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Moving pictures 2018, #9

Only five films this time, for some reason. Two of them are recent Hollywood blockbusters – one I thought over-rated, the other was terrible. You can probably guess which is which…

The Song of Bernadette, Henry King (1943, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and thought: classic Hollywood, probably worth a punt. It wasn’t. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Franz Werfel, which tells the story of the woman who “discovered” the “miraculous” spring at Lourdes. In the late 1850s, Bernadette, a schoolgirl, reported eighteen visions of the Madonna, and discovered a spring, following the instructions in one of those visions, which subsequently proved to have healing properties. Put that in a work of fiction and you’d find yourself on the sf and fantasy shelves. I mean, seriously? Lourdes is big business now, of course, with over 200 million visitors since 1860, despite the waters being repeatedly examined by scientists and displaying no unusual characteristics whatsoever. The Song of Bernadette comes across as a star vehicle for Jennifer Jones, who was married to producer David O Selznick, although she did win an Oscar for her role in this film…. despite playing a fourteen-year-old even though she was a decade older. (Another Jennifer Jones vehicle, Indiscretion of an American Wife – see here – is, despite the awful title, much much better.) The Song of Bernadette is all played very earnestly, with the sort of gravitas that suggests it’s based on historical sources, when it’s actually adapted from a novel which took a number of liberties with the life of the real St Bernadette. It’s all so fucking po-faced and serious despite the ridiculousness of its premise. The Song of Bernadette actually won four Oscars – best actress, best art direction, best cinematography, best music – but then it’s not like the Academy Awards have displayed all that much critical acumen over the decades… Not worth hunting down.

Inversion, Behnam Behzadi (2016, Iran). I have to date seen twenty-two films from Iran, a number of them by Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, two excellent directors. Iran has a strong film-making tradition and a number of brilliant films have come out of the country. Pretty much all of them have been deeply-rooted in Iranian society and the situation as it pertains in Iran. Inversion is a case in point. Niloofar lives with her mother and helps look after her. But when her mother collapses and is taken to hospital, and the only cure is to move her out of Tehran and its polluted air… Her brother assumes Niloofar will give up her life and move to the north with their mother. Niloofar doesn’t want to go – she has a successful business and she’s just started seeing an old flame who has returned to Tehran and is single once again. But her brother says he can’t go, and he’s not willing to shoulder part of the burden – why should he? He’s male. Since he owns the lease on Niloofar’s busines premises, he sells it under her so she’s forced to find new premises, and generally makes life difficult for her until she agrees to give up her life and move north to look after their mother. But she won’t budge. Even though it means refusing the role Iranian society expects her to play. All of the Iranian films I’ve seen have, to some degree, been critical of Iranian society, and mostly in regard to the role of women. In some it has been explicit, as it is in Inversion; in others, it is less obvious, such as in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. When your cinema is overwhelmingly negative, you have to wonder if there’s something about your country you need to change. So… how has the UK film industry reacted to Brexit? With fucking propaganda. Films about Churchill and Dunkirk. FFS. The man was not the greatest Briton who ever lived, he was a war criminal many times over, responsible for millions of deaths around the world. His leadership during WWII does not excuse his crimes, although it would not be fair to judge him without taking it into account. But. Iran under the shah was a repressive regime propped up by the West, Iran as an Islamic state is no utopia and the films it produces show as much – although the fact they exist shows an openness to criticism the shah was unlikely to allow. Inversion is definitely worth seeing. I will not be watching the Churchill ones.

Osaka Elegy, Kenji Mizoguchi (1936, Japan). I told David Tallerman, who gave me this box set, that I preferred Japanese films set in the twentieth century to historical films, and he pointed out that half of the films in this Mizoguchi collection are actually set in the twentieth century. Including this one. It’s an early film – released in 1936 – and its story is contemporary. I’ve seen enough films by Yasujiro Ozu (well, I’ve seen pretty much all his feature films from the 1950s onwards), so I think I have a good handle on the shape of his movies. Like Mizoguchi, he tended to use a stable of actors, and his films were very similar in the stories they tell. But I haven’t got to that stage with Mizoguchi yet, although I do find myself appreciating his films much more than I did when I first started watching them. In Osaka Elegy, a young woman is pressured into becoming the mistress of her employer. But hat affair ends when the wife finds out. She finds herself in a position where she needs money, and borrows it from her new sugar daddy. But when he demands it back, she has no one to turn to, not even her boyfriend, who had asked her to marry him. You would think, given the plot and my love of 1950s melodramas, Osaka Elegy would be right up my street, And it’s true that most of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen so far have told women’s stories – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Sansho Dayu and Utamaro and His Five Women being exceptions – but Osaka Elegy didn’t feel as centred on its female lead as, say, The Life of Oharu or The Lady of Musashino. But it’s not just that. Ozu’s films are really good illustrations of uchi-soto, inside-outside, but I don’t get that same feeling from Mizoguchi’s films. Yes, they’re more melodramatic, and the stories are based around the trials and tribulations of the central character – in this case, it’s telephone operator Ayako – and as such provide a dramatic commentary on Japanese society, and women’s role in it… But… I don’t know; perhaps they have too much plot for a melodrama. These are good films – although I could wish for better transfers – but so far they’ve yet to grab me the way Ozu’s films have done, or keep me entertained the way classic Hollywood melodramas have done. But they’re at least good for rewatches, so we shall see…

Atomic Blonde, David Leitch (2017, USA). This is based on a graphic novel, which I have not read; and I do wonder at the recent popularity of graphic novels as sources for movies. Okay, cinema is not an especially sophisticated form of entertainment – in story-telling terms, that is, rather than technically – and neither is the graphic novel, and their stories map out at around the same sort of time-lengths… But if you take a medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is partly baked in, and adapt it to another medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is also baked in… It’s not going to do much for your original story, is it? And when said story is a twisty-turny Cold War thriller that likes to think it can match Le Carré or Deighton for, er, twisty-turniness… Put it this way: there’s a cunning plot twist in Atomic Blonde and it was blindingly fucking obvious about ten minutes in. Charlize Theron, in what smells overpoweringly like a star vehicle or vanity project, plays an MI5 agent sent to Berlin in 1989 to clean up a failed attempt to hand over a stolen Stasi list of all foreign operatives in East Berlin. It’s supposed to be an easy job. But Berlin resident (the technical term for a spy undercover in a city) James MacAvoy seems to be playing his own game. So there’s lots of shooting, lots of fist fights, lots of bloody violence, in which Theron gives as good as she gets, and a plot that thinks it’s a hell of a lot clever than it actually is. And a film that looks really quite nice. The DVD cover should tell you that much, that this is a film which revels in its look. And in that respect, it succeeds really well. It looks great. But the story is pants, and has that blithe disregard to killing off characters graphic novels so often exhibit (because graphic novels don’t do characterisation), but which can be a real flaw in a movie. Even a Cold War thriller. Atomic Blonde looked very nice, but it really wasn’t very good. A shame.

Justice League, Zack Snyder (2017, USA). When the current generation of superhero films first appeared, I quite liked them. Even the bad ones. I liked that CGI had reached the point where it could show superpowers onscreen and they actually looked, well, real. At the time, of course, I still read comics – or rather, I read the trade paperback omnibuses of various superhero titles. So I was sort of into fascist violence enacted via Spandex-clad goons. But in an ironic way, of course. (Who am I kidding? I would read superhero comics like a thirteen-year-old, and watched the films with the same sensibilities; it could never last.) After all, for all that Superman is called “the last boy scout”, like that’s an insult, he’s still judge, jury and executioner much of the time. And he’s one of the least objectionable ones. But it’s not the concept of superheroes which makes Justice League a bad film. It’s not even Zack Snyder, who does some things really well – and there a lot of those sort of things in Justice League. To be honest, I can’t think of another director who could have done anything with Justice League that would not have been unrecognisable. And yet, it’s a shit film. It has to pull together six superheroes, while also presenting the origin story of three of them. Although one of them had an origin story in a TV series but they decided to retcon that. We know Superman and Batman, although both have been rebooted that many times it’s hard to be sure which is which; and of course we know Wonder Woman from last year’s successful film. But the Flash is not the Flash of the television series – more than one, IIRC – and Aquaman and Cyborg are complete unknowns. Of course, when you have superheroes, you can’t have them beating up muggers and bank robbers – well, not unless they’re Batman – which means you need a global threat that only superpowered dudes can fight, and then only if certain things happen, including them actually agreeing to work together. Because when the planet is in peril, superhero egos need to be tamed first. But never mind. Apparently, evil supervillain Steppenwolf – the only supervillain named after a novel, unless I’ve missed one called Oliver Twist – failed to gain control of four Mother Boxes on a previous visit to Earth because the Amazons, gods and Atlanteans all managed to fight him off. But the death of Superman has made Earth an easy target, so he’s back. And there are no gods anymore, so the Mother Boxes safeguarded by the Amazons and Atlanteans are easy grabs. So much for that cunning defence plan then. The problem with writing stories based around Mother Boxes – sorry, plot tokens – is that the story totally depends on them being picked up one by one, and as soon as the enemy has one, well, there’s your conflict and your conflict’s resolution all in one easy-to-understand package. Except real fiction – real life – is not like that, not that fiction has any requirement to be like real life. I’m not a fan of story templates or three-act structures and the like, and I’ve seen many excellent films which make a point of not using them, but if it’s going to be used it needs to be done so with rigour and consistency. And Justice League doesn’t. It flails all over the place. Introducing heroes, only to have them write themselves out of the story, but then re-appear and help save the day. The Flash is completely re-invented as a twentysomethihg nerd so Joss Whedon has a character he can actually write dialogue for, because if there’s one thing his career since Buffy has prove it’s that he’s a one-trick pony. Amd then there’s Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman… And Affleck is actually not bad as Batman, probably slightly better than his precursors. Which sounds like heresy. Maybe it’s the grey hair at the temples that does it. Cavill just looks too chiselled to be Superman – an actual human being who looks to be good to play a superhero, who would have believed it? Wonder Woman is underused; the other three superheroes are paper-thin, perhaps because they have no origin film of their own. The end result is a movie that has a threat and a defence to that threat which don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. But it has lots of nice visuals, most of which are implausible, and some character beats that don’t seem to follow the same rhythm track as the main plot. One day, superhero films will grow up; Justice League suggests there’s a way to go yet.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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Moving pictures 2018, #2

I plan to watch less films in 2018 than I did in 2017, and already I’m spending an hour reading when I get home from work, and only putting a film on afterwards. And yet I’m three dozen films in and it’s only the 17 January as I type this, and I’ve a third and fourth post, with another dozen movies already lined up… Oh well.

Nightfall, James Benning (2011, USA). I found this on Youtube, which seems to be the place to find Benning films, as the Österreichisches Filmmuseum has only released half a dozen or so DVDs of his work. Some of his films are apparently available via Mubi, but I’ve yet to subscribe to it. Meanwhile, there are (often low-quality) copies uploaded to Youtube by various fans, plus Benning’s own Youtube account. Nightfall has nothing to do with Asimov, thankfully, but is 98 minutes of a forest high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the sun sets. That’s it. Benning locks off his digital camera, and leaves it running. It’s about as stripped-back Benning as you can get. Unfortunately, there’s an extra-textual element to much of Benning’s work – the juxtapositon of sound and vision, for example, and the reasoning behind it – and watching one of his films on Youtube means you don’t have access to that extra-textual knowledge. You can google for it… and I did. But all I could find claimed that Nightfall was precisely what it presented to be. But, knowing Benning’s work, I suspect there’s more to it than just that. I shall have to look further.

Elle, Paul Verhoeven (2016, France). This was a Christmas present. The last I’d heard, Verhoeven was working on some project back in the Netherlands after his successful Black Book, and it seemed pretty certain his Hollywood career was on hiatus as, despite the success of his Hollywood films, I suspect he was too idiosyncratic and the sequels by other hands to his movies had seen diminishing returns. Now, the movies he made in Hollywood were (mostly) top-notch, and while the Starship Troopers live-action franchise (not to be confused with the CGI one) upped the satire with each new installment, it also lowered the audience figures. The Robocop sequels went into a death spiral in terms of both quality and commercial success. And the sequel to Basic Instinct was a Sharon Stone vanity project, and rightfully bombed. (There was also an unofficial sequel to Showgirls, made by a porn actress who had a bit part in the original; it’s absolutely fucking dreadful.) So, Verhoeven: no longer Hollywood. And now he appears to have reinvented himself as French cinema’s successor to Andrzej Żuławski. Because Elle pretty much plays like Verhoeven channelling Żuławski. Which is no bad thing, I hasten to add. Plus, it stars La Huppert. Which is also a good thing – she is probably the best actor currently making films. In Elle, she plays the CEO of a video games company which has a fairly typical testosterone-driven nerd culture. One night, she is raped by a man who breaks into her house. Afterward, she carries on as if nothing had happened – but now she is suspicious of every man in her life: employees, friends, neighbours… The violence is played flat and brutal, which is a Verhoeven trademark, but the way the story pans out feels more Żuławski… although Verhoeven doesn’t have his cast acting as emphatically as Żuławski does. It’s an odd film, a very French drama into which these violent incidents erupt. Which is, I suppose, very Verhoevenesque.

Utamaro and His Five Women, Kenji Mizoguchi (1946, Japan). David Tallerman, who likes his Mizoguchi, gave me this box set as he had upgraded his copies of the films it included. (I’ve done the same for him when I’ve upgraded from DVD to Blu-ray.) Utamaro and His Five Women is set during the Edo Period in, er, Edo. The film opens with a samurai art student taking issue with the text on a print of a painting by Utamaro. He tracks him down and challenges him to a duel. Utamaro challenges him to a drawing contest instead… which he wins so handily, the art student joins him as an apprentice. And it’s the new apprentice’s girlfriend who becomes the first of Utamaro’s women, each of whom are combinations of model and muse. The second is a famous courtesan who has him paint on her back for a tattoo artist to use as an outline (as per the box set cover art). Another of his women is a lady’s maid he spots at the beach, diving into the sea among a large group of women and bringing out fish. One of the interesting things about this film – and it’s a good film if you like Japanese historical films – is that it was made under American Occupation immediately following WWII, and the Americans didn’t like the Japanese to make historical films as they thought they were militaristic and nationalistic (according to Wikipedia). But they let Mizoguchi make this.

Mystery, Lou Ye (2012, China). Another Christmas present. Lou is a Sixth Generation director from China, and I’m a big fan of those films by the group I’ve seen. Other members include Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan,  whose films I’ve seen and much admire; and Lu Chuan and He Jianjun, whose movies I haven’t seen. Lou’s Suzhou River is a thriller/drama with a very clever structure; Mystery, a later film, also uses a non-linear narrative to tell its story. It also has that same documentary style approach to its narrative, which is, I freely admit, one of the real draws of Sixth Generation films. The movie opens with a young woman wandering out into a road and being hit by one of two racing sportcars. Except it may not have been an accident, as she appears to have been fatally assaulted beforehand. Lu Jie makes friends with Sang Qi at a playground where both their kids play. Sang is convinced her husband is having an affair and asks Lu to meet her at a coffee-shop to discuss the advisability of hiring a private detective. But it turns out the coffee shop overlooks the hotel where Sang’s husband meets his mistress. Except… Lu sees her own husband entering the hotel with a young woman. So Lu investigates, and discovers that Sang is also her husband’s mistress and Sang’s young son was fathered by him… You have to keep your wits about you to follow this, although the way the story is presented is deceptively simple. It’s the flashbacks, you see. The situation is complicated, and only revealed piecemeal. Definitely worth seeing.

Notre musique, Jean-Luc Godard (2004, France). I’m almost done with this Godard box set, and I’m really glad I bought it. These are films to watch again and again. Godard’s films have never been exactly traditional. Even in his early Nouvelle Vague movies, he played around with narrative forms. Later, he experimented even further. And continues to do so. Notre musique is from Godard’s phase when he mixed fact and fiction, and often played the protagonist himself. After an opening non-narrative section of documentary war footage, the film presents Godard waiting at an airport prior to flying to an arts conference in Sarajevo. He meets a man who will be an interpreter at the conference, French, but originally Israeli, whose niece will also be at the conference. Godard is interviewed by an Israeli journalist, who later interviews Mahmoud Darwish. Both interviews concern Israeli-Palestinian relations. For all his cleverness and cinimatic tricksiness, Godard was never especially subtle. His films are always about something, and if it’s not that which drives the narrative, then you can be sure the characters will discuss it a number times during the movie. Some of his films in fact are little more than discussions among members of the cast. In order to make a point, Godard not only uses language, ie, the spoken word, but also the language of narrative, and even the language of cinema. The epitome of this being, of course, his film Goodbye to Language (see here). (Although I prefer his Film Socialisme (see here), which is similar.) It’s not necessary to agree with Godard’s argument to appreciate his films, but then I don’t think he expects his films to be persuasive per se, more that they’re presented as arguments and their chief purpose is to provoke discussion (but from a sincere position). Anyway, this is by no means Godard’s best film of this sort, nor his most intriguing; but it certainly bears rewatching.

Emperor, Peter Webber (2012, USA). My mother lent me this one. I’ve watch a film about General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito before, but it was Sokurov’s The Sun (see here), which could not be more different to this US take on the same historical events. Emperor is told from the point of view of Brigadier-General Bonner Fellers (a real person, like everyone in this film), who was a member of MacArthur’s staff and tasked with discovering Hirohito’s complicity in declaring war on the US. Before the war, Fellers had been in a relationship with a Japanese woman studying in the US, but she had returned home hurriedly for family reasons. He followed her back to Japan, weathered anti-Western sentiment from newly-militarised Japanese society, and met her father, a decorated general. As a Japanist, he’s a good choice to investigate Hirohito, although he did abuse his position during the war so that his girlfriend’s town was avoided by US Army Air Force bombers. MacArthur, meanwhile, is more concerned about using his occupation of Japan as a stepping-stone to the US presidency. To that end, he runs roughshod over Japanese imperial protocol. I happen to think humans are not gods, divine right is a con, and anyone who thinks royalty is any way different to anyone else is stupid. Despite that, Emperor was based on historical events and, as far as I can tell from some quick online research, quite accurate. Okay, Tommy Lee Jones somewhat overwhelmed MacArthur, but the remaining cast were, I guess, sufficiently unknown to me they could be seen as the historical characters they played. The CGI showing a devastated Japan was quite effective but, to be honest, the whole felt more worthy than it felt notable.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2018, #1

I’ve no plans to give up writing about the films I’ve watched – and I still plan to chase completing the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list 2013 edition, and to watch films from as many countries as I can. But I’m not intending to write another seventy of these posts in 2018 as I’m going to try and read more books this year.

The Salt of the Earth, Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (2014, France). I don’t know if I stuck this on my rental list because it was by Wim Wenders or because it was a documentary that looked interesting. But it certainly shouldn’t be confused with the excellent 1954 social drama about a strike at a US mine, whose title lacks the definite article. The Salt of the Earth is about photographer Sebastião Salgado. Born in Brazil, Salgado was originally an economist. While living and working in Paris, his wife bought him a camera. He began using it on his trips to other countries. Eventually, he gave up his career to focus on photography. His photographic work tends to stark black and white photographs of people in extreme situations – refugees, famine victims, war, workers at a vast open gold mine… It’s fascinating stuff, and Salgado’s work is both beautiful and harrowing, some of it perhaps too harrowing. Although Salgado has been exhibited all over the world, I’ve never seen any of his exhibitions – but then it’s only the last five or six that I’ve started visiting art museums, and I usually go to the modern art ones… but I did discover the work of Richard Mosse at one such. (Although this Christmas, I visited the David Collection‘s exhibition of Islamic Art, which was cool; and I liked their exhibition of paintings by Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916).) Anyway, The Salt of the Earth is worth seeing.

Logan, James Mangold (2017, USA). Professor X says “fuck”! He says it a lot! I mean, okay, you expect that from Wolverine, but Professor X dropping the f-bomb is just weird. One day, someone will decide Logan is a post-superhero film, when in fact it’s just a straight-up superhero film, and if it does something new in MCU terms, I’m pretty sure the comics have covered similar ground many times in the past. Logan works as a limo driver, he is ageing and his powers are waning. He lives just over the border in Mexico, in an old industrial plant, where he and Caliban look after a doped-up Professor X. Who is doped-up because he had some sort of mental fit which killed a lot of people and they’re medicating him to prevent a re-occurrence. And then a woman turns up with a young girl in tow and begs for Wolverine’s help. It turns out Nasty Corp has tried to weaponise mutants by breeding kids with superpowers – come on, who wants to play in a universe in which scientists experiment on children? Are you sick? – and the girl is one of them, in fact she has Wolverine-like powers and is a pretty mean fighter to boot. So snarky cyborg enforcer, with private army at his back, and Mengele-like scientist played by Richard E Grant, go mano a mano against Logan, who has gone on the run with the Prof and the girl… And that’s about it. Yawn. It’s a chase movie, the baddies are tooled up, the good guys are either old or young but still not massively outmatched… It’s a definite improvement on the usual dreadful superhero films with their cartoon characters, who cause as much damage as the supervillains, and cartoon violence and cartoon morality. They don’t even have the saving grace of cartoon wit. It might well be that Logan is the superhero film growing up, but it’s got a long way to go yet.

The Sense of an Ending, Ritesh Batra (2017, UK). I read Julian Barnes’s novel of the same title during Bloodstock last year. I seem to remember it being a bit of a damp squib. A very nicely written novel, but it just sort of petered out, and its concerns were so trivial I really couldn’t care about any of its cast. And the same is, unsurprisingly, true for the film. Jim Broadbent plays a very Jim Broadbent character, who has his past rudely thrust in his face when he’s willed a diary by the mother of a woman he used to see when he was at university thirty-plus years earlier. Except he doesn’t have the diary. Because the woman, played by Charlotte Rampling, won’t give it to him. In fact, she tells him she destroyed it. So he stalks her, and discovers she has a mentally disabled son called Adrian… which is also the name of Broadbent’s best mate at school, who went on to marry Rampling after she and Broadbent drifted apart. Prompting a really shitty letter to them on his part. However, Adrian junior is not Rampling’s son, but her half-brother. And Broadbent sort of remembers an afternoon alone with Rampling’s mother… Yawn. We all confabulate, it’s a fact of life. It seemed a really feeble point to a story that didn’t appear to be going anywhere – no matter how well-acted, or -written, it was. Missable.

Suntan, Argyris Papadimitropoulos (2016, Greece). You know that story in The New Yorker that went viral the other week, and the writer ended up with a $1.2 million advance for her short story collection? There’s no logic behind why one thing goes viral and another doesn’t, although the story clearly described a situation many women had experienced. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of it happening on social media myself. It’s the same premise which drives Suntan. Kostis is hired as a doctor on a small holiday island. He keeps mostly to himself, but one day he treats a twenty-one-year-old female tourist, Anna, who flirts with him and invites him to the beach with her friends. So, after work, he heads down there, and sees Anna and her friends sunbathing nude or in skimpy outfits. They recognise him and he joins them… and over the space of several days, he spends his time after work hanging out with them. One evening, the two have sex on the beach. But then Anna disappears for several days, and when she returns Kostis is furious she left without telling him. She saw no reason to tell him, and is put off by his behaviour. He does the male thing, and stalks her. The film ends with a drunk Kostis, who has been fired from his job for his bad behaviour, kidnapping Anna… I have not watched much Greek cinema, only four films in fact, by Angelopoulos, Lanthimos, Tsangari and now Papadimitropoulos; but what I’ve seen has been very good. Recommended.

Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). There’s no doubt Shinkai has produced some of the best feature-film anime to have come out of Japan this century – Your Name‘s home box office is only second for anime to Spirited Away (and Spirited Away holds the record for highest-grossing film in Japan). Mitsuha lives in a small town in central Japan. She has dreams about a boy in Tokyo. One day, she finds the words “Who are you?” written in her exercise book, and her friends remark on her weird behaviour the day before. It turns out she and the boy, Taki, have been swapping bodies. They help each other with other’s lives, communicating via notes or text messages they leave each other. Taki tries to track Mitsuha down, but all he has is a sketch of her town. He eventually discovers the town was destroyed by a meteorite, a piece of a passing comet, three years earlier. Their body-swapping time-slipped. So Taki tries to tell Mitsuha she must persuade the town to evacuate on that night… As you would expect from Shinkai, the animation in Your Name is gorgeous. It takes a moment before the story starts to pick up and it’s clear what’s going on – the viewer is initially just as confused as Mitsuha. But as the plot unfolds – as it’s clever how it works out – so you’re drawn into, first, the mystery, then the rush to warn Mitsuha, and, finally, the race to change the past. Good stuff. I suspect this may be an early runner for by top five of the year.

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson (2017, USA). So let’s talk about The Last Jedi. It is, I think, the dumbest of the Star Wars films yet, and that’s not an especially high bar to clear. It does some things well and it makes some interesting choices, but in its headlong rush to reset the universe back to what it was when the franchise kicked off, it runs a series of set-pieces which make zero sense either in relation to the world-building, the characters, or the warped physics that pertain in space opera movies. I liked that the Resistance is now run by women, older women, and I can’t help but wonder what the film might have looked like had Carrie Fisher completed filming. I liked Laura Dern’s character and I thought she was used well. But. Poe Dameron is not only a liability, he was pretty much responsible for the destruction of the Resistance. I realise the story template needed to have the Resistance reduced to a small band of heroes (which is a blatant retcon of the original trilogy, anyway; but never mind), but Dameron should have been booted out of the airlock after his first stupid stunt with the space bombers. (“I like him,” says General Organa… even though his dumb plan just resulted in the deaths of around 90% of the Resistance? Huh.) And… space bombers. WWII in space is one thing, but… space bombers. Bombs don’t fall in space… because there’s no gravity. It’s one thing to send a squadron of really slow spaceships on a suicidal mission – stupid, but it fits Dameron’s character and the Resistance’s clear military incompetence – but making them bombers is… Ugh. Next, there’s the central narrative of the film: the First Order’s big fuck off superstardestroyers are chasing the ragtag fugitive fleet of the Resistance… who can’t go very fast, only just fast enough to keep out of range of the First Order’s big fuck off superstardestroyers’s guns. I mean, really? Was that the best they could think up? Hugely powerful stardestroyers can’t catch up to a medical frigate? And they used to have a gun that could fire across the entire fucking galaxy in an instant? But now their superstardestroyers’ guns have an effective range of a few thousand kilometres? It’s such blatantly manufactured jeopardy, it feels like it’s treating the audience with contempt. Yes, yes, the General Organa blasted into space thing was silly, but made more sense within the universe than the space bombers did. On the other hand, I did like the sections set on Skellig Michael, and I thought the bit with the mirrors was especially good. Rey, in fact, makes a really good hero, much more so here than in The Force Awakens, where she seemed overwhelmed by the story. Kylo Ren, however, is still a petulant blank, whose characterisation and motivation bounce all over the place. (Having said that, the fight scene in the throne room was a proper bit of action sf cinema.) The Last Jedi also muffed its major villain – we don’t know where Snoke came from, and he dies without us learning. All that build-up for… zip. But then I still don’t understand how the First Order managed to pay for, build and staff a fleet of big fuck off superstardestroyers, while the actual government of the galaxy, the New Republic, ends up stuck with the pieces of crap it had when it destroyed the Death Star. That’s the big problem with this new Star Wars trilogy – it wants to go back to the plucky band of heroes versus the big bad empire, but it can’t plausibly get there within the lifetimes of its heroes. So the film-makers just went, ah fuck it, let’s have a new evil empire that’s more powerful than the Republic which defeated the old evil empire hiding out somewhere all along, just in case, you know, the old evil empire was defeated… Or something. And we’re supposed to swallow it. Can you imagine if the Fourth Reich turned up from nowhere in the 1970s, and it was better-equipped than the USA and USSR combined? Having said all that, lots of people have been finding positive things in The Last Jedi that were sadly lacking earlier Star Wars films. If we can just add intelligence to that list, then the next one might turn out alright…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2017, #60

My film viewing seems to have been bouncing all over the place of late. A 1950s melodrama (but… Rock Hudson!), a Marx Brothers comedy, a classic Japanese film, a British historical farce…

One Desire, Jerry Hopper (1955, USA). I find it hard to resist 1950s melodramas, especially ones starring Rock Hudson, even if they’re not, well, set in the 1950s. Like this one, which is based on a novel by Conrad Richter and is set at the turn of the twentieth century. Anne Baxter plays the madam and co-owner of a brothel/casino in the mid-West. Hudson is Baxter’s lover and dealer at the casino, but he’s ambitious and keen to head to Colorado and the silver mines. When he gets fired, he persuades Baxter to accompany him. At their destination, Hudson bumps into the local senator’s daughter, Julie Adams, charms her and ends up being appointed manager of the local bank. Baxter meanwhile takes in a young Natalie Wood after she’s orphaned when her miner father dies in a cave-in. Adams has her sights set on Hudson, and uses a PI to dig up Baxter’s past and show she is an unfit guardian for Wood and Hudson’s young brother. Baxter, humiliated in court, goes back to her old job in the casino. Hudson marries Adams, but doesn’t love her. Years later, Wood runs away and finds Baxter. Baxter returns and opens a saloon opposite Adams’s house. Adams accidentally sets her own house on fire and perishes. Hudson marries Baxter. Happy ending. Sort of. A pretty typical Technicolor period drama. I enjoyed it… but then I like 1950s Technicolor dramas.

La gloire de mon père, Yves Robert (1990, France). My mother lent me this – it’s a two-film set, with Le château de mère – and it was not a film known to me. It apparently was very successful in France, and I can sort of see why. It’s very… nice. It reminded me of the sort of the dreadful nostalgic crap the British industry churns out these days (alongside mockney gangster movies and horrendous rom coms, the latter mostly written by Richard Curtis). The first clue is the voice-over – the main character is a kid, and the voice-over is his adult self, commenting on the events of his childhood. Like anyone can actually remember their childhood in that level of detail. In this case, the boy’s father is a socialist atheist teacher in the south of France during the first decade of the twentieth century. The boy’s aunt marries a local businessman who is the complete opposite of the father. One summer, the two families stay in the country, in the area in which they are originally from. And, during a hunt, the father shoots and kills two rock patrridges and celebrates his success – the “glory” of the title. The irony of this is that the father had previously taken the piss out of someone who had been photographed with a fish he had caught, and now he glories in a photo of himself with his two rock partridges. Other than that… I’m not entirely sure what point the film is trying to make. It’s based on a 1957 auto-biographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and though I’ve not read the book, and am unlikely to ever do so, I very much doubt it’s as saccharine as this film. The DVD came packaged with a sequel, Le château de mère, and I’ll probably watch it. I hope it has more bite than this one.

The Cocoanuts, Robert Florey & Joseph Santley (1929, USA). I’ve never seen enough Marx Brothers’ films to determine whether or not I ought to be a fan, in fact I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen any of their most famous films (you know, the ones with titles Queen stole for their albums), although I’m familiar with the characters and many of Groucho’s best-known quotes. Since there was a new collection of their’ films just released by Arrow – The 4 Marx Brothers at Paramount 1929 – 1933 – I added its contents to my rental list. This was the first to arrive – and, coincidentally, the earliest film in the collection. The film is set in a Florida hotel run by the brothers – there’s no plot as such. There are several muscial routines, like out of a Busby Berkley film, but the rest of it is just the the Marx Brothers running aruond and playing their characters. Groucho is, surprisingly, not all that witty. Harpo is just as creepy as usual. Chico is probably the funniest character, for all that his put-on accent is considered offensive these days. Zeppo is in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t remember him. I guess that’s why he dropped out. I’d expected more of The Cocoanuts – it wasn’t especially funny or witty. And while the production numbers were a big part of it, I like Busby Berkley films so I’ve seen better (and more eye-boggling). The Marx Brothers films are worth seeing as historical Hollywood documents, but don’t expect too much of them.

Joseph Andrews, Tony Richardson (1977, UK). Some films just seem to appear on my rental list and I’ve no idea why. If it’s a Japanese or South Korean film, then David Tallerman probably added them using the app on my phone when we were down the pub (but he won’t be able to do that anymore, as Cinema Paradiso doesn’t have an app). Sometimes, I vaguely recall seeing a trailer and so must have added the film myself. But there are some which, for the life of me, I cann’t recall why I put it on my rental list. Like Joseph Andrews. A British historical farce, based on a 1742 Henry Fielding novel, starring Colin Firth, Ann-Margret, Michael Hordern, Beryl Reid, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Jim Dale, Wendy Craig, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Kenneth Cranham, Timothy West… and lots more familiar Brit thesp faces. Firth plays the title character, a young man who draws the attention of libertine aristocrat Ann-Margret. Then he’s waylaid on the road, or something, and ends up at an inn, where he’s nearly arrested. The plot, such as it is, has Firth bouncing from one comical encounter to another, before eventually rejoining his love back in his home village. I can think of little to recommend this film – nothing about it stands out. I spent most of it playing “spot the luvvie”, which is a bit like watching the Carry On film without the jokes. Meh.

The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi (1951, Japan). I bought the Japanese Masters box set – deleted for several years, so hard to find – because it included an Ozu film that was no longer available. The other “master” is Kenji Mizoguchi, and the set includes two of his most celebrated films: The Life of Oharu (see here) and The Lady of Musashino. The latter film is set shortly after WWII. The title character lives in a village just outside Tokyo – the films opens with them witnessing the bombing of Tokyo from Musashino. Her husband is a drunkard who abuses her. Her cousin’s husband keeps on propositioning her, and a younger cousin who comes to live with them fancies her. The film navigates these complicated relationships – which is something Mizoguchi does really well – before finding a solution that suits all but the title character – which is something Mizoguchi also does a lot. When it comes to Japanese cinema from the first half of the twentieth century, I prefer Ozu’s ensemble pieces to Mizoguchi’s character studies (some of which are historical), and I really should watch more Kurosawa (which I’ve recently remedied by adding a bunch of his films to my rental list)… Anyway, the title character of The Lady of Musashino must find a way out of the complicated personal relationships that have accreted around her, and yet also protect Musashino. I like that Mizoguchi puts a woman front and centre, even in a society in which gender roles are extremely constrained, as he also does in The Life of Oharu – and I like that he does it so well she is the best-drawn charatcer in the film. The transfer, it must be said, is not great, but it’s not as much of a hurdle as it is with The Life of Oharu, several important scenes of which take place at night. I’ve seen several Mizoguchi films over the years – the first was apparently Ugetsu Monogatari back in 2012 – more by accident than design, I think, but I have a box set of four of his films, given to me by David Tallerman, which I’m now quite looking forward to watching…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885


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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #48

I’ve managed to knock the percentage of films I’ve watched since 2001 that are from the US down to 50.9%, but I’m still trying to get it below half. So far in 2017 alone, the percentage is much lower – only 26%, with the UK at 12%, China at 8%, France at 7% and so on… I’ve also watched movies from 52 different countries to date in 2017.

Into the Sea, Marion Poizeau (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, an hour-long documentary about an Irish surfboarder’s attempt to introduce the sport to Iran, specifically to Baluchistan, and, being female, using female contacts in Iran. I’ve watched a bunch of Iranian films, I’ve even visited the country (although it was back in the days of the Shah), so I have some knowledge of the country. And many of the obstacles met by Easkey as she tries to surf on the Baluchistani coast, with the help of snowboarder Mona and diver Shalha – and okay, I’d always thought Baluchistan was a part of Pakistan not Iran – came as no real surprise. However, the way the three women won over the local male authorities was a done really well, and the scenes of them teaching some of the area’s male youth to surf promised a brighter future. (Much as the young women of the local villages would have liked to surf, their families would not let them.) Surfing is not a sport, or a pasttime, I find interesting – like many sports, it’s more fun to do than to watch – and while Easkey’s mission may have been born out of a selfish desire to surf a coast no one has surfed before, what she actually achieved is so much more. In these days of normalised fascism and overt racism by world leaders, it’s nice to know that some people still believe in, and are successful in creating, bridges between different cultures. No matter what prompted it, or what the “bridge” is made from.

The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi (1952, Japan). I found this box set on eBay and bought it because it includes an Ozu film that is not otherwise available. It classifies only two directors as “Japanese masters” – Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi… and while it’s hard to deny them their master status, it’s surely a title that should apply to more directors. The Ozu I couldn’t otherwise find is The End of Summer, which the BFI doesn’t appear to have released yet in the lovely dual format editions they have of Ozu’s other films (of course, now I’ve tracked down a copy, they’ll go and release it…). But The Life of Oharu is Mizoguchi, a director I do not esteem as I do Ozu, although David Tallerman repeatedly tells me he is very good and insists I watch his films… And having now seen The Life of Oharu (or O-haru), I can sort of see what he means. This wasn’t an especially good print, far too dark in places, and with a muddy soundtrack. One of the things I like most about Ozu’s films is that they’re ensemble pieces, where as Mizoguchi’s, if the titles are any indication, are not. And that’s certainly true of The Life of Oharu, which tells the story of its title character from the moment she’s exiled from her liege lord’s land for falling in love with a man of a much lower class (he gets beheaded). She’s then chosen to be the mother of another lord’s heir, but is sent home afterwards with a pittance. Her father had run up debts in expectation of her reward, and so sells her to a house of courtesans. But she fails at that too. There’s a heartbreaking scene near the end where Oharu is taken to meet her son, who has now taken over as lord on the death of his father. But all she’s allowed to do is watch him as he walks past with his entourage, and she’s told in no uncertain terms that her history is too embarrassing for him to ever acknowledge her as his mother. A depressingly grim film in places, but a good one.

The Hustler*, Robert Rossen (1961, USA). I’m not a Paul Newman fan, I’d much sooner watch Rock Hudson or Cary Grant or William Hurt, but The Hustler is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and there was a box set of four Newman films going for a couple of quid in an Amazon Prime Day or something a few months ago… so I bought it. And… meh. US critics seem to like films about working class types who try to better themselves, appear to succeed, but walk away with nothing more than their dignity battered. Because, of course, actually prospering would show up the American Dream for the hollow lie that it is. Newman plays the title role, a pool shark who meets his match in Jackie Gleason, but then goes away to improve his game and… well, the path to riches can never run smooth in the American Dream. Because it only really exists in cultural artefacts whose sole purpose seems to be to prove its existence by documenting its failures. If that makes sense. In a way, it helps mythologise those who do succeed in the real world – all the while helpfully obscuring just how much of an evil shit, or how bafflingly lucky, they were to succeed in the first place. None of which is especially relevant. Newman is beaten, he goes way, gets better, comes back, and humiliates Gleason. Along the way, some shit happens. There was apparently a Tom Cruise vehicle sequel a couple of decades later. I won’t be watching it.

Joi Baba Felunath, Satyajit Ray (1979, India). I mistakenly bought this thinking it was unavailable in the UK, only to then discover it’s in Artificial Eye’s Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2, which is readily available. Oh well. I hope that version is a better transfer than this one. It didn’t help that the subtitles were often out of synch with the dialogue – and disappeared altogether in some parts of the film – so I was never really sure who was saying what (in one scene, you have to remember the subtitles from a dialogue-free scene some thirty seconds earlier to figure out what’s going on). And the movie had been encoded onto the disc as two films, one of 82 minutes and another of 23 minutes that began immediately after the first. Which was confusing. Joi Baba Felunath is an adaptation of a novel of the same title by Ray featuring his private investigator character Feluda. In Joi Baba Felunath, he is asked while visiting Benares to look into the theft of a valuable Ganesha figurine made of gold and jewels. The owner has a good idea who the thief is – a wealthy merchant who has asked several times to buy it – but he’s not sure. Feluda, with his cousin and a friend who writes detective novels, investigates. It’s not a convoluted mystery, and there’s no real urgency to Feluda’s quest – although a showdown with the villain does get threatening, and a murder later follows. It’s also a wholly male film, and there’s no soundtrack – although there are a couple of musical set-pieces. Joi Baba Felunath seems to be quite well-regarded in Ray’s oeuvre, but I thought it played more like a drama than the thriller its plot demanded.

Oh! What a Lovely War, Richard Attenborough (1969, UK). The title rang a vague bell, and I stumbled across this in a charity shop so it was doubtless worth a punt… The title refers to WWI and the film is an anti-war musical that tries to make palatable its points but instead makes light of them. The dialogue is, a pre-credit title card helpfully informs, taken entirely from published commentary by the historical characters depicted. Hindsight renders this somewhat less than shocking – we know WWI was a clusterfuck, and we know it was because of the clueless generals. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tackles the same subject but far better. Oh! What a Lovely War, however, does have a fascinating cast list – pretty much everyone who was anyone in UK acting circles in 1969. And quite a few whose stars would not rise for several years, such as Ian Holm. It’s a typical Attenborough movie: big bold statement, colourfully presented, top-drawer cast, sentiments the audience have long since assimilated, and just enough whimsy in the staging to be eligible for an award… It was entertaining enough, but horror stories about WWI no longer have the shock value they did half a century ago, and frankly if anyone these days is shocked by Oh! What a Lovely War they must be a fucking idiot. Not a bad film, by any means, just one whose time has come and gone.

The Tenth Victim, Elio Petri (1965, Italy). I must admit, these Shameless releases are actually quite good. Well, perhaps “good” is not exactly the right word… But, you can’t go wrong with a well-made giallo, and the Italians certainly made enough of them for one or two to stand out. I was so taken with Footsteps on the Moon, also released on DVD by Shameless, that I bought my own copy. The Tenth Victim is famously based on a short story by Robert Sheckley, ‘The Ninth Victim’, and he later went and wrote two sequels to the film titled Victim Prime and Hunter/Victim. Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni are contestants in a televised game in which the contestants try to stalk and kill each other. The hunter and victim are picked by computer. Andress has come up with an interesting spin: she will kill her victim on live television during a commercial by her sponsor. Which means it all has to be just right, and the repeated opportunities to kill Mastronianni which she fails to take persuade him she is not his hunter… It’s all complete tosh, of course, but it’s one of those movies which tries to project the future by filming in Brutalist/Modernist buildings of the time. It doesn’t always get it right – or even get it remotely close sometimes. But the misses are pretty cool, anyway. Mastroianni sleepwalks through his role, Andress is Andress. There’s not much in the way of surprises in the plot. This is a film that’s all about the look and the setting. And in that it’s pretty entertaining. I might try a few more of these Shameless releases…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 880


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Boxsets!

Well, not really. Only two box sets. And these days the word tends to be used more in reference to seasons/series of television dramas. My box sets are collections of films, and in this post, it’s the two by Godard…

Both the 10-DVD collection (French-published, but with English subtitles) and the 14-DVD collection were purchased from third party sellers on a large online retailer’s website. I’m currently working my way through the 10-DVD set. And I’m starting to really appreciate Godard’s movies.

Three Blu-rays. Nosferatu and Hawks & Sparrows / Pigsty I bought from eureka! during a recent sale. I also pre-ordered the new edition of Metropolis, but that has yet to arrive. Privilege I bought after watching it on rental because I wanted my own copy (see here).

Actually, there’s another box set in this post: Japanese Masters, bought on eBay, which contains two films by Yasujiro Ozu – Floating Weeds and The End of Summer – and two by Kenji Mizoguchi – The Life of Oharu and The Lady of Musashino. I already have Floating Weeds, but The End of Summer is no longer available. Container is Lukas Moodysson’s experimental film. I watched it several years ago, but decided it needed a second try – so I bought a cheap copy off eBay. Joi Baba Felunath popped up on eBay and I thought it was a hard-to-find film but it turns out it’s in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2. Oh well. And Footprints on the Moon I watched on rental, but I liked it so much I bought my own copy (see here).

A bunch of out-of-copyright films bought on eBay, of varying quality, both of the transfer and the film itself. I forget why I bought most of them, but they are: Sleep, My Love (forgettable Sirk thriller, see here), Black Tights (anthology film of ballet routines, terrible transfer), Beneath the 12-mile Reef (unmemorable Robert Wagner drama about sponge divers), The One-Eyed Soldiers (bad Euro-thriller set in invented Balkan country) and Long John SilverThe Secret of My Success (terrible sixties British comedy), and Criminal Affair (dreadful Italian thriller, directed by and starring one of the stars of South Pacific, another poor transfer too).