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Moving pictures, #41

Despite a weekend away at Bloodstock, I managed to keep to my somewhat heavy schedule of film-watching; although, once again, most of the movies below are not from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (only one is, in fact). But that’s chiefly due to the vagaries of the DVD rental services I use. Anyway, avanti…

surfwiseSurfwise, Doug Pray (2007, USA). Dorian Paskowitz graduated from Stanford Medical School in 1946, ended up in Hawaii, and became enamoured of surfing. This led to your typical surfer dude philosophy of diet and lifestyle, albeit several decades before it came to prominence… Paskowitz went on to introduce surfing to Israel, and many years later to Palestine. But Surfwise is more about Paskowitz and his family than it is his accomplishments. Initially, the film clearly admires the man, but the interviews with his eleven children paint a somewhat different picture: of a man who was harsh, if not abusive, and left his children with a completely different legacy to that painted by the opening third of the documentary. Paskowitz himself seems unrepentant – he led an interesting life and knows it, and he stands by pretty much every idea he has ever had, no matter how unpopular or crackpot. Certainly, Paskowitz is an interesting individual, with a story to tell; and it’s quite clever how Surfwise uses that to hide the fact he isn’t half as nice as protrayed, and then slowly shifts the sympathy of the viewer away from him. But when all’s said and done, Surfwise is a well-made documentary about a not-especially-interesting topic.

three_coloursThree Colours: White, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). I’m prepared to accept that Kieślowski belongs on a list of the greatest directors, and I’ll happily agree he’s created several superior examples of a particular type of film. But… These rewatches – prompted by upgrading my DVD copies to Blu-ray – have proven an interesting exercise, if somewhat disappointing, inasmuch as the movies haven’t quite matched up to what memory, and the weight of critical opinion, has insisted they’re worth. True, White is generally considered the weakest of the trilogy, although having now watched it again I’m not sure why. The story is more obvious, and the driving emotion of the story more… primal; and there are a few bits which are implausible… But the plot has more drive than Blue and the characters’ motivations more obvious (except, perhaps, for Juliette Delpy’s character, who comes across more like a motivation for the lead character, played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, than a character in her own right). Delpy and Zamachowski, both hairdressers, were married, but the film opens with their divorce. In Paris. Where Zamachowski is at a disadvantage as he doesn’t speak French. He ends up with nothing, but a chance encounter with another Pole sees him smuggled back to Poland, by air, in a suitcase (even in 1994, this was implausible). Through a combination of contacts and clever dealing, Zamachowski becomes a millionaire… and promptly fakes his own death and frames Delpy for his murder. The “white” apparently refers to “equality” in the three political ideals of the French Revolution, and I guess that applies to Zamachowski’s revenge on his wife, although revenge seems a curious means of applying equality. It goes without saying that White is beautifully shot and arranged, and that the cast put in spotless performances, but it still feels like a movie of a type rather than a movie per se. Kieślowski was very good at what he did, and Piesiewicz wrote scripts perfectly suited to Kieślowski’s approach to film-making… But a little goes a long way, and while my tastes have turned more toward slow cinema than they had been before, it does seem a little like Kieślowski’s reputation is a little over-stated… Nonetheless, an excellent film, an certainly more deserving of a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list than many that are actually on it.

corvetteCorvette K-225, Richard Rosson (1943, USA). I had thought this was a Howard Hawks film, which is why I added it to my rental list; but he apparently only produced it. Oh well. Still, I enjoy WWII naval films, almost as much as I enjoy Cold War USAF films, and considerably more than I enjoy WWII infantry films. The title of the movie refers to a Flower-class corvette, built in Canada and operated by the Royal Canadian Navy. The ships were originally designed for near-shore operations, but ended up as escorts for convoys across the Atlantic. Lead Randolph Scott returns to Halifax after losing his corvette, and most of his crew,  to a U-Boat. He’s a given a new ship – the titular ship – currently on the slipway being built. They build the ship, Scott gets his crew, they go out on escort duty, accompanying a convoy to Southhampton. There’s a romantic triangle, of course – well, sort of: Scott starts seeing the sister of an officer who died on his previous ship, and, to make matters worse, her young brother joins the new corvette as a junior officer, fresh out of the academy. The convoy goes as you’d expect – from a dramatic standpoint rather than an actual WWII standpoint – and even results in an encounter with the U-Boat which sank Scott’s previous corvette. This is solid wartime drama, good for the folks at home, good for those fighting; and interesting because it gives an accurate idea of life aboard a corvette on a trans-Atlantic convoy. Better than I expected.

badgeBadge of Fury, Wong Tsz-ming (2013, China). Some confusion over the title of this, since the DVD seems to be Badge of Fury but the streamed version I watched on Amazon Prime was titled Badges of Fury. No matter. Anyway, I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, didn’t up to watching something too weighty and this seemed like it’d be worth a go. And so it was. The beginning wasn’t too auspicious – three bumbling cops who mess up a sting to catch a gangster at a posh party when one of the cops recognises an entirely different gangster and attempts to arrest him instead (although Jet Li can never be “bumbling”, so his character is just lazy and a clock-watcher). In fact – title aside – the film doesn’t initially come across as a comedy and it’s only when you twig that it’s getting increasingly silly that you realise. As a Hong Kong comedy/action movie, Badge of Fury is perhaps more polished than most, although the repartee is somewhat repetitive. But when you start spotting references to other Hong Kong action films, well… it gains a whole other dimension. Not only are there direct references, including to some of Li’s own films, but the final fight scene riffs off climactic fights from at least four films that I counted, of which Once Upon A Time in China was only the most obvious. I hadn’t expected much of Badge of Fury, and initially it seemed to promise very little, but as it progressed it showed itself to be a clever piece of work, and even a halfway decent comedy. Worth seeing.

kesKes*, Ken Loach (1969, UK). I’m surprised I’ve managed to fail to see this over the past couple of decades, although it’s not like I’ve made an effort to avoid it. But it’s a well-known and highly-regarded British film – probably one of the best-known from this country, in fact (second only to, shudder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, I suspect). It’s also pretty much a local film – not so much for where I’m from but where I now live (although my home town is not that far from my current city of residence). Anyway, it’s set in Barnsley. A young boy who is bullied by his older brother and at school, steals a kestrel chick from a nest and raises it following the advice given in a book he stole from the local library. I’ve no idea if Kes prompted the media characterisation of “it’s Grim Up North”, but it certainly must have fed into it. Because Kes paints a bleak picture of Barnsley (not undeservedly; I’ve been there); although, of course, one depressed area is not all depressed areas – and I say that as someone whose relatives’ background is not dissimilar to that of the characters in Kes (although not my own personally as my parents moved to the Middle East when I was two). But the life depicted in Kes was not unfamiliar. Although I did struggle once or twice with the dialect. Yet, when all’s said and done, the film deserves its plaudits. Loach’s documentary-style approach made the story emotionally powerful – helped by a good cast, including Brian Glover with actual hair (in his first ever role). I’ve now seen two Loach films in quick succession, and been inmpressed by both. Those Loach box sets are looking more attractive every day…

lets_make_loveLet’s Make Love, George Cukor (1960, USA). I like 1950s films, even musical ones, although not as much as melodramas, and at least one 1950s musical by Cukor I’ve seen I like a lot – that would be Les Girls – but I’m not a huge Marilyn Monroe fan (I’d sooner watch, say, Ginger Rogers)… But anyway it seems I stuck this on my rental list, and so it dropped through the letter-box and I watched it and… Meh. Yves Montaud plays a billionaire playboy who learns an off-Broadway revue intends to take the piss out of him in one of their musical numbers. So he decides to check it out himself, walks into the rehearsal… and spots Marilyn Monroe rehearsing a musical number. He immediately falls in love, auditions for and wins the part of a lookalike of himself, with the intent of wooing Monroe incognito. It’s a hoary old plot, and I’m pretty sure Hollywood trots it out at least once a decade. Monroe provides a couple of iconic moments, Frankie Vaughn is a bit whiny as the male star of the revue, and Montaud can’t seem to decide if he should play it stiff or charmant and so manages some weird state in between the two. There’s a bit of fun in Milton Berle, Gene Killy and Bing Crosby appearing as themselves, each hired to teach Montaud, respectively, comedy, dancing and singing – all in order to increase his appeal to Monroe. But the film’s biggest fault is that it all seems a bit drab, and the sets and costumes for the musical numbers are weird and cheap-looking. Not the best film in either Monroe’s or Cukor’s oeuvres, although apparently it provided Hollywood with plenty of gossip about Monroe and Montaud…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 793


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Moving pictures, #39

Well, slightly less than half of this post are US films, although I’d prefer it to be no more than one or two per post. But we’re getting there, as our national railway famously once said only to be privatised and then completely fail to get anywhere…

only_live_onceYou Only Live Once, Fritz Lang (1937, USA). This was a cheerful movie. Henry Fonda plays a habitual criminal who decides to go straight – mostly thanks to the love of a good woman, in this case Sylvia Sidney, the secretary of the local public defender. But not everyone is so forgiving. Although the public defender (who is secretly in love with his secretary) gets Fonda a job at a delivery company, he’s fired when he takes time out to look over a new house with his new wife. And no one else will employ him because he’s an ex-con. Absolutely no one. And then someone robs an armoured car, and a hat is left at the scene which points to Fonda as the culprit. He’s found guilty (the trial is off-screen, probably because it sounds so much a travesty of justice Lang was too embarrassed to show it), and Fonda ends up on Death Row. But an opportunity for escape presents itself, he takes it, but accidentally kills the prison priest… seconds after the warden has received news that Fonda is innocent and has been pardoned. Too late! Fonda collects his wife, and the two go on the lam. To be honest, I’d expected more from Lang. I’ve seen a fair number of his noir movies, and I expected this to be as good as they were. And certainly the scene where Fonda escapes from prison is very atmospherically staged and shot. But everyone is so horrible to Fonda, and the odds are stacked against him so strongly, the set-up to justify Fonda’s abrupt shift from optimism to desperation feels forced and completely implausible. So, not one of Lang’s better films.

zabriskieZabriskie Point*, Michelangelo Antonioni (1970, USA). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films, and his Red Desert is one of my all-time favourite movies; but I also like late 1960s/early 1970s hippy films – or, at least, ones that comment on the hippy condition. It’s not just the direct rebellion, nor the questioning of society, but also that so many of these types of films throw in an additional dimension – which might well be typical hippy occult bullshit, but at least adds something a little more interesting to the story. And so to Zabriskie Point, which opens with semi-documentary footage of a protest at a California university. But when the police turn up, the protest takes a violent approach and several people are killed. Including a policeman. The film then abruptly switches to two characters: a young woman who is looking for a man in the Mojave Desert who works with emotionally disturbed children. Meanwhile, a young male student from the university protest, and a prime suspect in the death of the cop, steals a plane and flies off to Arizona… where he meets the young woman. And they go to Zabriskie Point, a real place just east of Death Valley, Nevada, where they have sex – well, actually, a full-blown orgy kicks off… and this isn’t really a film where you can describe the plot, or where such a précis would do the film any favours. But it is by Antonioni so it looks absolute fantastic and, to be fair, he makes just as good a fist of depicting the culture he’s filming as Demy does in Model Shop – they’re neither part of the culture, but their outsider status allows them see more than might be visible from inside. Antonioni made several excellent movies – I’d put Zabriskie Point in the top five of those; in fact I think I’d call it my third favourite after Red Desert and Blow-Up.

hired_handThe Hired Hand*, Peter Fonda (1971, USA). Sigh. Another 1970s Western on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But… well, this is a surprise. I’m not a fan of the Western, and have only three in my DVD collection – and I’ve probably seen more than I ever really wanted to because they’re on the 1001 Movies list… Certainly I’d never have considered watching this one: an early seventies Western, directed by Peter Fonda… (Even though I liked Easy Rider a lot.) But in fact it turned out to be pretty damn good. For exactly the same reasons why it flopped on release back in 1970. It’s slow, its cinematography is poetic, and it has a great soundtrack. Its story, to be fair, is not very interesting, and its characters are not very strong… but the whole works because the pictures and story go together exceedingly well. Fonda plays a drifter who decides to return to the wife who kicked him out years before, and asks only that he be taken on as a “hired hand” in order to prove he has changed. But a stop-off en route had made enemies of some nasty sorts and they track him down, and your typical Wild West showdown ensues. Where The Hired Hand really scores, however, is in its opening third: the cinematograhpy goes mad for dissolves and montages, and it works wonderfully well. The bluegrass score by Bruce Langhorne is also really well done – and I’m not a person who really notices incidental music (I have, like, three original soundtracks in my music collection… er, except for all those ones by Andrzej Korzyñski). Altogether, this is good stuff, and I’m tempted to pick up a copy for myself.

24_city24 City, Jia Zhangke (2008, China). I had been seriously impressed by Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, so of course I added the rest of Zhangke’s oeuvre to my rental list… and this was the first sent to me. And, I’m happy to report, I did not choose wrong. Zhangke is a name to watch and a new director to join my favourites. The title refers to a new suburb built on the site of an aircraft factory. The film covers several decades in a semi-documentary style, first interviewing workers in the aircraft factory (whose location and purpose is a state secret because the aircraft are military). The film is divided into three sections: one during the days of the plant’s operations, another after it has closed and the plant has been mothballed, and one after the site has been redeveloped and a dormitory suburb now occupies the location. The mix of staged interviews, informal interviews (one scene consists entirely of a man at a bar reminiscing about his career at the factory), and small family dramas which illustrate the personal histories affected by the history of the factory and the town which springs up in its place, is extremely effective; and I especially like the factualness of it. 24 City is, apparently, a real place, and the story of the film is no doubt based upon, or inspired by, real events; but the mix of fact and fiction I find quite compelling – much as I did in A Touch of Sin. Excellent stuff.

mournfulMournful Unconcern, Aleksandr Sokurov (1983, Russia). This was another work by Sokurov that remained underground for many years – it was banned by the Soviet authorities – before finally being publicly screened after glasnost… and was promptly nominated for a Golden Bear. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, but is intercut with documentary footage. The cinematography is, surprisingly, straightforward, but the whole thing feels ike an unholy mix of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, albeit put together in an entirely Sokurovian way. That documentary footage, for example – it’s contemporary with the setting, the 1920s, and features Shaw himself, a zeppelin, World War I, an Antarctic expedition, the River Ganges, and various places in Africa. The choices of incidental music is also typically Sokurovian, and often anachronistic. Heartbreak House, subtitled “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes”, which is apparently a reference to Chekhov, whose plays inspired Shaw’s, is set in the home of Captain Shotover – played by Ramaz Chkhikvadze as half Falstaff and half Lear – and is partly a drawing-room farce and partly an Edwardian sex comedy. Gunfire and explosions can be heard on the soundtrack throughout the entire film, which ends with a zeppelin dropping a bomb and blowing up the house. It’s… an odd beast. The story seems well-suited to Sokurov’s feelings about the Soviet Union. The use of documentary stock footage is perhaps more intrusive than in the other films in which Sokurov uses it, but it works really well (some of the inserts provide clever and amusing commentary on the main story). I’m not so sure about the story itself, however – I don’t know what changes Sokurov made to Shaw’s play, though the setting seems to be as described. Still, like all of Sokurov’s films, it’s one that will require repeated viewings.

brooklynBrooklyn, John Crowley (2015, Ireland). This was one of those films of the last year or so which received lots of positive buzz and reviews, and didn’t involve superheroes, so I thought might be worth watching. It’s also an adaptation of a novel (winner of the Costa Novel Award, but only longlisted for the Man Booker) by Colm Tóibin, who, I admit, I’ve never read. The story is relatively simple – a fact stressed by several of the reviews: young Irish woman in the 1950s travels to New York in order to build a new life. She lives in a boarding-house and works in a department store, but she is shy and unassuming and very homesick. Then she meets a young man, of American-Italian extraction, and the two enter into a relationship. She is is now much happier and more settled. But then her sister in Ireland dies unexpectedly, so she returns to succour her mother. And now life back in Ireland seems much more attractive than it did when she left for New York. That is until the town gossip reveals something the young woman had been sort of trying to forget… and so she returns to New York. It’s a very pretty film, the cinematography is quite lovely, and the cast are uniformly good. Julie Walters as the landlady of the Brooklyn boarding-house, however, is a scream. But the story all feels a bit drab and low-key and devoid of any real insight, which makes the movie feel more like well-shot wallpaper than actual drama. I enjoyed it, but I think it was over-praised.

land_freedomLand and Freedom, Ken Loach (1995, UK). I thought this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not apparently the edition of it I’m using. Still it’s by Ken Loach and the subject matter – the Spanish Civil War – made it seem worth renting. And so it proved. An old working-class man in Liverpool collapses in his council flat, the ambulance comes, but he dies en route. Later, going through his things, his granddaughter discovers he had sailed to Spain in the 1930s to fight for the Republicans against the fascists. She reads his letters… and these are dramatised, with Ian Hart playing the young Scouser. On arrival on Spain, it all seems a bit haphazard, but Hart joins POUM’s milita and is soon out fighting (which basically seems to involve taking potshots from the POUM trenches at fascist soldiers in their trenches). At one point, the militia oust a troop of fascist troops from a village, and the villagers then conduct a fierce discussion on private ownership and collectivisation. After Hart is injured training new recruits – a rifle explodes when he fires it – things take a turn for the worse as the various left factions begin fighting amongst themselves, and even start killing those whose idealogies are not approved. It hardly comes as a surprise the fascists win (even for those who don’t know their history). The right always will… because the left seems happier fighting among itself than showing a united front to the enemy – just look what’s happing in the UK now. You look at Trump, and it’s 1930s Germany all over again; you look at the UK, and it’s 1930s Spain. Neither, of course, bode well… I’ve watched the occasional Ken Loach film over the years and enjoyed them, but have never really made an effort to seek them out. However, I find myself appreciating social realism in movies much more these days than I used to (and consequently despising fascistic sfx-heavy tentpole movies). I see there are three box sets of Loach’s films available – Volume 1, Volume 2 and At the BBC. I might well avail myself of them…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 792