It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Moving pictures 2017, #55

The Godard box set has proven an excellent purchase. I’ve watched the films in it a couple of times each, and I suspect I’ll be watching them several more times as well. And I have another Godard box set to watch after this one as well. I guess I’m turning into a Godard fan. I don’t think every one of his films work – and the one here was especially mauled by critics – but sometimes it really does come together exceedingly well; and his continual experimentation, and facility with the language of cinema, to my mind makes him one of the most important European directors of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, not everything he made is currently available on DVD or Blu-ray – and he made a lot of films…

For Ever Mozart, Jean-Luc Godard (1996, Switzerland). I think I can safely say that drunkenly buying this box set has proven one of my smarter film purchasing decisions of 2017. It’s taken me a couple of watches of each film to get a handle on them, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen and I know I’ll watch them again. The films are also obscure, defy easy categorisation, and are the product of someone who has spent their entire career experimenting in the medium, and may well have contributed more to cinema narrative forms than any other living director. Having said all that, For Ever Mozart – apparently a phonetic pun as it sounds like faut rêver, Mozart, “dream, Mozart” – acually feels more like a Jacques Rivette film at times than it does a Godard one. But perhaps that’s because so many Rivette films are about rehearsal and narrative, and For Ever Mozart is about a theatre group who stage a play in Sarajevo during the years of ethnic cleansing. It’s a piece which revels in its tone-deafness, because the the whole point of the piece is that it’s tone-deaf. Unfortunately, one of Godard’s weaknesses appears to be the people-running-through-a-wood-in-fear-of-their-lives scenario, and that happens here. A little too often. Fortunately, there is also a lot more going on. Not least of which ties back to the title and the use of Mozart’s music as a theme. Godard is probably best known among non-Francophobe cinephiles for his work during the 1960s, especially that associated with the Nouvelle Vague. But I must admit I find his later stuff far more interesting. I still have the other Godard collection to watch, and it contains many of his better-known films, but I’ve very much enjoyed seeing the lesser-known films in this particular box set. Definitely worth getting.

Highly Dangerous, Roy Ward Baker (1950, UK). After sending me one Margaret Lockwood film, LoveFilm went and sent me another the following week. This one was a British thriller, written by Eric Ambler, which nonetheless managed to be quite dull. Lockwood plays an entomologist sent to an invented Balkan state to discover if their rumoured biological beetle-based weapon is real. But she’s an amateur and inept at spycraft. She screws up meeting her contact at the railway station, and later is immediately spotted as a ringer by a US journalist. Whose help she enlists in in breaking into the secret laboratory to steal samples of the potentially lethal beetles. It’s all very earnest, and very British, and if the invented Balkan country fails to convince it’s because, well, they weren’t very good at that sort of stuff in those days – and I’m not entirely sure why they bothered to invent countries to stand in for, well, actual enemies of the West (of the time). Who knows. Maybe some Yugoslavian trade deal might have been jeopardised. Lockwood is, well, Lockwood, although it’s good to see a female lead in a thriller, and though she has to occasionally defer to her male colleague, she’s very much presented as an expert, which is something you still don’t see that often these days. Given Lockwood is just about the only female character in the film, it’s not going to pass a Bechdel Test… but a female heroine who doesn’t have superpowers who nonetheless drives the film? Um, I seem to remember Lockwood was a lead with agency in the last film by her I watched, The Wicked Lady (see here). I knew there was a reason I put that Lockwood DVD collection on my rental list…

Jackie, Pablo Larraín (2016, USA). I really wanted to like this – it seemed like an interesting subject, and I’d been much impressed by Larraín’s No (see here), enough to want to watch more of his films… Although, to be fair, I would not have expected Larraín to have made Jackie… But… It’s Jackie Kennedy, of course. In the years just before, during, and immediately after, JFK’s assassination. Not being American, I have never understood the fascination with JFK, or the bizarre insistence that he was the best president the US “never had”. True, he created the political will to put a human being on the Moon, and his presidency did much for women’s rights… but he was also responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie, however, is about his wife, and JFK only makes occasional appearances. Natalie Portman is really quite astonishing in the role. Jackie Kennedy comes across as a not very nice person at all, and her fixed grin and wide-mouthed way of speaking feels more like a caricature than an actual character study. “Feels”, because I can’t judge its accuracy. Larraín’s direction seemed as good as that I’d noted in No, and even the back-and-forth-chronological structure seemed to work quite well, although there seemed ample opportunity to ramp up the emotional payload through clever cutting and that didn’t happen… The biggest problem I had was that I’d expected Jackie Kennedy to be a sympathetic subject, and she wasn’t. I should probably watch the film again.

Revenge, Yermek Shinarbayev (1989, Kazakhstan). Beware of films with bland uninformative titles. Further, beware of films with bland uninformative titles from other languages where the film is generally known by its bland uninformative English title. Like Revenge. Because that’s not a title to encourage interest. And yet, Revenge is actually a lovely piece of film-making, a Kazakhstani film about the Korean disapora throughout east Asia, and which ends up on Sakhalin Island. It opens with a prologue set in seventeenth-century Korea, then jumps to 1915 and a Korean village. A schoolteacher murders one of the young girls in his class, and the father vows vengeance on him. He almost has it, but is thwarted at the last minute. So he takes a second wife, has a son, and raises the son to be the instrument of his revenge. The story moves through the decades of the first half of the twentieth century, as the murdering teacher, and the son, now a man, follows him – into China and then the USSR, to Siberia and Sakhalin Island. As the film progresses, so the protagonist and antagonist develop a relationship which is never quite consummated, and each in turn lives out the experience of Koreans in the areas into which they move. The acting is, it must be said, a bit hammy in places, but the mise-en-scène is thoroughly convincing in each of the periods it depicts, and the cinematography is mostly good but occasionally great. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 has a number of excellent films in it, but I did like this one a lot. It’s a movie that bears, perhaps even demands, repeated watches. Recommended.

Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson (2014, USA). I hadn’t realised until I started watching this that it was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel. I know who Pynchon is, of course, and I’ve heard no end of praise about his fiction – but I’ve never actually read any of it. I have Gravity’s Rainbow on the TBR, and I will tackle it one day, buy Pynchon is pretty much unknown territory to me… Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson is not and, well, I’m not a fan of his films. Oh, they’re well-made films; but they’re entirely steeped in the American idiom and that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Which might well explain why I found Inherent Vice a bit dull and uninvolving. I’m supposed to care about a dopehead American who manages to hold together a career as a private detective? Jaoquim Phoenix plays the aforementioned dopehead, who is asked to investigate an ex-girlfriend’s disappearance, only to get sucked into a state-wide conspiracy. I really didn’t get this. The dopehead lifestyle was presented as comical, without actually being funny, which rendered Pynchon’s worldview – something I have not experienced myself as I’ve not read any of his books yet – as weird and incomplete rather than just off-kilter. Pynchon is, I am reliably informed, famous for his erudition, but there was no evidence of that here. The whole thing came across as a gonzo thriller featuring potheads, and while Hunter S Thompson cuold be very funny indeed with his tales of excessive drug-taking, the humour here didn’t amuse me at all. Meh.

The Collector, William Wyler (1965, UK). This is an adaptation of John Fowles’s first novel. I have mixed feelings about Fowles – I consider him a middlebrow writer all too often mistaken for highbrow, and yet he wrote a handful of classic novels. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a bona fide classic, A Maggot is a novel of notable ambition that only just doesn’t quite make the grade… the rest are middlebrow books du jour whose moments have passed, or even Dirty Old Man books. The Collector is a polished thriller novel, which was adapted by a US director and turned into an attractive, if implausible, UK thriller movie. This is not always the case.  Robert Wise shot The Haunting in the UK and it’s a classic piece of cinema. Terence Stamp plays a bullied young man who wins the pools and ends up buying an isolated house in the country. He is also a lepidopterist. And a stalker. He stalks Samantha Eggar, kidnaps her, and imprisons her in his basement. He hopes to make her love him. Which, of course, isn’t going to happen. None of it ever quite adds up, it all feels like it takes place in movie-land, where common sense doesn’t apply, and it’s not as if the cinematography lifts it above the usual as it feels mostly like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror (worth getting; they were of their time but surprisingly entertaining). There’s not much in the way of surprises, and the local colour resembles no UK known to a Brit, even in 1965, but it manages to be entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 883


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Moving pictures 2017, #26

Another six films and another six countries. Sadly, one of them is the US, and it wasn’t a film I would have watched otherwise – but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, although I’ve no idea why…

Rushmore*, Wes Anderson (1998, USA). I’ve seen a bunch of Anderson’s films and I’m not a fan. I hate whimsy. But Rushmore was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, so I watched it. And while it wasn’t as gratuitously whimsical as some of his later films, it was just as annoying. The title refers to the posh private school at which the lead character, Max Fischer, is a pupil. And he’s hugely unlikeable and annoying. He’s a poor student, but they can’t get rid of him because he’s far too good at defending himself. Then he meets a bored industrialist, the father of two meathead pupils at Rushmore, and the two become unlikely friends. Fischer persuades the industrialist, played by Bill Murray, in what was apparently a career-revitialising role, to fund an aquarium at Rushmore, an idea he’s conceived in order to win the affections of new teacher, Olivia Williams. Rushmore is entirely about Fischer, and he pissed me off from the moment he first appeared on-screen. I get that this is deliberate, but I don’t see the point of it.Why would I want to watch a film about an annoying little shit? Why would anyone? Why would they even think that was a good idea? Oh well, at least I can cross it off the list.

Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos (2009, Greece). I forget why I put this on my rental list, someone must have recommended it to me but I can’t think who. It was probably David Tallerman; he recommends weird films. A husband and wife have three grown-up children they’ve kept completely isolated from the outside world, even giving them fake meanings to words they stumble across, like “zombie”. The father pays for a security guard at his plant to come and have sex with his son, but the security guard is more interested in cunnilingus with the two daughters. It’s hard to describe quite how odd this film is. It works really well – the three children are cruel and naive, the parents’ motives for the deception are by turns both understandable and completely insane. Lanthimos filmed Dogtooth very simply, with static scenes and realistic dialogue, and it works really well. It’s not a film that bears rewatching – it’s just too damn unsettling – but it’s certainly a film worth seeing. There’s something very Haneke-ish about the story, and I’m a huge Haneke fan. Recommended.

Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski (1962, Poland). I hadn’t known Polanski – or Polański, as he’s given here – was in these box sets, although I suspect I’d have bought them anyway despite his presence. Because, let’s be fair, his is a career that should not be supported – he’s still wanted in the US for a sex crime, after all. Knife in the Water is actually his first feature film, and was the first Polish film nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Sadly, it’s a technically impressive film, but narratively feels like it owes far too many debts to far too many other films. Much of the action takes place aboard a sail boat on a lake, and the fact Polanski managed to film his cast of three out on the water is impressive. The story is less impressive. A well-off couple on their way to their boat for a weekend on the water, nearly run over a hitchhiker. They offer him a lift, and later invite him onboard their boat. It’s a chance for the husband to show off in front of his wife, because the young hitchhiker knows nothing about sailing. Later, the hitch-hiker jumps overboard and hides behind a buoy, faking his drowning. The husband swims to shore to fetch help. The hitchhiker then climbs aboard the yacht, witnesses the wife naked, seduces her… and when the boat returns to the dock and the waiting husband, the hitchhiker is long gone. On the drive home, the wife admits she had sex with the hitchhiker. The story is fairly humdrum, but the way the film is made is technically clever.

5 Centimetres per Second, Makoto Shinkai (2007, Japan). I borrowed this from David Tallerman after watching Shinkai’s The Garden of Words and wanting to see more by him. The title refers to, as the film helpfully explains early on, the speed at which cherry blossom falls to the ground. I’m not sure that’s true, but never mind. The film consists of three linked stories. In the first, a boy and a girl at school become friends, but their families move away from each other. In the second, a classmate becomes enamoured of the boy from the first part, but his heart still belongs to the girl of the first part. In the final section, the two characters lead unconnected lives, but still dream of each other. And then they seem to meet one another but do not connect. Like every Shinkai film I’ve seen, the animation is gorgeous, either photo-realistic or wonderfully painterly. There’s some particularly lovely animation when the two main characters witness a rocket launch, but it’s hard to pick a favourite moment as it all looks so fantastic. And yes, the story is low-key and not a fat lot happens in it – there are no mecha, no kaiju, no science fiction or fantasy elements… but that’s one of the reasons why I like Shinkai’s films so much. I’m tempted to get my own copies, in fact.

No, Pablo Larraín (2012, Chile). This is the third film in Larraín’s trilogy about Pinochet, and I’m guessing the two earlier films are Tony Manero and Post Mortem, as Wikipedia doesn’t make it clear that the films are linked. I guess I’ll have to watch them now as I thought this very good. Gael García Bernal plays an advertising man who is hired by the “No” side in the 1988 referendum in Chile over whether Pinochet should remain in power. Happily, the Chileans voted for an open election and not for more military dictatorship (see, Britain, it is possible to vote intelligently in a referendum). According to Wikipedia, “the “No” campaign, created by the majority of Chile’s artistic community, proved effective with a series of entertaining and insightful presentations that had an irresistible cross-demographic appeal. By contrast, the “Yes” campaign’s advertising, with only dry positive economic data in its favor” – which sounds uncomfortably familiar, although the No campaign didn’t resort to outright lies as both the Leave.eu and Vote Leave campaigns did here (but then racism always has “cross-demographic appeal”). No presents the campaign, and the government’s response to it, as dry drama – quite talky drama, in fact. Bernal is good in the lead role, unsurprisingly; but it did feel a little like the focus on the adverts used by either side in the referenderum undercut the importance of the vote and the horror of Pinochet’s regime. But perhaps the latter point is covered better in Tony Manero and Post Mortem. Happily, there is a box set of all three films – No to Pinochet: The Pablo Larraín Collection – and I’ve already stuck it on my wishlist.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kabir Khan (2015, India). I’m not sure which has surprised the Indian guys I work with the most – the fact I don’t like cricket, or that I watch Bollywood movies. Anyway, I’d put Bajrangi Bhaijaan on my rental list after seeing it on some list of good Bollywood movies, and they all approved it. And while I’ve enjoyed a number of Bollywood films I’ve seen, I thought this one was really quite good. A six-year-old girl born in Pakistani Kashmir is mute. Her mother takes her to Delhi to a shrine where all promises are realised, but on the train journey home the girl gets off the train and is left behind in India. She comes ascross Salman Khan, a simple but pathologically honest young man, who vows to reunite her with her family, even if it jeopardises his relationship with his fiancée. So he finds a way to sneak into Pakistan, via smuggler’s tunnel – but even then, he asks for permission from the Pakistani border patrol to enter the country… and when they refuse, he tries again until they accept. There’s an amusing scene where all three are performing ablutions in a river, and they ask the young girl if she had done a number one or two and she replies two… Khan is good as the well-intentioned but somewhat dim-witted title character, and while you know the film is going to end happily, it takes its time getting there. It’s worth the trip, though. The production values are astonishingly high, and there’s some excellent landscape photography. Although it didn’t follow the usual boy-meets-girl boy-loses-girl plot of your typical Bollywood film, this is probably one of the best ones I’ve seen. Oh, and this is the first film I’ve ever seen which lists the production company’s tax counsel among the opening credits.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 864