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Moving pictures 2017, #40

It’s odd how films drop into my viewing schedule – although “schedule” is far too strong a word – but… I watch a lot of rentals and, of course, I have a limited time to watch them (the longer it takes, the less rental discs I can get through in a month), whereas other films I own so I can watch them at any time… And yet only two of the below movies are actually rentals; the rest are films I’ve purchased. Also, we have the first Pasolini from the collection I bought… which makes him the second director, after Truffaut, who I’d seen previously (Truffaut in 2006, Pasolini in 2009) but had not been much bothered about, but in 2017 changed my mind sufficiently about their films to invest in a Blu-ray box set…

Kiss Me Deadly*, Robert Aldrich (1955, USA). This is one of a handful of classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’d always assumed I’d seen it before at some point, probably because the title is so iconic. But nothing in it seemed familiar as I watched it, so I guess not. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the maguffin in Kiss Me Deadly inspired the plot of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Ralph Meeker plays two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer (a character I know best from the Stacy Keach incarnation of the 1980s), who is out driving on a lonely country road one night when he gives a lift to a young woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Thugs then force his car off the road, take the two prisoner, knock out Hammer, torture the woman, then stage a car crash. Hammer survives. Determined to uncover who the woman was, and why she was murdered, he follows a series of clues, which eventually lead him to a beach house owned by a mysterious scientist, and a suitcase containing some radioactive material… which results in the film’s infamous ending – the beach house going up in a nuclear explosion. To be honest, it was all a bit ridiculous. Hammer has always been paper-thin as a character, and though Meeker made him more of a brutal thug than the white knight he’s usually protrayed, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. The Wikipedia page points out many of the Bunker Hill locations used in the film have since disappeared, but that seems a pretty thin reason for inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I suppose a certain notoriety has attached to the film, despite its daft premise and incomprehensible plotting, and I did enjoy it… But I’m not convinced it should be on the list.

Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). After watching the slog that was Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) – all 345 minutes of it! (see here) – I wasn’t expecting all that much of Privilege, and the fact it’s a late sixties docudrama and a musical…, well, that didn’t bode too well either. But I was surprised to discover I loved it. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann at the time, plays Steven Shorter, the UK’s most popular celebrity. The film opens, with documentary-style voiceover narration, as Shorter is welcomed back to the UK with a ticker tape parade. The film uses the same semi-documentary format, with occasional songs, as it follows Shorter’s career as a political tool to appease the masses and, later, a messianic figure to encourage church attendance and obedience. It’s all set in a 1970s dystopian UK, and Watkins is not afraid to use the completely absurd to make his point – the filming of the apple commercial, for example, is absolutely bonkers. I was reminded, while watching Privilege, of V for Vendetta, which covers similar territory, but uses fascist iconography as its dystopian credentials. Privilege, however, looks like it’s set in the same world as that inhabited by its contemporary viewers. Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, although played beautifully straight – but it does make its point far more bitingly and effectively than V for Vendetta. I want my own copy of Privilege now.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent (1970, USA). I hadn’t planned to buy this. I knew of the film, but had never seen it before, and when a brand new edition – the first since VHS, I think – appeared, I fancied seeing it and so put it on my rental list. But then it appeared in a recent Prime Day at a price of great cheapness, and so I sort of found myself sort of clicking on the buy button… A Blu-ray too. And… it’s sort of fun in that early 1970s earnest science fiction B-list sort of way – ie, a serious film the studios never expected anyone to take seriously, although it was made with serious intent. Much like Planet of the Apes. The title refers to a massive computer, supposedly heuristic, and probably more like an AI as sf understands the term, which is put in charge the US’s nuclear deterrent. with no human oversight, or possibility of human intervention. What could possibly go wrong? The film – based on a novel by forgotten Brit sf author DF Jones – avoids the obvious consequences of such hubristic foolishness. It transpires the USSR has only gone and done exactly the same thing. And Colossus and the Soviet AI, called Guardian, begin “talking” to each other – in the film’s most technologically cringe-inducing scene – then form a gestalt and, well, take over the world, ushering in a new age of computer-led fascism. In actual fact, Colossus: The Forbin Project feels like a better-made film than it probably deserves. I can’t quite figure out why. There are no A-listers in the cast, what few special effects the film possesses are adequate and very much of their time (although the Colossus CCTV reticule is quite prescient), and the multiple scenes with the president of the US feel a little soap-opera-ish… I think it’s because the film takes itself seriously and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Yes, there’s plenty of expository dialogue, but it’s well-anchored in the story, and it’s only really its datedness that embarrasses (the aforementioned scene aside). I felt kinder toward Colossus: The Forbin Project after it had finished than I did while watching it, and while I love the aesthetics of early 1970s near-future movies, I don’t think this one is ever going to be a favourite…

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten, Miklós Jancsó (1999, Hungary). This is the first of six low-budget semi-improvised comedy films written and directed by Jancsó after a long break from film-making. The films star a pair of gravediggers called Pepe and Kapa, played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi. And, I admit, I’m not entirely sure what I watched. This is not an unknown consequence of watching a Miklós Jancsó film and, to be fair, it’s one of the reasons I like them so much. This movie (the title is a bit of a slog to type) opens with a group of men haring up in 4WDs, jumping out of them and then shooting some women and a man in a house. The action cuts to a cemetery, where Kapa and Pepe appear. They start chatting to two old men, Jancsó himself and Gyula Hernádi, the writer of many of Jancsó’s earlier films.  Kapa and Pepe, who wear insignialess blue uniforms, seem to spend most of the time arguing and insulting each other, in quite coarse language, often involving passers by in their disputes. Then there’s a funeral, followed by a wedding and… a new section starts, and now Kapa is a yuppie and Pepe is a policeman, but then he turns into a yuppie too, except Kapa can remember him being a cop and so is confused (he’s not the only one). The two gravediggers are not the only characters to re-appear, or change roles, as the victims of the opening shooting also turn up as Kapa’s family, but this time shot by his niece. Not that he seems overly bothered. And Jancsó and Hernádi turn up too, despite being killed earlier… And then Pepi is walking up the cable of a suspension bridge to the top of the tower, with nothing but a narrow handrail to either side (and it looks massively dangerous). Kapa joins him, and the two start to argue, and I had to look away as I suffer from vertigo and… well, I was lost. I don’t even know what the title – it translates as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest – means or refers to (Kapa, in the guise of a corporate raider, calls himself “the Lord’s Lantern” after being shot in the head and coming back to life). The style is very different to the other Jancsó films I’ve seen, with cuts and close-ups and zooms and pull-backs, rather than long tracking shots and dolly shots. The acting is also much more natural, far less stylised – in fact, it’s pretty much what you would expect of a contemporary film. It’s all sort of bewildering, but in a completely different way to a film such as Electra, My Love, since the two main characters are not fixed – indeed in that earlier film, the characters are more or less concretized in mythology – but drift through a series of stories, maintaining their own identity even though there’s no narrative link from one story to the next. Despite being baffled by it, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll be watching this again, I think. And I’m looking forward to watching the five sequels…

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972, Italy). Pasolini was one of those directors whose name I ticked off after watching the films of theirs which had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But then earlier this year I watched his Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (see here), which proved far less gruesome than I’d expected (I’m extremely squeamish) and intriguing enough to persuade me Pasolini’s oeuvre was worth exploring further. So I stuck his Arabian Nights on my rental list, and a few weeks ago it duly arrived, I watched it (see here), and was much impressed. Enough to shell out for Six Films 1968 – 1975, a Blue-ray collection of, er, six films by Pasolini. And the first one, which I’d not seen, that I pulled from the box, was The Canterbury Tales. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise there was an English-language version of the film on the disc, so I ended up watching a film starring British actors dubbed into Italian with English subtitles. (Pasolini famously dubbed all his films into several languages.) And… I know of the source text, but I don’t know it, I’ve never read Chaucer. I don’t even know enough about it to judge Pasolini’s film as an adaptation. But I can judge it as a film and as a Pasolini film (based on the handful I’ve seen so far). In that respect, it clearly does everything Pasolini does, and it does them well. Perhaps the Chaplin pastiche/homage in ‘The Cook’s Tale’ is a bit too overt, and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ does feel a bit too much like a 1970s British sex-comedy, although somewhat… earthier. I’ve also no idea where the film was shot – in the UK, certainly, judging by the cast, but all the locations certainly look the part.

You, the Living, Roy Andersson (2007, Sweden). This is a sequel to Songs from the Second Storey, which I watched just before travelling to Sweden because it was, well, Swedish, although all things considered that might not have been too smart as it was  weird as shit… But I sort of enjoyed Songs from the Second Storey (see here) and I sort of enjoyed this sequel. Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong a word. As is “sequel”. Neither film is easy to describe. They have no plot, but are basically a series of vignettes, strung together with occasional linking material. The comedy is blacker than that really black thing they made earlier this year – or was it last year? – that’s the blackest thing ever, and Andersson shoots everything in sombre hues, and puts his cast in pale face make-up, which makes everything look even more miserable. You, the Living is worth seeing, although it’s unlikely to raise a chuckle, but make sure you’re in a good mood when you sit down to watch it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 875


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Moving pictures 2017, #30

Six films, four countries… and they’re all countries from which I’ve seen many films before. Some favourite directors – including one who’s becoming more of a favourite, and one whose works I don’t like as much as I used to…

Diving into the Unknown, Juan Reina (2016, Finland). I stumbled across this true story last year on the BBC website, but had forgotten a film was being made of it. So I was chuffed when I came across Diving into the Unknown, and immediately added it to my rental list. It’s intended to be a fly-on-the-wall film of a difficult cave dive. But the dive turned into tragedy, and the documentary crew continued to film those involved as they tried to come to terms with the tragedy, and what it meant to them in their pursuit of their sport. A team of Finnish technical cave divers planned to swim through a cave system in Plurdalen, Norway, which stretched some two to three kilometres but reached a depth of 130 metres, with many tight and narrow passages. At the deepest part of the dive, two of the team drowned – despite being experienced divers, and as a consequence of events not entirely explained in the film. An attempt by the authorities – aided by a team of British divers – to retrieve the bodies failed, and further entry to the caves was prohibited. So the Finns decided to illegally re-enter the caves and fetch their colleagues’ bodies. Which they did. With the original documentary crew following their every move. Their “rescue” mission was successful, and the Norwegian authorities chose not to prosecute them. The film is a combination of talking heads – the divers discussing their sport, the dive, and the tragedy – and footage from both the tragic dive and the rescue dive, with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the group preparing for each of the dives. The divers are completely normal people – mostly men, but there are some women – and not the sort of egotistical assholes you usually find in extreme sports (although, on reflection, all the documentaries I’ve seen about divers has shown them to be disconcertingly ordinary). Diving into the Unknown is the sort of story Hollywood would have a field day with (who know, there may be a fictionalisation in the works already), but the matter-of-fact presentation of the documentary I find much more effective. Definitely worth watching.

Finally, Sunday, François Truffaut (1983, France). The more Truffaut I watch, the more I like Truffaut. I’d seen Jules et Jim and Les Quatre Cent Coups many years ago, and not been all that taken with them, although I did, and still do, love Fahrenheit 451. But the Truffaut films I’ve watched since, I’ve liked a great deal, including Tirez dur le pianiste, which may actually be one of my favourite New Wave films.  Finally, Sunday, or Vivement dimanche!, was Truffaut’s last film and, as I tweeted while watching it, probably “the Truffautest film Truffaut ever Truffauted”. For a start, it’s shot in black and white, which immediately suggests Truffaut’s New Wave movies, and it is, in fact, very New Wave, in look and tone and construction. A rich man is shot while hunting, and a business associate, an estate agent, is the prime suspect. The estate agent’s secretary, played by Fanny Ardant, sets out to prove her boss’s innocence. So you have that noir link, a New Wave favourite, right there in the plot. It’s also very Hitchcockian, of course, as Truffaut was an expert on Hitch, and was instrumental in rehabilitating the director and his oeuvre. I too am a big fan of Hitchcock and own pretty much all of his movies on either DVD or Blu-ray (and I’ve also seen Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitchcock/Truffaut, although I’ve not read the book). In places, it’s hard to tell what in Finally, Sunday is homage and what is pastiche, but then the lines between those two are often blurred in the New Wave (although perhaps more so in Godard’s films). I am becoming a bit of a fan of Truffaut, despite being initially cool to his films. I think Truffaut is the better director, but Godard is the better film-maker, if that makes sense. Happily, most of Truffaut’s oeuvre is available in the UK – including a pair of reasonably-priced Blu-ray collections – which is not the case for Godard.

Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino (2008, Italy). The first Sorrentino film I saw was The Consequences of Love and I thought it great – the aesthetics of a European car commercial married to a, somewhat langorous, thriller plot. And so beautifully shot. And I liked The Great Beauty too, even if it felt like Fellini on prozac – because the cinematography was once again exquisite – although to be fair, the languid pace did suit the story (or rather, it suited the character of the film’s protagonist). But Youth was a disappointment, a trite story of the over-privileged at a Swiss sanatorium, albeit still with lovely photography. But my appreciation of Sorrentino’s work was definitely on the wane. And so, Il Divo… This is an earlier work than those mentioned previously, and is a lightly fictionalised account of the career, and fall from grace, of the Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, prime minster from 1972 to 1973, 1976 to 1979 and 1989 to 1992. He was accused of corruption and ties to the Mafia, but was aquitted in court due to a lack of evidence. The film is as stylish, and as stylised, as Sorrentino’s later works, with beautifully-lit and -shot interiors, but Toni Servillo, who also played the lead in The Great Beauty, plays Andreotti with a weird lack of affect that seemed to make the man more of a caricature than a character. It was a bit like watching a political cartoon wandering through Rome’s many historical buildings. It all felt like it wasn’t taking Andreotti’s transgression expecially seriously – not an attempt to rehabilitate, but more of a trivialisation of his crimes. An odd film.

Gone to Earth, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1950, UK). The Archers must surely be in the top ten of British directors, if not the top five, although many of their films these days are so much of their time the sheer technical brilliance involved in their making is often overlooked. My favourite of their movies remains Black Narcissus, which is such a beautifully-made piece of cinema it’s mind-blowing it was done entirely in a studio. But the Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are best known for three other films – The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – all of which are excellent… but it does mean the rest of their oeuvre tends to get overlooked. Including this mid-career piece set in Cornwall. Although, to be fair, Gone to Earth is a bit hokey, and while there’s lots of good Archer-ish things about it, the story is somewhat over-melodramatic and perhaps even a bit bodice-ripper-ish. Jennifer Jones plays the flighty nature-loving and nubile daughter of a coffin-maker and harpist in 1890s Shropshire. She also has a pet fox. But then the local squire takes a shine to her… but she marries the new vicar instead. And then runs away to be with the squire. But the vicar wins her back, although by this point her name is mud in the community. It all comes to a head with a tragedy that was carefully telegraphed in the first act. This is not a great Archers film, although the fact it was made by them means it’s better-made than most of its contemporaries. It seems a bit chrulish to complain about the story, since most of the Archers’ films are overloaded melodramas, and part of their formula was making such melodramas play like plain dramas. Gone to Earth doesn’t manage the charisma of the aforementioned films, perhaps because it feels like a cut-price Austen story, or because the characters are just a tad too archetypal… A film worth seeing, but not a great film.

The Duke of Burgundy, Peter Strickland (2014, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and a quick google persuaded me it might be worth watching. Which it was. It’s very slow, which I like; but I’m not sure on it being inspired by the films of Jess Franco. But then, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any films by Franco (isn’t he a bit like Tinto Brass? Deeply sexist exploitation films from the 1970s?). A young woman turns up at the house of a slightly older woman – I’m not sure where this was filmed, the cast speak English but it doesn’t look like the UK (and the two leads are Italian and Swedish, anyway) – where she is apparently taken on as a maid/housekeeper… although the mistress of the house appears very demanding, if not over-demanding. It transpires the maid is a student of the older woman, who is a lepidoptery expert. And the two are lovers. The film charts their exploration of a BDSM relationship, in which it is soon revealed that the submissive is actually controlling the mistress. It’s all filmed totally like an art film, and not at all like the soft porn its story suggests. In fact, in places it closer resembles video art than it does narrative cinema. Clearly, Strickland is a man with a singular vision, and the wherewithal to get projects with such, on the surface, salacious plots green-lit. The film certainly makes the viewer feel like they’re peeping on a private affair, which is clearly the effect Strickland was striving for (there are shots taken through keyholes, for example). It makes for an uncomfortable experience, that razor-edge between titillation and invasion of privacy the film manages to straddle quite successfully. Not everything in it works, but enough does to make it an interesting movie.

La Commune (Paris, 1871), Peter Watkins (2000, France). This, to be honest, was a bit of a slog. I’m fully in tune with Watkins’s objectives and sensibilities, but 345 minutes (5¾ hours!) is a lot of time to spend watching a pretty obvious story unfold. There’s a lot of good things in this – it’s a Watkins, so that’s a given – such as the insistence on historical verisimilitude but the presence of modern media. But it’s also a blow-by-blow account of the founding of the titular government, which ruled Paris for just over a month in 1871. The film is presented as re-enactments of events, using a very large and mostly non-professional cast, some documentary footage about the making of the film, fake news broadcasts by a contemporary (ie, 1871) television station (yes, really), and a series of historical notes given as lengthy intertitles. It comes across as a comprehensive documentary, or Open University film, about its subject, but with added commentary and, on top of that, meta-commentary about the media and the role of media in the sort of events which both created and led to the destruction of the Paris Commune. The film makes a large number of interesting, and important, points, but watching all 345 minutes of it is a real test of endurance. It’s going to take me several goes to digest it all, so I’m glad I have my own copy (albeit from a France-released box set – why is there no UK box set of Watkins’s films?).

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 869


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Moving pictures, #26

I need to get my cable telly sorted out. I have a nice large flatscreen TV set, but no HD channels – so everything looks blobby, and even with my piss-poor eyesight it’s off-putting. As a result, I’ve been mostly watching DVDs and Blu-rays. Sometimes as many as three or four a day on the weekends. Such as the following:

36th_shaolinThe 36th Chamber of Shaolin*, Chia-Liang Liu (1978, Hong Kong). Most movies are, of course, commercial endeavours. That’s why we have the concept of “box office”. The amount of money a film makes is taken as an indicator of its success – and, by foolish people, of its quality. And yet, commercially successful works can prove to be lasting art, even if not designed to be. Of course, there are directors – and this applies to all creatives – who can convince themselves their crass banal commercial output is real art, but their films usually go straight to DVD. Which is a long-winded way of saying that a Shaolin kung fu film is an unlikely entry to find on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, given that it was likely banged out quickly to capitalise on a particular movie craze. (We are after all talking about a film produced by a company who made 1000 films between 1958 and 1997.) And yet, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is not only considered a classic of the kung fu genre but, by virtue of being on the list, a classic of cinema – perhaps because it’s so exemplary of its genre. A young man decides to seek vengeance after his friends and family are killed by Manchu soldiers, so he enrolls in a Shaolin temple and works his way up the 35 levels of kung fu. I had expected this to be a bit dull – I’m not a fan of martial arts films – perhaps a bit like A Touch Of Zen; but it actually proved a lot of fun. Perhaps it’s the structure, the young man working his way up each of the 35 levels, often failing comically at first on each level. Worth seeing.

decline_americanThe Decline Of The American Empire*, Denys Arcand (1986, Canada). Four couples arrange a dinner party. The men make the food at one of the homes while the women visit the gym. They talk. You know when people joke that literary fiction is all about white middle class people and their disintegrating marriages? This is the cinematic equivalent. And it’s very dull. I’ve no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it doesn’t do anything interesting or innovative, and while it has the odd moment of wit (and what film doesn’t? Um, best not answer that…) it offers no new insights – on a topic that is probably the most documented in Western literature and cinema, the white middle class marriage. Not worth seeing.

floating_weedsFloating Weeds*, Yasujiru Ozu (1959, Japan). The only other Ozu I’ve seen is Tokyo Story and that was back in 2009. I’m aware of his stature in Japanese cinema, but while I’ve watched a number of classic Japanese films I’ve not made any real effort to explore the country’s cinematic history. I know people who rate Ozu very highly, but on the strength of that previous film I wasn’t entirely sure why. Floating Weeds, on the other hand… It’s good; actually, it’s very good. It’s a little problematic – the central male character is violent towards women on several occasions, and it’s very unpleasant to watch. But the cinematography is wonderful to look at, and the relationships between the characters are handled with intelligence and nuance. Having said that, the pacing is somewhat on the leisurely side and the plot is perhaps overly stuffed. The film is set in 1958 at a seaside town. A travelling theatre troupe arrives, and it turns out the troupe’s star is the father of the young man who works in the post office and whose mother runs a local tea shop/bar. The lead actress of the troupe, who is in a relationship with the star, is afraid she’s losing him, so she pays another actress to seduce the son… Then it transpires the troupe is out of money and will have to disband, and certain relationships all start to implode quite messily. I think I might watch some more Ozu after seeing this one – and not just that one film of his on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve yet to see…

cityofgodCity of God*, Fernando Meireilles & Kátia Lund (2002, Brazil). A charity shop find. The film is set in the Rio de Janeiro favela of the title, and is apparently based on real events. The film’s narrator is on the edge of violence between rival drug dealers in City of God, and the movie is presented as a series of stories told by him about the various major players, and often jumps back and forth chronologically – in fact, the film opens with the scene which starts the final sequence of the plot. The bulk of the cast were apparently non-professionals, trained up by the directors, as they felt that would give the film a more authentic feel. And it does. I’m guessing the casual violence is also authentic – and it’s horrible and disturbing to watch, such as, for example when there are things like a young boy walking into a brothel and shooting everyone he sees. That young boy, named as “Little Dice” in the subtitles, grows up to be one of the two main drug dealers in the favela, and he only leaves his rival alone because his best friend, Benny, is friends with him. But when Benny is shot and killed, all-out war erupts. And it’s war with young men and boys as the fighters, using all manner of firearms. City of God is one of those films which makes you wonder why governments around the world insist on criminalising drugs. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to win the “War on Drugs”… The film span off a television series, City Of Men, which was itself adapted for cinema. The non-professional cast, incidentally, couldn’t return to their old lives in the favelas after filming, and so were given help to improve their situation. Which is about the only heart-warming thing about the whole film.

woman_dunesWoman of The Dunes*, Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964, Japan). Teshigahara is a director new to me, as is Kobo Abe, the author from whose novel this film was adapted (and it’s not the only Abe novel Teshigahara adapted). But on the strength of Woman of The Dunes I’ll definitely be trying more Teshigahara movies and perhaps even having a go at reading one of Abe’s novels. In this film, a high school teacher on holiday is indulging in his hobby, collecting and categorising seaside insects. He falls asleep in the sun and misses the last bus home, but some men from the nearby village offer him a bed for the night. This proves to be in a house in a pit in the sand dunes, a pit that can only be accessed by rope ladder. And the following morning, he learns he is to be kept a prisoner there with the house’s occupant, a young woman. The pair are, in effect, sacrifices to the sand. As long as they remain in the house in the pit, shovelling at the sand, it won’t engulf the village – and it’s implied there are other pits too. The teacher, of course, tries to escape, but none of his attempts succeed. Eventually he resigns himself to his situation, and the film ends with a shot of a missing persons report dated seven years later. Good film, definitely worth seeing.

firemansballThe Fireman’s Ball*, Miloš Forman (1967, Czech Republic). Forman and screenwriters Ican Passer and Jarosalv Papoušek visited the town of Vrchlabí in order to work on the script of their new film, and while there attended a real fireman’s ball and were so amused by its piss-poor organisation that they decided to base a film on it. There’s a sort of black humour common to East and Central Europe – I’ve seen it mostly in Polish films, probably because I’ve seen more films of the region from that country – and The Fireman’s Ball is a beautifully-judged example. It’s not just the constant bickering and fatalism, but the way things always play out for the worse. The firemen have arranged a raffle for the ball, but as the film progresses the prizes go missing one by one. They arrange an impromptu beauty contest so the winner can present a gift to the retired chairman of the fire brigade, but the contestants all refuse to participate when called up onto the stage. An old man’s house bursts into flames, but all the firemen manage to rescue his some of his furniture. The film’s start was somewhat unprepossessing, so I wasn’t expecting much. But once the ball was in full swing, it definitely picked up and I really enjoyed it.

war_gameThe War Game*, Peter Watkins (1965, UK). From the perspective of twenty-five years later, the Cold War may seem like a weird period of global insanity, but it certainly felt very real at the time. US/USSR posturing inspired countless plots for books and films and television, and while the threat of World War III never seemed all that likely – the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, for example, and the West responded by, er, boycotting the Moscow Olympics – the consequences of nuclear armageddon were all too often publicised. In films such as The War Game, Threads and The Day After. The third of those is pretty terrible, a piece of meretricious and melodramatic US tosh, marketed on its supposed accuracy but more closely resembling a soap opera. Threads is especially effective, although its low budget does tell against it. And it might well be said the same is true of The War Game. Unlike the other two, The War Game is framed as a documentary describing life after a nuclear strike on the UK. And it’s very effective. So much so, in fact, that the BBC refused to broadcast despite commissioning it and it wasn’t shown on British television until 1985 – despite winning the Oscar for best documentary in 1966. After watching this, I decided to buy a copy, but the BFI one shown is deleted. So I ended up buying a collection of Watkins films released in France. So that should make for some cheerful viewing… Definitely worth seeing, nonetheless.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 640


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Moving pictures, #10

And 2014 continues to be the year of the films and I continue to get my money’s worth out of Amazon film rentals. Seriously, would you find the movies I’ve been watching on Netflix? I think not. Annoyingly, this month I discovered that my “region-free” Blu-ray player isn’t actually region-free – well, not for Blu-ray discs, only for DVDs. And apparently unlocking them is a lot more difficult than it is for DVDs. So it looks like I’ll have to buy myself a new properly region-free Blu-ray player… But on with this instalment of films seen…

Again, films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are asterisked, although I’ve since found a rival list which actually has more films on it I’ve seen and which I think belong on such a list. And I’ve just checked the list the above links to, which is where I got the list I’m using from in the first place – and the bastards keep on changing it. They’ve added more 2013 films – and so must have dropped others to make room for them. So how exactly are you supposed to see all the films on the list if they keep on changing it? Argh.

Dogville, Lars von Trier (20036, Denmark) Notable chiefly for being the film in which von Trier used black box theatre staging – ie, no scenery, just chalk lines with labels, and only a handful of props. Nicole Kidman plays the girlfriend of a mobster who runs away, seeks sanctuary in the titular small mountain town, where she performs everyday task as payment for sanctuary. But the tasks get more and more onerous, until she’s treated like a slave and then actually assaulted. I enjoyed the film up until the point where the violence started and Kidman was abused. It seemed… unnecessary. Von Trier had already made his point.

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Whisky Galore!*, Alexander Mackendrick (1949, UK). This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, which was in turn based upon a real incident. In 1941, the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Erisday, and the islanders looted it of its cargo of whiskey. In the film, the SS Politican becomes the SS Cabinet Minister, and Eriskay becomes Todday. There are a couple of sub-plots, including a romance, but the bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities over the missing whiskey. Mildly amusing. There is apparently a sequel, Rockets Galore! (1957), which sounds much more kind of thing (but at £145 for the DVD, I’ll not be buying it any time soon…).

The Blair Witch Project*, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez (1999, USA) I’d managed to avoid seeing this for fifteen years, and would happily have done so for another fifteen… if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Films list and if I hadn’t found a copy for £1 in a charity shop. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it. The found footage concept might well have been fresh and exciting back in 1999, but it’s been used, if not over-used, so much since that you end up treating the film as if it were filmed normally. And in that regard The Blair Witch Project does not score well. It is mostly dull, the scares are driven chiefly by the reaction of the cast rather than the situation they’re in, and the ending falls completely flat. There were apparently nine million sequels, but I shall not be bothering with them.

The Man Who Loved Redheads, Harold French (1955, UK) This popped up on one of those “people who bought this also bought…” things when I was buying a DVD and it was very cheap and looked mildly interesting, so I bunged it on my order… It’s based on a Terrence Rattigan play and is very silly for much of its length, but there’s a surprising and quite interesting twist at the end. A man spends his entire life seeking a lost love – a young woman he met as a teenager – and encounters women who look like her at various points in his life, all played by Moira Shearer. It’s all very terribly terribly – he’s in the Civil Service and a baronet or something – although one of Shearer’s incarnations is a shop girl and it’s played smartly.

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The Gleaners and I*, Agnès Varda (2000, France), is one of those documentaries where the film-maker slowly inserts herself into the subject being filmed. It begins by studying people who hunt for edible vegetables among those rejected by farmers, such as potatoes that are too small, or too oddly-shaped to sell to their corporate masters… but it soon moves on to film homeless people in and around French cities. And as Varda involves herself with these people, so she begins to sympathise with them and their attitudes. I had not expected to like this, but I thought it really good. I think I’d like to see more films made by Varda.

The Great White Silence*, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK) Scott took Ponting with him on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 as the expedition’s photographer, and this documentary was put together from the footage Ponting shot with a cinematograph. There is straight footage of Scott and his fellows as they leave New Zealand and sail to Antarctica, set up camp, and explore the surroundings. The footage of Scott’s fatal attempt on the pole itself is done using stand-ins as Ponting remained at the main camp with the rest of the expedition. There is also some quite effective model work. The whole is a fascinating, and quite affecting, record of Scott’s expedition. Apparently, it was not a commercial success at the time and Ponting died a pauper, but it has been subsequently re-evaluated and has taken its place as one of the great documentaries of all time. Recommended.

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Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia) Not only is this the first film made in Saudi Arabia to be entered for international competition, but it was also written and directed by a woman, a Saudi national woman. That’s quite an achievement. The story, about a girl who rebels against societal expectations by demanding a bicycle, is perhaps nothing new but it’s handled well, the cast are uniformly good – especially Waad Mohammed in the title role – and it makes some pointed observations about Saudi society (so much so, in fact, I’m a little surprised the Saudi authorities allowed it – they’re not exactly known for their liberal tendencies).

Star Trek Voyager – Season 1 (1995) Having worked my way through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was more or less inevitable I’d eventually find myself doing the same for Star Trek: Voyager. Initially, DS9 was considered the best of the franchises, but it seems time has been kinder to Voyager than it has to the other two. While Voyager’s set-up was just a reboot of the original Star Trek series, and its central casting all come out of, er, Central Casting, with their “back-stories” and “character conflicts”… But it actually hangs together quite well, and the format does give the series a lot more freedom in terms of story-of-the-week. But, of course, this is 1990s television drama, so there has to be at least one story arc… And Voyager falls back on the Trek staple of the omniscient aliens who, well, they’re only omniscient as far as the plot dictates, and then they’re not. Still, you don’t watch Trek for rigour, scientific or dramatic. Actually, I’m not sure what you do watch it for…

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran), is set in Iran but was actually filmed in Morocco, as director Shirin Neshat has been banned from visiting Iran since 1996. It takes place in 1953, during the US-led coup which put the shah back in power – which the Americans engineered because prime minister Mosaddegh has nationalised the Iranian oil industry. The film follows four women during this period, a prostitute, the wife of a general (ie, part of the secular elite), and an unmarried woman  and her religious friend. It’s been likened to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but I can’t see it myself. Yes, Women Without Men is an excellent film, although a recurring image of the women walking along a road in the open country seems more The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie than it does Haneke to me.

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Suspiria*, Dario Argento (1977, Italy) I am not much of an Argento fan, I prefer Brava – though I’ve only seen a small handful of movies by either director. On the strength of this film, I see little reason to change my mind. It has its moments, and the mise en scène is… interesting, all Dutch angles and saturated colours and ersatz Expressionist set designs. A young woman joins a strange ballet school, but it appears to be haunted and lots of strange events occur, including a rain of maggots while the pupils are readying themselves for bed, a few gruesome deaths, and the frequent appearances of a mysterious heavy-breather. It was a fun film, but I’m a bit baffled as why it should be on the 1001 films list.

Festen*, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark). This is not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic. A large and affluent Danish film gather at the country hotel they own to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch. During the celebratory dinner, one of the sons accuses his father of sexually abusing him as a child, and of abusing his twin sister – who has committed suicide in the hotel shortly before the celebration. The family try to laugh off the son’s accusation, but as the weekend progresses the family begins to fall apart. This was the first film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, so it’s made entirely with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, which gives the picture a somewhat grainy look throughout. An excellent film.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song*, Melvin van Peebles (1971, USA) I may have an incorrect number of s’s in the title of this film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right number of a’s. A young African American, Sweet Sweetback, working in a brothel is “volunteered” to be arrested as a suspect in a murder – they know he’s innocent, but the police need to arrest someone to appease the community, and plan to release Sweet a few days later for “lack of evidence”. But the police also arrest a Black Panther, who the police beat up, but he’s defended by Sweet and the two manage to escape. Sweet goes on the run, heading for Mexico, and en route has several adventures, including a run-in with a gang of Hells Angels. There’s a definite amateur feel to the film, but the use of montage was done extremely well – and not something you saw in films of that period.

Punishment Park, Peter Watkins (1971, USA) Watkins is a documentary maker, and while Punishment Park is both fictional and more than forty years old, it could easily be a documentary of twenty-first century USA. Hippies, draft-dodgers and other political undesirables are taken out into the desert, charged and sentenced at a kangaroo court in a marquee tent, and then given a choice – a full sentence served in a federal prison, or three days in “punishment park”. This later requires them to cross 53 miles of California desert without food or water in three days, while being chased by armed police and National Guard. If they make it, they can go free. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s faux-documentary presentation, this was a brutal film. A bit too talky in places, and some of the dialogue felt a little too… not staged, but not natural either, but the sort of dialogue where characters explain their thoughts and feelings and attempt to do the same for others – the sort of dialogue that only appears in fiction, in other words. Nonetheless, an excellent film, and was that really ought to be on the 1001 films list.

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Man of Marble*, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland) I saw the sequel to this, Man of Iron, before I was aware of this film. But when Second Run – who I heartily recommend, they have released some amazing DVDs – released Man of Marble, I immediately bought a copy. I like Polish cinema, some of my favourite films are from Poland, and a number of directors I greatly admire are Polish… but Wajda was one I’d mostly missed out, for some unknown reason. I’m now rectifying that. The title of this film refers to a statue of a worker who became a national hero after breaking a record for laying the most bricks in a working day during the building of a new socialist town. A film student is making a documentary about him for her thesis two decades later, but what she discovers – that it was all created and managed as propaganda; and what prompted the hero’s later fall from grace – means it becomes increasingly difficult for her to make her film. Man of Marble follows both the film student and the brick-layer, swapping effortlessly between the two decades. Like Man of Iron, it felt like a television series edited into a single long episode, but with high production values; but that worked in its favour. I really liked this film. And I can’t disagree with its presence on the 1001 Films list.