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Moving pictures 2017, #11

An even odder selection than usual. Two US films that are on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, another film by a favourite director, and a film I knew nothing about but which blew me away when I came to watch it…

nemuritoriiNemuritorii, Sergui Nicolaescu (1974, Romania). I had thought this was a science fiction film, although I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the translation of the title, which means “The Immortals”. It is, in fact, an historical drama, set during the Middle Ages, and about a group of mercenaries who return to their homeland, Romania, and attempt to oust its current ruler. And, er, that’s it. There’s a running joke about a wooden chest which carries a great treasure, and which all their enemies are keen to possess… but the chest proves to be empty. In places, Nemuritorii reminded me of Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood – it has that same earthy and violent approach to Middle Ages history – and Nicolaescu’s reputation as a good filmer of battle scenes is amply demonstrated. But Nicolaescu’s relationship with the Ceaușescu regime was problematic at best, and though he entered politics after the 1989 revolution, I’m told he’s not held in especially high regard by modern Romanians. I can’t say that Nemuritorii struck me as a great film, although it was entertaining enough and shot well enough. That earlier mention of Flesh and Blood was not entirely unwarranted – this film felt much the same: an entertaining Middle Ages adventure, with numerous battles, a cast of near-stereotypes, and a carry-through gimmick. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it’s a good film.

shes_gottShe’s Gotta Have It*, Spike Lee (1986, USA). I don’t think I’d actually watched any Spike Lee films until this watching this one, his debut, although I knew full well who he is and am aware of some of the films he has made. and while I can’t say the film appealed to me a great deal, I can see why it belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – so I’m glad I saw it. It’s not just that’s it’s an entirely African-American film, made wholly within the African-American culture of the US, but that it also takes a nicely meta-cinematic approach to its story and plays around with cinematic narratives and conventions. For a debut film, that’s pretty ballsy. And it works. The title refers to Tracy Camilla Johns, a young African-American woman living in Brookyln. She has three suitors (all three of which she regularly has sex with), but she cannot decide which one would be best-suited as her permanent partner – and, to tell the truth, she likes having three boyfriends. Characters in the film frequently talk directly to camera, there’s plenty of character assassination, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The acting is not great – John Canada Terrell is especially bad – and the artificiality of the narrative structure is occasionally pushed a bit too much in the viewer’s face… but for a debut piece of work this is an astonishingly ambitious movie and its success rate is amazingly high. On top of that, She’s Gotta Have It was also one of the films that led to the resurgence of US indie films in the 1990s. I suspect its narrative experiments have been overlooked because of its importance as an African-American film and an indie film (and Lee’s character’s later appearances in Nike adverts), but She’s Gotta Have It has a lot to recommended it. Worth seeing.

reasonReason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India). This was Ghatak’s last film – he died in 1976… although according to the University of California Press edition of A River Called Titash, Ghatak’s adaptation, A River Called Titas, an earlier film, was not released until after his death, although Wikipedia claims otherwise. Whatever the truth, Ghatak made only eight feature films, and I’ve now seen half of them. And though they’re black and white and mostly exist only in bad transfers or prints, and were probably produced and shot on tiny budgets, I find them fascinating. Not just because they depict life in India – or rather, Bengal, and now Bangladesh – in a fashion not commonly seen in Indian films… but also because they were as much political and sociological essays about Indian life as they were dramatic stories. A River Called Titash, the book, has been described as an ethnological account as much as it is a novel, and that’s equally true of the film. Reason, Debate and a Story is not an historical film, although it is in parts ethnographical, particularly when it documents the dances by Bengali villagers. Ghatak himself plays a drunkard writer who has been critical of the partition of Bengal – and I suspect he was pissed in several of the scenes (he was an acoholic, after all). His wife leaves him so he decides to leave Kolkata, and as he wanders out of the city he picks up assorted waifs and strays. There’s his brother-in-law, who is educated but cannot get a job; an extremely handsome young woman; and a teacher of Sanskirt teased as “mad” by his pupils. The woman is, I think, a metaphor for Bangladesh, which desires reunification with West Bengal (and later does one of the worst lip synchs of a playback singer I’ve seen in a film). The Sanskrit tracher is obviously the history of India. And later, when they meet up with a villager who makes masks for dances, you have literate suburban India versus uneducated rural India. Ghatak doesn’t disguise his arguments, and as avatars his characters are hardly subtle. But there is also some very nice landscape cinematography (badly served by the poor quality film stock used), and I will admit to having thought Bangladesh was chiefly delta and alluvial plain before seeing this film. The aforementioned dances, which appear to be based on mythology, with dancers in masks dressed as Hanuman, Durga, Ganesh, etc., are fascinating. Ghatak’s message on the reunification of Bengal gets a little lost, although I’m doubtless missing lots of references as my knowledge of the area is quite poor. Weirdly, the film opens with a trio of dancers in black zentai outfits dancing on a set meant to represent a desert. They reappear two-thirds of the way through the film, and at the end. I have no idea what they’re intended to signify. But I still think Ghatak is a genius director.

broadcast_newsBroadcast News*, James L Brooks (1987, USA). Nope, don’t get it. This is an average drama, well played by its cast – although with Hurt and Hunter, that’s a pretty high-powered cast – but I have no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s just not that interesting. Hurt plays a sports anchor from a regional station who has landed a job as news anchor of a national station. (It’s probably worth pointing out that no other country has the US’s bizarre regional/national broadcasting set-up, and we non-USians have no fucking idea how it works.) Hunter is a top news producer, and Albert Brooks a gifted TV journalist. Hurt wants to pick Hunter’s brains to make himself a better anchor, but she won’t have it.  Brooks wants his try in front of the camera. It’s all completely boring and trivial, and Brooks’s career as an actor continues to mystify me. Hurt and Hunter are both good, but they’re in the top rank of Hollywood talent (not that they can draw salaries commensurate with their ability; that’s not how Hollywood works). But even so top talent needs a story more interesting than this. Broadcast News is a Sunday-afternoon film, or maybe a Saturday-afternoon-instrad-of-football film, it’s not 1001 of the top films ever made.

asthenic_syndromeThe Asthenic Syndrome*, Kira Muratova (1990, Russia). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still not sure what it’s about, or indeed if it’s any good. It’s two films with unconnected stories. The first is black-and-white (well, more of a sepia colour) and opens at a funeral. The widow is grief-stricken, and, it seems, slightly unhinged. She attacks a man at a bus-stop, she bumps into people, she shouts and rants at no one in her flat, she drops wineglasses on the floor and breaks them… As if that weren’t baffling enough, the dialogue is completely bizarre. People shout at each other, and over each other’s voices, and what they say usually has no relevance to what’s happening in the story. Halfway through The Asthenic Syndrome‘s 153 minutes, the film appears to end, and the camera pulls back to reveal a man on a stage in front of a cinema screen in an auditorium. He introduces the actress who played the widow in the black-and-white film, but the audience are uninterested and file out noisily. One man remains after the others. He’s a teacher and the protagonist of the second film, which is in colour. The dialogue in this film is much like it is in the first. The teacher has narcolepsy – in fact, he fell asleep during the film-within-a-film (Wikipedia mistakenly implies the title refers to his narcolepsy, but asthenia is just a medical term for “weakness”). The Soviet Union depicted in the film is a grim and run-down place – I like the phrase someone used to describe The Asthenic Syndrome, “the last Soviet film and the first post-Soviet film” – but I  find it more interesting as a contrast to earlier optimistic Soviet films such as, say, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, made only a decade earlier. The Asthenic Syndrome‘s avant-garde approach does wear a bit thin over two and a half hours, although there’s some quite arresting imagery, and there’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the dialogue. I’m going to have watch The Asthenic Syndrome again, I think, to get a proper handle on it, but I sort of fell on balance that it belongs in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. And I’d like to see more of Muratova’s films.

50_cubanI Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the Mr Bongo 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because it included Lucía and Memories of Underdevelopment, and I knew little or nothing of the other two films. Well, one was by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed Memories of Underdevelopment; but I knew nothing about I Am Cuba (AKA Soy Cuba). So late one night I stuck it in the player, expecting an earnest documentary of communist Cuba, likely something of a chore to watch… but I loved it. And I don’t understand why it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s one of the most technically innovative films I have ever seen. It is a documentary about Cuba, but it uses some of the most astonishing camera techniques I’ve seen since first watching Eisenstein or Vertov. Obviously, some of the shots are almost routine these days, and done using CGI, but back in the early 1960s, they didn’t have that – and there are several where you have to wonder how the hell Kalatozov managed it. There’s one where the camera swoops from the street up the side of a building, then from the rooftop through windows and down to the street, that is quite astonishing. I Am Cuba is not a documentary in the usual sense of the word – there’s no earnest voiceover explaining what’s shown on the screen, just people and events in Cuba being filmed almost fly-on-the-wall. Apparently, the film didn’t go down very well when it was made, and was pretty much forgotten for thirty years, and only rediscovered in the early 1990s – and championed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution turned out to be an excellent buy – three excellent films and one very good one.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 853


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Moving pictures, #1

The first “films seen” post of 2015… Last year was a bit epic for DVD-watching, and I expect this year to be much the same… Three weeks into the year and I’ve already seen 29 films and rewatched season 1 of Babylon 5. I don’t document every movie I’ve watched in these posts – I mean, the less said about Solar Crisis the better (it was a charity shop find, okay?). Some films were rewatches, some were simply forgettable, and there’s not a lot I can say about Babylon 5 that’s not been said before by many others. So, it’s the usual mix of (mostly) classic films, I’m afraid…

playtimePlaytime*, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I knew very little about this film when I sat down to watch it – I knew who Tati was, of course; in fact, I’d seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot the year before (see here). But I hadn’t known quite how much of an… undertaking Playtime had been, how expensive a production, how enormous a film it proved to be. Apparently, it was a bit of a commercial flop on release, although critics acclaimed it. I loved it. Right from the opening in the mock-up of Orly Airport, with its clean retro-futurist lines. I loved the modernist look of the film, its Brutalist interiors and futurist gadgets. The plot, in which Hulot wanders from set-piece to set-piece, is almost incidental. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, more so than I seem to recall from the other Tati film I’d seen. And, of course, it just looks absolutely fantastic. So I bought a Blu-ray of it on eBay.

fearFear Eats The Soul*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Fassbinder famously based this film on Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows and, to be honest, I was expecting it to closer resemble Sirk’s movie that it actually did. Partly, this was because it was my first Fassbinder, so I had no real idea what to expect – it was probably also the first New German Cinema film I’ve seen; but I suspect my expectations were unrealistic and likely spoiled by Todd Haynes’ take on All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, which apes the look of Sirk’s film while extending its story. Fassbinder, on the other hand, makes free use of the story, but sets his story in present-day (for 1974) Munich. A widow in her sixties drops into a bar to get out of the rain, and so meets Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter who speaks broken German (the film’s actual title, Angst essen Seele auf, is broken German). The widow, Emmi, and Ali become friends, and then lovers, and she invites him to live with her. When the landlord tells Emmi that her lease doesn’t allow her to sublet, she tells him Ali is her fiancé. So Ali and Emmi marry – much to the disgust of Emmi’s adult offspring. But soon Emmi’s attitude toward her husband begins to align with those of her racist neighbours and friends, even though her children have come to accept Ali. Like Sirk’s masterpiece, Fear Eats The Soul shows a conventional woman entering into a relationship that which is uncomfortable to her family and peers, and then choosing to formalise that relationship (although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson don’t actually get married in All That Heaven Allows). But where Sirk’s film is about class, Fassbinder’s is very much about race, and especially about the presence of gastarbeiters in Germany. It’s a powerful story, and works especially well because of its low-key realist approach (unlike Sirk’s colour-saturated mise en scène, which I admit I love). Having now seen it, I think Fear Eats The Soul is not so much a reflection or homage to All That Heaven Allows as it is a complement to it.

mariabraunThe Marriage Of Maria Braun*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979, Germany). Did I mention I received a boxed set of Fassbinder DVDs for Christmas? It’s the Commemorative Collection 73-82 Volume 2. Obviously, I picked out the two best-known films in it to watch first. In The Marriage Of Maria Braun, the title character marries her boyfriend while he is home from the Front, they spend a day and a night together and then he’s off fighting again. Cut to the end of the war, and he doesn’t return home – she doesn’t know if he’s dead or still a POW held by the Russians. She gets a job at a bar that caters to American occupiers, and becomes the lover of one GI regular. At which point, her missing husband turns up and catches the pair in flagrante delicto. A struggle ensues, and Maria accidentally kills the GI. However, the husband takes the blame and is sentenced to prison for murder. Maria is determined to better her lot so when her husband is eventually released they can live a life of comfort. She meets a rich industrialist on a train, and he hires her as his personal assistant/mistress. She proves to have a head for business, and becomes rich. Meanwhile, the industrialist approaches the imprisoned husband, and the husband agrees to leave Germany on his release and not return to Maria. Later, after the industrialist has died, he returns – Maria has inherited everything, and is now very rich indeed. While Fassbinder didn’t evoke post-war Germany especially well – no doubt due to budgetary constraints; although von Trier, I thought, did a better job in Europa, albeit it was more representational – I thought this film a much more subtle piece than Fear Eats The Soul, and much the better for it. Maria Braun is a well-drawn and well-played character, and if the film puts the atrocities committed by the Nazis to one side (and, like Europa, paints the occupying Americans as heartless invaders rather than saviours), Maria’s profound selfishness and determination gives the story a solid anchor. Excellent stuff.

streetcar_named_desireA Streetcar Named Desire*, Elia Kazan (1950, USA). One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I watched only because it was on the list. I was aware of the film, and that it had made Marlon Brando a star, but that was about all. And, to be honest, what I knew of it didn’t really make me want to watch it. But it was on the list, so I bunged it on my rental list and, in due course, it popped through the letter-box. So I watched it. And… meh. It’s one of those films made on an indoor set whose stark lighting can’t hide the fact it’s as fake as a theatre flat. Brando was widely praised for his acting in the film, but I just found his put-on voice really annoying. Vivian Leigh was better, and managed to evoke the fragility of her character, but the final descent into madness was pure bathos. I can see how people would have liked it back in the day, but it’s all a bit OTT, a stage play turned up to 11, with much yelling and wailing and outbreaks of sudden violence. Ah well. One to cross off the list.

maleficentMaleficent, Robert Stromberg (2014, USA). The title character is, apparently, the evil queen in the Snow White story, although quite how this dark fantasy fits into the fairy tale is anybody’s guess – I think even Disney’s marketing department gave up on trying to persuade audiences of that one. Angelina Jolie, with prosthetic cheekbones and a pair of big fuck-off horns, plays the title character, who is really just misunderstood and not the evil piece of work the Brothers Grimm et al have painted her. Her peasant boyfriend, on the other hand, is. Evil, that is. Well, nasty. He even gets to be king – which is not how dynastic succession or divine right works, but this is a US film and they’ve never really understood the concept of royalty. For reasons I now forget, said king decides to raze the magic wood near his castle and in which Maleficent and her Thumper-y friends all live. So she seeks revenge by cursing the king’s new-born daughter. But I don’t recall the daughter being put to sleep – it may have been me who was sleeping – but instead she gallivanted about the magic forest and played  with all the weird faery creatures, while being maternally looked over by Maleficent. I’m not really sure what this film is meant to be – it reminded me of that other fairy tale mangled into a dark fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman; and while I have no problem with using fairy tales as source material, I’m not convinced Maleficent reflects well on the Sleeping Beauty story.

cranesThe Cranes Are Flying*, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957, USSR). I’m a big fan of both Tarkovsky’s and Sokurov’s films, and I’ve seen a number of other Russian movies – including bonkers sf film Kin-Dza-Dza, yet more bonkers Через тернии к звёздам, and even mighty Soviet historical epic Ilya Muromets. But I’d not seen much socialist drama, so The Cranes Are Flying was something new for me. It’s a WWII film, centred around the character of Veronika, a young woman. Her boyfriend Boris volunteers to fight, but is posted missing in action. Her parents are then killed in a bombing raid by the Germans, so Boris’s parents invite Veronika to live with them. Boris’s cousin Mark is also staying there, and he begins to pursue Veronika – she, of course, does not know Boris is dead, and she rejects his advances. He assaults her and shames her into marrying him. The family are moved further east, and Veronika works in a hospital caring for wounded soldiers. After an incident in a hospital, she decides to commit suicide, but at the last minute saves a boy from being hit by a car and adopts him. Boris’s father then learns that Mark escaped conscription by bribing an official, so he boots him out of the house. A comrade of Boris’s then turns up and informs Veronika that her boyfriend died a hero’s death… It’s all very grim, and each of the characters quite clearly maps onto roles played by the people of the USSR during WWII, both good and bad. While Veronika’s ending is hopeful rather than happy, the bad guy is caught and punished for his anti-socialist actions. As propaganda goes, The Cranes Are Flying was entertaining, if a little heavy-handed. The stark black-and-white cinematography was effective, and Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova was good as Veronika. Worth seeing.

timesevenWoman Times Seven, Vittorio de Sica (1967, Italy). Shirley MacLaine has made some odd films throughout her career, and this, I think, qualifies as one of them. It’s an anthology film, in which MacLaine plays seven parts, and they’re pretty much all the same. In the first, she’s a widow following her husband’s hearse to the cemetery, while her late husband’s doctor, played by Peter Sellers, tries to persuade her to marry him. In the second, she’s a young wife who returns home to find her husband (a different husband, obviously; MacLaine is playing different women) in bed with her best friend, so she heads out and meets up with a bunch of prostitutes. In the third, she’s a hippie translator who reads poetry, while naked, to a Scot and Italian who are members of the congress where she’s interpreting. The fourth sees MacLaine married to a best-selling author who is more in love with his fictional character than his wife, so MacLaine tries to become the fictional character, prompting the husband to have her examined by a psychiatrist. In the fifth, a society woman goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure a rival doesn’t wear the same designer gown as herself to the opera. The sixth appears to be set in New York and features a young married couple who are determined to commit suicide, except the husband isn’t quite so determined. And the seventh has MacLaine being stalked by Michael Caine after she meets Anita Ekberg for lunch. An odd film, and not even remotely funny.

affairAn Affair to Remember*, Leo McCarey (1957, USA). Unbelievably, I’d never actually seen this TV perennial, and since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I thought I should. I like 1950s melodramas, so I expected to like An Affair to Remember, but… Cary Grant was at his most tea-bag-tan-ish, and didn’t really convince as a French playboy (the former more than the latter). There was a little bit too much singing, and as the film progressed the schmaltz began to heap up in droves. And yet it all started so well – the shipboard romance was nicely handled, with plenty of witty banter. But after Deborah Kerr had been hit by a car… and gives up her singing career to teach poor children (sticks fingers down throat)… Obviously, a happy ending was always going to happen, but McCarey made sure he hit every emotional beat in Hollywood’s lexicon before reaching it. To be honest, it felt like a good 1950s melodrama badly welded to an inferior non-musical remake of An American In Paris.