of reading Evelyn Waugh, it made sense to watch the film adaptations of his novels. So I found a copy of Sword of Honour (see here) and… Vile Bodies, that last under the title Bright Young Things, which is the term used in Waugh’s novels for the dissipated twentysomethings of the 1930s and 1940s he writes about in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Put Out More Flags and so on. Fry you would expect to have a feel for the material – and I say that based on his public persona and nothing else – and so it proves. Bright Young Things does  feel a bit like an early who’s who of UK thesps, as it’s full of familiar faces – including Sir John Mills in his last ever part, a non-speaking role – but as an adaptation of its source material it actually scores pretty well. Waugh doesn’t seem to adapt well – his satires become dull dramas; well, except for Brideshead Revisited, where a dull-but-clever drama is adapted as a dull-but-clever drama. But Fry clearly does not take Vile Bodies seriously and it shows. Most of the comic set-pieces from the novel are there, although not all, and some are changed and not to their benefit. But the end result is probably the most faithful adaptation of Waugh’s oeuvre I’ve so far seen. Worth seeing, but you’re better off reading the books.

The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou (2016, China). I remember the fuss when this was released. OMG whitewashing a Chinese movie! Matt Damon stealing a role from a Chinese actor! All complete bollocks. This was a Chinese film, made by Chinese film-makers with Chinese money, who just happened to cast Matt Damon in one of two roles for European characters. Having said all that, I was expecting an historical film and, er, The Great Wall is certainly not that. I think the first clue was the demon-like creature that attacked Matt Damon and his colleagues, but by the time the army of demons attacked the Great Wall of China I was pretty sure this was outright fantasy. It is, unsurprisingly, for a twenty-first century big budget Chinese film by a big-name director, a polished piece of work. The story may well be bollocks, but it makes damn sure it’s entertaining bollocks. And the film does so many things Chinese cinema does so well, and Hollywood quite frankly has no clue about, and though the story is completely risible it all hangs together with an economy of, well, action, because that’s what drives the story, and it provides as few opportunities as it can for the audience to sit back and think about it what it is watching. It’s very entertaining. Complete bollocks, but very entertaining. Sort of like a MCU film – but without the dodgy politics.

Opening Night, John Cassavetes (1977, USA). You know how you want to like a director’s films, and some of their films you even do like quite a bit and think are really very good, but you still have this overall impression that the director’s oeuvre is not one that appeals to you… And then you watch a film by them and you wonder maybe they really are your thing after all. I think I just did that. I’ve seen half a dozen films by Cassavetes, and some of them I’ve thought are really quite good. But the first few movies by him I saw poisoned by view of his oeuvre. Much as I liked Too Late Blues, I really didn’t take to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And yet, I loved Opening Night. It is much like his other films – thin on plot, reliant on his cast, especially the lead (usually his partner, Gina Rowland, or a friend), with dialogue that feels more improvised than scripted. Rowland plays an actress in a stage play, opposite Cassavetes himself, who has her age abruptly brought home to her when a young female fan is hit and killed by a car after a performance. It doesn’t help that the play is about a woman who is having trouble accepting that she is ageing. Rowland’s stage role and “real life” echo each other, and her response to her realisation impacts her behaviour and performance. And it’s a bravura performance from Rowland. I mean, it’s not like she hasn’t shown her chops in other Cassavetes films, but she carries this one above and beyond. Opening Night made me want to watch the other Cassavetes films I’ve seen all over again.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures, #40

This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.

dialoguesDialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.

moonwalkersMoonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.

el_doradoEl Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.

too_late_bluesToo Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.

lamourL’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…

3-iron3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792


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Moving pictures, #17

Seems to be mostly US films this time, including a few populist ones. I don’t know what came over me.

ant_menAnt-Man, Peyton Reed (2015, USA). Superhero films are monumentally stupid and pretty much awful. Putting comics up on screen and investing billions of dollars in state-of-the-art CGI has not made them any cleverer or less juvenile. And yet Ant-Man is one of the few which, we’re told, transcends the genre. Which, when you think about it, is a backhand way of saying, “yes, we know superhero films are dumb and low art”. Of course, it does no such thing. Its hero is a bit grey, inasmuch as he’s no boy scout in tights; but neither is he a villain. As for the plot: nasty executive takes over noble inventor’s company, exploits’magical maguffin invention for typically capitalist reasons, or at least tries to… Yawn. We’ve seen it a zillion times before. The only difference is that in SuperheroWorld, said executive gets his comeuppance; in the real world, he gets a seven-figure bonus. Paul Rudd makes a good fist of the title role, although Michael Douglas these days feels more like a caricature of an actor than an actor. But the story was the usual superhero bobbins, and figuring out whether a superhero film is a good film per se is a bit like counting angels on the head of a pin – ie, you have to believe in angels in the first place. Best just walk away.

atlantisAtlantis – The Lost Empire, Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise (2001, USA). And if superhero movies are for people who haven’t grown-up, then Hollywood animated movies are for people who have yet to grow up. (When I wrote that sentence it seemed to make perfect sense to me, but coming back to it a couple of days later, I’m having trouble figuring out what I meant. Ah well.) There’s no reason why such films have to be like that, of course – just look at Japan’s anime industry; or indeed animated films from Europe, such as René Laloux’s La Planète Sauvage, or anything by Jan Svankmajer. (We’ll ignore Heavy Metal for the time-being, if you don’t mind.) Atlantis – The Lost Empire is a kids’ film, but the design is quite effective and the story is sufficiently oddball to appeal to me. Its performance at the box office was apparently “lacklustre”, so much so that Disney cancelled a planned television series and an underwater attraction at Disneyland. It’s by no means a great film, although it has become something of a “cult favourite”. There’s a sequel, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, which was cobbled together from three episodes of the cancelled television series, and it’s pretty damn poor. Atlantis – The Lost Empire doesn’t hold a candle to either Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, but it’s still better than about half of Disney’s feature film output.

spySpy, Paul Feig (2015, USA). Every now and again I throw a Hollywood blockbuster onto my rental list (er, okay, perhaps more than one, given the above), so I can spend at least one night with my brain turned off (shut up at the back); and while I never have especially high hopes of such films I’m prepared to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t for Ant-Man, but Spy was a comedy and… Oh dear. Tonally, it was all over the place. Humour one minute, over-the-top violence the next. And the improv… Seriously, whoever decided that improv was a good way to make comedy movies “better” was clearly a fucking idiot. Remember those films with sharpy witty dialogue? They were written like that. Now we have witless burblings spontaneously vomited up by comedians who think that not filtering their verbiage is the way to generate laughter. It’s not. Spy had its moment, not least the set-up, in which a field agent’s support officer takes his place in the, er, field… but they just had to over-egg the cake and make her some sort of combat expert despite the fact her career had been spent behind a desk. And the dialogue bounced from the inane to the embarrassing, without doing much to advance the plot. Spy could have been a good film, but giving the cast free rein was a big mistake – this is a movie that needed to be tightly controlled to work. In its present incarnation, it doesn’t.

beyondBeyond, Joseph Baker & Tom Large (2014, UK). This was a charity shop find, and I’m not entirely what it was I actually found. Earth has been attacked by aliens, who have pretty much defeated humanity. There’s a couple, they meet at a fancy dress party. They get together, I think they marry, they have a baby. They argue about the baby. The film jumps back and forth chronologically. And I have to admit that after a while I started to lose interest. Beyond is one of those independent films in which pretty much everything is implied and all that remains on the screen is the bickering between the two leads. In and of itself, this is not necessarily bad, but Beyond does feel more like it should be a short film, rather than a 84-minute feature film. I’ll give the movie a rewatch, because I feel it ought to be more interesting than it proved – but we’ll, er, see…

evangelion_111Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, Hideaki Anno (2007, Japan). I am not a big fan of anime, although people continue to recommend various anime films and/or OAV to me. But it’s worth doing so, because sometimes it sticks. Usually it takes a while after I’ve watched it, however. (I am, incidentally, defining “big fan” based on those anime fans I know, who have watched absolute tons of the stuff.) For example, I watched and enjoyed Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, and then later decided to pick up a copy of it for myself. And I’m sort of feeling the same for Evangelion 1.11, except… Well, this film, and its sequels, is a reworking of the OAV Neon Genesis Evangelion, and I’m wondering if I might be better off watching the OAV. Especially since, according to Wikipedia, the OAV goes into more detail on the background – Evangelion 1.11 more or less throws you right into the middle of the story, and it’s only some way into the film that some background needed to follow the story is revealed. And yet, the art is of a high quality, the story is certainly intriguing, and I actually find the refusal to explain makes me like the film more. It’s set in, er, 2015, after aliens – called Angels – have wiped out much of the Earth’s population. Secret scientific organisation NERV has invented giant cyborg mecha to fight the Angels, and this film is about the first of those to go into combat, and its pilot’s relationship with the wounded pilot of the prototype mecha. I can’t get excited about men and women in giant robot suits – I really didn’t like Pacific Rim – but there’s enough going on in the story of Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone, for me, to offset the fact it’s about men and women in giant robot suits. Incidentally, Neon Genesis Evangelion comprised twenty-six, but there are only four feature-film reboots – this one, Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance, Evangelion 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo, and an unmade final film.

shadowsShadows*, John Cassavetes (1959, USA). Cassvetes appears four times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he was certainly an important figure in US independent cinema, but, in terms of cinema as a whole, was he more important than, say, Varda, Wajda, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Sturges, Resnais, Kiarostami, Haneke, or Ophüls… to name a few? I can understand why Shadows is on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, not just because if its importance in terms of indie cinema, but also because of its subject matter. But according to Wikipedia, its genesis was a bit fraught. Originally shot with improvised dialogue, Cassavetes ended up remaking great chunks of it using a script. As documentation of a particular time and place – New York, the late 1950s – and a particular sector of society, Shadows works well; but the improvisational nature of the story tells against it, and it often seems a little too chaotic – but that’s something all of Cassavetes’s films have in common, and probably explains why I’m not a fan of his work. Yes, Shadows belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, moreso perhaps than some of Cassavetes’s other movies; and at least I can now cross it off.

stradaLa strada*, Federico Fellini (1954, Italy). Fellini is a popular director in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, with seven films – one of which is La strada. I have to date seen all but one of those films, and I liked pretty much straightaway, and grew to love Fellini Satyricon as I watched it. The rest were a bit meh. To be fair, I like Italian Neo-realism as an idea more than I’ve liked those films which are labelled as such – not that all, or indeed many, of Fellini’s movies have been classified as Italian Neo-realist. La strada has Giuletta Masina as a naïf who is sold to an abusive Anthony Quinn to perform as assistant (and clown) to his travelling strong man act. She runs away, he finds her, there’s a rivalry with trapeze artist Richard Basehart. The rivalry intensifies, partly driven by the two men’s relationships with Masina… and it all ends badly, in a sort of all-too-predictable-but-gently-ironic way, not that Fellini is a director who does irony especially well. I would rate some of Fellini’s films highly, but not this one. I’m glad I saw it, and I can cross it off the list, but that’s about it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 750


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Moving pictures, #22

More films. No excuses or explanations. Deal with it. Or not.

captain_bloodCaptain Blood*, Michael Curtiz (1935, USA). An odd film, this. It starts out very German Expressionist, as Doctor Blood (Errol Flynn), is called out in the middle of the night to see to a wounded man. Who happens to be a rebel. So Blood is captured and sentenced to death, which is then commuted to slavery in the Caribbean. But he’s such a smiley charismatic bloke that even as a slave he gets it easy – medical skills help, of course, as does getting sassy with governor’s daughter, Olivia de Havilland. And then he escapes when the French attack, becomes the titular character, and plays the buccaneer against both English and French ships. All this part of the film is, of course, pure Hollywood. Flynn was much better a couple of years later, and in colour, as Robin Hood, although I don’t think he ever lost that shit-eating grin of his. I’m not entirely sure how Captain Blood qualifies for the 1001 Films list – perhaps it’s a seminal work or something, but had it stayed German Expressionist throughout, and less bloody clichéd, it might have been a much more interesting movie.

woman_influenceA Woman Under the Influence*, John Cassavetes (1974, USA). Some films are interesting because of how they were made rather than because of the footage that eventually appears on the screen. This one, for example, was such a difficult sell that Cassavetes ended up financing it himself, with the help of friends (including Peter Falk, who stars as the eponymous woman’s husband). And then he lucked out into a distribution deal, and the film went on to become a favourite of critics and cult film fans. So all’s well that ends well. The film stars Cassavetes’s wife of the time, Gena Rowlands, as a blue-collar mother who begins act increasingly strangely, so much so her husband has her committed. While she is being treated, he must cope with their three children, and learns it’s not as easy as he had imagined. When his wife is released, she’s clearly not been cured, but they decide to continue together anyway. When an industry has been churning out product for decades that is not only artificial but actually revels in that artificiality, as Hollywood does, I can understand why stripping things back to something closer to real life might appeal to many. But we have that here in the UK in our soaps – Coronation Street and Eastenders are not brainless glossy sagas of rich and powerful families like US soaps such as The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara. Kitchen-sink drama is popular entertainment here and has been for a long time, it doesn’t exist only in the theatres. All of which maybe an entirely unfair characterisation of Cassavetes’s work, but at least explains why I can’t celebrate blue-collar/working-class drama simply for the fact of existing – and I’ve yet to see anything in Cassavetes’s films so far which, for me, lift them above that. Still, he has four movies on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve only seen three of them to date, so who knows…

man_escapedA Man Escaped*, Robert Bresson (1956, France). There are a number of movies by Bresson on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve now watched a few of them. But I’m not sure I fully understand the appeal. He seems to like having his leads play their roles completely deadpan, almost expressionless, and it makes it hard to clue into how you’re meant to read their stories. In this one, a young man, a member of the French Resistance, is arrested by the Germans and taken to Montluc Prison. The film then follows the man as he settles into the prison routine and then plots to escape before he is executed by the Gestapo. Which he eventually does. That’s it. The plot. Wikipedia says, “The film is sometimes considered Bresson’s masterpiece”, which is an odd way to put it – it is sometimes, but at other times it’s not? It might well be Bresson’s masterpiece, although I would find it hard to judge, given that of the thirteen feature films Bresson made, I’ve only seen four  – and just now when checking how many, I learnt I’d seen Pickpocket twice… and had completely forgotten that first viewing. Which I suppose tells you as much as you need to know.

dontbothertoknockDon’t Bother to Knock, Cyril Frankel (1961, UK). A fluffy rom com which trades a little too much on star Richard Todd’s on-screen appeal. He plays a travel agent in Edinburgh with an eye for the ladies, which he shamelessly indulges while travelling about Europe checking out destinations for his company. The actual assignations are slyly hinted at but never explicitly described. After the trip, he returns home to his flat, and then a succession of people turn up, with keys he had given them, hoping to stay. His long-time girlfriend, naturally, is none too impressed. But it all works out in the end, because the visitors aren’t really after Todd – well, except for French femme fatale Nicole Maury, and she’s not really serious about it – in fact, she’d sooner Todd and his girlfriend patched things up. One of those slight but charmingly daft rom coms set in a world – despite its age – you don’t actually recognise or believe ever really existed.

hotel_terminusHôtel Terminus*, Marcel Ophüls (1988, France). As is clear from the DVD cover, this documentary is about Nazi Klaus Barbie and his (eventual) trial. Barbie spent much of WWII as the head of Gestapo in Lyons, where he beat, tortured and murdered locals because, well, Gestapo. After the war, he was recruited by the US intelligence services, those bastions of morality, where he instructed them in interrogation techniques and helped in the fight against the dastardly Reds. (As they were fond of saying about the Space Race, the Americans’ Germans were better than the Soviets’ Germans – but what they actually meant was, the Americans’ Nazis were better than the Soviets’ Nazis. Let’s be honest here: principles are the first things to be abandoned when there’s an end in sight. That’s what “expediency” means, after all. Ahem, digression over.) Barbie was a monster – a not unique state of affairs among the Nazis – and lived free and clear for forty years before the French managed to get him extradited from Bolivia in 1983 after a) a change of government, and b) Barbie’s involvement in an earlier military coup. If it’s a truism that the winning side of a war get to pick and choose what are defined as war crimes, and who is charged with them, then Barbie was living proof that principle was worth about as much as a politician’s sworn promise. Barbie should have been in prison serving a sentence for war crimes from 1945, not 1987. Ophüls’s documentary makes a somewhat confused case against Barbie, but it certainly reveals enough of his activities – and the US government’s complicity – to disgust anyone with an ounce of sense. To his credit, Ophüls tries to present a balanced argument, even door-stoppping several interviewees, much as Michael Moore does, and making them look foolish if not complicit. Definitely worth seeing.

hauntingThe Haunting*, Robert Wise (1963, UK). I found this in a local charity shop. It’s not a film I’d normally bother watching, but 1001 Movies list. I mean, I’m a bit squeamish and I really can’t watch all those torture porn franchises like Saw and Hostel and so on. Many years ago, a friend lent me several seasons of The X-Files on DVD and over a period of several months I watched two to three episodes a night. I was paranoid as fuck for a month or two afterwards. Anyway, The Haunting… which is a cult horror film from fifty years ago, and which was apparently a bit of a flop on release but has subsequently been re-evaluated and found very good indeed. It’s based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and was shot in the UK – but set in the US, with British actors putting on bad American accents – because no US studio would finance it. The end result is a peculiar film that manages its scares effectively, presents a group of interesting characters – including the first openly lesbian character in a mainstream feature film – but never really convinces in terms of setting (it feels too British to be American, in other words). I wasn’t expecting much of The Haunting and was pleasantly surprised by how it went. I think I’ll be hanging onto the DVD to watch it again. I didn’t think it was great, but I think it deserves another watch or two before I form a final opinion. Which certainly puts it ahead of many films I’ve seen on the 1001 Movies list.

viyViy*, Konstanin Ershov & Georgi Kropyachov (1967, USSR). I have seen Ruscico films before, I even have a couple in my own DVD collection. And I think they’re very good, an excellent resource. Viy was a film completely new to me, though I’ve browsed the Ruscico site countless times this one had passed me by… until I spotted it on the 1001 Movies list. It was, apparently, made by a group of students from a film school and is generally considered to be the first horror film released in the USSR. The plot is deceptively simple, well, not really deceptively. A seminary student encounters a witch but escapes. Soon after he is asked to sit vigil for three nights with the dead daughter of a local grandee. Each night, the dead young woman comes back to life and tries to kill him, but he is protected by the holy circle he has drawn about himself. On the final night, she revelas herself as the witch of earlier and calls all the monsters of hell to her aid. It’s all a bit too silly to be proper scary or horrifying, but it’s effectively done all the same, especially for the time. The humour is a bit broad-brush, and though the special effects are crude, they’re ingeniously done and more than suffice. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 621


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Moving pictures, #11

I seem to have gone on a bit of a Russian film binge in this one – a Sokurov box set I’d ordered arrived, and I decided I’d better finish off the Eisenstein box set.

facesFaces*, John Cassavetes (1968, USA). I think this is the second Cassavetes films I’ve seen, it would appear he’s one of those highly-praised US independent directors, like Hal Hartley, whose appeal completely passes me by. Faces is shot in black and white, in a cinéma verité style, and seems to consist chiefly of a group of small people at various times, whose constituents change, being drunk and either talking crap, larking about or treating women badly. Buried somewhere among these scenes is a narrative, which apparently describes the slow disintegration of a marriage. But, to be honest, I didn’t much care. Most of the cast were pretty reprehensible, and their drunken boasting was hardly edifying or particularly entertaining. I’m afraid the high regard in which Faces is held is completely beyond me.

elegylandMaria, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978 to 1988, Russia). Sokurov’s films are not easy to find, and many of them have yet to be released on DVD. Elegy of the Land, on which this film appears, is fortunately relatively easy to find. Sokurov began his career making television documentaries, often from found footage, but Maria is original footage about the eponymous farmer, first filmed in 1978, and then added to ten years later. It’s a propaganda piece, but it’s also typically Sokurovian, although some of the cinematography is not as sophisticated as that displayed in later films. There are, for example, no distortions of the image, as used in later films, and the narrative is relatively straightforward. The film is also vibrantly-coloured – albeit only in the first half, the 1978 segment which last some 18 minutes and 30 seconds. The only dialogue is that spoken by the women farmers (only one or two men actually appear in this part of the film). Ten years later, Sokurov returned to film Maria, opening this half of the film with a typically Sokurovian long take shot from a vehicle driving along a road. The inhabitants of Maria’s village are invited to a showing of the first half of the film, and Sokurov films them (in black and white), and provides a voice-over. Maria dies, and he takes stills of the funeral, while commenting on her career and what she represented to those who knew and loved her. Maria is an odd piece – those first 18½ minutes seem very typical of Soviet propaganda – a colourful cinematographic essay on Soviet agriculture, although without the usual self-aggrandizing commentary. But the second half of the film is much more like one of Sokurov’s elegies, a meditation on its subject visualised using a variety of cinematic techniques. The more Sokurov I watch, the more he climbs in my estimation.

sokurov_earlyStone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). This is available on the Early Masterworks box set, which has only a US release (and includes a Region A Blu-ray), so it’s a little harder to find. But it’s worth taking the trouble to track down a copy. And I say that having now seen Stone three times and still being no wiser as to what it is actually about. In fact, the second time I watched it was after spending the afternoon on a bit of a pub crawl, so I fell asleep about ten minutes in. I then decided to rewatch it straight away, while reading the essay on the film in The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox… And the following morning I discovered I’d ordered two paperbacks by Anton Chekhov from Amazon… But then I find Sokurov’s films – both fiction and documentary – endlessly fascinating not only because he distorts his cinematography to generate a specific visual look and feel – something I would like to be able to do in fiction – but also because he builds his narratives from allusion, metaphor and references, and there is so much going on in his films that every other director’s oeuvre seems almost juvenile by comparison. As far as I can determine, Stone is about Chekhov, returning to his house after his death, I think – but it shares a look and feel, and a thematic similarity with my favourite Sokurov film The Second Circle, although in this one the picture is distorted rather than just filtered. It’s another film with those long takes which suck you in, until you find yourself focusing on every aspect of the film with a degree of concentration it’s impossible to give to a nanosecond jump-cut Hollywood tentpole blockbuster…

dersuDersu Uzala*, Akira Kurosawa (1975, Japan/USSR). This is the first film Kurosawa made after attempting suicide following the commercial and critical failure of Dodes’kaden, and apparently he had known of the book of the same title by Vladimir Arsenyev since the 1930s. Whatever the provenance, I have to admit this is the Kurosawa film I’ve enjoyed and admired the most – but how much of that is due to my favouring of Russian cinema over Japanese? The title character is a hunter of the Goldi (Nanai), one of the Tungusic peoples of the Russian Far East, who Arsenyev runs into while on an army expedition to survey the Sikhote-Alin region. Uzala is a wily old man of the woods, and though the Russian soldiers initially consider him a primitive, he quickly earns their respect. So far so good. Kurosawa handles his wilderness filming with his usual excellence, and makes particular use of his fondness for placing the camera at odd angles. There is a weird spiritual interlude, which feels like pure Kurosawa, but which I felt didn’t quite gel with the other parts of the film. And then there’s the bit where Arsenyev attempts to “tame the savage” by offering Uzala his home when the hunter finds he can no longer live in the wilds as he once did. But he soon begins to long for his previous life. I thought Dersu Uzala very good – and while I may be starting to appreciate Kurosawa’s films more, I suspect it’s the story which is responsible for my liking it so much.

esisensteinIvan the Terrible, part 1*, Sergei Eisenstein (1944, USSR). No, I don’t understand why the first part of this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the second isn’t. Especially since I preferred part 2 to part 1. The film tells the story of, er, Tsar Ivan IV, who ruled all the Russias from 1547 until his death in 1584. It’s all very in your face, with much gurning, and some quite fantastic costumes. In many respects, it feels and looks like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, although some 300 years separates the two films (their subjects, not their filming). This first part deals with Ivan’s ascension to the throne, with much politcking from the boyars, many of whom had their own candidates for tsar. Then there’s a mob scene – Eisenstein likes his mob scenes – and there’s also his marriage to Anastasia Romanovna, which doesn’t go all that well… The spectacle and melodrama tend to overwhelm the story, and disguise the fact Ivan the Terrible was a pretty fascinating historical figure – this is in many respects  an historical biopic turned up to 11.

esisensteinIvan the Terrible, part 2, Sergei Eisenstein (1958, USSR). Apparently, Stalin banned this part, which is why it didn’t appear until fourteen years after the first. It was also filmed partly in colour, unlike the black and white of part 1. And I found myself enjoying it more. Again, you have those fantastic costumes, and a lot of scenes set in Ivan’s throne room. And in some of those scenes, a dance springs to mind especially, Eisenstein actually turns it up to twelve – which is quite an achievement.  In other words, this film is more of the same, with the emphasis on more. Incidentally, I’m still a little annoyed I’ve yet to find a copy of Tartan’s Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 1 (containing Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October) for a reasonable price… although I see the Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 2 is now going for silly money… so I’m glad I bought my copy when I did.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 587