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Moving pictures 2018, #13

It’s been one of those months where I’ve not felt like being too choosy of a night when I get home from work and plop myself down in front of the telly. The advantage of rental DVDs is that I’ve thought about what to rent, and when it arrives I’ve no choice but to watch it. Which is not true of streaming. Then, it’s usually watch ten minutes of a film, decides it’s shit, do the same to another, and another, and another… and eventually end up watching something that is only a degree above shit. Or watching something that won’t be too taxing brain-wise. Which usually ends up generating ire, and so taxing the brain anyway…

The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci (2017, UK). If Ianucci’s comedy has usually been amusing, his targets have also been a bit, well, obvious. And who is the most obvious target for political satire on the planet? Er, after Trump, that is. And, er, Putin. And maybe Thatcher. And maybe the last half-dozen US presidents. Okay, historical political figures. That are not Hitler. Well, that would be Stalin. Obviously. A figure who was praised, then revered, then feared (most right-wingers think this is the same thing), and in recent years is becoming bafflingly revered again. The Death of Stalin covers the days up to  Stalin’s death, the handover of power to Malenkov, and the subsequent struggle for supremacy among the Central Committe members, which eventually saw Khrushchev prevail. The committee members – Beria, Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, as well as those previously mentioned – are played like foul-mouthed, well, children, almost. And General Zhukov comes across like a cross between Flashheart and Roy Chubby Brown. Which means that in among the back-stabbing and brutality, there’s some good humour. Admittedly, most of it you’re embarrassed to be amused by, because, well, there’s political satire and then there’s depicting politics as schoolyard bullying games. Although, to be fair, that’s pretty much what Tory politics in the UK is these days. And the difference between the Central Committee as shown in this film and the Tories are little more than: better suits, a lack of firing squads, and plummy accents. Worth seeing.

Murder on the Orient Express, Kenneth Branagh (2017, UK). Of all the things the world needed, another remake of Murder on the Orient Express was not at the top of the list, or indeed anywhere on the list. It’s a hugely contrived novel, in which racist caricature Belgian Hercule Poirot, tries to solve a murder on a train with a limited cast of suspects, only to discover they were all guilty. It’s by no means Christie’s best novel, and the story is so well-known it’s impossible to ring changes on it without destroying it. But director Kenneth Branagh found a way to make it different. CGI! He creates an Orient Express that is almost cartoonish in its hyper-reality. The train on which Poirot is travelling is derailed by an avalanche in a giant mountain range in Croatia. While waiting to be rescued, a first-class passenger is brutally murdered, and Poirot is persuaded to solve the crime. Everyone else in first class has a secret, and it all links to the kidnap and murder of an American industrialist’s daughter years before – a crime plainly modelled on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Branagh has trouble playing a Poirot distinctive from Suchet’s, and plumps for a Kaiser moustache to distinguish his take on the character. The rest of the cast are drawn broadly, which is no real surprise as they’re just mannequins to pin motivations for the crime onto. And everywhere there is CGI. Lashings of it. More CGI than the remastered Star Wars trilogy. And it ruins the entire film. A plot so ludicrously contrived needs realism to anchor it and lend it plausibility, not Middle-Earth scenery  and a Belgian detective with the martial skills of Captain America. One to avoid.

The Battle of San Pietro*, John Huston (1945, USA). As the asterisk indicates, this is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s a wartime documentary, made by a famous Hollywood director, which may be surprisingly honest for a wartime documentary… but I can think of no good reason why this one should lauded above others. Is it fair to overlook other directors for creating wartime propaganda, no matter how well made – such as the Archers’ The Volunteer (starring Ralph Richardson!), or however many WWII propaganda films Frank Capra made – or must they be brutally honest to be acclaimed? On the other hand, you have films like Rossellini’s Paisà, which is a dramatic retelling, but no doubt far more accurate than any government documentary film. Not to mention the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (see here), in which a mother attempts to save her child in war-torn Italy. The Battle of San Pietro comprises battle footage, interviews with soldiers, fly-on-the-wall footage of soldiers relaxing, and crude animation intended to explain the course of the battle. Despite being real, it was all a bit dull, to be honest. I much preferred The Volunteer, even if it was shot to recruit people for the Fleet Air Arm…

World without End, Edward Bernds (1956. USA). After Satellite in the Sky (see here), I had expected similar of this film which shares the same disc. It shares only its year of release, and its, er, science-fiction-ness. It’s a US film, for one thing. A trip to Mars, the first every spaceflight (yeah right). goes awry when the rocket is accelerated to great velocity, but not apparently at sufficiently high G to squish them, and the crew blackout and wake up in… the future. The year 2508, to be precise. Two hundred years after a nuclear war devastated the earth and mutated spiders so they’re now huge monsters. The astronauts stumble across an underground city of human survivors – if this sounds a little familar, Beneath the Planet of the apes was released 14 years after this one. The underground men are all impotent wimps, but the women are attractive and more than happy to find themselves being visited by real men. Satellite in the Sky had its flaws, but it was so much better than World without End. True, World without End is a B-movie, and quality sort of didn’t go with the territory. I’ve seen a bunch of them in my time, and while this one was better made than most, it was just as rubbish. Bad science fiction, with no Avro Vulcans.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, SS Rajamouli (2017, India). Baahubali was an experience. The film was so epic it was released in two parts, and it makes Lord of the Rings looks like a soap opera. There is twisting the material to suit the refashioned story, or even the director’s agenda, but Baahubali provides more moments of laugh-out-loud OTT action for the sake of sheer action than any other film I have ever come across. There’s the scene where the cows with their horns on fire stamped through the bandit army. Or the scene where Baahubali’s army is catapulted over the walls of Mahishmati using palm trees. I kid you not. The title character has been named heir apparent to Mahismati, a declaration that is unpopular with his stepbrother, Bhallaladeva, and his mother, the Rajamata Sivagami. Baahubali is sent off to tour the kingdom undercover with master-at-arms slave Kattappa. They witness an attack by the princess of a neighbouring kingdom. Baahubali falls in love with her, and follows her back to her kingdom of Kuntala. He pretends to be mentally challenged, although his cover is blown when bandits attack the kingdom and he fights to defend it. Then there’s the confusion over which prince of Mahismati will marry the princess of Kuntala… which leads to Baahubali being demoted from heir apparent, and then exiled. Which is why he and Bhallaladeva end up going to war. The ending neatly leads back into the beginning of the film – ie, the framing narrative in which Baahubali’s son, played by the same actor, defeats Bhallaldeva – by having Sivagami see the error of her ways and run from Mahishmati, but dies saving the life of the son. Both Baahubali films were entertainment turned up to eleven. I’ve never seen aything like them. But then, when you take the OTT action of a fantasy film and marry it with the OTT drama of a Bollywood film – well, Tollywood film, in this case – well, then you’ve got… something like this. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m tempted to get my own copy.

The Man Who Saved the World, Peter Anthony (2014, Denmark). Back in the twentieth century, there was this thing called the Cold War. The USSR and the USA wanted to bomb the shit out of each other with nuclear bombs, but never did because it was all a plot to keep their military-industrial (or, in the case of the USSR, military-political) complexes in profit. But the technology was clunky and not entirely reliable. Which is not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the system should break in such a way that it appeared to be displaying a US nuclear missile attack on the USSR. Fortunately, the military officer in charge disbelieved the evidence presented by all the high technology of which he was in charge, and chose to disregard the indicated attack. Which proved to be a glitch. And so WWIII was averted and, post-glasnost, said officer travelled to the US and met a bunch of celebs – including Kevin Costner! – as “the man who save the world”. I don’t believe a word of it. It’s not how computer systems operate. The documentary includes a re-enactment of the fake nuclear missile attack, and you have to wonder how a bogus signal from one, or more, radar stations translated into such a convincing report of an attack that a Soviet officer had to actively distrust the systems for which he was responsible. The film is not helped by the feeling that the bulk of the encounters in the US are set up. The man who allegedly saved the world is probably really no more than a footnote in the history books, and what is most interesting is how it happened rather the man who made the right decision, or his subsequent attempts – or attempts by others – to capitalise on his one moment of common sense. I wanted to like The Man Who Saved the World more than I did, but it never quite convinced me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 896


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Moving pictures 2017, #28

Another mixed bag…

Passengers, Morten Tyldum (2016, USA). This didn’t do too well at the box office, and was panned by critics; and was especially panned by many of the people I follow on Twitter/read on blogs. Chiefly because it was characterised as a rape/stalker fantasy. What many of those critics had failed to mention is that Pratt’s character agonises over his decision, but goes ahead and does it despite knowing he’s in the wrong. Although that in no way justifies his action, or makes it right. And Lawrence’s character roundly rejects him when she learns the truth. It’s an unpleasant story, but it’s disingenuous to claim it presents it without commentary. On top of which, the film has plenty of other problems. Briefly, Chris Pratt is a glorified mechanic being shipped in cold sleep to a distant colony world aboard a fancy CGI starship. A meteorite strike causes a glitch and he’s awakened ninety years before the starship reaches its destination. He cannot go back into cold sleep. And he’ll be dead by the time the ship reaches its destination. In the cold sleep chamber, he spots Jennifer Lawrence, fancies her, looks into life – she’s a celebrated writer – and falls in love with her. So he wakes her and pretends it was another glitch. They have a good time aboard the deserted starship, despite knowing they’ll not live to see the destination. Then she discovers he deliberately woke her. She rejects him. Then the reactor or something goes berserk because of the meteroid strike or something, and they have to work together to save the ship. Ship fixed, rift healed. The two of them live happily ever after… True, Passengers shows Pratt doing something unthinkable, and then shows him enjoying the fruits of that act – it is, in effect, a death sentence for Lawrence, triggered wholly by Pratt. But the consequences of that act are not left unexplored, or presented without commentary. In fact, the shit third act’s bullshit jeopardy, thrown into the plot in order to effect a reconciliation, is probably more offensive. Boy wakes girl, thus consigning her to an early death aboard a starship populated only by him, but fusion reactor meltdown makes it all okay… And yeah, he did wrong, he was being punished for it… and the film then fakes a situation to make it all work out okay. That’s the really bad thing about Passengers. I probably should have avoided it, as advised.

A Girl At My Door, July Jung (2014, South Korea). Another film David Tallerman added to my rental list. And another good call. (This is not to say they’ve all been good calls, but we seem to be averaging quite a high hit rate each.) A policewoman has been assigned as station chief at a small seaside town after a scandal back in Seoul. On her first day, she witnesses some schoolkids bullying a a girl their own age. Later, she spots the girl’s father beating the same girl, and she stops it. The policeman gets reluctantly involved when the girl turns up at her house, and she takes her in so she will no longer be beaten by her father. This, of course, causes talk. And is not helped by the policewoman drinking. It all comes to a head when the father – a drunkard, and manager of the town’s main business – accuses the policewoman of abusing his daughter. Which is only made worse when the daughter, in all innocence, gives answers to the police which can be easily misconstrued. But the girl has her revenge – she fakes an incident of rape from her father while her phone is on and afte rshe has called a policeman. A Girl At My Door can’t decide if it’s a drama or a thriller, and flips between both registers… but that works in its favour. It goes for dead-pan throughout, which means the spin put on events later in the film can be seen purely as perspective. Having said that, the teenage girl is a bit creepy – although in a way you can never quite put your finger on. The fact everything starts to go horribly wrong for the policewoman comes as no real surprise, but the way the girl turns the tables is a neat twist. Definitely worth seeing.

The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin (1940, USA). I admit I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, perhaps because it’s possibly Chaplin’s most famous film (it’s also an important plot point in Iron Sky)… but I’d never actually seen it. And then it popped up on Amazon Prime… And, well… It seems it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See  Before You Die list and I can see why: it’s a bit rubbish. It’s more Benny Hill than your actual Charlie Chaplin. The title refers to Hynkel who is, well, Hitler. But there’s also a Jewish tailor (that’s the actual name of the character) who closely resembles him. Both played, of course, by Chaplin. But the tailor loses his memory after being injured in WWI. He returns to the Jewish ghetto and tries to rebuild his life, but Hynkel’s stormtroopers are proesecuting a campaign of antisemitic violence and intimidation against the ghetto’s inhabitants. When the Jewish tailor becomes a target, he ‘s first helped out by Paulette Goddard, and later by an officer high in Hynkel’s regime, whose life the Jewish tailor saved during WWI (an early sequence in the film shows this: it’s a pretty dumb flying comedy routine). Having seen several Chaplin films, and thought them good, I was expecting more of The Great Dictator. It didn’t deliver. There were some clever gags in the films – the ack-ack gun, for example – but they were usually book-ended by weak comedy. It’s probably worth seeing this, so you can cross it off your list. But it’s far from being one of Chaplin’s best.

Operation Avalanche, Matt Johnson (2016, Canada). Someone, a known and plainly deluded denier, asked Buzz Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had been to the Moon… and Aldrin punched him in the face. Since 1969 there have been conspiracy theories claiming Apollo 11, or all of the Apollo missions, were faked. It’s all complete bollocks, of course. (Hint: when a cover-up is more expensive and complicated than the event is it is supposedly covering up, chances are the event actually took place.) But while faked Moon landings have appeared in fiction during the past four and a half decades, the nearest Hollywood came was Capricorn One, which posited a faked landing on Mars. Until now. In the past two years, there have been two films about faked Moon landings – both, incidentally, suggesting Kubrick was involved – but neither of which have been US films. First was Moonwalkers (see here), which was French, and not entirely successful; and now we have Operation Avalanche from Canada. In this one, an ambitious young CIA agent persuades his bosses to allow him to a film a faked Apollo 11 moon landing because all indications are NASA will fail to achieve Kennedy’s target of the “by the end of the decade”. The agent and his team pose as a documentary crew, and the enture film is presented as found footage – ie, the footage they shot. And it makes a better fist of the found footage angle than Apollo 18 (which remains the best fictional representation of Apollo on film). The DVD’s cover art does Operation Avalanche no favours – nor, in fact, does the the title. The synopsis led me to expect something like Moonwalkers, which was not especially good, or funny. But Operation Avalanche is actually pretty good. It maintains an impressively earnest tone throughout, evokes its period especially well, and its cast of unknowns and barely-seens do a good job of convincing the viewer it’s all really quite real. Worth seeing.

Cumbres, Gabriel Nuncio (2013, Mexico). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime – it is proving not entirely useless, and despite being full of shit films, does actually have the odd gem buried in there. And it’s no good searching for it, because the search function is shite. You just… stumble across it. And hope it doesn’t disappear before you get the chance to watch it. I guess it’s little different, in effect, to channel-hopping… and discover ing that one of your 200+ cable channels is not showing an episode of NCIS or Friends by is ten minutes into a hard-to-find film you really want to see… Which is all somewhat irrelevant, as I knew nothing about Cumbres when I came across it – but the synopsis sounded intriguing, and it was a Mexican film and I’ve not seen many Mexican films (er, Jodorowsky… and that’s about it). A father wakes up his teenage daughter and tells her she has to drive her older sister out to relatives in the country because something bad has happened. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Nuncio takes his time revealing what the elder sister has done, although it’s mentioned early that it involves her boyfriend. The film is shot entirely in black-and-white, and is mostly set in the car in which the two drive south. It’s well-played, Nuncio’s coyness over revealing the reason for the sudden flight quickly ceases to be annoying, and it all hangs together exceedingly well. Good film.

Fat City*, John Huston (1972, USA). I’ve yet to figure out why Huston is important, or at least important enough to appear eight times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Eight times. Some of his early stuff is clearly seminal Hollywood film-making – and he was part of a Hollywood dynasty too. But I’m not sure this grim drama about a has-been boxer and an up-and-coming boxer was all that good. Stacey Keach plays a boxer fallen on hard times, forever promising he’ll get fit and return to the sport, but usually ending up back on the booze. Jeff Bridges plays the amateur Keach decides has talent, and who he pushes into a career in the sport. It’s set in a run-down area of Los Angeles, featuring a cast of alcoholics and low-lives, and is based on the only novel published by Leon Gardner. When I started working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, Fat City was unavailable on DVD, but a posh new dual format edition has just been released. Which was lucky for me. I guess. Although why it ever ended  up on the list is a mystery. True, I’m no fan of boxing films – or indeed of the sport (and it’s a bit rich actually calling it a “sport”, if you ask me), so much of its appeal is lost on me. But I am a fan of films, and nothing about Fat City especially stood out for me. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list count: 865

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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

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Moving pictures, #33

Again, more US films than I really would like to be watching. True, over half of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is American, and when I’m looking for brainless entertainment to watch of a Saturday night with a bottle of wine in hand, then the US provides more suitable films than any other nation but… I’d seriously like my movie viewing to be more global, and though I’ve been making an effort in that direction, it sometimes feels like I’ve not been assiduous enough… Oh well. Most of my favourite films and directors are not from the US, and my DVD/Blu-ray collection now certainly comprises more world cinema than Hollywood…I’m getting there.

elephantElephant*, Gus Van Sant (2003, USA). You know that thing they have in the US, and that keeps on happening, where someone walks into a place and shoots everyone, because civilised nations banned guns the first time it happened but the US is happy to sell assault rifles to any lunatic with a dollar bill… Elephant apparently started life as a documentary about a real school shooting, but turned into a fictional representation of one. The film follows the victims, witnesses and perpetrators, often criss-crossing timelines, which is quite an effective technique. But the film itself offers no commentary on its subject, other than showing the shooters being bullied by jocks. Which is weak. I mean, it’s not hard to condemn either the shooters, the culture which persuaded them shooting their peers was a conceivable response, or the society which allowed them access to the weapons to do so. But Van Sant does none of these. He humanises the victims – which is the weakest argument of all against such atrocities. We know they’re human, we know they are just like us. We also know the perpetrators are little different to us. What we want to know is: why was this allowed to happen? And what is being done to prevent it? In the US, the answer to both appears to be: very little.

evangelion_3Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). The Evangelion films are re-workings of the Neon Genesis Evangelion OVA, but rather than distillations of that 26-episode series they feel more like isolated excerpts from it, ie random episodes from a much longer story. I like that the films make no concessions to their viewers, and that despite their basic plot of high-school kids piloting mecha in fights against giant aliens, there’s so much more going on that’s left for viewers to puzzle out: the world-building, the relationships between the characters, the technology, even the family dynamics for those characters who are related to each other… In this movie, the action takes place fourteen years after the explosive end of Evangelion 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance. Shinji and Evangelion Unit 01 have been drifting in orbit. He is rescued by WILLE and fitted with an explosive collar. Only it turns out WILLE is fighting NERV, and they have a, er, flying battleship. Which is now powered by Evangelion Unit 01 (there are around a dozen Evangelion units by this point). And then it sort of gets a confusing, with some cast members carried over from the earlier films, and entirely new ones to figure out as well. Not to mention a circuituous route, via the weird dynamics between the Evangelion pilots, to a final battle scene, which triggers another apocalypse… I’m going to have to watch this again – if not all three films – before I truly figure out what’s going on. It’s all made for an odd viewing experience. Although superficially the same, and sharing a design aesthetic, the three movies manage to present three episodes of one story-arc in three tonally different ways. The fourth and final film is due Any Day Now, having postponed several times since its original release date in 2013.

barbarianThe Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand (2003, Canada). Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but this sequel is on a different one. I’d not been that impressed by the first film – it seemed almost a parody of an independent movie, a group of characters sitting around moaning about the state of the world – so I can’t say I was especially keen on seeing this sequel. But I must have stuck it on my rental list, and subsequently forgotten about it, because it arrived and I watched it and… It’s just as dull. It’s set seventeen years after The Decline of the American Empire, which was released in 1986, and features most of the same cast. Rémy has terminal cancer, and his family – especially his son, a financier living and working in London – and his friends (from the earlier film) come to visit him. There’s a lot about the Canadian national health system being over-stretched and ineffective, but I can’t decide if that’s done deliberately in order to enable the plot (rich son pays for expensive treatment in US), or some kind of commentary on public healthcare. There’s also a number of scenes of the friends sitting around and talking, a lot of which is reminiscences. I found it all a bit uninvolving, much as I did The Decline of the American Empire. Meh.

robinsonRobinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I really liked Keiller’s earlier two films, London and Robinson in Space, and was expecting much the same of this one. But it was so much better. It has the cinematographic beauty that comes from well-placed static shots like in Benning’s films tied to a clever voice-over narrative like something out of an Adam Curtis documentary. This time Vanessa Redgrave narrates, as the lover of the narrator, and Robinson’s friend, in the earlier two films. Robinson in Ruins opens with Robinson’s release from prison, and then describes his journey through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, remarking on the things Robinson found and their history and how it all links in to the UK’s current economic malaise (current as of 2010, of course; we all know who exactly who – Osborne’s damaging and ineffective “austerity” aside – is responsible for the UK’s economic woes in 2016). I liked London and Robinson in Space a lot, but Robinson in Ruins is so much better. Perhaps its because it’s nearer in time than those two earlier times. True, I remember Tory Britain from 1979 to 1997 (although I was abroad for the last three years of it). Of course, 2010 saw the end of thirteen years under New Labour, although Robinson in Ruins is more about the damaging effects of big business and capitalism, and the corruption in which its naturally embedded, than it is economic policies. I suspect I will be watching this again before the end of the year, and it might well make my top five best of the year by December…

misfitsThe Misfits, John Huston (1961, USA). This was both Clark Gable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, and when it arrived from the rental service I assumed I’d stuck it on my list because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – except it isn’t, at least not the 2013 edition, which is the one I’m using. So I’m somewhat mystified as to why I stuck it on my rental list. Because it’s not that interesting. Monroe plays a somewhat flighty divorcee, Gable plays an ageing cowboy, the two fall in love. There’s Montgomery Clift as a rodeo cowboy who hooks up with them, and Eli Wallach as Gable’s friend, who’s a mechanic and flies a biplane. Gable and Monroe’s relationship falters when Gable decides to go capture some wild horses in the hills (to sell for dog food). He, Monroe and Wallach, plus Monroe’s friend Thelma Ritter, head off to a rodeo to find a third cowboy and so meet Clift. It all feels a bit like a cynical attempt to plug into some US myth or other, not to mention trading on its two marquee name stars. Gable is good, but Monroe looks like she’s sleepwalking half the time – and by all accounts, it was a difficult shoot as she often turned up late, and sometimes never at all. Clift isn’t too bad, although he doesn’t quite convince as a dim-witted cowboy. The final act, where the five – Wallach in a biplane, the rest in a pickup – try to round up half a dozen wild horse, and Gable gets dragged across the desert by a mare, feels somewhat over-stretched. Meh.

red_riverRed River*, Howard Hawks (1948, USA). I honestly thought I’d already seen this – I mean, I’d seen a several Hawks westerns starring John Wayne, and I was pretty sure this was one of them. But apparently not. Of course, it’s not that easy a call, given Hawks’s penchant for remaking his films under new titles… Wayne plays a typical Wayne character, who leaves a wagon-train, and his sweetheart, which is bound for California, to head south to claim land in Texas, accompanied only by a grizzled old man and a pair of steers (one male, one female, of course). Later that day, they see smoke on the horizon and dash back to discover the wagon-train destroyed by Native Americans and everyone killed. There is only one survivor, a traumatised boy called Matt. The three continue south, Wayne finds his land and claims it, killing a representative of a Mexican don who has title from the King of Spain (so much for international relations…). The film then jumps forward fourteen years, Matt has grown up into Montgomery Clift, and Wayne looks more like himself than Ronald Reagan (as he did earlier). Wayne’s ranch has proven successful and he has thousands of head of cattle. But no money. The just-ended civil war saw to that. So he needs to take his cattle to the nearest railhead in Missouri hundreds of miles away to sell them. There’s a nearer railhead in Kansas, but since no one has actually been there and see it, Wayne refuses to head that way. His high-handed tactics during the drive end up with Clift challenging him, taking over the drive and heading north along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. Fortunately, the rumoured railhead exists, and Clift gets an excellent price for the cattle. Wayne then turns up. ready to kill him, they have a big fist-fight, and make up. It’s all very manly, and just like you’d expect the Wild West to be. Of course, having seen a number of Westerns, I’m aware of the way cattle barons like Wayne’s character treated homesteaders and settlers, and that’s not even mentioned – in fact, the only town in the film is the Kansas one at the end. Admittedly, the cattle drive is pretty impressive… although the use of sound-stages for the campfire scenes do spoil all that location shooting a bit. I’m not that much of a fan of Westerns (see my comments on the genre in previous Moving picture posts), and I understand that the Chisolm Trail was historically important, and that Red River makes a good story of it, but it’s all a bit too macho and one-sided for me.

1001 Movies You Must See Before YOu Die count: 780


Moving pictures, #21

And back to more films from the US than elsewhere. Given that only half the films described below are rentals, I can’t claim the vagaries of their service as an excuse. Oh well.

cindrelac2Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh (2015, USA). I bought a Blu-ray of the animated Disney Cinderella and the cheapest version available was a double Blu-ray box set with the 2015 live-action version of the film, because, probably, the live-action needs a bit of extra help to sell. I mean, whoever heard of a live-action Cinderella? Okay, it was directed by Branagh, and it’s got stars like Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett and Stellan Skarsgård and Derek Jacobi in it… but given the number of princess films Disney churns out, my expectations were understandably quite low. And yes, the film takes a few liberties with Perrault’s story, chiefly in order to give the characters more of a background. The two leads – Lily James and Richard Madden – are also a bit bland. But… there were some quite clever references to the Disney animated version, Bonham Carter’s absent-minded Fairy Godmother was fun, and Blanchett was on good form. However, the choreography during the ball scene just looked silly, and spoiled for me what had been up until then good family entertainment. A better film than I’d expected, but nowhere near as good as the animated version (although in its favour, its mice are considerably less annoying). [ABC]

rescuersThe Rescuers, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens (1977, USA). I have a vague memory of this film’s original theatrical release. I can’t remember if I went to see it at the cinema, or if on a trip to the cinema my sisters saw it and I watched some other film. Watching it this time, 38 years later, very little seemed all that familiar. The seagull I sort of remembered, and Madame Medusa I think I remembered… But nothing else. Apparently, The Rescuers was instrumental in turning around Disney’s fortunes – they had not a successful film since The Jungle Book in 1967. I’m not sure I understand why – I can’t think of a weirder pairing for the main characters as Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor. And the animation looked a little crude and not very crisp when compared to Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. I wasn’t that impressed. Amusingly, in 1999 Disney had to recall 3.4 million videocassettes of the second home video release because someone had spotted a photo of a topless women in the background of one of the shots.

hard_to_be_a_godHard to be a God, Aleksey German (2013, Russia). I’d heard a great deal about this film, and everything I’d heard led me to think I’d be much impressed by it. Not just that it was made by a Russian director, and made in that sort of very Russian style; or that it’s an adaptation of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky… Anyway, I bought the Blu-ray when it was released… and it sort of sat on the pile of films to be watched for six months or so before I finally decided to stick it in the player… An agent from Earth has infiltrated the society of another planet. The humans of the planet are anti-intellectual, and so are mired in the Middle Ages. The agent has taken the place of a local baron, and the local populace treat their nobles as god. On Blu-ray, the filth and squalour of the world German has created is visceral and obvious.  The film sort of meanders about, revelling in the awful conditions in which everyone lives, and the dumb laws under which they must survive (an old man is drowned upside down in shit, for example, for writing poetry – and being what the subtitles call a “smartypants”). It’s all very grim and very cheerless, but in a sort of weirdly unbelievable and implausible way. The cinematography is fantastic, the film’s commitment to its world is astonishing… but, even though I like slow cinema, this is not a film in which things happen at a particularly fast pace. I thought I’d like it more than I did, so in that respect it’s disappointing. But it’s definitely a film that stands numerous viewings, so I’m glad I bought a copy. [ABC]

black_godBlack God, White Devil*, Glauber Rocha (1964, Brazil). So I’d watched Rocha’s Entranced Earth – because it was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, it was a rental, see here – and I really enjoyed it and I was a bit drunk, so I went and bought DVDs of Rocha’s three films, of which Entranced Earth forms the middle part of the trilogy. Black God, White Devil is the first of the three. Obviously, I was interested to see what I made of it. And… well, it’s not a very good transfer. I like that Mr Bongo are releasing hard-to-find non-Anglophone movies, but they don’t seem to put much effort into it. Happily, Black God, White Devil is a good film. A really good film. It has a bit of the Jodorowsky about it, and it works really well. A poor farmer has to flee when he kills his boss (after his boss insists the farmer carry the cost of the loss of the two cattle which died of snake bites en route to market). The farmer and his wife join St Sebastian, an apocalyptic preacher who suggests violence is necessary for redemption. Meanwhile, the government is getting worried about St Sebastian and his growing influence. So they hire bandit Antonio das Mortes to kill the preacher and his followers. Two are left alive to spread the word – yes, the farmer and his wife. And they in turn become bandits. I now want more of Rocha’s films, but the three I have appear to be the only ones that are available. Bah. [0]

nobodoy_knowsNobody Knows, Hirokazu Koreeda (2004, Japan). This was recommended to me by David Tallerman, who has previously recommended anime films, but this is live action… although “action” may not be the right word. It’s a dramatisation of a true story. A woman with a twelve-year-old son moves into a new apartment. However, she actually has four kids – two are very young and are smuggled into the building inside suitcases, the other is eleven and turns up later. The woman continues to pretend she only has the one kid to her landlord. One day, she heads off to work… and never returns. She has abandoned her children. The oldest boy tries to keep the other children safe and fed, although what little money the mother left soon runs out. Then the utilities are cut off since the bills haven’t been paid. When the youngest girl falls from a stool, hits her head and dies, the three children bury her in a field near the airport. The film is played very flat, like a documentary, which has the odd side-effect of making the mother appear merely flighty instead of criminally negligent. Apparently, the real-life case was somewhat more gruesome – there were five children, not four; the youngest died after being assaulted  by friends of the eldest; and all were badly malnourished when discovered by the authorities (after a tip-off from the landlord). Another of the children also died – Wikipedia does not give the cause – and the body was found with the three survivors. The mother gave herself up when the case hit the news. Astonishingly, after she’d served her three year jail sentence, the mother was given custody of the two surviving girls.

olvidadosLos Olvidados*, Luis Buñuel (1950, Mexico). The title refers to the forgotten kids and teenagers who live on the streets of Mexico City – although this is not a documentary. The teenage leader of a street gang escapes from juvenile jail, tracks down the kid who supposedly grassed him up, then beats him to death with a rock. A younger kid is witness but promises to say nothing. His mother persuades the kid to go straight and he gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. But then the gang leader turns up and steals a knife. The kid is accused of the theft and sent to a progressive rehabilitation centre where, after a dodgy start, he seems to settle down. But then up pops the gang leader again, and he steals some money from the kid. They fight. During the fight, the kid tells everyone the gang leader is a murderer. The gang leader runs away. Later, he tracks down the kid and kills him. But the police are now after him – and they find him and gun him down. Shot in black and white, and in a social realist style, this is anything but a cheerful film. In fact, it’s really grim. To be honest, it didn’t much feel like a Buñuel movie, despite a bizarre dream sequence. To date, I’ve seen eight of Buñuel’s thirty-two films and only really liked two of them – The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, neither of which have that much in common. Much is made of Buñuel’s surrealism, or the surrealist elements of his films, and certainly the surrealism of the two I like is their major draw. But then I don’t see where Tristana, Belle du jour or Viridiana are especially surreal – and Un chien andalou and L’age d’or felt more like experimental films than anything else. An important director, undoubtedly, and one whose movies I will continue to watch – but I can’t say he’d make my top ten, or even top twenty…

kidThe Kid, Charlie Chaplin (1921, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies Must See Before You Die list, I can’t think why I put it on my rental list otherwise, but it’s not. Strange. Anyway, I watched it. The Kid is one of Chaplin’s most famous movies, and probably because of the title character. A woman has her baby stolen, it’s then left in an alleyway, where Chaplin finds it. He tries to get rid of the child, but fails… and so takes it home with him. The film then jumps forward five years, and the baby has grown into a little gamin, whom Chaplin’s tramp uses in his various cons. The kid throws rocks through windows, then Chaplin turns up with a pane of glass and is paid to replace the broken pane. There’s a scene where Chaplin is beaten up by a tough who’s wearing a bizarrely-padded jumper, and lots of Chaplin-like visual jokes… and a frankly bizarre dream sequence in which Chaplin imagines himself as an angel, the kid too, and everyone else who has appeared in the film, and the two of them fly along the street set… and then Chaplin wakes up.  He decides to track down the kid’s mother, and return him to his rightful home. Which he does suspiciously easily – mother and son are re-united as if it had been five weeks and not five years, and everyone lives happily ever after. I actually prefer the other Chaplin films I’ve seen to this one, yes, even Monsieur Verdoux.

african_queenThe African Queen*, John Huston (1951, USA). Katherine Hepburn is the sister of a British missionary (Robert Morley) in German East Africa in 1914. Humph is the captain of the eponymous steam-powered river boat which regularly delivers supplies. WWI breaks out, the Germans burn down the missionaries’ village, Morley is killed, so Hepburn and Humph escape on the African Queen. They plan to follow the river to the lake at its end, and there destroy the German gunboat which is preventing the British from attacking. Along the way, they fall in love, sneak past a German fort which commands an excellent view of the river, fix a broken propellor, survive a trip through some fierce rapids… It’s all very adventuresome – but then it is adapted from a CS Forester novel. Hepburn and Bogart forever hover on the edge of parody; and half the time they feel like impressionists playing the actors playing their roles. It’s all very silly, and amazingly lightweight for a film that’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. In fact, I’m surprised it actually made the list. Huston is on there eight times, and some of the choices are baffling – Prizzi’s Honour? WTF? After early classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre (both also starring Humph), you have to wonder what happened…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 761

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Moving pictures, #33

It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.

thin_blue_lineThe Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.

being_thereBeing There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

asphalt_jungleThe Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.

last_metroThe Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the  mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.

shaftShaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…

she_done_him_wrongShe Done Him Wrong*, Lowell Sherman (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

shaneShane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…

wild_blue_yonderThe Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665

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Moving pictures, #29

A few too many US films this time, although the Benning is actually only available on a DVD published by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. But then the Satyajit Ray is a Criterion Collection DVD, and they’re only published in the US, so…

music_roomThe Music Room (Jalsaghar)*, Satyajit Ray (1958, India). I’ve been trying to watch more Ray as he’s an important director and to date I’ve only watched two-thirds of his Apu trilogy. The asterisk indicates this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and while Ray is quite well-served in terms of UK DVD releases (thanks to the inestimable Artificial Eye), I decided to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD of The Music Room. The story is a common one, perhaps even common to Indian cinema (it’s certainly one shared with Mother India in part), in that it’s about the death of old ways and the rise of the new. The main character of The Music Room is a Bengali zamindar, wealthy and indolent, but good-hearted and more fond of music than he is looking after the lands and people he is responsible for. His decline is contrasted with the rise of a commoner who beocmes rich through business. The film cleverly shifts sympathy from the zamindar to the commoner, especially given whatever defence might be mounted of the zamindar system the example portrayed in The Music Room is far from a good advert. The film also makes  a great deal of its music, and apparently it was the use of classical Indian music in The Music Room which contributed to its success in the West (it was intended to be a commercial success in India as Ray’s previous film had flopped). I’m reminded of a night I once spent in a Bengali nightclub in Abu Dhabi, when after listening to a fifteen-minute song I asked the person sitting at a nearby table to explain the lyrics. They were surprisingly banal. That’s not something which can be said of this film, which maintains an impressive elegiac tone throughout.

prizziPrizzi’s Honour*, John Huston (1985, USA). There are a number of films whose presence on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is, quite frankly, baffling. This is one of them. It’s a fairly ordinary comedy-drama about Hollywood’s version of the Mob, notable only for Jack Nicholson’s gormless expression throughout and his tortured Brooklyn accent (at least, I think it’s Brooklyn, a native New Yorker would probably know what particular district it’s intended to portray). Nicholson’s character is an enforcer for a Mob don, and he falls in love at first sight with Kathleen Turner at a family wedding. But she’s from out of town (LA, in fact), so he never finds out who she is… Until some time later, when he’s out in LA and it turns out she’s involved in the hit he’s making. The two enter into a relationship, it transpires Turner is a contract killer, and later that she has ripped off the Mob and… well, it’s about as twisty-turny as the first two minutes of your average twenty-first century thriller movie. Turner plays a femme fatale, a role which has defined much of her career; I’m not sure if Nicholson was doing a comedy turn, it’s hard to tell. This is light entertainment, it’s not classic cinema, and you can happily live your life without having never seen it.

around_the_worldAround The World Under The Sea, Andrew Marton (1966, USA). The threat of increased, and more powerful, earthquakes, persuades the UN to back a plan to install earthquake sensors at strategic points around the globe on the ocean bottom. The plan is Lloyd Bridges’s, so he gets to lead the mission – which will involve a globe-spanning trip in a large submersible. Also aboard are five other scientists – Shirley Eaton, Brian Kelly (who doesn’t think a woman should be on board), David McCallum, Keenan Wynan and Marshall Thompson. This film is… tosh. Complete tosh. Wynan initially refuses Bridges’s invite, so Bridges goes to visit him… in his undersea home more than 700 feet below the surface of the sea. And Bridges dives to it on air. It’s also remarkably light down there, in fact the sea bottom is the sort of pale sand you’d find around, say, twenty feet below the surface. There are also other episodes where the crew go diving at depths of greater than 20,000 feet – and it’s unlikely the submersible itself would survive such a depth – on air and without bothering to either compress before or decompress afterwards. There are films which make a reluctant nod in the direction of scientific accuracy, and are those which don’t give a shit. This falls into the latter camp – and it’s not improved by it. The actual premise is complete bollocks, and the presentation of submersibles and diving is complete and utter nonsense. Best avoided.

awful_truthThe Awful Truth*, Leo McCarey (1937, USA). There are films in which Cary Grant seems to glide through the proceedings, sliding along on charm and his perfect delivery of one-liners. Not every film, or even necessarily good films – he is better, for example in Operation Petticoat than he is in North by Northwest. But The Awful Truth is an early film – actually his thirtieth, if the filmography on Wikipedia is any guide – and his first attempt at the debonair leading man in a comedy-drama, a role which later came to define him. In this, he often seems a bit too eager to deliver the punch-line, and it gives him an earnestness which sits at odds with his later on-screen persona (but that’s what you get for watching an actor’s oeuvre in non-chronological order, which is I suspect the way most people end up seeing films starring a particular actor). The plot of The Awful Truth is typical screwball romance fodder: Grant and Irene Dunn are due to divorce, but by parading unsuitable new partners in front of each other, they eventually realise they belong together. Again. The script is witty, Dunne more than holds her own, and if Grant does smirk and gurn a little too often, it doesn’t detract all that much from the film’s essential charm.

american dreamsLandscape Suicide, James Benning (1986, USA). This is cinema as art installation, although Benning pushes the definition of that by including narrative. Yet his films are also documentaries – there is nothing fictional about the material he presents. Landscape Suicide is about two murder cases: one in Wisconsin, one in California; one in 1984, one in 1957. The earlier of the two is the capture of Ed Gein. Benning has an actor play Gein and act out his interrogation by the police. The second is Bernadotte Prott, who stabbed a high school friend to death, and is again portrayed by an actor who acts out her police interrogation. Landscape Suicide is built up from these static talking head shots and equally static shots of the areas in which the crimes were committed, in Wisconsin and California. Although there is nothing in this film which actually tells a story, Benning imposes narrative through his choice of images and his editing. I’ll admit he’s not to everyone’s taste: 90 minutes of static 16mm shots of three or so minutes duration, not always with narration or even people talking – both El Valley Centro and Los, for example, are images and ambient sound only – but it’s the actual procession of images which tells the story, and it’s very cleverly done. Quite meserising too.

scarfacerScarface*, Howard Hawks (1932, USA). I’ve seen about half of Hawks’s oeuvre to date, and some of them I’ve found very good – if very much of their time and very much a product of the Hollywood system (neither necessarily being a bad thing, of course). I will admit to not having high expectations of this movie, a thinly-disguised biopic of Al Capone, even down to re-staging the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Its opening ten or twenty minutes aren’t especially prepossessing, as Paul Muni moves in on deals other gangs have made with speakeasies for their supply of beer (not that the speakeasies had much choice). But then the violence escalates, and it’s all very realistic – so much so, it captures the attention and holds it. Admittedly, I missed the whole “X equals death” thing, although I did wonder why the camera lingered on the ceiling joists of the garage where the massacre took place. Muni seems a bit too much like his role in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to convince as a ruthless mobster, and Boris Karloff is far too lugubrious and, well, English, in a similar role. Despite that, the story speeds along at a breakneck, and accelerating, pace, and it’s not hard to understand why Scarface is considered a seminal film of its genre. Worth seeing.

no_mans_landNo Man’s Land*, Danis Tanović (2001, Bosnia). The only film by Tanović I’d seen previously was Hell, his film of a screenplay by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the second of a new trilogy they were working on just prior to Kieślowski’s death (the first, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer after Kieślowski’s death; the third has never been made). All of which is completely irrelevant as that later film bears little or no resemblance to this one, which takes place mostly between the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb frontlines during the Bosnian War. After a patrol gets lost in a heavy fog, and another patrol is sent out to look for them, two soldiers, one from each side, end up trapped in an abandoned trench in no man’s land. Neither can leave, at risk of getting shot by the opposite side. Just to make matters worse, Bosnian Serbs have boobytrapped a dead Bosniak by putting a bouncing mine under his body. Except he’s not dead. A French sergeant in the UN Peacekeeping Force gets involved, but his superiors veto any resolution of the situation. But then the media arrives on the scene, especially a tenacious British reporter for a news channel. The decision to help gets bounced up the chain of command to Simon Callow’s colonel, but it seems the mine can’t be disarmed. The Bosniak and Bosnia Serb end up shooting each other, and the UN Peacekeepers lie to the media and tell everyone the third man has been rescued, even though he hasn’t. This humour isn’t black, it’s stygian. Like proper humour of this type, everything in it is completely inevitable, including the stupidity and dishonesty of the people involved. It is also completely convincing. Definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 649