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Moving pictures 2017, #57

Following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has proven an interesting experience. It’s introduced me to films and directors I might otherwise not have seen – although I’d already started exploring “world cinema” a long time before. And it’s not, to be honest, a great list – too much Woody Allen (one is too many), too many Hollywood classics whose time has passed (anyone who says the same is true of All That Heaven Allows will be punched, or at least roundly insulted), too many obvious picks as representatives of other nations’ cinemas… But it’s been worth using it to guide my viewing, even if the two movies from the list in this post were exactly the sort of films I have little time for…

Breaking Away*, Peter Yates (1979, USA). A coming-of-age film set in small-town USA, specifically Bloomington, Indiana, whose name I know but I’ve no idea where from. A bunch of townies, centred around cycle-mad Dennis Christopher, have various run-ins with university students, culminating in a university-only bicycle race in which a townie team is finally allowed to compete… and manages to win. It’s all thuddingly obvious, for all its attempts at depicting the real life of townies – “cutters” – in Bloomington. Small-town America is not a place that holds any interest for me, and the lives of the people who inhabit it strike me as poor fodder for stories. Okay, so there are universal themes that can be explored, and in the right hands, that of a literary author like Joyce Carol Oates, say, there might be something there I’d be interested in. But US cinema is a (chiefly) commercial medium, so there’s a demand for accessibility built-in, and the life depicted in this movie, well, that’s a wide swathe of the audience. And they’re welcome to it. Seriously, Breaking Away is dull and mind-numbingly predictable, and I’m completely mystified by its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s not even as if Yates is some sort of auteur – I mean, the only film he ever made that managed some sort of character was Krull. On the other hand, Breaking Away was apparently nominated for five Oscars, and actually won one (best original screenplay). Having said that, the gong that year went to Kramer vs Kramer (WTF?), despite the shortlist also including Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz. So, a fucked-up year for the Oscars, for sure. If you never ever see Breaking Away, you’ll have missed nothing.

La vie en rose, Olivier Dahan (2007, UK). This is a straight-up biopic of Edith Piaf, and it stands or falls on its depiction of its subject. Which was apparently good enough to get it nominated for a raft of awards. To be fair, I know nothing of Piaf or her music – I didn’t even know “piaf” meant “sparrow” until watching this film. And, well, it’s a biopic, it seems weird to comment on the story as it’s someone’s life. But you can comment on how it is presented, and this felt completely straightforward and, well, a bit dull. Piaf apparently started out busking during the interwar years, before being recruited by impresario Gérard Depardieu, and steadily growing in fame thereafter. The film leaps about chronologically, depicting scenes from later in her life in between the historical bits. Piaf was not, apparently, a very nice person. Earthy, I can understand, given her background; in fact I admire her for maintaining that element of her character. But she also became a bit of a diva, and did not respond well when crossed. But that that’s the gamble with “warts and all” biographies – does the subject survive the airing of their faults? Piaf clearly did – this film was hugely successful. I knew almost nothing about Edith Piaf before watching La vie en rose, and I know more having now seen it… but I’m still never going to buy one of her albums. Shrug.

Crimes and Misdemeanors*, Woody Allen (1989, USA). Why are there so many Woody Allen films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? Not only do I dispute his alleged greatness, the man also abused his daughter and his existence, never mind career, should not be celebrated. I watched Crimes and Misdemeanors only so I could cross it off the list; I would not otherwise choose to watch an Allen film. I do not like them, I do not wish to support his career (this was a charity shop DVD, so happily he did not profit from my purchase). And yet, ignoring Allen’s presence, which pretty much renders this film nothing as he wrote and directed it, it’s just not all that interesting a movie. Martin Landau plays a wealthy and influential Jewish opthamologist, who has a grasping mistress murdered. Allen plays an unsuccessful documentary film-maker, who is hired to film his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a highly successful TV producer, but Allen spends most of the film trying to get into Mia Farrow’s pants despite being married. It is creepy as fuck. Landau’s and Allen’s stories don’t really intersect – they have friends in common, and the whole point of the film is that they meet at the end and sort of confess their sins to each other and so give each other entirely unearned absolution. Except Landau hired a contract killer, and Allen is a grade-one shit. So not much resolution there for anyone with an ounce of morals. Of the Allen films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, none of which belong in the list, this is the least worthy of inclusion. Avoid.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Irving Lerner (1969, UK). I found this in a charity shop and thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s based on a play by Richard Shaffer. Christopher Plummer, who appeared in the play, swaps role to appear in the film. It’s about the meeting between Inca leader Atahualpa and conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who is played in the film by Robert Shaw. It starts with Pizarro trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund another expedition to the Americas, which he sort of agrees to do. There’s then a bit of exposition in which Pizarro explains in voiceover how he actually managed to put his expedition together… And then it leaps to South America and the conquistadors’ encounter with the locals and their plan to pillage the kingdom of Atahualpa by trickery. Pizarro claims godhood in order to get close to Atahualpa, who, as played by Plummer, is not all there. The conquistadors strike and Atahualpa is taken prisoner. But Pizarro comes to respect the man as he holds him prisoner, and when he insists the Inca should not be killed he argues against it. The film was shot on location, and it shows. Unfortunately, the script is too heavily based on the play, and the dialogue is far too stagey. On top of that, few of the actors convince in their roles – perhaps they might have done in a more obviously theatrical stage play, but in a movie shot on location they frequently over-act. There’s very little here worth watching, so it’s not worth going out of your way to find a copy.

JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, Jean-Luc Godard (1995, France). This is allegedly a documentary about Godard by Godard, but I’m not entirely convinced it is what it claims to be. Godard stars as sort of himself, inasmuch as he’s readily recognisable but the film refers to “JLG” in the third person. And yet it’s clearly presented as JLG, the voiceover is his train of thought, the topic of the piece his career and oeuvre… And the figure which appears in every shot is indeed Godard… but it seems odd that a director whose career is so focused – at least in its early days – on appearance should look so unkempt. Late in his career, Godard also seems to have discovered the usefulness, and the beauty, of static nature shots, and there are several very effective ones in JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December. The end result is a film that seems late Godard in appearance but early to mid-Godard in content. True, that latter element is explicit – Godard listening interviews from earlier in his career, faux interviews throwing quotes from earlier in his career back at him. And then, in the middle, you have Godard reading from a French edition of AE Van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Godard is a sf fan, that much is known. The House That Stood Still is the most noir of Van Vogt’s novels, and quite easily his best. In the right hands, it would make an amazing film. Is Godard the right hands?  He’s done US noir in the past, several times, and he’s done sf noir; but I can’t say I found the results especially convincing. Godard would certainly make an interesting adaptation of it, but I’m not convinced it would be a good one. None of which has anything to do with JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December, which is a fascinating look more at Godard’s thought processes – at the time JLG/JLG – Self-portrait in December was shot – than his career, and nonetheless manages to some lovely cinematography, almost as if it were determined to demonstrate Godard could do it. Get this box set – if you’re a cineaste, it’s worth it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885


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Moving pictures 2016, #7

Carrying on with getting my film posts to get up to date…

come_and_seeCome and See*, Elem Klimov (1985, Russia). The opening of this movie did not bode well. Two boys, playing at war, while one of them puts on a hoarse voice intended to sound adult… but then the older of the two starts digging where corpses have been buried and finally unearths a rifle. Later, partisans visit his home and recruit him, against the wishes of his mother, who knows that her survival, and that of her daughters, is uncertain if he leaves. But he goes, and becomes a Soviet partisan fighting the Nazis. And the film goes from meh to good and then to great in relatively short order. The boy is separated from his unit, and hides out with a girl his own age. They return to his village, but everyone has gone (they have been massacred – he does not realise this, but she does). The two meet up with the partisans, but their leader has been badly injured by the Germans. Eventually, the boy infiltrates a village and pretends to be resident there. But an SS unit arrives, locks everyone in the church and sets fire to the building. This is pretty brutal stuff. Perhaps the Soviets are all a bit more noble than they actually were (cf Larisa Shepitko’s Ascent) and the Germans are painted as complete animals – when likely all sides exhibited such behaviour – but, considering I’d known nothing about this film before renting it, and its title is not exactly much of a clue, I ended up thinking it very, very good indeed. And definitely a movie that belonged on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. I’m surprised it’s not better known than it is.

demyL’évènement le plus important depuis que l’homme a marché sur la lune, Jacques Demy (1973, France). Marcello Mastroianni is a driving instructor, married to Catherine Deneuve, a hairdresser. One day, Mastroianni is not feeling well, so he visits the doctor… and is told he is pregnant. He becomes the centre of a big media circus, and other men begin reporting pregnancies too. (The film, incidentally, was released in the US as A Slightly Pregnant Man, which is a pretty naff title, whereas the original title is, er, long.) Sadly, while the quirky humour in the film never really quite works, the brightly-coloured production design is a lot of fun. Okay, so Deneuve is too elegant to really carry off the 197s outfits she wears, but Mastroianni fits his role perfectly. It’s all a bit of colourful French fluff, not only of its time but also screaming from every frame that it’s a film of the early seventies. I quite enjoyed it – which I guess means the intégrale Jacques Demy collection is currently batting about 50:50, which is not bad odds for a DVD collection.

hawkHawk the Slayer, Terry Marcel (1980, UK). I remember this from year ago – decades ago… After all, who can forget the elf who can fire arrows like a machinegun, or Bernard Bresslaw playing a giant with two eyes, or a dwarf eating a fish whole, or Jack Palance as the villain chewing up the scenery with gusto… Um, that last applies to most genre films of the 1980s, but never mind. Anyway, I remembered Hawk the Slayer with some fondness from all those years ago, so I thought it worth watching again (that is, when I stumbled across a copy for £1 in a charity shop). And so it is. Daft, of course, with a cast of familiar faces from UK films and TV, who are clearly in it for the money but determined to have fun. The plot echoes that of a zillion sword & sorcery stories, and there’s nothing really new that Hawk the Slayer brings to the genre. The various fight-scenes were plainly staged to resemble those of Westerns, and it sort of worked; but it’s not like this movie will ever be considered Great Art, or even Slightly-Better-than-Average Art. One thing I hadn’t realised, however, is how much the soundtrack rips off Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds. There are riffs and melodies which are uncannily similar to Wayne’s magnum opus. Not that such music seems all that appropriate to a high fantasy film… although it does seem weirdly appropriate to a nineteen-eighties high fantasy film. Go figure.

graceGrace of Monaco, Olivier Dahan (2014, France). I’m a fan of Grace Kelly, she’s one of my favourite actresses. Her career was famously cut short in 1956 by her marriage to Prince Rainer of Monaco, and I can’t help wondering what would have happened had she continued acting. Longevity certainly didn’t harm the careers of any number of her contemporaries, from Maureen O’Hara to Cyd Charisse (um, on the other hand, Charisse was in Warlords of Atlantis…). Anyway, while Kelly made some stone-cold classics, displayed, and was recognised for, her acting chops, she also made several pretty forgettable movies. But Grace of Monaco, in which Nicole Kidman plays Kelly, is about her after she married Rainer… and single-handledly prevented France from invading and annexing Monaco. Ah, you didn’t know about that? Probably because that’s not what actually happened. I hadn’t known Monaco began offering French corporations tax-free status if they moved their operations to Monaco, and this upset the French government. Who responded by telling Monaco it had to a) start levying tax on the corporations, and b) pay the tax raised to the French government. When Monaco refused, France blockaded the principality. Apparently, the rest of the world seemed unconcerned at this – one country threatening to invade another because its tax laws were preferable to companies. You’d never see that happening now, and not just because the corporations these days have so much power they can actually refuse to pay the tax they do owe, even in G12 countries. Anyway, Princess Grace gave a speech about it all at a Red Cross Ball, at which were present the great and good, including President de Gaulle, and it melted his heart and he lifted the blockade. Or something. When I started watching this film, Kidman didn’t really convince as Kelly, but as the story progressed she seemed to settle into the part and her portrayal became more believable. She isn’t Kelly, the resemblance is not even slight, but I suspect she may have been the best actress for the part. (Although, are there Grace Kelly impersonators? I guess so. There are Madonna and Cher and Barbra Streisand impersonators, after all.) Grace of Monaco has been comprehensively panned, and with mostly good reason. It does seem a bit unfair to criticise a biopic for being inaccurate, because you’d be hard-pressed to find one that is accurate. And that is a solid cast there – Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Parker Posey, Derek Jacobi…  It also seems to capture the period resonably accurately, as far as I can judge. But, for all that, it’s just not… very dramatic. It builds up tension and then Grace Kelly sort of decides to take her new role seriously – she even learns French! – and then she solves all of Monaco’s woes with a tearful speech. Sadly, not an especially good memorial to Grace Kelly.

demyUne chambre en ville, Jacques Demy (1980, France). This is one of Demy’s sung dialogue films, and I’m still not entirely sure they work. The title refers to a room rented by a striking shipyard worker in the house of a sympathetic baroness. Although he has a steady girlfriend he plans to marry, he spends the night the wife a television shop owner, and the two fall in love. He tells his girlfriend, while the wife goes to tell her husband… who kills himself in despair. So she goes to her mother – who happens to be the baroness. But the shipyard worker is fatally injured during a demonstration, is taken to the baroness’s, where he dies in the arms of the telelvision shop owner’s wife. Who then shoots herself. It is not, perhaps, the most original story in the world. I seem to recall some guy called Bill did something similar about 400 years ago, and there was that Bollywood film I mentioned a Moving pictures post or two ago… It was all a bit fraught, the mid-fifties mise en scène didn’t have the benefit of the bright colours of the Demy film mentioned above, and the sung dialogue doesn’t realyl work for me. I shall probably have to watch it again some time.

watkinsCulloden, Peter Watkins (1964, UK). I had to buy a French DVD collection because Watkins’s films are not available in the UK on DVD. Well, there were BFI editions of The War Game and Culloden, but they’ve now combined them into a dual edition omnibus, Culloden + The War Game, and eureka! have released a Blu-ray of Punishment Park (after I bought the collection, naturally)… But even so, he was a remarkable film-maker and his films should be readily available in this country as a matter of course. Culloden, made for the BBC, is framed as a fly-on-the-wall (so to speak) documentary of the eponymous battle as it takes place. People involved in the battle are interviewed, both before and after, and the narrator puts everything in context reportage voice-over. It is surprisingly effective. Even the fact this is a fifty year old television film doesn’t doesn’t lessen its impact. And it’s informative too. Recommended.

osamaOsama*, Siddiq Barmak (2003, Afghanistan). A doctor, whose husband was killed in the Soviet invasion, lives with her mother and daughter, but the Taliban have shut down the hospital where she works and the lack of man in the household means there’s now no money coming in. So the grandmother persuades the daughter to protend to be a boy, so “he” can get a job and earn enough for them to buy food. But then the Taliban recruit all the local boys for the madrassa – include Osama, as the disguised girl is now calling herself – and her masquerade becomes a thousand times harder. They really were a nasty bunch of men, the Taliban, and Osama pulls no punches in depicting just how evil they were. This is not a movie that is going to leave you feeling good about the world – although clearly that was not its intent. But you could always watch those films about a bunch Spandex-called nincompoops saving the world from alien invasions instead.

fassbinder1Love is Colder than Death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1969, Germany). Another early Fassbinder, again black-and-white, which opens with Fassbinder lying on the floor. It turns out he’s a hood, but he refuses to go work for the local syndicate. So they set another hood to follow him, and they sort of wander about town doing gangster-type things, including shooting people in a restaurant and robbing a local bank. I haven’t taken to these homages to classic Hollywood as I have other films by Fassbinder – and I have to wonder why so many budding film director of the twentieth century, particularly ones in post-WWII Europe, felt a need to make them.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 721