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Moving pictures, #28

I was under the impression I’d knocked a few more off the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently, but apparently not. Two of the directors in this post I’m a fan of, and one of them I’m becoming a fan of…

i_want_to_liveI Want to Live!, Robert Wise (1958, USA). Not only was this film based on a real-life murder case, but the movie makes a right meal of its origin, opening with a screen of text that insists how true it is – it’s even signed by the journalist who broke the story in the first place. So it’s a little off-putting to then learn that the story takes some major liberties with the truth. Like presenting the central character as innocent when she was actually guilty. Bah, Hollywood. The story goes as follows: Barbara Graham is a habitual criminal, whose marriage to a drug addict proves the last straw… so she leaves him and joins up with his associates, only to be arrested for the murder they had committed of a rich old woman, Graham is sentenced to death and then executed. The film presents Graham as a pawn in the actual murderers’ plot to commute their death sentences to life. But in reality, she was just as guilty. Susan Hayward plays Graham in an Osar-winning turn, but when all’s said and done I Want to Live! is a boringly ordinary moral drama. Samuel Fuller did it much better in both Shock Corridor (see here) and The Naked Kiss (see here), on a lower budget and without an Oscar-bait star. Meh.

sunset_songSunset Song, Terence Davies (2015, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and having been impressed by Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (although I thought the film much older than it was), I decided to give this one a go. It took several goes. It is grim. Majorly grim. Scottish grim. Beautifully shot, but as grim as the grimmest thing in a list of grim things. It looks beautiful – far too beautiful for Scotland, it seems, as part of it was shot in New Zealand. It’s based on a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Gibbon of the same title, and tells the story of a young woman, and farmer’s daughter, in the years up to and including the First World War. Peter Mullan plays family patriarch, and he’s a nasty piece of work. I’m tempted to say it’s like DH Lawrence but with the boinking taken out, but that’s the not the only thing missing. Lawrence was hardly an optimist but his novels are generally more cheerful than Sunset Song. When it wasn’t people growling at each other in Scottish accents, they were either shouting or wailing. It made for a gruelling viewing experience. I think this is a good film, and really quite beautifully shot at times, but its unremitting grimness made it difficult viewing, and some times your appetite for punishment is not quite as high as at other times. You need to be in the right mood to watch this. Recommended, but with caveats.

kagaazKagaaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt (1959, India). Exploring Bollywood films has been fun, but most of those I’ve seen have been pretty forgettable. A good night’s entertainment, but basically just a Hollywood family blockbuster turned up to eleven. With singing and dancing. So Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa came as something of a surprise… although now I’ve seen him described as “India’s Orson Welles”, his films begin to make more sense. They are clever and well-shot, and make excellent use of Bollywood conventions to tell a story that doesn’t really map onto Bollywood story templates. And this is just as true of Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt’s last film. Annoyingly, there don’t seem to be any good transfers of his films – you’d think he’d be a director ripe for a set of remastered editions by Criterion or the BFI (for one thing, he only directed eight films, between 1951 and 1959). Given the lovely job the BFI has done for Dreyer, I’d like to see them do the same for Dutt. And I say that having seen only two of his films. In Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt plays a Bollywood director whose career is declining. His wife and her family have always seen his career as beneath them, and he now has no access to his daughter. While secretly visiting his daughter at her boarding school, Dutt bumps into a young woman and gives her his coat to protect her from the rain. Later, she visits his studio to return the coat and he realises she has star quality. She becomes a big Bollywood star, and romantically attached to Dutt; but the daughter would sooner her mother and father got back together again, so the star gives up her career and becomes a teacher in a village. This is well-made stuff, and while it feels somewhat back-handed, and not a little insulting, to describe Dutt as “India’s Orson Welles”, it is a label that fits. After watching Pyaasa, I decided to buy this – and despite being disappointed at the quality of the transfer, I think I’ll be buying more of Dutt’s film. But can the BFI please step up and remaster them all, please?

going_my_wayGoing My Way, Leo McCarey (1944, USA). This was the biggest grossing film of its year, and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning seven of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. And yet it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Strange. Or, at least, I thought so… But now that I’ve seen it… It’s, well, it’s sentimental tosh. Bing Crosby plays a young priest sent to the New York parish of St Dominic’s to get it sorted out. The incumbent is old, the church is mortgaged, and both need fresh new management. Which is what Bing does. And he sings too. He turns the local boys’ gang into a choir, sorts out a young woman who has left home, and generally spreads common sense and happiness with his trademark smile and “ba ba ba bum”. He also tries to raise money for the church by selling one of the songs he’s written – performed by an old friend who is now an opera diva. The music publisher doesn’t like the song, but when Bing and choir start singing ‘Swing on a Star’, he likes that one. There’s a relentless cheeriness to Going My Way that fails to offset the schamltzy plot and awful songs. I can perhaps see how in wartime it proved so popular, but its charm has long since dissipated. True, Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald isn’t bad as old Father Fitzgibbon, even if his character is a total stereotype. I’ve no idea why I stuck this on my rental list. Meh.

bossThe Boss of It All, Lars von Trier (2006, Denmark). There’s nothing especially original about the plot of this film – it is, I guess, a variation on La cage aux folles. Or maybe something else. A man wants to sell his successful IT firm, but for the ten years it’s been in operation he’s pretended he’s not the actual boss. So he hires a friend actor to play “the boss of it all” in negotiations with the Icelandic buyers of the company. And, subsequently, with the employees. Of course, it gets very complicated, very quickly. It doesn’t help that the actor is a bit of a twit, and completely out of his depth. But von Trier does an excellent job of characterising his cast – in fact, in many respects The Boss of It All is a masterclass in small-cast drama. But that’s not good enough for von Trier, so he decides to present the movie explicitly as a piece of cinematic comedy, by introducing it in voice-over, explaining its aims, and even some of its story elements. The end-result is a post-modern cinematic approach to a post-modern story. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like it – but like most von Trier films, it ends up making you wonder: is this rubbish… or genius? And the fact he can elicit that response makes me tend toward the latter. Von Trier is experimenting with the medium, and that should be celebrated. If not every experiment is successful, that doesn’t invalidate the attempt… And it still makes him a damn sight more interesting a director than most of the other directors on this planet.

in_the_houseIn the House, François Ozon (2012, France). The near-sociopathic inveigling of a person into another family in this film reminds me of another movie, but I’ve yet to figure out which. Probably because the details are different enough to make comparison difficult. Anyway, I like Ozon’s films – well, I’ve not liked or admired every film he’s made, but I admire him as a director and he’s built up an inpressive oeuvre. In the House is one of the better ones, if not an especially characteristically Ozon film – this is not 8 femmes or Angel or Ricky; but perhaps it’s not so far from 5 x 2 or Jeune et jolie. Perhaps that variety is as much an Ozon trademark as the sensibility which created 8 femmes, Potiche or Le refuge… Whatever; Ozon is certainly one of my favourite directors, so I’m always keen to see his latest. In the House is one of his domestic thrillers, played straight, but with that unsettling edge he does so well. A pupil at a school writes an essay about his weekend for an assignment, and in it describes how he befriended a fellow pupil, went to his house to tutor him in maths, and so ingratiated himself in to the family. The essay ends “à suivre”. The teacher is a failed writer (one novel twenty years ago, nothing since), and encourages the pupil to continue his “story”… And so the pupil becomes more and more involved with the family… until it all goes horribly wrong. A good and unsettling film, with some good performances. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 773


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Moving pictures, #29

A few too many US films this time, although the Benning is actually only available on a DVD published by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. But then the Satyajit Ray is a Criterion Collection DVD, and they’re only published in the US, so…

music_roomThe Music Room (Jalsaghar)*, Satyajit Ray (1958, India). I’ve been trying to watch more Ray as he’s an important director and to date I’ve only watched two-thirds of his Apu trilogy. The asterisk indicates this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and while Ray is quite well-served in terms of UK DVD releases (thanks to the inestimable Artificial Eye), I decided to pick up the Criterion Collection DVD of The Music Room. The story is a common one, perhaps even common to Indian cinema (it’s certainly one shared with Mother India in part), in that it’s about the death of old ways and the rise of the new. The main character of The Music Room is a Bengali zamindar, wealthy and indolent, but good-hearted and more fond of music than he is looking after the lands and people he is responsible for. His decline is contrasted with the rise of a commoner who beocmes rich through business. The film cleverly shifts sympathy from the zamindar to the commoner, especially given whatever defence might be mounted of the zamindar system the example portrayed in The Music Room is far from a good advert. The film also makes  a great deal of its music, and apparently it was the use of classical Indian music in The Music Room which contributed to its success in the West (it was intended to be a commercial success in India as Ray’s previous film had flopped). I’m reminded of a night I once spent in a Bengali nightclub in Abu Dhabi, when after listening to a fifteen-minute song I asked the person sitting at a nearby table to explain the lyrics. They were surprisingly banal. That’s not something which can be said of this film, which maintains an impressive elegiac tone throughout.

prizziPrizzi’s Honour*, John Huston (1985, USA). There are a number of films whose presence on 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list is, quite frankly, baffling. This is one of them. It’s a fairly ordinary comedy-drama about Hollywood’s version of the Mob, notable only for Jack Nicholson’s gormless expression throughout and his tortured Brooklyn accent (at least, I think it’s Brooklyn, a native New Yorker would probably know what particular district it’s intended to portray). Nicholson’s character is an enforcer for a Mob don, and he falls in love at first sight with Kathleen Turner at a family wedding. But she’s from out of town (LA, in fact), so he never finds out who she is… Until some time later, when he’s out in LA and it turns out she’s involved in the hit he’s making. The two enter into a relationship, it transpires Turner is a contract killer, and later that she has ripped off the Mob and… well, it’s about as twisty-turny as the first two minutes of your average twenty-first century thriller movie. Turner plays a femme fatale, a role which has defined much of her career; I’m not sure if Nicholson was doing a comedy turn, it’s hard to tell. This is light entertainment, it’s not classic cinema, and you can happily live your life without having never seen it.

around_the_worldAround The World Under The Sea, Andrew Marton (1966, USA). The threat of increased, and more powerful, earthquakes, persuades the UN to back a plan to install earthquake sensors at strategic points around the globe on the ocean bottom. The plan is Lloyd Bridges’s, so he gets to lead the mission – which will involve a globe-spanning trip in a large submersible. Also aboard are five other scientists – Shirley Eaton, Brian Kelly (who doesn’t think a woman should be on board), David McCallum, Keenan Wynan and Marshall Thompson. This film is… tosh. Complete tosh. Wynan initially refuses Bridges’s invite, so Bridges goes to visit him… in his undersea home more than 700 feet below the surface of the sea. And Bridges dives to it on air. It’s also remarkably light down there, in fact the sea bottom is the sort of pale sand you’d find around, say, twenty feet below the surface. There are also other episodes where the crew go diving at depths of greater than 20,000 feet – and it’s unlikely the submersible itself would survive such a depth – on air and without bothering to either compress before or decompress afterwards. There are films which make a reluctant nod in the direction of scientific accuracy, and are those which don’t give a shit. This falls into the latter camp – and it’s not improved by it. The actual premise is complete bollocks, and the presentation of submersibles and diving is complete and utter nonsense. Best avoided.

awful_truthThe Awful Truth*, Leo McCarey (1937, USA). There are films in which Cary Grant seems to glide through the proceedings, sliding along on charm and his perfect delivery of one-liners. Not every film, or even necessarily good films – he is better, for example in Operation Petticoat than he is in North by Northwest. But The Awful Truth is an early film – actually his thirtieth, if the filmography on Wikipedia is any guide – and his first attempt at the debonair leading man in a comedy-drama, a role which later came to define him. In this, he often seems a bit too eager to deliver the punch-line, and it gives him an earnestness which sits at odds with his later on-screen persona (but that’s what you get for watching an actor’s oeuvre in non-chronological order, which is I suspect the way most people end up seeing films starring a particular actor). The plot of The Awful Truth is typical screwball romance fodder: Grant and Irene Dunn are due to divorce, but by parading unsuitable new partners in front of each other, they eventually realise they belong together. Again. The script is witty, Dunne more than holds her own, and if Grant does smirk and gurn a little too often, it doesn’t detract all that much from the film’s essential charm.

american dreamsLandscape Suicide, James Benning (1986, USA). This is cinema as art installation, although Benning pushes the definition of that by including narrative. Yet his films are also documentaries – there is nothing fictional about the material he presents. Landscape Suicide is about two murder cases: one in Wisconsin, one in California; one in 1984, one in 1957. The earlier of the two is the capture of Ed Gein. Benning has an actor play Gein and act out his interrogation by the police. The second is Bernadotte Prott, who stabbed a high school friend to death, and is again portrayed by an actor who acts out her police interrogation. Landscape Suicide is built up from these static talking head shots and equally static shots of the areas in which the crimes were committed, in Wisconsin and California. Although there is nothing in this film which actually tells a story, Benning imposes narrative through his choice of images and his editing. I’ll admit he’s not to everyone’s taste: 90 minutes of static 16mm shots of three or so minutes duration, not always with narration or even people talking – both El Valley Centro and Los, for example, are images and ambient sound only – but it’s the actual procession of images which tells the story, and it’s very cleverly done. Quite meserising too.

scarfacerScarface*, Howard Hawks (1932, USA). I’ve seen about half of Hawks’s oeuvre to date, and some of them I’ve found very good – if very much of their time and very much a product of the Hollywood system (neither necessarily being a bad thing, of course). I will admit to not having high expectations of this movie, a thinly-disguised biopic of Al Capone, even down to re-staging the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Its opening ten or twenty minutes aren’t especially prepossessing, as Paul Muni moves in on deals other gangs have made with speakeasies for their supply of beer (not that the speakeasies had much choice). But then the violence escalates, and it’s all very realistic – so much so, it captures the attention and holds it. Admittedly, I missed the whole “X equals death” thing, although I did wonder why the camera lingered on the ceiling joists of the garage where the massacre took place. Muni seems a bit too much like his role in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to convince as a ruthless mobster, and Boris Karloff is far too lugubrious and, well, English, in a similar role. Despite that, the story speeds along at a breakneck, and accelerating, pace, and it’s not hard to understand why Scarface is considered a seminal film of its genre. Worth seeing.

no_mans_landNo Man’s Land*, Danis Tanović (2001, Bosnia). The only film by Tanović I’d seen previously was Hell, his film of a screenplay by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the second of a new trilogy they were working on just prior to Kieślowski’s death (the first, Heaven, was filmed by Tom Tykwer after Kieślowski’s death; the third has never been made). All of which is completely irrelevant as that later film bears little or no resemblance to this one, which takes place mostly between the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb frontlines during the Bosnian War. After a patrol gets lost in a heavy fog, and another patrol is sent out to look for them, two soldiers, one from each side, end up trapped in an abandoned trench in no man’s land. Neither can leave, at risk of getting shot by the opposite side. Just to make matters worse, Bosnian Serbs have boobytrapped a dead Bosniak by putting a bouncing mine under his body. Except he’s not dead. A French sergeant in the UN Peacekeeping Force gets involved, but his superiors veto any resolution of the situation. But then the media arrives on the scene, especially a tenacious British reporter for a news channel. The decision to help gets bounced up the chain of command to Simon Callow’s colonel, but it seems the mine can’t be disarmed. The Bosniak and Bosnia Serb end up shooting each other, and the UN Peacekeepers lie to the media and tell everyone the third man has been rescued, even though he hasn’t. This humour isn’t black, it’s stygian. Like proper humour of this type, everything in it is completely inevitable, including the stupidity and dishonesty of the people involved. It is also completely convincing. Definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 649


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Moving pictures, #1

The first “films seen” post of 2015… Last year was a bit epic for DVD-watching, and I expect this year to be much the same… Three weeks into the year and I’ve already seen 29 films and rewatched season 1 of Babylon 5. I don’t document every movie I’ve watched in these posts – I mean, the less said about Solar Crisis the better (it was a charity shop find, okay?). Some films were rewatches, some were simply forgettable, and there’s not a lot I can say about Babylon 5 that’s not been said before by many others. So, it’s the usual mix of (mostly) classic films, I’m afraid…

playtimePlaytime*, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I knew very little about this film when I sat down to watch it – I knew who Tati was, of course; in fact, I’d seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot the year before (see here). But I hadn’t known quite how much of an… undertaking Playtime had been, how expensive a production, how enormous a film it proved to be. Apparently, it was a bit of a commercial flop on release, although critics acclaimed it. I loved it. Right from the opening in the mock-up of Orly Airport, with its clean retro-futurist lines. I loved the modernist look of the film, its Brutalist interiors and futurist gadgets. The plot, in which Hulot wanders from set-piece to set-piece, is almost incidental. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, more so than I seem to recall from the other Tati film I’d seen. And, of course, it just looks absolutely fantastic. So I bought a Blu-ray of it on eBay.

fearFear Eats The Soul*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Fassbinder famously based this film on Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows and, to be honest, I was expecting it to closer resemble Sirk’s movie that it actually did. Partly, this was because it was my first Fassbinder, so I had no real idea what to expect – it was probably also the first New German Cinema film I’ve seen; but I suspect my expectations were unrealistic and likely spoiled by Todd Haynes’ take on All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, which apes the look of Sirk’s film while extending its story. Fassbinder, on the other hand, makes free use of the story, but sets his story in present-day (for 1974) Munich. A widow in her sixties drops into a bar to get out of the rain, and so meets Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter who speaks broken German (the film’s actual title, Angst essen Seele auf, is broken German). The widow, Emmi, and Ali become friends, and then lovers, and she invites him to live with her. When the landlord tells Emmi that her lease doesn’t allow her to sublet, she tells him Ali is her fiancé. So Ali and Emmi marry – much to the disgust of Emmi’s adult offspring. But soon Emmi’s attitude toward her husband begins to align with those of her racist neighbours and friends, even though her children have come to accept Ali. Like Sirk’s masterpiece, Fear Eats The Soul shows a conventional woman entering into a relationship that which is uncomfortable to her family and peers, and then choosing to formalise that relationship (although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson don’t actually get married in All That Heaven Allows). But where Sirk’s film is about class, Fassbinder’s is very much about race, and especially about the presence of gastarbeiters in Germany. It’s a powerful story, and works especially well because of its low-key realist approach (unlike Sirk’s colour-saturated mise en scène, which I admit I love). Having now seen it, I think Fear Eats The Soul is not so much a reflection or homage to All That Heaven Allows as it is a complement to it.

mariabraunThe Marriage Of Maria Braun*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979, Germany). Did I mention I received a boxed set of Fassbinder DVDs for Christmas? It’s the Commemorative Collection 73-82 Volume 2. Obviously, I picked out the two best-known films in it to watch first. In The Marriage Of Maria Braun, the title character marries her boyfriend while he is home from the Front, they spend a day and a night together and then he’s off fighting again. Cut to the end of the war, and he doesn’t return home – she doesn’t know if he’s dead or still a POW held by the Russians. She gets a job at a bar that caters to American occupiers, and becomes the lover of one GI regular. At which point, her missing husband turns up and catches the pair in flagrante delicto. A struggle ensues, and Maria accidentally kills the GI. However, the husband takes the blame and is sentenced to prison for murder. Maria is determined to better her lot so when her husband is eventually released they can live a life of comfort. She meets a rich industrialist on a train, and he hires her as his personal assistant/mistress. She proves to have a head for business, and becomes rich. Meanwhile, the industrialist approaches the imprisoned husband, and the husband agrees to leave Germany on his release and not return to Maria. Later, after the industrialist has died, he returns – Maria has inherited everything, and is now very rich indeed. While Fassbinder didn’t evoke post-war Germany especially well – no doubt due to budgetary constraints; although von Trier, I thought, did a better job in Europa, albeit it was more representational – I thought this film a much more subtle piece than Fear Eats The Soul, and much the better for it. Maria Braun is a well-drawn and well-played character, and if the film puts the atrocities committed by the Nazis to one side (and, like Europa, paints the occupying Americans as heartless invaders rather than saviours), Maria’s profound selfishness and determination gives the story a solid anchor. Excellent stuff.

streetcar_named_desireA Streetcar Named Desire*, Elia Kazan (1950, USA). One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I watched only because it was on the list. I was aware of the film, and that it had made Marlon Brando a star, but that was about all. And, to be honest, what I knew of it didn’t really make me want to watch it. But it was on the list, so I bunged it on my rental list and, in due course, it popped through the letter-box. So I watched it. And… meh. It’s one of those films made on an indoor set whose stark lighting can’t hide the fact it’s as fake as a theatre flat. Brando was widely praised for his acting in the film, but I just found his put-on voice really annoying. Vivian Leigh was better, and managed to evoke the fragility of her character, but the final descent into madness was pure bathos. I can see how people would have liked it back in the day, but it’s all a bit OTT, a stage play turned up to 11, with much yelling and wailing and outbreaks of sudden violence. Ah well. One to cross off the list.

maleficentMaleficent, Robert Stromberg (2014, USA). The title character is, apparently, the evil queen in the Snow White story, although quite how this dark fantasy fits into the fairy tale is anybody’s guess – I think even Disney’s marketing department gave up on trying to persuade audiences of that one. Angelina Jolie, with prosthetic cheekbones and a pair of big fuck-off horns, plays the title character, who is really just misunderstood and not the evil piece of work the Brothers Grimm et al have painted her. Her peasant boyfriend, on the other hand, is. Evil, that is. Well, nasty. He even gets to be king – which is not how dynastic succession or divine right works, but this is a US film and they’ve never really understood the concept of royalty. For reasons I now forget, said king decides to raze the magic wood near his castle and in which Maleficent and her Thumper-y friends all live. So she seeks revenge by cursing the king’s new-born daughter. But I don’t recall the daughter being put to sleep – it may have been me who was sleeping – but instead she gallivanted about the magic forest and played  with all the weird faery creatures, while being maternally looked over by Maleficent. I’m not really sure what this film is meant to be – it reminded me of that other fairy tale mangled into a dark fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman; and while I have no problem with using fairy tales as source material, I’m not convinced Maleficent reflects well on the Sleeping Beauty story.

cranesThe Cranes Are Flying*, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957, USSR). I’m a big fan of both Tarkovsky’s and Sokurov’s films, and I’ve seen a number of other Russian movies – including bonkers sf film Kin-Dza-Dza, yet more bonkers Через тернии к звёздам, and even mighty Soviet historical epic Ilya Muromets. But I’d not seen much socialist drama, so The Cranes Are Flying was something new for me. It’s a WWII film, centred around the character of Veronika, a young woman. Her boyfriend Boris volunteers to fight, but is posted missing in action. Her parents are then killed in a bombing raid by the Germans, so Boris’s parents invite Veronika to live with them. Boris’s cousin Mark is also staying there, and he begins to pursue Veronika – she, of course, does not know Boris is dead, and she rejects his advances. He assaults her and shames her into marrying him. The family are moved further east, and Veronika works in a hospital caring for wounded soldiers. After an incident in a hospital, she decides to commit suicide, but at the last minute saves a boy from being hit by a car and adopts him. Boris’s father then learns that Mark escaped conscription by bribing an official, so he boots him out of the house. A comrade of Boris’s then turns up and informs Veronika that her boyfriend died a hero’s death… It’s all very grim, and each of the characters quite clearly maps onto roles played by the people of the USSR during WWII, both good and bad. While Veronika’s ending is hopeful rather than happy, the bad guy is caught and punished for his anti-socialist actions. As propaganda goes, The Cranes Are Flying was entertaining, if a little heavy-handed. The stark black-and-white cinematography was effective, and Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova was good as Veronika. Worth seeing.

timesevenWoman Times Seven, Vittorio de Sica (1967, Italy). Shirley MacLaine has made some odd films throughout her career, and this, I think, qualifies as one of them. It’s an anthology film, in which MacLaine plays seven parts, and they’re pretty much all the same. In the first, she’s a widow following her husband’s hearse to the cemetery, while her late husband’s doctor, played by Peter Sellers, tries to persuade her to marry him. In the second, she’s a young wife who returns home to find her husband (a different husband, obviously; MacLaine is playing different women) in bed with her best friend, so she heads out and meets up with a bunch of prostitutes. In the third, she’s a hippie translator who reads poetry, while naked, to a Scot and Italian who are members of the congress where she’s interpreting. The fourth sees MacLaine married to a best-selling author who is more in love with his fictional character than his wife, so MacLaine tries to become the fictional character, prompting the husband to have her examined by a psychiatrist. In the fifth, a society woman goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure a rival doesn’t wear the same designer gown as herself to the opera. The sixth appears to be set in New York and features a young married couple who are determined to commit suicide, except the husband isn’t quite so determined. And the seventh has MacLaine being stalked by Michael Caine after she meets Anita Ekberg for lunch. An odd film, and not even remotely funny.

affairAn Affair to Remember*, Leo McCarey (1957, USA). Unbelievably, I’d never actually seen this TV perennial, and since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I thought I should. I like 1950s melodramas, so I expected to like An Affair to Remember, but… Cary Grant was at his most tea-bag-tan-ish, and didn’t really convince as a French playboy (the former more than the latter). There was a little bit too much singing, and as the film progressed the schmaltz began to heap up in droves. And yet it all started so well – the shipboard romance was nicely handled, with plenty of witty banter. But after Deborah Kerr had been hit by a car… and gives up her singing career to teach poor children (sticks fingers down throat)… Obviously, a happy ending was always going to happen, but McCarey made sure he hit every emotional beat in Hollywood’s lexicon before reaching it. To be honest, it felt like a good 1950s melodrama badly welded to an inferior non-musical remake of An American In Paris.


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Moving pictures, #6

I’m not entirely sure what happened to June. It seemed to pass really quickly, without me getting much done. And July is looking like it might go the same way. But I have watched a lot of films – if only because of that damned f**tball. So while I scramble to catch up with various ongoing projects – including something a little more intelligent to post on this blog than just lists of books and films – here is a, er, list of films wot I have watched recently.

Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton (1924, USA) Keaton is a cinema projectionist and dreams himself the hero of the film he’s showing, a murder-mystery among the wealthy, and, of course, there’s a nubile daughter, who Keaton wants to impress. There are some good gags in this, but none that matched the train journey in Our Hospitality (see here).

Wages Of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953, France) The oil well is on fire, and the only way to put it out is using lots of nitroglycerine, but that’s stored a couple of hundred miles away at the company HQ, and the only way to get it to the wellhead is by truck. Which is, of course, really really dangerous – if not suicidal. But that’s okay because there’s loads of desperate men trapped in the nearby town, who have no jobs and not enough money to leave… The film takes a while to get going, but the drive over the mountains with two trucks full of explosives is pretty good.

Faust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia) If Tarkovsky’s film often seem glacially-paced, then Sokurov’s are geological. But, like Tarkovsky’s, they’re also beautifully shot and observed. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the story of this film. The mise en scène looks fantastic, and the moneylender (ie, the devil) is horrible and creepy… a film to savour.

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Moscow Elegy, Aleksandr Sokurov (1987, Russia) Sokurov and Tarkovsky had been friends since film school, and this documentary was put together – from footage by Chris Marker, Tarkovsky himself (behind the scenes footage from both Nostalgia and The Sacrifice), and excerpts from Tarkovsky’s films – to be shown on Tarkovsky’s birthday in 1982. Interference by the Soviet authorities led to delays and, sadly, Tarkovsky died before the film premiered. Despite all the Tarkovsky footage in this, there’s no mistaking it for a Sokurov film. This is one of three documentaries on The Andrei Tarkovsky Companion, which I bought when it was released… and I see it now goes for around £88.

Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (2012, USA) I know only what most non-USians know about Lincoln, and this film pretty much covers all those – Civil War, emancipation, assassinated in a theatre, peculiar beard. It’s a dull film for the first half, but Lincoln proves a surprisingly pragmatic president – ie, openly buying votes to push his amendment through Congress. Things pick up a little in the second half, and despite it being an historical conclusion, Spielberg manages to wring some tension from the final vote scene. Having said all that, this is very much by the numbers American History 101. Day-Lewis plays a good part, but all those historical forces feel of the moment rather than the endgame of a long political struggle. Meh.

Make Way for Tomorrow, Leo McCarey (1937, USA) Old retired couple’s house is repossessed by the bank, leaving them homeless, and the grown-up kids are pretty adamant they don’t want the old folks dumped on them – though, in the end, one takes the father and another takes the mother. And they really are an unpleasant family. While this film may be 84 years old, not a fat lot appears to have changed since then. But when you have a welfare state with state pensions and council houses, old people don’t get left on the street to die as they are in some allegedly civilised countries…

Black Moon Rising, Harley Cokliss (1986, USA) A straight-to-DVD thriller notable only for the astonishing mullet worn by Linda Hamilton during the first half-hour (happily, it proves to be a wig). Tommy Lee Jones is a top thief, working for the government, but a job goes wrong, and he has to hide the stolen computer tape in an experimental 300 mph supercar invented by Richard Jaeckel. But then Hamilton’s gang of car thieves, run by shady billionaire Robert Vaughn, steals the supercar, and Jones must get it back.

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Tristana, Luis Buñuel (1970, Spain/France) Catherine Deneuve plays an orphan who is adopted by a wealthy don in 1960s Toledo, who treats her like a daughter, but the moment she turns nineteen, he decides she’s his mistress. Meanwhile, she falls in love with a man nearer her own age, runs off to live with him, is taken ill, which results in her losing a leg, and she eventually ends up back with her don. An odd film, it played like an historical melodrama, but didn’t look like one.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany) This is probably my favourite Haneke film, and it’s beautifully put together. A series of mysterious incidents in a German village just prior to World War I cause the villagers to turn on each other, but Haneke refuses to explain who is responsible or why. Beautifully photographed and really quite unsettling.

Golem, Piotr Szulkin (1979, Poland) That Szulkin box set was definitely a good buy. There isn’t a duff film in it, although this is perhaps the least interesting. In a future much like the ones Szulkin has depicted in his other films – ie, grim and dystopian – clones are used to fill out the workforce, and are treated very badly. But one clone may actually be a man – he’s not sure as he can’t remember, and the scientists are too clear on the matter either, as they may have got confused between the clone and the original human.

Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland) I suspect this film is going to make my best of the year – which is a little perverse as it’s a 26-minute television short included as an extra feature in the Piotr Szulkin box set I bought earlier this year – and the actual films in the box set are all very good and worth seeing. But Mięso (Ironica) is in a class of its own. It’s a lecture on the history of Poland under Communism, using the availability of meat and meat products as illustration. It’s filmed in an outdoor meat market, by a cast who are clearly not actors, and in many cases are holding the script in their hand, or need prompting by others. There are also a number of dance routines, including one in which half a dozen riot police dance off against half a dozen Roman Catholic clergy in full regalia. In one scene, a woman in a wheelchair tries to position herself before the camera, but the cobbles are so slippery that by the time she’s in place she’s too knackered to speak.

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The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke (1989, Austria) Another favourite by Haneke, and allegedly inspired by true events. A middle-class Austrian family, after spending much of the film going about their lives, suddenly tell everyone they are emigrating to Australia. They then eat a large feast, smash everything they own, and then commit suicide. Like The White Ribbon, it’s deeply unsettling, but this time the lack of explanation plays off against the prosaic nature of what has gone before.

Lola Montès, Max Ophüls (1955, France) This has one of the strangest framing narratives I’ve come across in a mainstream film. Lola Montès is a circus performer, enacting scenes from her life, with the help of the other circus performers and narrated by ringmaster Peter Ustinov. As each new chapter in her life begins, the view fades from the circus ring to a flashback of the actual events. It’s all very colourful, sumptuous even, but Montès is not a sympathetic protagonist and not even the well over-the-top staging prevents interest from flagging. Apparently, this flopped on release, and was butchered by the studio in an attempt to save it. I saw the restored version, and it clearly should have been left alone – but I think I understand why it did so badly back in 1955…

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