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Moving pictures 2017, #27

Not sure what to make of this batch of films – I thought them all well worth seeing, and a pretty good illustration why varying the films you watch is a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of excellent films because I no longer immediately turn to Hollywood for something to watch of a night. In fact, so far this year, less than a quarter of the movies I’ve watched have been from the US – but I still have a way to go before the percentage of all of the films I’ve watched (since I started recording them back in 2001) that are from the US drops below 50 percent… Admittedly, it’s currently at 52 percent, so not there’s not that far to go… But I’ve seen a lot of films, so it’s taking a while to get those last few points down…

Journey to Agartha, Makoto Shinkai (2011, Japan). This was the second Shinkai film lent to me by David Tallerman – on Blu-ray this time. He thought I might not enjoy it as much as other Shinkai films as it’s clearly fantastical. But… I’m not dead-set against fantasy, I just like it to be used interestingly. And, to be fair, the whole Agartha mythology is something that’s fascinated me for a number of years. True, Journey to Agartha goes off on some wild tangent pretty much totally unconnected with the mythology, but I knew where it was starting from, which is a bonus. A teenage girl, Asuna, spends much of her free time hanging out at a hideout she has discovered on a hill, tuning into strange music with a crystal radio set. Returning home from one such session, she is attacked by a weird-looking creature, like a cross between a bear and a dinosaur. She’s saved by a mysterious young man, who seems to have magical powers. The young man says he is from Agartha, a name Asuna hears a few days later in something read out in class by a substitute teacher. Anyway, Agartha is a mythical realm on the inside of the earth (hollow earth and all that). Asuna finds another mysterious young man at her hideout, also from Agartha. They’re attacked by men in paramilitary uniform, there’s a fight… and Asuna ends up entering Agartha with the substitute teacher, who, it transpires, wants to bring his wife back from the land of the dead (which, to be fair, confuses hollow earth mythology with the underworld, not mention chucking in elements of the Orpheus myth… but it works, so what the hell). It’s certainly true this film is fantastical, in much the same way as Spirited Away is, but I much preferred it to the Studio Ghibli movie. The world of Agartha was presented really well, and while the story may be a little confused in places (a lot happens), the animation is lovely and the production design inventive. Recommended.

Born to be Bad, Lowell Sherman (1934, USA). My mother lent me a boxed set of Cary Grant films, some of which I’d  not seen before. This was one of them. It’s a pre-code film from 1934, in which Loretta Young is actually the star… although a Loretta Young box set is unlikely to ever happen, whereas there are already plenty of Cary Grant box sets… Young plays a single mother, with a son she has left to do pretty much as he pleases. Until he gets hit by a milk truck. Driven by Grant. Who turns out to be the wealthy president of Amalgamated Dairies. Young is persuaded to try and sue Grant by exagerrating the extent of her son’s injuries (he was shaken and bruised), but in court Grant’s lawyers demolish Young’s case. The boy is put in a home. Grant offers to adopt him. The adoption goes ahead, and the kid thrives in his new wealthy home. But Young doesn’t like the arrangement and seduces Grant in order to break up his marriage. It doesn’t work. Realising she’s done him wrong, Young returns to her meagre life. This wasn’t bad (no pun intended), to be honest. Young plays a good part, and her character is a strong female protagonist. It’s not that the film is feminist, but it’s a damn sight closer than most films of that decade… or indeed the following two or three decades. It’s an early Grant film (well, his sixteenth… of seventy-six), so he’s bouncy rather than urbane… which doesn’t quite work here. But Young carries the film – and yes, her kid is an annoying brat. Worth seeing.

Do the Right Thing*, Spike Lee (1989, USA). Lee has a couple of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he’s clearly an important film-maker in US cinema – although the fact it took until the 1980s for someone like him to appear doesn’t speak too well. He documents the black lived experience in the US – although more so, I thought, in She’s Gotta Have It than in this one. Do the Right Thing is set in a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and centres around a pizzeria owned by an Italian-American family. There are racial tensions between the pizzeria family – one son is outright racist, the father and other son are not, but the father is protective of his heritage to a degree that upsets some 0f his customers. The film focuses on a handful of characters, none of which are especially sympathetic, and then shows the events leading up to a night of violence, during which the pizzeria is trashed and the police kill one of the protestors – and, of course, the police get away with it. Do the Right Thing is a hugely more polished film than She’s Gotta Have It and, obviously, much more political. It boasts a professional cast, and while none are stars, one or two went on to become quite big. It also feels curiously small scale – it’s set in a single neighbourhood, but there never seems to be as many people around as you’d expect. So how the pizzeria manages to stay in business is a bit of a mystery. Do the Right Thing belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it’s one of the more middling films which actually deserve a place on it.

Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène (1966, Senegal). Diouana is hired as a nursemaid by a French family living in Dakar. She looks after the family’s kids, takes them to school, makes sure they’re fed, etc. When the family return to France, they ask Diouana to go with them, and she accepts. She assumes her duties will be the same, but back home in France, the family are not affluent enough to afford more than one servant – so Diouana has to do everything. She quickly realises she is only there because a black housekeeper is something to show off. She’s over-worked, under-paid, and given little or no freedom. The film is played very simply, with straight shots and a voice-over narration by Diouanna. It’s structured as Diouanna’s life in France intercut with flashbacks which explain how she came to be there, and it’s pretty harrowing stuff. That Diouanna was desperate for a job to support her family is made clear, but the fact the French family totally take advantage of her – and this is why we needed film-makers like Sembène – is documented, and occasionally editorialised by Diouana, with an honesty you won’t find in French films of the time. The ending is shocking, and sadly inevitable. The callousness of the French family is astonishing, as is their patronising racism. It’s a shame there are not more films by Sembène available – or indeed by any director from an African nation. Did you know, for example, that the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is the third largest in the world, second only to Bollywood and Hollywood? How many Nollywood films are routinely given English-language releases on sell-through? The Figurine: Araromire by Kunli Afolayan is considered a major film from Nigeria, but despite being only eight years old it’s never been made available in the UK (or the US, as far as I can discover). Non-Anglophone cinema (I’ve never liked the term “world cinema”) should not just be the province of dedicated cineastes, it should be on equal terms with Anglophone cinema.

Kamikaze Girls, Tetsuya Nakashima (2004, Japan). Once again, I texted David Tallerman and asked him, “WTF am I watching?” He suggested I stick with the film, and, to be fair, it was a good call. Every now and again we meet up and swap the titles of films we think good, and David borrows my phone and adds a bunch of movies I’ve never heard of to my rental lists using the LoveFilm app. I return the favour, of course – earlier tonight, as I write this, he asked me if the Chadian film A Screaming Man was one of my recommendations and admitted it was very good. (Yes, it was one of mine.) Having said that, David’s taste in films is a little… stranger than my own. Kamikaze Girls is something I’d never have watched unless prompted, and I’d have missed out on what is actually a pretty good movie. The title refers to two high school girls, a Lolita and a biker girl, who become unlikely friends. There’s a very cartoony style to the cinematography and it works really well – it’s sort of a toned-down version of Japanese television shows, the ones with the flashing graphics and pop-up kanji/kana. There’s not much to the plot – it’s bit like Cinderella, a bit like West Side Story. It’s also a huge amount of fun, and even the Jamie Hewlett-style animation sequence in the middle works pretty good (it’s also a much better film than Tank Girl). Definitely worth seeing.

Mother Joan of the Angels, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1961, Poland). Polish historical drama is starting to feel a bit like a specific genre, given I’ve now seen a number of them. But I could also say the same for 1970s Polish dramas, which I love – although to be fair the Poles do historical drama really well, I’m just not so keen on it as a genre. The title of this film refers to an abbess who is supposedly possessed by the devil. A priest is sent to investigate, and what he witnesses seems to validate what has been said about the convent. To be honest, I don’t get this demonisation (literally) of female sexuality, or indeed of women in general. I mean, it’s not like the title character was really possessed by a demon. It’s a metaphor, obviously. Although played literally in the film. But women weren’t burnt at the stake, or drowned, or whatever barabaric execution method men of the time thought appropriate, because their bodies had been actually taken over by imaginary creatures. Organised religion is, after all, ninety percent politics (and a great proportion of that must be sexual politics).  Mother Joan of Angels is effectively staged and shot in black and white. It’s like Ken Russell’s The Devils, but without the excess. Or not so much excess, anyway. In other words, the possessed nuns keep their habits on. And the protagonist is an everyman, rather than some sort of melodramatic hero. Now, I think The Devils is an excellent film, and probably Russell’s best – but it’s good because it’s excessive. Mother Joan of the Angels covers similar ground, but with a stark aesthetic that works just as well. There’s also a level of fatalism and black humour to Kawalerowicz’s film that Russell’s lacks; but then the British have always been piss-poor at fatalism and a bit hit-and-miss at black humour (but we are masters of self-deprecating humour, an entirely useless, and not espeically marketable, talent). A Polish film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and that is the joke. A British film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and then add jokes. Um, on reflection, I’m not sure the former is unique to Polish films, as I’ve seen something similar in Romanian films. And others can no doubt name other nations where it applies. But. The Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes 1, 2 and 3 box sets were not cheap purchases, but they were totally worth buying. With these and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (wich includes a wonderful restoration of A River Called Titas!), I now think much more highly Scorsese than I ever did after watching his movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 864

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Moving pictures, #33

It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.

thin_blue_lineThe Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.

being_thereBeing There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

asphalt_jungleThe Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.

last_metroThe Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the  mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.

shaftShaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…

she_done_him_wrongShe Done Him Wrong*, Lowell Sherman (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

shaneShane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…

wild_blue_yonderThe Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665