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Moving pictures 2017, #22

Two from the US in this post, although one is an independent film and the other Disney. I’m trying to work my way through the classic Disney films, for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time. To be honest, it’s been quite entertaining – and I’ve been surprised by what I’ve enjoyed…

The Sword in the Stone, Wolfgang Reitherman (1963, USA). I’m pretty sure I read TH White’s novel of the same name when I was a kid, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Disney adaptation of it. Until now. And it was… serviceable. Disney was still flying high back in 1963, but I expected more of The Sword in the Stone than it actually delivered. It didn’t help that all the supporting roles were played with a variety of British accents but the role of Arthur sounded like your typical petulant American teenager. Which is, I guess, their target audience. The animation was pretty good, without being flashy, and there were one or two moments which reminded me of Sleeping Beauty (still my favourite Disney)… But it all felt a bit like a bad adaptation – and I’m going on distant memories of the book and, er, being British and the Matter of Britain being a, er, British thing, so that may be totally unfair – and for all the nice bits in the film it kind of ruined it a bit for me. It didn’t feel timeless, in the way Sleeping Beauty or Snow White do, and instead felt like a 1960s adaptation of the source material. That also took liberties with the legend. The animation was mostly lovely, the jokes based on Merlin’s character and crockery handled well… But… It never really quite shone for me. I’m tempted to put it in my top ten of Disney films, but maybe around number seven or eight, although I’m having trouble filling the rest of the ten…

Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru). I didn’t actually pick this for my rental list, but it’s the second disc in The Milk of Sorrow DVD release and, for whatever reason, LoveFilm sent it me the week after The Milk of Sorrow. I’m still trying to decide if it’s the better film of the two. I certainly liked it more. The title is the name of a young woman in the village of Manayaycuna (which apparently means “the town no one can enter”) and her experiences during the Holy Time festival. During that period – Good Friday to Easter Monday – the villagers believe God cannot see sins. A traveller from Lima arrives and is locked away, but Madeinusa helps him escape in return for taking her to the capital. It doesn’t go as planned, of course. Everyone is using everyone else, and though the villagers of Manayaycuna live miles from anywhere, they’re not the simple yokels they appear to be. Madeinusa’s sister hates her, and actively scuppers her plan to escape. And it all ends badly for everyone concerned. The lives depicted are totally convincing, despite being set in an invented village, and some of the idiocyncracies of the village are so mad they feel like they can only be real. I’m a big fan of dramas that have a documentary feel, and both of Llosa’s films are good at that. After seeing The Milk of Sorrow I wanted to see more by Llosa; after watching Madeinusa, I’m defnitely going to watch more by Llosa. Recommended.

Samaritan Girl, Kim Ki-duk (2004, South Korea). It was David Tallerman who turned me onto Kim Ki-duk, although looking at Ki-duk’s filmography I don’t think all of his films are going to appeal. I certainly thought 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring very good, but was less taken with The Bow. He’s probably a director whose oeuvre is still worth exploring, however. Samaritan Girl was much like those other films, while at the same time completely different. It matched their seeming lack of narrative, while still following a clear plot. But then Hollywood really doesn’t get narrative, and its stupidly slavish devotion to the three-act structure, or is it the one about rescuing the cat, I forget which story guru is current, is a clear indication of creative bankruptcy. Fortunately, Hollywood is not the be-all and end-all of cinema. The title of Samaritan Girl refers to one of two schoolgirls, who acts as ponce for her friend. The two want to visit Europe and one of the two girls is prostituting herself to pay for the trip. But during a police raid, she jumps from a hotel-room window and later dies from the fall. So the titular girl decides to meet up with all of her friend’s sexual partners and refund their money – after having sex with them. But her father is a police detective, and he accidentally discovers what she is up to, and ends up killing one of her clients… The cover art to the DVD is amongst the most misleading of any DVD cover art I’ve seen. Samaritan Girl is a well-drawn drama about two teenage girls and the desperate lengths they go to… which then turns into a tense thriller as the father of one commits murder. There’s nothing salacious in it. And, er, no nuns. Ki-duk was a good call. I’m not convinced every film Ki-duk will appeal, but the ones I’ve seen so far have been very good.

Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt (2008, USA). I came across Reichardt’s name on Alternate Ending, an excellent film blog, and though US indie cinema is not my thing, I added some of Reichardt’s films to my rental list because I really need to watch more films by female directors. The title refers to a young woman who is drifting about the US, and her dog. And when she is arrested for vagrancy, her dog is sent to the local pound. And then adopted by a family before Wendy can get herself released. And that’s about it. The film stars Michelle Williams, who has been flavour of the month in US cinema for a year or two now, and to be honest there’s little in the film that really stands out. It’s a well-played drama, and Williams is good without actually shining in the role – but the story is so low-key the film seems sadly lacking in drama for much of its length. I’ll be watching Reichardt because I think her importance to US cinema is under-estimated, but there’s not much in Wendy and Lucy that suggests any promise of greatness. It’s an enjoyable and subtle drama, but not especially memorable.

Austeria, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1983, Poland). The title is apparently a term used by Polish Jews to refer to an inn. And in this case, it’s toward the end of the WWI, and is chiefly concerned with the Germans fleeing through the area, pursued by the Cossacks. The Jews have already left, but the innkeeper insists on staying on. And… The Hateful Eight, this is not. In a good way. For a start, there’s more than eight people staying in the inn. And there are also lots of Jewish rituals – to such an extant, they actually break the world of the film by presenting a service so much better subscribed, and better resourced, than could possibly be the case. Bits of Austeria had a Tarkovskian feel, in that way Tarkovsky dramatised inevitability, and its acceptance, so well. In other respects, Austeria felt like a typical Polish historical drama – it is, it must be said, easier to judge the verismilitude of UK historical dramas because it is the history I grew up in (well, actually, I didn’t; as I grew up in the Middle East), unlike US historical dramas, because the US doesn’t have a history… which is a long-winded way of saying that Polish history, indeed Middle European history, is mostly a blank to me. Which means I’m going to find a film in such a setting more convincing than someone who is a product of that history. I thought Austeria  made a good fist of its period, but my judgement means little. Kawalerowicz was a name new to me, and I’ve explored Polish cinema, until I watched Pharoah (see here), but he looks to have an interesting oeuvre. Austeria was one of the better films from the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets…

Night Train, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1959, Poland). I’ve no idea how I ended up watching two Kawalerowicz mvoies in a row, I guess it was just the way they came out of the box. And this was a much earlier film too – black-and-white, as well. It’s set entirely aboard a train, as a man argues asbout his compartment and then finds himself involved in a murder. Given the British approach to trains – we invented them, we are now apparently incapable of operating them in a way that works for their passengers – I’m always somewhat bemused by films set on trains in other countries. Yes, we had sleepers in the UK, but that was long before I was born, while many European countries still operate them. But much as I’d like to complain about British trains, and the Tories who created the current railway situation, and the people stupid or racist enough to vote for the Tories, because, let’s face it, if you vote for a party and they get into power and start doing really shit things, and the Tories certainly have, then you are responsible for that, but I’m supposed to be writing about Night Train. Which was Hitchcockian in the sense that De Palma’s film are Hitchcockian – ie, they emulate the master. But Kawalerowicz was clearly frying other fish, and though Night Train has the appearance of a Hitchcockian thriller, and is too straightforward to be any kind of  allegory for Poland’s political situation of the time, it still manages a flavour all its own. Night Train is not a film I’d have sought out on its own merits, but it’s one of the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema so I watched it and I’m glad I did.

1001 Movies You Must See  Before you Die count: 860

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Moving pictures, #64

Another mixed bag of films. I seem to be sticking to my plan of seeing more world cinema than Hollywood cinema, however…

the_bowThe Bow, Kim Ki-duk (2005, South Korea). David Tallerman had recommended Ki-duk’s 3-Iron and it was very good, but he also pointed out that not all of Ki-duk’s movies would be to my taste… although this one might be. Yes, it was to my taste; no, it wasn’t as good as 3-Iron. An old man and a teenage girl live on a boat, which they hire out to people wanting to deep sea fish. The old man plans to marry the girl when she is seventeen. He also has a bow, which he sometimes uses to keep unruly cusotmers in line. The girl says nothing. She also helps him with his party trick, in which she sits on a swing before a target painted on the hull of their boat, while he stands on another boat and shoots arrows at the target. And, er, that’s about it. Well, there’s a romance plot, when a student falls in love with the girl. And the old man sometimes turns his bow into a musical instrument and plays it. But this is not a film which makes an effort to ensure the viewer knows what’s going on. But then, the film works mostly because Ki-duk keeps things enigmatic. Worth seeing.

4a-dog-star-man-preludePrelude: Dog Star Man*, Stan Brakhage (1961, USA). Avant garde cinema has been around as along as, well, cinema, and yet the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list features only a handful of examples – early Buñuel, who probably doesn’t count anyway, Meshes of the Afternoon from the 1940s, Baillie and Brakhage from the 1960s, Benning from the 1990s… and all but Buñuel from the US, as if no one but Americans made experimental or avant garde films. Which is nonsense. (Not that I know enough about avant garde film to name directors from other countries, but there are plenty of books on the subject available from a large online retailer…) Having said that, Dog Star Man is apparently highly regarded and considered a watershed work in American avant garde cinema. It’s a sequence of six short films made between 1961 and 1964, but only the first, Prelude, is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I found a copy of it on Youtube, I think the entire series is on there. Prelude: Dog Man Star is a montage of soundless moving images, many superimposed: prominences on the sun, clouds, a  city at night, trees, washes of colour, scratches, even some bubble-bath. It’s not as mesmerising as the static shots in Benning’s films, but there’s definitely a poetry to the play of images. I guess I should watch the rest of the sequence sometime.

i_clownsI Clowns, Federico Fellini (1970, Italy). I have become a fan of Fellini’s films after many years of only knowing La Dolce Vita and, later, . It was Satyricon and Casanova that did it, of course. They’re so bonkers, how could I not want to see more films by their director? And Roma was good too. But it’s not like I rushed out and bought every Fellini film available on DVD or Blu-ray, and, in fact, I only bought I Clowns because it was going cheap in a Black Friday sale. (I did have it on my rental list, however.) The title is not a veiled reference to Graves or Asimov but simply the Italian for The Clowns. And the title pretty much describes the film. It opens with an extended performance of a group of clowns in a circus, before showing those clowns out and about out of costume. It’s part documentary and part fiction. Wikipedia claims it was “incorrectly referred as the first mockumentary”, although, to be honest, it doesn’t come across as a mockumentary. Clowns are strange creatures, their personas and appearance deliberately designed to generate laughter, but they can also be creepy as fuck. The ones in I Clowns are pretty typical in that regard.

beyondStar Trek Beyond, Justin Lin (2016, USA). The original Star Trek movies were pretty bland, and turned blander as the series progressed, but at least they weren’t stupid films. And if there’s one thing the rebooted Trek films are, it’s stupid. The first two films made no sense and had plot holes you could fly the Enterprise through. Star Trek Beyond is slightly better than the previous two, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. It opens with Kirk bored after three years of his five-year mission and applying for a promotion to vice-admiral. This is the cadet who failed to graduate from Starfleet Academy, but they put him in command of their best ship anyway, and now he expects to make vice-admiral three years after not graduating? WTF? Anyway, before Kirk can be leapfrogged over all those Starfleet officers with the decades of experience necessary for the job, the Enterprise is sent to retrieve an escape pod, which results in them trying to rescue a lost crew on a world hidden behind one of those asteroid belts you only ever see in bad sf, you know, the ones where the rocks are metres apart instead thousands of kilometres. And then a villain makes mincemeat of the Enterprise, and I sort of lost the plot around then, or probably the film did, as it turned into the usual bollocks with the hardy upright folk of Starfleet completely out of their depth against a super-powerful alien but they still manage to win the day anyway. Not that the asteroid belt was the only bollocks in the film. I noted at one point that the Enterprise’s artificial gravity worked fine except when it looked cool if everyone was thrown about the ship when it crashed. Other than that, villain Idris Elba was under so much much alien make-up you have to wonder why they bothered casting a marquee name, the Enterprise’s crash totally ripped off the same thing from the previous franchise, Karl Urban still does a mean Bones but the rest of the cast are rubbish, and the whole thing feels like an over-extended episode from a crap TV show.

puppetmasterThe Puppetmaster*, Hou Hsiao Hsien (1993, Taiwan). One thing that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has shown me is how piss-poor the UK is at making films available on DVD. The latest Hollywood shit, no problem; but world cinema, or even classic Hollywood, and it’s absolutely useless. Most of Satyajit Ray’s oeuvre is available – no doubt because he was championed by Merchant Ivory – but only two of Ritwik Ghatak’s films (and the remastered edition of one is available in the US but not here). There’s plenty of wu xia and Chinese historical epics available on DVD in the UK, but only a handful by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien… so I ended up buying a box set of five Hou films on eBay from South Korea (and the “box set” proved to be five DVDs in the cardboard box in which they were sent…). The Puppetmaster is one of Hou’s best-known films, and is essentially a sort of dramatised reminiscence by a, er, puppeteer who was forced to propagandize for the Japanese during their occupation of the country in World War II. The film opens with the puppetmaster discussing his birth, and how he came to be registered twice under two names. At intervals, as an old man, he talks directly to camera, as if being interviewed. Hou has two films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list I’m using, although others by him regularly crop up on other lists. The Puppetmaster certainly belongs on the list, and I’m now looking forward to watching the rest of my “box set”.

heroesHeroes, Samir Karnik (2008, India). Bollywood is not all 3-hour-long rom coms with songs and dances, it tackles other genres and subjects too. In fact, but for the inclusion of song and dance routines, it pretty much covers the same bases as Hollywood. In Hollywood, Heroes would be a serious drama, with a po-faced cast all gunning for an award. In Bollywood, it’s just as serious, but it also features broad comedy and dance routines. A war reporter interviews three soldiers in the Indian Army fighting in, I think, the Kargil War. The soldiers each give the reporter a letter to post on his return to civilisation, but the reporter later learns all three were killed in action. Three years later, a pair of slacker student fail to graduate from film school and need to make a graduation film. A friend in the army prompts them to make their topic “why you shouldn’t join the armed forces”, and the girlfriend of one of the pair puts them in touch with someone who could help… the war reporter from earlier. He gives them the three letters he was given by the dead soldiers – throughout the film they’re referred to as “martyred”, which is just… odd – and suggests they deliver them by hand and make that the subject of their graduation film. So the two load up their motorcycle, and head off to the Punjab to deliver the first letter, written by a Sikh soldier. They discover that the widow and young son are extremely proud of the soldier, as indeed is the whole village. The second letter, they deliver to the wheelchair-using brother of the dead soldier, who used to be a fighter pilot. The ex-pilot now teaches kids to stand up for themselves, but is proud of his brother’s sacrifice. There’s also a jaw-dropping action sequence in a bar when the ex-pilot takes on a gang of rowdies and beats the crap out of them, and pretty much demolishes the bar, first from his wheelchair, and then from the floor after they’ve managed to tip him over. The final letter is addressed to the dead soldier’s colonel and proves to be a request for leave. There’s an unposted card in the soldier’s file, so the colonel gives it to the film students for them to deliver to the family. But the family don’t seem especially bothered, and one of the film students accuses the dead soldier of cowardice for wanting leave during the height of the war. The dead soldier’s mother plays them a tape of her son, proving he was a hero. Heroes is all a bit jingoistic, deliberately so, but it’s palatable because the film is based on the Bollywood model, with songs and dances and daft comedy. Entertaining, but it did lay its “love your country” message on a bit thick.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 833


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Moving pictures, #53

I think I’m managing a decent balance of countries in my film-viewing – France currently scores highest after the USA and UK (then Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada and Sweden…). But I would like to improve it. I’ve found a good source for African films, and emailed them to ask if they deliver to the UK – but no reply yet. Some other nations’ cinemas are much harder to find films… like Albania. It apparently has a thriving film industry, has even produced a handful of festival favourites… but finding copies on DVD is proving difficult. I shall continue to look, however. Meanwhile…

jungle_bookThe Jungle Book, Wolfgang Reitherman (1968, USA). I can remember the first time I saw this film. It was in the gym at the Doha English-Speaking School in Qatar, sometime around 1970 or 1971. (I’m a founding pupil of two English-speaking schools in the Middle East.) We also had an LP of songs from the film, and given I heard the songs so often during my childhood, I may well have confabulated that into multiple viewings of the film. So I was quite keen to watch it again (in contrast to, say, 101 Dalmatians, which I had no firm memories of ever seeing as a kid, but suspected I might have done). And… it was okay. I had expected it to be better than it was. The animation was nowhere near as beautiful as that of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and while the songs were mostly very memorable… that was all they were. It all felt a bit weak. Which was weird. I couldn’t help comparing it to 101 Dalmations, which I had not expected to like when I saw it a couple of months ago, but found quite charming. I’m not sure where The Jungle Book fits in the Disney canon – I’m not that much of a fan of their films, to be honest, and am only working my way through them out of a sense of completeness (and a vain hope of being blown away again as I was when I watched Sleeping Beauty). At the moment, myself I’d classify The Jungle Book as middling Disney – not great, but not awful; fun, with catchy songs but an unmemorable story.

eccentricitiesEccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl, Manoel de Oliveira (2009, Portugal). Among the countries from which I had not seen a film was Portugal. (I can’t find a felicitous way of phrasing that which emphasises the country, but what I mean is: I had never seen a film from Portugal.) So I hunted around on LoveFilm, and found this, Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl, directed by Maniel de Oliviera. And… it was good, very good. It felt like a dramatisation of a story by Karen Blixen. Which is a compliment. A man on a train introduces himself to the woman sitting beside him, and then proceeds to tell her his life-story. Cue flashback. And it’s a very Blixen-like story. In the apartment across the street from the man’s office lived a young woman. He fell in love with her, and arranged to meet her. They were drawn to each other and decided to marry. But his uncle, who is his guardian and employer, wouldn’t let him marry, and fired him when he insisted on going ahead with it. In desperation, the man accepted a job from a friend running a plantation on Cape Verde. A few years later, he returned, having made his fortune. He again asked the young woman to marry him, and she accepted. But another friend asked him to stand guarantor to a business venture… but then disappeared with all the cash, leaving the young man penniless once again. He was offered the job in Cape Verde a second time… but managed to reconcile with his uncle and so turned it down. Now, he had his original job back, his uncle would pay for the wedding, everything was working fine… but the fiancée turned out to be a kleptomaniac (hinted at throughout the film) and so he rejected her. At only 64 minutes, this is a pretty economical film. But it has that literary quality with which the best directors can imbue their movies. It feels like an adaptation of a literary story (it is: by Eça de Quierós), it feels like The Immortal Story or Babette’s Feast. Recommended; and I have added more films by de Oliveira to my rental list.

mutinyMutiny on the Bounty*, Frank Lloyd (1935, USA). Some stories seem to become so much a part of Western Anglophone culture there’s no real need to read the book or see the film or watch the play or hear the song… and so it is with Mutiny on the Bounty, in which the crew of an English ship in the late eighteenth century mutiny, set their evil captain and his sycophants adrift in a boat, settled down to a life of ease on a Pacific island, only for the captain to survive a 7,000 mile ocean journey, set the Royal Navy on the mutineers, and so bring them to justice. And the story goes: that Captain Bligh was a total monster, Fletcher Christian was an Everyman hero, and bad luck and circumstances prevented the mutineers from living the fruitful and paradisical lives they deserved. At least, so Hollywood would have you believe. It’s true that history has demonised Bligh, and Hollywood – in this film especially – fixed that version in the public consciousness. But apparently he was a good captain, and Christian was far from the selfless hero played by, in this movie, Clarke Gable. But that’s all by the bye – it’s a Hollywood film, historical accuracy is not in the product description. I had, however, expected to be mostly unimpressed by Mutiny on the Bounty. But it made a surprisingly excellent fist of life aboard an eighteenth-century sailing vessel, and the storm scenes in particular were done well. Not bad.

electraElectra, My Love, Miklós Jancsó (1974, Hungary). This may be one of the most bonkers films I have ever seen. I have seen a number of bonkers films. I have seen all of Jancsó’s films available on DVD in the UK; Jancsó makes bonkers films. But even by his lights, this is an odd one. Now I love the declamatory nature of Jancsó’s films, and I like the continual movement – of the camera, of the cast – that he uses. But even so, Electra, My Love seemed weirder than I was used to from Jancsó. As the title suggests, it’s about Electra, a thorn in the side of the tyrant Aegisthus who had murdered her father, Agamemnon, fifteen years earlier. And the film plays out Electra’s story, as her brother Orestes, believed dead, reappears in disguise, reveals himself, kills Aegisthus, and takes power. But given that this is a Jancsó film… The story takes place in the middle of nowhere, a grassy plain with no evidence of civilisation other than the crude buildings which feature in the film. And while Electra walks about declaiming, there is a cast of several hundred in continual movement about and around her, including men with whips, dwarves with cymbals, naked women and men dancing, marching bands, dancers with sticks, and a giant ball. It’s like watching a Greek myth in interpretative dance with dramatic dialogues on top. It shouldn’t work, it should feel pretentious to the nth degree… But Jancsó’s genius is that he does make it work, that it comes across as a somewhat peculiar staging of the story, but a staging that adds to the story rather than obscures it. Jancsó is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but I count myself a fan.

springSpring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, Kim Ki-duk (2003, South Korea). The title refers to the “seasons” of a monk’s lifetime. He lives in a tiny monastery which sits in the middle of a lake, and at various points in his life, events happen which are documented under the seasons of the title. The Wikipedia entry – see here – has an excellent description of them. I will admit, I am woefully uninformed when it comes to the creed and practices of Buddhism (but then I’ve never read the Bible, Talmud or Qur’an either), so much of the symbolism in this film went straight over my head. Which may be why, despite its often gorgeous cinematography, I think I like Ki-duk’s 3-Iron more – although Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is plainly the better-looking film. But then Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring is a film which succeeds because of its photography. The plot starts out as a series of vignettes, and any story-arc feels like something of an after-thought, but the film’s biggest draw, its Buddhist symbology, would be likely lost on all but students of the religion (but then, who catches every reference in a literary novel?). Both 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring were recommendations from David Tallerman, who I believe counts Ki-duk among his favourite directors… and while my tastes usually lie a little closer to home – ie, from India through the Middle East and Africa to Russia and Northern Europe – and my knowledge of Far Eastern cinema is patchy at best, I do think I’d like to see more by this director.

chinoiseLa Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I think I can ditch my Theory of Godard, it’s plainly complete nonsense. It’s not as if I can split out his famous “political” films either, and declare they don’t work for me – because some of them do. I suspect that if there is something in common to the Godard films I like, it’s that his focus in the ones I like seems to be more on experimenting with narrative forms than it is on just his cast. So in Weekend, he told a surreal story; in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, he tried several different narrative forms; and in Détective, he set out to tell a mystery story that could not be parsed in one sitting. But in La Chinoise, it’s all about the cast members monologuing to camera – especially his new wife of the time, Anne Wiazemsky – and while its story (it can hardly be called a plot) presages the student revolts of a couple of years later while simultaneously mocking left-wing student politics, it still possesses Godard’s baffling love of US iconography. The end result is not one of his most gripping, although some of the jokes are good, and the overall structure is interesting, if not entirely successful. Back in 2002 (I could have sworn it was a year or two earlier as I seem to remember buying the DVD while in Abu Dhabi, probably from Amazon), but anyway, in that year I saw my first Godard, À bout de souffle. It was also, I think, my first exposure to the Nouvelle Vague. I have never really considered myself a fan of French New Wave cineman, but the more of Godard’s oeuvre I watch, the more I admire him for his body of work and the more of his films I find that I do like. La Chinoise, I think, is currently borderline – but I’d like to watch it again sometime, so who knows…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 808


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Moving pictures, #40

This is the second Moving pictures post in which I’ve not watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Oh well. I have, on the other hand, now watched all of the Sokurov films I now own. But there are still a couple more I’m after before I have everything he has made. And two US films out of six isn’t bad, I can live with that.

dialoguesDialogues with Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Sokurov (1998, Russia). I was dead chuffed at getting hold of this. The only copy I’d seen available was priced around £180, which was way too much for me (it’s now £220, I see). But then I realised Sokurov was spelt Sokourov by the French, so I googled that… and found a copy of Dialogues avec Soljenitsyne for €30 on Amazon.fr – and all the packaging was French/English, and the DVD included English subtitles. Result. I tried watching it earlier this year, but decided to leave it until I’d read some Solzhenitsyn… and having now read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I can quite categorically say it made bugger-all difference. The DVD contains two made-for-TV short films – ‘The Knot’ and ‘Dialogues’, both of which involve Sokurov interviewing Solzhenitsyn. ‘The Knot’ opens as a documentary about the writer, using archive footage and voice-over – typically Sokurovian in other words. But then it becomes Sokurov and Solzhenitsyn talking as they walk through a wood near the writer’s home – also typically Sokurovian. To be honest, there’s not much in either film which suggests why Solzhenitsyn is a Nobel laureate author – of course, the proof of that lies in his written works. As mentioned earlier, I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, and I thought it interesting but not world-shattering literature. While Solzhenitsyn comes across as a very clever bloke, and well-informed on the history and literature of Russia, at times his position as an icon of contemporary Russian culture doesn’t seem entirely clear. This may well be because only a fraction of his works have made it out of Russian – despite his much-publicised flight to the West and subsequent career at US universities (I was horribly reminded of Nabokov’s Pale Fire while watching this part of the documentary about Solzhenitsyn’s past). Having said that, watching the two films did make me want to read Solzhnetisyn’s Red Wheel series… but only two of the books, August 1914 and November 1916, have so far been published in English; and it doesn’t look like the rest will ever be translated. Bah. But I think I’ll try some more Solzhenitsyn.

moonwalkersMoonwalkers, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet (2015, France). What I knew: a comedy about an attempt to fake the Apollo 11 Moon landing in case it failed. What I didn’t know: a French comedy set in Swinging Sixties UK, with Ron Perlman as some sort of CIA über-agent and the ginger guy from Harry Potter as the star. What I found out: it’s not very funny. Perlman is tasked with persuading Stanley Kubrick to film a fake Moon landing just in case Apollo 11 doesn’t make it. But his paperwork gets damaged en route to the UK, so he has no way of identifying Kubrick. Which proves less than helpful after bumping into prog rock group manager Rupert Grint, who promises him he can hire Kubrick. Of course, it’s not Kubrick, it’s his whacked-out mate. End result: random German Warhol-ish director is tasked with making Moon landing footage, prog rock band (especially egotistical lead singer) think it’s a promo video for their music, falsetto gangster is after Grint because he owes him money, and Perlman is slowly unravelling from a combination of Vietnam PTSD and accidental weed and acid intake. So much laughs. You’d think. But this film seems to be more interested in slo-mo violence and gore. It doesn’t help that Grint acts like he’s in a school play and Perlman does his Perlman thing. The supporting cast at least manage their bits well. But the whole is definitely not better than the sum of its parts. An entirely forgettable comedy, which struggles for humour.

el_doradoEl Dorado, Howard Hawks (1966, USA). Hawks made a lot of Westerns – unlike Preminger, who only made one – and they do have a tendency to blur into one, possibly because he kept on remaking the same bloody story. After all, Rio Lobo is pretty much Rio Bravo (much as I love the latter); and even this one, El Dorado, follows the same story beats as those two. John Wayne: check. Drunken sheriff: check. Who sobers up for the showdown: check. Evil cattle baron: check. Feisty female character: check. Hawks does ring a few changes on his formula in El Dorado, however. Wayne plays a gun-for-hire who turns down an offer of work from cattle baron Ed Asner after learning of his true plans from local sheriff and old friend Robert Mitchum. An unfortunate encounter results in Wayne receiving a rifle bullet which lodges by his spine and occasionally paralyses him. Later, in a saloon, Wayne steps in when James Caan avenges his mentor’s death – so introducing McLeod, another gunslinger, who has signed up with Asner. When Wayne learns that Mitchum has turned into a useless drunk, thanks to a woman running out on him, Wayne and Caan decide to prevent Asner and McLeod from succeeding. The rest pretty much works itself out as this sort of story does. I have probably seen more Westerns than I ever wanted, or expected to, and some of them have been actually quite impressive. This one wasn’t. Even for fans of Hawks or Wayne, or both, it’s still probably considered a by-the-numbers entry. Entirely forgettable.

too_late_bluesToo Late Blues, John Cassavetes (1961, USA). A Cassavetes film I actually quite liked! That must be cause for celebration. And yet the music which forms the heart of this film – instrumental jazz – is so bland and inoffensive, it might as well be elevator music. Getting Stella Stevens to croon wordlessly over the top of it – which is pretty much the film’s plot – doesn’t improve it one jot. Bobby Darin plays a jazz musician and composer, who is happy to play bland lite instrumental jazz, although his band are hungry for success. He meets Stevens and decides to add her to the act. They try to cut a record. In a bar, Darin refuses to defend himself when a drunk tries it on with Stevens… and so the two split. He plays lite jazz for hire, she becomes a prostitute. It’s not a pretty picture. The film works because Cassavetes manages to get the viewer invested in the characters. Darin was inspired casting – he looks so innocuous, and yet he dresses and acts like he’s some kind of stud (I don’t know if that’s Darin being a star when the film was made, or just acting – hard to tell with a lot of US “actors”). Stevens, who always had more acting chops than most of her roles required, shows what she’s capable of, although in the singing department she’s hardly memorable. But the two stand-outs are Everett Chambers as Darin’s oleaginous agent and Cliff Carnell as the band’s bluff saxophonist. I’m a long way from becoming a fan of Cassavetes’s films – although I seem to have watched enough of them – but I thought this one more impressive than the others.

lamourL’amour braque, Andrzej Żuławski (1985, France). This may well be the most 1980s film ever made. And it’s not like there isn’t strong competition – like, er, Bruce Willis’s entire career pre-The Sixth Sense. True, it’s a French film, and that’s not something that immediately comes to mind when you think of 1980s films. But the over-acting Żuławski appears to demand of his cast, when married to a 1980s soundtrack and lots of shoulderpads, seems so 1980s it’s almost painful. The story, on the other hand, is the usual Żuławski tosh. Tchéky Karyo leads a gang of bank-robbers, and after the successful heist which opens the film, they stumble across Frances Huster, the somewhat bland lead of Jacques Demy’s Parking, and sort of adopt him. Huster then falls for Karyo’s girlfriend, Sophie Marceau… and there you have the romantic triangle Żuławski loves to structure his movies around. Like most Żuławski films, it’s all very intense, and the cast clearly give it their all, although the story is not quite as interesting as his other films. In fact, it all feels very much like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Żuławski treatment, much like Subway felt like a fairly ordinary 1980s French thriller given the Besson treatment… back when “the Besson treatment” meant something. Having said all that, Mondo Vision have been doing an amazing job on these Żuławski re-releases. I missed the first two – L’important c’est d’aimer and Possession – but I’m definitely keeping track of them from now on…

3-iron3-Iron, Kim Ki-duk (2004, Korea). I was somewhat puzzled when the rental service sent this as I knew nothing about the film and couldn’t think why I’d added to my list. But it turned out to be one recommended by David Tallerman, and his suggestions have generally proven quite good – although this was definitely the best to date. A homeless drifter tapes take-away menus over the keyholes of houses and flats, so he can tell if the places are occupied. Once he has ascertained they are empty, he breaks in and stays there – and while he’s there, he fixes broken appliances and does the residents’ laundry. But one such property proves to be still occupied: by the wife of an abusive husband. The wife leaves the husband and joins the drifter, but when they occupy an apartment owned by an old man who has died of lung cancer, the drifter is charged with his murder. While in prison, the drifter hones his skill at “invisibility”. Reviews have apparently focused on the fact that neither of the two leads actually speak during the film, but the true genius of 3-Iron is that it makes the drifter’s invisibility entirely plausible. It’s not authorial fiat, as in Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, but a carefully-practiced skill, with a narrative history… and that’s what makes it work. It helps that the film looks pretty good too, and the cast do an excellent job with a script that has no lines for them to speak. I really liked this. An excellent film that took an interesting approach to interesting material. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 792