Things don’t change overnight, much as we’d want them to. Okay, so I did manage to post a rant about science fiction on this blog recently… but I’m still watching – more or less – a movie a night, and most of those I think worth documenting. So the Moving pictures posts haven’t quite dialled back as much as I’d expected. And I’m still a little behind with getting them up on the blog. But I hope to be in a position to basically post one a week, with content covering other topics either side. But, like everything, it’s a work in progress…
Black Jack, Ken Loach (1979, UK). I have Loach all over my rental list because I think he’s a director whose oeuvre is worth exploring, even if not every film he made is actually any good (also true of many directors, to be fair). But then David Tallerman texted me, “Have you seen Black Jack?”, and I hadn’t so I moved it up my rental list. And lo, it appeared in the next set of discs. Which happens sometimes. Black Jack is based on a 1968 children’s novel of the same title by Leon Garfield, although I’m not sure the film was aimed at children per se. It’s set in 1750 in Yorkshire. A well-off couple, Quality in other words, hand their daughter over to a pair of doctors who run a sanatorium, because the daughter is unmanageable – there are hints it’s mental illness, but in other parts of the film it seems to be behavioural. Meanwhile, a lad is paid to look after the corpse of the title character by a “Tyburn widow”, a woman who bribed the men who fetched the bodies of criminals from the gallows so she could display the dead men in her front-room and charge money for the privilege of viewing it. But Black Jack is not dead. And he escapes, taking the boy with him. After helping a stuck coach, Black Jack conceives the idea of boobytrapping a ford so travellers would require his help. For a fee. And the first coach he waylays is the one carrying the two doctors and the daughter… The boy and the daughter escape and join a travelling medicine show. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast search for the missing daughter… This is low-budget film-making at its best. Although set nearly 230 years before it was made, Loach manages to present a convincing eighteenth-century England. The main actors, who are all teenagers, are uniformly good in their roles, although none of them went on to greater fame. And yet it all feels a bit like a Children’s Film Foundation movie – no bad thing, it must be said – although I don’t believe it was made as one. It has that sort of sophisticated approach to telling a story through film coupled with a really low budget that characterised a lot of CFF films. I thought it really good – and I hope that was why David texted to me to ask if I’d seen it…
Manderlay, Lars von Trier (2005, Denmark). I really didn’t like von Trier’s Dogville, and Manderlay is the sequel to it, so why, I hear you ask, would I want to watch this film? Okay, I picked it up for 99p for a charity shop, so it was worth a punt… But… I have a lot of time for von Trier as a film-maker, even if I really don’t like some of his films. He has a very interesting oeuvre. And while I didn’t like the rape and violence in Dogville, I thought the use of black box theatre staging a fascinating way to present the story. The good news is that Manderlay uses the same black box theatre staging. The bad news is that the story is possibly even worse. Grace Mulligan, played in Dogville by Nicole Kidman but now by Bryce Dallas Howard, passes by the eponymous Alabama plantation on her way home from Dogville. A woman approaches them and tells them a man is about to be whipped for stealing a bottle of wine. They enter the plantation and discover that slavery still seems to pertain within its borders. Except not really. The owner’s ancestor had emancipated his slaves, but they chose to continuing living as slaves because… well, because… I don’t know. Is von Trier trying to say they were so unsophisticated they had no idea what emancipation meant, or that they could be hoodwinked into believing they were better off unemancipated? And that it need a crusading young female like Grace Mulligan to teach them the error of their ways? Which she fails to do, because they seem bizarrely sceptical of freedom, as if the institution of slavery were no more than the Stanford Experiment writ large, which is, quite frankly, deeply offensive. As I said earlier, von Trier is an interesting film-maker, and the staging of Manderlay as black box theatre is certainly interesting… but the story is such a bad take on slavery it’s almost impossible to watch… and you have to wonder if that was deliberate, and if so, why would someone make a film that was difficult to watch? Unless von Trier was daft enough to think that black box theatre was the only “difficult” element of the film… It’s not like Manderlay could be categorised as a noble failure. It’s an awful film, made in an interesting way – and I can’t think of a phrase that might make that description palatable, or any reason why I should think of a phrase to make it palatable. It’s a film best avoided, but you shouldn’t write off von Trier because of it.
That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel (1977, France). I’m not a big Buñuel fan, although I’ve watched a number of his films. Um… checks records, discovers it’s actually ten Buñuel movies… A few of them I thought really good. But my finger sort of slipped on a near-monopolistic online retailer just after Christmas, and I ended up buying the Buñuel: The Essential Collection because some of the movies in it I’d not seen, and some of them I wanted to see again. The most recent film in the box set – it was actually Buñuel’s final film – is That Obscure Object of Desire, which was one I’d not seen. Initially, it appeared much like his other films from the 1970s – the same actors, the same presentation, the same sort of story… But like those other 1970s films it had that, well, genius twist that made it much more than the sum of its parts. That Obscure Object of Desire opens with Fernando Rey leaving Seville by train. A young woman tries to join the train, but he throws a bucket of water over her. He explains to the passengers in his compartment that he had been seduced by a woman called Conchita. The genius element of That Obscure Object of Desire is that Conchita is played by two actresses – Caroline Bouquet and Angela Molina, who play the character entirely differently – at different random times during the film. Rey is an unreconstructed 1970s male, and the film is presented from his viewpoint, but the use of two actresses as Conchita highlights their side of the story and so demonstrates the one-sidedness of Rey’s narrative. These films by Buñuel are not especially striking in the way they are filmed – the staging seems fairly unexemplary, to be honest – but the stories Buñuel chose to tell using cinema are excellent. Some are even pure genius. Not this one, perhaps; although it makes a series of pointed observations because of its peculiar presentation. I had bought this box set on a bit of a whim, having liked some of the films in it. But now I own it, and have seen more of its contents, I’m starting to realise it’s a bloody good collection to own. These are fascinating films and worth seeing.
Die Austernprinzessin, Ernst Lubitsch (1919, Germany). I bought this collection during Eureka’s Boxing Day sale, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Okay, so I am interested in early European silent cinema – which pretty much means early silent German cinema, and directors like Lubitsch, Lang. Murnau, and even Dreyer, who was Danish but made several silent films in Germany. The princess of the title – it translates as “The Oyster Princess” – is the heiress to a millionaire who built his fortune on oysters, and she is deeply unhappy that a rival will be married before her. So her father promises to find her a more impressive husband, and employs a matchmaker to do just that. And he finds an impoverished prince who is more than happy to marry a millionaire’s daughter… The film is apparently a comedy, although other than an element of slapstick to some of the action sequences, it’s hard to see why. True, it’s taking the piss out of the rich, and the American rich in particular, as the characters are all American – but that makes it new money which is the object of derision, as is explicitly shown in the fact an impoverished prince is seen as suitable marriage material. It feels like the film’s targets are just too obvious and over-used. I suspect even in 1919, they were obvious and over-used. The excessive consumption of the US, and its desire for validation by old world aristocracy, is lampooned to a ridiculous extent – there’s a scene, for example, in which a small carriage is pulled by ten horses, nine of which have liveried riders. The daughter is played by Ossi Oswalda, who is even more peremptory than she was in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it’s clear why she was such a popular star at the time – both the humour and drama are broad, and she plays them broad. But she is good on the screen, and looks to be having a great deal of fun, which is infectious. Die Austernprinzessin is probably the least satisfactory of the films I’ve watched so far from the collection – its humour felt too obvious, and there was nothing in its staging whcih made it stand out, other than a propensity to play every joke to the hilt. Watchable, certainly; but not especially memorable.
Colossal, Nacho Vigalondo (2016, Canada). I really liked Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, but I’d heard mixed reports about this one, his first film made outside Spain. And, let’s face it, the story didn’t sound like all that prepossessing – woman with a drink problem who works in a bar discovers when she walks through a playground the morning after finishing work, a monster appears in Seoul and apes her movements. I mean, how does that work? What does it mean? The answer to the first is: bizarre lightning strike. The answer to the second is: well, I suspect the only metaphor in action here is so obvious that most viewers would discount it: woman destroys Seoul like she destroys her own life. I mean, really? None of this is helped by having Anne Hathaway, a well-known actress, in the lead role. She is good, no doubt about that; but the rest of the cast are nobodies (so to speak) so she stands out. Things get complicated when the bar owner, and old friend, discovers that he materialises in Seoul as a giant robot. And he’s less concerned about hurting Koreans. So where Hathaway’s monster apologises for her actions, his robot goes on a rampage – and she is forced to fight him to stop him. To some extent, Colossal feels like an extended comedy sketch without a punchline. The fact that it’s well-played and the sections set in Seoul look really good seem immaterial. Meh.
Border, Alessio Cremonini (2013, Italy). I forget how I stumbled across this film, but it sounded like it might be interesting, so I rented it. A woman in Syria learns her husband has deserted the Syrian army and joined the rebels, meaning she is now in danger from the Secret Service and the Shahiba. So she and her sister hire a man to take them across the border into Turkey, where they hope to meet up with her husband. The man they hired introduces them to a driver, Bilal, a fugitive in his own right. But en route they are forced to abandoned their pickup truck after being followed by an army patrol. And then the two sisters are separated… Bilal and one of the sisters stumble across a village that was slaughtered by rebels. The only survivor is a young girl, who they take with them. But things do not go well for them… I’veseen a review of the film online that complains it fails “to adhere to clasic story structures”, which tells me more about the critic, and what’s wrong with the Hollywood film-making, than it does the film. The review also complains that because the two sisters wear the niqab for much of the film, and so only their eyes are visible, it makes it difficult for the viewer to identify with them. But it seems to me that’s actually one of the points Border is making, that’s it’s easier to dehumanise those suffering in wars in the Middle East, which in turn makes it easier for Westerners to ignore their complicity in creating, and fuelling, those wars in the first place. Border tell a straightforward story, in as much as the three characters head for the Turkish border and have random encounters along the way, but that reflects the arbitrary nature of survival in a war zone. I thought Border a good film.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895