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Moving pictures, #15

For the forseeable future, this blog will likely contain more posts about films than books – if only because I watch more films than I read books (it being a time thing, and a bad-organisation-of-time thing – although I remain committed to books as my favourite transport vector for culture). Anyway, I’ve got behind on these Moving pictures posts so I need to catch up a bit. So there might be a few of these in quick succession, beginning with…

ragnatokGåten Ragnarok, Mikael Brænne Sandemose (2013, Norway). On Amazon Prime, this looked like some terrible Viking-themed action movie, so I’ve know idea why I bothered watching it (particularly given its English retitling… Ragnarok – The Viking Apocalypse). Happily, it proved to be anything but. Maybe it was just the fact it was Scandinavian. Anyway, an archaeologist in Norway believes a tribe of Vikings travelled to the far north of the country and the legend of Ragnarok was a consequence of their trip. But he has no real proof. But then an assistant, sent north to Finnmark, returns with a piece of stone on which some runes have been carved… and despite having no museum backing, the archaeologist sets off to find more evidence for his pet theory, taking his two kids along with him (he’s widowed, and his late wife did much of the work toward the theory). They find a remote lake, and centred in it a small island which contains Viking artefacts… because a bunch of them went there and were slaughtered by… a monster. This was actually pretty good – perhaps not up there with Troll Hunter, but nonetheless and interesting mix of Norse mythology and modern monster movie. Worth seeing.

masqueThe Masque Of The Red Death*, Roger Corman (1964, USA). I admit it, one or two of the films produced by Corman’s New World Pictures are among my favourites. This is not one of them, It is, in fact, precisely the sort of film you’d expect Corman and American International Pictures to churn out. Based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, it’s little more than a US version of a Hammer Horror film, right down to the kitschy lead, the over-colourful production design, and the terrible over-acting. And perhaps it’s weirdly parochial of me, but I’ve always preferred it when Brits do it. Vincent Price plays your typical evil lordling, who discovers evidence of the titular plague on his land, and so offers his castle as a sanctuary to neighbouring nobility, who duly turn up, behave like everyone’s favourite cliché of decadent aristocracy, before themselves succumbing to the “red death”. It tries for the colour of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, but falls well short; I suspect that’s the only area in which it tried for anything. The louring mediaeval feudalism was done better, and earlier, by Mario Bava in 1960’s Black Sunday, and the effete nobles partying away the end days has been done better in several Hammer films. I have no idea with this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but if they had to absolutely pick one from American International Pictures’ catalogue, then why not Queen Of Blood from 1966, or, from Corman’s own New World Pictures, 1981’s Galaxy of Terror?

satyriconFellini Satyricon*, Federico Fellini (1969, Italy). I have a somewhat conflicted view of many of the great directors whose films I have watched – and there’s no denying Fellini is one of them – inasmuch as I love some of their films but can see little of note in their others. I do love Fellini’s but a lot of his others films have felt all a bit meh. And Fellini Satyricon seemed to be going the same way when I first started watching it – it felt like a weird cross between Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio and the sword-and-sandal epic Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (which are apparently also called “peplum fantasies”, as I learned from Aliette de Bodard; a phrase new to me). Anyway, so the film initially looked like Caravaggio… and then it put to sea in the most bizarre ships ever designed and I decided, for no good reason, that I actually really loved this film. And that, I suspect, is the mark of a movie that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. The more I watched it, the more I wanted my own copy of Fellini Satyricon, preferably a nice high-rez Blu-ray version with lots of features. I still have no idea why I went from not liking it to thinking it was a work of genius, but the only way to discover that is to own and rewatch it. It was self-indulgent and over-the-top, but it was also, as it progressed, increasingly beautifully shot and weirdly fascinating.

sorrowThe Sorrow and the Pity*, Marcel Ophüls (1969, France). Some films, it’s easy to see why they made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, even if they don’t seem of sufficient quality, or historical importance, to be there. But The Sorrow and the Pity is historically important, and its presence on the list is pretty much incontestable… even if I found it somewhat dull and uninteresting. It covers the Occupation of France during WWII, first from the point of view of those who fought against the Nazis, and then from those who fought with the Nazis. So it essentially consists of series of talking heads. It was banned from TV broadcast in France, and wasn’t shown until 1981. I can understand how defeat and collaboration are seen as nationally shameful, but I’d have thought it more shameful for  politicians, and the press, to be spouting the same rhetoric as the Nazis, as they seem to be doing in the twenty-first century. And with films like this one around you’d think they’d know better. But, as they say, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it – and those who do are doomed to suffer as the others repeat it.

chariotsChariots of Fire*, Hugh Hudson (1981, UK). Everyone knows the theme tune, right? By Vangelis? I mean, it doesn’t sound at all appropriate for the 1920s, which is when this film is set, but it’s pretty damn memorable. Unlike the actual movie. Which purports to tell the story of the rivalry between Bible-bashing Calivinist Eric Liddle and upper-crust Jew Harold Abrahams, both runners who competed in the 1924 Olympic Games. It takes a few liberties, apparently, in pursuit of drama, as the silver screen is wont to do – particularly in regard to Liddell’s refusal to run at the Olympics on a Sunday. In the film, he learns on his way to Paris that the race is scheduled for a Sunday, but in reality he knew months beforehand and the British Olympic Committee had made plain their unhappiness about it. Having said all that, my overriding memory of the film is of a bunch of over-entitled toffs at Oxford or Cambridge (they’re interchangeable, after all) – as if that were in any way representative of the UK at that time (but hey, our current lords and masters are working hard to return us to those days of an over-privileged elite living off the backs of a working class trapped below the poverty line in slums). A boring film, and if the makers of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list were determined to include some British movies, they could have picked far better than this.

babetteBabette’s Feast*, Gabriel Axel (1987, Denmark). Three pieces of fiction by Karen Blixen (AKA Isak Dinesen) have been made into films, which is not a bad record. Out Of Africa, of course, everyone knows. The Immortal Story by Orson Welles is perhaps less well-known (and Blixen’s novella is superior to Welles’s movie). But Babette’s Feast is reasonably well-known, as is the fact it’s based on something by Blixen. At least, I think it’s reasonably well-known. And while it’s not the best novella from the collection in which it appears – that would be, for me, ‘The Tempest’ – it’s a good story and worth filming. I suspect I may have in the past avoided the film under the mistaken impression it involves a feast much like that in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover. It doesn’t. Amusingly, the story is set in Norway but was filmed in Denmark, because the Norwegian village in the story didn’t look dour and miserable enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 744


Moving pictures, #22

More films. No excuses or explanations. Deal with it. Or not.

captain_bloodCaptain Blood*, Michael Curtiz (1935, USA). An odd film, this. It starts out very German Expressionist, as Doctor Blood (Errol Flynn), is called out in the middle of the night to see to a wounded man. Who happens to be a rebel. So Blood is captured and sentenced to death, which is then commuted to slavery in the Caribbean. But he’s such a smiley charismatic bloke that even as a slave he gets it easy – medical skills help, of course, as does getting sassy with governor’s daughter, Olivia de Havilland. And then he escapes when the French attack, becomes the titular character, and plays the buccaneer against both English and French ships. All this part of the film is, of course, pure Hollywood. Flynn was much better a couple of years later, and in colour, as Robin Hood, although I don’t think he ever lost that shit-eating grin of his. I’m not entirely sure how Captain Blood qualifies for the 1001 Films list – perhaps it’s a seminal work or something, but had it stayed German Expressionist throughout, and less bloody clichéd, it might have been a much more interesting movie.

woman_influenceA Woman Under the Influence*, John Cassavetes (1974, USA). Some films are interesting because of how they were made rather than because of the footage that eventually appears on the screen. This one, for example, was such a difficult sell that Cassavetes ended up financing it himself, with the help of friends (including Peter Falk, who stars as the eponymous woman’s husband). And then he lucked out into a distribution deal, and the film went on to become a favourite of critics and cult film fans. So all’s well that ends well. The film stars Cassavetes’s wife of the time, Gena Rowlands, as a blue-collar mother who begins act increasingly strangely, so much so her husband has her committed. While she is being treated, he must cope with their three children, and learns it’s not as easy as he had imagined. When his wife is released, she’s clearly not been cured, but they decide to continue together anyway. When an industry has been churning out product for decades that is not only artificial but actually revels in that artificiality, as Hollywood does, I can understand why stripping things back to something closer to real life might appeal to many. But we have that here in the UK in our soaps – Coronation Street and Eastenders are not brainless glossy sagas of rich and powerful families like US soaps such as The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara. Kitchen-sink drama is popular entertainment here and has been for a long time, it doesn’t exist only in the theatres. All of which maybe an entirely unfair characterisation of Cassavetes’s work, but at least explains why I can’t celebrate blue-collar/working-class drama simply for the fact of existing – and I’ve yet to see anything in Cassavetes’s films so far which, for me, lift them above that. Still, he has four movies on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve only seen three of them to date, so who knows…

man_escapedA Man Escaped*, Robert Bresson (1956, France). There are a number of movies by Bresson on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve now watched a few of them. But I’m not sure I fully understand the appeal. He seems to like having his leads play their roles completely deadpan, almost expressionless, and it makes it hard to clue into how you’re meant to read their stories. In this one, a young man, a member of the French Resistance, is arrested by the Germans and taken to Montluc Prison. The film then follows the man as he settles into the prison routine and then plots to escape before he is executed by the Gestapo. Which he eventually does. That’s it. The plot. Wikipedia says, “The film is sometimes considered Bresson’s masterpiece”, which is an odd way to put it – it is sometimes, but at other times it’s not? It might well be Bresson’s masterpiece, although I would find it hard to judge, given that of the thirteen feature films Bresson made, I’ve only seen four  – and just now when checking how many, I learnt I’d seen Pickpocket twice… and had completely forgotten that first viewing. Which I suppose tells you as much as you need to know.

dontbothertoknockDon’t Bother to Knock, Cyril Frankel (1961, UK). A fluffy rom com which trades a little too much on star Richard Todd’s on-screen appeal. He plays a travel agent in Edinburgh with an eye for the ladies, which he shamelessly indulges while travelling about Europe checking out destinations for his company. The actual assignations are slyly hinted at but never explicitly described. After the trip, he returns home to his flat, and then a succession of people turn up, with keys he had given them, hoping to stay. His long-time girlfriend, naturally, is none too impressed. But it all works out in the end, because the visitors aren’t really after Todd – well, except for French femme fatale Nicole Maury, and she’s not really serious about it – in fact, she’d sooner Todd and his girlfriend patched things up. One of those slight but charmingly daft rom coms set in a world – despite its age – you don’t actually recognise or believe ever really existed.

hotel_terminusHôtel Terminus*, Marcel Ophüls (1988, France). As is clear from the DVD cover, this documentary is about Nazi Klaus Barbie and his (eventual) trial. Barbie spent much of WWII as the head of Gestapo in Lyons, where he beat, tortured and murdered locals because, well, Gestapo. After the war, he was recruited by the US intelligence services, those bastions of morality, where he instructed them in interrogation techniques and helped in the fight against the dastardly Reds. (As they were fond of saying about the Space Race, the Americans’ Germans were better than the Soviets’ Germans – but what they actually meant was, the Americans’ Nazis were better than the Soviets’ Nazis. Let’s be honest here: principles are the first things to be abandoned when there’s an end in sight. That’s what “expediency” means, after all. Ahem, digression over.) Barbie was a monster – a not unique state of affairs among the Nazis – and lived free and clear for forty years before the French managed to get him extradited from Bolivia in 1983 after a) a change of government, and b) Barbie’s involvement in an earlier military coup. If it’s a truism that the winning side of a war get to pick and choose what are defined as war crimes, and who is charged with them, then Barbie was living proof that principle was worth about as much as a politician’s sworn promise. Barbie should have been in prison serving a sentence for war crimes from 1945, not 1987. Ophüls’s documentary makes a somewhat confused case against Barbie, but it certainly reveals enough of his activities – and the US government’s complicity – to disgust anyone with an ounce of sense. To his credit, Ophüls tries to present a balanced argument, even door-stoppping several interviewees, much as Michael Moore does, and making them look foolish if not complicit. Definitely worth seeing.

hauntingThe Haunting*, Robert Wise (1963, UK). I found this in a local charity shop. It’s not a film I’d normally bother watching, but 1001 Movies list. I mean, I’m a bit squeamish and I really can’t watch all those torture porn franchises like Saw and Hostel and so on. Many years ago, a friend lent me several seasons of The X-Files on DVD and over a period of several months I watched two to three episodes a night. I was paranoid as fuck for a month or two afterwards. Anyway, The Haunting… which is a cult horror film from fifty years ago, and which was apparently a bit of a flop on release but has subsequently been re-evaluated and found very good indeed. It’s based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and was shot in the UK – but set in the US, with British actors putting on bad American accents – because no US studio would finance it. The end result is a peculiar film that manages its scares effectively, presents a group of interesting characters – including the first openly lesbian character in a mainstream feature film – but never really convinces in terms of setting (it feels too British to be American, in other words). I wasn’t expecting much of The Haunting and was pleasantly surprised by how it went. I think I’ll be hanging onto the DVD to watch it again. I didn’t think it was great, but I think it deserves another watch or two before I form a final opinion. Which certainly puts it ahead of many films I’ve seen on the 1001 Movies list.

viyViy*, Konstanin Ershov & Georgi Kropyachov (1967, USSR). I have seen Ruscico films before, I even have a couple in my own DVD collection. And I think they’re very good, an excellent resource. Viy was a film completely new to me, though I’ve browsed the Ruscico site countless times this one had passed me by… until I spotted it on the 1001 Movies list. It was, apparently, made by a group of students from a film school and is generally considered to be the first horror film released in the USSR. The plot is deceptively simple, well, not really deceptively. A seminary student encounters a witch but escapes. Soon after he is asked to sit vigil for three nights with the dead daughter of a local grandee. Each night, the dead young woman comes back to life and tries to kill him, but he is protected by the holy circle he has drawn about himself. On the final night, she revelas herself as the witch of earlier and calls all the monsters of hell to her aid. It’s all a bit too silly to be proper scary or horrifying, but it’s effectively done all the same, especially for the time. The humour is a bit broad-brush, and though the special effects are crude, they’re ingeniously done and more than suffice. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 621