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Moving pictures 2017, #64

Six films from three countries – two of each. Odd, how it works out sometimes.

Two Women, Vittorio De Sica (1960, Italy). I found this on Amazon Prime which, in among the populist crap and, well, the just plain crap, throws up the odd gem. This is no gem per se, but it’s De Sica so it’s quality Italian cinema. It’s also typical De Sica fare. Loren plays a mother who attempts to save her daughter from the invading Germans by travelling out into the country. But none of her relatives are keen to harbour the two of them. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays, bizarrely, an Italian-dubbed male lead, although Italian cinema alway preferred to film without sound and add it later through looping, which certainly helped with foreign markets but also explains why so many non-Italian-speaking stars appeared in Italian films, such as Burt Lancaster in The Leopard. I will freely admit I had initially thought Sophia Loren one of those European actresses adopted by Hollywood chiefly because of their looks, but she was a talented actress and a great deal better than many of her contemporaries, Italian or otherwise. Belmondo, on the other hand, is… Belmondo. Even in an Italian film, he smoulders. His character is a teacher with communist sympathies, which leads to several political arguments. There’s a brutal scene in which both Loren and her daughter are raped by German troops, and it’s quite harrowingly shot. Given how lightly commercial media treat rape, it always dismays when it appears. True, in Two Women it’s a vital part not only of the plot but of the protagonists’ character arcs, which is more than can be said of the vast bulk of commercial media, but that doesn’t mean I have to like its presence. Two Women is a good film… but it’s not a pleasant film, and I’d sooner people knew that before they started watching it.

Le petit soldat, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). When I bought the 10- DVD Godard box set, I also bought this 13-DVD one. Unlike the other, it was a UK release, not a France release; but, like the other, it did include many films I’d seen before. In fact, Le petit soldat was the first of its 13 films I’d not seen before. There are identifiable phases to Godard’s films – to an outsider, at least – although I suspect I’m missing some subtle distinctions. But, to my eye, his early films were very much influenced by US noir movies, so much so he actively spoofed the genre several times, such as in Made in U.S.A. (see here), but in earlier films the homage was much more straightforward… As it is in this one, which is pretty much a French take on a US noir film but filmed in Switzerland. Bruno Forestier plays a French agent in Geneva, who is asked to murder someone. But he meets Anna Karenina, and, well, so much for principles. The more Godard I watch, the more I appreciate Godard as a film-maker. In his early days, he was one of the Nouvelle Vague, and perhaps a little more in love with US cinema, especially noir, than his peers. Except… how then to explain Le mépris, made only three years after this. Huh. I don’t think Godard was ever as technically proficient as Truffaut, but I think he had a better handle on the medium’s possibilities – and a fondness for narrative experimentation, which definitely appeals to me. Le petit soldat is pretty straightforward – the twists and turns of the plot are there in the noir playbook, so I’m not really convinced any changes Godard rings are all that innovative. It’s a more disciplined film than, say À bout de souffle, and it works best as a Nouvelle Vague than a noir/thriller film. Worth seeing.

La note bleue, Andrzej Żuławski (1991, France). I’m a big fan of Żuławski’s films, although probably On the Silver Globe more than others; but his idiosyncratic approach to film-making, even if the results are, well, odd, appeals to the curmudgeon in me. And it’s for that reason I’ve been picking up the Mondo Vision releases of Żuławski’s films – six  to date, the first they released was Possession, which took me a while to track down… And it was finding a copy of that which reminded a Mondo release of La note bleue was due in 2017… So I checked, it’d been released, and I ordered myself a copy. La note bleue covers the last days of Chopin, during which many of his friends visit. He apparently had a somewhat odd family situation. And many famous friends – oh, and his wife was famous too, George Sands. Among those who appear in this film are Dumas, Turgenev and Delacroix. They visit Chopin’s villa in the countryside, only to discover all the staff have left and they have to help with the cooking. Chopin’s two children – played by Sophie Marceau, Żuławski’s partner after appearing L’amour braque (see here), and Benoît Le Pecq – worship and cosset their father. And… things happen. The performances, as in most Żuławski films, are OTT, some a great deal more than others. There are also, well, personifications, I guess, of aspects of the human personality, such as “demogorgon”, “spirit of fire”, and 8-feet-tall masked figures in gauzy cloaks, which appear in scenes but are ignored by the cast (some even have dialogue). Despite the seriousness of its topic, La note bleue is as mad as Żuławski’s other films. It’s also an especially good-looking film, more so than others of his, I think, and Mondo have done an excellent job on the restoration and transfer. Żuławski is an acquired taste, but La note bleue is worth seeing nonetheless.

Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). Fricke was director of photography on Koyaanisqatsi (see here), which I loved, and he obviously decided to have a go of his own. Which resulted in two films – Baraka and Samsara… but I could initially only find Samsara for rental, which was a bit weird, but I think it was sort of between releases, and Baraka is now available and on my rental list. None of which is entirely relevant, because this is a gorgeous film and I want them both. I want Blu-ray editions of them both. They’re just like Koyaanisqatsi, non-narrative cinema shot around the world, with the focus on the cinematography, which is, well, gorgeous. Samsara is, like Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, is pretty much just footage of different places, which I hesitate to call “exotic”, because I believe the word has been so abused it should be considered in the same light as “oriental”, but Samsara does include beautifully-shot footage of assorted parts of the world not otherwise seen in cinema. I loved it, I want my own copy. I will buy one too, see if I don’t.

Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins (2017, USA). This is the one film in this post that most people will want to read about. Which is a bit sad. Because it’s probably the worst of the six films in this post. Okay, so the giallo below, Death Walks at Midnight, is no masterpiece, but it’s arguably better at being what it is than Wonder Woman is. I’d heard a lot of comments about Wonder Woman, so I was keen to see it. I was, and still am, very much for a female-led tentpole movie, superhero or otherwise. Initial commentary on Wonder Woman praised its feminist content. And so I stuck it on my rental list, and went it arrived I stuck it in my player and… it had me for the first thirty minutes or so. A functioning all-female society – hand-wavey as fuck, but who cares, it’s presented entirely without comment and it looks like it works – but then a man appears and mega-warrior Diana suddenly turns into a battlefield liability. He pretty much saves her, which is not the message up to that point. Later, the writers have fun with that particular aspect of her character – but, to be honest, it’s the 21st century, and even for stories set in the 1910s, having a woman save a man from peril should not be a plot point, espcially not one that’s player over and over and over again. I mean, for fuck’s sake, grow up. And that’s the biggest problem with Wonder Woman: once she leaves Paradise Island, she’s treated like some sort of clothes horse, even by those who know of her powers; and then, when she does use them she becomes some sort of sexless super-being. Not to mention that by the end of the film her powers are stupidly OTT. I loved the first half-hour of this film, I wanted to give it a fair shake, so I watched it twice. But it really does fall apart once Diana arrives in London. It doesn’t help that the villains are weak, but that’s a common failing with superhero movies. They were at least well-placed in the period, which is something superhero movies don’t always do well. There has been some fuss online recently on the change in Amazon armour between Wonder Woman and the new Justice League movie. How difficult is it to design costumes for women that look plausible? I mean, if I were leading an army I wouldn’t be concerned with whether they looked like sexy women but whether they looked like fucking kick-ass fucking warriors and capable of winning the battle. This is not rocket science. Wonder Woman is not a great film, it’s not even a good film, but for superhero films it’s a welcome step forward. Hollywood should a) put out a shitload more female-fronted tentpole films, and b) give those films to female directors. Then we might start getting actual good superhero films.

Death Walks at Midnight, Luciano Ercoli (1972, Italy). There was a sale on the Arrow website recently, and among the DVDs and Blu-rays I bought was this, the sequel to Death Walks in High Heels (see here), which I’d bought earlier this year and enjoyed. And this is more of the same – also starring Susan Scott, AKA Spanish actress Nieves Navarro Garcia, the wife of Ercoli, although she appeared in many Italian films of the 1970s and 1980s. In Death Walks at Midnight, she plays a model who experiments with LSD and hallucinates the murder of a young woman by a man using an armoured fist with nails. Except there really was such a murder. But six months earlier. And when her experience appears in a low-rent magazine, those involved in the crime are keen to silence her. This is giallo, so it’s cheap and cheerful, and sense is one of the first things to end up on the cutting-room floor. But it does actually hang togehter, albeit only just, as Scott’s character maintains a solid forward trajectory, even if not everything in the film actually adds up. It struck me while watching Death Walks at Midnight, and based on a number of other giallo films I’ve seen, both horror and thriller, that many of their plots rely on gaslighting their female leads. Throughout this film, Scott is misled as to what she has seen and knows, by someone very close to her. It makes for a suspenseful story, and Scott eventually overcomes, despite all the men with which she interacts offering either scepticism or threats. I don’t know that this was a defining characteristic of giallo, and it seems odd that such a feminist take on the thriller/horror genre would come from Italy. If anything, I suspect it’s an accidental consequence of a genre which sought to put women front and centre in order to titillate a male audience. Films like this, Footprints on the Moon, much of the oeuvres of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and numerous titles from both Shameless and Arrow Video… But then there’s all those Italian Neorealist films which featured strong female leads, not all played by Sophia Loren (see above), it has to be said, by the likes of Robert Rossellini, Vittori De Sica and Federico Fellini… And then I remember there are many many more Italian films like Spaghetti a mezzanotte, and I realise it’s foolish to generalise…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886

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Moving pictures 2017, #19

Another mix of countries again, sadly ruined by a shit Hollywood sf blockbuster, which, yes, I knew would be shit when I sat down to watch it. Oh well.

Death Walks on High Heels, Luciano Ercoli (1971, Italy). I’ve watched quite a few giallos, after being introduced to the genre when I had to review one for videovista.net several years ago. They’re not a type of film that ever aspired to high art, although both Argento and Bava certainly went overboard on the sets, lighting and camerawork quite often. But most of those I’ve seen have been pretty straightforward low-budget thrillers, with the odd horror element, and plots that are often convoluted to the point of implausibility. It seems almost a defining characteristic that giallos hide who is the real villain of the piece until the end. And that’s exactly what Death Walks on High Heels does. Nicole is an exotic dancer in Paris whose estranged father was an infamous thief. The police inform her he’s been murdered but the proceeds of his last crime, a horde of diamonds, is missing. A man breaks into Nicole’s flat and threatens her with a knife, demanding the location of the missing diamonds. She notices her assailant has piercing blue eyes. Later, she finds blue contact lenses belonging to her sponging boyfriend. She flees Paris in the company of an English businessman she met at a club. He takes her to his holiday cottage in Cornwall (I think) and tells everyone she is his wife (he’s separated from his actual wife but won’t divorce her because she has the money). The boyfriend turns up. Nicole vanishes, and her body turns up later. The police investigate. Ercoli thickens the plot so much, it’s never quite clear what’s going on, and there are at least three different attempts at unmasking the villain. The police are also weird, cracking these odd dry jokes like some sort of dysfunctional comedy duo whenever they’re on screen. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film – it’s not quite well-made enough to convince, the cast are uniformly bad, and the plot is over-convoluted. It’s a good giallo, but that’s no real indicator of quality. There’s a sequel, Death Walks at Midnight, starring the same cast, which I might try – but this is like a bad quality film done well, if that makes sense.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (1999, Spain). I’ve had this for a couple of years but I’ve never written about it before, so I thought it about time I did. It’s a convoluted thriller, whose story is told in a series of flashbacks. Javier Bardem plays a film producer who joins a therapy class of “sex addicts”. Where he meets Victoria Abril, whose evening dog walks had been a cover for sex with strangers. She works at a radio station, and through her Bardem discovers that tapes in which he describes his sexual fantasies have surfaced. Meanwhile, her husband, a police detective, is investigating the murder of a man found in the boot of an abandoned car in a multi-storey car park. The sex tapes are from phone conversations Bardem had with a woman he met at the airport, when they both missed their flight and so would have died when it later crashed. Except, the woman is not a woman… There are several things going on in Between Your Legs, such as Abril’s husband’s suspicion his wife is having an affair, a policeman who killed his wife, but the flashing back and forth never actually gets confusing. And I think that’s what’s most impressive about it, that it keeps the viewer invested in the story, despite its artificial nature, its leaping back and forth in time, and the way those flashbacks lead up to the resolution. The Spanish do good sexual thrillers, and this is one of them.

Early Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1951, Japan). I think this might be my favourite of Ozu’s films, despite being in black and white and despite pretty much having the same plot as all his other films… Not to mention three generations of a family in one home, a daughter who needs marrying off, and a lot of familiar faces. Norioko, a secretary, lives with her parents and her sister’s family. A visiting uncle reminds the family that Norioko is past the age when she should be married. Her boss proposes a friend as a match, and the family are pleased with him as a potential husband. But Norioko would sooner marry a widowed doctor she knows from her daily commute, even though this means moving from Tokyo to provincial Akita. The family are far from pleased about her choice, but she refuses to change her mind. It struck me while watching Early Summer that it’s an ur-Ozu film – it does all the things Ozu does so well and it does them in a single movie. There are some early landscape shots – and the film finishes with a shot across a field of barley, as referenced in the original Japanese title – that seem so un-Ozo that, perversely, they make the film more Ozu. If that makes sense. The family dynamics, and the beautifully understated characterisation, are pretty much the same as any other Ozu film, although the fact the story revolves around Norioko, far more than any other Ozo films seems to centre on one of its cast, gives Early Summer more for the viewer to invest in. There’s a wonderful scene in which four young women go out for a hen party and discuss the upcoming nuptials, and it feels more like eavesdropping than plot-service. Which is, I guess, the appeal of Ozu’s films: there are no story beats, there is no three-act structure… there is just superlative film-making.

Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich (2016, USA). Every now and again, I want to a film I can get pissed while watching, and what better candidate than a Hollywood sf tentpole blockbuster? Especially an unwanted sequel to a twenty-year-old film whose moment passed two months after it was released. Independence Day: Resurgence – I’m pretty sure they meant Regurgence – is actually set twenty years after the events of the first film, with the sons and daughters of the original movie’s heroes as the leads. Except for the non-combat ones, like Brent Spiner, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Goldblum’s dad, that bloke from Taxi. The USA – there are two named Chinese characters in the film, but there don’t appear to be any other nations on Earth; oh, except for a random African one which features for about ten minutes – has reverse-engineered the alien technology and now has a base on the Moon. Which has a giant blaster cannon, just in case the aliens come back. So when a giant spaceship appears, which is nothing like those of the aliens in the original film, the US blows it out of space anyway. Oops. They were the good aliens. Because the bad aliens are back for round two and the good aliens could have helped. Instead, the US has to wheel out all old characters from the first movie. Plus a handful of new ones, most of whom seem more concerned with their relationships with their paper-thin love-interests, plus they’re shit at taking orders anyway, just like every Hollywood military character. Everything that was wrong in the first film is even wronger in this one, and it’s the twenty-first century so a lot of stuff that was acceptable back in the 1990s is pretty much borderline offensive these days. The rest is a mishmash of clichés, hogwash, drivel and machismo bullshit. The special effects may be state of the art, but the storytelling is not. Avoid.

Knights of the Black Cross, Aleksander Ford (1960, Poland). It turns out I’d seen this before, but under the title Knights of the Teutonic Order (which is the title of the Second Run DVD release), although I can’t say I remembered any of the story when I came to watch it this time. It was a huge success in Poland at its time of release – in fact, the Wikipedia entry for the film boasts about the number of people who have seen it. Knights of the Black Cross is certainly an epic movie. It’s set in the late 1300s and is about the frankly evil machinations of the titular order. It clearly demonstrates that there is no one quite as evil as someone who claims to have god on their side – and that’s as true now as it was 600 years ago. A Polish knight finds himself at odds with the order after he rescues a caravan they’re attacking. And it all sort of escalates from there. He threatens the king’s messenger, mistakenly thinking he’s a knight of the order and is sentenced to execution. But the young woman he has fallen for rescues him from the headsman by promising herself in marriage. Meanwhile, her uncle is fighting the order, and ends up captured by them. They also kidnap the knight’s betrothed. Knights of the Black Cross packs a lot into its 166 minutes, and it’s all good stuff. It’s a more melodramatic film than, say, The Valley of the Bees, which also features the Teutonic Order, but is a Czech film – and it makes a good fist of its setting and it’s never dull. Worth seeing.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway (2015, Netherlands). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to love Greenaway’s films, perhaps because at that time they were like nothing I’d seen before. But then his star sort of waned and his films became harder to find – the last few have been pretty much financed by the Dutch – but sell-through DVD happily seems to have allowed him to reach a new audience (although I note his films are still somewhat haphazardly available in the UK on DVD or Blu-ray). He also seems to have embraced CGI to a much greater extent than other art house film directors. Like his last two films, Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is based on historical fact. Sergei Eisenstein, the director of Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Ivan the Terrible and other Soviet classics, did indeed visit Mexico to make a film in 1930. Greenaway presents Eisenstein as an erudite gay libertine, who takes full advantage of the freedoms offered by Mexico and unavailable in the USSR. Many of the scenes feature declamatory dialogue, often while stalking semi-nude around a single set. The whole is part-lecture, part frankly-implausible drama, but entirely clever and engaging. I hadn’t expected to like Eisenstein in Guanajuato, despite being a fan of Eisenstein’s films, or perhaps because of, but I certainly hadn’t expected Eisenstein in Guanajuato to make me think more favourably of Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company, which I now want to watch again. My appreciation of Greenaway’s films may never return to its levels of twenty-plus years ago, but I like his films a whole lot better now than I did five years ago…

1001 Movies You must See Before You Diecount: 857