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Moving pictures 2018, #45

Even given my usual viewing, this is a bit of an odd bunch – mostly films I stumbled across on Amazon Prime. Because good luck trying to actually find films on there, as the search function is next to fucking useless. I learnt this week there are a lot of Nollywood films available for free on Prime (I also learnt they’re mostly dreadful), so an ability to search by country of origin would be really useful…

Air Crew, Alexander Mitta (1980, Russia). There are also a number of Mosfilm and Lenfilm movies available on Prime, including Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – and Air Crew was the first of several I added to my watchlist. It is apparently the first disaster film made in the USSR, and was clearly modelled on 1970’s Airport (and sequels). The first half of the film sets up the lives of the three main characters, the captain of an Aeroflot Tu-154 who fears he will be grounded because of his age, a Lothario co-pilot on the same plane who enters into a relationship with a member of the cabin crew only for it to be torpedoed by an ex-girlfriend, and an ex-member of the crew who now flies helicopters picking up cosmonauts after they’ve landed and is involved in a custody battle for his son with his ex-wife. The film doesn’t pick up until the Tu-154 is diverted to Bidri (a made-up town) where an earthquake has struck. Air Crew switches to model-work, and the disaster that unfolds makes Thunderbirds look amateur. A plane crashes and explodes, the earth quake causes an oil refinery to, er, explode, and a lava flow hits the airport and causes everything to, um, explode. But the Tu-154 – now with helicopter pilot on board, although I can’t remember how he ended up there – manages to take off. But part of the skin on the upper fuselage has ripped open, and there’s something obstructing one of the elevators on the T-tail… So while at 10,000 feet or something, one of the crew has to crawl out through the intake into the jet engine in the tail onto the upper fuselage to nail the rip shut. Another has to climb up inside the tail and out onto the horizontal stabilisers to clear the obstruction. Tu-154s had a cruising speed of 850 kph, by the way. It’s all completely mad and makes Airport look a bit feeble. While the second half massively overwhelms the first half of the film, it does give a good, if somewhat rosy-tinted, portrait of life in the USSR. Which, for all its deprivations and secret police and shit, was considerably less sexist and racist and Islamophobic than US society was. Not a great film, but definitely one worth seeing.

Monkey Business, Norman McLeod (1931, USA). I’m not entirely sure why I’m watching these, to be honest. I don’t think they’re that funny, and Groucho’s famous wit has been massively over-hyped. In fact, Chico is the funniest of the four, and he’s playing a racial stereotype. Harpo is just a creepy stalker, and Zeppo, who had the coolest name of the four, was lumbered with the straight-man role because he was the most normal-looking. And I can’t even tell the plots apart. In this one, the four Marx Brothers stowaway aboard a ship en route to the US. So the plot is basically a series of jokes in which each of the brothers plays on their characteristics. Groucho is cynical and witty (more the former than the latter), Harpo is creepy, Chico plays a comedy racial stereotype but often has the best lines, and Zeppo is completely wasted in the straight-man role. Margaret Dumont, the “fifth Marx Brother”, doesn’t appear in this, which is probably why it’s so unmemorable. In fact, just about the only thing I can remember is the sketch with the fish barrels, which is pretty much all anyone can remember of this film. The Marx Brothers were… seminal? I don’t think so. Hugely popular in their time? Almost certainly. Their reputation as comedic geniuses has remained mostly undiminished for nearly 90 years, although it’s probably fair to say all the successful comedy stars from that period continue to enjoy a high reputation – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, etc. Yes, some of those are earlier – and the Marx Brothers were basically filming their Broadway shows for their early movies – but many of them survived into the 1930s and later. And, of them all, I’d say Buster Keaton was best in the early days, and Laurel and Hardy in the later days. The Marx Brothers brand of comedy was often done better by one-offs, like Hellzapoppin (see here), or by screwball romances starring Cary Grant or Clark Gable or Katherine Hepburn or Carole Lombard or Barbara Stanwyck…

Crime or Punishment?!?, Keralino Sandorovich (2009, Japan). I have no idea what this film was about, but that was not unexpected given that it was recommended by David Tallerman. A model, who was printed upside down in an issue of a magazine, and objects violently to the mistake in the magazine’s office, is sentenced to be “police chief for a day” for a small prefecture’s police force. This apparently does happen in Japan. She finds herself investing in the role, and proves surprisingly popular with the police officers. One of whom is a serial killer, and she knows this is because he’s an ex-lover and he had tried to kill her. There’s also a salaryman who witnesses a murder but is then hit by a lorry. The film jumps about in time, – that salaryman’s death appears a few times – and the young woman in the lead role doesn’t especially stand out, which means it all seems a bit confused and a bit confusing. The film is a black comedy, but there wasn’t a great deal that was comic about it – although I guess that’s the point with black comedies. The fact it’s all over the place doesn’t help. Enjoyable, but I’ve seen much better.

The Millionaire, Sergey Chekalov (2012, Ukraine). Doing your life over again is hardly the most original story out there, especially when it’s linked to romance. Kirill is about get engaged to the daughter of an oligarch. He’s an architect and wants to make a name for himself on his own, without his future father-in-law’s help. But when he discovers that’s never going to happen, he rejects his fiancée and walks away. At the reception he’s just left, a waitress tripped over his best mate and brought the champagne fountain crashing down. Kirill got chatting to her outside. After he decides to walk away, he gives her a call and meets up with her and her best friend. He and his best mate take the two women on a date. Ten years later, Kirill is married to the waitress, with a small son, she works as a teacher, and he still has yet to have one of his designs accepted. But he’s still best mates with his, er, best mate, who is now married to his wife’s best friend. But then Kirill attends a ten-year reunion, meets up with his ex-fiancée ad rues what might have been. Cue fairy godmother. Who, by means of a fatal collision with a speeding lorry, throws him into an alternative present where he’d been married to the oligarch’s daughter for ten years. And… he’s a total shit, stuck in a loveless and childless marriage, and his best-mate is poor and alcoholic and his “wife’s” best friend is a disabled writer because she was injured in the taxi ride on that night after her friend was fired from her job as waitress at the engagement party and died… It’s all very obvious, but it’s well-played and the cast are likeable. The Russian filter made it perhaps more interesting than it would have been otherwise, but it was all very glib and superficial and proof that Russian culture can be just as shallow as American culture.

The Villainess, Jung Byung-gil (2017, South Korea). I think this is the first film I’ve seen that opens with a FPS POV. In fact I’m not sure if there are any films that make use of first person as camera, although surely there must be some, as it’s such an obvious cinema narrative trick. In the opening ten minutes or so, we see a young woman, as if she were the camera, basically slaughter her way through a crowd of gangsters. Later, we learn what prompted this murderous spree. We also discover what happened immediately afterwards – the young woman was picked up by a secretive organisation and locked away and trained in a variety of skills… Yup, it’s the plot of La femme Nikita. Pretty much blow by blow. And, like Besson’s film, The Villainess is immensely stylish. Perhaps not definingly so, as Besson’s film was, which spawned a TV series, but then South Korean cinema has been definingly stylish on its own for a couple of decades now. In comparison to other Korean films, The Villainess scores highly; in comparison to La femme Nikita, it blows it out of the water action-wise but can’t reach its level of stylishness. So it’s a sort of swings and roundabouts, half a dozen of one and six of the other, sort of thing. The Villainess is nonetheless definitely worth seeing.

L’Assassino, Elio Petri (1961, Italy). I’d expected this to be a giallo thriller about a, well, an assassin. From the title. But assassino just means killer or murderer in Italian, not necessarily a hitman. In this case, it refers to an antique dealer, played by Marcello Mastronianni, who is taken in for questioning by the police but not told why. Eventually, he – and the viewer – learns it is because his lover, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, has gone missing. And is then found murdered. As the police interrogate Mastronianni, and take him out to view the scene of the crime, so the story is interrupted by flashbacks showing the relationship between Mastroianni and his lover. There’s one great sequence where acquaintances of Mastroianni’s character talk to camera about him, and, of course, their testimony contradicts his own self-serving account of his past. Petri is better known for his film The Tenth Victim, an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s short story, ‘The Seventh Victim’, which was subsequently novelised by, er, Sheckley. Anyway, Mastroianni is or isn’t the murderer of his lover and this film keeps its cards very close to its chest for much of its length. But that’s okay because it apes a Neorealist look, although the quality of the picture is much better and the cast are pretty much all professional. But even in 1961, Rome didn’t apparently look that much different from Rome in 1941 – in some areas at least, although part of the film takes place in newly-built suburbs and one section in an abandoned building site, for a hotel, all concrete floors and no walls. It’s an atmospheric piece, if not the piece I expected, but it works, and does actually make me want to make The Tenth Victim again.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929

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Moving pictures, #20

A nice geographical spread this time, although only two films are from the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

entranced_earthEntranced Earth*, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil). I watched this while drinking wine, as you do, and liked it so much I drunkenly went and bought it on Amazon, along with the other two films with which it forms a trilogy – Black God, White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Oh well, these things happen. I’ve since watched it again – sober, of course – and… I still loved it. It’s a very political film, set in the invented country of Eldorado during an election, in which a journalist tries to decide between a conservative candidate and a populist candidate, both of which are corrupt. The narrative skips back and forth in time and place – it opens at the governor’s palace, but there are also scenes with one of candidates out meeting the public, as well as scenes of the other candidate ranting about the natural superiority of the upper classes. The journalist is also a poet, so we get to see some of his poetry as well. And there’s an astonishing series of shots from high up on a radio mast beside a villa built on the top of a mountain. Plus a hot jazz score. And I hate jazz. It’s clearly influenced by France’s New Wave, but not to its detriment. I loved it. A damn good film. A plot that’s all politics, a non-linear narrative… Great stuff. As I said earlier. Obvs. [0]

late_autumnLate Autumn, Yasujirō Ozu (1960, Japan). And speaking of buying films from Amazon, I’m pretty sure I was sober when I purchased this but I’d actually meant to buy An Autumn Afternoon, which is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and not Late Autumn, which isn’t. Still, it’s Ozu and you can’t really go wrong with his films. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that taken with Tokyo Story, his most famous film, but I did like Floating Weeds, a later film, a great deal. And, having now watched Late Autumn, which I also liked a great deal, I think I ought to watch more of his films. Such as, er, An Autumn Afternoon. In tihs one, four middle-aged men turn up to the memorial service of a friend of theirs from college days, and decide to find a husband for the attractive daughter of their dead friend. It does not go well. Partly because the young woman does not want to leave her widowed mother alone, but also because the four blokes bungle their attempt at match-making. Late Autumn is a beautifully understated study of professional Japanese life. There are no theatrics, no histrionics, no need for special effects, just people going about their lives… and filmed with no pretensions by Ozu. [dual]

demyPeau d’âne, Jacques Demy (1970, France). Imagine a muscial version of Cinderella with Catherine Deneuve in the title role, only it’s not Cinderella it’s a story that’s a lot like it but a bit weird in places and, well, very Demy. But pretty much the same. Sort of. Deneuve plays a beautiful princess, whose father shows an un-paternal level of interest in her after her mother’s death. So she runs way to the woods, and with the help of magic appears as a poor and dirty servant girl when wearing the eponymous donkey skin. But the prince of a neighbouring country meets her (all his courtiers are red, whereas hers are blue), and wants to marry her. He has her ring – Cinderella’s slipper, in other words – and calls for every woman in the country to try on the ring so he can identify his one true love. Although the plot is pretty generic, the film is very Demy – the courtiers are completely coloured according to their court, so Deneuve’s retainers even wear blue face make-up; and, of course, there are songs, written by Michel Legrand, so if you’ve seen other Demy films you shold know what to expect. Mildly diverting. [2]

dancing_hawkDancing Hawk, Grzegorz Królikiewicz (1978, Poland). I really do like Polish cinema, butr I’m not entirely sure what to make of this one. Ostensibly, it’s the sotry of a self-made apparatchik, who rises high, only to lose it all in the end. But the opening shots depict his childhood during WWII, through much use of Dutch angles, weird shots and strange colour filters. And there’s an abrupt change to Polish realistic cinema, in that sort of TV drama style they do so well – I’m reminded of Wajda’s Man of Iron and Piestrak’s Test Pilota Pirxa – although that may just be the 1970s vibe. I should really wait until I’d rewatched this film before rewatching, but I’m getting a bit behind on my moving pictures posts… but perhaps I’ll write about it again after a rewatch. I will, however, note that I fancy getting that Królikiewicz box set… [0]

palefaceThe Paleface*, Norman Z MacLeod (1948, USA). There have been a number of films whose presence on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list I have found baffling, and none more so than this Bob Hope vehicle which manages to be mildly amusing and… well, that’s about all. My own list would include films others might find surprising, but I’d at least defend them; but there’s no documentation on the 1001 web site, so short of buying the actual book I’ve no way of knowing why this film makes the list. It certainly doesn’t deserve to – in fact, every other film in this post not on the list has a better claim to a place than The Paleface. Which may be slightly unfair, as there are plenty of films on the list which don’t belong on it. Bob Hope plays a dentist, and not a very sucessful one, whom Jane Russell decides to use as cover in her mission to travel eadt and discover who is running guns to the nasty Native Americans (who are, after all, trying to prevent their lands from being occupied by an invader; oh wait, the film doesn’t mention that).

strangerThe Stranger, Orson Welles (1946, USA). A war criminal is released so he can lead a war crimes investigator to a bigger fish. He’s followed to a small US town, where the investigator becomes suspicious of one of the local pillars of the community (played by Welles himself). Apparently, te film is notable for a number of reasons – that Welles wasn’t the first choice of director, and that the film incorporates newsreel footage of the Nazi death camps (because the Americans of the time didn’t really think they ever existed; some still don’t). My admiration for Welles’s work has grown over the past couple of years, and although it’s all too easy to forget quite how ground-breaking Citizen Kane was when it was made, so it’s easy to forget that many of his later films weren’t as straightforward as they initially appeared. The Stranger is by no means a highlight of his oeuvre, it is in most respects a relatively straightforward thriller of its time, but there’s lots to like in the less obvious details – such as the characterisation of some of the cast. Welles was never as clever cinematically as Hitchcock, but he was cleverer in other ways. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 758