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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817


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Moving pictures, #11

Here’s more of those silvery round things with the moving pictures cunningly encoded on them. To date, I’ve watched 520 of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although many of them I’d seen before I came across the list and decided to make an effort to complete it. (Again, asterisked ones are on the list.)

amourAmour*, Michael Haneke (2012, France) I bought this the moment it was released since I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films, but I never actually got around to watching it until recently. I’m not sure why. I think it was perhaps because I’d bounced out of Funny Games the first time I tried to watch it and was afraid I’d do the same with this. I needn’t have worried. A retired couple in Paris, the wife suffers a stroke, and then surgery for a blocked artery goes wrong and leaves her semi-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, the husband finds it increasingly harder to cope. Haneke doesn’t do cheerful films, but this is a completely cheerless one. Good, but not his best.

Tsotsi*, Gavin Hood (2005, South Africa). The title character is a young hoodlum in Soweto who steals a woman’s car, only to discover her baby in the back. He strips the car but keeps the baby, but soon realises he doesn’t know how to look after it. So he terrorises a young woman he sees at a public water pump into helping him. Meanwhile, the police are hunting for the car thief, and Tsoti’s friends have taken up with the local gangster. No one is really likeable in this film, they’re mostly thugs; but Hood manages to make the title character sympathetic. There’s an especially telling scene where he attacks a disabled ex-miner, but then realises that preying on the weak and helpless is no way to live. Worth seeing.

Stachka*, Sergei Eisenstein (1925, Russia). AKA Strike. This is Eisenstein’s first full-length film, made the same year, but before, Battleship Potemkin. It’s pure propaganda, but I was surprised to see how many modern film techniques, such as jump cuts and montages, that Eisenstein uses. The film depicts a strike in a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia, and its suppression by the capitalist owners and tsarist authorities. It’s pretty brutal in places and, sadly, less than a century later, its premise is not one we can consign to the dustbin of history.

Taza, Son Of Cochise, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made a handful of brilliant films, but he also made a lot of crap ones. This is one of the latter although, to be fair, it was slightly better than I expected – and it is subversive for a western as it’s told entirely from the Native American side and it shows them trying to seek peace with the US. Well, not all of them. The title character, played by Rock Hudson, certainly is, he’s trying to stick to the treaty his father signed, and he even becomes the first officer of the “Indian police”. But one of the other members of the tribe is not so willing to bend over backwards – the Americans have forced the tribe to move onto a reservation, for example – and kicks off a rebellion. The film’s heart may be in the right place, but it’s hard to ignore that so many of the cast are whites playing Native Americans.

zero_theoremThe Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam (2013, UK). It’s been a while since Gilliam made a film that blew me away – in fact the last few have been pretty lacklustre, and I think his most interesting piece in the last two decades has been a documentary on his failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. The Zero Theorem has been called a return to form, a phrase which always make me suspicious. I’ve seen mostly positive reviews of the film, which, unfairly, had led me to expect something as good as his earlier masterpieces. It’s not. The metaphor used for the “entity crunching” doesn’t make much sense and Bainsley feels like the sort of character only a dirty old man would think is necessary. But David Thewlis plays his part well, and Matt Damon’s wardrobe is quite amusing.

The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie*, Luis Buñuel (1972, France). This is one of the those films that slowly sucks you into its somewhat off-kilter world. It starts unremarkably enough: two couples turn up to another couple’s house for a planned dinner party, only to discover they’ve got the wrong day and the husband is away that night. So they take the wife to a nearby auberge with a good reputation, but it’s closed. They persuade the maître d to let them – only to learn the proprietor died that day, which is why the restaurant is closed. The film then follows the three couples as they arrange other dinner parties, including one with a contingent of military officers, a party that turns into a play on a stage… and it all becomes increasingly surreal as the film progresses. I had not expected to like this film as much as I did.

Lady For A Day, Frank Capra (1933, USA). Capra later remade this in 1961 as Pocketful Of Miracles, with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford – that was, in fact, Capra’s last feature film. An old woman who sells apples on the street to make ends meet has a daughter she gave away when young and who is now living in Spain. And who now wants her aristocratic Spanish fiancé to meet her mother who, she believes, is well-to-do and lives in a posh hotel. Fortunately, a local gangster considers the old woman is his good luck charm and is happy to help out. So they turn the old woman into the “lady” her daughter believes her to be, rent a big penthouse and organise a big bash… but it doesn’t go quite according to plan. Fortunately, everything works out… The very definition of a feel-good film.

Ponyo, Hiyao Miyazaki (2008, Japan). I find many of the Studio Ghibli films unbearably twee and this one is little different. The title character is a magical fish, who falls in love with a young boy who captures her and so returns to land as a young girl. So it’s basically The Little Mermaid. But Ponyo’s father is not happy, not just with her betrayal but with the humans’ pollution of the ocean. Happily Ponyo’s mother, the Goddess of Mercy, saves the day.

Sansho_Dayu_DVDSansho Dayu*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan). Feudal Japan, and a manorial estate managed by the titular character has a slave labour force, among which are the children of a disgraced governor. Once the children reach adulthood, they manage to escape – at least the man does, the woman gives herself up to distract their pursuers. The young man goes looking for his mother, who was sold into slavery elsewhere. En route, he runs into his old mentor, who gives him a letter to prove his identity as he wants to appeal to the Chief Advisor. After proving his bona fides, the young man is made governor of the province containing the manor which Sansho manages. The young man tells Sansho he is outlawing slavery, Sansho retaliates, but the young governor’s soldiers prevail. Slow, but affecting.

Brüno, Larry Charles (2009, USA). If I thought Sacha Baron Cohen playing Borat in redneck country, USA, was stupidly dangerous, then playing Brüno, a camp and very dim fashionista, in Jerusalem is, well, I’m surprised he got out alive. And I certainly hope the interview with the terrorist group leader was faked. Other parts clearly weren’t – especially those where he interviews celebrities after moving to LA. Much like the earlier film, there were some moments of comic genius – the velcro suit was classic; some of the cinema verité parts were scary; and other bits weren’t so good. Although I did think it held together better overall than Borat.

The Lost Weekend*, Billy Wilder (1945, USA). Ray Milland is such an alkie he hangs his bottles of whisky out of the window on a piece of string so his brother doesn’t find them. Or his girlfriend, Jane Wyman, for that matter. Milland claims to be a writer but he’s not written a word. When his brother leaves him alone in the flat for a weekend, he finds the money left to pay the housekeeper, and goes on a binge. I’m completely mystified as to why this is considered a classic, it was pure temperance propaganda, and so overwrought I’m surprised Milland’s liver didn’t spontaneously explode. I don’t think Lowry need have worried about this movie, his novel is hugely superior.

imposterThe Imposter, Bart Layton (2012, UK). In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared from a Texas town. Three years later, a teenager in Spain claimed to be that boy, and the family flew him to the US and welcomed him into their home as their missing son – even though this teenager spoke with a French accent, was seven years older than the missing boy, and had brown eyes and dark hair instead of blue eyes and blond hair. It took a suspicious private investigator to realise something was wrong. The teenager turned out to be a con man, who had been impersonating other children for years. A very odd documentary, it’s quite astonishing the family were blind to the differences – although, as a few in the film suggest, they might have been keen to welcome the imposter to hide the fact they murdered the missing boy.

Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan). I hadn’t planned on watching this, as I hadn’t actually put it on my rental list. But it was part of a double set with Sansho Dayu, and I only discovered this when I received the disc and thought, hang on, I don’t remember this one… And, after all that, I enjoyed it more than I did Sansho Dayu. A teenage girl has left her uncle, who was supposed to look after her but instead tried abusing her, and instead up at an okiya and asks the geisha, a friend of her late mother, to take her on as an apprentice. The geisha initially refuses, but then agrees after getting a loan for the cost of tuition from her old tutor. But when the teenager, shortly after graduating from geisha school, fights off a client, it jeopardises an important business deal and she and the geisha are ostracised. Set just after WW2, the Japan depicted is on the cusp of change – the okiya and the geishas are traditional, but most of the men wear Western clothing and are involved in engineering. Really enjoyed this one.

failsafeFail-Safe, Sidney Lumet (1964, USA). This film was adapted from the novel of the same title, which also inspired Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and was released in the same year as Kubrick’s film. An unidentified plane crosses the DEW line, fighters are sent to intercept – these are the days of SAGE, by the way – and squadrons of “Vindicator” bombers head off to their rendezvous points to await the order to attack the USSR with their nuclear bombs. The UFO proves to be an off-course airliner, but the stand-down message gets garbled when sent to one of the Vindicator squadrons. Which promptly heads for Soviet airspace at supersonic speeds to drop an atom bomb on Moscow. The US president is understandably upset at this, and the USSR premier is understandably sceptical that this is actually a horrible accident. WW3 must be averted. The film was all a bit intense, Walter Matthau’s hawkish political advisor character was annoying, the Vindicator bombers were actually B-58 Hustlers… which meant the interior shots of their cockpits was all wrong… And, well, I can understand why Dr Strangelove was more successful.