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Moving pictures 2017, #33

One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which, to be honest, I didn’t much like, a rewatch (after many years), another strange Indian film, I finally cracked open the BBC Shakespeare Collection I bought a couple of years ago, and a pair of dramas, one made in 1970 and one set in 1970…

Buffalo 66*, Vincent Gallo (1998, USA). There are many puzzling films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is, their presence is puzzling, not the film itself, such as all the ones by Woody Allen… but you can add this one to that not-so-select group too. An indie film directed by and starring Vincent Gallo, with a feeble plot, and featuring a central character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It’s also supposed to be set, I think, in the early 1980s, although it’s hard to tell, and the soundtrack contains some 1970s UK prog rock anyway so who knows. Gallo has just been released from prison, and goes to visit his parents. Except he’s been lying to them for years, about his incarceration, even about his relationship status. So he kidnaps Christina Ricci and demands she impersonate his invented girlfriend. Which she does, for not-actually-discernible reasons, and does it a bit too well for Gallo’s liking. The title is apparently a reference to an American Football game in 1966 or something, as if anyone outside the US either knows or gives a shit about the country’s dumb sports. I really couldn’t see why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – there were a couple of nice-looking scenes, and I actually like 1970s UK prog rock so I  enjoyed hearing the music. But… Buffalo 66 might be an above-average example of its type, but it’s eminently forgettable and doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Duvidha, Mani Kaul (1973, India). Uski Roti (see here) was Kaul’s first film; Duvidha was his third movie. I’m not really sure what to make of them – well, the two I’ve seen so far. I have watched Bollywood, I have watched parallel cinema. I like both, but I love the films of Ritwik Ghatak. And yet Kaul is nothing like either. If anything, he’s more consciously in the tradition of European art-house cinema, but without seeming to settle on a particular style. True, this is after seeing only two of the films on this DVD, but I’ve seen a lot of European art house films, and Kaul’s pacing reminds me of Béla Tarr (although he predates him), and some of his staging reminds me of Sergei Parajanov, and his use of voice-over and dialogue feels more Russian than Indian… In other words, Kaul presents a singular vision, not just in Indian cinema, but internationally… and I’m still trying t work out how much I like it. Duvidha at least boasts a more straightforward narrative than Uski Roti – a young couple marry, and the husband heads off to a distant town for five years to make his fortune… But a ghost in a nearby banyan tree learns of the husband’s plan, and so impersonates him and returns to the wife and takes the husband’s place. It’s based on a story by Vijayadan Detha, which was in turn based on a Rajasthani folk tale. Unlike the previous film, this one is shot in colour, but I can’t tell if the slightly washed-out palette is deliberate or a consequence of the transfer. The framing, however, is obviously down entirely to Kaul, and he shows a considerable amount of inventiveness in placing his camera and framing his shots. The pacing is once again slow, and the story is told through a mixture of voice-over and looped dialogue. There’s a bleakness to the landscapes depicted, something also notable in Uski Roti, but more visible here because the film is in colour. Clearly Kaul deserves his accolades and reputation, but I think I need to watch more of his films – or the ones I have a few more times – before I can get a real handle on his work.

Blind Chance, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1987, Poland). I last watched this over a decade ago – I had a DVD copy of it, which I gave away when I bought the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Blu-ray box sets – and sort of remembered the story when I sat down to rewatch it. You know, the plot… the guy who catches a train, and his life goes one way… but then he doesn’t catch it and his life goes another way… twice. Sort of like Sliding Doors. But Polish. And political. And not a rom com. And without that annoying John Hannah chap. It’s clearly early Kieślowski, with its television staging and heated political arguments. This impression is hardly lessened by the second of the three “alternates”, in which the protagonist fails to make the train, attacks a station official and is arrested… and so ends up in the Polish prison system and becomes a dissident. I’ve seen pretty much everything Kieślowski made – Artificial Eye released most of them on DVD around a decade or so ago – and the one I remember most fondly is No End. Having now rewatched the Three Colours trilogy, after replacing my DVD copies with Blu-rays, I approached this rewatch of Blind Chance with mixed feelings. I’d remembered the basic plot… but I’d forgotten quite dull most of it is. At the time I first watched Blind Chance, I’d not seen much Polish cinema, so the political element of the story I found fascinating. But I’ve since lots of Polish films, and I’m a little better informed on the country’s political history… It’s a bit like… I’m currently reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, and it sometimes seems like its reputation rests on the fact it portrayed life in the USSR as some sort of blackly comic farce… and yet that has always been my impression of the Soviet Union. It is books like Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty that are really eye-opening about the USSR. And so Blind Chance – despite its tripartite structure, it doesn’t seem to offer any particular insight, or especially interesting commentary, on the Polish regime of the 1970s and early 1980s. Wajda’s Man of Marble and Man of Iron seem, to me, to make their point with much more bite than Blind Chance, although the latter is certainly the cleverer script. I don’t know; I found this rewatch of Blind Chance somewhat disappointing, much as I had the Three Colours rewatch.

Coriolanus, Elijah Moshinsky (1984, UK). I’d been renting DVDs from this box set, but then decided to go and buy so I could watch them at my own pace… so, of course, it’s taken me 18 months to crack open the box set and start watching it. I did rewatch The Comedy of Errors before watching Coriolanus – you know, the one with Michael Kitchen and Roger Daltry playing a pair of twins, both of which have the same names (as if), leading to all sorts of mistaken identity merry japes. Coriolanus stars Alan Howard in the title role, a Roman general who reluctantly stands for consul in Rome, and wins. But that pisses off the political classes, and Coriolanus blames it all on the plebians, whom he holds in great contempt. This is not the most edifying of Shakespeare’s plays – kof kof, of the ones I’ve seen; although to be fair there’s few enough of them that qualify as “edifying”. Coriolanus is apparently a tragedy, and not a historical play, although I don’t understand the distinction as surely Roman times were considered historical even in Shakespeare’s day? I mostly remember it as a lot of standing around pontificating in front of “crowds” of a dozen or so people, several after-the-battle scenes, and lot of Coriolanus feeling sorry for himself. Meh.

Say Hello to Yesterday, Alvin Rakoff (1970, UK). I think I saw a trailer for this on another rental DVD, and so stuck it on my list. Jean Simmons plays a suburban wife, who travels in to London one day on the train and comes to the attention of flighty young man Leonard Whiting. He badgers her incessantly, on the train and once she has arrived in London. Eventually, she succumbs. They end up in bed in a cheap hotel. He professes his undying love; she is more pragmatic. This is hardly a unique or insightful story, but it is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of its time. Okay, so I don’t actually remember 1970, but I do remember 1975 – and not a great deal had changed in terms of, well, the sort of things that would concern a production designer, during those five years. Everyone drives Minis, everywhere looks grubby, the whole aesthetic is just so naturally early 1970s it’s clearly unforced. Whiting is hugely annoying, but Simmons is good; but it’s the look and feel of the film where it truly scores. Though you can’t tell it from the film, it’s obvious the hotel sheets are drip-dry nylon. It’s that kind of movie. I tweeted while watching it that silver birches seem to embody the 1970s style of utopia for me. They’re there in Fahrenheit 451, and they feel almost emblematic of the sort of utopian, or comfortable, lifestyle the 1970s considered futuristic. For me, they’re a science-fictional tree.

The Commune, Thomas Vinterberg (2016, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen was the first film made following the Dogme 95 rules, and it’s a bona fide classic film. But he also made the bafflingly crap It’s All About Love. And the very good The Hunt. And, well, they were the only films by him I’d seen prior to watching The Commune. But I knew he was a name worth watching, so I bunged The Commune on the rental list – and I should really add a few more. In Copenhagen in 1970, a successful couple want to move into the large house in which the husband grew up, but they can’t afford the rent on their own (even though the wife works as a newsreader on television). So they invite friends of similar political leanings to share the house as a commune. They advertise to fill up the last few places. Unfortunately, the original couple’s marriage disintegrates – he’s a university lecturer and falls in love with student – and this causes problems in the house. This is not a Dogme 95 film, not judging by the lighting at least. And the plot is pretty much a lit fic staple – college professor sleeps with student, starts to question his marriage, it falls apart… except the girlfriend joins the commune, and the wife stays, and it’s all pretty obviously uncomfortable. Or helped by the rest of the commune, who are all the sort of earnestly progressive types more likely to get bogged down in trivia than actual worthwhile causes. A watchable film, better made than most, but not a great film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 870


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Moving pictures 2017, #32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 869