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Moving pictures, #23

Still trying to get up to date on these…

femmeUne femme mariée, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I have a theory about Godard. So far I’ve seen about half a dozen of his films. Two of them I loved, the rest I didn’t much care for. The two I loved were both shot in colour – Le Mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her – the rest were black and white. So it seems I only like Godard’s colour films. Obviously I need to watch more to determine the truth of this theory, but Une femme mariée is black and white and I didn’t really like it. The married woman of the title is having an affair, and the film opens with her and her lover in bed. Then she leaves him, fetches her young son from school and meets her husband at the airport. He has a colleague with him. They head to the couple’s apartment, where they eat dinner. The colleague leaves, husband and wife then run around a lot and come close to domestic violence (it didn’t much look like a “play-fight”, as Wikipedia has it). And then… This is one of those films where the cast act naturally and it’s all about the dialogue. And like many Godard films, it’s all over the place, and the plot often seems like little more than a vehicle which allows the cast to pontificate on various topics that seem to have little or no bearing on the actual story (which is, I suppose, just as true of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but in that film everything around the “lecturettes” worked much better and seemed much more interesting). Une femme mariée seems to be generally rated as one of Godard’s best, but I wonder how much of that is trading on its title character.

42ndstreet42nd Street*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I found this in a charity shop. It’s one of several Busby Berkeley films on the 1001 Movies list, many of which aren’t that easy to find in the UK. Busby Berkeley… a camera placed above the stage and looking down as large numbers of dancers make patterns not unlike those you’d find in a kaleidoscope. Then they wrap a plot around it. In this case, it’s a progenitor of Chorus Line and films of that ilk. I tweeted a line from this, “It’s going to be the toughest five weeks you’ll live through”, and asked people to guess the movie, expecting them to pick Platoon or Full Metal Jacket – which one or two did. No one guessed a 1930s film about putting on a Busby Berkley musical. Which is all beside the point. Ginger Rogers in an early role plays one of the female leads, the plot is fairly standard for the type, the final numbers are the usual over-the-top Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, and it’s easy to see why such films were popular back in the day… and you have to wonder why something similar isn’t equally successful today. Or perhaps that’s just me.

coherenceCoherence, James Ward Byrkit (2013, USA). Some films should hold your interest because they have an intriguing genesis, or a really fascinating idea at their core. And certainly the elevator pitch for Coherence sounded to me like something which would appeal. Unfortunately the end result never quite manages to pull it all together. It’s one of those films where the low or non-existent budget becomes a strength rather than a weakness – it was filmed mostly in the director’s own house. There’s a dinner party, and during it a comet passes over and things turn strange… Strange as in superposition, multiple instances of the same events – which means dinner guests from other alternate universe versions of the dinner party getting mixed up and crossing into alternate universes. So much so that keeping up with who is really who, and from where, becomes near impossible. The cast are generally good, but it’s one of those films where everyone talks over one another, and while real life is certainly like that it does get annoying very quickly in a movie (which is by definition artificial, and it’s the ones which make a virtue of it I tend to prefer), and anyway it sort of worked against what was quite a clever central conceit. The premise demanded a domestic story, but the idea needed to be progressed much faster than it was – the longer you take to develop an idea, the thinner it seems, whether it deserves it or not. Coherence managed to dissipate its drama when it really had more than enough to make a very good film.

broken_blossomsBroken Blossoms*, DW Griffth (1919, USA). This film is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. Some of Griffith’s other films have been accused of racism, and while Broken Blossoms‘ lead is played by a white man in Chinese make-up, the film was deliberately written to push tolerance during a period of heavy anti-Chinese prejudice. A Buddhist monk leaves China for London, where he finds it hard to promote Buddha’s peaceful philosophy to London’s huddled masses. Especially Lillian Gish, the abused daughter of a boxer. The monk rescue her after she’s been badly beaten by her father, and the two fall in love. But it is not to be. It’s pretty much Romeo and Juliet, even down to the ending, but set among the slums of London, and with Romeo as a Buddhist monk (which, I suppose, in the England of the time makes him no more welcome a suitor than a Montague to a Capulet). Griffith has a number of films on the 1001 Movies list, and while he was undoubtedly a pioneer of the medium, I can’t see what this particular film did to merit inclusion. Maybe it’s just because it’s an historical document…

dark_planetDark Planet, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2009, Russia). The real name of this film is Обитаемый остров, or The Inhabited Island – which is the name of the Strugatskys novel from which it was adapted. Why a random English-language distributor decided to randomly re-title it with the entirely random title Dark Planet is beyond me (mind you, we did better than the French, as it was titled Battlestar Rebellion in France). Because it deserves better. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Bondarchuk – yes, son of the actor – has made plenty of well-received films – I thought his 9th Company wasn’t bad, for example – and while Dark Planet certainly entertains throughout its length, it does feel a little like too much of it ended up on the cutting-room floor, and it’s more notable for the story it could have been, and which is plainly obvious, than for the story it is. A young man of Earth, played by the improbably good-looking (and, according to Bondarchuk, totally untalented) Vasiliy Stepanov, crashlands on a world on which the entire population are held in thrall by towers which broadcast brainwashing signals. You can see how it would have made sense in the novel, although it doesn’t really in the film. The plot is a little haphazard, but the final battle scene is done quite well. It’s a film that feels more like a series of missed opportunities than a coherent narrative – I’m reminded of The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres), in which the film-makers decided to leave some important exposition on the cutting-room floor because it slowed the pace of the narrative… resulting in a film that made a weird and inexplicable leap in its third act. Anyway, Dark Planet: worth a second look, though I’d prefer an edition more in keeping with the film-makers’ intentions than the one I watched. (After I wrote the above, I discovered the original Russian release consists of two parts of 100 minutes and 115 minutes. This UK release is an edited down version of 118 minutes. Why?)

leni_riefenstahlOlympia 1, Fest der Völker*, Leni Riefenstahl (1938, Germany). Riefenstahl, tame director of the Nazis, is a name I certainly know, but I’d never had any real desire to watch her movies. But she’s on the 1001 Movies list, more than once in fact, and her films are not available for rental, so I ended up buying a box set which included the two Olympia films, Triumph of the Will and a pair of other propaganda pieces. So I’m probably now on a list somewhere. Anyway, I watched Triumph of the Will several weeks ago but didn’t think it worth mentioning it here because, well, it’s a film about Nazis and Hitler and while it may have been state of the art in the 1930s, and still holds up reasonably well today, it’s probably only of real interest to historians. Olympia 1, Fest der Völker, however, is a more interesting film because it actually presages the way we watch sports on television, if not lays the actual groundwork for sports broadcasting. It is, as the title states, a film of the 1936 Olympics. So there’s lots of people in quaintly-long shorts competing in various athletic events, with occasional shots away to the wholesome German crowd or Hitler. Of all the events, I found the high jump the most interesting because it predates the Fosbury Flop, meaning the techniques on diplay looked odd and mostly inefficient. There is a second part, Fest der Schönheit, which I have yet to watch.

whosafraidWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?*, Mike Nichols (1966, USA). I’d always thought I’d seen this, and had it in my head it was some fluffy rom com much like those Rock Hudson films I love so much. It’s not, of course. It’s a very intense, and really quite mean, three-hour play by Edward Albee cut down to a two-hour cinema outing by Mke Nichols – his first film, in fact. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple at a small town college. She’s the dean’s daughter, he’s a professor of history whose boat has long since sailed. And now they just snipe at each other. A young couple join the faculty (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) and are invited to dinner by Taylor and Burton. They all get very pissed. Certain truths are aired. There is a lot of very uncomfortable dialogue. And… ho hum. There’s some good stuff in here, some really sharp dialogue – but I’m not convinced Taylor and Burton overcome their Hollywood profiles sufficiently to do the characters justice. Segal is pretty good, though. The film is also long – and it’s shorter than the play. It drags quite a bit in places. Having said that, watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? didn’t make me interested in Albee’s work, although this appears to be the only play of his that made it onto the silver screen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 625


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Moving pictures, #12

Time to catch up on films again…

carnalCarnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols (1971, USA). According to imdb.com, this is a sexual satire but I couldn’t see much that was satirical in a film that unironically treats women like objects. At one point, Jack Nicholson even gives a slide show of his girlfriends, giving a running commentary on each woman’s appearance and sexual prowess. You see Nicholson and Art Garfunkel were at college together, and they both fell in love with Candice Bergen, but Nicholson ended up marrying Ann-Margret… and years later both men treat the women in their lives like shit, and I seriously have to wonder why this is classified as entertainment. There are a lot of classic films that have never been released on DVD, there are a lot of foreign films that have never been released in English-language editions on DVD… So you have to wonder why they bothered to waste non-biodegradable plastic on crap like Carnal Knowledge.

sokurov_earlyWhispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994, Russia). And speaking of foreign languages films not release in– ah wait, I’ve said this before about Sokurov. Whispering Pages is only available as part of a US-only release, Early Masterworks, on Blu-ray and DVD. The films opens with a distorted image of a riverside block of flats in St Petersburg, before eventually focusing on a series of pillars which distortion have rendered almost two-dimensional, and then a man sitting on some steps at the side of the river. He wanders through a series of buildings, a sort of enclosed city, on some sort of quest. I’ve watched the film three times now I’m no clearer as to what’s going on. I’m guessing it’s Limbo or Purgatory, existence as a struggle with some lesson to be learnt, but Sokurov is so allusive and the references so opaque – according to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, the film borrows from both Dostoevsky and Gogol, the works of neither of whom I’m familiar with (although I should be grateful for small mercies in that I didn’t wake up the morning after watching the film and learn I’d ordered their books from Amazon…). But all this, of course, is part of the appeal. The film defies easy understanding, and the beauty and strangeness of the cinematography – it’s weird shifts from sepia-tinted to washed out blues and greys to black and white – sucks you into a world in which there is clearly a pattern but it requires work to discern. I will be watching this again; eventually, I will figure out what it’s about.

guysanddollsGuys and Dolls*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1955, USA). If I added up all my pet hates, I’d have a respectable zoo. Well, a small petting one. Probably full of hamsters. And maybe a goat or two. But one of my pet hates is surely that stupid formalised language like that what is used by the writer Damon Runyan in the speech of his gangster characters in the stories that he wrote. Which is what’s used in Guys and Dolls – likely because the stage show, and so the film, were both based on a pair of stories by Runyan. As it is, Sinatra seems peculiarly charisma-free, Marlon Brando is actually less annoying than usual (although not at first), and Jean Simmons provides a surprisingly common-sensical romantic lead. I didn’t think the songs especially memorable, although one or two of the set-pieces were amusingly done. I am not, it has to be admitted, a fan of musical films, and though I have watched many of them – for reasons I have yet to figure out – I thought this one middling at best.

sonataviolaSonata For Viola, Aleksandr Sokurov (1981, Russia). And here’s another film that features music, that is actually about music – or rather, a composer. I know very little about classical music, it just isn’t my thing; so the appeal here is likely to be limited. And so it proves. Sokurov puts together a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich based on archive footage. It’s an early work, so the voice-over tends to be more factual and less philosophical than later documentaries; and while it does a good job of laying out Shostakovich’s life, and setting it in context, it’s not likely to attract viewers unless they’re interested in the topic or the director. One for the collection, without a doubt. But no, not a favourite in Sokurov’s oeuvre.

pickpocketPickpocket*, Robert Bresson (1959, France). Bresson is a highly regarded director, and several of his films appear on various lists of great or top 100 or films to see before you die lists. Which is why I’ve seen several… despite not actually taking to any of them. Such as Pickpocket. Non-professional actor Martin LaSalle plays a young man who drifts into thievery, initially for kicks but later as a means to make a living. He meets various other pickpockets and thieves, learns the tricks of the trade, has metaphysical discussions with assorted people, finds himself in a battle of wits with a police inspector… but it’s all played so flat, so affect-less, that’s it’s hard to give much of a shit. LaSalle is a cipher, the remainder of the cast are mouth-pieces, and the story’s only saving grace is its irony. But for irony to really bite, you have to care about its victims. And Bresson does a piss-poor job of making LaSalle, or indeed anyone in the film, sympathetic. He can do it for a donkey, but apparently not for a criminal. Disappointing.

shock_aweNymphomaniac, Volume I and II, Lars von Trier (2013, Denmark). I remember seeing posters for this all over Copenhagen when I was there for Christmas in 2013. And since catching a film at the cinema is an sort on-and-off family tradition over the holiday, I did briefly consider this as a possible contender… But it’s 241 minutes long in total, and I suspected it wasn’t really suitable family viewing… Both facts I can now confirm, having watched it on Blu-ray – although I saw the version bundled in the Shock & Awe von Trier box set, which is not the 325 minute director’s cut. So beware. Stellan Skarsgård finds a badly-beaten Charlotte Gainsbourg one night, takes her home and sees to her injuries. Once recovered, she explains she is a nymphomaniac and tells him her life-story – which is shown in flashback, with Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg. It begins with teenage sexual games, moves onto unhealthy relationships, and finally a marriage which slowly disintegrates, in part because Martin is now visiting sadist Jamie Bell on a regular basis. Skarsgård tries to explain Gainsbourg’s stories by relating them to fly-fishing, as he later admits to having never experienced sex himself. Both parts of Nymphomaniac are pretty much typical von Trier, that unhappy mix of beautiful cinematography, keen observation of the banal, and an almost schoolboyish desire to shock. He also does that thing where a line of genuine insight is often followed by a banal cliché – because he’s at his best when he’s observing and at his worst when he fails to resist the temptation to let his story jump the rails. I still think von Trier is an important director, and the Shock & Awe box set was certainly worth purchasing… but of the von Trier films I’ve seen so far I think Antichrist is the best in this collection – it’s the most emblematic of his later work, not to mention the least misogynistic. It often feels as though von Trier considers himself the enfant terrible of cinema – and tries just a little bit too hard to live up to the label.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 589