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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, #31

More movies! Some good, some bad – well, some good, some meh. But mostly good, I think. Perhaps a few too many from the US, but that seems to be how it worked out. I did actually put together my own list of 101 must-see films (rather than 1001) on listchallenges.com – 101 Films for a Cineaste. Of course, I now realise there are films I’ve missed, so I’ll probably have to do a second list… And, no doubt, when I’ve seen yet more films, I’ll want to put together a third list…

paths_of_gloryPaths Of Glory*, Stanley Kubrick (1957, USA). I think I might have seen this before, on television or something back in the 1980s (I spent most of the 1990s in the Middle East, so it was unlikely to be there – UAE television was shit). Certainly, bits of it felt familiar, although it’s a story that, in general form, has been told a number of times in film, book and even bande dessinée. During World War I, a general orders a division to attack a German redoubt, even though the attack will certainly fail and result in high casualties. As indeed it does. The general is so enraged, he orders three men, chosen at random from the survivors, be tried for cowardice, pour encourager les autres. Cowardice was a capital crime. It’s worth bearing in mind that in the British Army less than thirty percent of battlefield executions were upheld once the war was over. That’s seven out of ten men shot by courts martial should not have been executed. In a civilised world, that would qualify as a war crime. And the same is true of General Mireau’s actions in Paths Of Glory. But, of course, the wealthy and influential can do wrong. As Kirk Douglas, playing the colonel who defends the three men, discovers. The film is actually based on a novel, which was loosely based on real events – apparently, the invented bit is the random picking of three men; the French Army shot lots of men for cowardice, but its victims were not randomly chosen. A pity they didn’t shoot the generals*.

californiaEl Valley Centro, Los and Sogobi, James Benning (1999/2001/2002, USA). After three films in which Benning imposes narrative on his trademark series of static shots through either voice-over or scrolling text, these three films are nothing but pure imagery. Which, unsurprisingly, renders them more like art installations than actual cinema – although I can’t really see someone standing in front of a screen in a gallery for 87 minutes (the length of each film). Each film comprises 35 shots of precisely 2.5 minutes’ duration each. The first is about LA’s Central Valley, with shots of farms, oil fields, even fighter jets taking off from a USAF air base. Los is the urban part of the trilogy, with street scenes from greater LA. And Sogobi (the Shoshone word for “earth”) is the California wilderness, consisting of shots of mountains, rivers, deserts and chaparral. In all three films, the shots are carefully composed – in the first, the screen is split horizontally, usually by the horizon, across which objects move; in the second, it is the vertical lines of the city, and the spaces that creates; and the third’s nature shots are increasingly encroached upon by humanity’s presence. The final credits also give the names of the corporate owners of all the locations shown in the films, pointing out just how “free” the Land of the Free really is. Unlike the other Benning films I’ve watched, these require a great deal of work on the viewer’s part – though they’re also completely mesmerising to watch – in working out the narrative. They tell a story, but they make no concessions – there are no clues, no handy voiceover, no scrolling text. I am enormously glad the Österreichisches Filmmuseum is releasing Benning’s work on DVD, or I might never have come across it.

boogie-nights-mysBoogie Nights*, Paul Thomas Anderson (1997, USA). I’m aware of Anderson’s standing as a director, and I’ve seen several of his films… but I’ve never really understand why he’s so lauded. Is it simply that he’s a bit of a maverick? Certainly I can understand the topic of Boogie Nights not being a, well, mainstream movie topic, given it’s about the porn industry in LA. Mark Wahlberg plays a young man with an impressively large todger, which is, of course, never actually seen on screen (this being neither a DH Lawrence adaptation nor a comic book movie). He comes to the attention of Burt Reynolds, a porn director, who then casts him in some of his films. As Dirk Diggler, Wahlberg becomes rich and famous, and lives the rock star lifestyle to excess. Which is pretty much what this film is, a typical rags-to-riches-to-drug-addled-decline story, the only difference is it’s porn rather than music. I’m not entirely sure why Boogie Nights is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (a sadly frequent complaint of these Moving pictures posts).

chappieChappie, Neil Blomkamp (2015, USA). I hadn’t really liked Blomkamp’s two earlier films, District 9 and Elysium, even though they were hugely popular. So I wasn’t expecting much of this one, especially since it hadn’t been all that well-received. So, of course, totally perversely, I actually enjoyed it and thought it rather good. The title refers to a police robot operated by the Johannesburg police force. After being damaged in a firefight with gangsters – its batteries have fused to its chassis, and so cannot be removed; in other words, it has five days of power left and then it’s irretrievably dead – the robot is pulled from the scrapheap by the inventor of the robots, Deon, for him to use on his home project: an AI. But on his way home with the dead robot, he’s hijacked by a trio of inept gangsters, who want him to reprogram a police robot to obey them. So he gives them his AI instead. But on booting up it has the mentality of a child, and though Deon tries to tech it morality, the gangsters trick it into committing crimes by the gangsters… It’s not the most original story on the planet. But Sharlto Copley gives Chappie real character, and the CGI robot itself is well done. It’s more of a comedy than a sf action/adventure film, but that I think is one of its strengths. The villains of the piece are a bit one-note; and the rival robot is plainly based on RoboCop‘s ED-209, and as far as homage it’s not exactly subtle. But I liked this one, it’s much better than Blomkamp’s earlier two films.

great_beautyThe Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013, Italy). I loved Sorrentino’s The Consequences Of Love when I saw it back in 2013, I even picked it as one of my five best of the year films. So I’m a little surprised it’s taken me so long to watch The Great Beauty. Having said that, there’s now a Five Films by Sorrentino DVD box set available, so I might well get it… Anyway, The Great Beauty. I was not initially taken with this film as it took a while to settle into its story. The main character is a cultural commentator, skating by on the fame of a  highly-respected novel he wrote decades before, but now content to write newspaper columns and magazine articles. He wanders the streets of Rome at night, meets people and talks to them; he throws parties in his apartment – at one of which, he delivers a devastating takedown of a female friend who had called his bluff on “honesty” – and he has relationships with various women. The story seems to grow out of the film, rather than provide a structure for its narrative. Which means it does take you somewhat by surprise, as it pulls you in and then wins you over. I didn’t like it as much as The Consequences Of Love, but in channelling “faded glory” rather than “stylish” it makes for an interesting, if overly Fellini-esque, film (and there are several nods to Fellini throughout the film). On reflection, it might be worth waiting for that box set to appear on Blu-ray…

fassbinder1The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1972, Germany). The title character is a fashion designer and the entire film is restricted to her small apartment. It also has an all-female cast. The movies open with von Kant being awoken by her assistant, Marlene. Several visitors appear throughout the course of the film, one of whom, Karin, von Kant takes a shine too. They enter into a relationship. Six months pass. Nowe the relationship is not so loving. Karin admits to have slept with a man, and it then turns out she has been seeing her ex-husband and they plan to get back together. Von Kant feels betrayed. And, er, that’s about it. Fassbinder made a remarkable number of films during his relatively short career, and he had the artistic courage to experiment with cinematic formats and narratives (much as von Trier does). The result are not always successful. Admittedly, The Bitter Tears Of Petra von Kant is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I think some of his other films are actually more interesting. But there’s certainly plenty ot chose from, and I’ve not watched all of his oeuvre. Yet.

my_man_godfreyMy Man Godfrey*, Gregory La Cava (1936, USA). A bunch of nincompoop socialites play a game, the prize going to whoever can find most unwanted thing. One woman tries to persuade a homeless man (Powell) to be her item, but he refuses. Her sister (Lombard), however, is sympathetic to his plight, so he decides to help her show up her sister and so volunteers to be her unwanted thing. They win. Lombard is so grateful and so full of philanthropic goodwill, she offers Powell a job as her family’s butler. This has in the past proven a hard position to fill, as the family are demanding, scatter-brained, and often partying a bit too hard. Powell is the perfect butler and a boon to the family. Lombard falls in love with him – but this film isn’t that transgressive, as it turns out Powell is a runaway son from a rich patrician Boston family. Having said that, he does use his money to develop the city dump where he had been living into a nightclub, with homes and jobs for the people who had been living there. But philanthopy is no alternative to social welfare, and any society that relies on it has no business calling itself civilised. Still, to be fair, My Man Godfrey does run a good line in witty banter, and for a 1930s screwball romance it’s a reasonably good example. That the happy ending encompasses more than just the lovebirds is commendable, as is the somewhat feeble attempt to show that poor people are really people too; but the classism is bad, and so too is the easy acceptance that the largesse of the rich is a viable way to run a society.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 654

* to wit:

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout
‘I refuse to command a division
Which leaves its excreta about.’

But nobody took any notice
No one was prepared to refute,
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared to the presence of Shute.

And certain responsible critics
Made haste to reply to his words
Observing that his staff advisors
Consisted entirely of turds.

For shit may be shot at odd corners
And paper supplied there to suit,
But a shit would be shot without mourners
If somebody shot that shit Shute.