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Moving pictures 2018, #63

I’m a bit behind on these, chiefly because I’ve been busy with other things during the last couple of weeks. Such as getting a new job. In Sweden. So those few nights when I’ve been at home, and not celebrating, I’ve been mostly watching TV series, such as season two of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, season three of Lost, and the first season of Dollhouse. I’ve got three or four of these posts to get out before the end of the year. Not to mention picking the best five movies – I’m dropping the documentary split I used in my best of the half-year post (see here) – out of the 600+ films I watched in 2018…

Anyway, aside from the last two films here, and they’re hardly twenty-first century commercial Hollywood extruded movie product, this post goes on a bit of a global tour, with a film from Europe, two from Asia and one from Africa.

Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2014, Turkey). It took me a couple of goes to get into this, but once I was twenty or so minutes into it, something clicked and I found myself engrossed – for all of its 196 minutes. True, I’ve seen films by Ceylan before, and I know he’s an excellent director. His cinematography distinguishes him, but I’ve found the tone of each of his films very different. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for example, is almost Tarantino-esque. And Winter Sleep very definitely isn’t. Aydın, once a famous actor, now owns a cave hotel in Cappadoccia and several properties in the town. The film opens with Aydın accompanying his agent to collect rent from a tenant… who has no job and no money, and reacts angrily to threats of more of his possessions being taken by bailiffs. But not as angrily as his young son, who throws a rock through the window Aydın’s Land Rover. That starts off an ongoing feud, in which Aydın cannot understand why the tenant is so angry and so uncooperative. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife is deteriorating, to the extent that he muscles in and rubbishes her charity campaign to fund local schools. So he decides to head to Istanbul, to work on his pet project, a history of Turkish theatre. But he gets sidetracked because one of his friends has been badmouthing him… And this is one of those films where things follow on naturally from one to the other but there’s no real story as such, except perhaps some form of realisation by Aydın over how badly he’s treated his friends and family. And tenants. A slow-mover, but definitely worth watching.

Prison, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). Bergman made a shitload of films – some for the cinema, some for television, some released on both media. Prison is Bergman’s first film both directed and solely written by him, and it’s notable because of its film-within-a-film narrative structure. Bergman apparently later disowned Prison, although there’s no good reason I could see while watching it why he should have done. It’s an early work, sure, and he used similar techniques, and covered similar topics, much better in later films. But Prison is still a good piece of drama, and if its story feels a bit belaboured at times that’s likely a consequence of Bergman’s lack of experience, although he had directed five films before this one. A film director is approached by an old teacher who tries to sell him a very obvious and very belaboured story of good and evil. The director has his co-workers discuss the story, but they pass on it… only to find real life sort of illustrating the old teacher’s story. But there’s another level of film-within-a-film, and that’s an explicit take on an early silent comedy, with people jumping in and out of windows and closets, all at faster-than-normal speed. Though its subject matter is as weighty as anything Bergman made, Prison didn’t feel especially grim or humourless. Perhaps that was why Bergman disowned it…

Let’s Make Laugh, Alfred Cheung (1983, China). This was apparently the most successful film in Hong Kong in 1983, and one of the most successful comedies in China for that decade. Shame then that it’s not at all funny. And I don’t think it’s an 1980s thing, or a Hong Kong thing. I mean, I’ve seen enough Hong Kong films to get the gurning thing, and the physical comedy, but while there’s plenty of the former there’s very little of the latter and much of the movie seems more focused on its romantic subplot. Idiot security guard is asked to guard a house because its owner has substantial debts, not knowing that owner has abandoned his wife and she’s still living in the property. But then the woman’s parents turn up, and she asks the guard to pretend to be her husband… The problem is the guard is such an idiot, and so useless, that he ever seems to achieve anything. And the wife is completely self-centred. Which means the romantic sub-plot, er, isn’t. I’ve seen some successful and very funny Hong Kong comedies – anything by Jackie Chan, for example – so the success of this one as a comedy is baffling.

Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal). I’ve now seen six films by Sembène, and have a seventh yet to watch, and I really do think his films are bloody brilliant. I’m astonished they’re so hard to find. He made eleven films, and only three are available in the UK, two on a single dual release. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed from the films I’ve watched, a theme that unites them, it’s that, in Sembène’s world, when men run things it’s absolute chaos, and it’s only when the women take over that things run smoothly. I can go for that. In Mandabi, a postman approaches the two wives of Ibrahima Dieng, who has been unemployed for several years, and tells them there is a money order for 250 Francs waiting for him at the post office. So he heads off to collect it. But the post office won’t give it to him without ID. And when he goes to the police station to get himself an ID, he needs another piece of paper… Meanwhile, his friends and family all want a piece of the money, and have started spending it. None of them realising, because none of them have read the letter accompanying the money order, that 30 Francs of the Fr 250 is for the nephew’s mother, Fr 200 to kept for the nephew, and only Fr 20 for Ibrahima… So on the one hand you have everyone spending money that isn’t theirs, while on the other Ibrahima gets himself further into debt in his efforts to persuade the post office to hand over the money order. The sight of Ibrahima, in his shining boubou, strutting down the street, convinced his fortunes have finally turned is one of the great comedy visuals.

The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles (2018, USA). This is one of those movies which has a more interesting production history than it does a plot. Welles, of course, was a true Hollywood maverick, and would finance his films himself, shooting them in parts over an extended period as he worked to raise the money to continue filming. And yet, in most cases, the films that resulted are pretty damn seamless. I came to Welles late, but I became a fan after seeing his later films rather than because of his more famous earlier ones. The Other Side of the Wind was not Welles’s last film, but it was locked in legal limbo for so long it’s only just finally been re-edited and released, thirty-three years after Welles died. And, in fact, pretty much the entire cast of The Other Side of the Wind are also now dead. It’s a mockumentary about a great director, played by John Huston, and the film he is working on, which appears to be the worst sort of New Hollywood soft porn director-as-auteur excess. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast – which comprises a number of familiar faces – all play pretty horrible Hollywood stereotypes. Movie industry stereotypes, that is, rather than the usual simplistic Hollywood characterisation. The end result is… an interesting historical document. But not a good film. Thee are good bits, of course – Welles was one of the best directors the US has produced – but this doesn’t feel like Welles at his best, and this version here – edited by Peter Bogdanovich, who plays Huston assistant – does its best but it’s not Welles’s vision and you can’t help but wonder how Welles would have put together the footage, especially when you remember other of his films, such as Mr Arkadin

After the Thin Man, WS Van Dyke (1936, USA). The thin man of The Thin Man was actually the villain of that original movie, but it proved so successful a film, and the characters played by Myrna Loy and William Powell so popular, that a sequel was made, with the perfectly understandable title of After the Thin Man (as in “following the previous film” or “following on from the villain of the previous film”), but which served only to confuse audiences into thinking Powell’s character, a semi-retired PI, was the Thin Man. And so the moniker sort of became his as the film series progressed. Otherwise, there’s no link between the story of After the Thin Man and The Thin Man. Loy and Powell are returning to their San Francisco home after a holiday away when they’re contacted by Loy’s tearful sister, whose playboy husband has vanished. He proves remarkably easy to find. Unfortunately, he’s involved in an extortion scam, and gets murdered for his pains. And the chief suspect is Loy’s tearful sister… Watching this film, you have to wonder how much of the boozing was acted, because while the dialogue between the two leads was certainly witty and snappy, and occasionally sounded ad-libbed although it may not have been, Powell did seem to have a shit-eating grin on his face for much of the film. The Thin Man was popular enough to spawn a series, but this follow-up felt weak, perhaps because it spent more time exploring Powell’s and Loy’s relationship than it did its mystery plot. Still, worth seeing if you like 1930s Hollywood movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2017, #37

To people visiting this site after following the link from the Apollo Quartet audio book humble bundle (here), apologies. I normally write about science fiction and writing and critcism and sometimes even space exploration and technology… but for the past 18 months the $dayjob has sort of taken over and this blog has sort of turned into a film blog. I like films, I’ve always liked films. And I like to think I have good taste in films. I especially like films from other cultures, or from directors with very distinctive visions – auteurs, if you will. So, sadly, I’ve been blogging a lot about films for the last year or so. Normal service will be resumed at some point. Then I’ll starting writing criticism and stuff about science fiction, I’ll have the bandwidth to to invest in that sort of stuff. But, for now, it’s movies mostly. But they are good movies. Mostly.

King Kong*, Merian C Cooper & Ernest B Schoedsack (1933, USA). Everyone knows the story of King Kong – you know, giant ape, “was beauty killed the beast” – although it’s likely from one of the remakes. The one I remember best is the Jessica Lange one from 1976… although, I say “remember”, but all I can actually recall is the basic story – you know, giant ape, “was beauty killed the beast”… This 1933 edition is the original, made by the guys who actually invented King Kong. A film director known for making adventurous and dangerous films is about to embark on his latest project, shooting on an island whose location he refuses to reveal. He has decided his project needs a love interest but can find no actress willing to accompany him on his expedition/shoot. Desperate, he goes looking for a suitable star on the night the ship he has chartered is due to depart… and stumbles across homeless Fay Wray, who is more than happy to accept his somewhat vague offer of employment. The ship sails to an uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific, where the natives worship a giant ape called Kong, and sacrifice young women to it at intervals. When the natives catch sight of Wray, they know Kong just gonna love her. (Why? Kong is a gorilla. Surely he lusts after, well, other gorillas?) The natives kidnap Wray and leave her for Kong. First mate on the ship and male love interest charges off to rescue her. There’s lots of stop-motion photography of Kong fighting dinosaurs. For 1933, it’s pretty effective. The hardy Americans manage to capture Kong, and take him back to New York to exhibit him to an eager audience… This is pure pulp, and unashamedly so. And, I guess, it could qualify as seminal, given that King Kong himself has become a cultural icon. And I can certainly understand the argument that seminal movies, as well as ones that are just plain excellent, belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You die list… And, let’s be fair, King Kong is pretty trashy, but it’s entertaining trash and it never claimed to be anything more (unlike some of its remakes kof kof). I’ve now seen it, I’m glad I’ve seen it, I’ll likely never ever see it again, but that’s okay.

The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi (2016, Iran). The title refers to Arthur Miller’s play, as the film’s two leads are rehearsing for a production of it in Tehran in which they play the chief roles. The film opens with their family fleeing from their apartment building as the tenants are afraid it is about to collapse – a wall has fallen over, and building standards are apparently so poor in Iran it’s not uncommon for the entire building to follow suit. Forced to find another home, they turn to a fellow cast-member, who offers them a recently-vacated apartment in his building. So they move in. The other tenants in the building, remembering the previous tenant of the apartment, are a little worried, because, well, because of what happens. One evening, on her own in the flat, the wife takes a shower. The entryphone buzzes. Thinking it’s her husband returning from the supermarket, she presses the button and unlocks the front door. It is not her husband. And when he does arrive home, he finds his wife is missing and there is blood in the bathroom. She’s in hospital, having been assaulted. She doesn’t know who her assailant was. But he’d been surprised by neighbours, and ran off, leaving his pickup truck behind. So the husband uses it to track the man down… You can imagine how this would go if it were made in Hollywood, with either Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson… Happily, it doesn’t do that. The wife wants to forget about the incident, the husband wants revenge. And when he identifies the attacker, he sets out to have his revenge, only for that to go not as intended. I know of ‘Death of a Salesman’, but I’m not that familiar with it, so how it integrates into the story of the film is lost on me. I suspect the two stories resonate off each other, but I’m guessing – you don’t see enough the play in the film to judge. I was less than taken with Farhadi’s film prior to this, The Past, which felt like an ordinary French drama, but The Salesman is much, much better, a return to the films Farhadi had been making before.

Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria). The title is a bit of a fib, as this documentary doesn’t follow the actual last ambulance still operating in the Bulgarian capital, although the fleet is a fraction of what it once was. It’s the age-old story: a civilised society creates free healthcare for all… but then in come the capitalists and rentiers and plutocrats and they know people will never refuse to pay for medical care so they defund and destroy the public system, then mendaciously claim it doesn’t work, and so privatise it, thus earning themselves great profits. This should be made a crime. It’s no better than selling arms – worse, in fact, because people can choose not to pull the trigger, but they cannot choose not to be ill or injured. It’s past time for a change in attitude: profiting from healthcare is the action of scumbags. Anyway, Sofia’s Last Ambulance follows a single ambulance over several days. The camera remains focused throughout on the crew, and the patients are never revealed. Many of the scenes show them sitting in the cabin of their ambulance. Judging by the way the vehicle bounces around, the roads in Sofia are also in a shocking state. There are several scenes also set in the back of the ambulance, including one where a man involved in a RTA is in severe pain and keeps on sitting up, despite being repeatedly told not to – so much so, the paramedic tells him, “If you don’t lie down, you’ll leave your leg here on the stretcher!” (or words to that effect). The scariest part about Sofia’s Last Ambulance is that it’s a pretty good indication of what the NHS will look like post-Brexit, post- a decade of Tory cuts and corruption and robbery and lies. I’m actually starting to look back on Thatcher’s government with fondness, that’s how incompetent, malicious, corrupt and damaging both Cameron’s and May’s governments have been, and still are being. Their excuses are so thin, only a moron would swallow them. Bah. Sofia’s Last Ambulance: an excellent documentary. The UK’s Conservative government: a bunch of criminals that has repeatedly abused human rights.

Children of Heaven, Majid Majidi (1997, Iran). While there’s no mistaking Iranian cinema, I do sometimes have trouble distinguishing its directors – well, mostly. Children of Heaven, for example, reminded me of The Apple, but that was directed by Samira Makhmalbaf. And while Kiarostami possessed a singular vision, it was evident more in the structure of his films than in the shots he framed or the stories he told. Of course, there’s always a danger in confusing characteristics of a nation’s cinema with the visions of individual directors. After all, not every film made in India is three hours long and features singing and dancing. And while I’ve seen a number of films from Iran – twenty-one, at the last count – I doubt that’s enough to get a true handle on the film-making traditions in the country. After all, in this Moving pictures post alone, there are two Iranian directors, Majidi and Farhadi, and both create very different films, but both of which seem, to me, very much portraits of their country. In Children of Heaven, a young boy and his younger sister are forced to share a pair of ratty old plimsolls – because the sister’s shoes were stolen when the boy was on way hone from picking them up from the cobbler. The shoe-sharing results in the boy being late for school several times, and also several amusing incidents with the girl losing one or the other plimsoll (as they’re too big for her). But then she spots her old shoes on another girl’s feet, and follows her home. But she can’t work up the courage to claim her shoes back, and the girl seems in innocent of the theft anyway. The boy’s school then announces there is a nation-wide children’s 4-km running competition, the third prize for which is a holiday and a pair of Adidas trainers. The boy enters, and wins a place on his school’s team. He wants to win third prize, so he can have the trainers, and his sister then have the ratty plimsolls for herself… For a film whose two leads are under the age of ten but operating in an adult world, it comes as no surprise that Children of Heaven is big on charm. There’s not a great deal in the lives of the working-class Iranian in Tehran that’s actually charming per se – their father has to beg for work, and goes round pressing on entry buzzers at big houses asking for gardening work. and, to be fair, the whole plot hinges on the fact the family cannot to keep the two children properly shod. But the two kids are absolutely fantastic in their roles, and seeing how well they handle their parts actually makes the movie quite uplifting. They’re all in tears at the end, and they’re not tears of happiness, but it’s nonetheless a happy ending. I forget now why I added this film to my rental list, but it really is very good. Definitely worth watching.

Once upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011, Turkey). I forget also why I added this to my rental list – or rather, I forget who recommended it and when. I’ve watched less than half a dozen films from Turkey, but I know Ceylan’s name from Uzak, which I watched back in 2012. And I remember it as being very good. Which ended up making Once Upon a Time in Anatolia something of a curate’s egg. It feels in part like an attempt at a Tarantino film (but why would anyone want to do that?), and follows a plot that could take place just about anywhere… yet it’s still peculiarly Turkish. The police have driven two murders out into the country to dig up the body of their victim. But the murderers are having trouble remembering precisely where they buried it. Meanwhile, the police talk among themselves, sometimes in Tarantino-esque dialogue, sometimes in the sort of elliptical hypothetical story more common in East European/West Asian films and stories. Eventually, the murderers take the police to the right place, and they dig up their victim. But then they realise they have no body-bags, and the corpse won’t fit in the boots of their cars. Ths is a film in which the story being told is actually incidental to the dialogue – the hunt for the murder victim’s buried body just provides structure, everything is in the conversations between the principals. And the problem with such films is that because the dialoguie skips all over the place, there’s no real structure to the story. Once upon a Time in Anatolia works because the hunt for the body is surreal enough, and yet real enough, to provide a framework for the dialogue. And some of the dialogue also links back into the framing plot – such as the one about the man whose wife died of mysterious means on the day she said she would die, and how an autopsy revealed she’d had a heart attack but not how she’d been able to predict it – and that connects to the autopsy of the murder victim and its findings. A good film. I think I’ll add the rest of Ceylan’s oeuvre – he’s made seven feature-length films, all of which are available – to my rental list.

Eroica, Andrzej Munk (1958, Poland). Munk’s Passenger is an incomplete classic of cinema, but he apparently managed to finish three movies, of which Eroica is the second. Though the the title refers to a piece of classical music – by Beethoven – its alternative title of “Heroism”, while obvious in the way US publishers like to be obvious, does explain its story better. The film consist of two separate stories, both of which take place in Poland during WWII. (There was apparently a third segment, but Munk cut it, and it eventually appeared on Polish television fourteen years later.) In the first story, a con-man deserts from his home guard unit and returns home to discover his wife has taken up with the commanding officer of the Hungarian company garrisoned locally. The Hungarian tells him he’s willing to change sides, and bring his men and artillery over to the Poles. So the con-man – called Dzidziuś, which Google translate tells me means “baby”, but which the subtitles translate as “Babyface”, an odd name for a man in his thirties – must walk to Warsaw to tell the Home Army about the Hungarian’s offer. And then head back home to offer terms, and then back again to give the Hungarian’s response. The second story is set in a POW camp. A Polish officer allegedly succeeded in escaping, the only one to do so, and his success has been good for morale. Except, he didn’t escape, he’s been hiding in the attic all the time. But those who know this can’t reveal it because he would then be taken by the German guards and, of course, it would be bad for prisoner morale. Meanwhile, the other prisoners make assorted fruitless attempts to escape. The story focuses on a group of officers sharing a single bunk-room – the camp comprises stone buildings, rather than the wooden huts more commonly seen in such films – as seen thrugh the eyes of two new prisoners assigned to the room. It doesn’t take a genius to see how the alternative title applies, although they’re typically Polish, and blackly comic, definitions of the term: the man who performs heroic deeds simply in order to have an easier life, and the hero whose reputation rests on a deed that was a lie. Another solid entry in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 873