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Moving pictures 2018, #52

I’ve not been chasing films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die the last couple of months, so the number of films I’ve seen from the list hasn’t changed for a few weeks. I’m not entirely sure I want to complete the list. After all, it’s “Before You Die”, which sort of suggests that if you do watch them all, well… Anyway, instead it’s the usual odd mix, including two recent films from Russia, both found on Amazon Prime, a pseudo-documentary from the 1930s, a Hungarian drama, some anime, and, well, I’m not entirely sure how to describe the last film – except, perhaps, that I loved it so much after watching the rental than I bought my own copy…

Tsar, Pavel Lungin (2009, Russia). Lungin is the director of the excellent The Island (2006), which seems to be the only film by him that’s been released on DVD in the UK (it’s currently deleted and searching for it by title on Amazon returns nothing; fortunately, I have a copy). Tsar I found on Amazon Prime, and judging by the subtitles, it’s a Russian release. I’ve found a number of Russian films on Amazon Prime, clearly from Russian distributors, from 1947’s Cinderella (see here) through Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears and Kin-dza-dza (both of which I already own on DVD) to Air Crew (see here) to Battle for Sevastopol (see here). The thing I remember from The Island is mostly slow cinema, beautifully-framed shots of the monastery at which the film was set. Tsar seems more traditionally framed as a Russian historical film, although there are definitely hints of Tarkovsky at times. The title refers to Ivan the Terrible – the film takes place between 1566 and 1569 – and he’s not so much terrible as completely bonkers and a total psychopath. He invites his friend, the abbot of a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands, and asks him to become Metropolitan of Moscow, ie, leader of the chief diocese of the Russian Orthodox church. The abbot initially refuses, but then agrees, hoping to temper Ivan’s cruelty. But he fails. Later, Ivan strips the Metropolitan of his rank and has him imprisoned in a monastery. This is no slow cinema. Like The Island, its story explores a clash between two views of religion; but it depicts a grim and brutal world, mostly closely-framed. And with a very convincing mise en scène. On the one hand, the tsar’s madness seems to be driven by a fear the world is about to end and the Last Judgement is imminent, and that’s why he’s instituted the oprichnina – culminating in the movie in Ivan being given a guided tour of a “torture camp”, where his enemies will be strapped to various death machines while people wander about enjoying the “spectacle”. Meanwhile, the ex-Metropolitan performs a miracle and escape his chains – and heals his jailer – but even as a saint, or even an ersatz Christ, he can’t cure the tsar of his madness, or prevail against him. Films like this are definitely two-handers. Pyotr Mamonov, who plays Ivan, is especially good, and the abbot, Oleg Yankovskiy, exudes an impressive quite dignity throughout. While Tsar didn’t grab me initially as much as The Island had done, perhaps because its setting isn’t as striking, it turned out to be engrossing. Much as I like Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (the latter more, I think, than the former), they do feel a bit pantomime in comparison to Tsar. Recommended.

Lermontov, Maksim Bespalyy (2015, Russia). I’ve watched a film about a nineteenth-century Russian author before and ended up buying a book by said author, and after watching Lermontov I had a burning desire to read his most famous novel, A Hero of Our Time. Like Tsar, this is a Russian film I found on Amazon Prime, although it’s a made-for-TV movie so I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD. It certainly hasn’t in this country. And yet it’s a good piece of work, telling Lermontov’s story with some clever use of graphics as intros to each new chapter of his life. It is all too easy, I’ve found, for Russian historical films to treat their subjects in much the same way the BBC does, relying on a good cast and well-dressed sets. This is not, of course, limited to either British or Russian historical dramas. Lermontov sticks mostly to this but rings a few changes inasmuch as it uses Lermontov’s own writings as a motif for graphics which advance the story, and also tries to marry together the stories of his poems and novels with the events in his life. It works really well. The graphics are cleverly done, and the interplay between fact and fiction prevents the film from becoming too dry. Lermontov, by all accounts, was privileged and arrogant, and like many talents of previous centuries whose works we continue to admire he seemed to create real art more by accident than design. He was convinced of his own superiority, so it’s no real surprise he died aged twenty-seven in a duel. Worth seeing.

Man of Aran, Robert J Flaherty (1934, Ireland). The Aran Islands are off the west coast of Ireland, just outside Galway Bay. Man of Aran purports to document the life of those who live on the islands. Although made in the 1930s, the life it depicts actually ended some fifty years earlier – leading many to dub the film “ethnofiction”, much like the documentaries of Jean Rouch. Which sort of makes you wonder about the point of it all. There is, for example, a moment in The Epic of Everest (see here) in  which a long-distance tracking shot follows George Mallory’s second attempt on the peak of Everest. And from which he never returned. His body was not found until decades later. There’s a similar mechanism at work in Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (see here), although both are actual eyewitness film chronicles (although the latter makes use of model shots to show Scott’s mission to the South Pole). My point being, I suppose, that the films of Ponting and Noel were actual footage of the historical event they depicted… while Rouch had a tendency to stage the events he wanted to depict, as did Flaherty in this film, and so were labelled “ethnofiction”, you can on the one hand acknowledge the truths they want to document while at the same time wondering just how true those “truths” are… The problem with ethnofiction, in other words, is how reliable is the narrator? Is the film-make “faking” something he knows to be true? Or otherwise. Because making a point by emphasising one aspect of something is still faking it. Did the Aran Islanders really catch sharks as depicted? By the time the film was made, almost certainly not. It’s a slippery slope and I’ve no idea how you judge it. I’m a huge fan of the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, who melds fiction and fact in his films in a way which makes any distinction between the two meaningless. Francofonia is a straight-up mix between the two, but Confession pretends to be the diary of a real person who repeatedly quotes a work of fiction. It’s one reason why I love early documentaries, which are so explicitly fact, and the films of Sokurov which are so clearly extensions of fact… but I find it hard to deal with films which are distortions of fact from early decades…

Love, Károly Makk (1971, Hungary). I have a lot of time for Second Run. They’ve released some excellent films from around the world, including some by a favourite director of mine, who also happens to be Hungarian, Miklós Jancsó. I’ve not seen as many Hungarian films, despite Jancsó – eighteen, compared to fifty-six Polish films, for example – so I’m not as well informed on the country’s cinema, although I suspect Jancsó is less typical of it than Makk, likewise Béla Tarr… although did, perversely remind me of films by Polish directors and even one or two by Czech directors (especially Ucho, see here). In Love, a woman’s husband has been arrested as a political prisoner. Afraid this will adversely affect his ill mother, the wife pretends he has been sent to New York for work, and so make up letters from him which she reads to her mother in law. At various points in the story, the film uses flashbacks to explain what is being referenced in the letters. It’s mostly a two-hander, with the wife and mother in law, and the former is especially good. It comes across as very much a film of its time, but not in the sense it’s capturing a particular zeitgeist or period of fashion, but more as a snapshot of a regime and its impact on those on which the regime was imposed. The only revolution in the UK’s history that wasn’t ruthlessly put down was the Industrial Revolution, which tends to suggest “revolution” is the wrong word to describe it. (The English Civil War was hardly a revolution, given Oliver Cromwell was born into the aristocracy.) On the other hand, neither has the UK been occupied as Hungary was by the USSR. It makes for a disconnect, but it also makes it doubly important that such films are made available to a British audience. We  take our freedoms for granted because we cannot recognise when they are being curtailed. To be fair, tanks have appeared on the streets of British cities, and decades later it’s as if it never happened… But films like Love are important because they remind us that totalitarianism is a thing and has a personal cost and that we’re only a heartbeat away from it. I would sooner popular cinema depicted the perils of fascism instead of normalising it; I would sooner Hollywood spent more time depicting the perils of our current political climate instead of convincing everyone the world was a violent place in which might was right. We’ve known now for a couple of decades that US geopolitical dominance has been bad for planet Earth, but I maintain US cultural dominance, for just under a century, has probably been more damaging. Two hundred years from now, historians will probably look back at the twentieth-century as a noble social experiment, born in two world wars, which the US managed to comprehensively fuck up, while still managing to put twelve men on the Moon….

Princess Arete, Sunao Katabuchi (2001, Japan). If you were to wonder if a friend had lent me this particular film, you’d be right. It’s not my usual fare, any any means – and while I have enjoyed many anime films, the cartoon-ish nature of the art in this movie, as displayed on the Blu-ray cover, would normally put me off. Except, of course, the actual film looks nothing like that and much more like something made by Studio Ghibli. Well, perhaps a more simplified style than that of Studio Ghibli. Some of the backgrounds appear more painted, and indeed more detailed than the characters. It’s an effective technique, and one used in my favourite Ghibli film… But this film is not by them and it’s unfair to keep on mentioning them. Story-wise, Princess Arete presents itself as fairy tale that follows the typical template – a European one, that is, not Japanese. There’s a princess whose father keeps her hidden in the castle until a suitable suitor is found for her, but who sneaks out at night for adventure. But then a suit he can’t refuse, a wizard natch, comes along and takes the princess away. And it turns out the wizard is immortal but a prophecy says a princess called Arete will kill him. As Arete tries to escape her new prison, so she discovers more about her suitor and, of course, unwittingly sets in motion the chain of events which kill him and so render the prophecy true. Princess Arete, however, rings a few changes on the template. The title character has far more agency than is usual, and it is her direct actions which bring about the resolution. There’s also a Japanese slant -story-wise and visually – to some of the events in the last act of the film. The version I watched had only French language, or Japanese language with English subtitles, versions – and while the latter is more, well, correct as it’s a Japanese film, it apes European fairy tales and fantasies so well you expect it to be in English. I have zero problem with watching films in their original language with English subtitles, even when English dubs are available (like for many giallo films), I actually prefer it in fact, but with Princess Arete there’s a slight disconnect between what you see and what you hear. Even so, a good anime and worth seeing. Nice soundtrack too.

Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria). What this film is, is easy to describe. But what this has resulted in, is difficult to get a handle on. Simply put, Deutsch as taken thirteen of Edward Hopper’s paintings – but not, sadly, ‘Night Hawks’ – and from them stitched together a narrative about a woman called Shirley, from the early 1930s through to the late 1960s (although she does not appear to actually age during the 30 years). As a piece of art, it works amazingly well. Stephanie Cumming in the title role does little more than play a life model, but her voiceover provides all the drama that is necessary. The mise in scène artfully copies Hopper’s paintings: sometimes only momentarily, in other scenes for several minutes at a time. It looks gorgeous, despite the artificial simplicity of the set dressing. I rented this film and loved it so much I bought myself a Blu-ray copy (actually, it’s a dual format edition). It was worth it. I suspect the film will make my top five for the year. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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Moving pictures, #17

Six months into the year and I’m on my seventeenth film post already. And it’s not like I include every film I watch here – I don’t, for instance, bother writing about films I’ve seen before, or crappy ones on Movies24 that I find myself watching on a Sunday afternoon after my brain has given up the ghost… Anyway, as usual asterisked films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (or at least the version of the list I’m using).

flight_from_ashiyaFlight from Ashiya, Michael Anderson (1964, USA). Richard Widmark is a tough-talking USAF Rescue Service pilot stationed in Japan. Yul Brynner is his Japanese sergeant and medic, and George Chakiris is a pilot lieutenant with confidence issues. A Japanese ship goes down in a fierce storm, and two Rescue Service Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplanes are sent to rescue them. As they fly to the site of the sinking, and begin searching for survivors, flashbacks cover important events in the past of each of the three main characters. It’s melodramatic, but surprisingly dull, stuff. Suzy Parker has a not-much-more-than-walk-on part as Brynner’s latest flame, and the aerial sequences aren’t too bad; but other than that, this isn’t even the sort of film you’d stop to watch if you were channel-hopping on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Disappointing.

royalspaceforceRoyal Space Force: Wings of Honnêamise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). I know only a little about anime, and have seen only a dozen or so of the best-known ones and, of course, pretty much all of the Studio Ghibli movies… but I’m open to learning more. So when David Tallerman recommended a handful of titles I should add to my rental list, I picked two of them and this was the first that arrived. And… while the world-building in Wings of Honnêamise was cleverly done it wasn’t enough to offset that style of overly-broad humour and the characters mugging all the time common to much anime that I find really hard to take. The launch sequence at the end, however, where Honnêamise’s first crewed rocket makes it into space while an air and ground battles rages around the launch pad is actually really good. I’m not sure if it’s worth sitting through near enough 100 minutes of the film to get to that point, but even now, weeks after watching the movie, that sequence sticks in my memory. Perversely, thinking about it for this post is sort of making me want to have another go at watching the film. Apparently, a sequel titled Aoki Uru (Uru in Blue) is finally in preproduction, after a number of aborted previous attempts, with a proposed launch date of 2018.

continuumContinuum, Richie Mehta (2013, Canada). AKA I’ll Follow You Down. Physics professor Rufus Sewell says goodbye to wife Gillian Anderson and son (who, twelve years later, grows up to be Haley Joel Osment) and heads for a scientific conference in Princeton, but never returns. It turns out he’s actually invented a time machine, and he uses it to travel back to the 1940s in order to meet Albert Einstein. But he is mugged and killed before he can return. Fortunately, Osment is a genius and he manages to figure out his dad’s arcane physics and so build a replica of his time machine. Which he then uses to go back in time to save Sewell. It’s hardly the most original plot in media science fiction – at least half a dozen sf television series have used it more than once throughout their runs – and it’s all played very low-key… But Osment is too much a genius to be really plausible – and that’s after you’ve swallowed Sewell inventing a time machine. Meh.

adams_ribAdam’s Rib*, George Cukor (1949, USA). Much as I enjoy screwball comedies, I’ve never really seen Spencer Tracy as a screwball romantic lead. He never quite seemed light enough on his feet, if you know what I mean. But here he is with Katherine Hepburn, as a married couple who are also lawyers who end up opposing each other in court. She’s defending a woman who took a potshot at her philandering husband, he’s the prosecuting attorney. The result is a battle of legal wits and domestic rivalry in the court room. To be fair, I thought Tracy and Hepburn were better in Desk Set – while the film was not especially witty, it was in Technicolor – Technicolor! – and there was a giant 1950s computer in it. It was also a bit, well, sweeter. (And Tracy played a good curmudgeon.) Anyway, I’ve seen Adam’s Rib, so meh.

theislandThe Island, Pavel Lungin (2006, Russia). Amazon insisted on recommending this film to me – repeatedly – because I’d bought, or searched for, films by Aleksandr Sokurov. I checked it out on Wikipedia, and it looked like it might appeal… so I bought a copy. And it did appeal. During WWII, Germans board a Russian coal barge and force the crewman to shoot his captain. The Germans then mine the barge. The crewman survives and is wracked with remorse for killing his captain. The film jumps ahead thirty years. The crewman, Anatoly, is a monk on the tiny island on which he washed ashore. He is also something of a Holy Fool, and tells people things which then come true. He looks after the monastery’s boiler, is perpetually filthy, and talks back to the monastery’s abbot. But one day an admiral brings his daughter to be exorcised by Brother Anatoly… Some films take you by surprise not simply because of the way they’ve been shot – and The Island is indeed beautifully shot – but because of their story and what they say. And The Island certainly did that. I was initially expecting something like one of Béla Tarr’s movies – I seem to recall the phrase “slow cinema” being used in reference to Lungin – but The Island soon became something very different. I now want to watch more films by Lungin. But, since he’s Russian, very few of them have been released in the UK – only this one, in fact. Gah.

paddngtonPaddington, Paul King (2014, UK). This was pretty successful last year, so I thought it might be worth a go. I should have known better. Yes, I remember the Paddington Bear cartoon from my childhood, but this was some bizarre story that didn’t seem to know in which decade it was set. An explorer in “deepest, darkest Peru” finds some talking bears, and years later the child bear heads to London to find the family of the hunter. Though the film was sent in the present day, it only made sense – talking bears notwithstanding – if it was sent in the 1940s. And everything in the plot was structured as if the story were set in the 1940s. It made for a weird disconnect between plot and visuals, and even the modicum of wit couldn’t rescue the movie from total crapness. And comedy cross-dressing? When was the last time a movie featured that? Whatever happened to the British film industry? All it seems capable of turning out these days are mockney gangster movies, execrable upper middle class rom coms, and appalling comedies. Those “quota quickies” they banged out during WWII? Most of those are better than this shit.

hudHud*, Martin Ritt (1963, USA). Paul Newman plays the ruthless and self-centred son of a rancher, and he’s more concerned with making money than anything as profit-jeoparding as principles (such as, for example, not drilling for oil on the land). So Hud sleeps around, gets into fights, argues with his dad, patronises his younger brother, and generally presents as one of those arsehole characters Hollywood likes to build films around because they’re good for winning awards. (Hud, incidentally, was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won for best actress, best supporting actor and best cinematography.) Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to films, and directors, I might not otherwise have seen and which I have greatly appreciated and admired. But it has also resulted in me watching a great deal of middle-brow Hollywood output that I would otherwise have quite happily not bothered seeing. Hud is one such movie. Oh, the scene where they massacre the cattle because it has foot and mouth disease is affecting, but centring the film on an unlikeable prick doesn’t to me feel like it adds anything useful or interesting. I’m sixty percent of the way through the list now, and I suspect of those I’ve seen I’d only consider around a quarter truly belonged there.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 601