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Moving pictures 2017, #59

Six films, six countries. One director I’m a fan of, five directors new to me. So it goes.

Every Picture Tells a Story, James Scott (1967 – 1984, UK). So I decided to split my rental list and include documentaries, and this was the first one I was sent. Last year, I’d rented a collection of Humphrey Jennings’s documentaries, and loved them so much I bought all three DVDs of his films. James Scott was a documentary film-maker new to me, a Brit, whose career stretched through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His father was famous Ulster painter William Scott, and it is a dramatisation of the William Scott’s life which gives this collection its title. It’s not a documentary but a docudrama, starring Phyllis Logan (remember Lovejoy?) as Scott’s mother and Alex Norton (remember Taggart… um, after Taggart himself was no longer in it?) as his father. The remaining films on the two discs are documentaries about artists – David Hockney making etchings, Claes Oldenburg visiting the UK for a retrospective of his work at the Tate Gallery, on RB Kitaj, on Richard Hamilton, and a documentary for the Arts Council. It’s fascinating stuff, and more than justifies my decision to include documentaries in my rental viewing. (Interestingly, Scott’s one feature film for Hollywood was butchered before release by Weinstein and flopped badly.)

Assassin’s Creed, Justin Kurzel (2016, USA). A colleague at work wondered if I’d be able to follow the plot of this film given I’ve never played the games from which it was adapted. Nope, no trouble at all, seemed very straightforward. I was, however, surprised to find a science fiction tentpole blockbuster with half of its dialogue not in English (in Spanish, in this case). Michael Fassbender plays a convict on Death Row, who wakes up after his execution in a scientific institute in Madrid (although it looks more like some sort of Brutalist fortress). He is told he’ll be a subject in an experiment that will use his “genetic memory” so he can witness the life of a fifteenth-century ancestor. This is because the institute is owned by the Knights Templar, who are a powerful and power-hungry international organisation, and they’re after the Apple of Eden, which will eliminate human free will and so put them in total control, and which was last seen in the fifteenth century by… Fassbender’s ancestor. Who was actually a member of a secret order dedicated to combating the Knights Templar, the Assassins. Um, yes. It’s all risible nonsense, and makes even less sense when you watch a pair of knackered Assassins kill several hundred Knights Templar in an extended fight/parkour chase scene through mediaeval Madrid. I mean, if the Assassins were that effective, how could they lose? But it turns out they were just biding their time, because they don’t know where the Apple is either. But they mean to make sure the Templars don’t get it. The Templars are Nazis in all but name, given a thin veneer of multinational corporatism, which would make for telling political commentary… if only the film wasn’t so dumb. The Assassins are your typical Hollywood genre good guys – ie, just as violent and brutal as the bad guys, but righteous. Which could also make for telling political commentary… if only the world-building wasn’t so stupid. One for fans of the game.

Oedipus Rex, Pier Paolo Pasolino (1967, Italy). I’ve written before there are two types of Pasolini film – let’s call them the character film and the landscape film – and this definitely falls squarely into the latter category. It was filmed in North Africa, like Pasolini’s Arabian Nights and Medea (sort of), although its story takes place in Ancient Greece. It pretty much follows the Ancient Greek story. An oracle tells a king he will be killed by his son, so his wife arranges for the baby to be taken away and killed. But a passerby rescues the baby boy and raises it as his own son. Once grown, the man, Oedipus, goes wandering. He encounters a merchant – he thinks – on the road, gets into a fight with him and his soldiers, and kills them. Later, he stumbles across a man (played by Pasolini’s partner, Ninetto Davoli) who is from a town terrorised by a monster. Oedipus kills the monster and is offered the throne of the town, as the king had vanished some years before while on pilgrimage. He accepts and marries the queen. He then learns that the merchant he’d killed earlier had been the king of the town. And further learns that he was adopted and that his father was… the king he had murdered… which makes his wife his mother. Just like the prophecy. Imagine that. Like Pasolini’s other “landscape” films – I’m not convinced the categorisation works, but let’s go with it – makes ample use of its Moroccan locations, features many non-actors in supporting roles, and lokos absolutely fabulous. There’s none of the earthy, or scatological, humour of this “character” films, but everything looks so good, and so idiosyncratic, that the seriousness – which, to be fair, often teeters on the edge of humour – seems fitting. Excellent stuff.

Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Masaaki Tanigushi (2010, Japan). Annoyingly, this is the sequel to a live action adaptation of a 1965/1966 serialised novel, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, which was released in 1983, and later remade in 1997, and then remade as anime in 2006… And I’d seen none of those versions of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, so I was coming to this belated sequel cold. Japanese films, especially ones based on well-known domestic properties, obviously don’t make concessions to international audiences. So it took me a while to figure out what was going on in Time Traveller. But the back-story didn’t really matter all that much. Young woman tries to track down the first love of her mother, comatose after an accident, and so travels back in time to the year of their relationship, 1972. but she gets it wrong and ends up in 1974. Where she ends up falling in with a geek amateur film director, while she triesd to track down her mother’s lover, even though she’s two years too late. It all felt like an affectionate spoof of the period, in much the same way Back to the Future did for 1950s small-town USA. But unlike that film, it ends up in a completely different place and concludes with a bitter-sweet ending. I liked it. I liked it enough to want to see the first film… which was when I discovered it had been released twenty-seven years earlier… so I ended up sticking the anime version on my rental list. But I’d still like to see the 1983 movie. And the 1997 movie as well. Happily, Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time does stand pretty well on its own, and is worth watching.

Take Care of My Cat, Jeong Jae-eun (2001, South Korea). I had thought I’d stumbled across this one on my own, but no, apparently David Tallerman added it to my rental list during one of our afternoons in Shalesmoor. I thought I might have added it myself because the title reminded me of No One Knows About Persian Cats, an excellent Iranian film. But no. Take Care of My Cat follows five young women after they graduate from high school. One joins a brokerage firm as a junior clerk, another works for free at her parents’ sauna, two twins sell handmade jewellery on the street, and one holds a succession of low-paying jobs because she wants to be an artist. And, er, that’s about it. There’s no plot, no three-act structure, no actual story… just character growth. Things happen – two of the women fall out, and a third tries to keep the group together; the artist’s grandparents, with whom she lives, are killed when the roof of their house collapses; the brokerage clerk’s ego takes a battering at work when she’s told she won’t go far without a degree… It’s an ensemble piece and it rises or falls according to the characterisation of its central cast, and their presentation by the actors. Happily, both are done well. The central dufference of opinion feels entirely in keeping with the characters of the two young women involved as they are written and played. It’s not the most thrilling film ever made and, despite its ending, it could perhaps have benefited from a little more plot. But it’s good stuff and worth seeing.

Japayuki, Joey Romero (1993, Philippines). The cover art, or what passes for  it on Amazon Prime, managed to disguise what proved to be a 24-year-old bog-standard true-crime thriller made in the Philippines about overseas Filipino workers. The term “japayuki” is used by Filipinos to describe the young women who work overseas in Japan, in a variety of jobs but mostly entertainment (ie, dancers in bars, and so on). The film opens with Maricris Soison’s body being returned to the Philippines. She apparently died of hepatits B. But an autopsy reveals she had actually been tortured and beaten to death. A campaigner is determined to discover the truth of her murder. Maricris worked as a dancer in a Tokyo nightclub and, the campaigner is told, had a drug problem. She digs deeper and discovers this a lie – the dancers were kept locked up in their accommodation, were not allowed to keep their passports, and were expected to give sexual favuors to nightclub patrons. Maricris rebelled and tried to escape. The campaign fails to get the Philippines government to declare Maricris’s death a murder, nor bring her employer to justice. The overseas workers bring too much money into the Philippines’ economy to risk jeopardising the country’s relations with Japan. Japayuki played like the sort of “based on a true story” drama that went straight to video back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although the ones we saw were pretty much entirely American. Very little Filipino cinema makes it into the Anglophone world – it’s only now, for example, that one or two of Lino Brocka’s movies have become available on DVD in the US and UK, and he made over 60  feature films. He was also nominated twice for the Palme d’or. Joey Romero, however, is no Brocka.

1001 Movies You Must See Beforeyou Die count: 885

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The endurance of the human bladder

As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, but some of the films below stretch that endurance somewhat – happily, not as much Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó… which is 432 minutes long! Of course, these are DVDs and Blu-rays, so there’s always the pause button, a boon to the bladder….

I’ve started to become a bit of an Orson Welles fan, even though I’ve had a DVD of Citizen Kane for a couple of decades… but it’s his other stuff I’m now finding more interesting. Macbeth was cheap on eBay and and Touch of Evil was a charity shop find. La note bleue, on the other hand, is the latest Mondo Vision release of an Andrzej Żuławski film, and I ordered it from their website.

I liked Pakeezah so much (see here), I wanted my own copy. It wasn’t expensive (I see it has now gone up in price). And the rental copy of Mughal-e-Azam I watched (see here) was the original black and white, but I wanted to see it in its colourised version. Which I now have done. And my eyes are still burning. Ran was a charity shop find. I’m not a big Kurosawa fan, so maybe I need to watch some of his films again.

I’ve been trying to complete my Bergman collection – hence, Crisis and Prison. I’m still nine short, although seven of them don’t appear to have ever been released on sell-through… The Beast in Space (see here) was a whim purchase – I’d enjoyed a couple of other Shameless releases, so I chucked this one onto an order.

I pre-ordered the new Metropolis 90th anniversary edition from Eureka’s own website. It arrived recently. The  Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a charity shop find. A Brighter Summer Day I bought because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and wasn’t available for rental. I seem to have picked up a few Edward Yang films now. And Oedipus Rex, well, 2017 has been the Year of Pasolini for me…


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Moving pictures 2017, #52

My viewing of late has been partly dictated by LoveFilm’s imminent demise and a desire to watch as many films on my list that only it offers for rental. I can guess why it’s shutting down: there’s more money to be made in streaming. Let’s charge someone £2.49 to watch a film once instead of allowing them to rent up to twelve DVDs for £9.99 a month. Although, of course, you can pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services. And I would… if their selections weren’t so shit. There are now apparently dedicated streaming services – for Curzon, for Mubi, etc – which show the sort of films I want to watch. But I have to pay for each of them. Technology: finding more ways to separate you from your money for things that were cheaper, or even free, in the past…

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA). Another recommendation from David Tallerman. Johnson is a documentary director, and Cameraperson is excerpts from the films she has made, assembled as a testament to her life and career to date. Er, that’s it. There is footage of Johnson’s children, or footage from, for example, her documentary about bin Laden’s driver… I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work, I admit; in fact, I really should watch more documentaries. I tend to watch only those on topics which interest me, like James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep, or the Apollo missions, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… But documentaries, of course, cover a vast range of subjects, and I should know this because I live in a city that has an annual documentary festival (at which, incidentally, Cameraperson won the Grand Jury Award in 2016), and Johnson’s body of work covers some important topics. For the last year or two, I’ve split my rental DVDs between US/UK films and movies from the rest of the planet. But since I receive three at a time, perhaps I should introduce a third category for documentaries, and take one from each for each mailing. That sounds like a good plan, actually.

The Thin Man*, WS Van Dyke (1934, USA). William Powell plays an ex-private eye, married to wealthy socialite Myrna Loy. While visiting New York, a man they know disappears, and then his secretary is murdered. The disappeared man is assumed to be the murderer. The press repeatedly asks Powell if he’s investigating the case, but he points out time and again that he’s retired. But, of course, he starts looking into it, and, of course, he figures out what happened… resulting in a dinner party to which all the suspects are invited, and at which he reveals the murderer. Both leads were cast against type, but have real on-screen chemistry – although Powell does seem like he’s had a few too many throughout the film. But the way Loy and Powell actively take the piss out of each other is entertaining to watch. Loy is especially good. Apparently, director Van Dyke pushed Loy into a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party to see how she would react before casting her. Which is a pretty mean trick. Incidentally, the title refers to the disappeared man, not Powell’s character, but was mistakenly believed to be the latter – so much so, it led to five Powell and Loy sequels, all featuring the phrase “the Thin Man”. Not to mention a TV series that aired from 1957 to 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I’m not entirely sure why The Thin Man is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was certainly entertaining, but not I’d have thought an important film. True, it spawned a legacy that lasted a quarter of a century – but it’s mostly forgotten now.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax, Alexandre Aja (2016, Canada). I rented this because I’d read the book – it’s not one of Liz Jensen’s best, but she’s always worth reading. In fact, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a higher profile. Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy who is in a deep coma after falling off a cliff at a family picnic. His father has disappeared, and it’s not clear if Louis’s fall was accidental or deliberate. Louis, who narrates the film, considers himself accident-prone, and several such incidents are shown in flashback. Actually, much of the film takes place in flashback. Louis was actually pronounced dead after his fall, but came back to life on the mortuary slab – but is now in a coma. A pediatrician who specialises in comatose children becomes interested in Louis’s case and has him moved to his clinic. Louis’s mother starts to take an interest in the handsome doctor. Meanwhile, Louis meets with a rock monster in his coma dreams, and in the real world threats are made against his mother. I’d forgotten the novel’s plot when I watched the film, but it wasn’t difficult to see where it was going. It was one of those films where everything felt a little fake, the outside scenes more like a studio set plus CGI than open air, the ward in which comatose Louis is kept not looking anything like a hospital… A triumph of set-design over actual realistic surroundings. But not a bad film.

Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969, Italy). There are two types of Pasolini film: one I like a great deal, one I’m less keen on. Pigsty does both. It has two seemingly unrelated narratives. In one, a young man wanders naked across a volcanic landscape (last seen in Pasolini’s Theorem), before finding a sword and armour. And then it’s a series of fights, as he meets up with other soldiers, kills them, builds his own army, and so on. But there’s nothing in the blasted landscape to eat, so he turns to cannibalism, but is eventually arrested. The other narrative is set in the 1960s, and features a German industrialist who is clearly intended to be Hitler, even down to the toothbrush moustache and virulent anti-semitism. But his wife would sooner breed pigs, which later come in useful in getting rid of a rival. The problem with Pigsty is that the Hitler narrative is too silly to have much bite, and while the one set in ancient times is effective and looks pretty damn good, it takes too long to get to its point. This year has been the Year of Pasolini for me (well, among a couple of other directors), and from knowing nothing about him and his films I’ve worked my way through at least two-thirds of his oeuvre in around twelve months. And I like it. Some more than others, it has to be said. But I don’t doubt his importance as a director, or the uniqueness of his vision. I suppose in some respects I find him a bit like Fellini, another Italian director whose importance is beyond doubt but whose oeuvre I personally find a bit hit and miss – I love Fellini’s more self-indulgent films and find his Neorealist ones a bit meh, but that’s just me.

Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard (1987, France). Godard’s films from the 1980s and 1990s, that I’ve seen, seem to be structured in parts, which I suppose is little more than more overtly delineated acts. Soigne ta droite has several, er, parts. It opens with a man instructed to carry a film can to another city, but he’s abused by another man, and left to fend for himself. And then there are several scenes set on a small prop airliner, in which the passengers behave like children. There are musicians rehearsing, discussing music, and performing it. There are some aerial shots of the (Swiss, I think) countryside. And there’s a voice-over narration for much of the film, which explains little and confuses more. Some of the dialogue is declamatory, and tries to be philosophical but doesn’t always make the grade. Unlike in, say, Miklós Jancsó’s films, the dialogue in the scenes often feels unlinked, a sequence of non sequiturs – in one scene, some passengers are haranguing a ticket agent at an airport, but what they say to her does not match what is being acted out in the scene. Despite watching this film two or three times, I’ve yet to work out what it’s about. Godard apparently described it as “a fantasy for actor, camera and tape recorder”, which is not very helpful. I shall probably have to watch it again.

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss (1945, UK). For some reason I do not recall, I added a couple of Margaret Lockwood films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “quota quickie”, although it displays all the attributes – including James Mason in a leading role (as a Quaker and pacifist, he did not fight during WWII). (Um, it seems “quota quickies” only lasted from 1928 until 1938, so British films made during WWII don’t qualify – although Mason did make a lot of films during the period.) Lockwood plays the title character, an adventuress who steals her friend’s beau, only to find herself in a dull marriage… which she enlivens by taking up highway robbery, eventually teaming up with the infamous Captain Jackson (Mason). In many respects, it’s the dictionary definition of a bodice-ripper – apparently, it was considered very racy at the time. I would have thought the concept of a female leading lady who not only has agency, but pretty much breaks every rule of acceptable female behaviour for the time the film was set and also the time it was made (although the war would have changed some of those attitudes)… that I’d have thought more notable. And yet, for all that, the film is bit, well, dull. I think maybe the pacing is off or something. Certainly the plot is entirely predictable. And Lockwood makes a good leading lady, although somewhat bland at times. Mason is, well, Mason. The rest of the cast are your usual 1940s British actors with either cut-glass accents or put-on random regional accents. So, a bit meh, really.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 881


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Boxsets!

Well, not really. Only two box sets. And these days the word tends to be used more in reference to seasons/series of television dramas. My box sets are collections of films, and in this post, it’s the two by Godard…

Both the 10-DVD collection (French-published, but with English subtitles) and the 14-DVD collection were purchased from third party sellers on a large online retailer’s website. I’m currently working my way through the 10-DVD set. And I’m starting to really appreciate Godard’s movies.

Three Blu-rays. Nosferatu and Hawks & Sparrows / Pigsty I bought from eureka! during a recent sale. I also pre-ordered the new edition of Metropolis, but that has yet to arrive. Privilege I bought after watching it on rental because I wanted my own copy (see here).

Actually, there’s another box set in this post: Japanese Masters, bought on eBay, which contains two films by Yasujiro Ozu – Floating Weeds and The End of Summer – and two by Kenji Mizoguchi – The Life of Oharu and The Lady of Musashino. I already have Floating Weeds, but The End of Summer is no longer available. Container is Lukas Moodysson’s experimental film. I watched it several years ago, but decided it needed a second try – so I bought a cheap copy off eBay. Joi Baba Felunath popped up on eBay and I thought it was a hard-to-find film but it turns out it’s in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2. Oh well. And Footprints on the Moon I watched on rental, but I liked it so much I bought my own copy (see here).

A bunch of out-of-copyright films bought on eBay, of varying quality, both of the transfer and the film itself. I forget why I bought most of them, but they are: Sleep, My Love (forgettable Sirk thriller, see here), Black Tights (anthology film of ballet routines, terrible transfer), Beneath the 12-mile Reef (unmemorable Robert Wagner drama about sponge divers), The One-Eyed Soldiers (bad Euro-thriller set in invented Balkan country) and Long John SilverThe Secret of My Success (terrible sixties British comedy), and Criminal Affair (dreadful Italian thriller, directed by and starring one of the stars of South Pacific, another poor transfer too).


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Moving pictures 2017, #45

Bit of a USA-fest this time. Not sure how that happened. Bit of a mixed bag quality-wise, however. Mars and the Pasolini I bought, but the rest were rentals.

Mars (2016, USA). This six-part mini-series for National Geographic – the National Geographic? – was apparently executive produced by Ron Howard, although I’m not entirely sure what that means he did. It depicts a serious attempt, in 2033, to set up a colony on Mars somewhere in the Valles Marineris. Six international astronauts are sent on a spacecraft funded by a consortium of private and public interests, with a base camp already set up remotely and awaiting their arrival. But their lander misses its assigned landing spot, and they have to trek across the Martian surface to the base camp. Which presents a problem, as they were supopsed to live in the lander until the camp was up and running. In fact, the Mars mission is just one long litany of disasters. None are serious enough to kill everyone, but it’s a bit like Apollo 13 every week, with something killing one or more of the colonists (a second mission arrives in episode 4, set four years after landing), or jeopardising the colony’s future. Clearly, they’re making the point that colonising Mars is a dangerous business – and judging by the Earth-set scenes, a hugely expensive business – but, like The Martian, the series is in danger of basing its entire narrative on manufactured jeopardy. Alongside this, or rather interspersed with this, is documentary footage about… SpaceX. Obviously, they provided some of the funding for the series. Elon Musk appears several times, discussing his dream of colonising Mars. The rest feels like a SpaceX infomercial. And yet… the production values are high, the Martian mission is convincing, the euro-cast are mostly good in their roles, and the end result is something which feels a good deal more plausible than The Martian. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I bought this, but it’s actually not that bad. One for those mostly interested in the topic, perhaps, but a good deal more intelligent than a certain feature film…

Suicide Squad, David Ayers (2016, USA). These are DC, right? Not Marvel. I get confused sometimes. One guy in tights looks much like another, one implausibly pneumatic woman looks much like another implausibly pneumatic woman. But the Joker is in this, and he’s from Batman, so I guess this must be DC. And, to be honest, when it came to reading comics, which I never did much as a kid, I tended to read Marvel more than DC. I still have a soft spot for the original Guardians of the Galaxy, for example (not the crappy rewritten version they made the crappy movie about). But I can’t say any DC hero, or villain, ever appealed me the same way. The Suicide Squad, a group of captured villains forced to work for a secret arm of the US government – like they need to do shit like that, when they have “security contractors” like Blackwater – includes a whole two villains I’ve heard of before, the Joker and Harlequin, and that’s only because they’re part of the Batman mythos. The rest are nobodies. And they’re all in prison. And then are taken out by the aforementioned secret government department, and sent to New York or maybe Chicago to fight the zombies created by an Ancient Egyptian sorceress or something who was, I seem to remember, one of the inmates, and who would not have been freed had they not freed them all to fight, er, her. I don’t know. Maybe that’s wrong. I zoned out during this movie because it was very dull. The cast had zero chemistry – Jared Leto’s Joker felt like a bad Halloween costume – and the plot was the usual nonsense about magical villain attacking metropolitan centre and needing to be defeated by superpowered forces. Suicide Squad does not have a good rep, and it’s easy to see why: it is not good. Watchmen is a better film; anything made by Zack Snyder is a better film (and it hurts to make that admission). This is, as Monty Python once said, one for laying down and avoiding.

Kal Ho Naa Ho, Nikhil Advani (2003, India). Bollywood has this knack – or perhaps it’s a philosophy – of turning even the most downer of stories into a film that will have the viewer smiling by the end. Kal Ho Naa Ho (the title means Tomorrow May Never Come) is a perfect example. It’s set in New York, not India. A young woman, Naina, has reached marriageable age but is not all that keen on marrying. Which is where Shahrukh Khan comes on the scene. But rather than present himself as a romantic rival for Naina, he encourages the relationship between Naina and her fellow MBA student, Rohit. And although there’s some initial confusion over who’s wooing who, it all gets sorted out with some singing and dancing, only for Khan to then reveal he’s terminally ill. I tweeted while watching this that the opening song sampled Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, and actually made a good job of it… and was surprised whem a Finnish friend correctly identified the film. I shouldn’t have been, of course – they watch more than just Kaurismäki up there, obviously – but most of the conversations I’ve had about Bollywood have been with Indian colleagues (I’m not sure which surprises them most: that I watch, and like, Bollywood films, or that I don’t like cricket…). Kal Ho Naa Ho was a really entertaining film. Either I’ve been very lucky with my Bollywood picks so far – and that seems unlikely, given I’ve watched several historical ones as well – but I’ve enjoyed more of them than I have recent Hollywood films – which is not to say there haven’t been a couple of stinkers, because there have; but on the whole, I’ve found Bollywood films I’ve watched in general considerably less annoying than recent Hollywood ones.

Hawks and Sparrows, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1966, Italy). There was a sale on the eureka! website, and a new – and more complete! – edition of Metropolis available for pre-order, so I embiggened my order of the latter with a couple of discounted titles… including this one. It’s early Pasolini. As should have become evident throughout this year’s Moving pictures posts, I’ve turned into a bit of a fan of Pasolini’s films, and while the sheer bizarreness of the costumes and settings of movies like Arabian Nights and Medea plugs into a long-running fascination of mine. I suspect I find his earlier movies – well, except for the Antonioni-esque Theorem – only to my liking because they seem like pastiches of Italian Neorealism, a cinematic genre of which I’m not overly fond. Hawks and Sparrows is about two itinerants who wander the Italian countryside looking for work and sustenance. En route, they meet a talking crow, who tells them of two Franciscan friars who were told to preach the Gospel to the hawks and sparrows. The friars eventually learn to understand the birds, but cannot persuade them to change their ways. This is all acted out in flashback, with Nanetto Davoli, Pasolini’s partner, and famous Italian comic actor Totò, as both the itinerants and the friars. (Totò turned out to be the illegitimate son of a Neopolitan noble, and was later recognised as a legitimate heir, so his real full name is a right mouthful: Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio. Still wonder why we need the upper classes?) Hawks and Sparrows has its moments – there are some good comic scenes, and the joke which drives the plot is not over-played. It’s not the sort of Pasolini film I really like, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.

Glory*, Edward Zwick (1989, USA). This I had marked down as one of those “chore movies” that I have to watch because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but don’t expect to enjoy. And yet, I did enjoy it. I thought it quite good, in fact. Matthew Broderick, who manages to look fifteen throughout the film, despite playing a character in his twenties, a real historical character, is a Yankee captain who is put in command of the 54th Regiment Massuchusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment in the Union army. Although Broderick’s character takes his responsibilities seriously, everyone else seems to think it’s a bit of a joke. The POC characters in the regiment are all drawn a bit broadly, perhaps even as stereotypes, but they certainly make the point that that only difference between the 54th Regiment and any other regiment is skin colour. Given the current fuss about the Confederacy – they were fucking racist fucking slave owners, FFS, it has nothing to do with erasing history and everything to do with recognising historical crimes, because, let’s face it, and you’d have to be an evil piece of shit to say otherwise, slavery was a horrible crime and there’s no defending it. Glory I had expected to be well-meaning rather than good drama – which I don’t have a problem with, least of all with the topic it covers – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually manages to make a decent fist of its story. The 54th Regiment were, ultimately, a failure, but they led the way for many more all-black regiments, most of which went on to serve with distinction during the American Civil War. Glory is a well-made film, and while that’s not enough for it, for me, to make the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, it does cover an interesting incident in US history, and does it well, but, more than that, it covers a topic that should be more widely know. So, yes, I think it deserves its place on the list.

Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (2016, USA). If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that when social media praises a science fiction film, chances are I won’t be all that impressed. The reverse doesn’t always hold true – if they hate a film, I might like it, but I’ll probably agree with their take on it (or at least agree with their opinion of it, but for slightly different reasons). Arrival, as no doubt everyone knows, proved very popular in genre fandom. It even won a Hugo Award. So I had hopes for it (especially since LoveFilm had sent it to me just before I left for Finland, so I knew I had it waiting for me when I returned from Worldcon75). The story is adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, ‘Story of Your Life’. Chiang is a far from prolific writer whose fiction many people in genre are greatly enamoured of. He famously withdrew a novella from the Hugo because he didn’t think it was good enough. He must have a warped idea of the Hugos, then… And – unpopular opinion time – I don’t think he’s actually that good. His reputation is over-stated. And ‘Story of Your Life’ is not even one of his best stories. Or one that would seem obvious adaptation material. Which undoubtedly explains why the film is so poor. Ignoring the fact Villeneuve chose to frame, and shoot, it as warmed-over Malick (not a beneficial comparision, to my mind), the whole story is based on a conceit that simply isn’t justified by the narrative. The big reveal appears to be that the flashbacks are actually flashforwards, which only works because Amy Adams’s character is so poorly drawn the audience can’t tell the difference. The iconography used for the alien alphabet is effective, but doesn’t support the mid-film bolt-from-the-blue that it is not chronologically linear. In fact, there’s nothing in the film to support that except Adams’s voiceover. Am I surprised Arrival won the Hugo? No. The Hugo voters have notoriously bad taste in movies, and will vote for any Hollywood movie that looks like it possesses more than half a brain cell. It was, to be honest, the best film on the shortlist. But it was a piss poor shortlist.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 879

 


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Moving pictures 2017, #44

Trying to maintain a varied diet of films to watch often means you find yourself watching something that doesn’t actually appeal. We all have our favourites, and we often stick to them, but I enjoy trying new things, discovering new favourites… even if you find some things you’ll know better to avoid in the future. Of the six films below, none I thought especially good. I prefer other films by Pasolini, I still have no idea what the Jancsó Kapa and Pepe films are about, and even the Herzog was far from one of his best…

The Decameron, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971, Italy). This was the first Pasolini I ever saw. According to my records, I rented it in 2009, although I don’t recall why. It wasn’t until I watched the Pasolini segment of RoGoPaG (see here) late last year that I thought his oeuvre might be worth exploring. And then The Gospel According to St Matthew, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, appeared free to watch on Amazon Prime, and then I rented his other film on the list, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom… And while I’ve sort of become a bit of a Pasolini fan, The Decameron is not among my favourites of his. Like his The Canterbury Tales, it’s an adaptation of some of the stories from a mediaeval story cycle, but Italian in this case rather than English. But in look and feel, it’s very similar (or rather, the other film is, as this one preceded it) and the humour is similarly scatological and earthy. So much so, in fact, that the film opens with a “tempo” in which Ninetto Davoli visits his long-lost sister (he thinks) only to be dropped into a latrine and is covered in shit, just so she can steal his money. Later, he finds himself imprisoned in the sarcophagus of a richly-dressed bishop in a cathedral. And so it goes. Another episode sees a man pretending to be deaf-mute in order to enjoy the sexual attentions of the nuns at a convent. The humour is broad, so are the points being made. And while the 14th-century source novel clearly influences the various tales, Pasolini’s own sensibilities, even back in the 1970s, are also on display. The stories are often crude, with a sense of humour even Talbot Rothwell would have shied from, but a celebration of the human condition still shines through. It’s hard to reach the end of a Pasolini film without feeling entertained or a little better about humanity in general. I don’t know that he was especially good at documenting humanity’s failings – to be honest, this box set has me totally confused as to what Pasolini was trying to achieve – but it’s difficult to finish one of his films without a smile. So props for that.

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan (2011, USA). I’m not sure what persuaded me to add this to my rental list, but I wish I hadn’t. It was the first film I’ve seen by Lonergan, and likely to be the last. Anna Paquin plays a New York student, who one day distracts a bus driver as he’s pulling away, causing him to run a red light and run over a woman crossing the street. But Paquin is so self-centred, she has to make the accident about herself, and though she recognises she did cause the accident she doesn’t actually admit it until near the end of this over-long, overly narcissistic, very dull, three-hour film. When she learns the bus driver has not been fired, she badgers the woman’s estranged relatives into sueing the MTA for damages, insisting as one of the conditions they sack him. There is not a single likeable character in this film – even Lonergan himself, who plays Paquin’s divorced father, is needy and neurotic and snide. Jean Reno plays a South American businessman who is in a relationship with Paquin’s mother, and while he seems the most pleasant character of the lot, he’s portrayed as a bit of a simpleton, and the anti-semitic remarks that eventually see him pushed out of the family are totally manufactured. At 90 minutes, Margaret would likely have outstayed its welcome; at three hours, it was torture. Perhaps you have to be American to appreciate this film; I am not American; I thought it was awful. Avoid.

Anyádi s szúnyogok, Miklós Jancsó (2000, Hungary). I’ve still no idea what these films are about, although a theme common to both this and the first film in the series, Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten (see here), appears to be suicide. This film – whose title apparently translates as “Mother! The mosquitos!”, although the subtitles definitely said, “Fuck the mosquitoes!” at one point – initially appears to be set in in a train museum, with Kapa and Pepe playing train drivers or train engineers. But like the first film, the story quickly changes, and though the two main characters continue to play themselves, they’re now in different roles. There’s also a band who apear at intervals and play rock, with help of assorted pieces of defunct industrial equipment and, I seem to remember, a drill. They’re not unlike Norway’s Hurra Torpedo. And there’s another scene which is apparently set really high up on something, a statue I think, as if Jancsó were trying to prove a point by including some vertiginous scenes – although perhaps it’s only me, someone who suffers from vertigo, who would even think to mention them. There’s a review on imdb.com which is less than helpful. It says, for example, “The comedy jacket of the story gives a cool atmosphere”, and does very little to actually explain what is going on. I feel their pain – because I have no idea either. Nonetheless, I’m glad I bought these six films and I hope one day to understand them.

Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog (2011, USA). Herzog is one of the most interesting directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and his documentaries are typically every bit as good as his feature films. But this one was a bit of a mis-step, I think. The topic is one that’s been over-subscribed in documentary films for decades, and Herzog’s straightforward yet off-kilter approach fails to make it interesting. Some of the questions he asks are a bit off-the-wall, and it’s clear the interviewees think so too, but… The subject is people on Death Row, two people, in fact, one of whom still maintains his innocence. Seriously, are there any people with more than two brain cells on this planet who need persuading that capital punishment is a bad thing? State-sanctioned murder is still murder. You can throw up as many examples of miscarriages of justice, or even bona fide monsters, but even that giant fairy in the sky so many people seem to think really exists, even he thinks it’s wrong. Into the Abyss is a series of interviews with two inmates on Death Row in Texas, and with those who know the inmates or were involved with their crimes, or their bringing to justice. But I don’t see the point of it all – granted, he’s preaching to the choir. But since the only argument that’s going to work on the pro-capital punishment crown is a nail-studded cluebat, I don’t see the point of documentaries like Into the Abyss, no mater how balanced, or how off-centre, the approach they take.

The Space Between Us, Peter Chelsom (2017, USA). The space between the two principals, the figures on the DVD cover art, is, well, space itself, ie, the space between Earth and Mars. Did you see what they did there? Clever, that. Asa Butterfield was born on Mars – his mother was the commander of the first mission to Mars, but happened to be pregnant at the time. NASA decided to keep Butterfield’s existence a secret. Sixteen years later, he is finally allowed to visit Earth. Which he thinks is great because he’s made a friend online, Britt Robertson, a spiky and clever, but good-hearted, foster kid, and because it also allows him to go looking for his father, whose identity he only knows from an old photo. Of course, NASA would sooner he stayed in seclusion at one of their facilities. But he escapes, goes and finds Robertson, and the two head across country looking for dear old dad. What is it with Hollywood films and their daddy issues? Can they please move past Misogynistic Pop Psych 101? Robertson is sparky, which is probably the new feisty; Butterfield is earnest and gauche. Gary Oldman phones in it. It’s a nice story, and they made a halfway decent fist of presenting a near-future which could send a mission to Mars and start a colony there. But it’s all too easy. Okay, I admit I watched this after seeing National Geographics miniseries Mars, but you might as well have changed Butterfield’s skin colour and you could have told pretty much the same story. Except, of course, white US audiences are more likely to sympathise with a star-crossed Martian than a star-crossed African-American. Oh, and the growing up on Mars so he has an enlarged heart is the sort of metaphor they beat out of you in the cheap writing workshops, the ones given by people better known for writing how-to books than actual books. Or screenplays, in this instance.

Secuestro Express, Jonathan Jakubowicz (2005, Venezuela). My first film from Venezuela. And despite being released in 2005, it was all a bit 1990s, to be honest. A young and well-off couple are kidnapped by three gang-bangers – this is a common thing in Caracas, it seems – who demand a ransom from the woman’s father. The young man escapes, leaving his girlfriend to the kidnappers’ mercy, but is later recaptured and killed. The father pays the ransom, the young woman is released. The film is shot in a very MTV-ish style, lots of cross-cuts, jittery cam, blurring and Dutch angles. The characters are introduced with stylised on-screen text bios. The acting is not all that good, although the female victim, played by Argentine actress Mia Maestro, is pretty good. If I’d seen this twenty years ago, I’d have been more impressed, and not just because, er, that was a decade before it was actually made.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878


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Moving pictures 2017, #43

One of these days I should do a themed week in my movie-watching – films from one country, perhaps, or by a single director. Well, maybe, not an entire week, maybe just six movies in a row. Since I’ve just purchased a Jean-Luc Godard collection, I could do it with his films, pick half a dozen straight out of the box. Some would be rewatches, but I’ve been wanting to rewatch some of his movies anyway. It’s an idea. Meanwhile, another mixed bag…

Medea, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1969, Italy). This is what I know Pasolini for, and why I bought this box set – an historical, well, almost fantasy, film like Fellini at his most self-indulgent. I mean, given that I love Fellini’s Satyricon (see here) and Casanova (see here), it should come as no surprise that Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (see here) and Medea also press my buttons. The story – which is based loosely on the Ancient Greek character of the same name – is more or less incidental. It’s the visuals which count. And Pasolini goes full out on those – much of the movie was filmed on historical sites, such as the Göreme Open Air Museum in Turkey. It looks fantastic, and even convincingly accurate – although I suspect it bears little resemblance to actual Ancient Greek society. But Medea is one of those films where you can just bask in the wonderful mise-en-scène, and perhaps feel a little smug for consuming some Ancient Greek culture, without caring over much about the story. Maria Callas, in her only movie role, makes for a striking Medea, but to be honest it doesn’t really matter who plays who. This a film that just looks great. In fact, Arabian Nights and Medea alone would justify the purchase of the the Six Films 1968 – 1975 Blu-ray box set, but, as below indicates, Theorem is also another film in the set that presses a lot of my buttons. And, let’s face it, the other three films are no slouches either.

Up in Smoke*, Lou Adler (1978, USA). This is a film I would normally go nowhere near, but it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and so I guess I gotta watch it… It’s credited with being the first stoner comedy, which is not a genre I find appealing. Or amusing. Which was pretty much the case here. Up in Smoke is the first film appearance of dope-head comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who went on to make a further six films, seven if you include an animated feature released in 2013, twenty-eight years after their last movie. Cheech and Chong play a couple of stoner Angelinos, who meet when Chong’s car breaks down on a highway and Cheech gives him a lift in his lowrider. Chong admits he’s a drummer, and Cheech invites him to join his band. They then spend the rest of the movie driving around parts of LA on the hunt for marijuana, inadvertently managing to avoid being arrested by inept cop Stacy Keach at every turn. At one point, the pair are deported to Mexico (it’s deliberate) and offer to drive a van back to the US, not knowing that the van’s bodywork is made entirely out of marjuana. The film ends with a battle of the bands, which Cheech & Chong do not win, but by then everyone is so high from the burning van no one really cares. Including the viewer. Jack Nicholson apparently thought the film was hilarious, perhaps he was under the influence. I don’t recall a single chuckle in it. True, my sense of humour is more of the Confucian variety – as Confucius said, the funniest sight in the whole world is watching an old friend fall off a high roof. Slapstick, in other words. This is not slapstick. Still, at least I can now cross it off the list. I very much doubt I’ll be bothering with the six/seven sequels…

The Soft Skin, François Truffaut (1964, France). A well-known literary critic and editor catches a plane to Lisbon to give a talk at a conference. In the hotel where he’s staying, he meets a beautiful flight attendant he remembers from his flight. They ride up in the lift, but to her floor not his… and when he reaches his own room, he telephones her and apologises for not helping her with her bags and asks her for a drink. She refuses, but then rings back and accepts… And so begins an affair between the two. Some time later, the critic accepts an invite to a film festival in Reims, and takes the flight attendant, his mistress, with him. But the trip doesn’t go very well – he has difficulty getting away from the festival organisers – and on the way back to Paris they stop off at a country pension. The critic’s wife later discovers photographs of this weekend tryst, and subsequently demands a divorce…  I’m finding myself increasingly a fan of Truffaut’s films, but I also find myself having trouble getting a handle on his film-making. He doesn’t have an identifiable style – or rather, he has many. And his chameleon nature, which is never less than skilfully done, makes it hard to think of Truffaut’s films as a single body of work. The Soft Skin is a well-drawn character study of its two leads, well-shot, and with some nice observations. But it doesn’t seem of an ilk with Two English Girls or Fahrenheit 451. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me until now to appreciate Truffaut’s excellence, the fact his films seem to undermine auteur theory, despite the fact Truffaut is a Nouvelle Vague director, and in fact it’s Truffaut himself who invented the concept in his 1954 essay, ‘Une certain tendance du cinéma français’. The Soft Skin seemed like a polished French adultery movie of the 1960s, which is almost a genre itself, and so its appeal is limited to the appeal of its type. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t see that it was an explicitly Truffaut film.

TO 2001 Nights, Fumihiko Sori (2009, Japan). It’s an anime film, so guess who recommended it… Although at least this one was recommended in conversation, rather than snuck onto my rental list. And David Tallerman (for it was he, of course) did point out it looked good but was pretty naff. Which turned out to be more or less spot-on. It’s not actually a feature-length movie, but two stories from a manga series. The first, ‘Ellpitical Orbit’, has a spacecraft returning from an exoplanet colony stop off at a space station in, I think, LEO. The captain of the spacecraft is the ex-wife of the station commander, although interstellar travel now means they have aged at different rates. And then space pirates attack and… I was too busy wincing at the awful dialogue, so I’m not entirely sure how it all panned out. The second story, ‘Symbiotic Planet’ is about a colony on an exoplanet, or rather several colonies, each of which seem to recapitulate 1980s Cold War tensions. The exoplanet is notable for its fungi, and when a member of the staff is infected with the fungi, it proves beneficial rather than fatal… TO 2001 Nights looks lovely, albeit not always entirely plausible in the way media sf never really does, but its stories are a bit crap. David called it right. Worth seeing, perhaps, but eminently forgettable.

Theorem, Pier Paulo Pasolini (1968, Italy). I was expecting something much like the other Pasolini films I’d watched when I put this in the player. What I got was something that reminded me much more of Antonioni’s films. It opens with journalists interviewing workers from a factory that has just become a collective. The film then flashes back to the house of an affluent Italian family. Ninetto Davoli – a familiar face in Pasolini’s films – plays a dancing postman who heralds the arrival of Terence Stamp, an enigmatic stranger, who moves into the house, and then sleeps with each of the family members, including the maid. All of them are healed in some way after sex with Stamp. And when he leaves, they each do something their previous view of their lives had prevented them from doing – the father giving his factory to his workers, for example, as in the opening shots. It’s all very late sixties, and apart from Davolini doing his arm-flapping dancing about, much more like Antonioni than Pasolini, except… while it’s certainly enigmatic, like Antonioni, it doesn’t have his glacial pace, nor his focus on his characters – Stamp is, after all, a cipher. And I’m pretty sure Antonioni would never have included a shot of a naked man running around on the slopes of a volcano – Zabriskie Point notwithstanding. I considered Six Films 1968 – 1975 worth buying for Arabian Nights and Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom alone, but having now seen both Medea and Theorem I’m even more glad I bought it. And I really ought to watch more of Pasolini’s works.

Queen, Vikas Bahl (2014, India). I suspect people who don’t watch Bollywood films underestimate the range of movies produced by the Hindi film industry. It’s true many are boy meets girl boy loses girl boy gets girl back, with singing and dancing, but a lot of the more recent, and very successful, Bollywood films I’ve watched have been anything but that. Like Queen. The title character, Rani, is about to get married, but her fiancé dumps her two days before the wedding. So she decides to go on the honeymoon on her own, to Paris and then onto Amsterdam. In Paris, she is befriended by a Franco-Indian maid, who’s a party girl and takes Rani to various night spots, introduces to her friends and generally shows her how to have a good time and how to be an independent woman. Rani then moves onto Amsterdam, where she finds herself staying in a hostel and sharing a room with three guys, a Russian, a man from Japan, and a Frenchman. They soon become friends, and explore the city together – including a trip to visit a friend of the Parisian maid, who is a sexworker in the red light district. While there were plenty of songs in Queen, unlike in other Bollywood films I’ve seen the action didn’t stop for a dance routine. The more Bollywood films I watch, the more surprised I am that people in this country don’t watch them as often they would watch, say, French or Japanese films. True, they’re in Hindi, and rarely dubbed, although the cast do code-switch a hell of a lot, and even more so in Queen, but refusing to watch a film because it has subtitles is just wilful ignorance. (I should check my own collection one of these days, to see what percentage are non-Anglophone.) A lot of the Bollywood films I’ve watched were fun, but Queen was charming too. It was entirely carried by Kangana Ranaut in the title role, although Lisa Haydon was also good as the Franco-Indian maid. It’s rare you reach the end of a Bollywood film without feeling cheered, and Queen made you feel good about enjoying it too. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 878