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Moving pictures 2018, #22

Sometimes, I even convince myself these posts must be taking the piss – I mean, there may be two films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list here, but both are pretty obscure… and they’re probably the least obscure of the half-dozen. Jancsó films I buy as soon as the come available. Colorful was lent to me, and A Silent Voice was added to my rental list when I wasn’t looking. And Penda’s Fen I stumbled across on Amazon, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go…

Silence and Cry, Miklós Jancsó (1968, Hungary). I’m a fan of Jancsó’s films, even if I don’t understand them half the time. Watching Silence and Cry, it felt like an early attempt at Red Psalm (see here), a film it precedes by four years. Like the later film it is set at the same farmhouse, and it has the same sort of flowing camera movement, following the cast as they move around. And, also like that film, the cast are never still. Even when in conversation, they continue to stroll around. However, Silence and Cry is set in 1919, not 1890, after a nationalist revolution against the communists in power. A troop of soldiers occupy the farm – it may be a village, as it contains several separate dwellings; I don’t know – unaware that one of the men who lives there was a member of a Communist battalion. For their own amusement, however, they force him to undergo demeaning trials. All of which comers to a head. Like Red Psalm, the characters are more stand-ins for the roles played by people in Hungary’s chequered past than they are actual characters. But given Jancsó’s predilection for filming against flat landscapes in which only sparsely scattered trees appear, or framing such landscapes in the doorways and windows of interior scenes, then their lack of depth seems entirely appropriate. Despite the staged fell to much of the story, Jancsó’s camera-work, almost continually on the move, gives the story a flow and urgency it would not other wise possess. As far as I’m concerned, Jancsó is one of the great directors. I’d definitely put him in my top ten greatest directors – in alphabetical order, at this moment in time, they’d probably be: Antonioni, Dreyer, Ghatak, Godard, Haneke, Hitchcock, Jancsó, Jia, Ozu and Sokurov (sadly, no female directors).

Colorful, Keiichi Hara (2010, Japan). David Tallerman lent me this as he seems to be on a mission to convince me anime is not all completely weird shit like Utena Revolutionary Girl (see here). I know that already, of course, but I’m not going to turn down the lend of a film worth watching. And, okay, I thought Colorful laid it on a bit thick, but it was a good film nonetheless. Some of the animation was really quite lovely. A soul is prevented from reaching heaven, and returned to earth to inhabit the body of a fourteen-year-old boy who has just committed suicide. A guardian angel tells him he has six months to figure what he did wrong in his former life, and to fix whatever led the boy whose body he is currently occupying to take his own life. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and after making a complete hash of everything – through a combination of his own self-centredness and his failure to make an effort to tackle the problems of his host body. Eventually, he is befriended by a fellow pupil, whose completely non-judgemental treatment of him, and indeed everyone, leads him to redemption… and the discoveries he needed to fulfil his contract with his guardian angel. Who offers him as a reward, a continued life, with no knowledge of the trial he has just undergone. I do like these sort of anime films – ie, the realistic dramas, not that the central premise of this one, with its A Matter of Life and Death conceit, is especially realistic – but when I worked my way through the Studio Ghibli films, I much preferred the high school drama ones, and that seems to be holding true for anime films in general.

Wanda*, Barbara Loden (1970, USA). I’m not sure why this made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It feels a bit like a John Cassavetes film – improvised, almost guerrilla film-making, about working-class Americans, very strong representation of women (I should like Cassavetes’s films more than I do) – but it’s not an ensemble piece, it’s not telling the story of a group, it’s telling the story of a single woman and it’s very much from her point of view, with entirely female gaze. That’s something you won’t find in Hollywood movies, and forty-seven years ago I suspect it was vanishingly rare in independent US film-making. The title refers to a woman who leaves her husband, does not contest custody of their kids at the divorce hearing, runs away with a one-night stand, only to be abandoned by him, before falling in with a bank robber and being forced by him to act as accomplice. For all that, like Cassavetes’s films, Wanda struck me as more admirable than likeable. Barbara Loden was best-known as an actress, and was married to critically-acclaimed and influential director Elia Kazan. But Wanda was made on a budget of $100,000, with a crew of four, and Loden as writer, director and star. That’s about as good a definition of vanity project as you can get. And, of course, not all vanity projects are ego trips with no redeeming qualities. I suspect Wanda is a more important film than a single viewing might suggest, and, of course, it doesn’t help that it’s a grim and depressing story… Apparently, Loden directed it because she could not interested anyone else – including Kazan – in doing so. It was critically well-received on release, but Loden died ten years later, at age 48, while preparing to direct her second feature film. After seeing Wanda, I must admit I’m now interested in seeing some of her other films roles.

Peking Opera Blues*, Tsui Hark (1986, China). I should have guessed what this film might be like since I knew the name Tsui Hark and had seen his Once Upon a Time in China (see here), but the title fooled me as I thought it might be more like Farewell My Concubine. It wasn’t. The story does feature Peking Opera, from which women were banned from performing, but it’s by no means the central plot. Peking Opera Blues is more of an action/comedy than it is a social drama. It’s set in the 1920s, and depicts the attempts by Sun Yat-Sen supporters to get hold of a document proving the emperor has borrowed money from Western bankers. The paper is held by a general, and his daughter is one of the supporters trying to steal it. Then there’s a young woman who had stolen a box of jewellery during a raid on another general’s house, but she lost it. While trying to hide from the general’s soldiers, the rebels hide out in an inn hosting a Peking Opera show. The impresario’s daughter gets caught up in the whole thing, helping to hide them, then assisting them in their several attempts to purloin the letter (did you see what I did there?). Other than the setting, and the three female leads, this is a typical Hong Kong action/comedy of the time. The fight scenes are good, there’s plenty of broad comedy, and the three leads – Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh – are especially good. But the final scenes set during a performance of the Peking opera troupe, in which the three women, and their male accomplices, have taken over some of the roles, is a lot of fun. I’m not sure if Peking Opera Blues deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – it’s a lot of fun, but is it there because it’s atypical for its type? Is that enough? Not, I think, when you consider all the films that belong on the list but aren’t there. Still, it’s worth watching.

A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan). This anime film I actually rented – only to discover after watching it that David Tallerman had stuck it on my watch list during one of our afternoons out in Shalesmoor. The story is relatively simple: a deaf girl joins a new school, is bullied by the other students, years later the biggest bully bumps into her, having spent years unable to deal with people because of guilt over how he treated her, and tries to kindle a friendship. Her willingness to forgive him, despite the the mockery of other members of the class whom he still runs into, helps him deal with his guilt, and he soon finds he can meet the gaze of other people – and they don’t much care about, or even know, what he did. However, the other members of that high school class are happy for him to carry the blame for their treatment of the deaf girl, and many still deny their own cruelty and hate him for forcing them to confront their own behaviour. There’s a lot about A Silent Voice that reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his latest, Your Name (see here), although A Silent Voice is straight-up drama that uses some elements that feel like genre to emphasise aspects of its story. Whereas Your Name uses a time-slip narrative, which is about as genre as you can get. Recommended.

Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK). The title refers to an area near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. A teenager, the son of the local vicar, is not liked by his peers, chiefly because he’s a priggish know-it-all whose ideas on religion appal his liberal low Anglican parents. The government is engaged in some secret project nearby – probably digging a secret nuclear bunker – and the locals have had several meetings on the topic, at which the chief opposition has been a playwright known for writing controversial television plays. The schoolboy, meanwhile, who is very irritating, has various fantastical encounters, including angels, Elgar, whose music features heavily, and eventually King Penda. This is good stuff – unassuming, but with real intelligence and depth. It was broadcast as a Play for Today in 1974, and written by David Rudkin. It’s very English, in the way that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood is very English, but it’s an England that’s as foreign to me as it would be to a non-Brit. My England is the run-down and neglected industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire. Their streets of terraced houses, mills and factories and works fallen into ruin, tap rooms and chip shops. The only mythology is that which attaches to generations of the same family working in the same industry. There are no sleeping kings at the bottom of a pit shaft. So I find films – or, technically, television plays – like Penda’s Fen almost as fascinating as I would a film set in, say, Mali, or China, or Greenland… Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 906

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Moving pictures 2017, #35

I was described recently as a “film nerd”, which felt wrong somehow. I’m a “film fan”, certainly. In much the same way I’m a science fiction fan. I’ve been a subscriber to Sight & Sound since the late 1990s, and when I’ve liked a director’s work I’ve tried to watch as much as their oeuvre as I can find. The first director for which I did this was Alfred Hitchcock. Back in the late 1990s, when I was living out in the Middle East, I visited the UK one leave, and bought two DVD box sets of his films – the box sets, in fact, I recently upgraded to Blu-ray. My taste in movies has changed a bit in the years since I bought those Hitchcock DVDs, so much so that I now have to look a bit further afield for the sort of films I like to watch. Although I do still think Hitchock is an excellent director. But sometimes – often – I have no choice except to purchase a copy from some obscure source, because it’s not available for rental, streaming, or in your local HMV. I don’t think that makes me a film nerd – although, to be fair, I do currently own rather a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays…

Cyclo*, Tran Anh Hung (1995, Vietnam). There is only one Vietnamese film on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s this one. I’ll admit I’ve seen very few Vietnamese films – in fact, this is only the second. Although, weirdly, it’s the second film I’ve seen by Tran – I reviewed his 2009 film, I Come with the Rain, actually a French film, for videovista.net several years ago. Anyway, I find it hard to believe the compilers of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list could find six films by Vincente Minnelli to include but only one from Vietnam. But it is, it must be said, a good one. The title refers to the profession of the main character – he pedals a bicycle taxi, or “cyclo”, about the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. He is not named throughout the film. His father died in a traffic accident some time before. He lives with his grandfather, who repairs bicycle tyres for a living, his older sister, who carries water in a local market, and his young sister, who shines shoes in local restaurants. They are dirt poor and pretty much live hand-to-mouth existence. But then the cyclo gets involved with gangsters, and his prospects start to look up. But it all goes horribly wrong when he is asked to kill someone but fails after overdosing on the drugs he was given to “calm him down”. This is all pretty grim stuff, and the way the lower levels of society prey on each other, facilitated by those with means, is hard to watch. At one point, the cyclo driver stops for a piss, and while he’s peeing against a fence, thieves run up and steal his cyclo. Given how much he depends on his cyclo, and how little he earns, and the fact hge doesn’t even own it but has paid a deposit to the owner of a cyclo company so he can use it… well, that’s pretty low. Of course, it’s always in the monied classes interests to have the lower classes fighting amongst themselves, because then they’re not fighting for what should rightfully be theirs. Cyclo certainly belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d like to have seen more films from Vietnam on it. I shall definitely be keeping my eye open for more movies from that country that I can watch.

Forever Amber, Otto Preminger (1947, USA). For some reason, I decided to work my way through Preminger’s oeuvre… and it’s not a bad oeuvre for a Hollywood director, especially a non-US-born Hollywood director (of which there were, and are, many). Although best known for noir movies, Preminger’s films are especially interesting because of their variety, and their varied levels of success at whatever he made – Preminger’s one Western for example, was River of Now Return (see here), which was something of a failure but is still quite an interesting film. And Forever Amber, despite being a historical romance based on a schlocky best-seller, is nearly an interesting film. The same might also be said of Preminger’s attempt at a Euro-thriller, Rosebud. But, Forever Amber… The title character is the adopted daughter of a farmer in seventeenth-century England. After the Restoration, Amber, now a sixteen-year-old beauty (played by the twenty-three-year-old Linda Darnell) meets a Cavalier captain, and follows him to London. She starts moving in high circles, but no sooner has she found wealth then she is conned out of it and sent to Newgate. Her cavalier captain, meanwhile, has been a given a ship and sent privateering. She breaks out of Newgate with a footpad, and the two go into partnership, she luring and he mugging fops in dark alleys. The Watch catch her, but the captain gets her a job as an actress so she won’t hang. An earl takes a fancy to her after seeing her on the stage and marries her. But she still pines for her absent cavalier captain… The film is an adaptation of a 1944 best-selling romance by Kathleen Winsor. It was her first novel. Wikipedia says of the book: “The fifth draft of Winsor’s first manuscript of Forever Amber was accepted for publication, but the publishers edited the book down to one-fifth of its original size. The resulting novel was 972 pages long.” WTF. Winsor went on to write a further seven novels, the first appearing six years after Forever Amber, and the last in 1986. It’s clear from Forever Amber, however, that she didn’t know much about seventeenth-century England. Rags to riches might be a romance staple plot, but Amber’s ups and downs beggar belief. And for a farm girl to end up married to an earl! While working as an actress! True, this is around the time Nell Gwynn first started appearing on stage  and later became the king’s mistress – but she was still under twenty and Amber would be almost a decade older. I suspect Gwynn might have been an inspiration for Amber. Even so, Gwynn’s career was far more… calculating than Amber’s history of lucky breaks. Foolishly, I went and bought a copy of the book on eBay for a couple of quid. One day, I might even get around to reading it.

A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, François Truffaut (1972, France). I’ve been enjoying the Truffaut films I’ve been watching, but this one was hard work in a way that made me think that perhaps it was me at fault. So I watched it again. And felt the same. I still don’t know why I bounced out of it, although I’m not apparently the only one to do so. A young sociologist arranges an interview with female inmate Camille Bliss, and records her as she tells her tale of woe – which is then presented in flashback. He decides she is innocent and finds sufficient evidence to prove her innocence, and she is duly released. After her release, Bliss becomes a singing star but a fling with the sociologist ends badly when her husband catches the two in the act. She kills her husband and frames the sociologist. Who is then sent to prison for the crime. I’m not sure why I didn’t click with A Gorgeous Girl Like Me. The more Truffaut I’ve been watching, the more I’ve come to appreciate his films. But not all of them. The Last Metro I thought a bit dull, despite a good story and high-powered cast. Shoot the Pianist I decided was the New-Wavest film that ever New-Waved. Day for Night had bags of charm, and Mississippi Mermaid had bags of gallic cachet. But A Gorgeous Girl Like Me just seemed to fall flat. Perhaps it was the self-centredness of Bliss, or the fact that some of her adventures just didn’t ring true, or even plausible. Fortunately, I went and bought The François Truffaut Collection on Blu-ray, which includes A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, so I’ll be able to watch it again and decide wther it really does work for me or not…

Miss Hokusai, Keiichi Hara (2015, Japan). I think it’s pretty clear who recommended this film, if not actually added it to my LoveFilm rental list one afternoon in the pub. The title refers to the daughter of the historically-famous artist, who was a reknowned artist in her own right. There is no plot as such to the film, just a series of incidents from her life. Some of them are fantastical, like the one where her father recounts a series of dreams where his hands sort of astral-project and travel all over the city, and he tells this to a famous oiran whose face, it transpires, astral projects while she is asleep. The animation is mostly very attractive, although there’s a lot of that anime-style mugging whose appeal bounces off me. In particular, there’s a student who works in Hokusai’s studio who’s played for laughs, and the comedy doesn’t work for me. The visiting artist who’s put forward as a love interest was a much more interesting character. Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the film works against it, because while it’s very nice to look at, and the characters quite clear, none of it is in service to a plot. True, I’ve not seen a great deal of anime, but I’ve seen a number of anime feature films I’ve thought very good – good enough, in fact, to pick up copies for myself. Miss Hokusai was somewhere around in the bottom of the top third, I think – much better than meh, but not quite really good.

Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade (2016, Germany). I had this on my rental list after hearing positive things about it (Sight & Sound were very complimentary, I seem to recall), but then discovered it was free on Amazon Prime. Result. And… it was one of those films which are quite obviously good, but you’re not sure if you’re enjoying it much. One minute, it’s engaging; the next you wonder why you’re watching it. But then, after it’s over, you decide on balance that it was actually a pretty good film. The title refers to someone who does not exist. A man in his sixties, a bit of a slob and a practical joker, decides that his workaholic daughter, currently working as a consultant on an asset-stripping project in Romania, needs to lighten up. Well, ostensibly, she’s helping a Romanian oil company outsource the maintenance of its oil refineries, but we all know that’s the first step in selling off national assets cheap to plutocrats so they can profit at the taxpayers’ expense… Anyway, he travels out to visit his daughter, but his presence is not really welcome – nor is it helped by him playing silly jokes, like handcuffing himself to his daughter and losing the key. So he leaves. Except he doesn’t. The day after, he introduces himself to the daughter and two of her friends in a restaurant, wearing a wig and false teeth, as “Toni Erdmann”. And he continues to pop up. It’s clear everyone thinks he’s a complete buffoon, but they’re not really sure if they should take him at his word, no matter how implausible it often is. And that’s part of the problem with the film, because Erdmann is a comic character who’s not all that comical. He’d be tragicomic, except there’s no tragedy here, only a father-daughter relationship that has eroded over time to almost nothing, and is now being strained by his intrusion into her life. But, of course, something has to give, and in Toni Erdmann it’s her resistance to his buffoonery and attempts to rebuild their relationship. Despite that, Toni Erdmann never manages to feel like a, er, “feel good” film. It makes for a weird disconnect, and it only really succeeds because everyone plays their part completely straight. A good film, but it takes a while before you realise it.

Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). I wasn’t sure what to make of Pasolini after seeing two of his films, but after watching Arabian Nights I think I have a better handle on his work, and I sort of like it, but I’m still not entirely convinced… If that makes sense. Arabian Nights has been described as the best cinema adaptation of (some of the stories in) The Arabian Nights. It’s true that it keeps the nested narrative structure of many of the stories, which is confusing enough when reading them… although Pasolini somehow manages not to confuse the viewer. And the locations in the film – Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and Nepal – are fantastic. Arabian Nights looks fabulous, but… like the other Pasolini films I’ve seen, the acting seems amateurish at best, the plotting somewhat haphazard, and the dialogue often just repeats what is plain to see there on the screen. But everything looks so, well, appropriate to the story, so much more so than in, say, The Thief of Bagdad from 1924, with its ersatz Arabian studio sets and made-up script standing in for Arabic (or Farsi). And yet, although the cover art suggests Arabian Nights is pure spectacle, it never quite seems like it. I’m not sure how Pasolini manages it, but there’s power in his films and that overcomes all the bits that don’t add up – the acting, the dialogue, the plotting. Also, Pasolini seems to like long shots, and I’m a sucker for long shots. Whatever the reason, I really liked Arabian Nights. Pasolini has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but this isn’t one of them; I think it should be. There’s a Blu-ray collection of six films by Pasolini available from the BFI, only two of which I’ve seen, Arabian Nights and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  I’m sorely tempted by it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 872