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Moving pictures 2019, #9

This is the last-but-one post about movies I watched in the UK, and I’m typing this in Uppsala. I’d expected to be able to blog more after my move, especially given how bad Swedish TV is – I had to watch Midsomer Murders! twice! – but getting up to speed in a new job is pretty hard work and when I get home, I end up just watching stuff on my laptop from Amazon Prime. Or reading. And I’m spending the weekends exploring the town and learning how to shop in Swedish supermarkets…

The Sea Shall Not Have Them, Lewis Gilbert (1954, UK). I think this was a lazy Sunday watch. Well, a moment of laziness in between packing boxes of books. I found it on Amazon Prime, and it’s a fairly typical film of its type and time – ie, a post-WW2 British film about the plucky British during WW2 – although it by no means paints every character as a paragon. The title is the motto of the Air Sea Rescue Services, a branch of the RAF which was responsible for rescuing the crews of aircraft downed in the seas around the UK. It later became the Search and Rescue Force, before being privatised – by the Tories, of course – in 2015. The Tories once again putting lives at risk in pursuit of profit. Scumbags. But back during WW2, it was still part of the armed forces. The film follows the crew of an ASRS fast motor launch, set to rescue the crew of a  bomber which was forced to ditch in the Channel. On board the bomber is an air commodore with secret Nazi plans detailing the successor to the V-2. So the rescue is urgent. Unfortunately, the launch’s crew are not the plucky exceptional Brits assorted folk these days would have you believe of the Greatest Generation. The newest member of the crew is next to useless and manages to set fire to the kitchen while making a cup of tea, nearly scuppering the boat. The engineer is lazy and claims to have done work he hasn’t done. The bomber crew are no better – Dirk Bogarde’s character stole a jerrycan of petrol he found at the side of the road and is afraid he will be imprisoned for it (and, yes, they’ve already found it in the boot of his car). The motor launch breaks down – thanks to the aforementioned engineer’s laziness – and the bomber crew have no way of reporting their position… but a rescue is eventually managed and all concerned return home to a hero’s welcome. Although pretty formulaic, it’s interesting how the characters are shown to be entirely ordinary and flawed. From the perspective of 70 years later, we can all too easily forget that – especially with WW2 currently being misrepresented by politicians and press for their own ends.

Clash, Mohamed Diab (2016, Egypt). Remember the Arab Spring and how it looked like the world was actually going to change for the better? Maghrebi regimes were going down  in flames, and while some nations descended into civil war, others looked like real change might happen. And perhaps real change  did occur in some cases – although not what the west wanted, and not always a step forward. Egypt, of course, had it bad, when widespread protests led to President Mubarak’s resignation and the seizure of power by the military. A new president was elected, but he included the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in his government and that led to further protests. Clash is set during those protests and takes place entirely in the back of a police Black Maria. A group of people have been arrested for suspected Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, and imprisoned in the back of a police truck. Half of them are entirely innocent and were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other half are actual members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it takes a while before they reveal it. Meanwhile, the prisoners witness the violence on the streets through the barred windows of the truck. It’s a cleverly-done film, keeping the story claustrophobic and personal, but positioning what happens in the truck as just one small, and mostly irrelevant, aspect of wider events. Given the impact of the overthrow of Mubarak, it’s no surprise it’s proven a popular subject for Egyptian cinema, and, like the US and its Vietnam War, exploring the ramifications of those events in their culture may well be part of a healing process. Um, does that mean we’ll be inundated with movies about Trump after the US finally gets rid of him? I hope not. Anyway, watch Clash. Recommended.

The Gamekeeper, Ken Loach (1980, UK). Apparently this film has been unavailable for a number of years, until being included in the pictured collection. Which is a shame, as it’s one of his better ones. It’s a lightly-plotted social drama, more of a documentary, than a narrative film, despite being based on a novel by Barry Hines (one of three adaptations of Hines’s novels by Loach, the best-known of which is Kes). The Gamekeeper is pretty much as its title indicates: events in the life of the eponymous man,  who works for one of the aristocracy. Mostly it’s about him dealing with other workers on the estate, and his son’s troubles at school. The final section of the film, the gamekeeper assists at grouse shoot (or it may have been pheasants, I’ve no interest in landed gentry brutally killing animals or birds, and no, it’s not a sport). The peer and his friends show all the condescension and arrogance you’d expect of the aristocracy, especially when the gamekeeper proves a little too loud and crude when beating. Personally, I’d sooner the birds had the guns and shot at the hooray henrys. Everything in the film is in Yorkshire dialect, and given that Hines was from Barnsley and set most of his fiction there… Several reviews online describe the aristocrat as a duke, but I don’t think there are any ducal seats in South Yorkshire, so it’s likely the family in the film are invented. Not that it matters. Loach has produced an important body of work, and if some films are better than others, that’s hardly unexpected. This was one of the good ones.

Antariksham 9000 KMPH, Sankalp Reddy (2018, India). I could describe this as a Telugu Gravity, and that would sort of be true. But it wouldn’t really get across the experience of watching it. And, to be fair, only the last act of Antariksham 9000 KMPH takes place in orbit. It’s also wrapped in a pretty standard Indian cinema romance narrative. Which is not entirely expected in a story about a satellite in a decaying orbit about to cause all manner of orbital destruction… The man responsible for said satellite resigned from the Indian Space Research Organisation after his wife was killed in a car crash. He was driving. He was also on the phone to a technician at mission control, trying to sort out a technical problem with the satellite, when he lost control of his car. Unfortunately, there’s doesn’t appear to have been much of a handover, and the satellite – lost since that incident – has reappeared and is about to cause untold damage in orbit, which would in turn cause everything to come crashing down to Earth, killing millions. And the only man who can prevent this is… the aforementioned engineer who resigned. So they have to persuade him to return to the ISRO fold. And they have to put a crewed mission together to go up into orbit to fix the satellite in situ – which is where it all gets a bit Gravity. Although this is a Telugu-language film, it’s  also an Indian one, so there are a couple of musical numbers but they’re quite restrained. The special effects in the third act are done quite well, but the plot and acting is so OTT it’s hard to tell. This is not a film you can take seriously, despite its subject. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun. But if you start watching it expecting another Gravity, you’ll be disappointed – it doesn’t even get into orbit until the third act, for one thing. But it’s free to watch on Amazon Prime, so it’s worth a go if you’ve got that.

Story of a Love Affair, Michelangelo Antonioni (1950, Italy). This was Antonioni’s first feature film, and was apparently based on The Postman Always Ring Twice. A private investigator in Milan is asked to investigate a woman by her wealthy husband. The investigator discovers the wife had before moving to Milan been involved with a man whose fiancée had died after falling down a lift-shaft. And then that man turns up in Milan, and he and the wife end up in an affair, while the investigator and husband dig deeper into the suspicious death of the fiancée. I love Antonioni’s films but I’m not so enamoured of his early work. Perhaps Il Grido (see here) show some of the signature techniques he would later use, but Story of a Love Affair come across more like an unholy cross between Italian Neorealism and US noir. And, to be honest, the French did US noir much better. True, some noir has always had that air of cinema verité, and the Neorealist elements of Story of a Love Affair enhance that aspect… but it’s all very much a drama-turned-thriller, or perhaps the reverse, and though it works well I suspect I found it disappointing because I was expecting a more, well, Antonioni-esque film. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 937

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Moving pictures 2019, #4

Not so varied nationally a half-dozen this time. But content-wise there’s plenty of variety…

You’ll Never Get Rich, Sidney Lanfield (1941, USA). My mother found a Rita Hayworth box set in a charity shop and lent it me because I like Hollywood films from the first half of the twentieth century. Plus, it included a couple of stone-cold classics – Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai – I wanted to watch again. You’ll Never Get Rich, a Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth vehicle I’d not seen before, turned out to be minor work from both. Astaire looks almost skeletal in it, and he’s about as far through as a kipper in pretty much all of his films. Theatre owner Robert Benchley (an excellent comic actor of the time) has designs on showgirl Rita Hayworth and enlists star of the show Fred Astaire to pretend to be Hayworth’s boyfriend to hide Benchley’s interest from his wife. But then WWII comes along and Astaire enlists and, for reasons I forget, masquerades as an officer in order to spend time with Hayworth, who he now fancies himself. Apparently, Astaire’s career had started to flag after he split he split with Ginger Rogers – why split? she was brilliant – but teaming up with Hayworth gave his career a boost, although he only made two films with her. He still claims her as his best partner, and she certainly kept up with him – but I can’t say Hayworth was better than Rogers, because Hayworth may have been an excellent dancer but Rogers was a perfect foil to Astaire. This is not a great film, and a pretty forgettable one from either star, each of whom has plenty of memorable ones in their oeuvres. One for fans.

Poor Cow, Ken Loach (1967, UK). My plan to work my way through Loach’s oeuvre is going to have to go on hold when I move to Sweden – unless I buy one of the several Ken Loach box sets currently available. The problem is, I watch his films and for each film I like, there’s another I’m not so keen on. So while I’m glad I watched Cathy Come Home, I didn’t really like it; but Poor Cow I did like quite a lot. Even though its story is broadly the same. It was Loach’s first feature film. The title refers to a young woman who is married to an habitual criminal. When he’s sent down for an inept jewellery shop robbery, she moves in with one of his mates (Terence Stamp, and the footage of him from this film was used in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey). But then Stamp gets sent down for twelve years after a violent robbery on an old woman, and the young woman returns to her husband. But she dreams of a future with Stamp. The film was very much made in a documentary style, with improvised dialogue, real locations, and non-actors in several roles. The London tenements in which the title character lives were a revelation – for all that the UK claims to be a leading nation the fact people lived in such poor conditions in its capital halfway through the twentieth century is disgusting. Fortunately, they were knocked down and social housing constructed in their place. And then Maggie and her goons sold those all off for a quick buck, and developers have flattened them and built luxury towers that sit empty because one-percenters are using them as tax dodges or for laundering money… Meanwhile, you have scumbag Tories trying push through a law making it acceptable for rental properties to not be fit for human habitation… Fuckers. Anyway, Poor Cow is one of the Loach films I thought good. Worth seeing.

What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (2014, New Zealand). There were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, unexpected in a MCU film, and though I’d liked his Hunt for the Wilderpeople (see here), I wasn’t sure I was on the same wavelength for his humour. And the first ten minutes or so of What We Do in the Shadows seemed to demonstrate as much… But then the central conceit started to come together, there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and I found the film a lot funnier and more enjoyable than I’d expected. It’s a mockumentary about a household of vampires in present-day Wellington. Waititi himself plays the main character. There’s an ancient vampire who lives in the cellar and does not speak, a fourteenth-century Transylvanian played by Jemaine Clement, and a “much trendier” vampire who is “only” 183 years old. But then one of the group goes and turns a local man into a vampire, who had originally been intended as prey, and he tells all his mates he’s a vampire. Including Stu, his best mate. Who he introduces to the rest of the group, and they really like him. At several points, the vampires bump into a pack of werewolves, led by Rhys Darby, and I have to admit they had some of the best lines in the film – “We’re werewolves not swearwolves” had me giggling for a good ten minutes. Worth seeing.

Mortal Engines, Christian Rivers (2018, New Zealand). The book on which this is based has been around since 2001, and while I’ve known of it pretty much since it was published, I’ve never read it. Because it’s YA. I am in my fifties. I am not the target market for YA fiction. I wasn’t even back in 2001. But I knew of Mortal Engines, and I knew of its mobile cities. Which is about all this film has going for it. Because the plot is pretty much identical to the first Star Wars film. Even down to the X-Wing attack on the Death Star. London is a major predator city, but its chief scientist dreams of conquering Shan Guo (China), a rich land without mobile cities. Fortunately, as is the way of such things, a pair of hardy teens, well, early twenties, appear and thwart his plans. There’s the daughter of a scientist who opposed the villain, and the junior historian who initially foils the former’s attempt on the villain’s life, only to be ejected from London because he knows too much. And the two form a reluctant alliance in order to stop London’s plans to destroy Shan Guo’s Shield Wall… Much of the film is travelogue, and the pair move around the world, trying to reach allies. At one point, they’re captured by slavers and put up for sale. Why do so many sf novels – and films – feature slavery? Seriously. It’s vile and does not belong in any work of fiction that is not explicitly about it, historical or contemporary. There’s no commentary on slavery in Mortal Engines – the nearest it gets is implying the two heroes might be purchased by a butcher so he can make sausages out of them. Cannibalism is hardly fit for comic relief during a slave auction. It’s not like the world of the film is some sort of US post-apocalypse dystopia (yes, I know Reeve is British). A villain who pushes ahead with his plan, ignoring the human cost or obvious consequences is one thing; but it’s well past time sf stopped building worlds that feature slavery – and yes, I know I’m 18 years too late with this book (assuming the scene even appears in the book).

Bohemian Rhapsody, Bryan Singer (2018, USA). I know, I shouldn’t watch films by Bryan Singer – although by all accounts he was taken off this project fairly quickly and it was mostly shot by Dexter Fletcher. But at least I don’t plan to shortlist him for any fucking awards. As it is, Bohemian Rhapsody is, well, dull. And not very good. The only thing about it that impressed was its CGI reconstruction of the old Wembley Stadium (which had been around since 1923, which I hadn’t known). Rami Malek pulls off Freddie Mercury quite well, but all we know of Mercury is his public persona and that was pretty much a caricature. Seems a bit pointless to award an actor for playing a role that was pretty much an act. And then there’s the music. I probably know most of Queen’s songs but I don’t own a single album by them. They’re… okay. I can listen to them without cringing, but I wouldn’t spend money on them. Fortunately for the film, there’s plenty of the band’s music on display – because that’s all the band has going for it: Mercury aside, they’re not very interesting people. Unfortunately, the film makes some strange choices about chronology. It has the band upset at Mercury recording a solo album, when Roger Taylor had already recorded two and Brian May one by that point. It changes the timing on when Mercury told the band he had AIDS, which completely changes the impact of the revelation. And, by all accounts, it doesn’t do a good job of presenting Mercury’s relationships. It doesn’t seem to know if it’s supposed to be a biopic or a rock musical, which means it varies wildly in tone. Putting it on the Oscars shortlist is a travesty.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T, Roy Rowland (1953, USA). I remember seeing some of this film many years ago, I think when I was at school, back in the 1980s, but it may have been later, perhaps when I was at university. I don’t recall the details. I certainly knew of the film, and I knew it was bat-shit bonkers. So when I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, I had no choice but to watch it. And it proved so much more bonkers than I’d supposed, and so much better. The plot is simple: a young boy objects to his piano lessons – he is following a course by Dr Terwiliker – and meanwhile is trying to matchmake between his widowed mother and the local plumber. He has a dream in which he finds himself in a strange world where he and 499 other children – the 5000 fingers, you see – are forced to play an insanely long keyboard by dictator Dr Terwiliker. The sets were clearly designed by someone who was on acid, the script was written by Dr Seuss, and the actors play their roles with a wholesome earnestness that is pure 1950s Disney but completely out of place. And it’s a musical. It is fantastic. And Dr Terwiliker’s song, ‘Doe-Me-Doe Duds’, is near genius. Check out these lyrics:

I want my undulating undies with the maribou frills!
I want my beautiful bolero with the porcupine quills!
I want my purple nylon girdle with the orange blossom buds
Cause I’m going doe-me-doe-ing in my doe-me-doe duds!

And the song finishes with:

So come and dress me in the blossoms of a million pink trees!
Come on and dress me up in liverwurst! and camembert cheese!
Come on and dress me up in pretzels, dress me up in bock beer suds! Cause I’m gooooo-ing
doe-me-dooooooooo-ing
in my doe-me-doe duds!

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T has recently been released on dual format by Powerhouse films. I might get myself a copy…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #66

Another somewhat eclectic bunch of movies, although only one counts as Extruded Hollywood Product. Even worse, it’s Extruded Marvel Hollywood Product. But I actually enjoyed it. It came across mostly as a piss-take, which is a definite improvement over the po-faced bollocks of the Avengers films…

Venom, Ruben Fleischer (2018, USA). As is the case with 90% of the current MCU output these days, I’m coming to this with little or no knowledge of the original comic incarnation. To be honest, I had thought Venom was a Spider-Man villain, although I’ve no idea why, but Spider-Man doesn’t appear here and the story is set entirely in San Francisco and Spider-Man lives in New York city. Tom Hardy plays an internet investigative journalist who pisses off the wrong person once too often – in this case, it’s Musk-like zillionaire Riz Ahmed, who seems to have the secret of interstellar flight which no one on planet Earth in 2018, er, actually has. But, WTF, this is MCU. People with fucking superpowers. So a “space shuttle” that apparently visits an exoplanet, even though no one has apparently colonised Mars, or even spread out into the galaxy, seems completely unremarkable. Unfortunately, said mission to the exoplanet has brought back some sort of weird alien life form. Which escapes and inhabits Tom Hardy’s body. Turning him into Venom, a superhero/supervillain. Sort of. Another alien parasite inhabits Ahmed, turning him into Riot, who is just the same as Venom but, well, bad. It’s all completely risible, but the filmmakers seemed to recognise that and there’s a nice line in piss-take throughout the movie, which is to be honest the only thing that makes it watchable. Thank fuck Joss Whedon didn’t make it. It would be unwatchable. Venom is not a great film. It’s mildly amusing, Hardy puts in a performance judged to a nicety, and the banter is unexpectedly better than is typical for a MCU movie. Unfortunately, the CGI is unexpectedly worse than is typical for a MCU film. Which is the only thing that spoils an otherwise entertaining 112 minutes.

Departures, Yōjirō Takita (2008, Japan). My mother lent me this, and one of these days I’ll persuade her to watch a film by Yasujiro Ozu… But for now, she’s the one lending me Japanese films. and quite odd ones at that. (Take that, David Tallerman.) Departures is a bout a young man who leaves Tokyo when the orchestra in which he was a cellist is disbanded, and in his home town he answers a job ad and becomes someone who prepares bodies for “encoffinment”, usually in front of the family of the deceased. Apparently, this is not an actual Japanese practice – or rather, it is not a separate career, as it’s normally performed by the funeral directors. But in the film, it’s a real job. Takita makes it clear this is not a run-of-the-mill occupation, opening with the dressing of a transgender person, and in which the dressers’ sensitive treatment defuses the obvious tensions in the room. It’s people’s response to the protagonist’s choice of career which drives the film – it’s seen as a slightly shameful job, although as is always the case in such films, attitudes soon change. While not an especially memorable film, Departures struck me as a well-played drama.

Space Raiders, Howard R Cohen (1983, USA). I don’t normally bother to document crap films, even science fiction ones, but Space Raiders is one of several movies Roger Corman cobbled together out of the special-effects footage from Battle Beyond the Stars. And, to be honest, I’m sort of conflicted about how I view Battle Beyond the Stars. Actually, I’m not. I liked it for many years, but I have to admit it is actually shit. It’s The Magnificent Seven in space – and, shockingly, one of them is a woman – and it’s a cheap piece of crap, albeit with some nice model work. And it’s the latter which resurfaces in Space Raiders. Who, as the title suggest, raid a base, only to discover a stowaway aboard: the son of the base’s commander. But they take a shine to him, and while ostensibly holding him for ransom, they look after him, even saving him from a plot by the alien controller of that space opera perennial the lawless where-pirates-meet-up space station that only seems to exist in brainless space operas. Oh wait, I committed a tautology. But you know what I mean. Having said all that, even for New World Pictures Space Raiders is weak sauce. The studio famously tried to make as many feature films as it could out of its rip-off material. Space Raiders is definitely New Worlds second-tier, although for me the studio will never exceed the greatness that is Queen of Blood.

Schloss Vogelöd, FW Murnau (1921, Germany). I do like Murnau’s films, although a friend thinks them over-rated. And it wasn’t until I watched this film I though he might be right. A hunting party at the eponymous secluded schloß is kept in by constant rain. An uninvited guest turns up, uninvited because it’s believed he shot his older brother and so became sole heir of the family fortune. To make matters worse, his brother’s widow also turns up to the schloß, which sort of makes things a bit icky. Flashbacks show that the widow’s marriage wasn’t as smooth as she claims, but also casts doubt on the brother’s guilt. While the film is well-shot, and some of the close-ups are really quite astonishing in their detail, at 70 minutes the story feels stretched beyond its natural length. Had it been made 20 or 30 years later, with, you know, sound, perhaps the slower scenes – and there are plenty of them – might have been a bit more interesting. But when you have characters sitting around mouthing silently, with only the occasional revelation or plot twist, attention quickly flags. Of course, the cinema experience was entirely different back in 1921, and while I don’t believe attention spans are actually any shorter now than they used to be, film audiences in 2017 have been trained over several decades to watch movies in an entirely different way to audiences in 1921. I do like Murnau’s films, but watching them is definitely an exercise in experiencing an historical document – some more so than others…

Women, Stanley Kwan (1985, China). This is one of many Shaw Brothers films that have been dumped on Amazon Prime. It is also Chow Yun-Fat’s first starring role. And Kwan’s first go at director. Make of that what you will. Which is, er, probably not much. Cora Miao plays a newly-divorced wife who is trying to make a new life for herself and meets up at regular intervals with a group of female friends. Who occasionally bring along male friends. Mostly to treat them in a nicely subversive way, much as men would treat women. But the woman’s husband, play by Yun-Fat, is not so quick to let his wife go. Women is a film that wears its time of making firmly on its sleeve. I’ve watched a number of films that were more 1980s than this one – and it’s strange but I’ve yet to see a film not made in the 1980s, but set then, that has managed to be 1980s – which is a long-winded way of saying that Women is very 1980s. But unless you’re a fan of the 1980s, I can’t really recommend this one.

Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach (1966,UK). In British television history, this is an important work. The fact its message has been entirely ignored – if not at that time, then almost certainly this century – seems almost incidental. As does the fact the heartless government during which its story takes place is Labour. Tories are evil scum. That’s a fact. But Labour have done their best over the decades to match them. Corbyn will in all likelihood make a crap prime minister, but he’ll make a better one than any Tory. But why bother? British politics has fuck-all to do with what either party will actually do, only with some rose-tinted view of what they’re supposed to have done in the past… A young couple end up homeless because the wife becomes pregnant and the husband is injured at work. They’re forced to leave their flat because of the baby and… It all sounds like the heartless consequences of Tory social policies – and in the twenty-first century that would almost certainly be true. But, as mentioned earlier, at the time Cathy Come Home was broadcast, Harold Wilson was prime minister and Labour had been in power for two years. But then, when you compare Cathy Come Home and I, Daniel Blake… The latter film is more immediately affecting because it shows the consequences of evil policies we can see for ourselves pretty much anywhere in the UK. The earlier film might well have been the first people saw of Labour’s policies of the time but, because they couldn’t map the experiences of Cathy and her husband onto what they thought they knew of the country… Of course, some people have been quite vocal in expressing a similar disconnect with I, Daniel Blake – but they’ve all been entitled Tory wankers, like Toby Young. Cathy Come Home is considered a landmark piece of television, but it does feel like its message has been lost over the decades since it was first broadcast. I, Daniel Blake, on the other hand, is an equally important film, but it feels like its message has been lost in only a year or two, or has been wilfully ignored…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933


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Moving pictures 2018, #7

Things don’t change overnight, much as we’d want them to. Okay, so I did manage to post a rant about science fiction on this blog recently… but I’m still watching – more or less – a movie a night, and most of those I think worth documenting. So the Moving pictures posts haven’t quite dialled back as much as I’d expected. And I’m still a little behind with getting them up on the blog. But I hope to be in a position to basically post one a week, with content covering other topics either side. But, like everything, it’s a work in progress…

Black Jack, Ken Loach (1979, UK). I have Loach all over my rental list because I think he’s a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring, even if not every film he made is actually any good (also true of many directors, to be fair). But then David Tallerman texted me, “Have you seen Black Jack?”, and I hadn’t so I moved it up my rental list. And lo, it appeared in the next set of discs. Which happens sometimes. Black Jack is based on a 1968 children’s novel of the same title by Leon Garfield, although I’m not sure the film was aimed at children per se. It’s set in 1750 in Yorkshire. A well-off couple, Quality in other words, hand their daughter over to a pair of doctors who run a sanatorium, because the daughter is unmanageable – there are hints it’s mental illness, but in other parts of the film it seems to be behavioural. Meanwhile, a lad is paid to look after the corpse of the title character by a “Tyburn widow”, a woman who bribed the men who fetched the bodies of criminals from the gallows so she could display the dead men in her front-room and charge money for the privilege of viewing it. But Black Jack is not dead. And he escapes, taking the boy with him. After helping a stuck coach, Black Jack conceives the idea of boobytrapping a ford so travellers would require his help. For a fee. And the first coach he waylays is the one carrying the two doctors and the daughter… The boy and the daughter escape and join a travelling medicine show. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast search for the missing daughter… This is low-budget film-making at its best. Although set nearly 230 years before it was made, Loach manages to present a convincing eighteenth-century England. The main actors, who are all teenagers, are uniformly good in their roles, although none of them went on to greater fame. And yet it all feels a bit like a Children’s Film Foundation movie – no bad thing, it must be said – although I don’t believe it was made as one. It has that sort of sophisticated approach to telling a story through film coupled with a really low budget that characterised a lot of CFF films. I thought it really good – and I hope that was why David texted to me to ask if I’d seen it…

Manderlay, Lars von Trier (2005, Denmark). I really didn’t like von Trier’s Dogville, and Manderlay is the sequel to it, so why, I hear you ask, would I want to watch this film? Okay, I picked it up for 99p for a charity shop, so it was worth a punt… But… I have a lot of time for von Trier as a film-maker, even if I really don’t like some of his films. He has a very interesting oeuvre. And while I didn’t like the rape and violence in Dogville, I thought the use of black box theatre staging a fascinating way to present the story. The good news is that Manderlay uses the same black box theatre staging. The bad news is that the story is possibly even worse. Grace Mulligan, played in Dogville by Nicole Kidman but now by Bryce Dallas Howard, passes by the eponymous Alabama plantation on her way home from Dogville. A woman approaches them and tells them a man is about to be whipped for stealing a bottle of wine. They enter the plantation and discover that slavery still seems to pertain within its borders. Except not really. The owner’s ancestor had emancipated his slaves, but they chose to continuing living as slaves because… well, because… I don’t know. Is von Trier trying to say they were so unsophisticated they had no idea what emancipation meant, or that they could be hoodwinked into believing they were better off unemancipated? And that it need a crusading young female like Grace Mulligan to teach them the error of their ways? Which she fails to do, because they seem bizarrely sceptical of freedom, as if the institution of slavery were no more than the Stanford Experiment writ large, which is, quite frankly, deeply offensive. As I said earlier, von Trier is an interesting film-maker, and the staging of Manderlay as black box theatre is certainly interesting… but the story is such a bad take on slavery it’s almost impossible to watch… and you have to wonder if that was deliberate, and if so, why would someone make a film that was difficult to watch? Unless von Trier was daft enough to think that black box theatre was the only “difficult” element of the film… It’s not like Manderlay could be categorised as a noble failure. It’s an awful film, made in an interesting way – and I can’t think of a phrase that might make that description palatable, or any reason why I should think of a phrase to make it palatable. It’s a film best avoided, but you shouldn’t write off von Trier because of it.

That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel (1977, France). I’m not a big Buñuel fan, although I’ve watched a number of his films. Um… checks records, discovers it’s actually ten Buñuel movies… A few of them I thought really good. But my finger sort of slipped on a near-monopolistic online retailer just after Christmas, and I ended up buying the Buñuel: The Essential Collection because some of the movies in it I’d not seen, and some of them I wanted to see again. The most recent film in the box set – it was actually Buñuel’s final film – is That Obscure Object of Desire, which was one I’d not seen. Initially, it appeared much like his other films from the 1970s – the same actors, the same presentation, the same sort of story… But like those other 1970s films it had that, well, genius twist that made it much more than the sum of its parts. That Obscure Object of Desire opens with Fernando Rey leaving Seville by train. A young woman tries to join the train, but he throws a bucket of water over her. He explains to the passengers in his compartment that he had been seduced by a woman called Conchita. The genius element of That Obscure Object of Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Caroline Bouquet and Angela Molina, who play the character entirely differently – at different random times during the film. Rey is an unreconstructed 1970s male, and the film is presented from his viewpoint, but the use of two actresses as Conchita highlights their side of the story and so demonstrates the one-sidedness of Rey’s narrative. These films by Buñuel are not especially striking in the way they are filmed – the staging seems fairly unexemplary, to be honest – but the stories Buñuel chose to tell using cinema are excellent. Some are even pure genius. Not this one, perhaps; although it makes a series of pointed observations because of its peculiar presentation. I had bought this box set on a bit of a whim, having liked some of the films in it. But now I own it, and have seen more of its contents, I’m starting to realise it’s a bloody good collection to own. These are fascinating films and worth seeing.

Die Austernprinzessin, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I bought this collection during Eureka’s Boxing Day sale, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Okay, so I am interested in early European silent cinema – which pretty much means early silent German cinema, and directors like Lubitsch, Lang. Murnau, and even Dreyer, who was Danish but made several silent films in Germany. The princess of the title – it translates as “The Oyster Princess” – is the heiress to a millionaire who built his fortune on oysters, and she is deeply unhappy that a rival will be married before her. So her father promises to find her a more impressive husband, and employs a matchmaker to do just that. And he finds an impoverished prince who is more than happy to marry a millionaire’s daughter… The film is apparently a comedy, although other than an element of slapstick to some of the action sequences, it’s hard to see why. True, it’s taking the piss out of the rich, and the American rich in particular, as the characters are all American – but that makes it new money which is the object of derision, as is explicitly shown in the fact an impoverished prince is seen as suitable marriage material. It feels like the film’s targets are just too obvious and over-used. I suspect even in 1919, they were obvious and over-used. The excessive consumption of the US, and its desire for validation by old world aristocracy, is lampooned to a ridiculous extent – there’s a scene, for example, in which a small carriage is pulled by ten horses, nine of which have liveried riders. The daughter is played by Ossi Oswalda, who is even more peremptory than she was in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it’s clear why she was such a popular star at the time – both the humour and drama are broad, and she plays them broad. But she is good on the screen, and looks to be having a great deal of fun, which is infectious. Die Austernprinzessin is probably the least satisfactory of the films I’ve watched so far from the collection – its humour felt too obvious, and there was nothing in its staging whcih made it stand out, other than a propensity to play every joke to the hilt. Watchable, certainly; but not especially memorable.

Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo (2016, Canada). I really liked Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, but I’d heard mixed reports about this one, his first film made outside Spain. And, let’s face it, the story didn’t sound like all that prepossessing – woman with a drink problem who works in a bar discovers when she walks through a playground the morning after finishing work, a monster appears in Seoul and apes her movements. I mean, how does that work? What does it mean? The answer to the first is: bizarre lightning strike. The answer to the second is: well, I suspect the only metaphor in action here is so obvious that most viewers would discount it: woman destroys Seoul like she destroys her own life. I mean, really? None of this is helped by having Anne Hathaway, a well-known actress, in the lead role. She is good, no doubt about that; but the rest of the cast are nobodies (so to speak) so she stands out. Things get complicated when the bar owner, and old friend, discovers that he materialises in Seoul as a giant robot. And he’s less concerned about hurting Koreans. So where Hathaway’s monster apologises for her actions, his robot goes on a rampage – and she is forced to fight him to stop him. To some extent, Colossal feels like an extended comedy sketch without a punchline. The fact that it’s well-played and the sections set in Seoul look really good seem immaterial. Meh.

Border, Alessio Cremonini (2013, Italy). I forget how I stumbled across this film, but it sounded like it might be interesting, so I rented it. A woman in Syria learns her husband has deserted the Syrian army and joined the rebels, meaning she is now in danger from the Secret Service and the Shahiba. So she and her sister hire a man to take them across the border into Turkey, where they hope to meet up with her husband. The man they hired introduces them to a driver, Bilal, a fugitive in his own right. But en route they are forced to abandoned their pickup truck after being followed by an army patrol. And then the two sisters are separated… Bilal and one of the sisters stumble across a village that was slaughtered by rebels. The only survivor is a young girl, who they take with them. But things do not go well for them… I’veseen a review of the film online that complains it fails “to adhere to clasic story structures”, which tells me more about the critic, and what’s wrong with the Hollywood film-making, than it does the film. The review also complains that because the two sisters wear the niqab for much of the film, and so only their eyes are visible, it makes it difficult for the viewer to identify with them. But it seems to me that’s actually one of the points Border is making, that’s it’s easier to dehumanise those suffering in wars in the Middle East, which in turn makes it easier for Westerners to ignore their complicity in creating, and fuelling, those wars in the first place. Border tell a straightforward story, in as much as the three characters head for the Turkish border and have random encounters along the way, but that reflects the arbitrary nature of survival in a war zone. I thought Border a good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2017, #51

Sometimes the desire to not to watch Hollywood films gets a bit ouf of hand… The first US film in this post – well, I kind of enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy as it wasn’t an awful piece of crap like the other MCU films… One-Eyed Jacks, on the other hand, was just ticking another film off the list… or maybe not.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn (2017, USA). I remember the Guardians of the Galaxy: there was StarHawk, who was a gestalt being comprising a man and a woman, and there was Charlie-27, who was short and squat and super-strong because he was born on Jupiter or something, and Martinex, who was made out of crystal because he was from an Outer Planet, and there was the blue-skinned guy who could direct his arrows with a whistle, and the ancient Earth astronaut, who was encased in a special skintight metallic suit that apparently left his mouth, nostrils and and eyeballs exposed, and who knows what other orifices, and who went by a variety of superhero names throughout his career, and… Well, none of that has anything to do with the reboot, which is what the film franchise is based on. Yondu, the blue-skinned guy with the arrow is there, but he’s not actually one of the Guardians, and the rest have been written out. Now it’s all about a wise-cracking half-alien guy from Earth and his daddy issues. Only, in this case, daddy is a planet. No, really. Okay, so he manifests as Kurt Russell, but he’s really a planet. Big round thing, with an angry looking brain in the middle. Just like, er, Earth. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was entertaining, if dumb, and I’d expected more of the same from the sequel. Except it seems to have dialled up the dumbness without doing the same for the entertainment. The characters are reduced to ciphers, the daddy-issues plot overwhelms everything, and there’s no forward direction presented for the franchise. It’s not a mis-step, it’s a step backwards. The first film made a lot of capital out of its soundtrack, and its justification for that soundtrack. That’s all the sequel has going for it. Avoid.

One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando (1968, USA). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, but it turns out it’s on one of the iterations of the list but not the 2013 one I’ve been using. And, to be honest, the only notable thing about One-Eyed Jacks is that it’s the only film directed by Marlon Brando. Brando plays one of a group of three bank-robbers whose last job goes awry. He’s captured by Federales, but manages to break out of jail five years later. And goes hunting for his compadre (the third died in that last bad bank raid). Said compadre is now a sheriff in San Diego, with a nubile daughter and a position to protect. Cue yawn. The history of this film is more interesting than its story: it was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a script by Sam Peckinpah. That would have been a mouth-watering western. Instead, we have a Brando vanity project. Because that’s all it is. I’ve never really understood why he has the reputation he has. When I first heard his voice, I assumed it was put on for his character; but no, he really does sound whiny whatever character he plays. And at 141 minutes, One-Eyed Jacks overstays its welcome by a good 50 minutes. There’s nothing special about this western – and the copy I watched was a terrible transfer – and I’m mystified why it made any iteration of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list.

Vanishing Waves, Kristina Buožytė (2012, Lithuania). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD – probably the only other Lithuanian film I’ve watched so far – and it looked interesting and was science fiction, so… Comparisons with Ken Russell’s Altered States are, I suspect, inevitable, if only because both films use sensory deprivation tanks as plot enablers. But in Vanishing Waves, the plan is to put their volunteer in a sensory deprivation tank and synchronise his brain waves with those of a young woman in a coma. The plan is more successful than anticipated, as he enters a dreamlike state where he interacts in some strange dream world with a young woman. It’s only after several sessions that he realises he is communicating with the comatose woman, and that the sessions offer a chance of waking her. The scientists running the project are concerned, because they’re not getting the results they expected, and they’re sceptical of the volunteer’s claims – especially when both volunteer and comatose women go into cardiac arrest during one session. The project is presented in that sort of dry corporate way, with lots of visible money, that the movie world seems to think how science is done. The dreamstates, however, are completely different, and effectively done. Worth seeking out.

Carla’s Song, Ken Loach (1996, UK). Ken Loach is not, I think, a great director. But he has a great body of work, and a couple of his films aspire to greatness. Not this one sadly. But to produce such a consistently left-wing body of work over nearly five decades is certainly something worth celebrating. Ken Loach may not have directed the best British film of the last fifty years – and there’s a contentious topic! – but he has directed an oeuvre that is impossible to ignore, that is good for all the right reasons, and yet has had disappointingly little effect. I, Daniel Blake earned scorn from a couple of right wing journalists but since the right-wing press can’t muster a single functioning brain cell among the lot, that means nothing. True, it was a flawed film, but it presented a cogent argument and made an important point. Carla’s Song is from what feels like another era, a time when left wing protest meant supporting communist regimes against US-backed right-wing insurgents. It’s set in 1987 and Robert Carlyle plays a Glaswegian bus driver with an attitude problem, who falls in love with a Nicaraguan refugee. But she has a dark secret: a lover back home whose fate is unknown. So the pair travel to Central America, and Carla’s home town to find out what happened to him. And Carlyle discovers he can’t handle the constant violence, while Carla realises she has to stay. Carlyle’s character doesn’t come across well, either too belligerent or too whiny; and the contrats between commonplace aggressive acts in Glasgow and the war between the Sandinistas and the Contra feels a bit laboured. But Oyanka Cazebas plays the title role with quiet dignity, and the location shooting is effective. Loach’s films are usually worthing seeing, some more so than others.

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Karel Zeman (1961, Czech Republic). I consider myself suitably embarrassed for not having this on my rental list until David Tallerman recommended it, although I really should have done. It is, so to speak, right up my street. But… Baron Munchausen… like the world really needs a another run at the story. When, in fact, it should have made do with this one. It opens with an astronaut landing on the Moon, only to be greeted by three men in old-fashioned dress: characters from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. They’re then joined by Bran Munchausen. Who takes the astronaut with him to visit the Sultan in eighteenth century Turkey, where they both fall in love with his daughter and take her with them… A series of mad adventures then follow, including the three stuck on a ship swallowed by a whale, Munchausen riding a cannonball to spy on enemy troops during a siege, the astronaut building a steamship, only for it to explode… But it’s the animation and effects which make this film so good. It’s well, it’s Czech animation.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Moving pictures 2017, #47

It happened again. I watched a film by a director, knowing nothing about him or his work when I put the disc in the player, and afterward went and bought everything by him I could find. The last time that happened, it was James Benning, an experimental film-maker (and very little of his extensive oeuvre is actually available on DVD). This time, it was Ben Rivers, an experimental film-maker… and he’s made only a handful of films.

Fatherland, Ken Loach (1986, UK). This is not an adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel of the same title, which was anyway published in 1992, and when that was adapted for the screen by HBO, they did a terrible job of it (see here). Not that I can really see Ken Loach adapting Harris’s novel in the first place. This Fatherland is about an East German singer/songwriter who escapes to the West and tries to forge out a career on the other side of the Wall. It’s been called Loach’s “least-popular film” according to Wikipedia, and part of the blame has been laid at the fact much of the dialogue is spoken in German. To be honest, I thought its biggest fault was that it was dull, and the central character was not especially interesting. Some of his music, particularly towards the end, wasn’t too bad, a very German style of rock, which reminded me a bit of my time spent studying in Germany back in the early 1990s. You could never describe Loach’s movies as films in search of a point to make, if anything they’re more likely to be obvious points somewhat bluntly encoded in the form of narrative cinema. In this one, it’s the lack of artistic freedom in East Berlin brought about by political constraints versus the lack of artistic freedom in West Berlin created by capitalist constraints. It’s a tired argument, and a little ironic coming from a committed socialist iconoclast like Loach – after all, clearly neither politics nor capitalism has prevented him from making films like Fatherland. It is nonetheless a point worth making: capitalism does not equal freedom. And it’s even more true today, thirty years later. Sadly, lowering the cost of entry to content creation to next to nothing has not resulted in a great flowering of iconoclastic art but a near endless deluge of identikit extruded commercial product of low quality. No one wants acclaim, they want dollars. The first mistake these creators are making is in assuming art is not political. Art is politics. Their second mistake is in assuming that what the world needs is another piece of derivative shit put together badly by an amateur. Most professionals may produce derivative shit, but they know exactly how to package it. The sound of jackboots echoing from MCU and tentpole sf blockbuster franchises has drowned out the voices of political film-makers like Loach. A right-wing press which seeks to trivialise him hasn’t helped either. Loach is by no means perfect, but his consistency is certainly admirable.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). All I knew about this film when I stuck it on my rental list was the unwieldy title, and that it was about a film-maker and a little bit meta. It sounded intriguing, although I didn’t have especially high expectations – that title, for one thing, it sounds like something you might find on one of those straight-to-streaming genre films you find buried deep down in Amazon Prime’s free movies… But it turns out the title is from a short story by Paul Bowles, author of the excellent The Sheltering Sky – and I really must read more Bowles, I have his The Spider’s House on the TBR – and indeed five minutes into this film, the protagonist, a film-maker, reads out the relevant section of Bowles’s story. The film then shifts to a (mostly) context-free documentary about the film-maker filming in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains with a cast of locals. As he becomes increasingly outrageous in his demands… Well, this is not a film in which things are explained, it’s almost as if plot is treated as an emergent phenomenon (um, I like that idea; it might be worth exploring…). In one sequence, the film-maker drives his Landrover through several villages while post-metal plays. There is no dialogue, there is no explanation. The sequence is several minutes long. It’s a narrative film which plays like a documentary for much of its length, in parts reminding me Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. But it’s also a movie about the film-making process, and how the film-making process changes the people involved, particularly those co-opted from the location.  The cinematograhpy is mostly excellent , with occasional shots that approach the beauty of Pasolini’s aforementioned film, and a few that drop into cliché. But there’s a distance to the whole, an almost clinical eye on the proceedings, which signals this is not narrative cinema designed to make money from ticket sales. I’ve said before on this blog that I really like video installations, and though their quality is wildly variable, I find something fascinating in the way they’re so defiantly unlike commercial narrative cinema, despite being the same medium, using the same tools, and making use of many of the same narrative techniques… The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is much closer to narrative cinema than it is to video installation, but it manages to suggest it is something much closer to the latter. That’s one of the reasons why, after watching it, I bought everything by Rivers that was available on a certain humungous online retailer’s website.

Se Eu Fosse Você and Se Eu Foss Você 2, Daniel Filho (2006 and 2009, Brazil). The body-swap comedy is almost a subgenre in its own right, there have been that many films made with the premise. There are two main variations – husband/wife and parent/child. Se Eu Fosse Você – the title means “If I was you” – is a pretty straightforward Brazilian attempt at the former. Claudio and Helena are a happily-married and comfortably well-off couple, with a teenage daughter. He runs a small but critically successful, but now in danger of commercially failing, ad agency, she teaches a choir. A series of unlikely planetological events line up, lightning strikes, and the following morning the two have apparently exchanged bodies. Cue effeminate-acting man and butch-acting woman. Not to mention total confusion over their respective careers. Which, of course, all comes good in the end: he (ie, Helena) lands a major contract for a difficult lingerie client because “he” can put together a campaign that will appeal to women; she (ie, Claudio), on the other hand, finds the chosen choral music boring and livens it up a bit, to great success. Naturally, their rocky marriage is steadied, and Claudio’s business is saved. The sequel is set a couple of years later, and the marriage is once again wobbling, especially when Claudio decides a second honeymoon to Italy is out of the question as his business needs him. She throws him out, and he goes to stay with a friend, who is single and has less than progressive ideas about women. Which eventually results in one of those situations so beloved of marital drama films – he is standinging outside a nightclub, perfectly innocently, with a drunken female friend of his mate, when his wife spots him and assumes the worst. And then their daughter tells them she is pregnant. The father-to-be is a good catch, a millionaire’s son, but the family are very Catholic… so a wedding must be arranged quickly. And lo, the planets align once again, and bodies are swapped. She (ie, Claudio) is against the marriage, she (ie, Helena) is for it… The first film wasn’t great, and this one is much weaker. There is apparently a third film in the series. I won’t be bothering with it.

Dr Strange, Scott Derrickson (2016, USA). I don’t know why I continue to subject myself to MCU films. I think they’re awful, badly-made populist trash, and even the high-powered cast they hire can do little redeem them. Not that Benchmark Cummerbund is a good actor. But Tilda Swinton normally does better work than this. So, for that matter, does Mads Mikkelson. An arrogant womanising surgeon has his brilliant career cut short when he badly damages his hands in a crash in his supercar. In desperation, he turns to– I don’t know, for some reason, against all sense, he ends up in an invented Himalayan nation, where he’s taken under the wing of an Eastern mystic played by a white woman, and so becomes an occult agent of her organisation, but based in New York. There are some scenes that were ripped straight from Inception, there’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo that’s hard to swallow even in a MCU film, and Strange’s journey from arrogant shit to good person is actually closer to a journey from arrogant shit who is a neurosurgeon to arrogant shit who is a magician. There are also some effective special effects – see earlier mention of Inception – but it would be a poor MCU film that didn’t have zillions spent on its sfx (and yet, the one MCU film I think is halfway okay, Captain America, has probably the least overt sfx on screen of them all; perhaps that means something). Now that Amazon are closing down LoveFilm, I’ll no longer have access to as many rental films, and I used to bung populist crap on there to watch on a weekend night with a glass of wine or two… But since I never really liked them, I’m not entirely sure why I bothered. Now at least I won’t have to. (Incidentally, I see Amazon have listed this movie as “Marvel’s Dr Strange“, which is obvs to distinguish it from, er, Marvel’s other Dr Strange…)

Utolsó vacsora az Arabs Szürkénél, Miklós Jancsó (2001, Hungary). And so the third of Jancsó’s Kapa & Pepe films, and I’m even more confused than I was before. The film opens with the two characters waking up on a statue on top of the Millennium Monument in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square after a heavy night of drinking. There are some scenes set in an abandoned half-built building, including several shoot-outs between the two main characters and various gangsters. There’s a punk band in silly costumes, and a woman being pleasured by several young men. There’s a troupe of dancers who perform a traditional Hungarian folk dance (judging by the costumes). And then Kapa and Pepe are in the USA, visiting Niagara Falls, where they bump into… Miklós Jancsó. And they’re surprised to see him because they thought he was dead – although I seem to remember he did re-appear in the first film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), after he had died in that film… And I have no fucking clue what is going on in these films. There’s definitely an argument against the trappings of capitalist society, and its attendant ruthlessness and fascination with symbols of success, not to mention several discussions about death. The dialogue is thick with swearwords and the musical interludes bonkers. Lots of scenes are also set on high places – Jancsó obviously liked his crane shots – and some are just a little too high for my comfort. The second time I came to watch this film, the transfer seemed much lower quality than I remembered it. It’s definitely lower quality than the previous two films. Weird. I’m going to have to watch it again some time, though, that’s for sure. Um, in a previous Moving pictures post I wondered about doing a themed post… I usually write about six films per post; there are six films in the Kapa & Pepe series… There’s an idea. Although I may end up a gibbering wreck afterwards.

Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK). Part of Rivers’s creative process is developing his 16mm film himself, in less than laboratory-like conditions. It makes the medium of his movies an artefact of the narrative, in much the same way that Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director, often distorts the picture of his movies, as in Mother and Son (see here) or Whispering Pages (see here). But while Sokurov deliberately distorts the image to produce a specific effect, Rivers allows the development process which turns the images captured by the camera into a record which can be viewed by anyone, to apply its own distortions. They are not, it has to be said, as overt – a graininess to the picture, the odd blink-and-miss-it flaw in the film… But the way Rivers shoots, or has shot certainly in this film, which is entirely black and white, also results in a slight flattening of the image, giving Two Years at Sea a look close to that of a photograph from the first half of the twentieth century. He also lets his camera linger for long moments on static scenes – although not to the extent James Benning does – which also reminds me of several Sokurov films (but I don’t think it’s a direct reference, more a commonality of approach). As for the plot… well, there isn’t one. Two Years at Sea documents a period in the life of Jake Williams, who lives in a beat-up house in the countryside in Scotland. The film makes much of his surroundings, watching clouds drift across hills, steam rise from forests, without telling us anything about Williams or his life. It is art, not narrative cinema. But, at 127 minutes, it’s too long to be a video installation. And besides, it’s partly fictional anyway, because it’s not an actual documentary of Williams and his life, never mind the sequence where his caravan floats up into the air… Which makes you wonder what Two Years at Sea is intended to be – for a video installation endlessly looped, well, 20 minutes is probably long enough, although I’ve a feeling Richard Mosse’s ‘Infra’ may be much longer… But over two hours is too long for a video installation, that’s cinema. But not cinema as it is commonly understood. I love this sort of stuff, so buying all of Rivers’s available output was a totally good call for me – and Two Years at Sea totally justified it. I will be following Rivers’s career from now on. And I thnk I might dig a bit deeper into video installations, instead of just relying on random visits to contemporary art museums during random visits to Nordic capital cities…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 879


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Moving pictures 2017, #42

More hop-skip-and-jumping about the world through movies, including my first Mongolian one.  Only a single film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however, and it’s a Hollywood one, albeit from the 1940s. Noir, too.

Three Strange Loves, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This is the second of a batch of Bergman DVDs I bought recently. It is, like many, perhaps most, of Bergman’s films, about marriage. In this one, Rut and Bertil are heading back to Sweden by train after visiting Italy. There are lots of flashbacks, recalling Rut’s affair with an army officer, who is probably the only character in a Bergman film to boast a moustache, and Bertil’s affair with a widow. The army officer forces Rut to have an abortion; the widow is in thrall to a sadistic psychiatrist, and then commits suicide. Perhaps Bermgan should have titled this one To Joy as well. Eventually, Bertil kills Rut during a fight… but it was only a dream. Scared by the dream, the two decide to try and save their marriage. I don’t actually remember much from this film – it was over a week ago I watched it – except one scene where Bertil and Rut’s train pulls into a station, and the train in the next track is travelling from Sweden, and the couple in the compartment alongside theirs is… the military officer and his wife. Which is just a little too coincidental to be believable. The film’s original title is Törst, which means “thirst”. Three Strange Loves, on the other hand, is a weirdly literal title, something for which Bergman’s films are, frankly, not known.

Joy, Chinguun Balkhjav (2016, Mongolia). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has, to be fair, on rare occasions thrown up some excellent new films from out-of-the-way places. Despite having found Ingmar Bergman’s To Joy (see here) far from joyful, I thought it worth chancing a movie with “joy” in the title – as the title, in fact – because I wanted to watch a film from Mongolia… And, what a surprise, it proved to be a complete downer as well. The film opens in the present, with a young woman called Az deciding it is time to return to her home village to lay some ghosts. The film slips in and out of the present and Az’s childhood, as it tells her story. Her father and mother were very happy, but then her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. Her father goes into business with a friend, selling local dairy products in the nearest town (which is several hours away from the village). But then he’s killed in an accident on a return trip. The family helping to look after the two young daughters delay telling Az, so she runs away to the town with her sister, to look for her father. While wandering around, they’re taken in by a man, who feeds them and puts them up – but Az leaves her sister in his care, while she continues to search. When she returns days later, the man has gone, and Az’s sister with him… (There’s nothing iffy here, he was simply being kind-hearted but knew nothing about the kids, as Az had not given her, or her sister’s, name.) Joy somehow manages to claw back a happy ending, which is quite an achievement given the litany of woe preceding it. Nevertheless, worth seeing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice*, Tay Garnett (1946, USA). This is another of the classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it more deserving of its place than the last one I watched, Kiss Me Deadly (see here). John Garfield plays a drifter who ends up at a diner on the outskirts of LA, working as a short-order cook – not because he wants to settle down, or because the job is especially well-paid, but because the owner’s much younger wife is Lana Turner. It doesn’t take long before the two are doing the rumpy-pumpy behind the husband’s back. Garfield persuades Turner to run away with him, but they don’t get very far. So they plot to kill the husband – which becomes urgent when the husband reveals he is going to sell the diner, and move to northern Canada to look after his paralysed sister. Unfortunately, the lovers’ first attempt – knocking the husband out when he’s having a shower, fails after a cat jumps on exposed wiring and shorts the electricity (probably the least plausible bit of the entire film). A later attempt, faking a car accident by pushing the car over a cliff, does the trick. The local DA suspects the two of murder, but cannot prove it. Shortly afterwards, Garfield and Turner are in  a car accident (not a staged one). Garfield survives; Turner doesn’t. And he’s promptly charged, and found guilty, of her murder. The film ends with him on Death Row, which is where the title comes in – and it’s a pretty tenuous justification for it, but never mind. I quite liked this one. The two leads were good, the plot did not rely on people behaving weirdly or unbelievable coincidences, and the whole was told with an economy that many films would do well to emulate.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach (2006, Ireland). It’s a toss-up which was more entertaining: this film, or the reviews of it I looked at afterwards. Because The Wind that Shakes the Barley is about the the Irish War of Independence, and the English behaved like monsters during it. And it’s a Ken Loach film, and only an idiot would watch a Loach film not expecting it to take a political position. Which led to a lot of complaints the film was “anti-Brit”. Which means, what exactly? “My country, right or wrong”? Because that’s pernicious bullshit. Especially given the current foolishness about the British Empire – no, it was not a good thing, it pillaged and subjugated sovereign nations and that is never defensible; and no, it won’t suddenly spring into being in some woke form post-Brexit, not that those who think the empire was a good thing even fucking know what “woke” means, or even how to be progessive… But that’s a rant for another day. The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers, but mainly the one played by Cilian Murphy, who join the Irish Republican Army and end up fighting the Black and Tans and the Auxies, both of which groups, composed of WWI veterans desperate for work recruited in mainland UK, committed a series of atrocities against Irish civilians throughout the war. None of this is defensible – not their actions, nor their aim. So if the film comes across as anti-Brit, it’s perfectly justified. True, the film shows the war from the point of view of those who fought it, and suffered most during it, and the politicians behind the scenes were trying to desperately hard to reach a peaceful solution that kept most people happy. Well, except perhaps for Winston Churchill, who is such a hero in the UK he’s on the new £5 note, and yet he invented the Black and Tans, and many of his decisions throughout his career would have branded him a war criminal had they taken place in later decades of the twentieth century. Plus, he was establishment through and through. But, The Wind that Shakes the Barley… not the best Loach film I’ve seen so far – I thought Land and Freedom better, to be honest – but still worth seeing. Especially by people who think the British Empire was a good thing.

The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel (2008, Argentina). And here’s another film that many critics apparently had trouble with. The plot is relatively straightforward. A woman driving home from a friend’s hits something with her car. She stops, but doesn’t go and see what it was, seemingly in shock. Instead, she drives to hospital and has herself X-rayed. She spends a night in a nearby hotel. Then she carries on with her life as if nothing had happened. Her husband tries to persuade she must have run over a dog, but she suspects it may have been a child. Later, she visits the hospital, but they have no record of her being X-rayed. Nor does the hotel have her name down as a guest. There is no link between her and whatever happened on the road. However, what makes this film interesting, and which apparently turned off some critics, is that Martel chose not to film it as a fast-paced thriller, but as a slow, mostly plotless, drama, focusing chiefly on the main character’s daily life, with a small mystery wrapped around it. I actually think this approach made it a better movie. It made the opening incident more of a mystery, and the fact it was left unresolved only made it more interesting. The resolutely domestic focus of the film also made its mystery more intriguing. A good film, worth seeing.

Mai Mai Miracle, Sunao Katabuchi (2009, Japan). I pulled this out of the rental envelope, took one look at it, and immediately texted David Tallerman to ask if he’d stuck it on my rental list the last time we were at the pub. Because, while I like anime, I prefer the more realistic style, and the cartoon-ish-looking kids on the cover art of this DVD would not have prompted me to add it to my list myself. And then the film opened with a young girl in a field trying to imagine what the countryside looked like a thousand years before as her grandfather describes it to her, with that sort of over-compensating US schoolkid voice-over that cheerily and breezily explains the girl’s situation anf family… Oh, and the music on the soundtrack was really irritating… So I wasn’t all that impressed. But as I watched it, I found it growing on me. The central conceit – the little girl, Shinko, can see the past, ie, the area as it was 1000 years before, when it was the site of the capital of the province of Suō – didn’t really appeal, but once the film began to focus on Shinko’s friends, and her adventures with them, such as Kiiko, the new girl who’d just moved from the city, or the pond Shinko and her friends build for a goldfish… well, then, things started to really improve. David later admitted he’d thought I might enjoy the film because it resembled Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, which is probably my favourite Ghibli… And yes, there are resemblances. But the things I like about Only Yesterday aren’t in Mai Mai Miracle, so it’s no surprise it took me a while to get into the film. There’s an earnestness to it that I find a bit off-putting, a sort of pushiness to the childhood it depicts… but that disappears within the first half hour and, if anything, the film gets pretty grim toward the end. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 877