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Moving pictures 2018, #23

Six films, six countries. It’s been a while since I managed that.

Oliver & Company, George Scribner (1988, USA). I have a vague ambition to work my way through all the Disney films – that’s vague, as in I’m not putting much effort into meeting it. So I added some Disney films I’d not seen to my rental list, and I watch them when they pop through my letter-box. But, to be honest, I’m not much of a fan. Sleeping Beauty I consider one of the most gorgeous animated films ever made, but that doesn’t make me a Disney fan. And Oliver & Company is a good example why. I’ve no idea who the DVD cover art is  meant to represent as the art is a great deal better than that in the film. Which is a rip-off of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, but with a kitten in the title role, and dogs playing most of the other roles. Although Fagin is a human. It’s not a bad spin on Dickens’s tale, to be fair, but Disney animated feature films live or die on the quality of animation and the songs. This one has one good song, sung by a lead character voiced by Billy Joel, but piss-poor animation. I was not impressed.

Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway (1991, UK). So many willies! I’m familiar with Greenaway’s oeuvre – in fact, I’ve been more or less following his career since first seeing one of his films back in the mid-1980s. I let it slide for a while, but caught up recently via rental DVDs. This particular film has been hard to find, but when I did track down a copy… there was lots and lots of full-frontal male nudity. Now, I hasten to add, I have nothing against male nudity, much as I have nothing against female nudity. I am not remarking on its presences, only its excessive presence. Although, I must admit, against what standard I have no idea. Apart from that, the most striking thing about Prospero’s Books is how much like his later films it is. It’s almost as if he were trying out a new way of telling stories on film, one that he went on to use in Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company – but not, I seem to remember, in The Pillow Book or 8½ Women, which were made after Prospero’s Books but precede the other films. Prospero’s Books stars John Gielgud in the title role, the sorcerer from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The other characters from the play also appear, but the film is very much about Prospero. And his library. As each book of his is introduced, so CGI brings it to life, both the writing and the subject. In between these are tableaux, over which Gielgud narrates, some of which are static, while others illustrate scenes from the books or allude to scenes from the play. It is a very clever film, and the CGI is very effective. I’ve never really been a fan of Greenaway’s most-celebrated film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (although perhaps The Draughtsman’s Contract is better known), but I’ve always thought he was a singular talent and I’m glad I returned to his films after a decade or more gap. It’s a shame there’s no handy box set of his works, but I expect that would be difficult to arrange given the multi-national financing of most of his films since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Padmaavat, Sanjay Leela Bansali (2018, India). In thirteenth-century India, the nephew of the sultan of Delhi murders his uncle and seizes the throne and determine to be next Alexander the Great. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, a local princess accidentally shoots a visiting Rajput prince with an arrow and wounds him. She nurses him back to health, the two fall in love, as you do, and get married. Then the new Delhi sultan’s plans for expansion send him up against Rajput, and the two kingdoms fight to the death. Padmavati, the Sri Lankan princess, leads the defence of Rajput capital Chittor with an army of women after her husband has fallen to the cheating sultan in single combat. And this is Indian history so it’s all hideously complicated and not really open to easy summary. But Padmaavat is, like Baahubali, one of the new breed of epic movies coming out of India that are CGI’d up to the eyeballs. Padmaavat looks fantastic. It is nowhere near as bonkers as Baahubali, and its battle scenes are somewhat more believable. But everything is giant, the castles are huge, the forests are humungous, and the armies number in the millions. It’s all completely OTT, but also hugely entertaining. Having said all that… I recently tried watching Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is another CGI-heavy retelling of, well, not history exactly, but the Matter of Britain, which I do know a little about. And Ritchie’s film is complete fucking nonsense. Giant elephants and dragon skeletons in tenth-century Britain? WTF? I don’t know the history of India – it’s an enormous country, I suspect no one really does it all – so I can’t say if Padmaavat, an allegedly historical film, annoyed Indian viewers as much as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword annoyed me. But perhaps I should have just gone with the flow – it’s a movie, not a history lesson – and accepted it as entertainment, which is likely what it was intended to be. Certainly, Padmaavat was entertaining. And if you have to watch two Bollywood films this year, then I recommend this one and Baahubali.

No Fear, No Die*, Claire Denis (1990, France). I knew this was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but I had not known it was by Claire Denis until I started watching it. And, I suspect, there are other Denis films that deserve a place on the list more. Like Beau Travail. Which is, I think, a better film than this one. It doesn’t help that the story of No Fear, No Die revolves around cock-fighting, which is barbaric – no, it’s not a “sport” – and indeed the title is the name of one of the character’s favourite cockerel. Two guys from the Caribbean travel to France, and persuade a contact there that they can make money running cock fights. He provides the venue, they provide and train the birds. But it does not go as well as planned. The situation is further complicated by the attraction one of the two guys feels toward the French guy’s wife. In most respects, this is a typical French film of tangled relationships. The cock-fighting gives it an unusual edge, and metaphor, but it’s not something you really want to watch. The cast are excellent. But I can’t help thinking Denis’s Beau Travail looked better and was a more effective movie. It deserved to be on the 100 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Not this one, which is clearly held in such high regard it’s almost impossible to find on DVD…

No compteu amb el dits, Nocturn 29, Lectura Brossa, Pere Portabella (1967, 1968, 2003, Spain). There are 22 films in this box set, and I don’t think I could write intelligent reviews of each one so I’ll lump them together. I had hoped the films would be presented on the discs in the box set in chronological order, but apparently not. Anyway, I watched all three films on the first disc in the box set and… I have no real idea what I watched. Lectura Brossa is the least puzzling of them. An actress stands on a stage in front of a screen. A script is projected on the screen, which she reads. On the right side of the stage, a woman translates the words spoken into sign language (I don’t know which one, sorry). The story involves two characters identified only as “the boy” and the “the girl”, but then introduces “the wife” and “the husband”. It is by Joan Brossa, what also provided the scripts for the previous two films, and who is then interviewed in a short follow-on piece. Both No compteu amb el dits and Nocturn 29 are black and white. The first has a fake documentary/infomercial voiceover, the second uses strange electronic cracklings or discordant piano playing as its soundtrack. Things happen, with no seeming logic – a man takes a shower, a woman removes her make-up, a man visits a post office… these could have come from either film. There is something fascinating in the way a narrative forms out of the connections between the disparate scenes – although “scene” may be too strong a word, as many are simply short sequences in which, for example, a man exits a car, climbs some stairs, enters an apartment, and then sits down. The second of the two is clearly about Franco’s rule, with its film of military parades. The first attempts to mock consumption, and the fact the two films are so similar in presentation and technique, and were made within a year of each other, makes the wide gap between the subjects seem odd. This is good stuff. And I’ve still got another 19 films to go…

Haunting Me, Poj Arnon (2007, Thailand). Four drag queens run a boarding-house for young men. A young woman dies when she falls and bashes her head on a toilet. So she haunts the boarding-house. There’s another ghost too, another young woman, who fell from the roof while running from an attempted gang rape. The drag queens initially cover up the deaths, and employ a number of methods to try and exorcise the ghosts. None of which work. Gradually they realise they need to avenge the ghosts if they’re going to get rid of them. There’s not much to say about this film. It was fun, even funny in places. Annoyingly, the quality of transfer varied throughout the film – some scenes were really high resolution, others were blocky and pixellated. Ah well.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 907

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Moving pictures 2017, #19

Another mix of countries again, sadly ruined by a shit Hollywood sf blockbuster, which, yes, I knew would be shit when I sat down to watch it. Oh well.

Death Walks on High Heels, Luciano Ercoli (1971, Italy). I’ve watched quite a few giallos, after being introduced to the genre when I had to review one for videovista.net several years ago. They’re not a type of film that ever aspired to high art, although both Argento and Bava certainly went overboard on the sets, lighting and camerawork quite often. But most of those I’ve seen have been pretty straightforward low-budget thrillers, with the odd horror element, and plots that are often convoluted to the point of implausibility. It seems almost a defining characteristic that giallos hide who is the real villain of the piece until the end. And that’s exactly what Death Walks on High Heels does. Nicole is an exotic dancer in Paris whose estranged father was an infamous thief. The police inform her he’s been murdered but the proceeds of his last crime, a horde of diamonds, is missing. A man breaks into Nicole’s flat and threatens her with a knife, demanding the location of the missing diamonds. She notices her assailant has piercing blue eyes. Later, she finds blue contact lenses belonging to her sponging boyfriend. She flees Paris in the company of an English businessman she met at a club. He takes her to his holiday cottage in Cornwall (I think) and tells everyone she is his wife (he’s separated from his actual wife but won’t divorce her because she has the money). The boyfriend turns up. Nicole vanishes, and her body turns up later. The police investigate. Ercoli thickens the plot so much, it’s never quite clear what’s going on, and there are at least three different attempts at unmasking the villain. The police are also weird, cracking these odd dry jokes like some sort of dysfunctional comedy duo whenever they’re on screen. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film – it’s not quite well-made enough to convince, the cast are uniformly bad, and the plot is over-convoluted. It’s a good giallo, but that’s no real indicator of quality. There’s a sequel, Death Walks at Midnight, starring the same cast, which I might try – but this is like a bad quality film done well, if that makes sense.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (1999, Spain). I’ve had this for a couple of years but I’ve never written about it before, so I thought it about time I did. It’s a convoluted thriller, whose story is told in a series of flashbacks. Javier Bardem plays a film producer who joins a therapy class of “sex addicts”. Where he meets Victoria Abril, whose evening dog walks had been a cover for sex with strangers. She works at a radio station, and through her Bardem discovers that tapes in which he describes his sexual fantasies have surfaced. Meanwhile, her husband, a police detective, is investigating the murder of a man found in the boot of an abandoned car in a multi-storey car park. The sex tapes are from phone conversations Bardem had with a woman he met at the airport, when they both missed their flight and so would have died when it later crashed. Except, the woman is not a woman… There are several things going on in Between Your Legs, such as Abril’s husband’s suspicion his wife is having an affair, a policeman who killed his wife, but the flashing back and forth never actually gets confusing. And I think that’s what’s most impressive about it, that it keeps the viewer invested in the story, despite its artificial nature, its leaping back and forth in time, and the way those flashbacks lead up to the resolution. The Spanish do good sexual thrillers, and this is one of them.

Early Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1951, Japan). I think this might be my favourite of Ozu’s films, despite being in black and white and despite pretty much having the same plot as all his other films… Not to mention three generations of a family in one home, a daughter who needs marrying off, and a lot of familiar faces. Norioko, a secretary, lives with her parents and her sister’s family. A visiting uncle reminds the family that Norioko is past the age when she should be married. Her boss proposes a friend as a match, and the family are pleased with him as a potential husband. But Norioko would sooner marry a widowed doctor she knows from her daily commute, even though this means moving from Tokyo to provincial Akita. The family are far from pleased about her choice, but she refuses to change her mind. It struck me while watching Early Summer that it’s an ur-Ozu film – it does all the things Ozu does so well and it does them in a single movie. There are some early landscape shots – and the film finishes with a shot across a field of barley, as referenced in the original Japanese title – that seem so un-Ozo that, perversely, they make the film more Ozu. If that makes sense. The family dynamics, and the beautifully understated characterisation, are pretty much the same as any other Ozu film, although the fact the story revolves around Norioko, far more than any other Ozo films seems to centre on one of its cast, gives Early Summer more for the viewer to invest in. There’s a wonderful scene in which four young women go out for a hen party and discuss the upcoming nuptials, and it feels more like eavesdropping than plot-service. Which is, I guess, the appeal of Ozu’s films: there are no story beats, there is no three-act structure… there is just superlative film-making.

Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich (2016, USA). Every now and again, I want to a film I can get pissed while watching, and what better candidate than a Hollywood sf tentpole blockbuster? Especially an unwanted sequel to a twenty-year-old film whose moment passed two months after it was released. Independence Day: Resurgence – I’m pretty sure they meant Regurgence – is actually set twenty years after the events of the first film, with the sons and daughters of the original movie’s heroes as the leads. Except for the non-combat ones, like Brent Spiner, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Goldblum’s dad, that bloke from Taxi. The USA – there are two named Chinese characters in the film, but there don’t appear to be any other nations on Earth; oh, except for a random African one which features for about ten minutes – has reverse-engineered the alien technology and now has a base on the Moon. Which has a giant blaster cannon, just in case the aliens come back. So when a giant spaceship appears, which is nothing like those of the aliens in the original film, the US blows it out of space anyway. Oops. They were the good aliens. Because the bad aliens are back for round two and the good aliens could have helped. Instead, the US has to wheel out all old characters from the first movie. Plus a handful of new ones, most of whom seem more concerned with their relationships with their paper-thin love-interests, plus they’re shit at taking orders anyway, just like every Hollywood military character. Everything that was wrong in the first film is even wronger in this one, and it’s the twenty-first century so a lot of stuff that was acceptable back in the 1990s is pretty much borderline offensive these days. The rest is a mishmash of clichés, hogwash, drivel and machismo bullshit. The special effects may be state of the art, but the storytelling is not. Avoid.

Knights of the Black Cross, Aleksander Ford (1960, Poland). It turns out I’d seen this before, but under the title Knights of the Teutonic Order (which is the title of the Second Run DVD release), although I can’t say I remembered any of the story when I came to watch it this time. It was a huge success in Poland at its time of release – in fact, the Wikipedia entry for the film boasts about the number of people who have seen it. Knights of the Black Cross is certainly an epic movie. It’s set in the late 1300s and is about the frankly evil machinations of the titular order. It clearly demonstrates that there is no one quite as evil as someone who claims to have god on their side – and that’s as true now as it was 600 years ago. A Polish knight finds himself at odds with the order after he rescues a caravan they’re attacking. And it all sort of escalates from there. He threatens the king’s messenger, mistakenly thinking he’s a knight of the order and is sentenced to execution. But the young woman he has fallen for rescues him from the headsman by promising herself in marriage. Meanwhile, her uncle is fighting the order, and ends up captured by them. They also kidnap the knight’s betrothed. Knights of the Black Cross packs a lot into its 166 minutes, and it’s all good stuff. It’s a more melodramatic film than, say, The Valley of the Bees, which also features the Teutonic Order, but is a Czech film – and it makes a good fist of its setting and it’s never dull. Worth seeing.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway (2015, Netherlands). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to love Greenaway’s films, perhaps because at that time they were like nothing I’d seen before. But then his star sort of waned and his films became harder to find – the last few have been pretty much financed by the Dutch – but sell-through DVD happily seems to have allowed him to reach a new audience (although I note his films are still somewhat haphazardly available in the UK on DVD or Blu-ray). He also seems to have embraced CGI to a much greater extent than other art house film directors. Like his last two films, Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is based on historical fact. Sergei Eisenstein, the director of Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Ivan the Terrible and other Soviet classics, did indeed visit Mexico to make a film in 1930. Greenaway presents Eisenstein as an erudite gay libertine, who takes full advantage of the freedoms offered by Mexico and unavailable in the USSR. Many of the scenes feature declamatory dialogue, often while stalking semi-nude around a single set. The whole is part-lecture, part frankly-implausible drama, but entirely clever and engaging. I hadn’t expected to like Eisenstein in Guanajuato, despite being a fan of Eisenstein’s films, or perhaps because of, but I certainly hadn’t expected Eisenstein in Guanajuato to make me think more favourably of Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company, which I now want to watch again. My appreciation of Greenaway’s films may never return to its levels of twenty-plus years ago, but I like his films a whole lot better now than I did five years ago…

1001 Movies You must See Before You Diecount: 857


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Moving pictures, #20

Bit of an epic Moving pictures post this time as I try to get up to date with my recent viewing. The usual mixture of movies, of course, although perhaps a few too many American ones. Never mind.

nightwatchingNightwatching, Peter Greenaway (2007, UK). This is the first of Greenaway’s “Dutch masters” trilogy – I actually saw the second one first, Goltzius and the Pelican Company– and this time is about the life of Rembrandt van Rijn. Played by, of all people, Martin Freeman. This is very much the Greenway I remember from the 1980s and early 1990s, although it was the sets, rather than the staging and camera work, that made it feel more like a play than a film. I’d not really enjoyed Goltzius and the Pelican Company, and when I started watching Nightwatching I didn’t initially think Freeman was very convincing as Rembrandt, but he won me over and the movie definitely turned more interesting as it progressed. Not bad.

before_i_go_to_sleepBefore I Go To Sleep, Rowan Joffe (2014, UK). So I got my Fire TV Stick, and went looking on it for a movie to watch, and this looked like a recent thriller that might do the job and… oof. What a nasty film. I’m sorry, but when your plot is predicated on violence toward women, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Nicole Kidman plays an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing what has happened to her over the past decade. Her husband, Colin Firth, explains that she was in a car accident, and suffered brain damage. Except that’s not true. As she slowly discovers, partly as a result of documenting each day secretly, something therapist Mark Strong has suggested to her. The final twist is, to be honest, a bit obvious. Despite the cast and the polished production, this leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. Best avoided.

leviathanLeviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014, Russia). Perhaps Russian films such as Night Watch and Black Lightning might have got all the box office, but Russia has churned out some quality drama too (and not just by my beloved Aleksandr Sokurov). Kolya is a car mechanic, whose land has been compulsory-purchased by the town council, allegedly for a transmitter; but Kolya is pretty sure the corrupt mayer just wants to build himself a house there. He’s tried the local court, but they’re in the pocket of the mayor. As are the police. And the purchase price is far from what the land is worth. The more Kolya struggles, the worst his situation becomes. So he rants and raves and hits the vodka, but none of it helps. Beautifully-photographed, intensely and depressingly realistic. Definitely worth seeing.

natural_born_killersNatural Born Killers*, Oliver Stone (1994, USA). As indicated by the asterisk, this is one from 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list, and I very much doubt I would have otherwise watched it. Or re-watched it. Sort of. Back in the 1990s I bought the CD of the sountrack by Trent Reznor (I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails in those days) and listened to it quite a lot. Unlike other OSTs, the Natural Born Killers one featured dialogue from the film between songs. And there was enough of it to actually peice together the plot of the film. As I discovered when I watched it. Otherwise, the movie seemed to be trying too hard to become a cult film, failing dismally, but in its failure actually getting closer to that status than it did by design. If that makes sense.

A-Place-In-The-Sun-1951-Front-Cover-38596A Place in the Sun*, George Stevens (1951, USA). Hollywood churned out a lot of worthy but dull films during the 1950s and 1960s, usually based on highly-regarded novels – in this case, Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy. This is definitely one of them. Montgomery Clift plays the scion of a poor branch of the family who visits his rich industrialist uncle and asks for a job. He’s given a lowly position, despite being a relative, and is supposed to work his way up the corporate ladder. Because hard work. Because American Dream. Unfortunately, there’s a nubile fly in the ointment in the shape of Elizabeth Taylor and… you know how it goes. Ambitions thwarted by actual situation – personified by women, of course – leading to foolish plan to get rise to top back on track, usually results in someone’s death, hero ends up in prison. The book should have been called An American Cliché. Not worth the effort. Meh.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Melvin Frank (1965, USA). This film is nothing to do with the sf anthology I recently read (see here). This is a Rock Hudson / Gina Lollobridigida vehicle, in which they play divorcees who temporarily get back together because he needs to show he’s happily married to land a job. The film is actually set in London, though clearly only the stock footage was shot there and neither of the stars actually visited the city. It gave the whole film a bit of a soap opera feel. The Technicolor wasn’t up to its usual gorgeousness, the banter felt a bit lacklustre (although Gig Young was excellent), and it all felt even more inconsequential that most movies of this type do. I enjoyed it, but there are better Rock Hudson rom coms / melodramas out there.

aileenAileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer / Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer*, Nick Broomfield (1992/2003, UK). I added the latter to my rental list (because asterisk), but the disc also included the former, so I watched both. Aileen Wuornos was the US’s first serial killer – or at least the first one ever caught. She killed seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990, claiming self-defence after she’d been arrested. But over the course of her trial and her time on death row, she changed her story several times. Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer documents how the media exploited Wuornos and her trial – some of the police officers involved were paid large sums by Hollywood producers for film rights, for example, and later were made to resign. In Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer, Broomfield interviews Wuornos shortly before she is executed. If the first film painted her as the victim of a system determined to see her executed because she was a woman serial killer, ten years in prison had clearly unbalanced her. Definitely worth seeing.

the_swiss_conspiracyThe Swiss Conspiracy, Jack Arnold (1976, US/Germany). There’s probably a very good reason why I bought this DVD but I’m buggered if I can remember what it was. The film is a pretty run-of-the-mill thriller starring Ray Milland and David Janssen, and notable only for being shot entirely in Zürich. It’s about, of course, a Swiss bank. Senta Berger and Elke Sommer are watchable, but Janssen is a bit too gravelly for his allegedly louche character, and John Saxon hams it up like a slab of gammon as a mobster. There’s a passable chase scene, but this doesn’t really even pass muster as a Sunday afternoon film.

a_touch_of_zenA Touch Of Zen*, King Hu (1971, Taiwan). This is apparently an important early wu xia film, but I can certainly verify it is a long and dull one. A painter in a small town becomes embroiled with a fugitive from imperial justice, a young woman who’d tried to warn the emperor of his eunuch’s corruption. Although the film is about the woman, Yang, it’s the painter, Ku, who is the centre of the story. I remember that the film was so long it was pslit into two, and Ku seemed mostly a bumbling oaf. Some of the fight scenes looked a little clumsy given the current state of the wu xia art. But mostly I remember that it dragged on and on and on. But I’ve seen it now. Huh.

A-christmas-Story-DVDA Christmas Story*, Bob Clark (1983, USA). If this hadn’t been on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, I’d never have bothered renting it. Certainly there’s nothing in its description which would recommend it to me – a boy’s Christmas, loosely based on a series of nostalgic columns from a US newspaper. And having now seen it, I can thoroughly not recommend it. The writer of the column narrates the film, which is set in the mid-1940s – and bizarrely, there is no mention of WWII, it’s almost as if the US were not at war – and focuses chiefly on the narrator’s boyhood self and his determination to get an air rifle for Christmas – which, of course, no one thinks he should have. I really didn’t like this film. Cloying manufactured nostalgia, which works by elevating the absolutely trivial to emotional life-or-death. Avoid.

hitchcock2The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963, USA). During the recent Prime day on Amazon, I spotted the two Hitchcock collections on Blu-ray going for less than half price. I already had them on DVD – in fact, they were among the first DVDs I ever purchased – but at that price it was worth “upgrading”. And the first one I watched from my new Blu-ray collection was The Birds from Vol 2, probably because it was a Hitchcock film I’d not rewatched for a long time. As I soon discovered, because I’d completely forgotten the framing story, in which a socialite played by Tippi Hedren flirts with po-faced attorney Rod Taylor in a pet shop, and then drives up the coast to backend-of-nowhere town Bodega Bay where he’s gone to spend the weekend with his widowed mother and much younger sister. She ingratiates herself into the family, and even ends up spending the night Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, who is the local school teacher. And then the birds attack. It’s all a bit random. And the special effects show their age in a number of ways. But Hitch maintains an impressive level of creepiness throughout, and successfully ups the peril as the attacks progress. A bona fide classic.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 611