Trying to get the last of these out of the way before Christmas. It doesn’t help that I’ve been watching a couple of films a night, more on the weekend. And it’s not as though I mention every film I’ve watched in these posts – some because they’re rewatches, but mostly because they’re some rubbish I stumbled across on TV, Amazon Prime or charity shop DVD… Anyway, here’s the latest batch…
Blancanieves, Pablo Berger (2012, Spain). Back in 2011, The Artist was released, a silent film produced in France, which went on to win a raft of awards. This was a bit of a blow to the makers of Blancanieves, who had decided to make a silent black-and-white film several years before but didn’t make it into production soon enough to beat The Artist to release. To be fair, The Artist is a very good film, but you have to wonder how many of its awards were a result of the novelty of a silent B&W film in the 21st century. But then we have Blancanieves, also a silent B&W 21st century film, against which to compare it. And, sadly, Blancanieves does not compare too favourably. It’s good, but it’s doubtful it would have beaten The Artist to any awards. Not in Blancanieves‘ favour is that it’s about bull fighting, a sport (and I use the term loosely) that only the Spanish seem to think is not barbaric. The plot is apparently based on ‘Snow White’, albeit transplanted to Spain and, er, matadors. It’s certainly a nice-looking film, and it works quite well as silent and B&W. And, but for inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning The Artist, it would likely count as a good film. But comparisons are inevitable, and it loses out to them. All the same, worth seeing.
Destry Rides Again*, George Marshall (1939, USA). If there’s one story which appears again and again in Western films, it’s the lone hero who cleans up a town under the corrupt thumb of the local cattle baron. Given the bad name cattle barons have in Western literature – which is the nearest the US gets to a native mythos (native to its colonisers, that is) – it’s surprising unfettered capitalism is still seen as admirable. Maybe everyone is just waiting around for the lawman to turn up and clean up the town… although I wouldn’t go looking to that gallery of clowns the GOP is currently fielding as they’re so deep in the cattle barons’ pockets they’ve forgotten what daylight looks like… Ahem. Anyway, wild west town is dominated by criminal sorts, led by owner of the local saloon, at which Marlene Dietrich performs nightly. Villain has been cheating people at cards in order to get their land, and now owns the route needed by ranchers on their drives – and he’s going to charge them a fee per head to cross his land. When this leads to the sheriff’s murder, the corrupt mayor gives the tin star to the town drunk… who promptly sends off for Jimmy Stewart. In the past, the drunk had been deputy to Jimmy’s dad, the original Destry, a much respected lawman, and the drunk hopes the son has followed in the father’s footsteps… Except, it seems, he hasn’t. He doesn’t wear a gun. He lets the villains make fun of him. He even upholds the eviction of a homesteader who had lost the title to his land in a crooked card game. But, of course, Destry is playing a long game, and it all comes right in the end. Of course. This is a Hollywood western, after all. Even Dietrich, the saloon singer and accomplice of the saloon owner, proves to have a heart of gold. The best of the film, however, is when the women of the town, the wives and girlfriends, decide to intervene in the big fight between the forces of law and the villain’s henchman, and march straight in with various blunt instruments and proceed to hammer the shit out of the bad guys. That’s not something that normally appears in the mythos. And, perhaps, given more focus in the narrative, it might have made something special of Destry Rides Again. As it is, it’s a good western – though more for its breaking from the template than its slavish following of it – but there are a number of good westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, compared to the vast number of ordinary and just plain bad westerns that Hollywood made. Worth seeing.
Spring in a Small Town*, Mu Fei (1948, China). This is generally reckoned to be one of the greatest Chinese films ever made – which is quite an encomium given the size of Chinese-language cinema (yes, I know “Chinese” is a language family, not a language, but you know what I mean – the film is actually in Mandarin). A classic piece of cinema it certainly is, not only because of its age. It is also a really good film, a film I watched on rental DVD but would like to pick up my own copy so I can rewatch it. A woman’s life post-WWII is interrupted when a suitor prior to her marriage arrives in town. The film takes its time telling its story, but that actually works to its advantage because it allows for a nuanced presentation of the various relationships – wife and her husband, wife and old boyfriend, wife’s younger sister and the old boyfriend… To be fair, there’s not a great deal of subtlety in who the characters are intended to represent – the husband, for example, spends his time pining for the past and complaining about his various illnesses. And the wife is the heart of the film, and whose heart is torn. I really need to be get my own copy of this. Incidentally, the film was remade in 1993 by Zhuangzhuang Tian. I’ve not seen the remake, but I’m definitely intrigued…
The Defiant Ones*, Stanley Kramer (1958, USA). It is horrible to think this film may well owe its position on the 1001 Mosvies You Must See Before You Die list because back in 1958 it was considered transgressive, perhaps even shocking. Because it’s about two cons who escape a chain gang while chained to each other. One is Tony Curtis, the other is Sidney Poitier. A white man chained to a black man. Curtis coasts, as well he might given his role, but Poitier is good (both were nominated for Oscars, but neither won – the award went to David Niven for Separate Tables). The two struggle through the swamps before stumbling into a company town, where they are captured and about to be lynched. But one of the residents argues against such vigilante “justice” and later helps them escape. They come across a boy, who takes them home to his mother, who has been abandoned by her husband. And she uses race to drive a wedge between the two, because she needs a man to look after her. There is not much, it must be admitted, in this film to like. The central premise should not be shocking or transgressive, and the responses of others to the two main characters throughout the film is deeply racist. True, the movies does comment – is itself a commentary – on those racist attitudes, but showing such things without actively presenting consequences seems to me a waste of time. Because, you know, there are people out there stupid enough not to see something bad in what they’re watching. All together, probably a film not worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.
Bicycle Thieves*, Vittorio De Sica (1948, Italy). I do like Italian Neorealist films, and this is considered an important work in the genre – an important work in Italian cinema, in fact – but I have to admit I didn’t much enjoy watching it. Chiefly because of its plot. An out-of-work man in post-WWII Rome is offered a job putting up posters, but he needs a bicycle to get the job. So his wife pawns the family heirloom linen to raise the money. But on his first day on the job, the man’s bike is stolen. And he spends the rest of the day trying to find it and its thief. Without success. Grinding poverty is a problem, but it is a structural problem in society. Certainly it’s fertile ground for drama, but such stories always to me imply that such conditions are either normal, inevitable or inescapable – and I disagree with all three conclusions. True, Italy after WWII was not in the best of places economically – but neither was the UK and it managed to create the NHS. The US, of course, was in a much better place – it profited from WWII – and it still treats its citizens like shit. Worse, certain of its citizens kill other ones if they try improve things for those who are not well off. All of which, however, has nothing to do with Bicycle Thieves. As mentioned previously, I like Italian Neorealist cinema, but I didn’t enjoy this particular example. Worth seeing, definitely, and certainly it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that’s as far as it goes.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 692