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Moving pictures, #9

Eighty percent of this post’s films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although that was more by accident than design. The Exorcist, for example, was a charity shop find; and the rest were just the ones the rental services sent me.

price_achmedThe Adventures of Prince Achmed*, Lotte Reiniger (1926, Germany). Another film on the list that would otherwise have never pinged on my radar – and not just because of its age, since I do, after all, like quite a few silent films (particularly those by Murnau, Dreyer and Lang). But The Adventures of Prince Achmed is also an animated film, done using a silhouette puppetry technique like the shadow theatre of Indonesia. It’s also apparently the oldest surviving animated film. The story is based on one from 1001 Nights, in which a prince visits a strange land on a flying horse, falls in love with the beautiful ruler, fights off an attack by demons, but she’s kidnapped by an evil magician, who traps Achmed under a boulder, but a witch rescues him, and then Achmed rescues Aladdin who is being attacked by a monster – cue 1001 Nights style flashback giving Aladdin’s back-story – and then the witch and the magician fight and the witch wins, so Achmed and Aladdin can rescue the princess, which involves fighting a hydra, but eventually Achmed wins that too, with the witch’s help, and they all live happily ever after… At 65 minutes, this does tend to drag a bit, even though there’s a lot of story to get through. The copy I watched had English narration and English intertitles, although only the intertitles were really necessary. The narration did emphasise the 1001 Nights nature of the story, however. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and can cross it off the list, but I’ll not be adding it to the wants list.

exorcistThe Exorcist*, William Friedkin (1973, USA). Back when I was at school, I worked my way through the first three of the Omen novelizations, although it was many years before I actually saw the films. The Exorcist, however, is an adaptation of a novel, which, despite reading the Omen books, despite, at that time, reading novels by James Herbert and Guy N Smith, I’ve never read. Nor did I ever see the film. But then I was never much of a horror fan, and even less so for films than books. And I’m far too squeamish to watch torture porn. But, The Exorcist… I knew the story, of course; and I’d heard about some of its more famous scenes. But it still came as a surprise when I started watching it that a) it begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, and b) the lead character at that point is played by Max von Sydow. Also surprising is that The Exorcist is very much a 1970s film, in fact, it’s more a 1970s film than it is a horror film. If that makes sense. I’d relied on the film’s age meaning it was unlikely to trigger my squeam, if only because horror effects were so much more cinematic and less realistic back in the day; but in the event I wasn’t in the slightest bothered by even the most gruesome parts of the film – the projectile vomiting, the 360 head-turning thing – and even then they didn’t make an appearance until well near the end of the movie. I can see how the film has become iconic, although there’s not much in it that actually stands out. It is in all respects a typical 1970s movie adaptation of a novel, with a cast of vaguely familiar faces, a story that crams in far more of the book than is really needed, and solid directing and cinematography. I’m not sure it belongs on the list, however – and that’s not just because of my prejudice against horror films.

presidentThe President, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1919, Denmark). I count Dreyer’s Gertrud among my favourite films, and think extremely highly of his Day Of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc (not that his other films are far behind). But Dreyer spent the first part of his career making silent films in Denmark and Sweden, few of which were especially successful, before heading to France to make The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Danske Filminstitut has released several of Dreyer’s early films on DVD and Blu-ray (his later movies are available in excellent editions from the Bfi), and Præsidenten (The President), Dreyer’s first feature film, is one of them. And having now seen it, I think I understand why it may not have hugely successful. It’s very, well, talky. There are pages and pages of intertitles. And the story, based on the novel Der Präsident by Austrian writer Karl Emil Franzos, is pretty complex for a silent film of 75 minutes. It’s also pretty grim. A Danish aristocrat returns to his home town as the president of the local judiciary, and one of his cases he’s due to see turns out to be a charge of infanticide against his daughter. He’d had an affair with his uncle’s governess, but refused to marry her because his father had advised him to never marry a commoner. He recuses himself and pleads for clemency – but the woman is sentenced to death. The aristocrat is assigned to another town, but before leaving he arranges for his daughter’s escape. Years later, he bumps into her and learns she is affianced to a plantation owner from Java. He returns to his home town to confess he organised her escape but is told that to do so would undermine the judiciary – and if he insists on confessing, then they will track down his daughter and see that her sentence is passed. All those intertitles, and the film even starts with a flashback… it makes for a confusing story.

apuThe World of Apu*, Satyajit Ray (1959, India). This is third and final film of Ray’s Apu trilogy, following on from Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito (The Unvanquished) – um, I should really be consistent and use the Bengali titles for all three, so this third film is Apur Sansa. Anyway, I saw the first of these back in 2009 and the second in 2014, but in the last year or so – after seeing Jalsaghar (The Music Room) – I’ve come to a new appreciation of Ray’s films and am determined to see more of them. Anyway, Apur Sansa is the third film to feature the titular character, but unlike the other two is not based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Apu is a young man, unable to enter university because of lack of money, and struggling to find a job. He fancies himself a writer and is working on a novel. He accompanies a friend back to his home village for a cousin’s wedding. But on the wedding day, the groom has a mental breakdown. Another groom is desperately sought, since the wedding date is auspicious and to not marry off the bride would blight her life forever. After some persuading, Apu reluctantly agrees to take the groom’s place. He and his new wife return to Kolkata, and soon settle into a loving relationship. But when the wife, Aparna, returns to her home village, she dies giving birth to their first child. Apu blames the child for his wife’s death, and leaves his job and his home. He travels about India, taking odd jobs, and is only reunited with his son five years later when his friend comes looking for him and persuades him the boy needs him. The final scene, as had been long recognised, is a killer. There’s a starkness to Ray’s cinematography and staging, not to mention the social realism of the poverty he unapologetically documents, that gives Ray’s films a solid foundation of emotional power. Certainly a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I plan to watch more Ray.

jfkJFK*, Oliver Stone (1991, USA). I can remember when Stone could seemingly do no wrong, and even though each project he worked on seemed, frankly, a bizarre choice, he still managed to impress both audiences and critics. But his career has long since waned. JFK was possibly his high point – fourteen award nominations and five wins. There’s not much point in giving the plot of the film – is there anyone on this planet that doesn’t know about the Kennedy assassination? Or indeed the various conspiracies which have sprung up to explain it? Stone takes Jim Garrison, a Louisiana DA, who obsessed over the case, and was the only person to ever bring a case related to the assassination to court (he lost, of course), as played by Kevin Costner. Over 3 hours, Stone goes through many of the inconsistencies ignored by the Warren Commission, and presents considerable evidence that contradicts the Commission’s findings… But I’m not quite convinced by his solution. Nor by James Ellroy’s, for that matter. The government;s preferred solution, lone gunman, is obviously complete bollocks. And certainly those Cubans who lost everything when Castro took over had motive… but assassinating a president, and getting away with it, requires help from the very highest levels of US government, industry and military. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” makes for a handy villain – and certain the loss of future profits seems a viable motive… But such people can generate conflict whenever they want, wherever they want, and the president of the US is unlikely to have much impact on that – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Isis, notwithstanding. Any way you look at it, there were – and probably still are – a group of powerful people in the US who are so arrogant they believe they can effect a regime change simply in order to better their own situation. It’s tempting to think a group of right-wing industrialists and technocrats arranged Kennedy’s death, and while subsequent history has given them more than they could have possibly wished for, it’s hard to believe they were that forward-thinking, or prescient, back in 1963. I can believe a small group of people in the intelligence services and military, for whatever reason, set it all up – but why? Afraid of budget cuts? Frightened the Cold War might come to an end? They’re not… visceral enough motives. It takes real hate, and a perception of real benefit, to plan something like the assassination of a president. We may well find out fifty years from now that it was all to do with something completely different, some other power group JFK had attacked… Or we may never find out. Still, it hasn’t stopped endless speculations.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 728


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Moving pictures, #20

Bit of an epic Moving pictures post this time as I try to get up to date with my recent viewing. The usual mixture of movies, of course, although perhaps a few too many American ones. Never mind.

nightwatchingNightwatching, Peter Greenaway (2007, UK). This is the first of Greenaway’s “Dutch masters” trilogy – I actually saw the second one first, Goltzius and the Pelican Company– and this time is about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Played by, of all people, Martin Freeman. This is very much the Greenway I remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, although it was the sets, rather than the staging and camera work, that made it feel more like a play than a film. I’d not really enjoyed Goltzius and the Pelican Company, and when I started watching Nightwatching I didn’t initially think Freeman was very convincing as Rembrandt, but he won me over and the movie definitely turned more interesting as it progressed. Not bad.

before_i_go_to_sleepBefore I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffe (2014, UK). So I got my Fire TV Stick, and went looking on it for a movie to watch, and this looked like a recent thriller that might do the job and… oof. What a nasty film. I’m sorry, but when your plot is predicated on violence toward women, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Nicole Kidman plays an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing what has happened to her over the past decade. Her husband, Colin Firth, explains that she was in a car accident, and suffered brain damage. Except that’s not true. As she slowly discovers, partly as a result of documenting each day secretly, something therapist Mark Strong has suggested to her. The final twist is, to be honest, a bit obvious. Despite the cast and the polished production, this leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Best avoided.

leviathanLeviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014, Russia). Perhaps Russian films such as Night Watch and Black Lightning might have got all the box office, but Russia has churned out some quality drama too (and not just by my beloved Aleksandr Sokurov). Kolya is a car mechanic, whose land has been compulsory-purchased by the town council, allegedly for a transmitter; but Kolya is pretty sure the corrupt mayer just wants to build himself a house there. He’s tried the local court, but they’re in the pocket of the mayor. As are the police. And the purchase price is far from what the land is worth. The more Kolya struggles, the worst his situation becomes. So he rants and raves and hits the vodka, but none of it helps. Beautifully-photographed, intensely and depressingly realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

natural_born_killersNatural Born Killers*, Oliver Stone (1994, USA). As indicated by the asterisk, this is one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and I very much doubt I would have otherwise watched it. Or re-watched it. Sort of. Back in the 1990s I bought the CD of the sountrack by Trent Reznor (I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails in those days) and listened to it quite a lot. Unlike other OSTs, the Natural Born Killers one featured dialogue from the film between songs. And there was enough of it to actually peice together the plot of the film. As I discovered when I watched it. Otherwise, the movie seemed to be trying too hard to become a cult film, failing dismally, but in its failure actually getting closer to that status than it did by design. If that makes sense.

A-Place-In-The-Sun-1951-Front-Cover-38596A Place in the Sun*, George Stevens (1951, USA). Hollywood churned out a lot of worthy but dull films during the 1950s and 1960s, usually based on highly-regarded novels – in this case, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This is definitely one of them. Montgomery Clift plays the scion of a poor branch of the family who visits his rich industrialist uncle and asks for a job. He’s given a lowly position, despite being a relative, and is supposed to work his way up the corporate ladder. Because hard work. Because American Dream. Unfortunately, there’s a nubile fly in the ointment in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor and… you know how it goes. Ambitions thwarted by actual situation – personified by women, of course – leading to foolish plan to get rise to top back on track, usually results in someone’s death, hero ends up in prison. The book should have been called An American Cliché. Not worth the effort. Meh.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Melvin Frank (1965, USA). This film is nothing to do with the sf anthology I recently read (see here). This is a Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobridigida vehicle, in which they play divorcees who temporarily get back together because he needs to show he’s happily married to land a job. The film is actually set in London, though clearly only the stock footage was shot there and neither of the stars actually visited the city. It gave the whole film a bit of a soap opera feel. The Technicolor wasn’t up to its usual gorgeousness, the banter felt a bit lacklustre (although Gig Young was excellent), and it all felt even more inconsequential that most movies of this type do. I enjoyed it, but there are better Rock Hudson rom coms / melodramas out there.

aileenAileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer / Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer*, Nick Broomfield (1992/2003, UK). I added the latter to my rental list (because asterisk), but the disc also included the former, so I watched both. Aileen Wuornos was the US’s first serial killer – or at least the first one ever caught. She killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, claiming self-defence after she’d been arrested. But over the course of her trial and her time on death row, she changed her story several times. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documents how the media exploited Wuornos and her trial – some of the police officers involved were paid large sums by Hollywood producers for film rights, for example, and later were made to resign. In Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Broomfield interviews Wuornos shortly before she is executed. If the first film painted her as the victim of a system determined to see her executed because she was a woman serial killer, ten years in prison had clearly unbalanced her. Definitely worth seeing.

the_swiss_conspiracyThe Swiss Conspiracy, Jack Arnold (1976, US/Germany). There’s probably a very good reason why I bought this DVD but I’m buggered if I can remember what it was. The film is a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller starring Ray Milland and David Janssen, and notable only for being shot entirely in Zürich. It’s about, of course, a Swiss bank. Senta Berger and Elke Sommer are watchable, but Janssen is a bit too gravelly for his allegedly louche character, and John Saxon hams it up like a slab of gammon as a mobster. There’s a passable chase scene, but this doesn’t really even pass muster as a Sunday afternoon film.

a_touch_of_zenA Touch Of Zen*, King Hu (1971, Taiwan). This is apparently an important early wu xia film, but I can certainly verify it is a long and dull one. A painter in a small town becomes embroiled with a fugitive from imperial justice, a young woman who’d tried to warn the emperor of his eunuch’s corruption. Although the film is about the woman, Yang, it’s the painter, Ku, who is the centre of the story. I remember that the film was so long it was pslit into two, and Ku seemed mostly a bumbling oaf. Some of the fight scenes looked a little clumsy given the current state of the wu xia art. But mostly I remember that it dragged on and on and on. But I’ve seen it now. Huh.

A-christmas-Story-DVDA Christmas Story*, Bob Clark (1983, USA). If this hadn’t been on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, I’d never have bothered renting it. Certainly there’s nothing in its description which would recommend it to me – a boy’s Christmas, loosely based on a series of nostalgic columns from a US newspaper. And having now seen it, I can thoroughly not recommend it. The writer of the column narrates the film, which is set in the mid-1940s – and bizarrely, there is no mention of WWII, it’s almost as if the US were not at war – and focuses chiefly on the narrator’s boyhood self and his determination to get an air rifle for Christmas – which, of course, no one thinks he should have. I really didn’t like this film. Cloying manufactured nostalgia, which works by elevating the absolutely trivial to emotional life-or-death. Avoid.

hitchcock2The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963, USA). During the recent Prime day on Amazon, I spotted the two Hitchcock collections on Blu-ray going for less than half price. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever purchased – but at that price it was worth “upgrading”. And the first one I watched from my new Blu-ray collection was The Birds from Vol 2, probably because it was a Hitchcock film I’d not rewatched for a long time. As I soon discovered, because I’d completely forgotten the framing story, in which a socialite played by Tippi Hedren flirts with po-faced attorney Rod Taylor in a pet shop, and then drives up the coast to backend-of-nowhere town Bodega Bay where he’s gone to spend the weekend with his widowed mother and much younger sister. She ingratiates herself into the family, and even ends up spending the night Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, who is the local school teacher. And then the birds attack. It’s all a bit random. And the special effects show their age in a number of ways. But Hitch maintains an impressive level of creepiness throughout, and successfully ups the peril as the attacks progress. A bona fide classic.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 611