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Moving pictures 2017, #66

I managed to knock a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and despite them both being US films – one Hollywood, one independent – I thought they earned their place on it.

Mr Arkadin, Orson Welles (1955, Spain). After making Macbeth, most of Welles’s remaining films were made in Europe with international financing. It’s perhaps a bit of a cheat to describe Mr Arkadin as a Spanish film, given it was English language, had an American director, and featured a cast including Americans, Italians, Germans, Brits and Spaniards, among others… but it was shot mostly in Spain, and Welles was resident there at the time, so… The story opens with a private plane flying into Spain with no one aboard and presents it newsreel-fashion as a mystery, which the film will then solve… by telling the story leading up to that moment. Robert Arden is an American knocking about in Spain, who inveigles himself into the affections of the daughter of reclusive billionaire Arkadin, played by Welles in a bad wig and beard. When Arden finally meets Arkadin, he’s offered a job – Arkadin cannot remember his life before 1927, and wants Arden to research it for him (the reason given is so that no nasty surprises turn up when Arkadin bids for military contracts). So Arden tracks down past associates of Arkadin, ending up in Mexico, where he discovers the truth about the man. And the truth about why he was asked to research the man’s past. Arden heads back to Spain to tell the daughter, Arkadin charters a plane in an effort to stop him. He fails. Apparently, there are several cuts of the film knocking about, some better than others, and none what Welles really intended. The end result is something that tries to be The Third Man, with bits of Shakespeare thrown in, all shot in Welles’s inimitable style, and then edited so it teeters on the edge of sense. Welles overplays his role, Arden is not a sympathetic hero, and the supporting cast  are more like circus performers than actors. But it’s Welles, so it’s worth seeing.

Roger & Me*, Michael Moore (1989, USA). I know of Michael Moore, of course, and the career he has carved out for himself. I’ve seen seen a couple of his films. But I’d never seen the one that started his career, and since it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… So I bunged it on the rental list. I wasn’t expecting much of it – Moore has tackled much more contentious subjects in later films, and given that this was his first too, I expected it to be crude and simplistic. And while it was certainly the latter, it was never the former. It’s a surprisingly polished piece of work. Unfortunately, recent events have pretty much underminded it. Flint, Michigan, was the town where the automobile production line was invented, and it has relied heavily on car manufacturing ever since. But in the 1980s, the automobile corporations decided to cut costs by closing down plants in the USA and opening them in much cheaper countries. This is known as “making the product cheaper while taking away the spending power of the market which buys it so your business eventually collapses and oh look guess what happened…” Around a third of Flint’s carworkers found themselves out of a job. This is painted as devastating to the community, well, some parts of the community, the country club set are completely oblivious of course… which is why Moore wants to beard GM chairmain Roger Smith and ask him to defend his decision. In the film, the workforce is cut from 80,000 to 50,000 over slightly more than a decade. True, this is bad for any community which relies on a single industry. But as of 2015, GM has 7,000 workers in Flint. And, of course, the city is better known now for its poisoned water supply. A city in the US without fit drinking water for much of its population the three years and counting. And the US still think it’s a world leader. Ha.

Zardoz, John Boorman (1974, Ireland). I think I last saw this back in the 1980s, but it’s one of those sf films you tend to know a lot about if you’re into sf without actually having to have seen it all that often. I mean, you either absorb the plot – or major points of it – through osmosis, or it’s extremely memorable. I’m noty entirely which is the case. Okay, so Sean Connery in a Zapata moustache and red nappie is pretty memorable. And so is the flying head which appears on the Blu-ray cover-art. Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, whose job it is to, well, exterminate Brutals, who are the debased remnants of the population after some catastrophe (although they seem to wear 1970s clothing). Meanwhile, there are the Vortexes, safeguarded by forcefields and in which live the Eternals, the immortal descendants of a group of scientists who chose to safeguard all human knowledge. Zed hides away in the floatibng head and is taken to one of the Vortexes. During the flight, he kills Arthur Frayn, the Eternal who controlled the floating head and looked after the Exterminator/Brutal programme. In the Vortex, Zed is studied, and discovered the be more intelligent than the Eternals. Because they’re sort of Eloi, they’re weak and decadent and many of them have drifted into catatonia. But Zed shakes them up. And they needed it, because they were going nowhere. I know plenty of sf fans count this as a favourite, and it has sort of dippy 1970s charm to it – and I’m a fan of many things from the 1970s – but it’s hard not to reach the conclusion Zardoz is more style than substance. Bits of it are borrowed from all over, not least the book/film it directly references. And asking the viewer to believe Sean Connery is more intelligent than Charlotte Rampling or John Alderton… Well, suspension of disbelief only stretches so far. On the other hand, some of the shots of the Irish countryside are really impressive, and the production design does a lot with very little – although does a look bit like a BBC production at times. I’m glad I watched it again – and can do so whenever I want, as I bought the Blu-ray in the eureka! sale – and it’s certainly true there are shitloads of worst sf films. But there are also a lot of better ones, and it’s never going to make it into my top ten.

Varsity Show, William Keighley (1937, USA). So  I tracked down a copy of the Busby Berkeley Collection Volume 2 on eBay, and it was cheap – and, when it came, it has to be said, a bit battered, but never mind. It’s also not as good as the first collection. But I knew that going in. In Varsity Show, Dick Powell is a washed-up Broadway writer who is co-opted into helping out his alma mater with their annual variety show. He’s doing it because he needs the money, and they want him to running things because the fuddy-duddy in charge is sure to produce a piss-poor show. Powell is on form, and some 0f the female cast shine, but it’s also one of those films where twenty-somethings are referred to as “kids” and the musical numbers aren’t especially memorable. The “kids” rebel, of course, and end up occupying a theatre in New York in order to put on their show. Which is where it turns into your typical Busby Berkeley number. And they really were astonishing. Okay, there’s a leap of imagination required when a dozen dancers on a tuny stage suddenly turns into hundreds of dancers on a massive soundstage… but the way it does that kaleidoscope thing with the dancers is often mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the final scene, in which the theatre’s owners send the police, who sit down to listen to the show, and then the National Guard, who takes seats to watch the show, and, well, you can guess the rest. Varsity Show has a weak story but it manages a good Busby Berkeley extravaganza at the end.

The Phenix City Story*, Phil Karlson (1955, USA). This was a hard film to track down. Despite being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t appear to have ever been released on DVD, and certainly not in this country. But I found a copy on eBay, from one of those sellers who sell DVD rips of out-of-copyright movies, and it proved to be a pretty good transfer. And a pretty good film. There are two cities either side of a river: Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama. There is a street in Phenix Citty lined with casinos and brothels, and the gangs who run them pretty much control the town. That is, until they inadvertently convince a popular lawyer to run for state attorney general on a ticket to clean them out. And when they kill him, his warhero son takes them on instead. Interestingly, the film opens as a documentary, with a journalist interviewing people involved in the clean-up of Phenix City. It’s only about 15 minutes in that it becomes a traditional narrative cinema film. The gangsters aren’t very convincing, and it’s all a bit Wild West in places – although apparently it’s based ona true story. It’s also pretty brutal, far more than you’d expect from a mid-1950s movie. That aside, and despite a somewhat sensationalist tone, The Phenix City Story proved a lot better than expected, and might just about deserve its slot on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman (1973, Sweden). I bought the Criterion edition of this a while ago, which includes both the international movie release and the original Swedish television series. And it was the latter I watched. Of course. Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson are a happily-married couple. He’s an academic, she’s a family lawyer. At least, they’re happy when the series opens. They’re being interviewed by a magazine and they discuss their marriage openly. And later, when friends comes round for dinner, the friends’ unhappy marriage is contrasted with that of Ullmann and Josephson. Except, as the following five episodes show, it’s not all sweetness and light. There are several shocking incidences of violence, which really should not have been acceptable even in 1974. Josephson leaves Ullmann for another woman, but then tries to rekindle his marriage – and he’s really quite horrible about his girlfriend. Eventually, the two separate, and then meet up years both married to other partners… and they have an affair. Josephson’s character is quite a nasty piece of work, and Ullmann seems far too accepting of his actions – although she does use them to advantage when they agree to divorce. Scenes from a Marriage was apparently blamed for the rise in divorce rates in Europe, although it was most likely coincidence. The film/series is highly regarded, and it does seem in places like the epitome of Bergman, but I can’t really say I liked it. It looked bland – perhaps deliberately so – but neither of the main characters were pleasant, or sympathetic, enough to hang a 281-minute TV miniseries on. There were some good bits, true, and it times the marriage did actually feel genuine. But it was a bit like a gory autopsy, and unpleasant to watch more than it was intertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 890

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Moving pictures, #2

More marathon movie watching. I’ll keep the notes on each film short this time, otherwise I’ll end up writing more about films in 2015 than I will books or science fiction…

deepend2dDeep End*, Jerzy Skolimowski (1970, Germany/UK). This was an odd beast. A film set in Britain, with British stars, performed in English, but actually filmed in Germany, using German actors to fill out the cast, and by a Polish director. John Moulder Brown is a bit of a blank as the schoolboy who goes to work at the baths, but Jane Asher is good as the female attendant who’s using the job as a springboard to more. Munich stands in for London quite well, although there are odd moments that seem strangely not-English. Story-wise, it’s nothing new or innovative, just the usual mix of teenage lust and prudery, all a bit Holden Caulfield-ish, although it does turn interesting toward the end. Still, a good film. Definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

night_of_silenceNight of Silence, Reis Çelik (2012, Turkey). Set in rural Turkey, a man in his sixties returns to his village after serving a prison sentence and in order to end a feud between two families, he is married to a child bride. The film takes place entirely on their wedding night. What follows is a sensitive portrayal of both parties – the old man didn’t want the wedding, and he won’t do anything his new bride won’t have of him. But he is also expected to perform. The child bride, of course, doesn’t want to be there at all, and is frightened about what she expects will happen. During the night, the man reveals why he was sent to prison, and it’s unpleasant. Despite all that, Night of Silence succeeds because it treats its topic sensitively and shows how abhorrent it is, without making monsters of its characters. Worth seeing.

herHer, Spike Jonze (2013, USA). A man installs a new OS on his computer and phone, then customises its interface so he finds it more appealing – except rather than just choosing a nice desktop wallpaper, moving a few icons around or selecting a theme, this involves selecting a nice voice and a variety of interests and personal facts, sort of like for a dating agency. And because the man has designed himself an OS personality which will appeal to him – which proves to be, somewhat implausibly, some sort of sophisticated AI – then of course he finds himself liking his OS’s personality very much. Like a girlfriend. Except for the “girl” bit, or indeed any kind of physical presence. And then he discovers that his OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, has instantiated herself an uncountable number of times for other users. I thought this film a bit dull – and, since I work in computing, I’m always wary of movies whose stories depend on it and usually find them wholly unconvincing.

12_angry_men12 Angry Men*, Sidney Lumet (1957, USA). Essentially, a courtroom drama that, er, doesn’t take place in a courtroom. The jury have heard the evidence and closing arguments, now they have to reach a verdict. Except before they do that Henry Fonda pretty much builds a case for the defence, which is what the defendant’s attorney should have done in the, er, courtroom. End result: reasonable doubt. And the “obviously guilty” perpetrator is found innocent. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about the US system of justice… until you remember what it’s really like. Also, note the lack of women on the jury.

aliceAlice*, Jan Svankmajer (1988, Czech Republic). I’ve a feeling I’ve seen something by Svankmajer before, but I’m not really sure – and given the singular nature of Svankmajer’s vision, you wouldn’t think I’d forget. Ah well. As the title suggests this is Svankmajer’s take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it sticks pretty much to the plot of the book. But some of the visuals are really disturbing. The White Rabbit, for example, belongs on that Bad Taxidermy twitter feed, and its glass eyes haunted me for a couple of nights after I’d seen the film.

transformers4Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay (2014, USA). Every time I think Hollywood has plumbed the depths of stupid, it manages to surprise me and dig a little deeper. I’m trying to remember the actual plot of this film, but all I have is some vague memory of Optimus Prime as a junked-up truck in an old theatre – no mention of how they got a big fuck-off truck (or a big fuck-off robot, for that matter) into the theatre – and something about a bounty hunter Transformer that’s working with nasty generic national security apparatus to kill all Transformers, but of course they’re really working with the Decepticons. Or something. I do remember the terrible broad-brush racist characterisation, the casual disregard for people’s lives, the way the Transformers were “rebooted” with shiny new paintjobs, and the corporate villain (Stanley Tucci, the only watchable actor in the entire film) doing a Jubal Harshaw when he’s introduced with his blonde, brunette and black-haired personal assistants. Mostly, however, I don’t remember why I watched the bloody thing in the first place.

bowling_columbineBowling For Columbine*, Michael Moore (2002, USA). I often wonder if the USA realises that the rest of the world thinks its attitudes to guns is insane. Not the entire country, of course – as Moore demonstrates in this film. He explores US gun culture, and tries to work out why so many more Americans are killed each year by firearms than in any other nation on the planet. I’m not entirely sure I agree with his conclusion that big business and the media feeds the US populace a solid diet of fear and paranoia, and that this is chiefly responsible. While it’s true Canada may have as many guns as the US, and significantly less gun deaths, pretty much every Anglophone nation’s television is a solid wall of FUD masquerading as news and entertainment. Still, Moore asks some important questions – and, unsurprisingly, he remains unanswered.

SplendorSplendor In The Grass*, Elia Kazan (1961, USA). It’s the 1920s, Warren Beatty is a dim high school football star, the son and heir of a rich oilman. Natalie Wood is a nice girl from a much less affluent family who is going out with Beatty. Oilman wants Beatty to go to Yale and then take over the business; Beatty wants to marry Wood and run the family ranch. Beatty’s sister is a flapper and a girl with a bad reputation. Beatty feels urges but doesn’t want to Wood to be like his sister, nor does she want to be like the sister. The two go their separate ways. Then the Great Depression hits, and oilman is reduced to penury. Later, Wood goes looking for Beatty, who is now happy running the ranch, and is married and a father. This is one of those worthy historical (as in, early twentieth-century American) dramas Hollywood used to bang out during the 1950s and 1960s as Oscar bait. It was nominated for two – best actress and best screenplay, but only won the latter. Didn’t find it all that interesting. I like a bit more melo- in my mid-twentieth century drama.

lucyLucy, Luc Besson (2014, France). I’m convinced this is a comedy, played absolutely straight by its cast. Those opening shots of cheetahs hunting, the sort of ham-fisted cinematic metaphor that were considered old when they introduced sound. The central conceit: we’ve known for decades that humans using only ten percent of their “cerebral capacity” is complete bollocks. Also, amongst Lucy’s first set of powers is the ability to talk to someone in another country using their television… Which is not to say Lucy isn’t an entertaining action-sf-comedy, and some of the special effects are quite effective. Johansson is good in the title role, particularly in the first half where she’s still, well, human. And Morgan Freeman demonstrates why he should handle the exposition in every single film Hollywood ever makes – I mean, he talks complete bollocks, but he actually makes it sound plausible.

thin_red_lineThe Thin Red Line*, Terrence Malick (1998, USA). If I had to pick a favourite WWII film, and I’m not a fan of WWII films, it would have to be Das Boot. But I thought this was very good. From the opening, when a pair of deserters on a Pacific island are recaptured by their company to Nick Nolte’s idiot colonel, determined to prove himself against younger men who have been promoted above him, not to mention the company commander who believes his responsibility is to his men and not to whatever random tactical objective he is ordered to meet. WWII films traditionally present pretty straightforward moral landscapes – GIs good, Japanese bad; Allies good, Nazis bad – but The Thin Red Line shows the US soldiers just as far from the moral high ground as their enemy. Not to mention their general ineptitude. All too often, wars are presented as if everything went smoothly, casualties were, if not expected, certainly unavoidable, and the good guys won because better fighters. It’s all complete crap, of course; and it’s refreshing to see it applied to WWII (it’s pretty much a cliché in Vietnam films, of course).

unearthly_strangerUnearthly Stranger, John Krish (1963, UK). I’m not really sure why I bunged this on an Amazon order, there must have been something in the description which persuaded me it might be worth seeing. It wasn’t a bad call. It’s a melodramatic Brit sf flick, with plenty of stark lighting and Dutch angles, not to mention a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia – although, perhaps in this case, it might be “sex war paranoia”. A scientist on a secret project fears for his life after the mysterious death of his predecessor, and it turns out the scientist’s “Swiss” wife has a number of unusual characteristics – she sleeps with her eyes open, she appears to have no discernible pulse, and she can handle burning hot objects with her hands. A nicely creepy film that just about manages to stay convincing, despite its outlandish premise.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 555