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Moving pictures 2017, #52

My viewing of late has been partly dictated by LoveFilm’s imminent demise and a desire to watch as many films on my list that only it offers for rental. I can guess why it’s shutting down: there’s more money to be made in streaming. Let’s charge someone £2.49 to watch a film once instead of allowing them to rent up to twelve DVDs for £9.99 a month. Although, of course, you can pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services. And I would… if their selections weren’t so shit. There are now apparently dedicated streaming services – for Curzon, for Mubi, etc – which show the sort of films I want to watch. But I have to pay for each of them. Technology: finding more ways to separate you from your money for things that were cheaper, or even free, in the past…

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA). Another recommendation from David Tallerman. Johnson is a documentary director, and Cameraperson is excerpts from the films she has made, assembled as a testament to her life and career to date. Er, that’s it. There is footage of Johnson’s children, or footage from, for example, her documentary about bin Laden’s driver… I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work, I admit; in fact, I really should watch more documentaries. I tend to watch only those on topics which interest me, like James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep, or the Apollo missions, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… But documentaries, of course, cover a vast range of subjects, and I should know this because I live in a city that has an annual documentary festival (at which, incidentally, Cameraperson won the Grand Jury Award in 2016), and Johnson’s body of work covers some important topics. For the last year or two, I’ve split my rental DVDs between US/UK films and movies from the rest of the planet. But since I receive three at a time, perhaps I should introduce a third category for documentaries, and take one from each for each mailing. That sounds like a good plan, actually.

The Thin Man*, WS Van Dyke (1934, USA). William Powell plays an ex-private eye, married to wealthy socialite Myrna Loy. While visiting New York, a man they know disappears, and then his secretary is murdered. The disappeared man is assumed to be the murderer. The press repeatedly asks Powell if he’s investigating the case, but he points out time and again that he’s retired. But, of course, he starts looking into it, and, of course, he figures out what happened… resulting in a dinner party to which all the suspects are invited, and at which he reveals the murderer. Both leads were cast against type, but have real on-screen chemistry – although Powell does seem like he’s had a few too many throughout the film. But the way Loy and Powell actively take the piss out of each other is entertaining to watch. Loy is especially good. Apparently, director Van Dyke pushed Loy into a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party to see how she would react before casting her. Which is a pretty mean trick. Incidentally, the title refers to the disappeared man, not Powell’s character, but was mistakenly believed to be the latter – so much so, it led to five Powell and Loy sequels, all featuring the phrase “the Thin Man”. Not to mention a TV series that aired from 1957 to 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I’m not entirely sure why The Thin Man is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was certainly entertaining, but not I’d have thought an important film. True, it spawned a legacy that lasted a quarter of a century – but it’s mostly forgotten now.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax, Alexandre Aja (2016, Canada). I rented this because I’d read the book – it’s not one of Liz Jensen’s best, but she’s always worth reading. In fact, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a higher profile. Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy who is in a deep coma after falling off a cliff at a family picnic. His father has disappeared, and it’s not clear if Louis’s fall was accidental or deliberate. Louis, who narrates the film, considers himself accident-prone, and several such incidents are shown in flashback. Actually, much of the film takes place in flashback. Louis was actually pronounced dead after his fall, but came back to life on the mortuary slab – but is now in a coma. A pediatrician who specialises in comatose children becomes interested in Louis’s case and has him moved to his clinic. Louis’s mother starts to take an interest in the handsome doctor. Meanwhile, Louis meets with a rock monster in his coma dreams, and in the real world threats are made against his mother. I’d forgotten the novel’s plot when I watched the film, but it wasn’t difficult to see where it was going. It was one of those films where everything felt a little fake, the outside scenes more like a studio set plus CGI than open air, the ward in which comatose Louis is kept not looking anything like a hospital… A triumph of set-design over actual realistic surroundings. But not a bad film.

Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969, Italy). There are two types of Pasolini film: one I like a great deal, one I’m less keen on. Pigsty does both. It has two seemingly unrelated narratives. In one, a young man wanders naked across a volcanic landscape (last seen in Pasolini’s Theorem), before finding a sword and armour. And then it’s a series of fights, as he meets up with other soldiers, kills them, builds his own army, and so on. But there’s nothing in the blasted landscape to eat, so he turns to cannibalism, but is eventually arrested. The other narrative is set in the 1960s, and features a German industrialist who is clearly intended to be Hitler, even down to the toothbrush moustache and virulent anti-semitism. But his wife would sooner breed pigs, which later come in useful in getting rid of a rival. The problem with Pigsty is that the Hitler narrative is too silly to have much bite, and while the one set in ancient times is effective and looks pretty damn good, it takes too long to get to its point. This year has been the Year of Pasolini for me (well, among a couple of other directors), and from knowing nothing about him and his films I’ve worked my way through at least two-thirds of his oeuvre in around twelve months. And I like it. Some more than others, it has to be said. But I don’t doubt his importance as a director, or the uniqueness of his vision. I suppose in some respects I find him a bit like Fellini, another Italian director whose importance is beyond doubt but whose oeuvre I personally find a bit hit and miss – I love Fellini’s more self-indulgent films and find his Neorealist ones a bit meh, but that’s just me.

Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard (1987, France). Godard’s films from the 1980s and 1990s, that I’ve seen, seem to be structured in parts, which I suppose is little more than more overtly delineated acts. Soigne ta droite has several, er, parts. It opens with a man instructed to carry a film can to another city, but he’s abused by another man, and left to fend for himself. And then there are several scenes set on a small prop airliner, in which the passengers behave like children. There are musicians rehearsing, discussing music, and performing it. There are some aerial shots of the (Swiss, I think) countryside. And there’s a voice-over narration for much of the film, which explains little and confuses more. Some of the dialogue is declamatory, and tries to be philosophical but doesn’t always make the grade. Unlike in, say, Miklós Jancsó’s films, the dialogue in the scenes often feels unlinked, a sequence of non sequiturs – in one scene, some passengers are haranguing a ticket agent at an airport, but what they say to her does not match what is being acted out in the scene. Despite watching this film two or three times, I’ve yet to work out what it’s about. Godard apparently described it as “a fantasy for actor, camera and tape recorder”, which is not very helpful. I shall probably have to watch it again.

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss (1945, UK). For some reason I do not recall, I added a couple of Margaret Lockwood films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “quota quickie”, although it displays all the attributes – including James Mason in a leading role (as a Quaker and pacifist, he did not fight during WWII). (Um, it seems “quota quickies” only lasted from 1928 until 1938, so British films made during WWII don’t qualify – although Mason did make a lot of films during the period.) Lockwood plays the title character, an adventuress who steals her friend’s beau, only to find herself in a dull marriage… which she enlivens by taking up highway robbery, eventually teaming up with the infamous Captain Jackson (Mason). In many respects, it’s the dictionary definition of a bodice-ripper – apparently, it was considered very racy at the time. I would have thought the concept of a female leading lady who not only has agency, but pretty much breaks every rule of acceptable female behaviour for the time the film was set and also the time it was made (although the war would have changed some of those attitudes)… that I’d have thought more notable. And yet, for all that, the film is bit, well, dull. I think maybe the pacing is off or something. Certainly the plot is entirely predictable. And Lockwood makes a good leading lady, although somewhat bland at times. Mason is, well, Mason. The rest of the cast are your usual 1940s British actors with either cut-glass accents or put-on random regional accents. So, a bit meh, really.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 881

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Moving pictures, #16

It seemed like a good idea to document the films I watched throughout the year, especially since I was working my way through a 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. What I hadn’t considered was how many movies I’d watch. And so have to document. Ah well. Here are more. Ones from the list indicated with an asterisk as usual.

mansfaveMan’s Favorite Sport?, Howard Hawks (1964, USA). I like Rock Hudson films, I like Technicolor films, I like screwball comedies. Throw in Howard Hawks as director, and Man’s Favorite Sport? ought to be a sure-fire winner. Sadly, it isn’t. Chiefly because it was written as a Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn vehicle, but ended up with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. While both are very good in their roles, Hudson isn’t Grant and has always performed better in Hudson roles. But, by god, the Technicolor certainly makes a picture of this moving, er, picture. The comedy has its moments, the chemistry on screen does create sparks, and Hudson does his best delivering the Grant one liners… but Man’s Favorite Sport? is mostly a lovely-looking film. Hudson plays a fishing expert at Abercrombie & Fitch, who has secretly never fished in his life. And then a fishing resort – represented by Prentiss – persuades his boss to enter him in a competition for publicity purposes. When Hudson comes clean, Prentiss and resort owner’s daughter Maria Perschy have to, er, teach a man to fish. A good piece of early sixties rom com, starring a master of the form and a rising comedic actress. For all its flaws, it’s still bags of fun.

banquetThe Banquet, Xiaogang Feng (2006, China). This was apparently based on Hamlet, although you’d have to be pretty forgiving to acknowledge it. Set in China during the tenth century, a crown prince has exiled himself to a remote theatre after his father married the noblewoman the prince was in love with. But then the emperor is killed by his brother, and assassins are sent to kill the prince. They fail, but he makes his way to the imperial court anyway, where things all get a bit complicated. Like a lot of wu xia movies, The Banquet is a pretty lush production, and the story covers pretty much all the bases – there are epic sword fights, gruesome deaths, love-making with lots of gauzy veils, complicated court politics, sumptuous sets and costumes… and an ending that comes completely out of left-field. One of the better wu xia films I’ve seen recently.

the_man_in_grey_uk_dvdThe Man In Grey*, Leslie Arliss (1943, UK). Stewart Grainger and Phyllis Calvert meet up at an auction room during WWII (he’s a RAF officer, she’s a WREN), and in the process of chatting her up inadvertently bids on a box of trinkets that are all that’s left of the Rohan aristocratic family. He admits to a connection to the Rohans and is far from complimentary; she admits the last male Rohan was her brother. The film then flashes back to the Regency period, and now Phyllis Calvert is an heiress at a posh school in Bath. After leaving school, she’s introduced to the ton, where the eponymous noble, James Mason, asks for her hand in marriage – mostly for appearance’s sake. Later, she bumps into an incorrigible rake, Grainger again, and is smitten by his charms. Grainger is an actor in a company with a woman Calvert was friendly with back in her school at Bath, and she invites the woman, Margaret Lockwood, now down on her luck, into her household. So you have a situation where Mason is having an affair with Lockwood, while Calvert is secretly in love with Grainger. It’s all a bit ploddingly predictable, if you know the form, and Mason’s presence, and the year of release, suggest it’s a “quota quickie” (Mason was a Quaker and refused to fight during WWII), none of which stands against it as some of those quota quickies were actually pretty good. This one is clearly held in such high regard it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although to be honest I couldn’t see why. A watchable bit of Regency hokum, with an unneccessary contemporary (as of 1943) framing narrative, and a good turn by its leads… But it’s hard to see it as a classic.

networkNetwork*, Sidney Lumet (1976, USA). I’d assumed I’d seen this at some point in the past – the film is near enough forty years old, and it seems reasonable to assume it was on television several times during the 1980s – but if so, I’d completely forgotten everything about it… as I discovered when I started watching it. The other thing that readily became apparent was that its satire had completely lost its teeth. A corrupt and manipulative media? Driven by profit? That’s not satire, that’s reality. Turning Peter “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” Finch’s nervous-breakdown news anchor into a prophet of the modern age is a bit, well, that horse has long bolted. And it was probably leaping a fence near the horizon when this film was released. Even casting Faye Dunaway as the ratings-hungry TV executive willing to do anything for the network just plays into your standard sexist arguments about women in the workplace. Some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; some don’t. This is one of the latter. Um, maybe I should put together my own list…

2or3things2 or 3 Things I Know About Her*, Jean-Luc Godard (1967, France). I have mixed feelings about Godard’s films. Most I’ve found a bit dull, but I absolutely adored Le Mépris. And while he’s never been afraid to experiment with the form – something I admire in directors – he was also hugely prolific. So after the disappointing Masculin Féminin (see here), I wasn’t expecting much of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. But I actually thought it really good. My second favourite Godard, so far. And I liked it enough to want to watch more of his films. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is basically a film study of Marina Vlady, who plays a bourgeois mother who also has sex for money. It follows her as she does housewife things interspersed with meetings with clients. Occasionally, she, and other members of the cast, break the fourth wall. There are also shots of building works in Paris, and some nice concrete architecture. Apparently, this was one of three films Godard made in 1967 – he’d shoot 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her in the morning and Made in USA in the afternoon. Like I said, some films belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, some don’t. This is one of  the former. I think I’ll get myself a copy of this film, on Blu-ray if I can.

joanofarcThe Passion of Joan of Arc*, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928, France). Another director I seem to have fastened on to it is Carl Theodor Dreyer, and it’s certainly true Gertrud is a favourite film and I hold Day Of Wrath in high regard… It could be argued that The Passion of Joan of Arc is his most famous film, despite being silent and originally released in 1928. But even though nearly ninety years old it’s an astonishingly… modern film, with its reliance on close-ups and the quite brutal way it depicts Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake. In fact, even the look and feel of the film is weirdly modern. Watching the movie, it’s hard to believe it was made in 1928. Happily, eureka! have done a bang-up job on releasing it on DVD (and Blu-ray). The slipcase not only includes the disc but also a thick booklet on the film. And so it should: The Passion of Joan of Arc is an important film, and should be treated as such. It’s just a shame many other important films are not treated as well.

fatherlandFatherland, Christopher Menaul (1994, USA). Apparently Mike Nichols spent $1 million on the film rights for Robert Harris’s novel but couldn’t interest any studios in the project. So HBO made it as a TV movie instead. And although it netted Miranda Richardson a Golden Globe, it’s actually not very good. Hitler victorious is likely the most popular form of alternate history, but Harris gave his version an interesting spin – setting his story twenty years later, as celebrations for Hitler’s 75th birthday are ramping up throughout Germania, and which will culminate in an historic meeting between the Führer and US President Joe Kennedy Senior. Unfortunately, the death of a party figure starts SS Major March on an investigation which threatens to uncover the Reich’s biggest secret (hint: it’s not a secret in the real world). Rutger Hauer, a Dutchman, plays March, a German; while Miranda Richardson, a Brit, plays Charlie McGuire, an American reporter in Berlin for the festivities who gets dragged into the affair. The film was apparently made in Prague, which doesn’t stand in for Berlin especially well, and the production can’t seem to decide if it should present Germania as a German-speaking nation or, as is often the case in English-language productions, have everyone speak English so subtitles are not needed. So it does a bit of both. The plot is also thuddingly predictable, whether you know the source text or not; and Hauer is a bit too laconic to convince as a SS officer. Disappointing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 599