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Moving pictures 2017, #65

Some lucky finds in this batch. I don’t know how many TV channels I get via Virgin Media, but there are so many repeats and so much crap on them it’s near impossible to find anything worthwhile to watch. So I don’t usually bother. The same is true of Amazon Prime, although I’ve managed to find an occasional gem. The advantage of Amazon Prime, or indeed any streaming service, is that when you find something worth watching, you can watch it whenever you want, you don’t have tune in at a specific time. Not all free-to-air channels have apps or players, after all.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Francesco Barilli (1974, Italy). As I’d enjoyed the gialli I’d seen, when I found this one on Amazon Prime, I stuck it on my watch list. It was more of a supernatural thriller than the others I’ve watched, but despite being cheap and cheerful was really quite effective. Mimsy Farmer plays an industrial chemist who has mysterious visions of a young girl, and it turns out they’re sort of flashbacks, or rather manifestations from her repressed memories, especially those surrounding her mother, who committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. Not all films made in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy are giallo, and although many of them take their inspirations from the cheap comics after which they’re named, some managed to rise above their genre. True, most of the ones I’ve seen have managed that, but I suspect I’m seeing the cream of the crop. The Perfume of the Lady in Black was another good one – not the cheap giallo its title promised, but an atmospheric supernatural thriller that even the Italian film industry’s cheap production values could not completely destroy. Worth seeing.

200 Pounds Beauty, Kim Yong-hwa (2006, South Korea). There was that Farrelly brothers film years ago, famous chiefly for Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, in which Jack Black is hypnotised to see the “inner beauty” of people – well, women – and so sees Paltrow as really hot rather the fat-suited character she plays. And while there’s almost nothing to recommend the film, other than its overall message of not judging people by their appearances, it manages better than this recent and highly successful South Korean rom com. Hanna Kang is a ghost singer for pop star Ammy. She is also very overweight. But she fancies the svengali behind Ammy’s career, and mistakes his kindness for interest (human, rather than financial). When she learns the truth, she walks away. And undergoes extensive plastic surgery to reduce her weight. She auditions for her old job, pretending to be a Korean-American called Jenny, but is instead groomed as a pop star in her own right, so eclipsing Ammy and winning the heart of the man of her dreams… Of course, no rom com can end happily on false pretences, so Hanna comes clean but still gets her man and her career. The comedy is quite good, but I’m really not sure about the message of the film. The same actress plays Hanna and “Jenny”, and the make-up is extremely effective. But it all feels very old-fashioned and fat-shaming,

Captains Courageous* Victor Fleming (1937, USA). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I wasn’t truthfully expecting all that much from it. An early Hollywood film, one of those mystifying choices they stuck on list because it’s so, well, Hollywood-centric, but never mind, I’ll watch it. And… it was actually a good film. Not at all what I expected. It’s based on a Rudyard Kipling novel, but there are significant changes from the book which, to me, make the film a great deal better. (Er, not, I hasten to add, that I’ve read the book. I’m going on the Wikipedia plot summary.) Harvey is the spoilt son of a billionaire, and if the film had been about his adventures at school it would have been irritating as shit… But, yes, while he’s painted as an annoying little manipulative prick, his last attempt goes awry and he’s rusticated. So his father – his mother had died years before – decides to take him to Europe on a business trip in an attempt to bond. But the lad falls off the cruise liner just off the US coast… and is picked up by a fisherman out of Massachusetts. But the fishing schooner will not return to port for another three months so Harvey is forced to work for his passage. And it makes a decent person of him. It’s typical Kipling, and the Hollywood treatment is manipulative as hell, but it’s actually quite affecting. Having Spencer Tracy play a Portugese fisherman with poor English is appalling casting. and if they’d wanted him that desperately in the role they could have rewritten it, or done the right thing and cast a Latino actor… But this was 1937, and Hollywood was busy making sure only white people got to do anything. As they are still doing today. I’ll be honest: I was expecting another forgettable Hollywood film from the 1930s for this entry in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I actually thought Captains Courageous done quite well. Worth seeing.

Paisan*, Roberto Rossellini (1946, Italy). I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism, although I’ve seen plenty of films that qualify as it. I have, to date, watched three of Rossellini’s films, although plenty more by his contemporaries, such as Fellini, De Sica, Pasolini… Paisan, or Paisà, comprises six unrelated stories set during the Allied liberation of Italy. It’s done on the cheap – with a mostly non-professional cast – but it actually works quite well for the stories the movie tells. As the Germans move out, the Americans move in.  But only some of the Italians welcome them. The rest expect the Germans to return and defeat the Americans, and uphold the rule of fascism. Even though this film was made 70 years ago, immediately after a long war against fascists, there were still those who’d sooner follow Mussolini or Hitler. and yes, they were just as stupid back then as they are now. Because there’s nothing remotely intelligent in the right-wing world-view – but, as someone astutely pointed out on Twitter recently, common sense and/or logic is no antidote to thirty years of brainwashing that liberalism/socialism will destroy civilisation. Paisan is set, in effect, at the end of civilisation – ie, a country torn by a long global war… and for those who lived there it’s easy to imagine how liberators could be seen as invaders. Which is somewhat ironic, given that in the twenty-first centry invaders tend to be presented as liberators anyway… I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealist films, nor of many of those made in Italy in the immediate aftermath of WWII (and let’s not forget, they were Axis), but Paisan was actally pretty damn good. It deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Come Drink With Me*, King Hu (1966, China). I’d had trouble finding a copy of this to watch as it seems it has never been released in the UK… and then it pops up on Amazon Prime. So there you go. It’s a Hong Kong historical martial arts/wu xia film, by the director of A Touch of Zen, and notable chiefly because its lead is female. And, er, that’s it. It’s a fun film, in much the same way wu xia films from the 1960s are fun films. The lead character, Golden Swallow, played by Cheng Pei-pei, is referred to as “sir” throughout, but I don’t know if that’s because others are meant to take her as male – and they profess to know the name Golden Swallow, and her reputation – or because treating her as male is a sign of respect. Which is odd. Other than that, Come Drink With Me‘s plot is pretty straightforward and little different to that of other films of its type and time, or indeed of other King Hu films. I enjoyed it, but then I do like a good wu xia… but I’m not convinced it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list. If its one claim to fame is having a female lead, then the film should be celebrated, but it seems a bit hypocritical to put it on the list for that for Hong Kong cinema and not do the same of Hollywood cinema. Call it a film that fans of martial arts or wu xia films should watch, and leave it at that.

Utopia, James Benning (1998, USA). I’m pretty sure my favourite form of art is the video installation – and I’ve explored these in a number of  cities’ museums – but such installations generally comprise looped films of no more than 30 minutes in length. Benning’s films are often long – this one is nearly 90 minutes. And yet, they’re not non-narrative cinema either, as that would be Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka. Benning’s films are art. But they’re a moving picture, and, unlike video installations, the installation itself is the same as that of narrative cinema. (Mostly, although some of Benning’s works are actual installations.) The really interesting thing about Benning’s films, or at least many of them, is that they resemble non-narrative films but present a narrative in non-traditional ways. In Casting a Glance, it’s a recreation of the water levels throughout the lifetime of Spiral Jetty; in El Valley Centro, it’s the position of the horizon in each 2.5 minute shot; in Deseret, it’s excerpts from the New York Times, read out over short static footage of the state of Utah; and so on… I like the fact some of these “narratives” are extra-textual; I like that they are not obvious; and I certainly like that they require work by the viewer to make sense. In Utopia, a female voice describes the life of Che Guevera, while the camera shows static shots – I’m not sure of the exact length, or if it is indeed exact, but it seems to be about two minutes each – of desert countryside from the southern US, including some industrial landscapes. It is a story told through voices, in which the pictures extend that story, a reverse if you will of the common approach to cinematic narrative. As a creator of video installations, Benning would reign supreme, but his films are too long. He is a unique talent, and his films are amazing works of art. But his works are difficult to see, with only half a dozen or so released on DVD and assorted other ones appearing every now and again on Youtube. And yet… when I consider a painting, a reproduction of it gives me access to that painting, but I would often still like to see its original, in a museum or gallery. Video installations are very much a product of their, well, installation, and so must be seen in situ to appreciate best. But Benning’s films? Is watching one at a film festival any different to watching it at home on DVD or Youtube app? Given that the presentation of video installations is an element of the art, but for Benning’s films that’s not true, I suspect not. Where you watch Benning is unimportant. Given that, I’d urge him to make all of his works freely available. These are important works, they need to be as visible as prints of famous artworks.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 888

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Moving pictures, #20

Bit of an epic Moving pictures post this time as I try to get up to date with my recent viewing. The usual mixture of movies, of course, although perhaps a few too many American ones. Never mind.

nightwatchingNightwatching, Peter Greenaway (2007, UK). This is the first of Greenaway’s “Dutch masters” trilogy – I actually saw the second one first, Goltzius and the Pelican Company– and this time is about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Played by, of all people, Martin Freeman. This is very much the Greenway I remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, although it was the sets, rather than the staging and camera work, that made it feel more like a play than a film. I’d not really enjoyed Goltzius and the Pelican Company, and when I started watching Nightwatching I didn’t initially think Freeman was very convincing as Rembrandt, but he won me over and the movie definitely turned more interesting as it progressed. Not bad.

before_i_go_to_sleepBefore I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffe (2014, UK). So I got my Fire TV Stick, and went looking on it for a movie to watch, and this looked like a recent thriller that might do the job and… oof. What a nasty film. I’m sorry, but when your plot is predicated on violence toward women, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Nicole Kidman plays an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing what has happened to her over the past decade. Her husband, Colin Firth, explains that she was in a car accident, and suffered brain damage. Except that’s not true. As she slowly discovers, partly as a result of documenting each day secretly, something therapist Mark Strong has suggested to her. The final twist is, to be honest, a bit obvious. Despite the cast and the polished production, this leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Best avoided.

leviathanLeviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014, Russia). Perhaps Russian films such as Night Watch and Black Lightning might have got all the box office, but Russia has churned out some quality drama too (and not just by my beloved Aleksandr Sokurov). Kolya is a car mechanic, whose land has been compulsory-purchased by the town council, allegedly for a transmitter; but Kolya is pretty sure the corrupt mayer just wants to build himself a house there. He’s tried the local court, but they’re in the pocket of the mayor. As are the police. And the purchase price is far from what the land is worth. The more Kolya struggles, the worst his situation becomes. So he rants and raves and hits the vodka, but none of it helps. Beautifully-photographed, intensely and depressingly realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

natural_born_killersNatural Born Killers*, Oliver Stone (1994, USA). As indicated by the asterisk, this is one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and I very much doubt I would have otherwise watched it. Or re-watched it. Sort of. Back in the 1990s I bought the CD of the sountrack by Trent Reznor (I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails in those days) and listened to it quite a lot. Unlike other OSTs, the Natural Born Killers one featured dialogue from the film between songs. And there was enough of it to actually peice together the plot of the film. As I discovered when I watched it. Otherwise, the movie seemed to be trying too hard to become a cult film, failing dismally, but in its failure actually getting closer to that status than it did by design. If that makes sense.

A-Place-In-The-Sun-1951-Front-Cover-38596A Place in the Sun*, George Stevens (1951, USA). Hollywood churned out a lot of worthy but dull films during the 1950s and 1960s, usually based on highly-regarded novels – in this case, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This is definitely one of them. Montgomery Clift plays the scion of a poor branch of the family who visits his rich industrialist uncle and asks for a job. He’s given a lowly position, despite being a relative, and is supposed to work his way up the corporate ladder. Because hard work. Because American Dream. Unfortunately, there’s a nubile fly in the ointment in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor and… you know how it goes. Ambitions thwarted by actual situation – personified by women, of course – leading to foolish plan to get rise to top back on track, usually results in someone’s death, hero ends up in prison. The book should have been called An American Cliché. Not worth the effort. Meh.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Melvin Frank (1965, USA). This film is nothing to do with the sf anthology I recently read (see here). This is a Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobridigida vehicle, in which they play divorcees who temporarily get back together because he needs to show he’s happily married to land a job. The film is actually set in London, though clearly only the stock footage was shot there and neither of the stars actually visited the city. It gave the whole film a bit of a soap opera feel. The Technicolor wasn’t up to its usual gorgeousness, the banter felt a bit lacklustre (although Gig Young was excellent), and it all felt even more inconsequential that most movies of this type do. I enjoyed it, but there are better Rock Hudson rom coms / melodramas out there.

aileenAileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer / Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer*, Nick Broomfield (1992/2003, UK). I added the latter to my rental list (because asterisk), but the disc also included the former, so I watched both. Aileen Wuornos was the US’s first serial killer – or at least the first one ever caught. She killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, claiming self-defence after she’d been arrested. But over the course of her trial and her time on death row, she changed her story several times. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documents how the media exploited Wuornos and her trial – some of the police officers involved were paid large sums by Hollywood producers for film rights, for example, and later were made to resign. In Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Broomfield interviews Wuornos shortly before she is executed. If the first film painted her as the victim of a system determined to see her executed because she was a woman serial killer, ten years in prison had clearly unbalanced her. Definitely worth seeing.

the_swiss_conspiracyThe Swiss Conspiracy, Jack Arnold (1976, US/Germany). There’s probably a very good reason why I bought this DVD but I’m buggered if I can remember what it was. The film is a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller starring Ray Milland and David Janssen, and notable only for being shot entirely in Zürich. It’s about, of course, a Swiss bank. Senta Berger and Elke Sommer are watchable, but Janssen is a bit too gravelly for his allegedly louche character, and John Saxon hams it up like a slab of gammon as a mobster. There’s a passable chase scene, but this doesn’t really even pass muster as a Sunday afternoon film.

a_touch_of_zenA Touch Of Zen*, King Hu (1971, Taiwan). This is apparently an important early wu xia film, but I can certainly verify it is a long and dull one. A painter in a small town becomes embroiled with a fugitive from imperial justice, a young woman who’d tried to warn the emperor of his eunuch’s corruption. Although the film is about the woman, Yang, it’s the painter, Ku, who is the centre of the story. I remember that the film was so long it was pslit into two, and Ku seemed mostly a bumbling oaf. Some of the fight scenes looked a little clumsy given the current state of the wu xia art. But mostly I remember that it dragged on and on and on. But I’ve seen it now. Huh.

A-christmas-Story-DVDA Christmas Story*, Bob Clark (1983, USA). If this hadn’t been on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, I’d never have bothered renting it. Certainly there’s nothing in its description which would recommend it to me – a boy’s Christmas, loosely based on a series of nostalgic columns from a US newspaper. And having now seen it, I can thoroughly not recommend it. The writer of the column narrates the film, which is set in the mid-1940s – and bizarrely, there is no mention of WWII, it’s almost as if the US were not at war – and focuses chiefly on the narrator’s boyhood self and his determination to get an air rifle for Christmas – which, of course, no one thinks he should have. I really didn’t like this film. Cloying manufactured nostalgia, which works by elevating the absolutely trivial to emotional life-or-death. Avoid.

hitchcock2The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963, USA). During the recent Prime day on Amazon, I spotted the two Hitchcock collections on Blu-ray going for less than half price. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever purchased – but at that price it was worth “upgrading”. And the first one I watched from my new Blu-ray collection was The Birds from Vol 2, probably because it was a Hitchcock film I’d not rewatched for a long time. As I soon discovered, because I’d completely forgotten the framing story, in which a socialite played by Tippi Hedren flirts with po-faced attorney Rod Taylor in a pet shop, and then drives up the coast to backend-of-nowhere town Bodega Bay where he’s gone to spend the weekend with his widowed mother and much younger sister. She ingratiates herself into the family, and even ends up spending the night Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, who is the local school teacher. And then the birds attack. It’s all a bit random. And the special effects show their age in a number of ways. But Hitch maintains an impressive level of creepiness throughout, and successfully ups the peril as the attacks progress. A bona fide classic.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 611