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Moving pictures 2018, #47

It would appear I’m still watching Marx Brothers films, although my defence is the one below was already on my rental list and I’ve, er, not bothered to purge the list of their films. And I might as well watch the most famous ones, after all. Other than that, this post is fifty percent a UK-fest. I found a whole bunch of old British films on Amazon Prime – totally by accident, of course, because hey Amazon! Your search facility sucks donkey balls totally!

Otherwise, the usual mixed bag. Oh, and a really good Swedish film.

A Night at the Opera*, Sam Wood (1935, USA). Is this film famous on its own merits or because Queen used its title for the title of one of its best-selling albums? Is there any way to find out? Hollywood has a habit of over-stating its influence, so watch an old documentary that claims the Marx Brothers were massively influential and it’s more likely to be Hollywood bullshit than anything else. All part of the marketing machine. Because, in most respects, A Night at the Opera is not much different to earlier Marx Brothers films. The brothers play similar roles, this time centred around an opera company, which Groucho is hoping to use as a vehicle to defraud the fifth Marx Brother, Margaret Dumont, out of her fortune (seriously, she’s the best thing in these films). However, the final act, in which Harpo is chased around the theatre, and uses various tricks to escape capture is among the best physical comedy the Marx Brothers have put on film (that I’ve seen). I think you have to be a fan to truly appreciate these films, but I can understand why this one is held in higher regard than most of the others.

Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava (1970, Italy). So there was a sale on the Arrow website and a whole bunch of Blu-rays were going for £7 a pop, and this one was one of them… And while I do like me some giallo, I’m a bit picky about the ones I  like and Mario Bava is hardly top of my list of giallo directors to watch even though I’ve seen several of his films… But you know how it is, finger slipped and all that, and I ended up with a copy of Five Dolls for a August Moon, which title conjures up much that sounds giallo but is not all that actually descriptive of the movie’s plot. However, it does have a great jazz rock score. Giallo films are generally quite good on soundtracks, but this is a superior example. Which, sadly, cannot be said of its plot. Five rich men meet on an island, with wives and partners, ostensibly to buy a formula from one of them, but he refuses to sell. Then people are murdered one by one. So it goes. Each of them tries to figure out who the killer is, but none of the clues add up. It’s all very 1970s, with the women in floaty pantsuits, the men in flares, suede and sideburns. Meh.

Mute, Duncan Jones (2018, UK). Gosh, this was bad. A Poundland Blade Runner married to a plot straight from some horribly regressive 1970s action movie. Women are routinely brutalised, one character is a paedophile and it’s only offensive when the plot requires it to be, and another character is taunted with being gay. Hey, Jones, it’s 2018, shit like that doesn’t fly anymore. What makes it worse is that Mute is, by all accounts, a personal project, one that Jones spent years trying to get funded. And that’s fair enough, there are many projects that take decades to get funded. But they should be revisited when the finance is in place to make sure they’re appropriate for their year of release. It would seem Mute was not. The title refers to a man who was injured as a kid and so can no longer speak. He works in a nightclub, and is very protective of one of the hostesses (I didn’t think they were in a relationship at first). Which gets him into a fight with a customer who gets a bit too friendly with her. So she’s fired. Then she disappears. He goes looking for her. There are also a pair of underground surgeons and some gangsters and a brothel and… Sigh. It’s all like something from the 1970s, and setting it in a Berlin of the near-future only underscores how anachronistic it all is. Avoid.

Passport to Pimlico, Henry Cornelius (1949, UK). This was one of the films I discovered on Amazon Prime, although the quality of the transfer was pretty bad. It’s one of the classic Ealing comedies, and while I’ve seen a number of them over the years, I seem to have missed seeing this one. Until now, that is. A treasure trove is found in Pimlico, and among all the gold is an ancient document which declares Pimlico had been given to the Duke of Burgundy centuries before. So, in order to hang onto the treasure, Pimlico declares its independence, and makes the young descendant of the Duke of Burgundy (which no longer exists, of course), their head of state. The British government isn’t happy about this state of affairs. So they put up barbed wire and try to starve out the “Burgundians”. But the rest of London thinks it’s all marvellous, and sends them food (there’s a good scene where they’re actually throwing items of food over the barbed wire). At that time, Pimlico was still pretty much a bomb-site, so you can understand why its inhabitants are reluctant to give up their treasure. Although it’s a comedy, Passport to Pimlico is a bit more barbed than just a comic story. The plucky Londoner bit is all somewhat self-congratulatory having survived the Blitz, but that’s pretty much baked into Londoners’ character, and for all the deprivations visible in Pimlico – rationing was still in place in 1949 – it doesn’t seem to prevent the food parcels. (A man with a barrow full of oranges even turns up at one point – were they available again by then?). Much as I enjoyed Passport to Pimlico, I think the other Ealing comedies I’ve seen were better.

Nineteen Eighty-four, Rudolph Cartier (1954, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime too, and it also was a poor quality transfer, but not so bad it was unwatchable. Winston Smith is played by Peter Cushing, in one of his first major roles, if not his first. Donald Pleasance appears as Symes. There are also several familiar faces in smaller parts. It pretty much follows the book. The production design, as you’d expect of 1950s BBC, is pretty much all sets, clean and unadorned when it’s in a ministry office, but like something out of Steptoe & Son when it’s a prole’s home. Given it was made only six years after the book was published, and less than a decade after the end of WWII, it’s no surprise the few outside scenes show a devastated London (but then it would be several decades before the last of the bomb damage disappeared), which, sadly, suits the story. But hey, just wait for 2084. After 66 years of Brexit. Maybe there won’t be a war, just 66 years of enforced neglect (outside the Foxconn enclaves, that is). It’s hard what to know what to make of Orwell’s classic these days, it’s like someone strafed it with a machine-gun firing irony bullets. Although it does render the central love-story a bit, well, banal. Ah well.

Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). I found this on Cinema Paradiso’s website and added it to my rental list because it sounded interesting. Three fourteen-year-old girls, Bella, Momo and Kim, are being horribly bullied at school. Bella is assaulted. The three are sent a strange seed through the post. They plant it and it grows overnight into a weird black flower. They drink some of its nectar and wake up as boys. The first time, it goes well – they’re welcomed into a pick-up game of football. No one recognises them. They’re invited to a party a few nights later – but they have to bring the beer. Of course, after that it doesn’t go so well. These things never do. Kim falls in with the local bad boy and joins him when he burgles a workshop, and of course fancies him. The girls’ transformations give them the confidence to stand up to their bullies at school, but Kim loves being male much more than Momo or Bella, and even thinks she might be trans. I had almost zero expectations when I slid this into the player – an indie Swedish/Finnish co-production, with a young and unknown cast… But I thought it excellent. The cast are very good indeed – and cleverly chosen so the male and female versions resemble each other. The friendship between the three girls is drawn really well, although some of the scenes where they stand up for themselves at school seem a bit too easy. The bullying, however, is far from subtle, and hard to take. One final point: I don’t normally mention soundtracks unless they’re a feature of the story. But one of the songs in Girls Lost – it plays a couple of times, but most noticeably during the film’s final few minutes – I thought very atmospheric. It was ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ by Fever Ray. Anyway, Girls Lost: recommended. It might well make my best of the year.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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Moving pictures 2018, #46

I like it when there are six movies and six different countries. And one of the movies is from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. True, one of the films below is by a director I’ve been a fan of for many years – that’s Kaurismäki – and for reasons that still escape me I’ve been working my way through the Marx brothers films… but the others were completely new to me.

Horse Feathers, Norman McLeod (1932, USA). After moaning in my last Moving pictures post that I no longer understand why I continue to watch the Marx Brothers, my excuse for Horse Feathers is that was on the same rental disc as Monkey Business… although I can think of no good excuse for, a week later, watching A Night at the Opera (although, to be fair, it is a better film than these early ones). Anyway, Horse Feathers is about… er, a college (ie, university) with a shit football (ie, American Football) team, which always loses, and the Marx Brothers con themselves into positions of power at the college and then hire pro players for their team, all so they can beat a rival college. I can’t remember any especially amusing scenes from this film, only an overriding memory of feeling sorry for Zeppo for having to play the all-American clean-cut college-boy hero. Groucho wise-cracks (often not very funny), Harpo is creepy as fuck, and Chico, embarrassingly, plays a comedy Latino but delivers the best lines. The Marx Brothers comedy has not aged as well as some of their contemporaries.

The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismäki (2017, Finland). I already had everything in this new Blu-ray box set except The Other Side of Hope (and The Man Without a Past, which I’d already seen), but Kaurismäki is definitely worth upgrading from DVD. So I did. And gave my DVD Kaurismäki box sets to a friend. Anyway, The Other Side of Hope. There needs to be more books and films about refugees in Europe, because how we treat them increasingly defines us – and is certainly defining the current era. You have the racists and fascists becoming increasingly normalised in the press, and yet a recent poll claimed the UK was a more welcoming country than it was ten years ago. I suspect that poll doesn’t include the Home Office, which seems to staffed entirely by racists enacting racist policies put in place by arch-racist Theresa May. Happily, not everyone agrees with such Nazis, and people are writing novels – like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (see here) – and making films – such as The Other Side of Hope – which address European nations’ inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. (There would, of course, be fewer refugees moving into Europe if we stopped bombing their homes.) In The Other Side of Hope, Khaled, a Syrian, enters Helsinki illegally and applies for asylum at a police station. He tells them his story (through an interpreter): he returned home from work one day to find his house destroyed by bombs, and his wife and child dead. Like many other Syrians fleeing the civil war (and British bombs), he and his sister travelled north, but he lost her in the Balkans. His application is rejected and he escapes from the facility where he’d been put. He’s found sleeping rough by a businessman who has just sold his shop and bought a neighbourhood restaurant and which he’s failing to make a go of (their attempt at re-inventing themselves as a sushi restaurant is hilarious). The restaurant owner hires Khaled and arranges for him to get a fake ID. Meanwhile, another refugee Khaled met in the facility has had word of Khaled’s sister. She’s in Lithuania. So Khaled arranges to have her smuggled to Finland. But then Khaled has a run-in with a group of neo-Nazis… The Other Side of Hope is probably the most Kaurismäki of his films. It’s both tragedy and farce, and all played completely deadpan. The restaurant owner is played by Kaurismäki regular and ex-Leningrad Cowboys member Sakari Kuosmanen, and there are few other familiar faces in there too. Khaled is played by Sherwan Haji, a Syrian actor who emigrated to Finland. An excellent film.

The Visitor, Giulio Paradiso (1979, Italy). I get these text messages every now and again, usually late at night, from David Tallerman, in which he tells me to add certain films to my rental list (I do the same to him, of course). The Visitor was one such film. It was also completely bonkers. It’s an Italian film, but set in the US with a mostly US cast, including Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, Lance Henriksen, Shelley Winters, John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. Yes, really. There is apparently an ages-long cosmic conflict between evil, Zatteen, and good, Yahweh. But Zatteen was killed on Earth centuries ago, and survives only through the descendants of children he had with human women. One of which is apparently a young girl with telekinetic abilities, which she is using to help the basketball team owned by her mother’s boyfriend win games. It’s all a bit Damien, and the Christian references are laid on thick. And like most Italian films of the 1970s, it’s all very intense, a bit like Cronenberg turn up to eleven but without the body horror. There is, for example, a scene in which they try to kill Shelley Winters by wrapping a wire around her neck and the sending her down the stairs on a stairlift. Despite all this, The Visitor isn’t especially memorable. Batshit insane, yes; and that’s probably why so little of it sticks in memory.

The Mad Masters*, Jean Rouch (1955, France). Rouch was a name unknown to me, despite having directed 109 films between 1947 and 2002. But then, none of his films appear to have ever been released in the UK, and most of them were semi-documentary – what he called “ethnofiction” – films about people and places on the African continent. The Mad Masters is a case in point: it depicts the Hauka rituals, in which participants go into trances, froth at the mouth and claim to be possessed by their colonial administrators. The film was banned in Niger, and then in other British territories in Africa of the time, including Ghana, where it was filmed. Wikipedia states that the film has also been criticised by “African” students and critics (Africa is not a country) for presenting “exotic racism”. Given that the first quarter of the film is about how very ordinary is the city of Accra and its inhabitants – although it’s likely that’s to contrast it with the later depictions of Hauka possessions. Rouch was in important figure in French cinema, and probably deserves a spot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I don’t know that this is the film to represent his oeuvre. I’d certainly like to see more by him.

Bad Cop, Kai Jiang (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime – I say “found”, as if it were actually possible to look for things there and find them, which it’s not as Amazon appears to use the worst search engine on the planet and is about as effective as throwing a dart at a dartboard from several kilometres away and in a different room. So. I stumbled across it. As well as a bunch of stuff I hadn’t known was on there. Bad Cop is not a good film. A policewoman (you can also find the film as Bad Policewoman) who doesn’t take orders very well is sent undercover to a high school to discover why several of the female students have disappeared. She ends up in a relationship with the hot teacher. And the friendly fellow female student turns out to be the villain. Ho hum. Like the other Chinese films dumped on Amazon Prime I’ve seen, the subtitles were… creative. Fun, but not a very good film.

Tramontane, Vatche Boulghourjian (2016, Lebanon). I think it was trailer for this on another rental DVD that prompted me to add it to my list. Or it may have just been that it’s a Lebanese film and I’ve not seen many of them, so I stuck it on my rental list. Whatever, it was a good call. Rabih is blind and a musician in a band. The band has been invited to play in Europe (no one specifies which country or city), so Rabih goes along to the police station to apply for a passport. But they take his ID card off him because it’s fake. He clearly didn’t know, so they tell him to provide proof of his birth and they’ll let him off. But the hospital where he was allegedly born has no record of his birth. At which point his mother admits he was rescued by her brother – then a captain in the army – from a village in the south destroyed during the war. He travels to the village and learns it was never destroyed during the war, and no babies went missing. A member of his uncle’s platoon tells him he was rescued from a car crash in which his Armenian parents died by his uncle, handed to an Armenian orphanage, but then taken from that by his uncle. But the orphanage has no record of an orphan from that time. Through his uncle’s ex-fiancée, he tracks down another member of his uncle’s platoon, who tells him he was “allowed to live” after an operation on a village. At the village, he learns that a man and woman were killed in an attack and their baby disappeared, long since presumed dead. When Rabih asks if the baby could still be alive, he is told, yes, he could be but he would have another family by now and they buried the missing baby decades ago. Rabih’s uncle then presents him with a birth certificate – real, so obviously sourced from “contacts” – but documenting his fake birth as per his fake ID. Rabih has no choice but to accept it. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 930


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Moving pictures 2017, #60

My film viewing seems to have been bouncing all over the place of late. A 1950s melodrama (but… Rock Hudson!), a Marx Brothers comedy, a classic Japanese film, a British historical farce…

One Desire, Jerry Hopper (1955, USA). I find it hard to resist 1950s melodramas, especially ones starring Rock Hudson, even if they’re not, well, set in the 1950s. Like this one, which is based on a novel by Conrad Richter and is set at the turn of the twentieth century. Anne Baxter plays the madam and co-owner of a brothel/casino in the mid-West. Hudson is Baxter’s lover and dealer at the casino, but he’s ambitious and keen to head to Colorado and the silver mines. When he gets fired, he persuades Baxter to accompany him. At their destination, Hudson bumps into the local senator’s daughter, Julie Adams, charms her and ends up being appointed manager of the local bank. Baxter meanwhile takes in a young Natalie Wood after she’s orphaned when her miner father dies in a cave-in. Adams has her sights set on Hudson, and uses a PI to dig up Baxter’s past and show she is an unfit guardian for Wood and Hudson’s young brother. Baxter, humiliated in court, goes back to her old job in the casino. Hudson marries Adams, but doesn’t love her. Years later, Wood runs away and finds Baxter. Baxter returns and opens a saloon opposite Adams’s house. Adams accidentally sets her own house on fire and perishes. Hudson marries Baxter. Happy ending. Sort of. A pretty typical Technicolor period drama. I enjoyed it… but then I like 1950s Technicolor dramas.

La gloire de mon père, Yves Robert (1990, France). My mother lent me this – it’s a two-film set, with Le château de mère – and it was not a film known to me. It apparently was very successful in France, and I can sort of see why. It’s very… nice. It reminded me of the sort of the dreadful nostalgic crap the British industry churns out these days (alongside mockney gangster movies and horrendous rom coms, the latter mostly written by Richard Curtis). The first clue is the voice-over – the main character is a kid, and the voice-over is his adult self, commenting on the events of his childhood. Like anyone can actually remember their childhood in that level of detail. In this case, the boy’s father is a socialist atheist teacher in the south of France during the first decade of the twentieth century. The boy’s aunt marries a local businessman who is the complete opposite of the father. One summer, the two families stay in the country, in the area in which they are originally from. And, during a hunt, the father shoots and kills two rock patrridges and celebrates his success – the “glory” of the title. The irony of this is that the father had previously taken the piss out of someone who had been photographed with a fish he had caught, and now he glories in a photo of himself with his two rock partridges. Other than that… I’m not entirely sure what point the film is trying to make. It’s based on a 1957 auto-biographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and though I’ve not read the book, and am unlikely to ever do so, I very much doubt it’s as saccharine as this film. The DVD came packaged with a sequel, Le château de mère, and I’ll probably watch it. I hope it has more bite than this one.

The Cocoanuts, Robert Florey & Joseph Santley (1929, USA). I’ve never seen enough Marx Brothers’ films to determine whether or not I ought to be a fan, in fact I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen any of their most famous films (you know, the ones with titles Queen stole for their albums), although I’m familiar with the characters and many of Groucho’s best-known quotes. Since there was a new collection of their’ films just released by Arrow – The 4 Marx Brothers at Paramount 1929 – 1933 – I added its contents to my rental list. This was the first to arrive – and, coincidentally, the earliest film in the collection. The film is set in a Florida hotel run by the brothers – there’s no plot as such. There are several muscial routines, like out of a Busby Berkley film, but the rest of it is just the the Marx Brothers running aruond and playing their characters. Groucho is, surprisingly, not all that witty. Harpo is just as creepy as usual. Chico is probably the funniest character, for all that his put-on accent is considered offensive these days. Zeppo is in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t remember him. I guess that’s why he dropped out. I’d expected more of The Cocoanuts – it wasn’t especially funny or witty. And while the production numbers were a big part of it, I like Busby Berkley films so I’ve seen better (and more eye-boggling). The Marx Brothers films are worth seeing as historical Hollywood documents, but don’t expect too much of them.

Joseph Andrews, Tony Richardson (1977, UK). Some films just seem to appear on my rental list and I’ve no idea why. If it’s a Japanese or South Korean film, then David Tallerman probably added them using the app on my phone when we were down the pub (but he won’t be able to do that anymore, as Cinema Paradiso doesn’t have an app). Sometimes, I vaguely recall seeing a trailer and so must have added the film myself. But there are some which, for the life of me, I cann’t recall why I put it on my rental list. Like Joseph Andrews. A British historical farce, based on a 1742 Henry Fielding novel, starring Colin Firth, Ann-Margret, Michael Hordern, Beryl Reid, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Jim Dale, Wendy Craig, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Kenneth Cranham, Timothy West… and lots more familiar Brit thesp faces. Firth plays the title character, a young man who draws the attention of libertine aristocrat Ann-Margret. Then he’s waylaid on the road, or something, and ends up at an inn, where he’s nearly arrested. The plot, such as it is, has Firth bouncing from one comical encounter to another, before eventually rejoining his love back in his home village. I can think of little to recommend this film – nothing about it stands out. I spent most of it playing “spot the luvvie”, which is a bit like watching the Carry On film without the jokes. Meh.

The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi (1951, Japan). I bought the Japanese Masters box set – deleted for several years, so hard to find – because it included an Ozu film that was no longer available. The other “master” is Kenji Mizoguchi, and the set includes two of his most celebrated films: The Life of Oharu (see here) and The Lady of Musashino. The latter film is set shortly after WWII. The title character lives in a village just outside Tokyo – the films opens with them witnessing the bombing of Tokyo from Musashino. Her husband is a drunkard who abuses her. Her cousin’s husband keeps on propositioning her, and a younger cousin who comes to live with them fancies her. The film navigates these complicated relationships – which is something Mizoguchi does really well – before finding a solution that suits all but the title character – which is something Mizoguchi also does a lot. When it comes to Japanese cinema from the first half of the twentieth century, I prefer Ozu’s ensemble pieces to Mizoguchi’s character studies (some of which are historical), and I really should watch more Kurosawa (which I’ve recently remedied by adding a bunch of his films to my rental list)… Anyway, the title character of The Lady of Musashino must find a way out of the complicated personal relationships that have accreted around her, and yet also protect Musashino. I like that Mizoguchi puts a woman front and centre, even in a society in which gender roles are extremely constrained, as he also does in The Life of Oharu – and I like that he does it so well she is the best-drawn charatcer in the film. The transfer, it must be said, is not great, but it’s not as much of a hurdle as it is with The Life of Oharu, several important scenes of which take place at night. I’ve seen several Mizoguchi films over the years – the first was apparently Ugetsu Monogatari back in 2012 – more by accident than design, I think, but I have a box set of four of his films, given to me by David Tallerman, which I’m now quite looking forward to watching…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885