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Moving pictures 2017, #32

Two Hollywood films in this batch, although I’m not entirely sure that label can be applied to the first US film mentioned – Noomi Rapace as the female lead! Isabelle Huppert as her mother! Although otherwise, it’s solid mid-Hollywood casting down the line – Colin Farrell, F Murray Abraham, Armand Assante… But there’s also two Indian films, although one isn’t actually Bollywood… plus another Filipino movie, and the second film I’ve seen by Lucía Puenzo. In fact, aside from the shitty animated one, it’s a pretty good collection of movies.

Uski Roti, Mani Kaul (1970, India). There are two 20-DVD box sets released by the National Film Development Corporation of India, but I’ve had trouble finding copies at reasonable prices. Meanwhile, individual films – or in this case, three films in a single case – seem to be readily available… but are almost impossible to find on Amazon because the data entry is so piss-poor. And don’t get me started on big data… Anyway, I recognised the cover design of this Mani Kaul triplet as being from NFDC, and spotting that the back-cover described the films’ genre as “offbeat/social”, I decided they were worth a punt despite having never heard of the director… Only to later discover that Wikipedia describes him as “arguably the greatest Indian director of Hindi films” and also points out he was a student of Ritwik Ghatak (a favourite director of mine). The greatest Indian director Hindi films… and yet the DVD here is the only one of his films available in the UK.  (Not entirely the UK’s fault, as most Bollywood movies available here on DVD are released by Indian labels, not UK ones.) Had I known of the Kaul-Ghatak link, I might have guessed that Uski Roti is “parallel cinema” rather than Bollywood. No singing and dancing here. In fact, the first line of dialogue isn’t spoken until ten minutes into the film. And there isn’t a great deal of dialogue anyway. Kaul seems to like static shots in which there’s very little action or movement. He also likes voice-over narration, and indirect dialogue (if there is such a term – I mean where the character is on-screen, but the dialogue is voice-over). Despite watching Uski Roti twice, I’m still not entirely clear about the plot. Roti is a type of unleavened bread, and Uski Roti appears to be about a woman who makes lunch for her husband, a driver, and then walks to the road along which he drives to hand it to him when he passes. But he spends most of his time away from the family home. The pacing is languorous at best, there are lots of carefully-framed shots, and the whole thing feels like it was consciously made to be nothing like a Bollywood film. Worth seeing.

Insiang, Lino Brocka (1976, Philippines). This was the second disc included with Manila in the Claws of Light (see here), and also stars Hilda Koronel, this time in the title role. Insiang is a young woman living with her mother in a Manila slum district. She has a boyfriend, but her mother’s boyfriend rapes her. Her mother believes her boyfriend and not her daughter, and so Insiang runs off with her boyfriend. But after having consensual sex with her, he deserts her. So Insiang returns to her mother’s boyfriend, seduces him and persuades him to enact her revenge on her boyfriend. She also tells her mother she has slept with her boyfriend… and so her mother stabs and kills him. This is definitely social drama, but not, I think, Pinoy-style. It’s played very straight, the cast are excellent, and the scenes are all shot on location. Koronel is good in the title role – hugely better, in fact, than she was in Manila Claws of Light. I think, on balance, the earlier film is the better of the two, perhaps because its story has wider scope. Insiang is quite claustrophobic – deliberately so, I imagine, in order to evoke life in the slums – but it’s also a very incestuous story, which means it has a small cast. Manila in the Claws of Light was a bigger story, and while Insiang‘s narrower focus works well for it, I don’t think it’s as good as the other film. But the DVD set is definitely worth seeing. And I heop we’ll see more films by Brocka made available.

Dead Man Down, Niels Arden Oplev (2013, USA). I found this on Amazon Prime, and I’ve no idea what possessed me to watch it. I’m by no means a Colin Farrell fan, and while the thrillers in which he appears – Euro or Hollywood – are nowhere near as bad as those in which Liam Neeson appears, they’re often thin and implausible stuff. As, er, was this one. But in Oplev it had an interesting choice of director, which led to an entirely unexpected direction for the film, and, as mentioned above, Noomi Rapace plays the female lead and Isabelle Huppert is her mother. Farrell is an enforcer for a gangster, except it seems he isn’t. He has infiltrated the gang in order to exact revenge, because they accidentally killed his young daughter, and then killed his wife and himself (but failed the latter, obvs) when the couple chose to act as witnesses against the gang. However, Rapace, who lives in a neighbouring skyscraper on the same floor as Farrell, so their windows look onto each other’s flats, saw Farrell kill a man. And she’s disfigured from a car crash caused by a drunk-driver who was only lightly sentenced and still continues to drink-drive. She wants revenge, and blackmails Farrell into committing it for her. And there’s the problem… This is a dull dull dull ganster/revenge/lone hero plot, and there a zillion films like it, pretty much all of which are bad. Oplev, however, has chosen to approach the film entirely differently, and he slows down the pace, pulls back on the glorification of violence, and puts the emotional landscapes of the characters of Farrell and Rapace front and centre. And the whole lot is filmed in a low-lit style with a limited colour palette. With a good story, this would have been a superior thriller. With the story it has, it’s a dog food gateau. Oplev could not apparently lift inferior material to something more than inferior, even with a good cast and an art-house look and feel.

The Secret Life of Pets, Chris Renaud & Yarrow Cheny (2016, USA). My finger must have slipped or something, that’s the only explanation. Okay, so Hollywood has churned out some big-budget well-regarded animated feature films over the last couple of years… but every good one there are thousands of inferior ones. And since these days it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between marketing copy and critical commentary, I had mistaken believed this might be one of the few good ones. It wasn’t it. In fact, it was really bad. With a voice cast who seem to have made careers out of sounding like much more famous actors. I can’t even remember what the film was about, something to do with some house pets and the sewers, I seem to recall, but it was just one long uninterrupted stream of clichés and hoary old potted routines. Even the stylised animation looked a bit 1990s, albeit being digital it looked cleaner and smoother than it would have done in that decade. Avoid.

Wakolda, Lucía Puenzo (2013, Argentina). I think it was a trailer on another rental DVD that persuaded me to add this to my rental list. I’d seen a film by Puenzo several years ago, XXY, but had not at that time taken note of the director’s name. It was only after watching Wakolda that I put two and two together… and on the strength of these two films, I’d like to see more by her. A family heading south to Patagonia are asked by a German immigrant if he can drive with them as the roads are dangerous. They agree. After arriving at their destination – a hotel on a lake the family plan to re-open, the German goes on his way. But he reappears a couple of days later and asks to move into the hotel. He is a doctor, and he has noticed that the young daughter is small for age, due to her premature birth, and often sickly. He offers free treatment to improve her health, but the father is sceptical. Meanwhile, a photographer working locally turns out to be a Mossad agent and she identifies the doctor as Mengele. The film is based on Puenzo’s own novel of the same title. Mengele is portrayed as something close to a sociopath, so obsessed with his medical researches that he doesn’t even consider his patients as human beings, and his acts of kindness are merely part of his strategy to get people to agree to his plans. The film is told partly in flashback voice-over narration by the young daughter, and it’s all presented as a sort of gentle drama with an undercurrent of thriller. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

Pakeezah, Kamal Amrohi (1972, India). I forget why I added this to my rental list – it’s certainly not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it certainly belongs on it, but perhaps it was on some list of best Bollywood  movies or something. Anyway, I bunged it in the player not expecting much, I mean, a forty-five year old Bollywood film… boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, lots of singing and dancing, and probably a terrible print as well… But, well, it was all that, but it was also bloody good. It was if the Archers – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, that is – had made a Bollywood film. Which in no way is to erase Amrohi’s achievement, which apparently took some sixteen years. But Pakeezah had that same Archers look of detailed interior sets built to resemble exteriors. And some of the photography is, despite the poor print, really quite astonishingly good. In fact, everything about the way this film was made is good. It’s set in Lucknow at the turn of century. It opens with a woman dying in childbirth, and her baby being taken by her sister, who brings the child up in her brothel, where she becomes a much fêted singer and dancer. The local nawab takes to her, and starts wooing her. While on a river trip, their boat is attacked by elephants and the dancer is thrown into the river. She is rescued by a forest ranger, and the two fall in love… There is plenty of singing and dancing in Pakeezah, but it’s classical Indian music rather than the popular musuic you might find in a more recent Bollywood film. The sets are fantastic, and the costumes are amazing… so it’s a shame the DVD transfer isn’t especially good. I’ve seen worse – the Guru Dutt ones, for example; and at least one of the recent Bollywood films I’ve seen was a really low res picture – but it’s a shame that a film that’s held in such high regard isn’t available in a better edition. Excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures 2017, #31

I managed to cross a few films off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time, although two of them were US films by directors whose works I don’t especially like – and no, I don’t understand how the films made the list in the first place. This post also marks my first Singaporean film, wihch I stumbled across on eBay and which seemed intriguing enough to buy. The seller contacted me to point out the DVD was region 3, but I replied I’d bought a multi-region Blu-ray specifically because I want to watch DVDs and Blu-rays from other regions. This post has my first Jordanian film too – although I’m fairly sure this is a Jordanian film for the international market, rather than the Arabic-language market.

The Color Purple*, Steven Spielberg (1985, USA). I’m not a big Spielberg fan – in fact, I’m not a fan of his films at all, especially not of his push-button emotional content films – and that’s what The Color Purple is (despite my dislike of US spelling, it seems to fit in this case). I’ve not read the novel by Alice Walker but I fervently hope it’s not as bad as this film, which is an over-sentimental drama covering an African-American family over several decades from the 1920s onward. Whoopi Goldberg plays a poor and uneducated woman (when she’s an adult) in rural Georgia. She is married off to Danny Glover, even though he had turned up at the house intending to marry another sister. That sister runs away, and goes to “Africa” (I don’t recall the actual African nation being named) with a missionary couple. In the novel, at least according to Wikipedia’s plot synopsis, she ends up marrying the missionary husband after his wife dies; in the film, she marries a young man she meets in the “African” village in which she is living. Goldberg, meanwhile, is abused by Glover over many years, decades even. There are also some scenes at a bar, where a musical number is performed by the fallen wife of the local preacher… leading to a frankly ludicrous scene later where said fallen wife hears the choir singing and marches around a mile, singing all the while, and being heard by the congregation as she marches. I really didn’t like this film. It was manipulative to a degree I’ve not seen in a Spielberg film before, and he’s entirely about manipulating his audience. I also fail to understand why it made the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list instead of like, say, Black Girl, a Senegalese film which makes a similar point albeit much more honestly. Still, I guess there was a lot of money pumped into The Color Purple

Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar (2014, Jordan). I’ve watched a number of Arabic-language films, but they’ve mostly been ones aimed at non-Arabic audiences – not badly-acted Egyptian dramas, in other words. Even the films of Elia Sulieman, a favourite director, are not really made for a Palestinian audience, although they are very Palestinian films. Amd while I’m all too happy to watch such films, it not the same as watching a Bollywood movie, which is a movie designed to appeal to its home audience. It seems to me, though I have no proof, that Theeb, a film made in Jordan by a Jordanian/British director, is a film designed more to appeal to an international audience than a Jordanian audience. And as a big fan of non-Anglophone cinema I have no real problem with that, but as someone who dislikes the concept of “world cinema” I’m less approving. Theeb is a good film, of that there’s no doubt. It’s an excellent historical drama, set in Jordan during WWI, and a clever character study of its central character, a young boy caught up in events he does not understand. But different countries have their different populist cinemas – I’ve mentioned Nigeria’s Nollywood before, and the difficulty of finding its popular films with English subtitles – but what I fail to understand is why it is assumed populist non-Anglophone cinema cannot find an Anglophone audience and only non-Anglophone auteur films are worth releasing in English-language markets. True, the English movie market is pretty much 99% Hollywood, and they can’t even work out how to handle Spanish-speaking audiences, which is a huge part of the US population. But in the UK, we have Welsh and Cornish and the two varieties of Gaelic, and TV channels and programmes and films for each, albeit small scale. And, personally, most of my favourite directors do not make English language films, so I have to watch with subtitles. In fact, subtitles are a passport to a world of cinema and only a fool would ignore them. Subtitles are good. And so is this Theeb.

Hannah and Her Sisters*, Woody Allen (1986, USA). I really don’t understand the appeal of Woody Allen’s films, and I certainly don’t understand why he has six movies on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list, since none of them to my mind are all that good. Hannah and Her Sisters fools the viewer initially because it opens with a voice-over by Michael Caine, and no one on-screen resembles Allen. But then he appears, and it all begins to  slide downhill. Caine is married to Hannah, but fancies one of her sisters. Allen is an ex-husband of another sister, but once went on a date with yet another sister which ended badly. And, oh god, this sort of middle-class American bed-hopping drawing-room farce is tedious at best and embarrassing at worst. Allen at least manages not to entirely embarrass his viewers or his cast, but it’s a close-run thing. Caine does not do needy very well, and the film pretty much hinges on his needy desire for sister Barbara Hershey, Max von Sydow’s wife. I watched this film so I could cross it off the list. I only have one more Allen film left on the list to watch – Crimes and Misdemeanours – and then I never have to watch another Woody Allen film ever again.

Manila in the Claws of Light*, Lino Brocka (1975, Philippines). When I set out to watch all the films on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list, copies of this film were almost impossible to find. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project went and restored it – yay for Scorsese – and then the BFI released it in the UK on dual format – yay for the BFI. And… it’s good, good enough to make want to watch more films by Brocka. Fortunately, as the DVD cover art indicates, there is another film bundled with Manila in the Claws of Light, Insiang. But my chances of finding any further Brocka movies is, I suspect, extremely remote. Anyway, Manila in the Claws of Light… A young man from the provinces (well, an island other than Luzon – the Philippines is an archipelago, after all) moves to Manila to track down his girlfriend, who had left earlier after being promised employment in the capital by a visiting woman promising jobs there for young women (yes, yes, it’s pretty obvious to us, but these are unsophisticated probincianos). The guy ends up working on a building site as casual labour, where he learns how they are treated, how their wages are garnished, and what life is like at the bottom of the heap. But he spends all his spare time looking for his girlfriend. And eventually finds her. Which is where, of course, things start to go wrong. The film opens in black-and-white, and the print quality is not especially good, which I thought odd for 1975… but then as the opening credits end it changes to colour and the print quality greatly improves. I’m not sure this adds anything to the film, or why Brocka chose to do it. Manila in the Claws of Light treads a fine line between melodrama and social realism, but manages not to fall off in either direction. Brocka is apparently “one of the most influential and significant Filipino filmmakers” (according to Wikipedia), and while I’ve known of Pinoy cinema for many years – there used to be a column in Gulf News’ weekly magazine dedicated to it; and one to Lollywood too – I’ll admit I didn’t take much notice of the directors’ names (although such columns tend to focus on the stars anyway), but even in my years of following “world cinema” (ugh) I’d not come across Brocka’s name before. Mostly my fault, yes, but given how so many directors from other countries are lauded in Anglophone cinema – Tarkovsky, Ray, Kiarostami, Kurosawa, Almodóvar, Tati, Fassbinder, Bergman, etc. – I’m surprised I’d not stumbled across Brocka’s name before. But then, as mentioned previously, Manila in the Claws of Light was, until this edition appeared, extremely hard to find. Perhaps the appearance of Two Films by Lino Brocka means more films by him, and other Filipino/Filipina directors, are going to be released in the Anglophone world. I hope so.

Girl Gets Girl, Sonia Sebastián (2015, Spain). I forget where I came across this – probably a trailer on another rental DVD – and decided to add it to my rental list. Bur I thoroughly enjoyed it. The film was almost like someone trying to out-Almodóvar Almodóvar himself. Ten years after running away from a wedding, Inés returns to Spain from Miami, just when her ex-girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter is have a “first period party”. There then follows a series of mildly comic and well-written scenes in which each of the characters at the party try to get their own way. A previous girlfriend, for exmaple, turns up with a dodgy guy as her “boyfriend”. and he tries to drug her drink but the wrong woman drinks it. One of the two mothers of the young girl is desperately trying to hide her sexuality from her mother. The other mother thinks Inés still loves her, but Inés is basically just hiding from some enemies she made in Miami, And not just enenies, as one is an editor who fell in love with her and follows her to Spain to win her heart and/or get back her money. The script is witty, the characters are likeable, the plot is, despite being a but obvious in places, is clever. It’s by no means great cinema, but it is a fun film that entertains without annoying or insulting the viewer’s intelligence. Oh, and it doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, it comes top of the class. Worth seeing.

In the Room, Eric Khoo (2015, Singapore). As mentioned above, I stumbled across this on eBay and decided to take a punt on it (it’s not actually available on Amazon). It was a good call. The title refers to a room in the Hotel Singapura (an alternative title for the film) in which events happen over several decades. The story opens in 1942, in black-and-white, with a Brit and a Singaporean lamenting the loss of the Brit’s livelihood – a plantation – but also quite clearly about the love affair between the two men. Another story is about a madam who trains young women to be prostitutes in the early 1960s in the room, and in this sequence the production design and colour scheme is appropriate to the decade. There’s a rock band who occupy the room in the 1970s… and so on. There’s a variety of styles on display, all of which seem appropriate to the decade being depicted, but it does mean In the Room doesn’t feel like it presents a singular vision. Sometimes it feels like Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, other times it feels a bit like Almodóvar. Or maybe not. It’s not the most original plot on the planet – I can think of at least two bad films that have the same premise – and Khoo’s decision to give each sequence an appropriate flavour does tend to dilute his vision. But I still thought this was rather good, and I’m glad I took a chance on it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 867