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Moving pictures 2019, #2

I admit it: film posts are easy content. More so, as it’s easy to watch a wide variety of movies. So why the fuck don’t more people do it? They watch the same old Hollywood shit, and yet there’s an entire world’s worth of cinema out there to explore and it’s not at all difficult to find it. Amazon Prime even makes some of it available for free, and that’s over and above what publishers release on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK, or what TV channels broadcast, Scandi-noir or otherwise…

Of the five films below, only one was a rental, and only one was a purchase. The others were streamed. I am not, I must admit, a huge fan of streaming, if only because the available films are limited, or, for the more obscure films, it costs over and above for curated lists of movies. It’s the old argument: I buy a DVD for £10 and watch it twenty times; or I stream a film at £2 a view… And while it’s unlikely I’ll watch a film six times, although it has happened, at least I’ll know it’s always available, which is not something that can be guaranteed for streamed films. And for some streaming services, like mubi, it’s even a feature: you only get access to a movie for 30 days.

Perhaps it’s old-fashioned of me, but I prefer the idea of controlling my own access to culture. True, when I buy a cinema ticket, it’s only good for one showing; true, when I pay to enter a museum, the ticket is only good for one visit. But we have sell-through for films, and books for literature… and both forms allow me unlimited repeated access to art I enjoy… and while that may not be particularly good for the creator, it is clearly less good for the publisher… who would like to charge for every single view because it maximises their revenue…

But I’ve drifted from the point. Here are five films I enjoyed. Some I’d like to see again. And can. Others I can’t… without paying for the privilege – and I have certainly done that: bought a DVD or Blu-ray of a film after watching a rental or streamed film, because I wanted a copy of my own.

Adelheid, František Vláčil (1970, Czechia). I really should write these posts shortly after watching the films. Especially since I have a bad habit of not focusing one hundred percent on the movies I’m watching. I’ve usually got my laptop on my, er, lap, and I’m writing a Moving pictures post from a couple of weeks previously… Oh the irony. So I don’t really need to explain that while I watched Adelheid and I enjoyed Adelheid, looking at the plot summary on Wikipedia I’m coming up blank. It doesn’t help that my memories of it are getting confused with Ucho. This is a film I clearly need to watch again… and I would stick it back on my rental list, except that’s not going to be a thing I can do after March… Oh well. I remember the movie being good, which is about all I remember, and I do like Vláčil’s films, so it’s definitely worth another go.

‘71, Yann Demane (2014, UK). This had been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon Prime for months, but I’d never felt in the mood to watch it, until, one night, it occurred to me I’d best get my watchlist trimmed down before I left the UK. At which point I discovered that ’71 is actually a pretty good film. It depicts the British Army in Belfast in the year of the title, and a young soldier gets cut off from his platoon after an ill-advised, and ill-managed, mission to assist the RUC search some houses. The army’s Military Reaction Force, an undercover unit who were no better than the terrorists they were supposed to take down, provide a bomb for Unionists to place in a Catholic pub, but it explodes prematurely… and is mistakenly believed to be an IRA attack. But the soldier on the loose knows the truth. The film did a really good job of setting time and place… except for the scenes that were clearly filmed in Sheffield’s Hyde Park flats. It pretty much blows it when a film set in one city is obviously filmed on location in your home town. The movie also demonstrated that even in 1971, the army was as shambolic as it was in 1941. Not a popular opinion given the death-toll, on all sides, caused by the Troubles; but the days of blindly supporting your country because it’s your country should be long over– Ah fuck, what am I saying? Brexit. It’s brought all that brainless shit back again. But so few people seem to have a built-in moral compass, or they let something else, like religion, overrule it. And let’s face it, those things that overrule it, they swing one way then the next on a weekly basis. All of which is by the bye. ’71 does a very good job of showing that both sides in the Troubles were complete bastards, although the RUC were clearly the worst. The film makes an excellent fist – Hyde Park notwithstanding – of setting time and place, and the performances are good. Worth seeing.

War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov, Sergei Bondarchuk (1967, Russia). I have a huge amount of respect for this film – or rather, all four films – and yet the only version we have available to us now is a terrible copy of the original. It’s a crying shame. Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is a towering cinematic achievement, and the best adaptation of the novel too, but all we have is the 35mm print chopped down from the original 70mm, and a few scenes from the television version which were left out of the 35mm edit and subsequently re-inserted. With subtitles, rather than dubbing. But the dubbing is a bit erratic in the edition I watched anyway, with the Russian dubbed into English, but not the French or German (and no subtitles for those languages, either). I would actually prefer subtitles throughout – films should be shown in their original language, with subtitles (the Italian film industry’s penchant for featuring non-Italian actors, typically English- or German-speaking, and dubbing them into Italian notwithstanding). There’s not much to say about the plot of War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov as it consists of little more than the subtitle character wandering around a warzone and towns that have been all but destroyed by the fighting. It’s all physical effects, of course – no CGI back in the mid-1960s. And that’s one thing that has been impressive throughout all four of these movies: the scale of the effects. A Napoleonic battle, with real soldiers. Actual nineteenth-century palaces. A cast of tens of thousands. And behind it all, a showcase of technical innovation, and a genuine work of literature providing the story. (Note to self: reread War and Peace one of these days.) Bondarchuk’s War and Peace would be absolutely brilliant, if we had the original print. Sadly, we don’t. But what we do have is enough to hint how good it was.

Zama, Lucrecia Martel (2017, Argentina). South American directors get little press in the Anglophone world, and female South American directors even less… and yet there are some excellent ones. Not just Martel, but also Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo. But of the three, Martel definitely has the highest profile at present. Llosa has not produced anything since 2014, and Puenzo since 2013 – which suggests it’s more about what’s available, which is criminal. While all three are South American – Llosa is Peruvian, the other two are Argentine – and they share a similar elliptical approach to storytelling, the stories they’ve chosen to tell are very different. Some are historical, some are contemporary. Most are stories about women. Zama is unusual, insasmuch as the title character is male. It is also adapted from a major work of Argentine literature, a 1956 novel of the same title by Antonio de Benedetto. Zama is a Spanish corregidor in late 1700s Paraguay, separated from his wife and children by the Atlantic, and desperate to return home. But his entreaties fall on deaf ears, and the decline of his mental state is reflected in the decline of his career, or vice versa. It’s beautifully shot – it looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray – and there’s something ineluctably South American about it all… so much so, that the film it put me in mind of most was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biopic, The Dance of Reality (which is set more than 100 years later and in a different country on the same continent, but never mind). Martel, like Llosa and Puenzo, has an enviably varied oeuvre, but all three also have an enviably excellent oeuvre. Seek their films out, you will not be disappointed. And Zama is hot right now, so easy to find. Watch it.

A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper (2018, USA). Hollywood and the US film establishment, which is very much in Hollywood’s pocket, seems to love this film so much it has been made three times before – in 1937, 1954 and 1976 – although the 1954 one, with Judy Garland and James Mason, is generally reckoned the best of the three. Er, make that the best of the four. One thing you can say of A Star is Born is that it’s very much a movie of the time it is made… except when it isn’t. Because, seriously, Bradley Cooper’s rock-god character, and the music he plays, well, that hasn’t been a thing since the 1970s. Just watch a documentary about The Eagles, or any other big US band of the time. They played it then. No one plays it now. The last time Jackson Browne toured new material and filled an auditorium, Reagan was president. And Lady Gaga, who does well in her first major role, starts out like Linda Ronstadt before going all, well, Lady Gaga, at the behest of her record label, who think she will be more successful. Well, yes, playing twenty-first century music in the twenty-first century is more likely to be successful than playing 1970s music. The entire tribute band industry, er, notwithstanding. Anyway, Cooper is a rock god on the slide, drinks way too much, and, desperate for alcohol, stops off in a drag bar – nice call out to drag culture, but a bit off-the-wall, tbh (although check out the number of drag clubs that appeared in 1980s action movies) – and sees Lady Gaga, a faux queen, perform, and is smitten. Where to start with the disentanglement? The assumption that Gaga’s character is clearly cisgender to the drag club audience? That she shines in comparison to drag acts? That her career is so in the toilet she can only appear as a faux queen? Anyway, Cooper and Gaga hook up, and she plays him her material and he likes it and she even performs it onstage during his tour… But it’s all straight-up 1970s rock, and that’s not 2018, so it all seems weirdly alternate universe. But then Gaga’s record company moulds her into a twenty-first century pop artist like, well, Lady Gaga, and though it seems more believable as a career path, it doesn’t as a musical path from the material she’d performed earlier. None of which is to say the film is not entertaining. It is. Cooper does grizzled rock god to a tee, and Gaga is hugely likeable in her first major role (and I say that as someone who knows fuck all about her musical career). The movie looks good and the concert sequences are pretty convincing. It’s all very much a Bradly Cooper vehicle, but that’s hardly unexpected. And given the story, the story’s pedigree, and Cooper’s role in the project, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognition was hardly unexpected, if disappointingly predictable. I’ve always had a soft spot for movies about rock stars or rock groups, and A Star is Born ticks all the necessary boxes. But it still feels as artificial as its earlier incarnations – epitomised by the insertion of the long “Born in a trunk” musical number in the 1954 version, added by star Garland after director Cukor had left the production, and the fact the best copy of the 1954 movie currently available has stills and recorded dialogue to cover parts of the story that didn’t make the original theatrical cut but are now considered necessary to understanding the film’s plot… The reputation of the 1976 remake by Frank Pierson has not aged well – I’ve not seen it for many years, so I’ve no idea if the film itself has weathered the decades. I mean, Kris Kristofferson, okay, maybe; but Barba Streisand? I should try to watch it – suitably reinforced, of course. But it would not surprise me if, forty years from now, Bradly Cooper’s A Star is Born enjoys a similar reputation to Frank Pierson’s.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #48

Some good directors in this post, ones I should watch more films by… although I’ve seen all of Martel’s movies except her most recent, and Solás, who made twenty-four films… well, few of his are available on DVD in the UK – and I think I have all the ones that are.

The Fallen Idol, Carol Reed (1948, UK). Reed, of course, is best known for The Third Man, but he made 29 feature films, and won the Oscar for Best Director for Oliver! in 1968. The Fallen Idol is an accomplished late 1940s thriller, more so because it is told chiefly from the point of view of a young boy. Philippe is the young son of the French ambassador to London. He adores his father’s butler, played by Ralph Richardson, who tells him stories of his adventures in Africa. But when Philippe accidentally witnesses a meeting between Richardson and his mistress – identified to the boy as Richardson’s niece – and then starts spending time with them, and the news filters back to Richardson’s wife… Richardson and his wife quarrel and she falls down the stairs and dies. Philippe witnessed the start of the fight, but not the all-important part where Richardson walked away and the wife slipped and fell. Philippe’s refusal to speak ill of Richardson actually hampers the police investigation, who begin to suspect Richardson of murder. It’s all very cleverly done, but the fact the viewer sees the accident happen does make it all feel a bit like an episode of Columbo. The boy who plays Philippe is especially good, although the career promised by the film never materialised. The Fallen Idol doesn’t have the bite of other Reed films (um, well, not including Oliver!), but is a good example of a tightly-plotted well-made thriller. If only good films were ever made, it would be considered a mediocre effort; but compared against the crap that’s usually produced in any given year, it stands out as a solid piece of work. Worth seeing.

The Holy Girl, Lucrecia Martel (2004, Argentina). Martel has to date made only four feature films, and I have so far seen all but her most recent, last year’s Zama. I would put her in the top twenty-five directors working in film today. The Holy Girl, or La niña santa, is perhaps not the best of her films, but it’s certainly the one that’s most characteristically hers in terms of technique. Martel likes to film as if she were a voyeur, through doorways and windows, more fly-on-the-wall than actually staged, and in this film there is plenty of that in evidence. The story concerns an Argentine schoolgirl who, after being frottaged by a doctor staying at her mother’s hotel for a medical conference, decides it is her holy mission to save him. But all that happens in and around the interaction of the main characters – the girl, her friends, her mother, the doctors at the conference… To say any more would be a spoiler. Martel has a singular approach to drama, and while it’s tempting to compare her to Claudia Llosa (a Peruvian), it’s an unfair comparison: Martel is the more technically accomplished film-maker, but Llosa’s films just have the edge for me (though Llosa’s films are harder to find in the UK). Despite that, Martel seems to have more of a career – Llosa’s last film was 2014, and there’s no news of anything new from her – and she’s an excellent director, definitely one whose career is worth following. Recommended.

Beloved, Humberto Solás (1985, Cuba). I foolishly didn’t buy this box set of seven Cuban films when it was available, and once it was deleted the price shot up to around the £75 mark (and I see there’s a copy on Amazon going for £150 now). Fortunately, I stumbled across a much cheaper copy on eBay, and when it arrived it was still shrinkwrapped. Result. The first film I chose to watch from the set was Cecelia… but the disc labelled that proved to actually contain Beloved. And vice versa. Oops. All the others could be mixed up too, I’ve not checked. But at least the films are there.  I’m not the first to remark on the similarity between Solás’s films and Visconti’s. Both have made lush period dramas, with mostly static cameras, but with lots of close-ups and reaction shots, and the occasional painterly mid-range shot. In Beloved (AKA Amada), which is set in 1914, a woman, Amada, and her husband, live with her blind mother. He has a mistress, and is about to embark on a career in local politics (which the first scene of the film describes as extremely corrupt). Amada is in love with her cousin, and he is in love with her. But she refuses to leave her husband because she would be branded an adulteress. Meanwhile, the husband has been working on the maid to get her to persuade the mother to sell the house and other properties. As the title indicates, the film is about Amada, a prisoner in her marriage, increasingly held prisoner by the maid, who won’t let her see her mother… The dialogue is pretty intense, with characters often lecturing each other, but that’s hardly unexpected in a film adapted from an early twentieth-century novel – in this case Miguel de Carrión’s 1929 novel La esfinge (The Sphinx). It’s all pretty glum stuff, as Amada’s situation deteriorates and echoes that of the country. I suspect this film would look very nice indeed if restored, but the transfer in the box set is not brilliant. The dark areas frequently overwhelm the screen and the muted colour palette doesn’t work so well on a television screen – even if it does successfully evoke the period. Still, a good film, especially if you like period dramas.

Cecilia, Humberto Solás (1982, Cuba). An adaptation of an extremely important Cuban novel, Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde, published in 1839, and apparently released as a six-hour TV mini-series, a four-hour domestic feature film, and a two-hour international feature film. It’s the last which appears in the Viva Cuba box set. In many ways, I mentioned above that Solás’s work reminds me of Visconti’s, and Cecilia certainly put me very much in mind of The Innocent. It’s also an historical piece, about an important part of Cuban history, but also about the role of women – and slaves, and mixed-race people – in Cuban society, at a time between the Haiti revolution and Cuban independence. I tried to think of a film that covered a similarly shameful period in UK history… and failed. There are shameful episodes aplenty in British history, but the British public is more likely to get in an uproar when a US film completely ignores the British contribution to something historically important. I suppose the same is equally true of the US, which still has plenty to be shameful about. Having said that, Hollywood has been so creative with history over the decades that most people probably think historical films aren’t necessarily true. Fake history! As the brainless orange-faced incumbent in the White House would no doubt say. On the other hand, Cecilia is adapted from a nineteenth-century novel, so some element of artistic licence is baked in. And Solás apparently took some liberties with the plot. Anyway, like Amada, this is an excellent period drama, and reportedly the most expensive film made at that time.

The Cloverfield Paradox, Julius Onah (2018, USA). I don’t know what possessed me to watch this, a crappy sf film badly shoe-horned into the Cloverfield trilogy, which is not actually a trilogy just a dumb JJ Abrams dumb marketing gimmick… but I suppose the cast – and it’s a generally good cast – might have suggested it couldn’t be as bad as most reviews claimed. Sadly, those reviews – and I find most film reviews suspiciously positive about the even shittiest output of Hollywood – were closer to the mark. The Cloverfield Paradox is a perfect example of why I have a low opinion of sf cinema. There have been only a handful of sf films made in the last 100 years which are any good, and that’s a much lower hit-rate than pretty much every other cinematic genre (except maybe the American coming-of-age movie, which has yet to produce a single good film). In The Cloverfield Paradox, an international team of astronauts are experimenting with a particle accelerator aboard a purpose-built space station. Because apparently accelerating a particle will solve the Earth’s energy crisis. Or something. Given the space station apparently has artificial gravity, you’d have thought solving that problem would probably help with the energy crisis. Unfortunately, it seems accelerating a particle actually shifts the space station into an alternate reality. (Which explains much of recent history post-CERN here on Earth.) The astronauts figure this out because they realise they are upside-down, and so they must be on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth. WTF. Hollywood science: like science, but complete bullshit. Meanwhile, giant monsters have been appearing on Earth. Because. It’s all completely meaningless bollocks, which is a shame because it has a good cast – not just Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was unknown to me, but also Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, Elizabeth Debicki and Ziyi Zhang. Avoid.

The Go Master, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2006, China). This is pretty much a straight-up biopic of famous Chinese Go master Wu Qingyuan, famous in Japan as Go Seigen. Born in China, Wu moves to Japan as a teenager in order to pursue a career playing Go. But when the Sino-Japanese War breaks out in the 1930s, he decides to remain. At intervals, displays text explaining the events which lead to the life-changing decisions Wu makes, but the text starts in third-person before abruptly shifting to first-person, which is a little odd. The film also makes little effort to introduce the game of Go, and after watching it I’m no clearer about how the game is played than I was before. It does make Wu’s skill – he’s reckoned the greatest twentieth-century player of the game – something you have to take on faith. Like other of Tian’s films, the cinematography is excellent, and the acting top-notch. The pace is slow, but at 104 minutes this is not a long film. I suspect it will appeal more to those who understand, or are interested in, Go. I’ve yet to be convinced by Tian’s films yet. They look gorgeous, but there never seems to be much going on in them. I’ve to date seen four, including this one, of his eleven feature films. I’d like to see more, but there are plenty of Fifth and Sixth Generation directors whose films are available in the UK, so perhaps I should work my way through those first…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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Moving pictures 2018, #25

A mixed bag, this time around. When it comes to choosing films to watch of an evening, there are several factors to consider: rentals DVDs that I need to send back if I want to get another three for next weekend, the growing to-be-watched pile, the growing pile of DVDs lent to me by my mother, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the sort of day I’ve had at work, whether there’s anything I need to get done that evening, whether I have a Moving picture post to write and I’ve forgotten the details of one of the films in it…

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton’s films and have managed to avoid them for the past decade or so, but this one sounded like it might be worth a go and… well, I actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t massively whimsical, and Burton’s treatment seemed to suit the material. Okay, so Eva Green was as mad as a bucket of spanners in it, but then she is in everything she does – and still she’s eminently watchable. A young man’s grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances – found dead in nearby woods, his eyes missing – and so the young man follows up on stories he was told as a child of a children’s home on  an island off the coast of Wales. He travels there with his father, and discovers that the home was bombed in 1941 and no one knows what became of the children. But then he meets some of them and discovers they still exist, living in an endlessly-repeated day in 1941 (the day, in fact, which ends with the home’s destruction by a German bomb). There are lots of “peculiar children”, although only a dozen or so at the school, and they’re under threat from a group of people led by Samuel L Jackson. He and his group performed an experiment to give themselves immortality early in the twentieth century, but it has slowly been turning them into invisible monsters – unless they eat the eyes of peculiar children, which keeps them human and ageless. And the young man, it turns out he’s peculiar because he can see the monsters… Okay, so it all looked a bit more Cornish than it did Welsh, but the cast were generally good and the villains were pretty effective. A solid effort.

A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies (2016, UK). This is a biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously odd and who this film shows to be very odd indeed. Reading up on her afterwards, I don’t think the film quite does her justice. American actress Cynthia Nixon, perhaps better-known for Sex and the City, which is no doubt doing her a grave disservice as she can’t obviously chose which of her work becomes best-known, plays the title role, with a supporting cast of Brits who mostly seem to have trouble with a US accent. Which means that despite a great deal of care over costumes and setting, this film doesn’t always convince. It doesn’t help that Emily Dickinson was barking, so she’s a hard character to sympathise with in the first place. But this is a Terence Davies film, so it looks great and the performances are top-notch (accents notwithstanding). It certainly inspired me to look up Dickinson’s poetry, which I discovered left me completely cold. She was a… singular talent, with a poetic sensibility very much not of her time. These days, her poetry reads like a cross between doggerel and greeting card, and while her refusal to follow the poetic tradition of her time, and her sheer prolificity are admirable (although she only saw a handful of poems in print during her lifetime), I can’t really defend lines like:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

An interesting film about an interesting person, but don’t expect me to start admiring her poetry as a result.

Submergence, Wim Wenders (2017, USA). I had not known this was a Wenders film until I started watching it. It was the link to diving in submersibles that persuaded me to put it on my watch list. And, after all that, it was a bit meh. It didn’t even feel like a Wim Wenders film, and I wouldn’t have known it was if I hadn’t looked it up. Alicia Vikander is a marine biologist specialising in the hadal zone, on holiday in France. Where she meets James McAvoy, who claims to be a water engineer but is actually a MI6 operative en route to Somalia to meet a contact in a jihadist group. A brief romance ensues. Shortly after arrival in Somalia, McAvoy is captured and held captive. Meanwhile, Vikander visits in the ocean floor off Greenland in a submersible. Both flashback to their romance at the French pension. The only interesting thing about the film was its even-handed treatment of the jihadists, whereas in US films they’re immediately painted as totally evil and fully deserving of extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without due process, making up laws after their capture in order to find them guilty of something, and, of course, illegally invading sovereign nations… Funny how that works…

A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands). Three women are arrested for the murder of a man, and while being interviewed by the police it transpires they do not know each other… The film starts ordinarily enough, introducing the three women as they go about their daily business. One runs a café, another is a secretary in an office, and the third is a housewife, who does not speak. Each of the women are arrested and then interviewed by a police officer. They are accused of beating a man to death in a clothes shop. Nothing up until that point has suggested the women capable of committing such an act. It is only when the crime is shown in flashback, that the motive becomes apparent. The housewife had shoplifted a garment, and the shop owner had insisted she return the garment. The three women attacked the shop owner. The other women in the shop just stood and watched them. A court-appointed psychiatrist tries to understand why the women committed the murder, but they refuse to discuss it. In court, the prosecutor suggests the crime would still have occurred if the shop owner had been female. Every woman in the court room starts laughing. This film definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It certainly does not deserve to be so difficult to find. There are plenty of Dutch films available on sell-through in the UK – most of Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre, for example – and, of course, many Dutch films released in the Netherlands have English subtitles available. But A Question of Silence really was a hard film to track down, and it definitely doesn’t deserve to be. That’s a shame.

Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog (2015, USA). I had not known this was a Herzog film until– well, no, I had known it was a Herzog film but I found it hard to believe it as I watched it. It seemed more like a Kidman star vehicle. She plays Gertrude Bell, one of a number of British female explorers of the Middle East. Another is Frey Stark. Bell graduated from Oxford with a first in History, the first woman to do so, but was not awarded a degree as women were not awarded degrees at the time. Bored with the life planned for her, Bell travelled to Tehran to join her uncle, a diplomat there. She learns Farsi and studies Persian poetry. She falls in love with a member of the embassy staff – played, bafflingly, by an American with a US accent, who’s a made-up character anyway. But her family deem him unsuitable (her real life lover was married), and he commits suicide. So she throws herself into her work, travelling about the region, doing archaeological and philological work. I got the impression from the film that she was involved with Saudis – I distinctly remember mention of the House of Rashid, the original rulers of the Nejd region of the Arabian peninsula – but Bell’s biography on Wikipedia states she mostly travelled and worked in the region now occupied by Syria and Iraq. True, the House of Saud was based in Kuwait at one point, I seem to recall, and that borders Iraq – in fact, the British drew the Iraqi borders, and I think Bell was one of those involved. She also met TE Lawrence several times, and spent WWI working with him in Cairo for British military intelligence. Given I have a long personal connection to the Middle East, it’s no surprise I find the history of the region interesting. But nothing in this film quite rang true. And nothing about seemed very, well, Herzogian. A disappointment on both counts.

La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel (2001, Argentina). I watched Martel’s last but one film, The Headless Woman, last July (see here), and thought it very good. But it wasn’t until I saw a review of her latest, Zama, on Alternate Ending, that I added her other available films to my rental list. This was her first movie. Apparently, the script won a prize at Sundance, but the jury suggested she change it to a more straightforward narrative with clear lead characters. She refused. And so she should have done. Unlike The Headless Woman, which does have a (relatively) straightforward narrative, but – and this is what makes that film so good – it then begins to unravel its own story, until not only the characters but also the viewer begisn to doubt what has actually happened… Unlike that movie, La Ciénaga has no real plot or story. Things happen. And, er, that’s it. There’s no forward momentum. A family have escaped the humid weather in the city by removing themselves to their country house. The mother slips and bashes her head at the side of the pool. She takes to her bed, while her children run riot. The servants take liberties, and she accuses one of theft. Her sister visits with her own children. Martel has made four feature films to date and she really is very good. In fact, Argentina has produced some excellent films by female directors. Lucía Puenzo is another name from the country to watch. It’s not just Argentina – there’s also Claudia Llosa from Peru. And no doubt others from other South or Central American countries I’ve yet to stumble across. The more I see of the cinema of the continent – and it’s not just recent films, but also older ones, such as those by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, of whom I’m a fan – the ‘more I want to explore it. I guess my rental list will be expanding a bit over the next few weeks…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908


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Moving pictures 2017, #42

More hop-skip-and-jumping about the world through movies, including my first Mongolian one.  Only a single film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however, and it’s a Hollywood one, albeit from the 1940s. Noir, too.

Three Strange Loves, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This is the second of a batch of Bergman DVDs I bought recently. It is, like many, perhaps most, of Bergman’s films, about marriage. In this one, Rut and Bertil are heading back to Sweden by train after visiting Italy. There are lots of flashbacks, recalling Rut’s affair with an army officer, who is probably the only character in a Bergman film to boast a moustache, and Bertil’s affair with a widow. The army officer forces Rut to have an abortion; the widow is in thrall to a sadistic psychiatrist, and then commits suicide. Perhaps Bermgan should have titled this one To Joy as well. Eventually, Bertil kills Rut during a fight… but it was only a dream. Scared by the dream, the two decide to try and save their marriage. I don’t actually remember much from this film – it was over a week ago I watched it – except one scene where Bertil and Rut’s train pulls into a station, and the train in the next track is travelling from Sweden, and the couple in the compartment alongside theirs is… the military officer and his wife. Which is just a little too coincidental to be believable. The film’s original title is Törst, which means “thirst”. Three Strange Loves, on the other hand, is a weirdly literal title, something for which Bergman’s films are, frankly, not known.

Joy, Chinguun Balkhjav (2016, Mongolia). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has, to be fair, on rare occasions thrown up some excellent new films from out-of-the-way places. Despite having found Ingmar Bergman’s To Joy (see here) far from joyful, I thought it worth chancing a movie with “joy” in the title – as the title, in fact – because I wanted to watch a film from Mongolia… And, what a surprise, it proved to be a complete downer as well. The film opens in the present, with a young woman called Az deciding it is time to return to her home village to lay some ghosts. The film slips in and out of the present and Az’s childhood, as it tells her story. Her father and mother were very happy, but then her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. Her father goes into business with a friend, selling local dairy products in the nearest town (which is several hours away from the village). But then he’s killed in an accident on a return trip. The family helping to look after the two young daughters delay telling Az, so she runs away to the town with her sister, to look for her father. While wandering around, they’re taken in by a man, who feeds them and puts them up – but Az leaves her sister in his care, while she continues to search. When she returns days later, the man has gone, and Az’s sister with him… (There’s nothing iffy here, he was simply being kind-hearted but knew nothing about the kids, as Az had not given her, or her sister’s, name.) Joy somehow manages to claw back a happy ending, which is quite an achievement given the litany of woe preceding it. Nevertheless, worth seeing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice*, Tay Garnett (1946, USA). This is another of the classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it more deserving of its place than the last one I watched, Kiss Me Deadly (see here). John Garfield plays a drifter who ends up at a diner on the outskirts of LA, working as a short-order cook – not because he wants to settle down, or because the job is especially well-paid, but because the owner’s much younger wife is Lana Turner. It doesn’t take long before the two are doing the rumpy-pumpy behind the husband’s back. Garfield persuades Turner to run away with him, but they don’t get very far. So they plot to kill the husband – which becomes urgent when the husband reveals he is going to sell the diner, and move to northern Canada to look after his paralysed sister. Unfortunately, the lovers’ first attempt – knocking the husband out when he’s having a shower, fails after a cat jumps on exposed wiring and shorts the electricity (probably the least plausible bit of the entire film). A later attempt, faking a car accident by pushing the car over a cliff, does the trick. The local DA suspects the two of murder, but cannot prove it. Shortly afterwards, Garfield and Turner are in  a car accident (not a staged one). Garfield survives; Turner doesn’t. And he’s promptly charged, and found guilty, of her murder. The film ends with him on Death Row, which is where the title comes in – and it’s a pretty tenuous justification for it, but never mind. I quite liked this one. The two leads were good, the plot did not rely on people behaving weirdly or unbelievable coincidences, and the whole was told with an economy that many films would do well to emulate.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach (2006, Ireland). It’s a toss-up which was more entertaining: this film, or the reviews of it I looked at afterwards. Because The Wind that Shakes the Barley is about the the Irish War of Independence, and the English behaved like monsters during it. And it’s a Ken Loach film, and only an idiot would watch a Loach film not expecting it to take a political position. Which led to a lot of complaints the film was “anti-Brit”. Which means, what exactly? “My country, right or wrong”? Because that’s pernicious bullshit. Especially given the current foolishness about the British Empire – no, it was not a good thing, it pillaged and subjugated sovereign nations and that is never defensible; and no, it won’t suddenly spring into being in some woke form post-Brexit, not that those who think the empire was a good thing even fucking know what “woke” means, or even how to be progessive… But that’s a rant for another day. The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers, but mainly the one played by Cilian Murphy, who join the Irish Republican Army and end up fighting the Black and Tans and the Auxies, both of which groups, composed of WWI veterans desperate for work recruited in mainland UK, committed a series of atrocities against Irish civilians throughout the war. None of this is defensible – not their actions, nor their aim. So if the film comes across as anti-Brit, it’s perfectly justified. True, the film shows the war from the point of view of those who fought it, and suffered most during it, and the politicians behind the scenes were trying to desperately hard to reach a peaceful solution that kept most people happy. Well, except perhaps for Winston Churchill, who is such a hero in the UK he’s on the new £5 note, and yet he invented the Black and Tans, and many of his decisions throughout his career would have branded him a war criminal had they taken place in later decades of the twentieth century. Plus, he was establishment through and through. But, The Wind that Shakes the Barley… not the best Loach film I’ve seen so far – I thought Land and Freedom better, to be honest – but still worth seeing. Especially by people who think the British Empire was a good thing.

The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel (2008, Argentina). And here’s another film that many critics apparently had trouble with. The plot is relatively straightforward. A woman driving home from a friend’s hits something with her car. She stops, but doesn’t go and see what it was, seemingly in shock. Instead, she drives to hospital and has herself X-rayed. She spends a night in a nearby hotel. Then she carries on with her life as if nothing had happened. Her husband tries to persuade she must have run over a dog, but she suspects it may have been a child. Later, she visits the hospital, but they have no record of her being X-rayed. Nor does the hotel have her name down as a guest. There is no link between her and whatever happened on the road. However, what makes this film interesting, and which apparently turned off some critics, is that Martel chose not to film it as a fast-paced thriller, but as a slow, mostly plotless, drama, focusing chiefly on the main character’s daily life, with a small mystery wrapped around it. I actually think this approach made it a better movie. It made the opening incident more of a mystery, and the fact it was left unresolved only made it more interesting. The resolutely domestic focus of the film also made its mystery more intriguing. A good film, worth seeing.

Mai Mai Miracle, Sunao Katabuchi (2009, Japan). I pulled this out of the rental envelope, took one look at it, and immediately texted David Tallerman to ask if he’d stuck it on my rental list the last time we were at the pub. Because, while I like anime, I prefer the more realistic style, and the cartoon-ish-looking kids on the cover art of this DVD would not have prompted me to add it to my list myself. And then the film opened with a young girl in a field trying to imagine what the countryside looked like a thousand years before as her grandfather describes it to her, with that sort of over-compensating US schoolkid voice-over that cheerily and breezily explains the girl’s situation anf family… Oh, and the music on the soundtrack was really irritating… So I wasn’t all that impressed. But as I watched it, I found it growing on me. The central conceit – the little girl, Shinko, can see the past, ie, the area as it was 1000 years before, when it was the site of the capital of the province of Suō – didn’t really appeal, but once the film began to focus on Shinko’s friends, and her adventures with them, such as Kiiko, the new girl who’d just moved from the city, or the pond Shinko and her friends build for a goldfish… well, then, things started to really improve. David later admitted he’d thought I might enjoy the film because it resembled Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, which is probably my favourite Ghibli… And yes, there are resemblances. But the things I like about Only Yesterday aren’t in Mai Mai Miracle, so it’s no surprise it took me a while to get into the film. There’s an earnestness to it that I find a bit off-putting, a sort of pushiness to the childhood it depicts… but that disappears within the first half hour and, if anything, the film gets pretty grim toward the end. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 877