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Moving pictures 2018, #22

Sometimes, I even convince myself these posts must be taking the piss – I mean, there may be two films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list here, but both are pretty obscure… and they’re probably the least obscure of the half-dozen. Jancsó films I buy as soon as the come available. Colorful was lent to me, and A Silent Voice was added to my rental list when I wasn’t looking. And Penda’s Fen I stumbled across on Amazon, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go…

Silence and Cry, Miklós Jancsó (1968, Hungary). I’m a fan of Jancsó’s films, even if I don’t understand them half the time. Watching Silence and Cry, it felt like an early attempt at Red Psalm (see here), a film it precedes by four years. Like the later film it is set at the same farmhouse, and it has the same sort of flowing camera movement, following the cast as they move around. And, also like that film, the cast are never still. Even when in conversation, they continue to stroll around. However, Silence and Cry is set in 1919, not 1890, after a nationalist revolution against the communists in power. A troop of soldiers occupy the farm – it may be a village, as it contains several separate dwellings; I don’t know – unaware that one of the men who lives there was a member of a Communist battalion. For their own amusement, however, they force him to undergo demeaning trials. All of which comers to a head. Like Red Psalm, the characters are more stand-ins for the roles played by people in Hungary’s chequered past than they are actual characters. But given Jancsó’s predilection for filming against flat landscapes in which only sparsely scattered trees appear, or framing such landscapes in the doorways and windows of interior scenes, then their lack of depth seems entirely appropriate. Despite the staged fell to much of the story, Jancsó’s camera-work, almost continually on the move, gives the story a flow and urgency it would not other wise possess. As far as I’m concerned, Jancsó is one of the great directors. I’d definitely put him in my top ten greatest directors – in alphabetical order, at this moment in time, they’d probably be: Antonioni, Dreyer, Ghatak, Godard, Haneke, Hitchcock, Jancsó, Jia, Ozu and Sokurov (sadly, no female directors).

Colorful, Keiichi Hara (2010, Japan). David Tallerman lent me this as he seems to be on a mission to convince me anime is not all completely weird shit like Utena Revolutionary Girl (see here). I know that already, of course, but I’m not going to turn down the lend of a film worth watching. And, okay, I thought Colorful laid it on a bit thick, but it was a good film nonetheless. Some of the animation was really quite lovely. A soul is prevented from reaching heaven, and returned to earth to inhabit the body of a fourteen-year-old boy who has just committed suicide. A guardian angel tells him he has six months to figure what he did wrong in his former life, and to fix whatever led the boy whose body he is currently occupying to take his own life. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and after making a complete hash of everything – through a combination of his own self-centredness and his failure to make an effort to tackle the problems of his host body. Eventually, he is befriended by a fellow pupil, whose completely non-judgemental treatment of him, and indeed everyone, leads him to redemption… and the discoveries he needed to fulfil his contract with his guardian angel. Who offers him as a reward, a continued life, with no knowledge of the trial he has just undergone. I do like these sort of anime films – ie, the realistic dramas, not that the central premise of this one, with its A Matter of Life and Death conceit, is especially realistic – but when I worked my way through the Studio Ghibli films, I much preferred the high school drama ones, and that seems to be holding true for anime films in general.

Wanda*, Barbara Loden (1970, USA). I’m not sure why this made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It feels a bit like a John Cassavetes film – improvised, almost guerrilla film-making, about working-class Americans, very strong representation of women (I should like Cassavetes’s films more than I do) – but it’s not an ensemble piece, it’s not telling the story of a group, it’s telling the story of a single woman and it’s very much from her point of view, with entirely female gaze. That’s something you won’t find in Hollywood movies, and forty-seven years ago I suspect it was vanishingly rare in independent US film-making. The title refers to a woman who leaves her husband, does not contest custody of their kids at the divorce hearing, runs away with a one-night stand, only to be abandoned by him, before falling in with a bank robber and being forced by him to act as accomplice. For all that, like Cassavetes’s films, Wanda struck me as more admirable than likeable. Barbara Loden was best-known as an actress, and was married to critically-acclaimed and influential director Elia Kazan. But Wanda was made on a budget of $100,000, with a crew of four, and Loden as writer, director and star. That’s about as good a definition of vanity project as you can get. And, of course, not all vanity projects are ego trips with no redeeming qualities. I suspect Wanda is a more important film than a single viewing might suggest, and, of course, it doesn’t help that it’s a grim and depressing story… Apparently, Loden directed it because she could not interested anyone else – including Kazan – in doing so. It was critically well-received on release, but Loden died ten years later, at age 48, while preparing to direct her second feature film. After seeing Wanda, I must admit I’m now interested in seeing some of her other films roles.

Peking Opera Blues*, Tsui Hark (1986, China). I should have guessed what this film might be like since I knew the name Tsui Hark and had seen his Once Upon a Time in China (see here), but the title fooled me as I thought it might be more like Farewell My Concubine. It wasn’t. The story does feature Peking Opera, from which women were banned from performing, but it’s by no means the central plot. Peking Opera Blues is more of an action/comedy than it is a social drama. It’s set in the 1920s, and depicts the attempts by Sun Yat-Sen supporters to get hold of a document proving the emperor has borrowed money from Western bankers. The paper is held by a general, and his daughter is one of the supporters trying to steal it. Then there’s a young woman who had stolen a box of jewellery during a raid on another general’s house, but she lost it. While trying to hide from the general’s soldiers, the rebels hide out in an inn hosting a Peking Opera show. The impresario’s daughter gets caught up in the whole thing, helping to hide them, then assisting them in their several attempts to purloin the letter (did you see what I did there?). Other than the setting, and the three female leads, this is a typical Hong Kong action/comedy of the time. The fight scenes are good, there’s plenty of broad comedy, and the three leads – Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh – are especially good. But the final scenes set during a performance of the Peking opera troupe, in which the three women, and their male accomplices, have taken over some of the roles, is a lot of fun. I’m not sure if Peking Opera Blues deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – it’s a lot of fun, but is it there because it’s atypical for its type? Is that enough? Not, I think, when you consider all the films that belong on the list but aren’t there. Still, it’s worth watching.

A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan). This anime film I actually rented – only to discover after watching it that David Tallerman had stuck it on my watch list during one of our afternoons out in Shalesmoor. The story is relatively simple: a deaf girl joins a new school, is bullied by the other students, years later the biggest bully bumps into her, having spent years unable to deal with people because of guilt over how he treated her, and tries to kindle a friendship. Her willingness to forgive him, despite the the mockery of other members of the class whom he still runs into, helps him deal with his guilt, and he soon finds he can meet the gaze of other people – and they don’t much care about, or even know, what he did. However, the other members of that high school class are happy for him to carry the blame for their treatment of the deaf girl, and many still deny their own cruelty and hate him for forcing them to confront their own behaviour. There’s a lot about A Silent Voice that reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his latest, Your Name (see here), although A Silent Voice is straight-up drama that uses some elements that feel like genre to emphasise aspects of its story. Whereas Your Name uses a time-slip narrative, which is about as genre as you can get. Recommended.

Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK). The title refers to an area near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. A teenager, the son of the local vicar, is not liked by his peers, chiefly because he’s a priggish know-it-all whose ideas on religion appal his liberal low Anglican parents. The government is engaged in some secret project nearby – probably digging a secret nuclear bunker – and the locals have had several meetings on the topic, at which the chief opposition has been a playwright known for writing controversial television plays. The schoolboy, meanwhile, who is very irritating, has various fantastical encounters, including angels, Elgar, whose music features heavily, and eventually King Penda. This is good stuff – unassuming, but with real intelligence and depth. It was broadcast as a Play for Today in 1974, and written by David Rudkin. It’s very English, in the way that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood is very English, but it’s an England that’s as foreign to me as it would be to a non-Brit. My England is the run-down and neglected industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire. Their streets of terraced houses, mills and factories and works fallen into ruin, tap rooms and chip shops. The only mythology is that which attaches to generations of the same family working in the same industry. There are no sleeping kings at the bottom of a pit shaft. So I find films – or, technically, television plays – like Penda’s Fen almost as fascinating as I would a film set in, say, Mali, or China, or Greenland… Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 906

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Moving pictures 2018, #11

I know I have a very broad taste in movies, but this half-dozen seems to be taking the piss a little. A Japanese tokusatsu, a spaghetti sci-fi (based on German pulp sf), the last of Jancsó’s self-referential Hungarian meta-comedies, three Children’s Film Foundation movies, a Bollywood film, and a Chinese romcom…

Cutie Honey, Hideaki Anno (2004, Japan). So I was looking for films to add to my Cinema Paradiso rental list when I saw this one and was surprised to recognise the director’s name – whose name I knew from the Evangelion films, of course. So I texted David Tallerman and asked him if he’d seen it. He’d never even heard of it. He immediately looked it up (and discovered the US special edition DVD came with a Cutie Honey lunch box) and bought the (vanilla edition) DVD. Meanwhile, I added it to my rental list and moved it to #1. And it arrived a few days later. And… Well, it makes MTV look like slow cinema. And there’s zero exposition. It is completely bonkers. In a way that Japanese films can only be. Cutie Honey is some sort of heroine, powered by a badge, or something, which was invented by her father, who makes only a couple of of fleeting appearances. And there’s a villain, who is now a tree (really) who wants to take over Japan, or something. And, okay, I’ve no real idea what was going on in this film. The opening scenes have Cutie Honey preventing the Golden Claw from kidnapping a scientist, in some of the most ridiculous fight scenes I’ve ver seen, but none of its seems to make much difference as halfway through a tower grows under the Tokyo Tower and lifts its several hundred feet in the air. And then Cutie Honey battles the villain’s minions, but is captured by swordsman who is half-white and half-black, like a yin-yang symbol, and can fly…. I suppose in many respects, Cutie Honey is not unlike some of the anime films I’ve seen, but having had no previous experience of tokusatsu, I’ve no idea if that’s typical. It was fun, in a mad sort of way. I’d add a couple to my rental list, but I’ve no way of knowing which are the good ones and which are the bad ones – and I’m only assuming Cutie Honey is good because of Anno’s name (because the Evangelion films are very good).

Mission Stardust, Primo Zeglio (1967, Italy). I have a sort of love-hate relationship with spaghetti sci-fi films, which is an awful label for science fiction films made during the the 1970s in Italy to cash in on a post-2001 market, but I can’t think of anything better. Some of them transcended their origins and are now considered cult films. Some vanished into obscurity. Rightfully so. Some are being rediscovered – thanks to releases on DVD by Shameless and Arrow. I have even bought some of them. Mission Stardust is loosely based on the Perry Rhodan series of books, the most successful science fiction series of all time, with more than 3000 volumes published since 1961. I seem to vaguely recall reading a couple of English translations back in the 1980s. Despite its success, there are few film adaptations. It’s claimed it influenced Eolomea, and other DEFA sf films, but only in as much as it was the public face of German sf. The DEFA sf films, incidentally, are good. Well, perhaps not Signale – ein Weltrainabenteuer (see here). Anyway, Mission Stardust has a mission to the Moon encounter a stranded alien spacecraft. A senior member of the crew is dying of leukaemia, but there is a cure on Earth. So the female commander of the alien spacecraft – who gratuitously changes her clothing in front of Perry Rhodan before leaving the spaceship – pilots the shuttle down to a small African nation. Where a crime lord sees a chance to seize power by kidnapping the alien commander. So there’s this weird mix of styles – what starts out as mid-sixties Italian sci-fi turns into a colonoial thriller, but one in which the good guys have super-advanced technology. One of the appeals of spaghetti sci-fi was always the design, that characteristic 1960s Italian design you see in some films of the period from the country. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be much in evidence in Mission Stardust. The alien shuttle looks more like a giant bathysphere than a spacecraft. And the model work is all a bit pants. I found this free on Amazon Prime, so it’s not like I’m out of pocket for having watched it. But it was rubbish, and in no way did it encourage me to read any of the Perry Rhodan books.

Ede megevé ebédem, Miklós Jancsó (2006, Hungary). I have now seen all six of Jancsó’s Kapa and Pepé films and I’m no wiser as to what they’re about. The two title characters play so many roles – including themselves! – throughout the series, and often within a single film. Not to mention Jancsó’s own appearances as himself, sometimes as the actual director of the film. And Gyula Hernádi, who wrote a number of Jancsó’s films, including co-writing credits on these, also pops up every now and again. In this one, Kapa and Pepé meditate on Hungarian capitalism. But not even using Google translate on Hungarian reviews helps explain what’s going on. One review machine-translates as: “Small house in the woods. Mucsi and Scherer are in it. They refused. A puppy protects them. Mucsi is dealing with something of a mystery. Maybe with escorts.” Um, yes. Pepé joins a mafia family who run a prison… but then the film flashes back to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, also starring Peter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi, and it all has something to do with voluntary execution, both in the mafia-run privatised prison and in Ancient Rome. I’m going to have to watch these six films again, probably several times, but I suspect I’ll never really understand what’s going on in them. But that can be a good thing too.

The Monster of Highgate Ponds / The Boy Who Turned Yellow / A Hitch in Time, Cavalcanti / Michael Powell / Jan Darnley-Smith (1961/1972/1978, UK). I added this collection of Children’s Film Foundation films to my rental wishlist because of the Michael Powell one. I’m a fan of the Archers – that’s Pressburger and Powell, not the radio serial – but I’d never seen The Boy Who Turned Yellow (although directed solely by Powell, the story and script was by Pressburger). I remember the CFF from my own childhood, short films that would play before the main feature at cinemas. I couldn’t tell you which ones I saw, and I’ve no real desire to plough all half-dozen CFF DVD collections the BFI have published. But the CFF was an excellent institution – although it does still exist, as the Children’s Media Foundation, but it hasn’t made films since 1985 after its chief source of funds, the Eady Levy, was abolished. That’s the thing about taxes, you see, they help pay for good things. And when governments cut taxes to win votes, those good things go away – not just the CFF, but the NHS, the welfare state, a proper public transport infrastructure, affordable utilities… Fuck the Tories. But, Weird Adventures… Each of the BFI collections is titled – there’s an Outer Space one (must add that one to my rental list), Runaways, Scary Stories, and so on. The three in this collection are science fiction, although hardly rigorous. In The Monster of Highgate Ponds, a travelling uncle leaves an egg for some sort of dragon with his young nephew and niece in Highgate. The egg hatches and the baby dragon imprints on the two kids. When it gets too big to hide at home, they hide it in Highgate Ponds, but discovery is inevitable – as are the bumbling crooks who try to kidnap the dragon in order to sell it to a zoo. Sadly, what charm the film has is spoiled by the really crappy stop-motion and man-in-a-suit dragon. The Boy Who Turned Yellow is better, although cringingly dated, and the lecturing is a bit heavy. A boy falls asleep in class during a lesson on electricity. On his way home, something weird happens and everyone within a small area in London turns bright yellow. The boy is visited by an alien from a planet of electrical beings, who is responsible for turning him yellow. The alien helps the boy find his pet mouse, who he had lost during a school trip to the Tower of London the previous day. It’s all very, well, CFF. In the final film, Patrick Troughton plays a time traveller. But he’s not Dr Who. And, in fact, it’s not him who does the travelling in time, but two schoolkids, who rescued him when his time machine collapsed on its unsuccessful trial run. Unfortunately, the time machine isn’t that effective and it never sends them to the intended time, meaning they’re usually inappropriately dressed. There’s a nice touch in that a teacher they hate, Sniffy Kemp, keeps on turning up in the different historical periods as a dramatic foil. This one more than the others reminded me of the CFF films I remembered from my childhood, probably because in 1978 I was a child. But they also feel much like the kids’ TV of the time I recall. However, nostalgia only has so much appeal – I mean, much as we complain about how bad things are now, and remember fondly life from previous decades, the 1970s were no utopia. I was insulated from a lot of bad stuff, of course – I was a kid. And though I admire some of the culture produced during that period, and am singularly unimpressed by some of today’s, I am inordinately fond of many of the things we take for granted in 2018, such as smartphones, streaming, cheap international travel (and free movement throughout the EU – while we’ve got it, anyway), or Google translate… (Not to mention a society that is way more equal in terms of LGBT or race relations… if considerably worse in terms of economic equality.) While I sometimes wish times were simpler, as they had been forty-odd years ago, I also know they really weren’t that simple back then, and likely no better than now in many respects, but with nylon sheets and drip-dry shirts, both of which the mere thought of having to suffer make my skin crawl… So I guess nostalgia has a part to play, just perhaps not that big a part. I suspect I’ll add a couple more of these CFF collections from the BFI to my rental list, and nostalgia will play a small part in that, but then I’ve no problem with wearing rose-tinted glasses providing you know you’re wearing them

Rock On!!, Abhishek Kapoor (2008, India). I recently upgraded my Fire TV Stick, and sold my old one to a friend. I forgot to factory-reset it before handing it over, and thought I’d better double-check my watchlist before he had a chance to plug it in. Because, well, you know… And while doing this using the Amazon website, I discovered that a shitload of Bollywood films had been added. So I bunged half a dozen on my watchlist. Including this one. I think this the first movie I’ve ever watched with two exclamation marks in the title. Four young guys in Mumbai in the 1990s formed a rock band, sort of MTV-friendly grunge, won a battle of the bands and were signed by a label. But the label’s plans and the band’s plans were not the same – the label-owner wasn’t interested in them playing their own instruments, for example. Things come to a head during the filming of the first promo video, when the director seems interested only in filming the lead singer. The guitarist kicks off, the lead singer walks out, and the band folds. Cut to ten years later. The lead singer is a successful executive in his father’s investment bank, the keyboard player now writes advertising jingles, the drummer works in his family’s jewellery shop, and the guitarist gives occasional music lessons while his wife runs a fishing business which barely manages to, er, put food on the table. The lead singer’s wife visits the drummer’s shop, unaware of who he is, discovers their connection, and decides to invite the band members to an upcoming birthday party. Which naturally leads into “we’re getting the band back together” (no prizes for spotting that reference), which ends up resetting wrongs from a decade before. Okay, the music was part of the product, a commercial movie, and for all that they were trying to be musos it sounded massively commercial, but it’s baked into the story. And this is merely a Bollywood take on well-used Hollywood material. There’s probably a 1940s version of it. In fact, I suspect one or two of the Gold Diggers movies from the 1930s might be progenitors. But, despite the US grunge rock, this was still very much a Bollywood film and I enjoyed it. Not a great movie, by any means, but a fun one. And currently free on Amazon Prime.

Zero Point Five Love, GengXiao (2014, China). I’m a big fan of China’s Sixth Generation directors and I’ve watched a lot of the more populist stuff in my time – like Jackie Chan – but the Chinese film industry is as broad as Hollywood, and probably nearly as old – see The Goddess, see here – so I’m always keen to see films from other countries that haven’t in some way been “curated”. And Zero Point Five Love appeared on Amazon Prime with no commentary so I put it on my watchlist. A Chinese girl newly returned to China after time spent in the UK falls in love with an upcoming young executive. They meet cute: she’s a dancer at a corporate event, slags off the CEO for being cheap to a young man who buys her a drink, only to discover he’s the CEO… It’s been a couple of weeks since I watched the film – and I really should write these sooner after watching them – and all I can remember is a fairly standard rom com plot played out in modern-day China with a pair of attractive and likeable leads and a number of English subtitles that really did not make much sense, like “Not as far as the slutty peacock” or “I can’t water your time seflishly anymore” or “I should be wayward for my love”. But, for all that, it’s a nice film. It’s a feel-good rom com and it does the job admirably. It’s no Jia Zhangke or Fei Mu, but neither does it claim to be. Had it been a Hollywood film itwould have been a tenth as interesting. Being Chinese, and a product of modern China, lent it some interest, but it was fairly standard romantic drama for all that. I don’t regret spending the time watching it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895


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Moving pictures 2017, #69

I have two of these posts left to round off my film-viewing in 2017. Which means 70 Moving picture posts, each of half a dozen movies (although one or two might only have been five movies), which by my reckoning, if my maths is right, is around 420 movies I reviewed during the year. Although, “review” might be a bit strong a term for my rambles and rants. Anyway, this time around I managed it again – six films, six different countries. Admittedly, half of the the films were by directors known to me, and I’ve seen other films by them, but never mind.

Hollywood Hotel, Busby Berkeley (1937, USA). That’s the last of the Busby Berkeley Collection 2, with only four films in this set instead of six. And they weren’t especially good ones. Hollywood Hotel was directed by Berkeley but doesn’t feature any of his signature production numbers, unfortunately. Dick Powell plays a small-town saxophonist who’s been hired by All Star Pictures in Hollywood. He leaves his position with Benny Goodman’s band – Benny Goodman played by Benny Goodman – flies to California and is put up in the eponymous hotel. Which is also where big movie star Mona Marshall has a suite. And Marshall has just thrown a diva tantrum and refuses to go to the premiere of her new film. So All Star Pictures put out a casting call for a lookalike, and hire Virginia Stanton to impersonate Marshall at the premiere (Marshall and Stanton are played by real-life sisters Lola and Rosemary Lane, of the Lane Sisters), and and also order new-hire Powell to accompany her. No one tells him, however, that she’s not the real article. Cue mistaken identity hilarity. Powell is then fired, and ends up working at a drive-in burger joint, before getting another chance at stardom, with the help of Stanton. Hollywood Hotel is mostly entertaining, although the musical numbers are a bit weak – except perhaps for the Benny Goodman ones. Lola Lane is terrible, but Rosemary Lane is good, which is weird. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a lack of a big production number, and, it has to be said, a completely unrealistic depiction of how Hollywood works… Meh.

Souvenir, Bavo Defurne (2016, Belgium). I found this on Amazon Prime, which occasionally throws up films worth seeing. Isabelle Huppert plays a factory worker who was once a winner of an analogue to the Eurovision contest. A young boxer who starts work at the factory recognises her, enters into a relationship with her, and persuades her to have another go at stardom. So she re-enters the pan-European song contest, with some help from her ex-mentor (and ex-lover), and proves a big success. Huppert plays her part with a weird distanced sort of smile on her face all the time – the character is an alcoholic, but I don’t think that’s what she’s trying to convey. And the song she sings during her auditions and performances isn’t actually very good. I don’t recall when Huppert is supposed to have won the contest, but it can’t have been that long ago, the eighties perhaps. And yet it sounds to me – and I’m no expert on French pop, although I’m a big fan of French bands Niagara and Guesch Patti, both of which were successful during the late eighties and early nineties, but they were pop rock, and not the drippy saccharine ballard Huppert sings. It’s an interesting story, and played well by its cast – although this is Huppert, so what do you expect – but it all felt a bit dated, and the music on which the story rested seemed too weak to carry the movie.

A mohácsi vész, Miklós Jancsó (2004, Hungary). This is the fifth of the Kapa and Pepé films, and just as baffling as the earlier four. Unlike the previous four films, it appears to be mostly historical, alth0ugh it doesn’t make a great effort to present an historically accurate mise-en-scène – which is not in itself a problem, as some great historical films have made little effort to convince in terms of mise-en-scène, and I’m thinking of several by Sokurov here as good examples…  But, of course, the Kapa and Pepé movies don’t so much revel in their anachronisms as make it a feature of the series. The two titular characters are, after all, supposed to be timeless. So while A mohácsi vész – the title translates as The Mohács Evil, and refers to the Battle of Mohács… although I’m not entirely sure if it’s the 1526 battle or the 1687 one, although the costumes suggest the former. But Péter is crowned king – and to be honest, I suspect the two swap identities beween films, if not in the films themselves – is crowned king, and battles the… Ottomans? (Not Ottomen obvs.)  But then the film jumps to the modern day, and the same character dynamics and relations – and even arguments – still seem to apply… although the mise-en-scène is now an abandoned factory or something. Music features just as heavily, although in this case it’s provided by a male-voice choir. Partway through the film, Kapa and Pepé make use of an autogyro type vehicle – it’s clearly faked up for the film and would otherwise not fly – but it feels more like a time-machine, especially that from George Pal’s 1960 film, although that may be simply be me layering my own cultural references on the film, especially given that in A mohácsi vész the autogryro seems to only fly. If that makes sense. I’m a big fan of Jancsó’s sixties films, with their overtly political stories, declamatory dialogue, and almost dance-like staging in which the cast are continually on the move. These Kapa and Pepé movies are completely different, although they play just as many games with the medium’s form and expectations – there are layers and layers to the movies, and that’s not taking into account the meta-cinematic nature of some of them in which Jancsó himself appears… and is killed… only to re-appear later as himself again. The six films, offered as a “set”, were a lucky find on eBay. I’m glad I bought them. And I’d still like more of Jancsó’s oeuvre to be made available.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh, Rajkumar Santoshi (2002, India). Back in the 1940s, while Mahatma Gandhi was waging a campaign of non-cooperation against the British in order to win India’s independence, Bhagat Singh was a member of the Hindustan Republican Association and fighting his own battle for independence. Where Gandhi promised self-rule, and replacement of the British by the Indian upper classes, Singh preached true equality and independence. He also used more traditional terrorist tactics to make his point – beginning with the murder of a police officer, and ending up with a symbolic bombing of the Indian parliament (symbolic in as much as it wasn’t intended to harm anyone, and Bhagat and his fellow bomber surrendered immediately afterward). Once in court, the HRA use the dock as a platform to get their message out to the country. In one scene, they cross-examine an ex-member of their group who is a government witness and trick him into revealing the recipe for a homemade bomb – which the press dutifully record, and print the next day. But, of course, this is also a Bollywood film, so there are dance numbers. And they’re handled quite well. To anyone not used to the Bollywood formula, their presence in an historical drama about the fight for Indian independence might seem odd, but… Bollywood. I enjoyed this, and learnt something about India’s twentieth-century history I hadn’t known (I had known the British behaved like total racists bastards, as we have done throughout our history, but I’d not known about Singh and the HRA). Worth seeing.

Indiscretion of an American Wife, Vittorio De Sica (1953, Italy). Apparently top US producer David O Selznick wanted a vehicle for his wife, actress Jennifer Jones. For whatever reason, he chose De Sica to make it – a story set in Italy, based on an Italian novella, starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift in the lead roles and an otherwise mostly Italian cast. De Sica did not deliver the happy rom com Sezlnick wanted, which is probably why this film is more or less forgotten. Which is a shame, as it’s actually pretty good. Unfortunately, the copy I watched – on one of those “three classic films on one disc” cheapo DVDs – was a pretty poor transfer. There’s a Criterion edition, which includes both Selznick’s cut and De Sica’s cut (I don’t know which cut I saw). It’s probably worth getting. Jones plays an American wife who returns to Rome to meet her ex-lover, an Italian. They discuss their relationship, and her impending departure (and return to her husband), and it’s all very well done. Jones and Clift are good in their roles – although the production was apparently troubled. I’ve seen the film described as a lost classic in several places and, Criterion edition notwithstanding, that does seem to be the case. Worth seeing.

Kangaroo, Tim Burstall (1987, Australia). My mother found this for me. It’s an Australian made-for-TV movie based on DH Lawrence’s semi-autobiographic novel Kangaroo, which is about his time in Australia. Although Lawrence is from the same part of the UK as I am – or perhaps that should be the other way round – ie, Nottinghamshire, and his most famous novels are set there, it’s easy to forget that he travelled a lot and lived in several different countries. He died in France, but his ashes are interred in Taos, New Mexico, USA. In Kangaroo, a notorious British writer arrives in Australia, only to find his reputation has preceded him. He is treated with hostility by the local authorities – they even search his lodgings for anti-war material. It doesn’t help that the writer gets involved in with several secretive political organisations, especially one run by the title character, a nickname for the fascist “Diggers Club”. One for fans of Lawrence only, and they’d probably be better off with the novel.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 894


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Moving pictures 2017, #63

I think this post pretty much brings me up to date with these film posts, although I’ve still got about eighty DVDs/Blu-rays on the pile to watch (some of them are rewatches, however, of films I’ve seen before). My last Moving pictures was a bit US heavy, and this one is a bit UK heavy. It also includes a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the first from the list I’ve seen for a while.

The Reckoning, Paul McGuigan (2003, UK). Another one lent to me by my mother, and about which I knew nothing. It’s set in late fourteenth century England. Paul Bettany, a priest, flees his parish after being caught bonking the wife of a parishioner. He meets up on the road with a troupe of mummers, and persuades them to let him join them. A broken bridge forces them to take a detour en route to their next gig and they end up in one of those sorts of places where everyone goes quiet when the mummers walk into the room and the big castle on the hill is still in the process of being built. Oh, and there’s a court in the village square sentencing a deaf-mute woman for the murder of her own son. The mummers’ play isn’t a big hit, so Bettany persuades them to create something new – a play not based on the Bible. In fact, it will be a play based on the murder of the woman’s son. So they look into it a bit, so they can get the details right… and discover it doesn’t add up. It’s a put-up job. The woman is clearly innocent. And all the clues point to someone else altogether… As murder-mysteries go, it’s well laid out and the clues all point in a very obvious direction. The twist isn’t so much whodunnit, as it is howthefuckdowemakesurejusticeisdone, which is a surprisingly relevant subgenre in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Willem Dafoe, the leader of the mummers, was perhaps too intense, and not helped by a wandering accent that managed not to convince as any form of regional English accent. Bettany, on the other hand, seemed a bit too modern. But the mise-en-scène was generally good. And it all hung together entertainingly. You could do much worse.

Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál, Miklós Jancsó (2002, Hungary). I’m really glad I bought these films, even though I have zero clue what’s going on in them. But at least I can watch them again… and again… and again… until I do. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. Like the previous three films in the series, Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál stars Zoltán Mucsi and Péter Scherer as Kapa and Pepe respectively, both of whom are some sort of combination of protagonist, exposition, commentary and comic foils, in a film that is about Hungary without being about Hungary. If that makes sense. The title translates as “Shut up, mate, don’t go to sleep”, but I’m not entirely sure how that relates to the plot – or rather, the narrative, as there isn’t much of a plot. The film opens with a man being told how he will be moulded into a pop star – it’s deeply cynical, all the more so for seemingly being filmed in a derelict house. The man appears several times throughout the film – as an actual rock star, singing deeply cynical songs about life in Hungary. In fact, music features more heavily in Kelj fel, komám, ne aludjál than I remember it doing in the earlier films, even though all four have included live musical performances. Kapa and Pepe first appear being led to a firing squad, but it’s all a joke. Except they’re playing Jews. And there are Nazis invading Poland, some of whom are keen to evade the liberating Soviets – and Kapa and Pepe are sort of go-betweens and freely offer useful advice. Nonetheless, they’re not impressed by the film, as they explain to Jancsó, who appears as himself, and writer Gyula Hernádi, who also appears as himself. Like the other Kapa and Pepe films I’ve seen, it’s all every cheap, but there are plenty of crane shots. The music is modern, with rock, rap and punk. One actor plays a US WWII officer, although he might have been British – he starts off by reading an excerpt from James Joyce, but later drives a Jeep and puts on a US accent, although it’s about as good as Dafoe’s regional English accent in The Reckoning… When I’ve watched all six of these films, I will watch them again. And I suspect I will still never really understand them. Rather than find that frustrating, it strikes me as a challenge.

Glastonbury Fayre, Nicolas Roeg & Peter Neal (1972, UK). I don’t know if I stuck this one my rental list because it was directed by Roeg, or simply because I was looking for documentaries for my documentary rental list and I quite enjoy documentaries abut music from 1965 – 1975. Glastonbury Fayre was shot at the 1971 Glastonbury Fair, the second festival held there but the first to be called a Glastonbury festival… and it couldn’t have been more different to the Glastonbury Festival of today. Lots of hippies. Most of them spaced out, on their own naivete if not on drugs. And performances by bands such as Fairport Convention, Family, Gong, Traffic, Tonto’s Expanding Head Band… As footage of a concert, Glastonbury Fayre is not great – you don’t get to see full performances, and what’s shown is only a selection of what appeared on stage. Roeg, and co-director Neal, seem more interested in the festival-goers, and there’s plenty of footage of them doing their, um, thing over the weekend. I do like music like this, and documentaries about this sort of music, although I don’t generally buy them. (But I will admit owning a few albums by early 1970s bands.) Worth seeing.

Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France). Resnais I know chiefly for Last Year in Marienbad, which straddles that fine line between pretentious self-indulgent crap and profound film-making, and I’m still not entirely sure on which side it falls; and Hiroshima mon amour, which, despite me being too squeamish to enjoy much of the film, I found surprisingly affecting. So Muriel came as something of a surprise: a subtle drama, filmed in colour, that plays as much with the forms of its narrative and it does with the narrative itself. The title refers to a woman the stepson of the protagonist was complicit in torturing and killing while serving in Algeria. The protagonist is Hélène, a widow who sells antiquies from her flat, and who takes up with an old lover, Alphonse. It’s all very domestic – except for the flashbacks of the stepson’s service in Algeria, which are presented as degraded film – and very subtle. The film takes its time to introduce the main characters and their relationships, only to present parts of the subsequent chronology out of sequence and with few clues to link them. It looks very drab and realistic, Resnais is not above staging scenes which embarrass his characters or call their, er, character into question. Resnais maide nineteen feature films in total. Muriel was his third – after Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year in Marienbad – and I’m now quite keen to explore his oeuvre. Having looked at the titles – both in French and English – of the films he made subsequent to Muriel, I’ve not heard of a single one. I am not, I freely admit, majorly au fait with French cinema, but I knew of several of Godard’s films before I watched them, and the same for Truffaut, Renoir, Demy, Rohmer, Chabrol, Varda…

A Brighter Summer Day*, Edward Yang (1991, Taiwan). I bought this Criterion Blu-Ray (some, it seems, they’ve started releasing in Region B) because it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I thought the two Yang films I’d seen previously were excellent, and it doesn’t appear to eb available for rental. Which is just as well. As the film is 237 minutes long! That’s nearly four hours. WTF. A Brighter Summer Day is, like the other two Yang films I’ve seen – Yi Yi (see here) and Taipei Story (see here) – concerned chiefly with Taiwanese people trying to make sense of living in Taiwan. In this case, the film is set much closer to the split with China and the exodus to Taiwan by Kuomintang members and sympathisers in 1949. The story is based around the senseless murder of a schoolgirl by her putative boyfriend, but much of the film’s four hours are involved in setting up the background, characters and relationshipsd which eventually lead to the – in the film’s original Mandarin title – titular murder. It opens with two boys spying on a film being made from the catwalks high up in the roof of a studio… which proves to be next-door to their school. And it transpires that Si’r, one of the boys, is something of a loser, neither good at school nor a member of one of the gangs which control the area. And it is a war between the two gangs, brought briefly to a halt by the planning of a pop concert, which eventually leads to Si’r murdering Ming, who was not really his girlfriend. This is a long, involved movie. It’s beautifully filmed – and the Criterion Blu-ray transfer is amazingly good – and it lokos gorgeous throughout. But it’s not the most compelling of narratives, and its mix of domestic drama and teenage delinquency, with occasional elements of political subversion, are not particularly dramatic when played out over four hours. It’s a bloody good film, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also a slow burning one, and something of an endurance test. I seriously need to see more of Yang’s films, although Yi Yi was apparently his last. Definitely worth seeing.

Lady Macbeth, William Oldroyd (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, which does occasionally throw up interesting films to watch for free. The film is based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov from 1865, in which the wife of  a rich Russian merchant, has an affair with one of his slaves, and then murders her father-in-law and then her husband. And that’s pretty much the plot of Lady Macbeth, except the story is relocated to the north-east of England, and it all smells like Brontë rather than Shakespeare. In fact, it feels much like a film by Andrea Arnold, although less, dare I say it, sympathetic to its female characters, especially the title character. The acting is uniformly good, the look and feel is very much Brontë, the plot is very much Shakespeare, and the cinematography and mise-en-scène has that static camera positioning, few jump cuts, and staginess that seems to be the vogue in art house cinema these days. I ike the style, I admit, although at least Peter Greenaway has the courage of his convictions and stages pretty much everything as if it were set on a, er, stage. However, as far as British cinema goes, I’d sooner this country were churning movies more like Lady Macbeth than Victoria & Abdul

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886


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Moving pictures 2017, #47

It happened again. I watched a film by a director, knowing nothing about him or his work when I put the disc in the player, and afterward went and bought everything by him I could find. The last time that happened, it was James Benning, an experimental film-maker (and very little of his extensive oeuvre is actually available on DVD). This time, it was Ben Rivers, an experimental film-maker… and he’s made only a handful of films.

Fatherland, Ken Loach (1986, UK). This is not an adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel of the same title, which was anyway published in 1992, and when that was adapted for the screen by HBO, they did a terrible job of it (see here). Not that I can really see Ken Loach adapting Harris’s novel in the first place. This Fatherland is about an East German singer/songwriter who escapes to the West and tries to forge out a career on the other side of the Wall. It’s been called Loach’s “least-popular film” according to Wikipedia, and part of the blame has been laid at the fact much of the dialogue is spoken in German. To be honest, I thought its biggest fault was that it was dull, and the central character was not especially interesting. Some of his music, particularly towards the end, wasn’t too bad, a very German style of rock, which reminded me a bit of my time spent studying in Germany back in the early 1990s. You could never describe Loach’s movies as films in search of a point to make, if anything they’re more likely to be obvious points somewhat bluntly encoded in the form of narrative cinema. In this one, it’s the lack of artistic freedom in East Berlin brought about by political constraints versus the lack of artistic freedom in West Berlin created by capitalist constraints. It’s a tired argument, and a little ironic coming from a committed socialist iconoclast like Loach – after all, clearly neither politics nor capitalism has prevented him from making films like Fatherland. It is nonetheless a point worth making: capitalism does not equal freedom. And it’s even more true today, thirty years later. Sadly, lowering the cost of entry to content creation to next to nothing has not resulted in a great flowering of iconoclastic art but a near endless deluge of identikit extruded commercial product of low quality. No one wants acclaim, they want dollars. The first mistake these creators are making is in assuming art is not political. Art is politics. Their second mistake is in assuming that what the world needs is another piece of derivative shit put together badly by an amateur. Most professionals may produce derivative shit, but they know exactly how to package it. The sound of jackboots echoing from MCU and tentpole sf blockbuster franchises has drowned out the voices of political film-makers like Loach. A right-wing press which seeks to trivialise him hasn’t helped either. Loach is by no means perfect, but his consistency is certainly admirable.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). All I knew about this film when I stuck it on my rental list was the unwieldy title, and that it was about a film-maker and a little bit meta. It sounded intriguing, although I didn’t have especially high expectations – that title, for one thing, it sounds like something you might find on one of those straight-to-streaming genre films you find buried deep down in Amazon Prime’s free movies… But it turns out the title is from a short story by Paul Bowles, author of the excellent The Sheltering Sky – and I really must read more Bowles, I have his The Spider’s House on the TBR – and indeed five minutes into this film, the protagonist, a film-maker, reads out the relevant section of Bowles’s story. The film then shifts to a (mostly) context-free documentary about the film-maker filming in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains with a cast of locals. As he becomes increasingly outrageous in his demands… Well, this is not a film in which things are explained, it’s almost as if plot is treated as an emergent phenomenon (um, I like that idea; it might be worth exploring…). In one sequence, the film-maker drives his Landrover through several villages while post-metal plays. There is no dialogue, there is no explanation. The sequence is several minutes long. It’s a narrative film which plays like a documentary for much of its length, in parts reminding me Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky. But it’s also a movie about the film-making process, and how the film-making process changes the people involved, particularly those co-opted from the location.  The cinematograhpy is mostly excellent , with occasional shots that approach the beauty of Pasolini’s aforementioned film, and a few that drop into cliché. But there’s a distance to the whole, an almost clinical eye on the proceedings, which signals this is not narrative cinema designed to make money from ticket sales. I’ve said before on this blog that I really like video installations, and though their quality is wildly variable, I find something fascinating in the way they’re so defiantly unlike commercial narrative cinema, despite being the same medium, using the same tools, and making use of many of the same narrative techniques… The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is much closer to narrative cinema than it is to video installation, but it manages to suggest it is something much closer to the latter. That’s one of the reasons why, after watching it, I bought everything by Rivers that was available on a certain humungous online retailer’s website.

Se Eu Fosse Você and Se Eu Foss Você 2, Daniel Filho (2006 and 2009, Brazil). The body-swap comedy is almost a subgenre in its own right, there have been that many films made with the premise. There are two main variations – husband/wife and parent/child. Se Eu Fosse Você – the title means “If I was you” – is a pretty straightforward Brazilian attempt at the former. Claudio and Helena are a happily-married and comfortably well-off couple, with a teenage daughter. He runs a small but critically successful, but now in danger of commercially failing, ad agency, she teaches a choir. A series of unlikely planetological events line up, lightning strikes, and the following morning the two have apparently exchanged bodies. Cue effeminate-acting man and butch-acting woman. Not to mention total confusion over their respective careers. Which, of course, all comes good in the end: he (ie, Helena) lands a major contract for a difficult lingerie client because “he” can put together a campaign that will appeal to women; she (ie, Claudio), on the other hand, finds the chosen choral music boring and livens it up a bit, to great success. Naturally, their rocky marriage is steadied, and Claudio’s business is saved. The sequel is set a couple of years later, and the marriage is once again wobbling, especially when Claudio decides a second honeymoon to Italy is out of the question as his business needs him. She throws him out, and he goes to stay with a friend, who is single and has less than progressive ideas about women. Which eventually results in one of those situations so beloved of marital drama films – he is standinging outside a nightclub, perfectly innocently, with a drunken female friend of his mate, when his wife spots him and assumes the worst. And then their daughter tells them she is pregnant. The father-to-be is a good catch, a millionaire’s son, but the family are very Catholic… so a wedding must be arranged quickly. And lo, the planets align once again, and bodies are swapped. She (ie, Claudio) is against the marriage, she (ie, Helena) is for it… The first film wasn’t great, and this one is much weaker. There is apparently a third film in the series. I won’t be bothering with it.

Dr Strange, Scott Derrickson (2016, USA). I don’t know why I continue to subject myself to MCU films. I think they’re awful, badly-made populist trash, and even the high-powered cast they hire can do little redeem them. Not that Benchmark Cummerbund is a good actor. But Tilda Swinton normally does better work than this. So, for that matter, does Mads Mikkelson. An arrogant womanising surgeon has his brilliant career cut short when he badly damages his hands in a crash in his supercar. In desperation, he turns to– I don’t know, for some reason, against all sense, he ends up in an invented Himalayan nation, where he’s taken under the wing of an Eastern mystic played by a white woman, and so becomes an occult agent of her organisation, but based in New York. There are some scenes that were ripped straight from Inception, there’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo that’s hard to swallow even in a MCU film, and Strange’s journey from arrogant shit to good person is actually closer to a journey from arrogant shit who is a neurosurgeon to arrogant shit who is a magician. There are also some effective special effects – see earlier mention of Inception – but it would be a poor MCU film that didn’t have zillions spent on its sfx (and yet, the one MCU film I think is halfway okay, Captain America, has probably the least overt sfx on screen of them all; perhaps that means something). Now that Amazon are closing down LoveFilm, I’ll no longer have access to as many rental films, and I used to bung populist crap on there to watch on a weekend night with a glass of wine or two… But since I never really liked them, I’m not entirely sure why I bothered. Now at least I won’t have to. (Incidentally, I see Amazon have listed this movie as “Marvel’s Dr Strange“, which is obvs to distinguish it from, er, Marvel’s other Dr Strange…)

Utolsó vacsora az Arabs Szürkénél, Miklós Jancsó (2001, Hungary). And so the third of Jancsó’s Kapa & Pepe films, and I’m even more confused than I was before. The film opens with the two characters waking up on a statue on top of the Millennium Monument in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square after a heavy night of drinking. There are some scenes set in an abandoned half-built building, including several shoot-outs between the two main characters and various gangsters. There’s a punk band in silly costumes, and a woman being pleasured by several young men. There’s a troupe of dancers who perform a traditional Hungarian folk dance (judging by the costumes). And then Kapa and Pepe are in the USA, visiting Niagara Falls, where they bump into… Miklós Jancsó. And they’re surprised to see him because they thought he was dead – although I seem to remember he did re-appear in the first film, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), after he had died in that film… And I have no fucking clue what is going on in these films. There’s definitely an argument against the trappings of capitalist society, and its attendant ruthlessness and fascination with symbols of success, not to mention several discussions about death. The dialogue is thick with swearwords and the musical interludes bonkers. Lots of scenes are also set on high places – Jancsó obviously liked his crane shots – and some are just a little too high for my comfort. The second time I came to watch this film, the transfer seemed much lower quality than I remembered it. It’s definitely lower quality than the previous two films. Weird. I’m going to have to watch it again some time, though, that’s for sure. Um, in a previous Moving pictures post I wondered about doing a themed post… I usually write about six films per post; there are six films in the Kapa & Pepe series… There’s an idea. Although I may end up a gibbering wreck afterwards.

Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK). Part of Rivers’s creative process is developing his 16mm film himself, in less than laboratory-like conditions. It makes the medium of his movies an artefact of the narrative, in much the same way that Aleksandr Sokurov, a favourite director, often distorts the picture of his movies, as in Mother and Son (see here) or Whispering Pages (see here). But while Sokurov deliberately distorts the image to produce a specific effect, Rivers allows the development process which turns the images captured by the camera into a record which can be viewed by anyone, to apply its own distortions. They are not, it has to be said, as overt – a graininess to the picture, the odd blink-and-miss-it flaw in the film… But the way Rivers shoots, or has shot certainly in this film, which is entirely black and white, also results in a slight flattening of the image, giving Two Years at Sea a look close to that of a photograph from the first half of the twentieth century. He also lets his camera linger for long moments on static scenes – although not to the extent James Benning does – which also reminds me of several Sokurov films (but I don’t think it’s a direct reference, more a commonality of approach). As for the plot… well, there isn’t one. Two Years at Sea documents a period in the life of Jake Williams, who lives in a beat-up house in the countryside in Scotland. The film makes much of his surroundings, watching clouds drift across hills, steam rise from forests, without telling us anything about Williams or his life. It is art, not narrative cinema. But, at 127 minutes, it’s too long to be a video installation. And besides, it’s partly fictional anyway, because it’s not an actual documentary of Williams and his life, never mind the sequence where his caravan floats up into the air… Which makes you wonder what Two Years at Sea is intended to be – for a video installation endlessly looped, well, 20 minutes is probably long enough, although I’ve a feeling Richard Mosse’s ‘Infra’ may be much longer… But over two hours is too long for a video installation, that’s cinema. But not cinema as it is commonly understood. I love this sort of stuff, so buying all of Rivers’s available output was a totally good call for me – and Two Years at Sea totally justified it. I will be following Rivers’s career from now on. And I thnk I might dig a bit deeper into video installations, instead of just relying on random visits to contemporary art museums during random visits to Nordic capital cities…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 879


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Moving pictures 2017, #44

Trying to maintain a varied diet of films to watch often means you find yourself watching something that doesn’t actually appeal. We all have our favourites, and we often stick to them, but I enjoy trying new things, discovering new favourites… even if you find some things you’ll know better to avoid in the future. Of the six films below, none I thought especially good. I prefer other films by Pasolini, I still have no idea what the Jancsó Kapa and Pepe films are about, and even the Herzog was far from one of his best…

The Decameron, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971, Italy). This was the first Pasolini I ever saw. According to my records, I rented it in 2009, although I don’t recall why. It wasn’t until I watched the Pasolini segment of RoGoPaG (see here) late last year that I thought his oeuvre might be worth exploring. And then The Gospel According to St Matthew, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, appeared free to watch on Amazon Prime, and then I rented his other film on the list, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom… And while I’ve sort of become a bit of a Pasolini fan, The Decameron is not among my favourites of his. Like his The Canterbury Tales, it’s an adaptation of some of the stories from a mediaeval story cycle, but Italian in this case rather than English. But in look and feel, it’s very similar (or rather, the other film is, as this one preceded it) and the humour is similarly scatological and earthy. So much so, in fact, that the film opens with a “tempo” in which Ninetto Davoli visits his long-lost sister (he thinks) only to be dropped into a latrine and is covered in shit, just so she can steal his money. Later, he finds himself imprisoned in the sarcophagus of a richly-dressed bishop in a cathedral. And so it goes. Another episode sees a man pretending to be deaf-mute in order to enjoy the sexual attentions of the nuns at a convent. The humour is broad, so are the points being made. And while the 14th-century source novel clearly influences the various tales, Pasolini’s own sensibilities, even back in the 1970s, are also on display. The stories are often crude, with a sense of humour even Talbot Rothwell would have shied from, but a celebration of the human condition still shines through. It’s hard to reach the end of a Pasolini film without feeling entertained or a little better about humanity in general. I don’t know that he was especially good at documenting humanity’s failings – to be honest, this box set has me totally confused as to what Pasolini was trying to achieve – but it’s difficult to finish one of his films without a smile. So props for that.

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2011, USA). I’m not sure what persuaded me to add this to my rental list, but I wish I hadn’t. It was the first film I’ve seen by Lonergan, and likely to be the last. Anna Paquin plays a New York student, who one day distracts a bus driver as he’s pulling away, causing him to run a red light and run over a woman crossing the street. But Paquin is so self-centred, she has to make the accident about herself, and though she recognises she did cause the accident she doesn’t actually admit it until near the end of this over-long, overly narcissistic, very dull, three-hour film. When she learns the bus driver has not been fired, she badgers the woman’s estranged relatives into sueing the MTA for damages, insisting as one of the conditions they sack him. There is not a single likeable character in this film – even Lonergan himself, who plays Paquin’s divorced father, is needy and neurotic and snide. Jean Reno plays a South American businessman who is in a relationship with Paquin’s mother, and while he seems the most pleasant character of the lot, he’s portrayed as a bit of a simpleton, and the anti-semitic remarks that eventually see him pushed out of the family are totally manufactured. At 90 minutes, Margaret would likely have outstayed its welcome; at three hours, it was torture. Perhaps you have to be American to appreciate this film; I am not American; I thought it was awful. Avoid.

Anyádi s szúnyogok, Miklós Jancsó (2000, Hungary). I’ve still no idea what these films are about, although a theme common to both this and the first film in the series, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), appears to be suicide. This film – whose title apparently translates as “Mother! The mosquitos!”, although the subtitles definitely said, “Fuck the mosquitoes!” at one point – initially appears to be set in in a train museum, with Kapa and Pepe playing train drivers or train engineers. But like the first film, the story quickly changes, and though the two main characters continue to play themselves, they’re now in different roles. There’s also a band who apear at intervals and play rock, with help of assorted pieces of defunct industrial equipment and, I seem to remember, a drill. They’re not unlike Norway’s Hurra Torpedo. And there’s another scene which is apparently set really high up on something, a statue I think, as if Jancsó were trying to prove a point by including some vertiginous scenes – although perhaps it’s only me, someone who suffers from vertigo, who would even think to mention them. There’s a review on imdb.com which is less than helpful. It says, for example, “The comedy jacket of the story gives a cool atmosphere”, and does very little to actually explain what is going on. I feel their pain – because I have no idea either. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought these six films and I hope one day to understand them.

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog (2011, USA). Herzog is one of the most interesting directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his documentaries are typically every bit as good as his feature films. But this one was a bit of a mis-step, I think. The topic is one that’s been over-subscribed in documentary films for decades, and Herzog’s straightforward yet off-kilter approach fails to make it interesting. Some of the questions he asks are a bit off-the-wall, and it’s clear the interviewees think so too, but… The subject is people on Death Row, two people, in fact, one of whom still maintains his innocence. Seriously, are there any people with more than two brain cells on this planet who need persuading that capital punishment is a bad thing? State-sanctioned murder is still murder. You can throw up as many examples of miscarriages of justice, or even bona fide monsters, but even that giant fairy in the sky so many people seem to think really exists, even he thinks it’s wrong. Into the Abyss is a series of interviews with two inmates on Death Row in Texas, and with those who know the inmates or were involved with their crimes, or their bringing to justice. But I don’t see the point of it all – granted, he’s preaching to the choir. But since the only argument that’s going to work on the pro-capital punishment crown is a nail-studded cluebat, I don’t see the point of documentaries like Into the Abyss, no mater how balanced, or how off-centre, the approach they take.

The Space Between Us, Peter Chelsom (2017, USA). The space between the two principals, the figures on the DVD cover art, is, well, space itself, ie, the space between Earth and Mars. Did you see what they did there? Clever, that. Asa Butterfield was born on Mars – his mother was the commander of the first mission to Mars, but happened to be pregnant at the time. NASA decided to keep Butterfield’s existence a secret. Sixteen years later, he is finally allowed to visit Earth. Which he thinks is great because he’s made a friend online, Britt Robertson, a spiky and clever, but good-hearted, foster kid, and because it also allows him to go looking for his father, whose identity he only knows from an old photo. Of course, NASA would sooner he stayed in seclusion at one of their facilities. But he escapes, goes and finds Robertson, and the two head across country looking for dear old dad. What is it with Hollywood films and their daddy issues? Can they please move past Misogynistic Pop Psych 101? Robertson is sparky, which is probably the new feisty; Butterfield is earnest and gauche. Gary Oldman phones in it. It’s a nice story, and they made a halfway decent fist of presenting a near-future which could send a mission to Mars and start a colony there. But it’s all too easy. Okay, I admit I watched this after seeing National Geographics miniseries Mars, but you might as well have changed Butterfield’s skin colour and you could have told pretty much the same story. Except, of course, white US audiences are more likely to sympathise with a star-crossed Martian than a star-crossed African-American. Oh, and the growing up on Mars so he has an enlarged heart is the sort of metaphor they beat out of you in the cheap writing workshops, the ones given by people better known for writing how-to books than actual books. Or screenplays, in this instance.

Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jakubowicz (2005, Venezuela). My first film from Venezuela. And despite being released in 2005, it was all a bit 1990s, to be honest. A young and well-off couple are kidnapped by three gang-bangers – this is a common thing in Caracas, it seems – who demand a ransom from the woman’s father. The young man escapes, leaving his girlfriend to the kidnappers’ mercy, but is later recaptured and killed. The father pays the ransom, the young woman is released. The film is shot in a very MTV-ish style, lots of cross-cuts, jittery cam, blurring and Dutch angles. The characters are introduced with stylised on-screen text bios. The acting is not all that good, although the female victim, played by Argentine actress Mia Maestro, is pretty good. If I’d seen this twenty years ago, I’d have been more impressed, and not just because, er, that was a decade before it was actually made.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Moving pictures 2017, #40

It’s odd how films drop into my viewing schedule – although “schedule” is far too strong a word – but… I watch a lot of rentals and, of course, I have a limited time to watch them (the longer it takes, the less rental discs I can get through in a month), whereas other films I own so I can watch them at any time… And yet only two of the below movies are actually rentals; the rest are films I’ve purchased. Also, we have the first Pasolini from the collection I bought… which makes him the second director, after Truffaut, who I’d seen previously (Truffaut in 2006, Pasolini in 2009) but had not been much bothered about, but in 2017 changed my mind sufficiently about their films to invest in a Blu-ray box set…

Kiss Me Deadly*, Robert Aldrich (1955, USA). This is one of a handful of classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’d always assumed I’d seen it before at some point, probably because the title is so iconic. But nothing in it seemed familiar as I watched it, so I guess not. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the maguffin in Kiss Me Deadly inspired the plot of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Ralph Meeker plays two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer (a character I know best from the Stacy Keach incarnation of the 1980s), who is out driving on a lonely country road one night when he gives a lift to a young woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Thugs then force his car off the road, take the two prisoner, knock out Hammer, torture the woman, then stage a car crash. Hammer survives. Determined to uncover who the woman was, and why she was murdered, he follows a series of clues, which eventually lead him to a beach house owned by a mysterious scientist, and a suitcase containing some radioactive material… which results in the film’s infamous ending – the beach house going up in a nuclear explosion. To be honest, it was all a bit ridiculous. Hammer has always been paper-thin as a character, and though Meeker made him more of a brutal thug than the white knight he’s usually protrayed, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. The Wikipedia page points out many of the Bunker Hill locations used in the film have since disappeared, but that seems a pretty thin reason for inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I suppose a certain notoriety has attached to the film, despite its daft premise and incomprehensible plotting, and I did enjoy it… But I’m not convinced it should be on the list.

Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). After watching the slog that was Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) – all 345 minutes of it! (see here) – I wasn’t expecting all that much of Privilege, and the fact it’s a late sixties docudrama and a musical…, well, that didn’t bode too well either. But I was surprised to discover I loved it. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann at the time, plays Steven Shorter, the UK’s most popular celebrity. The film opens, with documentary-style voiceover narration, as Shorter is welcomed back to the UK with a ticker tape parade. The film uses the same semi-documentary format, with occasional songs, as it follows Shorter’s career as a political tool to appease the masses and, later, a messianic figure to encourage church attendance and obedience. It’s all set in a 1970s dystopian UK, and Watkins is not afraid to use the completely absurd to make his point – the filming of the apple commercial, for example, is absolutely bonkers. I was reminded, while watching Privilege, of V for Vendetta, which covers similar territory, but uses fascist iconography as its dystopian credentials. Privilege, however, looks like it’s set in the same world as that inhabited by its contemporary viewers. Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, although played beautifully straight – but it does make its point far more bitingly and effectively than V for Vendetta. I want my own copy of Privilege now.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent (1970, USA). I hadn’t planned to buy this. I knew of the film, but had never seen it before, and when a brand new edition – the first since VHS, I think – appeared, I fancied seeing it and so put it on my rental list. But then it appeared in a recent Prime Day at a price of great cheapness, and so I sort of found myself sort of clicking on the buy button… A Blu-ray too. And… it’s sort of fun in that early 1970s earnest science fiction B-list sort of way – ie, a serious film the studios never expected anyone to take seriously, although it was made with serious intent. Much like Planet of the Apes. The title refers to a massive computer, supposedly heuristic, and probably more like an AI as sf understands the term, which is put in charge the US’s nuclear deterrent. with no human oversight, or possibility of human intervention. What could possibly go wrong? The film – based on a novel by forgotten Brit sf author DF Jones – avoids the obvious consequences of such hubristic foolishness. It transpires the USSR has only gone and done exactly the same thing. And Colossus and the Soviet AI, called Guardian, begin “talking” to each other – in the film’s most technologically cringe-inducing scene – then form a gestalt and, well, take over the world, ushering in a new age of computer-led fascism. In actual fact, Colossus: The Forbin Project feels like a better-made film than it probably deserves. I can’t quite figure out why. There are no A-listers in the cast, what few special effects the film possesses are adequate and very much of their time (although the Colossus CCTV reticule is quite prescient), and the multiple scenes with the president of the US feel a little soap-opera-ish… I think it’s because the film takes itself seriously and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Yes, there’s plenty of expository dialogue, but it’s well-anchored in the story, and it’s only really its datedness that embarrasses (the aforementioned scene aside). I felt kinder toward Colossus: The Forbin Project after it had finished than I did while watching it, and while I love the aesthetics of early 1970s near-future movies, I don’t think this one is ever going to be a favourite…

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten, Miklós Jancsó (1999, Hungary). This is the first of six low-budget semi-improvised comedy films written and directed by Jancsó after a long break from film-making. The films star a pair of gravediggers called Pepe and Kapa, played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi. And, I admit, I’m not entirely sure what I watched. This is not an unknown consequence of watching a Miklós Jancsó film and, to be fair, it’s one of the reasons I like them so much. This movie (the title is a bit of a slog to type) opens with a group of men haring up in 4WDs, jumping out of them and then shooting some women and a man in a house. The action cuts to a cemetery, where Kapa and Pepe appear. They start chatting to two old men, Jancsó himself and Gyula Hernádi, the writer of many of Jancsó’s earlier films.  Kapa and Pepe, who wear insignialess blue uniforms, seem to spend most of the time arguing and insulting each other, in quite coarse language, often involving passers by in their disputes. Then there’s a funeral, followed by a wedding and… a new section starts, and now Kapa is a yuppie and Pepe is a policeman, but then he turns into a yuppie too, except Kapa can remember him being a cop and so is confused (he’s not the only one). The two gravediggers are not the only characters to re-appear, or change roles, as the victims of the opening shooting also turn up as Kapa’s family, but this time shot by his niece. Not that he seems overly bothered. And Jancsó and Hernádi turn up too, despite being killed earlier… And then Pepi is walking up the cable of a suspension bridge to the top of the tower, with nothing but a narrow handrail to either side (and it looks massively dangerous). Kapa joins him, and the two start to argue, and I had to look away as I suffer from vertigo and… well, I was lost. I don’t even know what the title – it translates as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest – means or refers to (Kapa, in the guise of a corporate raider, calls himself “the Lord’s Lantern” after being shot in the head and coming back to life). The style is very different to the other Jancsó films I’ve seen, with cuts and close-ups and zooms and pull-backs, rather than long tracking shots and dolly shots. The acting is also much more natural, far less stylised – in fact, it’s pretty much what you would expect of a contemporary film. It’s all sort of bewildering, but in a completely different way to a film such as Electra, My Love, since the two main characters are not fixed – indeed in that earlier film, the characters are more or less concretized in mythology – but drift through a series of stories, maintaining their own identity even though there’s no narrative link from one story to the next. Despite being baffled by it, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll be watching this again, I think. And I’m looking forward to watching the five sequels…

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972, Italy). Pasolini was one of those directors whose name I ticked off after watching the films of theirs which had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But then earlier this year I watched his Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (see here), which proved far less gruesome than I’d expected (I’m extremely squeamish) and intriguing enough to persuade me Pasolini’s oeuvre was worth exploring further. So I stuck his Arabian Nights on my rental list, and a few weeks ago it duly arrived, I watched it (see here), and was much impressed. Enough to shell out for Six Films 1968 – 1975, a Blue-ray collection of, er, six films by Pasolini. And the first one, which I’d not seen, that I pulled from the box, was The Canterbury Tales. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise there was an English-language version of the film on the disc, so I ended up watching a film starring British actors dubbed into Italian with English subtitles. (Pasolini famously dubbed all his films into several languages.) And… I know of the source text, but I don’t know it, I’ve never read Chaucer. I don’t even know enough about it to judge Pasolini’s film as an adaptation. But I can judge it as a film and as a Pasolini film (based on the handful I’ve seen so far). In that respect, it clearly does everything Pasolini does, and it does them well. Perhaps the Chaplin pastiche/homage in ‘The Cook’s Tale’ is a bit too overt, and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ does feel a bit too much like a 1970s British sex-comedy, although somewhat… earthier. I’ve also no idea where the film was shot – in the UK, certainly, judging by the cast, but all the locations certainly look the part.

You, the Living, Roy Andersson (2007, Sweden). This is a sequel to Songs from the Second Storey, which I watched just before travelling to Sweden because it was, well, Swedish, although all things considered that might not have been too smart as it was  weird as shit… But I sort of enjoyed Songs from the Second Storey (see here) and I sort of enjoyed this sequel. Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong a word. As is “sequel”. Neither film is easy to describe. They have no plot, but are basically a series of vignettes, strung together with occasional linking material. The comedy is blacker than that really black thing they made earlier this year – or was it last year? – that’s the blackest thing ever, and Andersson shoots everything in sombre hues, and puts his cast in pale face make-up, which makes everything look even more miserable. You, the Living is worth seeing, although it’s unlikely to raise a chuckle, but make sure you’re in a good mood when you sit down to watch it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 875