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Moving pictures 2017, #67

I seem to have built up another backlog of these again. Cracking on…

Passion, Jean-Luc Godard (1982, Switzerland). Some people consider this one of Godard’s best, although he seems fixed in the minds of the general cinema-going public only as the Nouvelle Vague director of films such as À bout de souffle, Bande à part and Une femme est une femme. Of course, he’s made many more films than that, and is still making them. Passion marked Godard’s return to mainstream cinema after a period making experimental pictures. A Polish film-maker in Switzerland is exasperating his backers by staging huge, and expensive, tableaux based on famous paintings, none of which suggest a commercial narrative movie. Meanwhile, Isabelle Huppert is fired from her job at a local factory, and subsequently tries to organise a strike. The film-maker, played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, is in a relationship with Huppert; he’s also in a relationship with the wife, played by Fassbinder favourite Hanna Schygulla, of the owner of the hotel where he is staying. It’s an odd mix of a film. The Huppert narrative is very much realist social drama, but the Schygulla elements feel a bit like a bedroom farce and the tableaux scenes are more Peter Greenaway than anything Godard has done previously. It works, because Godard is good at this stuff. And he also has an excellent cast – Huppert, probably the best actor currently making films, is on top form, even with the stutter with which her character is lumbered. The tableaux are… odd. As I said, more Greenaway than Godard. But unlike Greenaway, Passion shows how they are constructed – their existence is part of the narrative, rather than them actually being the narrative. I rate other films by Godard higher than Passion (although I’m not that much of a fan of his Nouvelle Vague movies). Um, thinking about my favourite Godard films, they’d probably look like this: 1. Le mépris, 2. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 3. Je vous salue, Marie, 4. Week End, and 5. either Passion, Détective or Film Socialisme.

The Mortal Storm*, Frank Borzage (1940, USA). A write-up of this film somewhere – Wikipedia? imdb? – states that it rarely mentions the country in which it was set in order not to offend German audiences. Except that’s completely untrue. It makes it abundantly clear it’s about Germany and the average Germans’ complicity with Hitler and the Nazis. The whole point of the film is a relationship between a non-Nazi and the daughter of a Jewish intellectual. No effort is made to disguise this. Jimmy Stewart is friendly with the daughter of college professor Frank Morgan, who is Jewish. She’s already engaged to a Nazi party member, but when her step-brothers start spouting the party line, she realise her mistake. This is a good film because it’s totally not subtle. It’s not a great film – some of the opening shots have that sort of artificial grandeur Hollywood managed every so often with its studio shots… but once the plot gets into gear they disappear. Given its subject – even more timely now than it has ever been – The Mortal Storm probably deserves its spot on 1001 Movies you Must See Before Die list, even though technically there’s nothing that’s special or important about it.

Gold Diggers of 1937, Lloyd Bacon (1936, USA). A theatre owner wants to put on a new show but his partners have spent all on his money on the stock market. So they get his life insured, planning to bump him off and then collect to make good on their debts. But the insurance salesman – Gold Diggers regular Dick Powell – who sold him the policy is keen on him staying alive. So the corrupt partners try to kill the theatre owner, but Powell has to keep him alive in order to earn his commission. Cue hilarity. There are some entertaining set-pieces, but the humour is all a bit obvious and some of the acting closer to mugging. There’s one of Berkeley’s big routines at the end, but the way the final act gives everyone the happy – or not, in the villains’ case – ending does feel over contrived. I don’t know if the Gold Diggers series was killed by the Hays Code or the declining quality of the films, but they’re not bad examples of their time and type, and they’re usually entertaining. If you find copies of these two Busby Berkeley collections, they’re worth having, although volume one much more so than volume two.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand). I’d known Weerasethakul’s name originally as the director of The Adventures of Iron Pussy, a film I’ve never seen, but a spoof of 1970s Thai action films and musicals didn’t sound like it would appeal. But then earlier this year I came across mention of the film he made after that, Tropical Malady, and it seemed much more like the sort of movie I enjoy watching. So I stuck it on my rental list (see here). And followed it with Syndromes and a Century (see here). And then it turned out Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included Weerasethakul’s first film, Mysterious Objects at Noon… So I’ve now seen four films by Weerasethakul, and they’re very good. They’re slow and elliptical and often beautifully shot. Sort of my thing, really. Okay, so sometimes the parts don’t quite fit together, but I really like the fact Weerasethakul ignores the three-act structure. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives consists of six linked stories about the title character. They’re odd, but odd in a way that is presented as completely normal. The dead  sister of Uncle Boonmee’s wife joins them for dinner and they treat her appearance as completely unremarkable. A nephew who disappeared returns as a forest spirit – covered head to toe in fur and with red eyes that glow in the dark – and they treat him as if he were just a lost nephew. It’s beautifully laid-back. True, not much, if anything, happens; but Weerasethakul presents worlds in which strange things take place and they are treated as completely ordinary. And the slow dead-pan delivery not only makes their ordinariness within the world of the film more believable but also makes them even more extraordinary to the viewer. I think I’m becoming a bit of a Weerasethakul fan. And yes, now I want to see The Adventures of Iron Pussy.

Silver Lode*, Allan Dwan (1954, USA). That’s some cover art. Silver Lode is actually a relatively ordinary 1950s Western, and that cover art looks more like some twenty-first century Western romance, with its artfully-designed typeface and artfully-placed lens flare. A US marshal and three marshal deputies ride into the eponymous town with a warrant for the arrest of John Payne, a pillar of the local community. The marshal tells everyone that Payne killed his brother – shot him in the back during a poker game – and stole the pot of $20,000 dollars. At first, the people of Silver Lode are on Payne’s side and are keen to ensure he is conveyed safely to California, where the warrant was issued, in order for his innocence to be proven. But then one of the marshal’s deputies admits to Payne that it’s all a fake – the marshal is no marshal and the warrant is forged – and it’s all for revenge… but the marshal kills the deputy and pins it on Payne… Public opinion turns and Payne finds himself hiding from the mrshal and his deputies and the townsfolk. It’s an interesting spin on your usual Western story, and it’s handled well – Payne’s actual guilt is left in the air until the very end – but in terms of presentation there’s nothing special about Silver Lode. I’d sooner its position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list went to a better non-Hollywood film.

O Pagador de Promessas*, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil). Another highly-regarded film that doesn’t seem to have ever had a DVD release – at least not in the UK – so I ended up having to buy a rip on eBay from a US seller. O Pagador de Promessas, variously translated as Keeper of Promises and The Given Word, is the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’Or. Like some of the other Brazilian films I’ve seen, it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I do wonder if I’m seeing the cream of the crop – Vidas Secas, the films of Glauber Rocha… These are excellent films and it’s criminal they’re not better known in the Anglophone world. But O Pagador de Promessas… A poor farmer promises to carry a crucifix from his farm to a church in Salvador (like those other excellent Brazilian films, O Pagador de Promessas is set in Bahia) if his donkey survives its illness. But the church are unhappy with the farmer’s “pagan” promises, and various other groups try to use him to promote their own anti-Catholic causes. From my limited exposure to Brazilian culture, Bahia seems to be fertile ground – Vidas Secas is set there (see here), as are Rocha’s Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes (see here and here), not to mention Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent novel, The War of the End of the World (see here). It’s not all carnivals and football. Duarte made half a dozen feature films between 1947 and 1967 – I’d like to see them all. And watch the rest of Glauber Rocha’s oeuvre, of course. I should make more of an effort to track these films down.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 893


Moving pictures, #12

You do realise I’m never going to manage to see all of the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Some of them are no longer available – not just in the UK, but anywhere (I’ve had to purchase some from the US already, just to see them). Sadly, this doesn’t mean I will never die. But if I can say I’ve seen over 950 of them – with dates – then I’ll be happy. And, oh look, there’s another three from the list in this installment…

boyznthehoodBoyz N the Hood*, John Singleton (1991, USA). This was not a film on my radar but, as the asterisk indicates. it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… so I bunged it on (one of) my rental list(s), and lo it duly arrived. And, to be honest, I can remember very little about the film. I seem to recall expecting some sort of gangsta movie with a rap soundtrack, and being surprised to discover it was actually about growing up in South Central LA. At least, the first part of the film is… And then it’s about the Crips and the Bloods, and Cuba Gooding Jr trying to avoid becoming a gang member even though most of his friends are in the Crips. While I was watching it, I tweeted “A+ for social commentary, D for direction” and “oh, and D for casting Cuba Gooding Jr”. Later, I added “the Kenny G soundtrack is not helping this film”. I can see how Boyz N the Hood belongs belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list for its cultural impact, but it wasn’t a film I found especially interesting or impressive. But at least I can cross it off.

clerksClerks*, Kevin Smith (1994, USA). It seems to me Kevin Smith trades on his geek credentials, but has actually proven relatively successful because he is sophomoric. I’ve seen a number of his films over the years, and never been much impressed – but I’d somehow managed to miss the film which made his career, Clerks. I’ve now seen it… and all those years, well, I don’t think I’ve missed much. Two whinging slackers work in neighbouring stores, a mini-mart and a video rental. Their conversation is either prattish or sophomoric. The attempts at humour are not actually that funny, and the continual whinging tone gets annoying very quickly. I can sort of understand how the film would appeal to a particular demographic – but I’m not in that demographic, and so Clerks simply doesn’t work for me, and I can think of no good reason why it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

busbyFootlight Parade*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I tweeted while watching this film that Busby Berkeley had made a career out of jumping the shark. And this film provides as much evidence as any in which he was involved. James Cagney plays a fast-talking director of musical theatre, but audiences are declining thanks to that new-fangled cinema. So Cagney comes up with the idea of “prologues”, short musical numbers performed on stage in a cinema prior to the main feature being shown. Much of Footlight Parade is a sort of like Chorus Line, as Cagney tries to stage his numbers while a rival steals his ideas. Dick Powell grins his way through the proceedings as usual, Joan Blondell plays Cagney’s secretary who’s secretly in love with him, and Ruby Keeler removes her glasses and goes from secretary to my-gosh-you’re-beautiful star dancer… But it’s Berkeley’s staging of the musical numbers which is the main draw. And with good reason. ‘By A Waterfall’ is jaw-dropping. I suspect it’s what invented synchronised swimming. One hundred chorus girls dive into a glass pool and form shapes like a giant human kaleidoscope – and all allegedly taking place on a tiny cinema stage! I had to buy a Region 1 Busby Berkeley DVD collection in order to watch this film – the set also includes 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Dames – and I’m quite glad I did. I knew who Berkeley was, of course, and in the past I’ve seen some of the muscial numbers he’s famous for – although don’t ask me which films, because I’ve no idea – so I pretty much knew what to expect. But even if it’s easy to see why Cagney switched to playing gangsters, and all five films in the collection follow the same Chorus Line-like plot, they were worth the money because of the Berkeley numbers alone. Footlight Parade is one of three films in the set on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and yes, I can understand why they’re on it.

storyofwomenStory of Women, Claude Chabrol (1988, France). This film does not appear on the 2013 edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is the one I’m using, but does appear on the amalgamated version on – so at some point it was, or will be, on the list. Given that it was released in 1988, I suspect it was on an earlier version – and, if so, it’s a shame it was dropped. Because it’s a damn sight better than many films which remained. And I say that as someone who has yet to really click with Chabrol’s oeuvre. But then, perhaps it’s the subject matter of Story of Women, which is based on a true story. During the German occupation of France in WWII, in a small town in Normandy, a middle-class mother played by Isabelle Huppert (one of the best actresses currently making movies) helps a pregnant friend abort (husband away at a German work camp, Nazi lover…). This becomes a lucrative business. She also rents out a room to a prostitute friend. Her husband, an injured war veteran, returns home, but she is no longer in love with him. Eventually, he grasses her up to the authorities. They arrest her, and decide that performing abortions is treasonous – so they sentence Huppert to death, and guillotine her. It’s an offensively male argument – that France needs to regain its moral strength after its defeat by the Nazis, and Huppert’s death will do this. Yet, for much of the film, during the period before she is arrested, Huppert’s character is resolutely pragmatic – she betters the lot of her family by providing a much-needed service, for which she charges. She has an affair with a collaborator, because she is focused on herself and her children, and her husband is inconsequential. I find Chabrol a mixed bag, but this was a strong film, undoubtedly carried by Huppert’s performance. I suspect it deserves to be back on the list – and I can think of at least a dozen movies whose place it can take…

showgirls2Showgirls 2: Penny’s from Heaven, Rena Riffel (2011, USA). Several years ago, I went through a phase of enjoying “so bad they’re good” films, despite being all too sadly aware that the films were “so bad, they’re actually really bad”. You know, stuff like the “mockbusters” released by The Global Asylum, or those shitty straght-to-video sf films you find on 4-movie sets sold in Poundland… Happily, I grew out of it. Or at least, I thought I had. Now, I like Paul Verhoeven’s movies, and I have a lot of time for him as a director, and though his Showgirls has a lot of problems and is clearly his worst film, it is sort of watchable. But the moment I discovered there was a sequel to it… I decided I had to watch it. And now I have. And I sincerely wish I hadn’t. Rena Riffel played a minor character in Showgirls and, after a couple of decades in Europe making soft porn films, she realised that what the world really needed was a sequel to Showgirls – and not just any sequel, it needed a parody sequel. Argh. “Parody”. If you see that word in the description of a film, avoid the film. Showgirls 2 spoofs scenes from Showgirls, but on a budget of $30,000 and with a cast that can’t act to save their lives. A few of the original cast do make appearances – not the main stars, of course – but the film is very much about Riffel’s lap-dancer Penny Slot, and her attempt to become the lead on a cheap TV show called ‘Star Dancer’. It’s not funny, and it’s certainly not clever. It is, however, embarrassingly, cringe-inducingly, bad. Words cannot express quite how awful this film is. One to avoid, if you value your sanity.

terminatorTerminator Genisys, Alan Taylor (2015, USA). And from the sublimely stupid to, er, this one. Which, on paper, should not be the hot mess it proved to be. On paper, the idea has merit – let’s tell the Terminator story from the point of view of Kyle Reese, the man sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, and who becomes John Connor’s father… but let’s mix it up a bit and have the T-80 arrive earlier and so be a fixture in Sarah’s life when Kyle arrives. And let’s mix it up EVEN MOAR and make John Connor a villain – the going-back-in-time thing is all a plot to enable Skynet not disable it. And, you know, it could have worked. But they recast all the leads (because, let’s be honest, they’re getting on a bit, and CGI-ing them back to their 1984 appearance would be very weird), except Arnold Schwarzenegger, and while they wrote in a reason for his ageing, the years have not been kind to him or his minimal acting ability… And while a new cast is not in and of itself a reason for failure – recast reboots have been successful, although no example springs readily to mind – and when you add in the self-referentiality of the project… so why did it turn out be so crap? Well, itt’s completely lifeless. I don’t know if it’s because the lead characters are charisma-free zones, or if Schwarzenegger sucks in their charisma to power his own over-written role. Or maybe it’s that the plot sheds sense as it progresses. I’m not really sure. All I can say for certain is that this was a dreadful film and my expectations were not especially high to begin with. A proper review of it would be more analytical, but these posts are not intended to analytical and to be analytical of this film would require I watch it with a great deal more attention than it actually deserved. A film to be avoided, at all costs.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 734


Moving pictures, #23

Still trying to get up to date on these…

femmeUne femme mariée, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I have a theory about Godard. So far I’ve seen about half a dozen of his films. Two of them I loved, the rest I didn’t much care for. The two I loved were both shot in colour – Le Mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her – the rest were black and white. So it seems I only like Godard’s colour films. Obviously I need to watch more to determine the truth of this theory, but Une femme mariée is black and white and I didn’t really like it. The married woman of the title is having an affair, and the film opens with her and her lover in bed. Then she leaves him, fetches her young son from school and meets her husband at the airport. He has a colleague with him. They head to the couple’s apartment, where they eat dinner. The colleague leaves, husband and wife then run around a lot and come close to domestic violence (it didn’t much look like a “play-fight”, as Wikipedia has it). And then… This is one of those films where the cast act naturally and it’s all about the dialogue. And like many Godard films, it’s all over the place, and the plot often seems like little more than a vehicle which allows the cast to pontificate on various topics that seem to have little or no bearing on the actual story (which is, I suppose, just as true of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but in that film everything around the “lecturettes” worked much better and seemed much more interesting). Une femme mariée seems to be generally rated as one of Godard’s best, but I wonder how much of that is trading on its title character.

42ndstreet42nd Street*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I found this in a charity shop. It’s one of several Busby Berkeley films on the 1001 Movies list, many of which aren’t that easy to find in the UK. Busby Berkeley… a camera placed above the stage and looking down as large numbers of dancers make patterns not unlike those you’d find in a kaleidoscope. Then they wrap a plot around it. In this case, it’s a progenitor of Chorus Line and films of that ilk. I tweeted a line from this, “It’s going to be the toughest five weeks you’ll live through”, and asked people to guess the movie, expecting them to pick Platoon or Full Metal Jacket – which one or two did. No one guessed a 1930s film about putting on a Busby Berkley musical. Which is all beside the point. Ginger Rogers in an early role plays one of the female leads, the plot is fairly standard for the type, the final numbers are the usual over-the-top Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, and it’s easy to see why such films were popular back in the day… and you have to wonder why something similar isn’t equally successful today. Or perhaps that’s just me.

coherenceCoherence, James Ward Byrkit (2013, USA). Some films should hold your interest because they have an intriguing genesis, or a really fascinating idea at their core. And certainly the elevator pitch for Coherence sounded to me like something which would appeal. Unfortunately the end result never quite manages to pull it all together. It’s one of those films where the low or non-existent budget becomes a strength rather than a weakness – it was filmed mostly in the director’s own house. There’s a dinner party, and during it a comet passes over and things turn strange… Strange as in superposition, multiple instances of the same events – which means dinner guests from other alternate universe versions of the dinner party getting mixed up and crossing into alternate universes. So much so that keeping up with who is really who, and from where, becomes near impossible. The cast are generally good, but it’s one of those films where everyone talks over one another, and while real life is certainly like that it does get annoying very quickly in a movie (which is by definition artificial, and it’s the ones which make a virtue of it I tend to prefer), and anyway it sort of worked against what was quite a clever central conceit. The premise demanded a domestic story, but the idea needed to be progressed much faster than it was – the longer you take to develop an idea, the thinner it seems, whether it deserves it or not. Coherence managed to dissipate its drama when it really had more than enough to make a very good film.

broken_blossomsBroken Blossoms*, DW Griffth (1919, USA). This film is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. Some of Griffith’s other films have been accused of racism, and while Broken Blossoms‘ lead is played by a white man in Chinese make-up, the film was deliberately written to push tolerance during a period of heavy anti-Chinese prejudice. A Buddhist monk leaves China for London, where he finds it hard to promote Buddha’s peaceful philosophy to London’s huddled masses. Especially Lillian Gish, the abused daughter of a boxer. The monk rescue her after she’s been badly beaten by her father, and the two fall in love. But it is not to be. It’s pretty much Romeo and Juliet, even down to the ending, but set among the slums of London, and with Romeo as a Buddhist monk (which, I suppose, in the England of the time makes him no more welcome a suitor than a Montague to a Capulet). Griffith has a number of films on the 1001 Movies list, and while he was undoubtedly a pioneer of the medium, I can’t see what this particular film did to merit inclusion. Maybe it’s just because it’s an historical document…

dark_planetDark Planet, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2009, Russia). The real name of this film is Обитаемый остров, or The Inhabited Island – which is the name of the Strugatskys novel from which it was adapted. Why a random English-language distributor decided to randomly re-title it with the entirely random title Dark Planet is beyond me (mind you, we did better than the French, as it was titled Battlestar Rebellion in France). Because it deserves better. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Bondarchuk – yes, son of the actor – has made plenty of well-received films – I thought his 9th Company wasn’t bad, for example – and while Dark Planet certainly entertains throughout its length, it does feel a little like too much of it ended up on the cutting-room floor, and it’s more notable for the story it could have been, and which is plainly obvious, than for the story it is. A young man of Earth, played by the improbably good-looking (and, according to Bondarchuk, totally untalented) Vasiliy Stepanov, crashlands on a world on which the entire population are held in thrall by towers which broadcast brainwashing signals. You can see how it would have made sense in the novel, although it doesn’t really in the film. The plot is a little haphazard, but the final battle scene is done quite well. It’s a film that feels more like a series of missed opportunities than a coherent narrative – I’m reminded of The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres), in which the film-makers decided to leave some important exposition on the cutting-room floor because it slowed the pace of the narrative… resulting in a film that made a weird and inexplicable leap in its third act. Anyway, Dark Planet: worth a second look, though I’d prefer an edition more in keeping with the film-makers’ intentions than the one I watched. (After I wrote the above, I discovered the original Russian release consists of two parts of 100 minutes and 115 minutes. This UK release is an edited down version of 118 minutes. Why?)

leni_riefenstahlOlympia 1, Fest der Völker*, Leni Riefenstahl (1938, Germany). Riefenstahl, tame director of the Nazis, is a name I certainly know, but I’d never had any real desire to watch her movies. But she’s on the 1001 Movies list, more than once in fact, and her films are not available for rental, so I ended up buying a box set which included the two Olympia films, Triumph of the Will and a pair of other propaganda pieces. So I’m probably now on a list somewhere. Anyway, I watched Triumph of the Will several weeks ago but didn’t think it worth mentioning it here because, well, it’s a film about Nazis and Hitler and while it may have been state of the art in the 1930s, and still holds up reasonably well today, it’s probably only of real interest to historians. Olympia 1, Fest der Völker, however, is a more interesting film because it actually presages the way we watch sports on television, if not lays the actual groundwork for sports broadcasting. It is, as the title states, a film of the 1936 Olympics. So there’s lots of people in quaintly-long shorts competing in various athletic events, with occasional shots away to the wholesome German crowd or Hitler. Of all the events, I found the high jump the most interesting because it predates the Fosbury Flop, meaning the techniques on diplay looked odd and mostly inefficient. There is a second part, Fest der Schönheit, which I have yet to watch.

whosafraidWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?*, Mike Nichols (1966, USA). I’d always thought I’d seen this, and had it in my head it was some fluffy rom com much like those Rock Hudson films I love so much. It’s not, of course. It’s a very intense, and really quite mean, three-hour play by Edward Albee cut down to a two-hour cinema outing by Mke Nichols – his first film, in fact. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple at a small town college. She’s the dean’s daughter, he’s a professor of history whose boat has long since sailed. And now they just snipe at each other. A young couple join the faculty (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) and are invited to dinner by Taylor and Burton. They all get very pissed. Certain truths are aired. There is a lot of very uncomfortable dialogue. And… ho hum. There’s some good stuff in here, some really sharp dialogue – but I’m not convinced Taylor and Burton overcome their Hollywood profiles sufficiently to do the characters justice. Segal is pretty good, though. The film is also long – and it’s shorter than the play. It drags quite a bit in places. Having said that, watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? didn’t make me interested in Albee’s work, although this appears to be the only play of his that made it onto the silver screen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 625