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Moving pictures 2017, #61

I’m still not sure what to make of Ken Russell and his oeuvre – as a film-maker that is; his sf novel, Mike & Gaby’s Space Gospel, was fucking dreadful. Valentino was, at least, a very Russell film, but in good Russell ways rather than bad Russell ways. Welles, I am becoming something of a fan of (and there’s a construction us writers just love), and Puenzo too is proving a name to watch. Guzmán, on the other hand, just makes brilliant documentaries.

Valentino, Ken Russell (1977, USA). The title is the plot – it’s the life of Rudolph Valentino, silent movie star, played by Rudolf Nureyev. But it’s also a Ken Russell film. So it opens with Velentino’s funeral, and the invasion of the funeral parlour by the hordes of fans waiting outside. There’s a artificiality to the staging which spoils it a little, but when the mourners manage to barricade themselves in the parlour, and each tells their story about Valentino, it starts to make sense. Valentino started out as a dancer at a dance-hall, then toured the country in a dance act, before catching the eye of an actress out carousing with Fatty Arbuckle, and so being introduced to Hollywood. Valentino’s sexuality is addressed in the film – by all accounts, he was straight, but his dandiness (is that a word?) led people to suppose he was gay – in as much as Russell has others characterise Valentino as gay despite presenting ample evidence he wasn’t. Those who loomed large in Valentino’s life loom large in the film, especially his original Hollywood patron, over-played by Leslie Caron, and both the staging and acting give much of the film a sort of fevered intensity that makes the subject seem, well, pure fiction. Having read the Wikipedia article on Rudolph Valentino, he seems to have had a more interesting life and career than is laid out in Russell’s film, but I suspect Russell had other concerns. Of the films Valentino actually made, I’ve only seen The Eagle… and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. As for Valentino the movie… I’d put it in Russell’s top ten, but then he only made twenty-one feature films…

Macbeth, Orson Welles (1948, USA). After my comments on Welles’s Othello (see here), I feel a little embarrassed because his Macbeth is pretty much a rehearsal for Othello. This is how Welles did Shakespeare and, it seems, Othello, rather than being a unique perspective on the play, is actually just a follow on from Macbeth. It has the same stark black and white cinematography, the same brutal scenery, the same use of intense close-ups… but it doesn’t do it quite as well as Othello, for all that Macbeth is, arguably, the more powerful play. Unfortunately, Macbeth does suffer from a cast putting on bad Scottish accents, and that’s a major distraction. (Welles blacking up as Othello is offensive, but not distracting per se.) I’ve never been a fan of “the Scottish play”, and I much prefer Shakespeare’s ludicrous comedies (and the occasional romance). But Macbeth has a presence in popular culture that Shakespeare’s other plays cannot match, and I can understand why Welles might have staged it. (But, let’s face it, Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, a film whose narrative is a combination of Falstaff’s appearances in Shakespeare’s plays is a much more interesting idea. It’s also a great film (see here).) Welles’s Macbeth, crap accents aside, is a pretty good staging of the play. Although, to be honest, I’ve only seen it twice before – the BBC adaptation, and a school trip to the Crucible back in the late 1970s, about which the only things I remember are: everyone in the cast wore Edwardian uniforms. the sets consisted of giant grey sheets of metal with holes in them, it starred Cally (Jan Chappell) from Blake’s 7, and our headmaster fell asleep during the play and snored loudly.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Mamoru Hosoda (2006, Japan). Since I couldn’t find a copy of the original movie adaptation of the novel, I put the anime remake on my rental list and, in the way that sometimes you’re convinced rental firms like Cinema Paradiso take the piss, they sent it out the week after I’d watched the sequel (see here). And, after all, that it seems the anime film takes a few liberties with the source novel and isn’t much of a prequel to Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, despite their shared origin. For a start, the leaping through time bit here seems mostly accidental and unconscious. It starts when a teenage girl loses control of her bicycle and and is pitched in front of a train at a level crossing. Once she learns how to do it consciously, she uses it for small trivial things. It’s all down to a small device she found at school, and which prioves to be a time-travelling device from the future… which she is abusing. I really like Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, it was a fun poke at 1970s youth culture in Japan, but The Girl Who Leapt Through Time seemed more like bland anime fodder for the international market. The animation was high quality, but nothing stood out. And the story is hardly memorable. From the cover alone, comparisons with Studio Ghibli’s output are inevitable, but if you’ve seen all the Ghibli films you’d be better off checking out Makoto Shinkai than The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not seen a Guzmán documentary, then you really should. And The Pearl Button is as good a place as any to start. In the UK, we know Chile chiefly because Maggie Thatcher was chummy with its dictator, Pinochet, and we knew Pinochet was a Bad Sort. But then, that’s the sort of fingers-in-ears la-la-la we’re so very good at in the so-called Western world. Pinochet was a monster and his regime was appalling. And yet he was not unique in the history of Chile. Guzmán riffs on water, its ubiquity, its presence in the universe, its uses on Earth, to tell a story about Pinochet’s regime, what happened to supporters of Salvador Allende, and Chile’s shameful history when it comes to the indigenous peoples of Patagonia. The Disappeared, the politicial prisoners who were tortured to death and their bodies dropped in the ocean from helicopters… these are horrible but not entirely unexpected given Pinochet’s regime. But the way the Chilean government of the nineteenth century treated the peoples of Patagonia… They “Christianised” them and gave them disease-ridden clothing… and if that didn’t kill them, they put a bounty on their heads: so much for a man’s genitals, a woman’s breast, a child’s scalp… Of the four peoples mentioned in the film, only one survives, and that only in a handful of old people in a reservation. And yet the photographs of all four from the eighteenth century, before they were killed off, show vibrant and fascinating peoples, with abilities, in navigation especially, that merited study. The Pearl Button is a fascinating meditation on Chile and its history and a horrific condemnation of certain aspects of the country’s past. There are, I suppose, two types of documentary: those which make you a fan of the human race, with good reason; and those which make you wish for an asteroid strike, with good reason. The Pearl Button definitely falls in the latter category, but it is nonentheless required viewing.

The Fish Child, Lucía Puenzo (2009, Argentina). I first came across Puenzo several years ago when I watched XXY, but it wasn’t until I watched Wakolda (see here) and thought it very good that I decided to explore her oeuvre… And now I’ve seen The Fish Child, which means I’ve seen all of her feature films, and which I didn’t enjoy as much as the other two. A young woman from a well-off family in Argentina is having a love affair with the young woman who has worked as a maid for the family since her early teens. The two plan to run away to the maid’s home in Paraguay. So they steal some jewellery, but the maid is caught and imprisoned. The other woman goes to Paraguay, and meets the maid’s father, a television star, and learns of the legend of the Fish Child in the lake near their home. The climax of the film is a prison-break, but there’s plenty going on in and around that. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time – using that old trick of signalling different time periods through hairstyles – and it takes a bit of getting used to. It felt a bit cnbfused in places, which undermined its thrillerish plot. But Puenzo is definitely a director worth watching, and I hope she has something new out soon.

The Idealist, Christina Rosendahl (2015, Denmark). My mother lent me this one; she found it in a charity shop – and she’s keen on anything Danish as we have family there. The Idealist is dramatisation of a true story, about a journalist who investigated the high incidences of cancer among men who had worked at the Thule USAF base during the 1960s… and ended up uncovering an abuse of government power by the then prime minister. In the late 1950s, the Danes had voted to refuse nuclear weapons on their territory, and HC Hansen’s government had been voted into power on that platform. In 1968, a USAF B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed. The US and Denmark instituted a clean-up operation, and it is cancer among the Danish men involved in this that journalist Poul Brink investigates. The Danish government refuses to acknowledge the crash site was contaminated enough to cause the cancer, despite evidence to the contrary. But while looking into the events of 1968, including clues that one of the bombs did not break apart on impact but fell through the ice and still lies on the ocean floor, Brink learns that Hansen secretly allowed the US to store nuclear weapons on Danish territory in Greenland. When the Danish government threatens him with jail if he reports what he has learned, he goes ahead and reports it – and spends several months in prison. It’s an interesting story, but when you consider what journalism was like then – the film is set in the 1980s – compared to what it is now… Newspapers stopped being fit for purpose several years ago – and the term “investigative journalism” is now starting to sound like an oxymoron. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885

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Moving pictures 2017, #2

The resolutions for film-watching seem to be working. There’s only one US film in this lot and, while it wasn’t on the list I’m using, it is on some other ones. And it wasn’t that bad either.

man_movie_cameraKino-Eye, Dziga Vertov (1924, USSR). Vertov is best-known for his Man with a Movie Camera, an astonishing piece of silent meta-cinema made in 1929. Eureka! recently released a new edition of that film, dual format, featuring some of the Vertov’s other works. Vertov apparently had… strong ideas about cinema and its uses, using it to document “film truth”, which, as Wikipedia has it, has “fragments of actuality which, when organized together, have a deeper truth that cannot be seen with a naked eye”. It perhaps appears an obvious truth these days, no matter what media, but in 1920s Soviet Russia it seems somewhat ironic, especially given some of the “embellishments” of actual events Eisenstein reputedly incorporated into his films. But the idea of making films with an agenda, with more than just an aim “to entertain”, I certainly find appealing. Art is a powerful tool, even if it’s chiefly used for the most trivial of purposes. In Kino-Eye, Vertov perhaps set his sights a little high – Wikipedia again: he believed “his concept of Kino-Glaz would help contemporary ‘man’ evolve from a flawed creature to a higher, more precise form”. Which, to me, smacks of Fyodorovism, or at least a form of it stripped of its spiritual dimension. No matter what his motives, in Kino-Eye, Vertov gives us a silent documentary of life in the USSR in the early 1920s, featuring a number of, for the time, novel cinematic techniques, such as montages and, er, running the film backwards. I’m not entirely sure what message the latter is intended to convey, especially the sequence where a bull is slaughtered… which is then run in reverse and so shows the butcher stuffing the bull’s organs into its body and the bull miraculously coming to life. Nonetheless, Kino-Eye is a fascinating slice of life of a time and place that has long since passed, and it is somewhat scary to realise that the lives of the Russian poor have not substantially changed, despite a century of progress, despite eighty years of socialism… And, of course, extremely disheartening.

women_in_loveWomen in Love, Ken Russell (1969, UK). I’d been meaning to watch this after reading the book, so when I learned the BFI had put out a new edition on Blu-ray, I picked myself up a copy. I have yet to get a handle on Russell’s oeuvre – some of his films show a singular vision, some of them seem no more than polished examples of their type. And it’s saddening to think that some people think Russell’s vision was defined by films such as The Lair of the White Worm or The Fall of the Louse of Usher, especially when you consider films such as The Devils, Billion Dollar Brain and Crimes of Passion. And, of course, Women in Love. But there’s also Women in Love as an adaptation of a DH Lawrence novel. And it is not a novel that would be easy to adapt for cinema. Happily, Russell avoids the book’s bitterness, although Oliver Reed’s stiffness as Gerald Crich hints at some dissatisfaction somewhere, without making it clear whether it is Lawrence’s or the film-maker’s. Of course, Russell’s film is best-known for the nude wrestling scene between the aforementioned Reed and Alan Bates, who plays Lawrence stand-in Rupert Birkin, and it’s certainly a… striking scene. In a nutshell, Bates plays Lawrence, Jennie Linden plays his wife, Frieda, Glenda Jackson plays Katherine Mansfield, and Alan Bates her husband, John Middleton Murry. Bates is a wealthy mine-owner in Derbyshire, Jackson and Linden are sisters and schoolteachers, and Bates is a school inspector. At this point in Lawrence’s career, his admiration for the working class had turned sour, as indeed had his appreciation of the upper classes, after London society had turned its back on him. It’s obvious in the book, but it’s not even evident in the film. Russell does an excellent shop with the story he has been given, and if Lawrence’s acerbic prose has been diluted in its move to the screen, it doesn’t spoil Women in Love as a film qua film. It is, without a doubt, one of Russell’s best films, and it deserves the accolades it received, including: four Oscar nominations, one win; three golden Globe nominations, one win; and eleven BAFTA nominations. As an adaptation, its refusal to engage completely with its source material actually works in its favour. I am a big fan of DH Lawrence’s writing, and would of course recommend reading the novel. But Russell’s film is also very much worth seeing, just as much for what it adapts well as for what it doesn’t.

ghost_mrs_muirThe Ghost and Mrs Muir, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1947, USA). Gene Tierney is a widow, desperate to get out of her mother-in-law’s house and control, and so moves to the south coast to look for suitable accommodation for herself and her young daughter. But she doesn’t have much money, and when she spots a house going cheap in the book of the estate agent she has engaged, but he insists it is unsuitable for her… well, that only makes her determined to check it out. And the reason the house is cheap, it transpires, is because it is haunted by its previous owner, a retired sea captain played by Rex Harrison. But Tierney is determined to take no shit, least of all from a ghost, so she and Harrison come to an accommodation, she moves in, and everything goes, er, swimmingly. But money is tight, and tighter still when Tierney’s pension from her late husband’s share of a gold mine dries up completely. So Harrison suggests she write his memoirs. And that’s what they do. And a publisher buys them. And the book is best-seller. At the publisher’s office, Tierney meets George Sanders, an oleaginous writer of children’s books, who charms her. Harrison thinks he’s a wrong ‘un, but she thinks he will ask for her hand in marriage. Then she learns he’s already married… Whatever charm The Ghost and Mrs Muir possesses comes entirely out of its story. Tierney, always a face worth following on the screen, is never entirely convincing in her role but still manages to keep the viewer’s interest and sympathies. Harrison is gruff and old-fashioned, and perhaps a little too debonair for his role, but it’s all forgivable. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this film on a list of great films somewhere – if not the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, then perhaps the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They one… and I can’t honestly see why it was there. It’s a charming story, played well and shot well, but it’s by no more than an above-average example of of its type.

satyajit_ray_3An Enemy of the People, Satyajit Ray (1990, India). I was impressed with Ray’s percipience in making this film, only to discover it’s an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play from 1882 – despite, frighteningly, being still relevant today, never mind in 1990 or 1882. In Ibsen’s original, a doctor discovers that the waters of the town’s bath are contaminated, but when he makes this known, those who stand to profit from the trade brought to the town by visitors to the bath set out to rubbish his findings. Ray adds religion to the mix, inasmuch as the contaminated water is in a temple, and bolsters the story with a little of science – drinking the water from the temple could give a person hepatitis. But the story pretty much remains the same. The doctor – Dr Gupta in Ray’s film – tries to publish his findings in the local newspaper, but his brother, head of the local municipality, brings pressure to bear to prevent it. In desperation, Dr Gupta arranges a talk at a local university… but his brother fills the audience with his stooges and manages to turn public opinion against Dr Gupta. After all, how can water provided by a god make people ill? (Don’t get me started.) Ray’s treatment of his material is very low-key. The film consists almost entirely of interiors, and the camera placement is more suitable to that of a TV series than a feature film. But the material is certainly deliberately infuriating, especially the debate in front of the students, and it’s all too easy to extrapolate An Enemy of the People‘s story to the present day. In fact, it’s scarily prescient. Even more so, when you consider Ibsen wrote it in 1882.  Ray doesn’t have the sense of the mythic about his films that Ghatak does, but his films are more personal and more, well, theatrical.

une_femmeUne femme est une femme, Jean-Luc Godard (1961, France). One day I will have a theory about Godard’s oeuvre that works, but for now my present theory is plainly nonsense. This is a colour Godard film, it’s also one clearly prompted more by his relationship with star Anna Karina than it is anything else, and yet it still manages to hang together and work reasonably well. Okay, so it’s pretty much Godard taking the piss throughout with musical cues – in fact, the entire film is a lesson in how to annoy the viewer using only musical cues. There’s a silly argument at one point, which is what most people seem to remember from the film, in which boyfriend and girlfriend Jean-Claude Brialy and Karina continue an argument by showing each other words from the titles of the books they own. Karina and Brialy are an item, she wants children, he insists only once they’re married but doesn’t ask her to marry him. It’s a silly, and constrained, personal drama, whose fame chiefly seems to rest on Godard making such a to-do about Karina, his girlfriend of the time (they married after the film had completed). Plot-wise, Une femme est une femme is as thin as you can get and still manage 85 minutes of running time. It pretty much relies entirely on the charm of its cast. Karina is, strangely, variable. Brialy is good throughout. And Belmondo wins every scene he appears in. As Godard films go, this feels more like a five-finger exercise, and whatever boundaries it pushes seem more accidental than part of the reason why Godard made the film in the first place. I suspect my new Theory of Godard looks something like: when Godard is making a point, it’s likely to be a good film; but when Godard is more interested in his cast, or one member of the cast, then it’s not…

behemothBehemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I forget where I stumbled across Zhao’s name, perhaps linked with Jia Zhankge’s, but I stuck one of his films on my rental list, and it duly arrived and… this is bloody good stuff. In fact, I thought it was Zhangke when I started watching it, but it looked so unlike his movies that I was briefly confused. But. For a start, Zhao Liang chiefly makes documentaries, whereas Jia Zhangke’s films only resemble documentaries. In Behemoth, Zhao Liang documents China’s open-cast coal mining and those whose survive by pirating coal from the edges. Zhao does this odd thing where he splits the screen but in such a way that the splits are not immediately obvious, as if the screen is a triptych of linked scenes. It is weird, but effective. He also has a naked male figure who appears in many scenes and quotes from classical Chinese literature… and that description sounds completely different to how it actually appears in the film. I put Behemoth in the DVD player expecting something like A Touch of Sin, but  I found myself watching something very different and, if not better than that film, certainly as good as it. I immediately put Zhao Liang on my list of directors to watch. You should too.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 843


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Moving pictures, #43

Well, 2016 is definitely turning into the year of movies. To date, I’ve seen 431 movies, mostly on DVD and Blu-ray, mostly my own or from LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso or on Amazon Prime. Some of them have been very good indeed, and I will probably watch them again (if I haven’t done so already). Some were rentals I liked so much, I went and bought a copy of my own. And some… well, best not mention them…

Anyway, on with the next half-dozen adventures on the silver screen wot I have partaked:

arabesqueArabesque, Stanley Donen (1966, USA). Who remembers Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Paris. Lee Marvin as the villain. Missing millions. Which turned out to be a rare stamp on an innocuous envelope. It’s a film with bags of 1960s charm – with a pair of leads like Grant and Hepburn, how can it not have charm? Arabesque was apparently Donen’s attempt to hit the same sweet spot again. Unfortunately, while Donen wanted Grant, he got Peck. And Grant’s dialogue doesn’t work when coming from Peck. Sophia Loren manages to hold up her end, however. But both are hampered by a convoluted plot that’s almost impossible to follow. Donen apparently remarked that the film could only succeed if he made it “so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. And having now seen it, I can certainly vouch for the second half of that statement. Peck plays an Eygptologist who is asked to translate a message in heiroglyphics by head of an Arab state. It’s all to do with some big oil develoment deal and a plan to assassinate the ruler, but most of the plot consists of Peck getting beaten up by the villain’s henchmen or Peck and Loren chasing around London after the scrap of paper with the heiroglyphics on it. Not a high point on all three cvs, to be honest.

texasThe Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Michael Ritchie (1993, USA). In the normal course of events, I’d not give this film a second look, or indeed even a first one. But a film blog I read, Antagony & Ecstasy, wrote a long semi-approving piece on it, and a week or two later I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop… But, well, I guess this is not a movie that travels well. I’ve never seen the appeal of, or humour in, films depicting US white trailer trash or working class, and that’s pretty much what this is – although it’s based on a true story. Holly Hunter plays the title role, a mother who was so determined to see her daughter succeed she sort of agreed when her drunken brother-in-law (Beau Bridges) tried to entrap her into paying him to off a rival mother. The film is framed partly as Hunter preparing for an interview after the fact, and partly a dramatisation of events, and the whole thing seems mostly motivated by stupidity because the actual character motivations are somewhat opaque. Which makes Hunter’s character come across like a sociopath. Which, to me, sort of ruins the whole desperate housewife story. It’s not very funny film, either. I gave my copy to David Tallerman, so we’ll see if he makes anything of it.

crimesCrimes of Passion, Ken Russell (1984, USA). I don’t think I’d ever call Russell an “interesting” director – he made a handful of solid films, one or two near-classics, and a lot of self-indulgent crap. From the write-up, I suspected Crimes of Passion fell on the border between “solid work” and “self-indulgent crap”, so watching it was a bit of a gamble. And having now watched it… yes, it pretty much straddles the two groups. Kathleen Turner plays a fashion designer who moonlights as a prostitute, using the name China Blue. A surveillance expert is asked to spy on her because her employer suspects her of selling designs to competitors, and he becomes obsessed with her. There’s Anthony Perkins, in full frothing-at-the-mouth mode, wandering around as preacher, who alternately demands to “save” China Blue or have sex with her. He also frequents peep shows. And then there’s China Blue’s customers, with their fetishes… It all looks a bit cheap (and I mean that in its pecuniary sense), and with Perkins drooling and spraying spittle one minute, and then Turner chewing the scenery in the next, it makes it all look like a shoestring exploitation flick with bizarrely high production values. An odd film.

star_copsStar Cops (1987, UK). Many thanks to Paul Cornell for tweeting that a third-party seller on Amazon had clearly found a stash of these somewhere and was selling them at a decent prize (around £20, if you must know). I’d missed buying myself a copy of Star Cops before it was deleted, and by the time I wanted one the price had reached silly money. But now I have one. I remembered the series from its original broadcast back in 1987, although having now seen all nine episodes on the DVD I think I might have missed one or two of the episodes. Anyway, I remembered it as smartly-written, with slightly dodgy production design and cheap effects. What I’d certainly forgotten was the vastly irritating theme song by Justin Hayward, which, while not quite as bad as Enterprise‘s, does have the added horror of getting stuck in your head for days afterwards. David Calder plays a British police officer on 2017 who distrusts the computers and continues to investigate a case the computers have ruled a suicide. It turns out he’s right, of course; but it makes him enough enemies, and leads to the murder of his girlfriend, so he accepts a position as the new head of the International Space Police Force, based on a station in LEO. After a coupleof episodes there, the ISPF moves to an office at a base on the lunar surface (which was obviously a relief for the actors and the budget as it meant no more wires). One of the star cops is presented as a bit of an old-school dimwit, but he also does a nasty line in racist and sexist remarks. The other star cops are an Australian engineer, a US engineer, and a Japanese doctor. Most of the stories are pretty good, although the final one, ‘Little Green Men and Other Martians’, despite having a neat premise, does suggest the lunar base is wide open to whoever turns up – which I wouldn’t have thought all that likely. I’m glad I finally got hold of a copy. These days, sf television series may have fancy special effects, but they rarely have writing as good as this.

vidas_secasVidas Secas*, Nelson Pereiras dos Santos (1963, Brazil). This is generally reckoned to be the first film in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. I wanted to watch it because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and because I’d become a fan of Glauber Rocha after watching three of his Cinema Novo movies – but Vidas Secas is almost impossible to find on DVD (as I type this, there’s one copy available on Amazon for… £101.95). Fortunately, I managed to get a copy from another source, for no more than the price of a typical DVD. And yes, it was worth it. It’s an adaptation of a novel of the same title, by Graciliano Ramos, and tells the story of a poor family in north-east Brazil. It was entered into the Cannes Film Festival and won the OCIC Award. Its plot isn’t easy to summarise, as it’s really just a series of incidents in which the family move from one place to another, try to scratch a living, are preyed on by those more powerful than themselves, and so move on elsewhere. In one village, a local policeman drags the husband into a card game, but when the husband leaves after losing his money, and so the policeman loses even more, the policeman goes after him, beats him up, and then arrests him for resisting arrest. The husband is thrown into jail and whipped. It’s a grim film, althugh not unaffecting – near the end, the family are so hungry the husband tries to shoot their dog, but it takes him ages to work up the courage to do it, and then he botches it and the dog crawls away to die slowly. This is not a film to watch if you’re not in a cheerful mood. It definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, though.

usherThe Fall of the Louse of Usher, Ken Russell (2002, UK). Well, I mentioned Russell’s self-indulgent crap earlier, and I hadn’t watched this. Which is absolutely awful. It’s Russell’s last film, was shot on his own property, and features himself and friends as the cast. A rock-star, Roddy Usher, played by James Johnston of Gallon Drunk, is consigned to a mental institution after killing his wife and walling up her body. His doctor is played by Russell himself. He gives Usher shock treatment and, well, lots of things happen, few of which I can, thanksfully, remember. It all looked horrible and cheap and amateurish, and I’m surprised it ever saw a general release. The DVD, released by Final Cut, calls it “the ultimate home movie”, but even that fails to convey how crap it is. This is definitely a film to avoid. It was Russell’s last feature film, and a poor epitaph for a man who did make some good stuff during his long career.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 794


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Moving pictures, #21

Another diary entry from my road trip along the celluloid highway. Which is a particularly crap image, but never mind. Yet more movies, anyway. A few from the 1001 Movies list, a few from favourite directors, and a crap anime from Amazon Prime. I also joined a new rental DVD service recently, Cinema Paradiso. Impending changes to Amazon’s services don’t look too good, so I may have to look for an alternative. Cinema Paradiso boasts a library of 80,000 DVDs, which is impressive. I’ve also found several films on their site I want to see that Amazon don’t have. We’ll see how it goes for a couple of months.

madeleineMadeleine, David Lean (1950, UK). This was apparently based on a real story, about the murder of a French emigré draper’s assistant by his lover, Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy Glasgow businessman, in 1857. Lean apparently made the film as a “wedding present” to his wife, Ann Todd, who had played the title role on stage. I’ve never really been convinced Lean was a great director – he made a couple of great films, however – and Madeleine is usually considered his slightest work. And so it is. The cinematography makes effective use of angles and shadows to give the film a sinister aspect, but Todd doesn’t really come across as flighty enough, or calculating enough, as Madeleine. And the final part of the film, covering her trial, is mostly dull. The film may be notable because Madeleine was found “not proven”, a verdict unique to the Scottish justice system, but any Brit with two brain cells to rub together knows of “not proven” anyway. A mildly entertaining but mostly forgettable Sunday afternoon film.

carmen_jonesCarmen Jones*, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). The title is adapted from the work on which the film is based, Bizet’s opera Carmen, although this is no opera but a 1950s musical. With an all-POC cast. I am not, it must be said, a huge fan of musicals, and there’s only a handful I’ll actually watch and enjoy. Carmen Jones was, I admit, better than many I’ve seen, but I didn’t think keeping Bizet’s original score but using contemporary lyrics, by Oscar Hammerstein, and vocals worked all that well. The story takes place during WWII and opens at a parachute factory in North Carolina where the title character works. She is arrested for fighting and sent to a nearby town to be jailed, escorted by a young soldier. It all goes downhill from there – she absconds, he is sent to the stockade. Later he’s released and tracks her down, but gets into fight with his sergeant and ends up fleeing with her to Chicago where he hides out while Carmen is seen out and about with a champion boxer. It all ends badly. None of the musical numbers really stood out, and the story was certainly grim enough to qualify as a tragedy; and I can sort of see why it might have made the 1001 Movies list.

ladies_manThe Ladies Man*, Jerry Lewis (1961, USA). I’d a feeling I’d seen this before, and as soon as the camera pulled back and revealed the house interior was one giant set like a doll’s house, I knew I had. But I’m not surprised I’d forgotten pretty much everything else about the film: Jerry Lewis is so annoying throughout, his antics simply don’t stick in memory. In The Ladies Man, he plays the houseboy in a huge house filled with young women boarders. And, er, that’s about it. There are one two slapstick routines that are mildly funny. A running joke about Baby, the owner’s pet, which terrorises everyone with its loud lion-like roar, but proves to be a small basset, is feeble at best. A reality TV show then asks to shoot an episode from inside the house, and Lewis of course manages to ruin everything. The doll house thing is clever and done well, but that’s not enough reason for this film to appear on the 1001 Movies list.

targetsTargets*, Peter Bogdanovich (1968, USA). I know Bogdanovich chiefly for the two films he made for Roger Corman using bits of Soviet sf film Планета бурь, Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet and Voyage To The Planet of Prehistoric Women. Oh, and I’ve heard of The Last Picture Show, of course. But Targets was completely new to me… and having now seen it, I can’t say I really understand why it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was Boris Karloff’s last film, and he’s reasonably good in it – but he was pretty much playing himself, an actor near retirement chiefly known for horror movies who has been asked to make one last film. Bogdanovich plays the director who has persuaded Karloff to work for him. And then there’s a sniper who goes on a killing spree. It’s all a bit B-movie, even without the presence of Karloff, or the final showdown in, of course, a drive-in movie theatre.

rainbowThe Rainbow, Ken Russell (1989, UK). Russell did quite a few Lawrence adaptations during his career, but this one is generally overlooked. Probably because it’s not very good. It’s only the final third of the novel for a start, which follows the Brangwen family through three generations. Russell focuses only on the last, in the person of Ursula Brangwen, who, in the early 1900s, has an affair with a teacher at her school, meets a young man but turns out his offer of marriage, goes off to the city to teach at a school, and then turns her back on everything to go her own way. The film hits the highpoints, but glosses over much of the novel’s internalising, which flattens Ursula as a character and makes her considerably less interesting. The Rainbow was also shot in Cumbria, which is not Derbyshire – and it showed. I liked the book a great deal, I can’t say the same of the film.

kingdomThe Kingdom*, Lars von Trier (1994, Denmark). I’v been steadily working my way through von Trier’s oeuvre, in no particular order, and while some of his films I really don’t like at all – such as Dogville – he’s never less than interesting. The Kingdom, a supernatural television mini-series set at Rigshospitalet, one of the largest hospitals in Denmark. Shot entirely on grainy video using handicams, it initially has the feel of a cinema verité documentary, but the cast are clearly acting, which sort of undoes that. And then the plot gets stranger and stranger… leading to a brilliantly weird sequence in which the hotel director and health minister visit the neurology department, where much of the story takes place, and witness first a patient, a porter and the senior registrar bricking up a hole in a wall in a basement corridor, a surgical team implanting a tumourous liver into one of the hospital’s pathologists, and a woman giving birth in a neurology consulting room. And, of course, there’s the visiting Swedish consultant, played by Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who ends each episode on the building’s roof, bellowing “Danskjävlar!” (an insult) into the night sky. There’s a special edition box set containing both the first and second series of The Kingdom. I think I’ll get myself a copy.

sky_blueSky Blue, Moon-saeng Kim (2003, South Korea). I found this on Amazon Prime and it looked like it might be worth watching. It wasn’t. Set next century, after the Earth has been turned into a toxic wasteland, there’s a high-tech city in which everything is wonderful, and all the workers live out in the wasteland, mining “carbonite” [sic] to power the city’s systems. And then there’s a romantic triangle between nasty city guy, enigmatic wasteland guy (who fled the city years before), and good city woman. During its 86 minutes, Sky Blue manages to hit every cliché going, which is quite an achievement. Bits of it, however, looked very pretty – the backgrounds are all CGI but the characters are cel animation. Nonetheless, best avoided.

founding_of_a_repblicThe Founding of a Republic, Sanping Han & Jianxin Huang (2009, China). Found this in a charity shop and it looked interesting. The DVD cover art is also deeply misleading – I spotted Jet Li, and I think I saw Donnie Yen, but I don’t recall seeing Jackie Chan. And I find it very annoying they have Li’s name above Yen’s face, and vice versa. As the title suggests, the film tells of the founding of the modern Chinese state, opening with the Double Tenth Agreement in 1945 between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. But the agreement doesn’t hold for long, war kicks off once more, and eventually the Communists triumph. The films jumps from historical character to historical character, returning only to Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek at intervals. I suspect the characterisation of Mao Zedong is not entirely accurate, he seems altogether too jolly. Still, despite feeling like a flick through a history book at a speed a little too quick to really understand what’s going on, this wasn’t too bad. Some impressive set-pieces, anyway.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 615


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Moving pictures, #3

Well, my DVD-player decided to pack in. After seven and a half years of hard use. I guess I can’t complain too much. Fortunately, I also have a Blu-ray player, so there was no interruption of service. Having said that, I need to get a new Blu-ray player as the one I have is region-locked, so I can’t watch my Criterion Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows. Bah. Stupid region-locking.

servantThe Servant*, Joseph Losey (1963, UK). James Fox is an upper crust bachelor, back in London after working abroad. He buys himself a townhouse, and advertises for a manservant. Dirk Bogarde is subsequently hired. Once the house has been decorated, the pair move in. Bogarde arranges for his sister, Sarah Miles, in Manchester to join him as a housekeeper, although the two seem suspiciously close for siblings. Fox’s girlfriend, Wendy Craig, doesn’t like Bogarde – she doesn’t think he’s appropriately servile. Miles and and Fox have sex, Fox comes increasingly under the sway of Bogarde… until their roles are pretty much reversed. Bogarde doesn’t quite convince as a Mancunian, but he plays a servant just on the edge of taking liberties perfectly. A proper creepy little film and worth seeing.

greatgatsbyThe Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann (2013, USA/Australia). F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the Roaring Twenties, when you think about it, should be pretty much ideal material for Luhrmann’s brand of spectacle. So it’s a bit of a shame that this film felt entirely pointless. Not the story – which everyone knows – but the film’s reason for existing. It didn’t help that I’ve always found both Maguire and DiCaprio a bit bland. And some of the scenery was pure CGI eye-candy, which made everything resemble a cartoon more than a classic of American literature. Nothing felt plausible, so what the story was actually about got lost in the fake world Luhrmann had created – and this is the film of a novel that comments on weighty topics like, to quote the Wikipedia page for the novel, “decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, and success”. Disappointing.

madeinparisMade in Paris, Boris Sagal (1966, USA). A silly sixties rom com starring Ann-Margret and the late Louise Jourdan. Ann-Margret plays a junior fashion buyer for a New York department store, sent for the first time to Paris to sign up fashion designer Jourdan’s latest collection. She discovers that the previous buyer and Jourdan had something of an “arrangement”. Since she has a clean-cut boyfriend back home, and she’s a nice girl, Ann-Margret’s certainly not going to continue it. So a telegram gets sent back home saying she’s falling down on the job. Boyfriend then turns up and jumps to conclusion. Jourdan oozes Gallic charm throughout, Ann-Margret makes a good ingenue… but it’s all just melodramatic froth and chock-full of French stereotypes.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). Dreyer’s Gertrud is a film that almost makes my top ten, so I’ve been picking up more of his films to watch. Day Of Wrath was Dreyer’s first film after more than a decade. It was also the first feature film he made in his native Denmark, and only his second with sound. It’s set in a village in 1623. A young woman is married to a pastor a good deal older than herself. When a local old woman is accused of witchcraft, the young woman hides her in the pastor’s house. The pastor’s son returns home from abroad shortly afterwards, and he and his father’s wife begin seeing each other. The wife, whose mother had been accused of witchcraft, but spared because the pastor wanted to marry the daughter, curses her husband. He dies. She’s accused of witchcraft. This is grim stuff, shot in stark black and white, with lots of close-ups of grim-looking faces. Sort of like Bergman, but without the cheerful optimism. I especially like how Dreyer stages his films, so that the sparse sets throw the focus on what’s going on beneath the words. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite directors.

starshiprisingStarship Rising, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). I bunged this on an order because the DVD had a pretty cover and it was cheap. What I didn’t know is that Johnson is a genre feature film cottage industry all his own, and churns out low budget movies like a one-man Global Asylum. He is apparently best known for directing over 500 music videos. Huh. While the CGI in Starship Rising is actually pretty respectable, the sets just about visible underneath look cheap (and badly-lit, to hide how really cheap they are). And the acting is poor, too. So was the script. There was something about a huge warship, which is ordered to destroy Earth, but one of the officers mutinies and, er, lots of other things happened. I will admit I wasn’t concentrating as much as I should have been – maybe there was something interesting happening on Twitter, there was certainly nothing interesting in the movie. One to avoid. There is apparently a sequel due, shot back-to-back with this one, but not yet released.

Devils-DVDThe Devils*, Ken Russell (1971, UK). I’ve actually read Russell’s science fiction novel, Mike And Gaby’s Space Gospel. It was fucking awful. And only the other night, I was flicking through channels and stumbled across The Lair of the White Worm, and after watching Amanda Donohe chew everything in sight, including the scenery and some poor lad’s genitals, while bumbling posh Englishman Hugh Grant played a bumbling posh Englishman, I couldn’t help noting how much of a perv Ken Russell had been (not an original observation, by any means). Which leads me to The Devils, which is the only one of Russell’s 18 feature films (and much more television work) to make it onto the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. The Devils was very controversial when it was released, probably because it has lots of naked and semi-naked nuns having sex in it. To be honest, it was all a bit much and overwhelmed the story a bit. The sets, however, all buttresses and high walls of white tile, looked pretty cool, and Oliver Reed was on top form. Despite its relentlessness and all those scenes of writhing naked flesh, I thought The Devils pretty good. Might watch some more Russell.

bigredoneThe Big Red One – The Reconstruction*, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA). I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of war movies (and I have far less time for Vietnam War films than I do WWII ones), but there are a handful which are quite good. This, I discovered as I watched it, is one of them. Okay, so Israel makes a poor stand-in for, well, North Africa and most of Europe, and this was clearly a film done on the cheap as even the tight-focus shots couldn’t disguise the paucity of cast members. Not to mention that exactly the same type of tank – Israeli M51 HV tanks, apparently – stood in for all the tanks used during WWII. The film follows a platoon of soldiers from the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division (their badge is a, er, big red 1), led by taciturn sergeant Lee Marvin, as they fight in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and Germany. The sergeant and four others survive each action, so much so other soldiers assigned to the platoon might as well have worn red shirts. A German Feldwebel pops up at intervals, usually trying to kill Marvin, as a sort of thematic reflection of Marvin’s character. The Big Red One is not a patch on The Thin Red Line, but I did think it better than those huge ensemble war movies they used churn out by the dozen in the 1960s and 1970s, like The Longest Day.

effiebriestEffi Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Another film from the Fassbinder collection. The title character is a callow young woman who marries well, to a baron twice her age, but then has an affair with a male friend. Later, the family move to Berlin as the baron has got himself a position in government, but he finds the letters between Effi and her lover – this is many years after the affair finished – and so divorces her. Her parents won’t take her back because her reputation is in tatters. The baron meanwhile challenges the lover and kills him in a duel. Effi succumbs to illness, and her parents let her come home. She dies. There’s much more to it than that, of course, and in many respects the story bears similarities to Gertrud. It was adapted from a 1894 novel, of the same title, about which Thomas Mann apparently said that if a person’s library were reduced to six novels, Effi Briest should be one of them. This film also boasts one of the longest titles in cinema, although it wasn’t used by distributors; it is: Fontane Effi Briest oder Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen.

throneofbloodThrone Of Blood*, Akira Kurosawa (1957, Japan). I will admit that Japanese cinema does not appeal to me as much as the cinema of some other countries, and while I’ve watched films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, I’ve never felt the urge to watch everything in their oeuvres. But it’s no good watching the same sort of stuff all the time, so I occasionally bung a piece of classic Japanese cinema on my rental list… Throne Of Blood is, famously, Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. That the final scene with the archers, as depicted on the cover of the BFI DVD, really is quite astonishing. The scenes set in the forest looked a bit stagey, but the rest of it – filmed high up on Mount Fuji – looked really effective. I think this is the Kurosawa I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the most of the ones I’ve seen, although – according to my records – the last one I saw before this was Ran in May 2009. I really should watch more of his films.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 558 (they’re the ones with the asterisked titles)