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Moving pictures 2017, #33

One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which, to be honest, I didn’t much like, a rewatch (after many years), another strange Indian film, I finally cracked open the BBC Shakespeare Collection I bought a couple of years ago, and a pair of dramas, one made in 1970 and one set in 1970…

Buffalo 66*, Vincent Gallo (1998, USA). There are many puzzling films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is, their presence is puzzling, not the film itself, such as all the ones by Woody Allen… but you can add this one to that not-so-select group too. An indie film directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, with a feeble plot, and featuring a central character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s also supposed to be set, I think, in the early 1980s, although it’s hard to tell, and the soundtrack contains some 1970s UK prog rock anyway so who knows. Gallo has just been released from prison, and goes to visit his parents. Except he’s been lying to them for years, about his incarceration, even about his relationship status. So he kidnaps Christina Ricci and demands she impersonate his invented girlfriend. Which she does, for not-actually-discernible reasons, and does it a bit too well for Gallo’s liking. The title is apparently a reference to an American Football game in 1966 or something, as if anyone outside the US either knows or gives a shit about the country’s dumb sports. I really couldn’t see why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – there were a couple of nice-looking scenes, and I actually like 1970s UK prog rock so I  enjoyed hearing the music. But… Buffalo 66 might be an above-average example of its type, but it’s eminently forgettable and doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Duvidha, Mani Kaul (1973, India). Uski Roti (see here) was Kaul’s first film; Duvidha was his third movie. I’m not really sure what to make of them – well, the two I’ve seen so far. I have watched Bollywood, I have watched parallel cinema. I like both, but I love the films of Ritwik Ghatak. And yet Kaul is nothing like either. If anything, he’s more consciously in the tradition of European art-house cinema, but without seeming to settle on a particular style. True, this is after seeing only two of the films on this DVD, but I’ve seen a lot of European art house films, and Kaul’s pacing reminds me of Béla Tarr (although he predates him), and some of his staging reminds me of Sergei Parajanov, and his use of voice-over and dialogue feels more Russian than Indian… In other words, Kaul presents a singular vision, not just in Indian cinema, but internationally… and I’m still trying t work out how much I like it. Duvidha at least boasts a more straightforward narrative than Uski Roti – a young couple marry, and the husband heads off to a distant town for five years to make his fortune… But a ghost in a nearby banyan tree learns of the husband’s plan, and so impersonates him and returns to the wife and takes the husband’s place. It’s based on a story by Vijayadan Detha, which was in turn based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Unlike the previous film, this one is shot in colour, but I can’t tell if the slightly washed-out palette is deliberate or a consequence of the transfer. The framing, however, is obviously down entirely to Kaul, and he shows a considerable amount of inventiveness in placing his camera and framing his shots. The pacing is once again slow, and the story is told through a mixture of voice-over and looped dialogue. There’s a bleakness to the landscapes depicted, something also notable in Uski Roti, but more visible here because the film is in colour. Clearly Kaul deserves his accolades and reputation, but I think I need to watch more of his films – or the ones I have a few more times – before I can get a real handle on his work.

Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1987, Poland). I last watched this over a decade ago – I had a DVD copy of it, which I gave away when I bought the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Blu-ray box sets – and sort of remembered the story when I sat down to rewatch it. You know, the plot… the guy who catches a train, and his life goes one way… but then he doesn’t catch it and his life goes another way… twice. Sort of like Sliding Doors. But Polish. And political. And not a rom com. And without that annoying John Hannah chap. It’s clearly early Kieślowski, with its television staging and heated political arguments. This impression is hardly lessened by the second of the three “alternates”, in which the protagonist fails to make the train, attacks a station official and is arrested… and so ends up in the Polish prison system and becomes a dissident. I’ve seen pretty much everything Kieślowski made – Artificial Eye released most of them on DVD around a decade or so ago – and the one I remember most fondly is No End. Having now rewatched the Three Colours trilogy, after replacing my DVD copies with Blu-rays, I approached this rewatch of Blind Chance with mixed feelings. I’d remembered the basic plot… but I’d forgotten quite dull most of it is. At the time I first watched Blind Chance, I’d not seen much Polish cinema, so the political element of the story I found fascinating. But I’ve since lots of Polish films, and I’m a little better informed on the country’s political history… It’s a bit like… I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and it sometimes seems like its reputation rests on the fact it portrayed life in the USSR as some sort of blackly comic farce… and yet that has always been my impression of the Soviet Union. It is books like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty that are really eye-opening about the USSR. And so Blind Chance – despite its tripartite structure, it doesn’t seem to offer any particular insight, or especially interesting commentary, on the Polish regime of the 1970s and early 1980s. Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron seem, to me, to make their point with much more bite than Blind Chance, although the latter is certainly the cleverer script. I don’t know; I found this rewatch of Blind Chance somewhat disappointing, much as I had the Three Colours rewatch.

Coriolanus, Elijah Moshinsky (1984, UK). I’d been renting DVDs from this box set, but then decided to go and buy so I could watch them at my own pace… so, of course, it’s taken me 18 months to crack open the box set and start watching it. I did rewatch The Comedy of Errors before watching Coriolanus – you know, the one with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing a pair of twins, both of which have the same names (as if), leading to all sorts of mistaken identity merry japes. Coriolanus stars Alan Howard in the title role, a Roman general who reluctantly stands for consul in Rome, and wins. But that pisses off the political classes, and Coriolanus blames it all on the plebians, whom he holds in great contempt. This is not the most edifying of Shakespeare’s plays – kof kof, of the ones I’ve seen; although to be fair there’s few enough of them that qualify as “edifying”. Coriolanus is apparently a tragedy, and not a historical play, although I don’t understand the distinction as surely Roman times were considered historical even in Shakespeare’s day? I mostly remember it as a lot of standing around pontificating in front of “crowds” of a dozen or so people, several after-the-battle scenes, and lot of Coriolanus feeling sorry for himself. Meh.

Say Hello to Yesterday, Alvin Rakoff (1970, UK). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD, and so stuck it on my list. Jean Simmons plays a suburban wife, who travels in to London one day on the train and comes to the attention of flighty young man Leonard Whiting. He badgers her incessantly, on the train and once she has arrived in London. Eventually, she succumbs. They end up in bed in a cheap hotel. He professes his undying love; she is more pragmatic. This is hardly a unique or insightful story, but it is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of its time. Okay, so I don’t actually remember 1970, but I do remember 1975 – and not a great deal had changed in terms of, well, the sort of things that would concern a production designer, during those five years. Everyone drives Minis, everywhere looks grubby, the whole aesthetic is just so naturally early 1970s it’s clearly unforced. Whiting is hugely annoying, but Simmons is good; but it’s the look and feel of the film where it truly scores. Though you can’t tell it from the film, it’s obvious the hotel sheets are drip-dry nylon. It’s that kind of movie. I tweeted while watching it that silver birches seem to embody the 1970s style of utopia for me. They’re there in Fahrenheit 451, and they feel almost emblematic of the sort of utopian, or comfortable, lifestyle the 1970s considered futuristic. For me, they’re a science-fictional tree.

The Commune, Thomas Vinterberg (2016, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen was the first film made following the Dogme 95 rules, and it’s a bona fide classic film. But he also made the bafflingly crap It’s All About Love. And the very good The Hunt. And, well, they were the only films by him I’d seen prior to watching The Commune. But I knew he was a name worth watching, so I bunged The Commune on the rental list – and I should really add a few more. In Copenhagen in 1970, a successful couple want to move into the large house in which the husband grew up, but they can’t afford the rent on their own (even though the wife works as a newsreader on television). So they invite friends of similar political leanings to share the house as a commune. They advertise to fill up the last few places. Unfortunately, the original couple’s marriage disintegrates – he’s a university lecturer and falls in love with student – and this causes problems in the house. This is not a Dogme 95 film, not judging by the lighting at least. And the plot is pretty much a lit fic staple – college professor sleeps with student, starts to question his marriage, it falls apart… except the girlfriend joins the commune, and the wife stays, and it’s all pretty obviously uncomfortable. Or helped by the rest of the commune, who are all the sort of earnestly progressive types more likely to get bogged down in trivia than actual worthwhile causes. A watchable film, better made than most, but not a great film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 870


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1001 progress

I’ve been using the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (2013 edition) to direct my film-viewing for a couple of years now, and I thought it might be worth having a look at how it’s been going… Before starting to use the list, I’d watched some 407 of the movies. My total is currently standing at 823 films seen, so I’ve watched slightly more as a result of following the list than I had before I even knew of it. What I find especially interesting, however, is the number of films I’ve subsequently bought on DVD or Blu-ray after watching them on rental only because they were on the list. Of course, there were films – by, for instance, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kieślowski, Kubrick, the Archers – I already owned as I’ve been a fan of their work for many years…

sacrifice

After watching Lola and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, I bought a Jaques Demy collection, which also included The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. On the other hand, much as I enjoyed Les vacances de M Hulot, it wasn’t until I’d seen Playtime, and loved it, that I decided to invest in a collection of Jacques Tati’s films. Carl Theodor Dreyer is another such director – I’d seen Ordet, I forget why I rented it, but not been especially taken with it; but after watching Gertrud I purchased everything by Dreyer currently available on DVD – which was, fortunately, pretty much his entire oeuvre (thank you, BFI). He became a favourite director. After buying a copy of James Benning’s Deseret – because it was on the list but wasn’t available for rental – I became a huge fan of his work, and bought every other DVD of his films released by Österechisches Filmmuseum. I am eagerly awaiting more being released. It also turned me into a fan of video installations, as I discovered recently when I visited the Hafnarhús branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum and saw Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’ (I did like Örn Alexander Amundáson’s ‘A New Work’ too, although it’s not video, because it reminded me of my own approach to writing fiction).

There were also a number of movies I watched on rental because they were on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and then promptly bought copies of my own, like Le mépris, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, F for FakeShane, Spring in a Small Town, Shock Corridor, Häxan and Lucía. I liked Cocteau’s Orphée so much, I tracked down a copy of the Criterion collection which included it, The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus (not to be confused with the Studiocanal box set, which only has the latter two films in it). I loved Glauber Rocha’s Earth Entranced so much, I bought it, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes, the only films by Rocha available on DVD in the UK. And since the I couldn’t rent the third part of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi, I bought the trilogy – although I still think the first film, Koyaanisqatsi, is easily the best.

black_god

There are also a number of films I’ve added to my wishlist because I might at some point buy them… or I might not. Such as Henry V, The Hired Hand, Easy Rider, Man with a Movie Camera, The Great Silence, Babette’s Feast… not to mention further films by directors who appear on the list… which is why I have picked up films by Guru Dutt,  Yasujiro Ozu, Ken Loach and Satyajit Ray…

There are also a number of films I only got to watch because I bought a DVD copy of my own – they just weren’t available for rental. Not all have been especially good. Stella Dallas is on the list, but is not available for rental, or indeed for purchase on DVD, in the UK. I ended up buying Spanish release… and the film proved to be entirely forgettable. There’s also streaming TV these days, and I found a few, surprisingly, streamed for free on Amazon Prime – like The Gospel According to St Matthew and Salt of the Earth. However, Amazon Prime has not been an especially good source of films from the list – either free, as previously mentioned, or for “rental”, such as Sergeant York and Housekeeping, both of which cost me £3.49 for 48 hours.

One very real consequence of using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list has been that my film collection has become much more varied. Not only have I bought films previously unknown to me by Brazilian directors (Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos), Cuban directors (Humberto Solás), Indian directors (Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt), but I’ve also been encouraged to further explore the oeuvres of directors I had previously tried, such as Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini or Jean-Luc Godard… and have since bought films by all three.

I don’t think the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is perfect. Far from it. It includes way too many US films, and some nations’ cinemas are almost totally ignored. Albania, for example, apparently has a thriving film industry but, to be fair, I can’t find any films from the country readily available on DVD with English subtitles. And yet Greenland, with almost no film industry to speak of… there are DVDs of Greenlandic films with multiple-language subtitles, like Nuummioq, which is very good.

nuummioq

Having said that using the list has resulted in me owning a much more varied collection of films – most of the Hollywood blockbusters went to local charity shops, and I no longer buy them – it has also shown me that some particular cinemas, not just present-day Hollywood, don’t work for me. I’m not especially taken with French films, although I like some of them a great deal. Godard, mentioned earlier, is a good example – some of his films I like a lot, some of them I just can’t understand the appeal. I like the movies of Renoir and Vigo, but not Bresson or Carné or Malle or Chabron. And Buñuel I find a bit hit and miss.

When it comes to movie genres… Well, there are remarkably few classic sf films. Given the number of sf films produced since the beginning of cinema – and one of the earliest classics, La voyage dans le lune, is an actual sf movie based on an actual sf novel – the genre’s hit-rate has been pretty low. There are a lot of westerns on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I will admit that I don’t see the appeal of the genre. It’s a peculiarly American mythology, I get that, but too many of the westerns on the list seemed ordinary, and it was only the ones which broke the mould, or bent the formula, like The Hired Hand, which for me stood out. Speaking of US films, there are a number of movies by American indie directors also on the list, and those too I failed to see why they should make the list.

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with whether a film can be considered seminal or germinal in some way. It’s evident enough with a silent movie. Watch Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and you can’t help but understand how historically important it is. And some silent movies, which normally I’d never bother to seek out, and I’ve seen solely because they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, they’ve proven to be excellent entertainment – not just Storm Over Asia from Russia, but even early Hollywood works like The Phantom of the Opera.

storm_over_asia

The 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is a deeply-flawed list, but it has still enriched my film-watching. I don’t agree with many of the choices made for the list, but it has at least prompted me to watch those films. And then seek out other films similar to those I liked. My DVD collection is, I like to think, much more diverse as a result. I’ve still some way to go before I complete the list – in fact, some of the movies are so hard to find I may never get to see everything on it. And, of course, the list is updated each year, although I’m more likely to have seen recent additions. But there is still the cinematic traditions of a huge number of nations, USA not included, to explore…

 


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Moving pictures, #45

More movies!

suffragetteSuffragette, Sarah Gavron (2015, UK). I’m surprised it’s taken until 2015 to make a film like this. Actually, I’m not surprised, just disgusted. True, this film is bsed on fictional characters, and real historical people such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emil Davison do make brief appearances (the former is, in fact, played by Meryl Streep). The film tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK through a pair of invented characters – a working-class laundress played by Carey Mulligan, who more or less accidentally becomes a suffragette. Well, inasmuch ,as she rebels a clear injustice and that brings her into contact with the suffragettes and so she reluctantly joins their campaign. To me, it seems incredible that women should ever have been denied the vote, but I’m not stupid, I realise that historically men have been complete scumbags, and many still are today. I remember thinking while watching Suffragette that most social progress has come about because of violent action, and that decades of insistence on “peaceful demonstration” has only slowed the rate of social progress – if not driven it backwards, as twenty-first century culture seems in many ways less progressive than that of the twentieth century. I have to wonder sometimes if the twentieth century was only a social experiment, and now it’s over. But I suspect what’s more likely is that WWI killed off great swathes of the upper classes and so opened up management of society to the middle classes, but now the upper classes are back in charge once again. But Suffragrette… An important film, I think, because of its subject, but not a great film; and though played well by its cast and directed well, it did all feel a bit meh. Recommended because of its subject, if not as a film per se.

jeremishJeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack (1972, USA). I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I find myself liking several Western films that don’t follow the usual Western story-lines. Like this one. Not a brilliant film, by any means; but there’s lots of lovely scenery in it, and the story is sufficiently distant from your typical Western story that I found it interesting… but I’m not convinced Robert Redford was suitable for the title role. He looks too, well, urbane. The title character heads off into the mountains for a new life. Fortunately, he stumbles across an old timer before he dies of starvation, and the old timer teaches him how to survive. Taking his leave after learning all this is to learn, he finds a homesteader family that had been attacked by Blackfoot. The wife has been driven mad with grief and she insists Johnson take her young son with him. So he does. He then comes across a trapper who had been buried neck-deep in sand by Blackfoot, and rescues him. They track down the Blackfoot who attacked the trapper and steal back his possessions – and killed the Blackfoot braves. This apparently makes Johnson something of a hero among the other Native American tribes of the area. He ends up married to the daughter of a Flathead chieftain, and they and the boy start to make a life for themselves. But the US Cavalry asks for Johnson’s help to resuce a wagon train, and this requires a ride, against Johnson’s better judgement, through a Blackfoot sacred burial ground. The Blackfoot respond by killing his wife and adopted son. There then follows many years of Blackfoot sending young braves to test their mettle against Johnson, all of whom, of course, he kills. We like to think of the Wild West taking place in the scrub and desert of south-west USa, but there’s other scenery which falls within the genre – the Rocky Mountains in this case. And it’s hard to film such landscapes badly… but when they’re filmed well, they’re gorgeous. Pollack had always struck me as a Hollywood stalwart – a director of commercially successful films, with the odd critical success thrown in, but by no means an auteur. And while Redford may not convince as the title character in Jeremiah Johnson, Pollack does a really good job at presenting the landscape (I can’t say “capture” but I have no personal experience of it). The end result is a superior Western, albeit perhaps high second-tier rather than first-tier. But worth a watch.

uchoUcho*, Karel Kachňya (1970, Czech Republic). I wanted to like this film more than I did. For many reasons. For the fact it was banned for many years in its home country, and only shown for the first time after the Velvet Revolution. For its subject: the lives of people in a totalitarian state. For its story: the paranoia endemic in totalitarian states is heightened for a couple after they return from a party and find their front door unlocked, and that tears their marriage apart. And for its use of New Wave cinematic techniques to tell its story. But something about it didn’t quite click for me. Possibly because I have a positive view of the trappings it presents as totalitarian, which I’ve taken from films like Eolomea and Wings. If that makes sense. This is not to say what happened to the Czech Republic – Czechoslovakia as was – at the USSR’s hands is in any way condonable. But in the Eastern Bloc the signifiers they presented for success and happiness I actually find quite appealing, and though they’re all utopian surface, cleverly hiding the totalitarian reality underneath, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the dream. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that Ucho reveals that horrible reality underneath as a commentary by someone who actually lived it. In terms of technique, Ucho has much to recommend it – the use of ambient light, the tight focus on the central charaters… a variety of New Wave techniques, in fact. But the shifting of focus of totalitarian depradations to married-couple dynamics feels at times like diminuation of what should be a major dramatic point. There is, for example, a point in the film when the doorbell rings and the husband and wife work themselves up into such a frenzy believing the secret police have come to take him away that he walks down to open the gate carrying a suitcase of overnight things. But it turns out it’s only a bunch of drunken colleagues from the minsterial party which opens the film. The threat remains – and the movie is clear on that – but the decaying relationship between husband and wife seems to be used a little too often to ratchet up a more existential fear than is deserved by the story. Ucho is an important film, but it is somewhat disappointing as a piece of cinema. Worth seeing – once, at least.

three_coloursThree Colours: Red*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). And so the Three Colours trilogy, and my rewatch of it, comes to a close; and Red is generally considered the best of the three… and so it is, but by considerably more of a margin than I’d remembered. Yes, yes, that final scene where all the major characters from all three films are paraded across the screen is silly and unnecessary; but there’s still a focus and tightness to the story of Red which is so much stronger than that of the other two films. Irene Jacob, who was so good in The Double Life of Veronique, plays a model in Geneva with an absent boyfriend. One night she hits a dog in her car, and it turns out the dog’s owner is ex-judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who cares nothing for the dog. So Jacob pays for the vet bills and adopts it as a pet. But it turns out Trintignant is a bit of a misanthopric oddball, who listens in on the phone calls of his neighbours… and he draws Jacob into his obsession. But she also has problems of her own. I’d started watching Red expecting something similar to my rewatches of Blue and White, so I was surprised to discover how much better than them it is (final scene notwithstanding). There is, now I think back on it, not much that stands out in terms of cinematography – a lot of use of the titular colour, and some nice photography of night-time Geneva. And, to be fair, the cast in all three films have been excellent – but I think it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Trintignant that works so well and lifts the film above Blue and White. The film is supposed to represent fraternity, yet most of the relationships in it have failed by the end – Jacob and her absent boyfriend, a neighbour and his girlfriend… And the strongest relationship in the film, between Jacob and Trintignant, is between two characters who have nothing in common, in fact Jacob is vehemently opposed to Trintignant’s practice of phone hacking. But when Jacob leaves to visit friends in the UK, Trintignant is the only one to wish her good fortune. This rewatch has amended my opinion of the Three Colours trilogy. They’re undoubtedly good films, but having watched so much more non-Anglophone cinema since I first watched them I find them more excellent examples of a particular type of film than merely excellent films. Kieślowski was a gifted film-maker and left an enviably impressive body of work, but I find myself thinking better of his earlier Polish films than I do his later French ones. Go figure.

waiting_womenWaiting Women, Ingmar Bergman (1952, Sweden). Bergman wrote a number of films about women, and while I don’t know enough to call his attitude to women into question, I do wonder sometimes. In Waiting Women, we have a group of women reminscing about the situation which led to their current state of affairs. And it’s all about relationships. The movie opens with a group of women preparing a meal together, before then flashing back to stories of their relationships, the longest and most memorabe of which is that featuring Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – although it does also include a nasty line in misogynistic cracks from Björnstrand. And the infamous elevator scene. Which is, to be honest, one of the highlights. The two are trapped in a lift, and over the course of some ten minutes their rancour turns to humour. The flashback structure at least meant Waiting Women didn’t feel like a televised play, which a lot of Bergman’s films do (even those with scenes that take place outdoors). Not great Bergman by any means, but even his sub-par films are still a cut above most film-maker’s best.

riverRiver of No Return, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). I mentioned in a previous post that Preminger only made one Western… and this is it. And it’s a curious beast. It has many reasons to like it, and yet to fails to, well, impress. The story is an adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves, which is a point in its favour; and the landscape in which the film is set is gorgeous, and often extremely well-photographed… but it’s the things that make it a Hollywood film which spoil it. The close-ups are done in a studio, not on location, and it shows – badly. Marilyn Monroe was a big draw at the time, but she doesn’t bring anything special to this film. In fact, she’s a bit crap – and only seems to really shine when she’s at her most artless (although I guess that was part of her talent as an actress; having said that, by all accounts, she was pretty insufferable during this shoot). Mitchum turns up to a gold-diggers’ camp to pick up his ten-year-old son, who had been left there by arrangement. It turns out the son had been looked after by saloon singer Monroe. Mitchum and son go off to Mitchum’s homestead beside the eponymous river… only for Monroe and fiancé gambler to turn up on en route to stake a claim at Council City. Their raft founders, but Mitchum rescues them. Gambler responds by stealing Mitchm’s horse to continue his jounrey, but Monroe remains behind. Gambler never returns so the three of them make their own way, by raft, to Council City. The location shooting ias lovely, the studio shots anything but. In fact, it seems for much of the film the continuity people were given the day off, as close-up shots often seem to take place in completely different environments. River of No Return is an odd beast. Preminger was a skilled director, and he manages a solid narrative with (mostly) good turns from his cast. But the mix of location shooting and studio shots never quite match and the discrepancy jars badly. One for completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 796


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Moving pictures, #41

Despite a weekend away at Bloodstock, I managed to keep to my somewhat heavy schedule of film-watching; although, once again, most of the movies below are not from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (only one is, in fact). But that’s chiefly due to the vagaries of the DVD rental services I use. Anyway, avanti…

surfwiseSurfwise, Doug Pray (2007, USA). Dorian Paskowitz graduated from Stanford Medical School in 1946, ended up in Hawaii, and became enamoured of surfing. This led to your typical surfer dude philosophy of diet and lifestyle, albeit several decades before it came to prominence… Paskowitz went on to introduce surfing to Israel, and many years later to Palestine. But Surfwise is more about Paskowitz and his family than it is his accomplishments. Initially, the film clearly admires the man, but the interviews with his eleven children paint a somewhat different picture: of a man who was harsh, if not abusive, and left his children with a completely different legacy to that painted by the opening third of the documentary. Paskowitz himself seems unrepentant – he led an interesting life and knows it, and he stands by pretty much every idea he has ever had, no matter how unpopular or crackpot. Certainly, Paskowitz is an interesting individual, with a story to tell; and it’s quite clever how Surfwise uses that to hide the fact he isn’t half as nice as protrayed, and then slowly shifts the sympathy of the viewer away from him. But when all’s said and done, Surfwise is a well-made documentary about a not-especially-interesting topic.

three_coloursThree Colours: White, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). I’m prepared to accept that Kieślowski belongs on a list of the greatest directors, and I’ll happily agree he’s created several superior examples of a particular type of film. But… These rewatches – prompted by upgrading my DVD copies to Blu-ray – have proven an interesting exercise, if somewhat disappointing, inasmuch as the movies haven’t quite matched up to what memory, and the weight of critical opinion, has insisted they’re worth. True, White is generally considered the weakest of the trilogy, although having now watched it again I’m not sure why. The story is more obvious, and the driving emotion of the story more… primal; and there are a few bits which are implausible… But the plot has more drive than Blue and the characters’ motivations more obvious (except, perhaps, for Juliette Delpy’s character, who comes across more like a motivation for the lead character, played by Zbigniew Zamachowski, than a character in her own right). Delpy and Zamachowski, both hairdressers, were married, but the film opens with their divorce. In Paris. Where Zamachowski is at a disadvantage as he doesn’t speak French. He ends up with nothing, but a chance encounter with another Pole sees him smuggled back to Poland, by air, in a suitcase (even in 1994, this was implausible). Through a combination of contacts and clever dealing, Zamachowski becomes a millionaire… and promptly fakes his own death and frames Delpy for his murder. The “white” apparently refers to “equality” in the three political ideals of the French Revolution, and I guess that applies to Zamachowski’s revenge on his wife, although revenge seems a curious means of applying equality. It goes without saying that White is beautifully shot and arranged, and that the cast put in spotless performances, but it still feels like a movie of a type rather than a movie per se. Kieślowski was very good at what he did, and Piesiewicz wrote scripts perfectly suited to Kieślowski’s approach to film-making… But a little goes a long way, and while my tastes have turned more toward slow cinema than they had been before, it does seem a little like Kieślowski’s reputation is a little over-stated… Nonetheless, an excellent film, an certainly more deserving of a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list than many that are actually on it.

corvetteCorvette K-225, Richard Rosson (1943, USA). I had thought this was a Howard Hawks film, which is why I added it to my rental list; but he apparently only produced it. Oh well. Still, I enjoy WWII naval films, almost as much as I enjoy Cold War USAF films, and considerably more than I enjoy WWII infantry films. The title of the movie refers to a Flower-class corvette, built in Canada and operated by the Royal Canadian Navy. The ships were originally designed for near-shore operations, but ended up as escorts for convoys across the Atlantic. Lead Randolph Scott returns to Halifax after losing his corvette, and most of his crew,  to a U-Boat. He’s a given a new ship – the titular ship – currently on the slipway being built. They build the ship, Scott gets his crew, they go out on escort duty, accompanying a convoy to Southhampton. There’s a romantic triangle, of course – well, sort of: Scott starts seeing the sister of an officer who died on his previous ship, and, to make matters worse, her young brother joins the new corvette as a junior officer, fresh out of the academy. The convoy goes as you’d expect – from a dramatic standpoint rather than an actual WWII standpoint – and even results in an encounter with the U-Boat which sank Scott’s previous corvette. This is solid wartime drama, good for the folks at home, good for those fighting; and interesting because it gives an accurate idea of life aboard a corvette on a trans-Atlantic convoy. Better than I expected.

badgeBadge of Fury, Wong Tsz-ming (2013, China). Some confusion over the title of this, since the DVD seems to be Badge of Fury but the streamed version I watched on Amazon Prime was titled Badges of Fury. No matter. Anyway, I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime, didn’t up to watching something too weighty and this seemed like it’d be worth a go. And so it was. The beginning wasn’t too auspicious – three bumbling cops who mess up a sting to catch a gangster at a posh party when one of the cops recognises an entirely different gangster and attempts to arrest him instead (although Jet Li can never be “bumbling”, so his character is just lazy and a clock-watcher). In fact – title aside – the film doesn’t initially come across as a comedy and it’s only when you twig that it’s getting increasingly silly that you realise. As a Hong Kong comedy/action movie, Badge of Fury is perhaps more polished than most, although the repartee is somewhat repetitive. But when you start spotting references to other Hong Kong action films, well… it gains a whole other dimension. Not only are there direct references, including to some of Li’s own films, but the final fight scene riffs off climactic fights from at least four films that I counted, of which Once Upon A Time in China was only the most obvious. I hadn’t expected much of Badge of Fury, and initially it seemed to promise very little, but as it progressed it showed itself to be a clever piece of work, and even a halfway decent comedy. Worth seeing.

kesKes*, Ken Loach (1969, UK). I’m surprised I’ve managed to fail to see this over the past couple of decades, although it’s not like I’ve made an effort to avoid it. But it’s a well-known and highly-regarded British film – probably one of the best-known from this country, in fact (second only to, shudder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, I suspect). It’s also pretty much a local film – not so much for where I’m from but where I now live (although my home town is not that far from my current city of residence). Anyway, it’s set in Barnsley. A young boy who is bullied by his older brother and at school, steals a kestrel chick from a nest and raises it following the advice given in a book he stole from the local library. I’ve no idea if Kes prompted the media characterisation of “it’s Grim Up North”, but it certainly must have fed into it. Because Kes paints a bleak picture of Barnsley (not undeservedly; I’ve been there); although, of course, one depressed area is not all depressed areas – and I say that as someone whose relatives’ background is not dissimilar to that of the characters in Kes (although not my own personally as my parents moved to the Middle East when I was two). But the life depicted in Kes was not unfamiliar. Although I did struggle once or twice with the dialect. Yet, when all’s said and done, the film deserves its plaudits. Loach’s documentary-style approach made the story emotionally powerful – helped by a good cast, including Brian Glover with actual hair (in his first ever role). I’ve now seen two Loach films in quick succession, and been inmpressed by both. Those Loach box sets are looking more attractive every day…

lets_make_loveLet’s Make Love, George Cukor (1960, USA). I like 1950s films, even musical ones, although not as much as melodramas, and at least one 1950s musical by Cukor I’ve seen I like a lot – that would be Les Girls – but I’m not a huge Marilyn Monroe fan (I’d sooner watch, say, Ginger Rogers)… But anyway it seems I stuck this on my rental list, and so it dropped through the letter-box and I watched it and… Meh. Yves Montaud plays a billionaire playboy who learns an off-Broadway revue intends to take the piss out of him in one of their musical numbers. So he decides to check it out himself, walks into the rehearsal… and spots Marilyn Monroe rehearsing a musical number. He immediately falls in love, auditions for and wins the part of a lookalike of himself, with the intent of wooing Monroe incognito. It’s a hoary old plot, and I’m pretty sure Hollywood trots it out at least once a decade. Monroe provides a couple of iconic moments, Frankie Vaughn is a bit whiny as the male star of the revue, and Montaud can’t seem to decide if he should play it stiff or charmant and so manages some weird state in between the two. There’s a bit of fun in Milton Berle, Gene Killy and Bing Crosby appearing as themselves, each hired to teach Montaud, respectively, comedy, dancing and singing – all in order to increase his appeal to Monroe. But the film’s biggest fault is that it all seems a bit drab, and the sets and costumes for the musical numbers are weird and cheap-looking. Not the best film in either Monroe’s or Cukor’s oeuvres, although apparently it provided Hollywood with plenty of gossip about Monroe and Montaud…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 793


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Moving pictures, #38

Wa-hey, I did it! An entire Moving pictures post without a single US film. Which is not say I watched zero US films during the period, just that they were so shit they weren’t worth documenting (and, to be honest, there were only one or two of them). But still, it’s an achievement. And one I hope to repeat.

lonelyThe Lonely Voice of Man, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978, Russia). This was Sokurov’s first feature-length film, created as his thesis at the prestigious VGIK film school – but the school authorities wouldn’t accept it, and despite requests to do so by a number of big names, Sokurov had to submit something else in order to graduate. The Lonely Voice of Man, meanwhile, became an underground film; and it wasn’t until glasnost that it finally saw official release – although Sokurov took the opportunity to “reconstruct” it first. It had already built up a reputation from its underground showings, but post-glasnost it picked up several awards, and much critical acclaim, at numerous festival showings. It’s roughly based on the writings of Platonov, in much the same way, I guess, that Whispering Pages is based on the writings of Gogol or Save and Protect is based on Madame Bovary. Sokurov takes a very loose approach to “adaptation”. To be honest, I know nothing about Platonov – had not even heard of him until watching this film – but I don’t doubt that familiarity with his oeuvre would add more to the viewing experience, much as it would for the aforementioned films (which, to be honest, is not something I’ve tested – although I did drunkenly buy a collection of Chekhov’s stories while watching Stone; and when I found a copy of Gogol’s collected short stories in a charity shop, I bought it…). Anyway, The Lonely Voice of Man opens with the historical footage depicted on the poster I’ve used on this post, before moving onto the plot of Platonov’s novella ‘The River Potudan’, in which a young man returns home after fighting for the revolution. His girlfriend has since qualified as a doctor, and their two changed circumstances affect their relationship. So he runs away and becomes a manual labourer in a nearby town. The cast are non-professionals, and the picture is distorted – although to a much lighter extent than Sokurov uses in later films. The cinematography is dark, with a muted palette, and a camera that focuses on objects as often as it does the characters, not to mention a non-chronological narrative. While not everything in the film is immediately parseable, the sudden switches between seasons seem, to me, to signal, changes from one narrative to another – ie, boyfriend and girlfriend getting married, and after the husband has left. In Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szianawski considers The Lonely Voice of Man a masterwork, but it seems to me more of an apprentice piece, a working-out of the themes and techniques Sokurov goes on to make extensive use of in his career (although both Szianawski and myself agree that The Second Circle is a masterpiece). There’s no doubt in my mind that Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently making films – and that’s as much a result of his contradictions as it is of the idiosyncratic approach he has taken to film-making.

subarnarekhaSubarnarekha*, Ritwik Ghatak (1965, India). Although this film appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (one of two Ghatak movies to do so; the other is The Cloud-Capped Star), it has apparently never been released on DVD with English subtitles. Which is a shame. Having now seen it, I think it’s a better film than The Cloud-Capped Star, but not as good as A River Called Titas (which is not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; go figure). But I own all three films now, so I can watch them again at leisure. Ghatak directed eight films in total, and is highly-regarded – if not of the same stature as Satyajit Ray, he’s not far from it – so it’s weird that only The Cloud-Capped Star and A River Called Titas are available on DVD (and the first is not that easy to find – Amazon third-party sellers have it at £80 (but you can get it direct from the BFI for £20)). Anyway, Subarnarekha, AKA The Golden Thread, opens with a woman being taken away from a refugee camp, but her son is left behind. A young man takes the boy in hand, and takes him with him, and his daughter, when they leave and settle in West Bengal. Jump ahead a few years and the orphan boy and the daughter are now in love, but the father is told his career at the factory, amd his rise to manager, could be threatened if his daughter marries someone from a lower caste (ie, the orphan). Then it gets sort of complicated – but that difference in caste, and how it impacts the father’s career, is the axle on which the story revolves. It might well be heresy, but I think I prefer Ghatak’s films to Ray’s. To date, I’ve seen three by Ghatak and four by Ray – but Ray was both much more prolific and is more readily available on DVD in the UK, so perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more of Ray’s films. I do wish more by Ghatak were available, however.

sils_mariaClouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas (2014, France). I’ve followed Assayas’s career on and off since first seeing Irma Vep back in 2000, although, annoyingly, the film of his that has sounded most interesting to me was 2002’s Demonlover, which was never released on DVD in the UK. He’s a film festival favourite, and his last film, Personal Shopper, won him the Best Director Award at Cannes this year (a joint win with Cristian Mingiu). Clouds of Sils Maria is an English-language film despite being set in Switzerland and with a French actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role. Binoche plays an actress who has been asked to accept an award in Zurich on behalf of a reclusive Swiss playwright. Her own career began when she played one of the two lead roles in the stage and screen versions of the playwright’s most famous play, which is about the relationship between a young woman and an older woman. Binoche is travelling with her assistant, Kristen Stewart, an American, and the mirroring of their relationship with that of the two women in the play is, er, well, a bit obvious. Fortunately, both actresses are good in their roles – Stewart is especially good – and if the shape of the story unfolds all too predictably, the script provides more than enough material for the cast to get their teeth into so they put on a good show. But, for all that, the film comes across as a somewhat dull story that just happens to be especially well-made. Perhaps it’s the milieu in which it’s set – the European great and good, swanning about in swanky hotels, and arguing over a past, and career histories, that don’t feel especially well-seated in the plot. Assayas strikes me as a more consistent director than François Ozon – although it may be unfair to compare the two as Ozon belongs to a later generation of French film-makers – but I think Ozon’s oeuvre is the more varied and interesting of the two, and Ozon’s best films are better than Assayas’s.

days_whenThe Days When I Do Not Exist, Jean-Charles Fitoussi (2002, France). This film was sent as a “bonus” with a purchase made on eBay, so I had no idea what to expect. And the internet was no real help – there’s no Wikipedia page for Fitoussi, and the imdb page for Les jours où je n’existe pas is surprisingly free of information. Whch is a shame, as it proved to be an excellent movie. It opens with a funeral, and an actor discussing the life of the person interred in the grave. The conversation – well, monologue – continues in the car as they drive away from the cemetery. And it’s only then that the main narrative begins: a man meets a woman in a park, and the two begin a relationship. But he only exists on alternate days. To him, it’s an unbroken succession of days, but for her – she’s alone every other day, and it begins to pall. So much so that she asks a friend to help try and prevent her husband (I think they’re married by this point) from appearing. But it doesn’t work. The story is told chiefly through voice-over narration (framing narrative aside), and there are occasional breaks away from the characters when the camera shoots landscape (although there’s something Benning-like about these scenes, the camera is not static but slowly pans and zooms). The whole effect feels a little like Patrick Keiller and a little like Godard (when he’s being experimental, but not too off-the-wall), but it works really well. Definitely a pleasant surprise. According to imdb, Fitoussi has made almost a dozen films, although only three or four are feature-length. I’ll definitely keep an eye open should any of them appear in editions with English subtitles.

veroniqueThe Double Life of Veronique*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1991, France). On its release, a film critic said of The Double Life of Veronique that it made “little or no sense on paper”, and she was pretty much spot-on. It doesn’t. The story is complete tosh. And yet it’s a beautifully-shot and beautifully-played piece of cinema. It not only works, it works exceedingly well – so well, in fact, it won both the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. (Barton Fink won the Palme d’Or that year, and La belle noiseuse the Grand Prize of the Jury.) The film’s title refers to young women, both played by Irène Jacob. The first is Weronika, who travels to Kraków to stay with her sick aunt, auditions for a conductor and is chosen by him as lead soprano for a planned concert. On the way home from the audition, during a violent protest, she spots a young woman who looks exactly like her. This second woman takes some photographs and then gets on a coach and drives away. This is Veronique, who teaches music at a school in Paris. Twenty minutes into the film, during the concert, Weronika collapses and dies on stage. The focus shifts to Veronique, who is suddenly overcome with sadness. A series of strange events seem to link her to the dead Weronika but transpire to be a “test” by a puppeteer and writer of children’s books Veronique has met. His last such test is sending her a cassette of ambient sounds. The postmark on the envelope leads her to a Paris railway station, where she finds the puppeteer in a café. He has been waiting there for her for two days. Angry, she leaves him – but he follows her to her hotel and the two become involved… The Double Life of Veronique is, quite frankly, made by Irène Jacob in the title role. Though the cinematography is pure Kieślowski, as is the ultra-careful timing of the story, the plot feels thinner than Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s usual material. None of which is to say The Double Life of Veronique is a bad film, or even disappointing for Kieślowski, because I thought it a better film than Three Colours: Blue, even if it did feel like the story was forever about to topple into nonsense. I need to watch Kieślowski’s other films to see if they’re also as good as I remember them – especially No End, which I seem to recall liking a great deal – although it seems not all of them have been released on Blu-ray… although Arrow Academy are going to release Dekalog in a dual edition box set later this year – it’s on my wishlist.

equinoxEquinox Flower, Yasujiro Ozu (1958, Japan). I must be getting into Ozu’s films – I recognised the characters in this movie as the same ones from Late Autumn and An Autumn Afternoon. And because the plot was about marrying off daughters, a subject shared with those other two films, I initially thought it followed on from them. But it was actually made two years before one and four years before the other. (Although, just to confuse matters, the main character has the family name Hirayama in each film, but is played by a different actor… each of which plays a differently-named character in the other two films.) In Equinox Flower, Hirayama must deal with his own two daughters, neither of which want arranged marriages – and the boyfriend of one, in fact, approaches Hirayama to ask for the hand of his daughter – as well as trying to reconcile an old friend with his estranged daughter and also help  a female acquaintance find a husband for her daughter… The film is set mostly in Hirayama’s office, home and a Ginza bar called Luna, where the estranged daughter works. There is also a scene in the same inn which appears in the later two films (with the same landlady too). I’ve said before that Ozu’s films are very domestic – and it’s not just that they’re chiefly uchi, but more that the stories are driven by the interlinkage between several families who seem to be undergoing the same trials and tribulations. And yet there’s a telling moment in Equinox Flower, toward the end, which admits the outside world, when Hirayama and his wife are at seaside, sitting side-by-side on a bench (it’s the cover image of the DVD), and she tells him that WWII was a wonderful time for her, and he replies that he hated it. And this is after differences of opinion over their daughters’ futures and the one’s impending marriage. It’s in the small things that Ozu excels – it is, in fact, where he finds his stories. And I’m not entirely sure if the fact they’re Japanese makes them more domestic than they would be had they been set in another nation. I think it might well. Good stuff.

summer_interlideSummer Interlude, Ingmar Bergman (1951, Sweden). Bergman is a Swedish institution – at least from the outside – perhaps so much so that he overshadows everything else produced on film or television in the country (twenty-first century Nordic crime TV series notwithstanding). And, despite the size of his output, Bergman’s oeuvre isn’t all that varied. His many films are usually three- or four-hander plays, typically about relationships or families, played out with a bit more scenic freedom than a theatre offers. Summer Interlude, considered among his best by some, is a case in point. The lead character is a ballerina, who goes to stay with relatives in the country for a holiday, and subsequently has a holiday romance. But the unsophisticated boyfriend doesn’t understand the dancer’s sophisticated world – especially her relationship with her urbane “uncle” – and it all ends badly. It’s all very, well, play-ish, a story driven by relationships which are laid out in dialogue rather than through visual clues – although Bergman certainly uses his scenery to good effect (and I have to wonder if the scene involving wild strawberries inspired the later film of that title). Criticising Bergman would be like criticising Shakespeare, but nothing should be sacred – and, like Shakespeare, some of Bergman’s output works better, or at least appeals to me more, than others. Summer Interlude has its moments, but I think I’d place it in middle-tier Bergman – neither a stand-out nor one of the forgettable ones.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 791


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Moving pictures, #37

I’m still working toward my entirely USA-free Moving picture post, but I’m not quite there yet…

sicarioSicario, Denis Villeneuve (2015, USA). I’d heard many good things about this film, although these days that doesn’t really give you any real indication of what to expect. It’s a thriller about the US-Mexican border and drugs and drug cartels. That tells you much more. Like, for example, it’s an essentially racist film. Every Mexican is either a gangbanger or an illegal immigrant. The only one that isn’t, a Mexican lawyer working with the US authorities, turns out to be an assassin bent on revenge. The message of the film seems to be the only way to beat the drug cartels is to descend to their level – ie, to tacitly admit that the rule of law has failed. This is pretty much implicit in the fact the operation which comprises much of the film’s narrative is planned and led by the CIA. Who are legally prohibited from operating on US domestic territory. But that’s not a narrative I’m prepared to accept. Treating Mexicans like subhumans, assassinating drug barons, and behaving like Wild West cowboys makes the good guys worse than the bad guys. You cannot win if you surrender the moral high ground. What makes it especially egregious is that there’s an easy way to solve the problem: legalise drugs. I fail to see how it can continue to be considered “political suicide”. The only explanation is that the illegal drug market earns so much it is in its interest to remain illegal, and those involved have bought sufficient politicians to keep the situation unchanged. Of course, it doesn’t help when popular culture valorises those who both supplying drugs and those break the law in order to prevent the supply of drugs. Because in order to create a hero, you need a villain for them to fight (but not necessarily defeat – because the War on Drugs is as unwinnable, and as just as much created and perpetuated by the forces of so-called law and order, as the War on Terror). This is not drama, it’s propaganda for the status quo. Films like Sicario have tendency to make me rant, which is why I dislike watching them. It nevertheless is a nice-looking film, and Emily Blunt is good in the lead role. But the story is a bag of shite, and a film that requires you to cheer for people who have willingly abandoned law and morality in order to achieve a suprious objective (and, in this case, a frankly objectionable, illegal and offensive, objective) leaves you little to like. Meh.

three_coloursThree Colours: Blue*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1993, France). Many years ago, I decided to widen my movie viewing by watching something highly-regarded that wasn’t your usual Hollywood output. I’d been subscribing to Sight & Sound for a few years, and over the decades I’d watched the occasional “arthouse film” or “world cinema” – if anything, I liked those sort of’films, which displayed different sensibilities and visions to those I’d grown up with. And so I came across Kieślowski, who was apparently regarded as a critics’ and directors’ director, and I dutifully bought all his available films in Artificial Eye DVD editions. And yes, they were good films, streets ahead of a lot of the stuff I was used to watching. Although Blind Chance didn’t do much more than other films using the same repeated-time premise had done, and while I really liked No End it felt like an aberration in Kieślowski’s oeuvre… But of all his works, the Three Colours trilogy is reckoned the best, and I duly bought it and watched each of the three films and thought them superior drama… Recently, Artifical Eye decided to release all of Tarkovsky’s films on Blu-ray for the first time, which reminded me they had already done so for some of Kieślowksi’s – so I decided to replace my DVD copies with Blu-ray editions, and… Juliette Binoche plays the wife of a composer who attempts to free herself of her life after her husband’s death in a car accident. But it proves much harder than she had anticipated. But with a Kieślowski film, it’s as much about the cinematography as it is the story – this is the film with the infamous sugar cube scene. I was surprised by what I’d remembered from previous viewings – the overall shape of the story had gone, but a sequence shot from the back offside wheel of a car had stuck with me, perhaps because it had struck me as a corny shot when I first saw it and still seems somewhat corny. But most of the rest of the film has that clarity of mise en scène you often see in French films (well, except perhaps in some of Godard’s more experimental movies), as well as the tight focus on a single character, usually an emotionally-damaged person. Blue is certainly excellent film-making, and Kieślowski’s reputation is well-deserved; but after watching the film it felt like a superior example of a particular type of film rather than a superior film. If that makes sense.

atlantisAtlantis Down, Max Bartoli (2010, USA). I bought this at the same time as the execrable Battle Tanker (see here), but it’s not that much better. The title refers to a Space Shuttle (surely by 2010 it was known the fleet was going to be retired? The last flight, by Atlantis, coincidentally, was in July 2011, after all). But not apparently in the world of Atlantis Down. A simple supply mission to several space stations goes awry when a bright flash strikes the Shuttle, and the crew mysteriously find themselves back on Earth… or is it? One member remained behind on the spacecraft, but the rest find themselves in a mysterious wood. And as they explore it, they’re killed off one-by-one in weird ways. It’s some alien experiment or something, but it’s also exceedingly derivative and dull. I forget what the actual point of the alien experiment actually was; I’m probably better off for not remembering. I do recall that the CGI Shuttle didn’t look right, that the Shuttle’s flightdeck appeared weird (the windows were above the crew’s heads), and that the references to “internal gravity” just made the whole thing sound stupid. Atlantis Down is not as bad as Battle Tanker, but that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s two wasted hours I could have better spent watching something by, say, Sokurov…

days_eclipseDays of Eclipse, Aleksandr Sokurov (1988, Russia). It’s not easy to love everything in a particular director’s oeuvre. Take Douglas Sirk, for example. All That Heaven Allows is my favourite film, and I also love Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind. But Sirk also made a lot of forgettable films, like Taza, Son of Cochise or Battle Hymn. Aleksandr Sokurov is the director I most admire, and while I don’t love his films in the same way I love All That Heaven Allows, I do find them endlessly fascinating – and one or two I have watched repeatedly because they are so gorgeously filmed and yet so strangely resistant to parsing. Days of Eclipse is one of Sokurov’s better known films, albeit not in the Anglophone world as no English-subtitled edition has ever been released on DVD. It is also, unlike many of his other films, an adaptation of a novel, a science fiction novel, Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. But not an especially faithful adaptation – in the book, the main character is an astrophysicist and a mysterious force is interfering with his research; in the film, the main character is a doctor in a poor town Turkmenistan, and he discovers that religious faith appears to be improving the health of his parents. The movie is shot in a variety of different styles – mostly in a sienna-tinted monochrome, but occasionally in colour, and sometimes in straight black and white. If there’s a pattern to this, I didn’t spot it. The protagonist also unfortunately looks more like a member of a boyband than a Soviet physician, which is a little off-putting. But it’s certainly a film – like all of Sokurov’s – which bears repeated viewings and, in fact, pretty much demands them. I’m going to have to watch it again, for sure. At least it’s not one of the impenetrable ones which, typically, I tend to prefer as I can never figure out what’s going on in them. Days of Eclipse feels perversely straightforward. I still think Sokurov is one of the most interesting directors currently working, and I love the philosophical meditations of his documentaries… but his fictional films seem, to me, to succeed more the… more painterly they are. If that makes sense. The stories feel like snapshots, as though an encylopaedic knowledge is required to tease out and comprehend all the references. It makes for a viewing experience that leaves you wanting another viewing…and another one… and another one. I’m glad I finally got to see Days of Eclipse, even though I found it a little disappointing; but I’m extremely glad I have a copy of my own and can watch it again at my leisure. Which I certainly plan to do.

julietJuliet of the Spirits*, Federico Fellini (1965, Italy). When I bought myself copies of Casanova and Fellini Satyricon, I decided to chuck Fellini’s Roma onto the order despite having never seen it. I could have chosen Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits) instead, since it was Fellini’s first film in colour and initially it looks on a par with the films mentioned… Fortunately, I didn’t. I liked Roma much more than I did Juliet of the Spirits. You see, there’s something I don’t quite get about Fellini’s films. The colour ones I’ve seen are hugely self-indulgent – it’s their chief appeal; and yet the black and white ones I’ve watched have not been as indulgent to the same extent. Except perhaps . And now I think about it, the whole trapeze thing in the final act of La strada is pretty self-indulgent… But Juliet of the Spirits is just as mad as Fellini Satyricon and Casanova, and just as much the product of a director who appeared to have free rein, and no desire to self-censor. It’s the complete antithesis of Hitchcock. At least it is in that respect. But Hitchcock apparently liked to build complicated sets on soundstages, and so too did Fellini – pretty much all of Juliet of the Spirits appears to take place on one. (I was also maused to spot in the openning titles that much of the film’s wardrobe had been supplied by Bri-Nylon.) The title character is married to a man who organises events and charity shows, and is also a serial philanderer. A series of encounters with a number of strange people guide her to a resolution with her husband. It would not be unfair to describe the film as a series of encounters with grotesques (in its original sense – the word derives from the statues placed in grottos in 15th century Italy), although the “caves” here are mostly over-furnished sets intended to be people’s homes, or a wood, or the beach, or…  Giulietta Masina is quite astonishingly good in the title role, appearing both knowing and wide-eyedly innocent. The artificial nature of some of the sets – their house, for example, appears to have an astroturf lawn – sometimes feels tonally wrong. And, to be fair, the whole occult element of the plot was totally lost on me. I would rate it higher than the black and white Fellini films I’ve seen – except for – but not as good as the other colour ones I’ve seen.

aar_paarAar Paar, Guru Dutt (1954, India). There’s this weird series of tonal shifts in many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. Apparently serious subjects are interrupted by song and dance routines, or unprompted moments of physical comedy. Aar Paar does sort of the reverse. It starts off as a comedy – a bit of light-hearted joshing as Dutt is released from prison, and while wandering the streets of Mumbai he pratfalls when he trips over the legs of a mechanic under a car… This last is Nicky, the love-interest, and that’s the “meet cute”. But Nicky’s father will have nothing to do with Dutt. He carries a message, as promised, from another prisoner to a local gangster… and so becomes embroiled in the gangster’s dirty schemes, while posing as a taxi-driver. But as he woos Nicky, and she comes to love him, against the wishes of her father, so a young woman working in the gangster’s bar falls in love with Dutt. And then it all turns serious, with Dutt coerced into being the getaway driver for a bank robbery because the gangster has kidnapped Nicky… And then Dutt, plus Bollywood regular Johnny Walker, decide to double-cross the gangster and rescue Nicky, leading to a Hollywood-style car chase and shootout. With songs, of course. I think th ereason I enjoy Dutt’s films is because he shows more of India than you see in more recent Bollywood films – the first song in Aar Paar features a series of women carrying water; compare that with the generic Westernised yuppie characters in Dil Chahta Hai. True, Aar Paar owes a lot of its story and story beats to Hollywood rather than Bollywood, but it’s still a very idiosyncratic approach to the material, and it’s also highly entertaining. I’ll be watching more by Dutt, I think.

outlawThe Outlaw, Howard Hughes (1943, USA). I think this one ended up on my rental list because I thought it was a Howard Hawks film – and so it is… sort of. It was actually directed by Howard Hughes, but Hawks was uncredited co-director. And, after all that, it seems the film is mostly famous for Jane Russell’s boobs. Hughes claims to have invented a push-up bra in order to make Russell’s bust more, er, well, more. But according to Wikipedia she never wore it. And, to add insult to injury, Russell plays a token over which the male characters fight but isn’t in the movie all that much. It’s actually about Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett – and although the last is a sheriff, I’m not entirely sure who the title refers to. Anyway, Russell tries to kill Billy in revenge for her brother but fails; later, after Billy has been wounded in a fight with Garrett, she nurses him back to health… and falls in love with him. But Holliday still wants his horse back – the theft of which kicked off the whole plot, although it being in the Kid’s possession didn’t prevent the two from becoming friends (Holliday and the Kid, that is). But it transpires Russell is also Holliday’s girl, so her falling for the Kid pisses him off. There’s a double-cross which sees her strung up to tempt the Kid back so Garrett and Holliday can capture him. And some gunfights. And mostly it felt like the sort of mythologising sexist rubbish Hollywood has always churned out about the Wild West, with nothing to lift it above any others of its ilk. I believe it is currently out of copyright, but I can think of no good reason why it should be remembered and celebrated.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 789


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Behind the Iron Screen

It all started quite innocently enough. Shaun Duke posted a list of something or other on his blog, The World in the Satin Bag. I pointed out he was wrongheaded. He challenged me to produce a rival list, which I did. I challenged him to produce a list… and by this point I’ve forgotten whether we were originally discussing books or films. I’ve a feeling we started off with books but somehow drifted onto films. Anyway, he responded to my challenge and issued one of his one own, which I met. And then I challenged him to produce – and I think this is the point we’re at now – a list of five Cold War-related genre films that most people would not have heard of. Which he did. And now he has demanded that I do the same, but from the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, five Warsaw Pact Cold War-related genre films, of which at least three must be from the USSR/Russia…

Happily, I immediately thought of several possible movies. The only question was whether they qualified as Cold War-related. Or as genre. And having to choose three of the five from the Soviet Union did somewhat limit my choices. So it was more a matter of picking which five to put on my list than it was actually finding five. And here they are, in no particular order…

Sacrifice_Offret (The Sacrifice), Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). The absolutely obvious choice. It’s about a nuclear war, so you can’t get more Cold War than that. Okay, it was filmed in Sweden with a Swedish cast, but Tarkovsky is arguably the most famous film director to have come out of Russia, so in my mind it counts as a Russian film. So there. An ex-actor, played by Bergman regular Erland Josephson, lives in a nice house on a remote Swedish island with his wife. After admitting he no longer believes in God, news reaches Josephson of all-out nuclear war. He vows to sacrifice all he owns and loves if God will undo the nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, this is quite a harrowing film, but it is also Tarkovsky… and you cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Tarkovsky’s movies.

starsbyhardwaysЧерез тернии к звёздам (To the Stars by Hard Ways), Richard Viktorov (1981, USSR). The Cold War link is less obvious in this famous Russian sf film, but given that it concerns an ecological war between two groups on an alien world – and in which humans become involved after rescuing the bizarre-looking Yelena Metyolkina – there’s clearly a parallel. Admittedly, the rescue mission is multi-national, but then socialist films liked to show the world’s nations working together, even if the West has always been resistant to the idea (US films, for example, always show the US doing everything) . Ruscico currently sell a copy of this on DVD. It’s completely bonkers but worth getting. I’ve heard the director’s son has released a director’s cut of the film, but to my knowledge it’s only available in Russian and my knowledge of that language is limited to a handful of pleasantries and swear words.

testpilotpirxДознание пилота Пиркса (Inquest of Pilot Pirx), Marek Piestrak (1978, USSR/Poland). Pirx was created by Polish sf writer Stanisław Lem, so there’s no doubting this film’s genre credentials; and while it’s a joint production between studios in Poland, Ukraine and Estonia, the latter two were in the USSR when the movie was made, so it counts. It’s another socialist film which presents an international crew, but there are still two sides engaged in a form of Cold War: humans and androids. Pirx must captain a ship on a space flight Saturn. One of his crew is an android, but he doesn’t know which one – and once at their destination, it tries to seize control. A weird mix of Cold War thriller, with an amazing seventies aesthetic, and hard sf, this is another DVD worth getting. Again, it’s available from Ruscico.

noendBez końca (No End), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1985, Poland). This is in no way science fiction, and it’s only Cold War-related inasmuch as its story takes place during the years of martial law in Poland after Solidarność was banned. A translator, whose lawyer husband died recently, struggles to make ends meet and bring up her son, while the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. But it’s Kieślowski, that’s all you need to know. You cannot call yourself a cineaste if you do not love Kieślowski’s movies.

in_the_dust_of_the_starsIm Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), Gottfried Kolditz (1976, East Germany). During the 1960s and 1970s, East Germany’s Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, DEFA, made four big budget science fiction films: Signale – ein Weltraumabenteuer (1970), Der Schweigende Stern (1960), Im Staub der Sterne and Eolomea (1972). The last three are available in an English-language DVD box set, but I’ve yet to find the first in an English edition (and my German is a bit rusty – I struggled when watching Raumpatrouille Orion). In Im Staub der Sterne, a spaceship lands on a rescue mission on the world of TEM 4, only for the inhabitants to deny sending a distress call. Except there are two groups on TEM 4 in a sort of Eloi / Morlock relationship, as the crew discover, and it’s not hard to read it as an Eastern Bloc versus decadent West sort of thing. The film is also astonishingly kitsch, with some of the most bonkers seventies production design ever consigned to celluloid. Hunt down that DEFA collection box set, it’s totally worth it.

szulkinO-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji (O-Bi, O-Ba. The End of Civilisation), Piotr Szulkin (1985, Poland). Just because I can, I’m going to make my list six films. Mostly because this movie is so on point, it didn’t deserve to be an also ran – and yet I also wanted to include the ones I’d already chosen. O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji is set entirely in an underground fallout shelter after some sort of nuclear holocaust – except there’s more going on than there initially seems. The shelter is not the shiny clean antiseptic complex you’d expect of a US Cold War movie, but a dirty ill-lit dungeon, a sort of confined post-apocalyptic wasteland in its own right. There’s a very black joke about the currency used in the shelter (Szulkin’s films all possess an amazingly dark humour). Telewizja Kinopolska have released a DVD box set containing O-Bi, O-Ba. Koniec cywilizacji, Wojna światów – następne stulecie (War of the Worlds – The Next Century, 1981), and Ga, Ga. Chwała bohaterom (Ga, Ga. Glory to Heroes, 1984), as well one of my favourite films, a 1993 short titled Mięso (Ironica), about the political history of Poland during the twentieth century and, er, meat products.

The also-rans? There’s Béla Tarr’s 2000 movie Werckmeister Harmonies from Hungary, which is about the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but the film might have been a little hard to justify on genre grounds. Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe, 1988) is definitely science fiction, but given that it’s adapted from a 1903 novel its Cold War credentials are a little harder to see – but Żuławski adapted the story so it read as a criticism of the Polish authorities… which they managed to spot and so shut down the production (the film was eventually completed ten years later, using stock footage and voice-over narration). Кин-дза-дза! (Kin-dza-dza!, 1986) by Georgiy Daneliya is a 1986 sf film in which a pair of Soviet innocents are dumped on a desert world in which two societies, the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, exist in near-conflict (which seems to be a common trope in Soviet sf cinema). And finally, there’s Pane, vy jste vdova! (You are a Widow, Sir!, 1971) by Czech director Václav Vorlíček, which is a sort of madcap and very silly sf comedy, involving assassins and brain transplants in an invented country, but it might be stretching the point to call it a Cold War film.