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Moving pictures, #37

Only 315 movies to go and I’m done with the list. Unfortunately, not every film on it seems to be actually available – and the list does evolve – so it’s not like finishing it is, well, a death sentence. I should have a go at putting together my own, I suppose – although, to be fair, 1001 movies is a lot of movies – since I can think of a couple of dozen films which belong on the list much more than some of the Hollywood crap which actually does appear on it. (Quick plug here for my list 101 Films for a cineaste, and I really ought to do a part two and part three…)

odd_man_outOdd Man Out*, Carol Reed (1947, UK). This was an odd one (no pun intended). It was probably a Quota Quickie – it starred James Mason, who made his career in Quota Quickies during WWII (he was a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker) and is black-and-white. It is also about the IRA. Of course, the organisation is never named, and even the city in which the film takes place remains nameless (although a bus appears at one point with “Falls Road” on its sign). Mason plays the leader of a cell, who has been ordered to rob a mill. The robbery goes wrong, and the men are forced to hide out. Mason is shot and separated from the others, and tries to head back his girlfriend’s house, where he had been hiding for the past six months. In pretty much all respects, Odd Man Out is a straightforward noir film – except for the political angle. It makes for an odd disconnect. While the cast are presented as criminals, and they perform criminal acts, as is fairly common in noir, the fact they’re IRA gives their actions added weight. To be fair, the film doesn’t belabour the point, and while it makes much of its setting, Belfast, the sectarian angle is played down, probably wisely. Apparently Odd Man Out received a BAFTA for Best British Film in its year of release. On balance, it probably deserves to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

ikuruIkiru*, Akira Kurosawa (1952, Japan). Ask anyone who knows very little abut Japanese cinema to name a Japanese director, and Kurosawa will probably be the most popular answer (so don’t go picking it on Pointless). I have over the years watched a number of Kurosawa’s films and, perversely, still like his Russian one best. I hadn’t really expected to like Ikiru, an early work, especially given the plot summary. A minor bureacrat, Watanabe, is given 12 months to live after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. Impressed by the enthusiasm of his department’s sole female member, a young woman, he starts spending time with her. But she resigns from the ministry, and soon after tires of his company. She tells Watanabe he needs to find a hobby. He decides to take a petition to convert an urban rubbish tip into a playground, and push it through all the government departments and get all the backing and signatures it needs, to make it happen. There’s a quite horrible scene at his funeral during which the local deputy mayor takes full credit for the playground, totally downplaying Watanabe’s contribution. A good film.

high_sierraHigh Sierra*, Raoul Walsh (1941, USA). I started watching this and wondered if I’d accidentally stuck a film on my rental list I’d already watched earlier in the year… but no, that earlier film was The Treasure of Sierra Madre which, like High Sierra, stars Humphrey Bogart, is in black-and-white, but otherwise bears no resemblance to it at all. On the other hand, I could have been confusing it with Angels with Dirty Faces, which stars the Humph as a bent lawyer, but I suspect it’s just all these noir films are beginning to blur together a bit… In this one, the Humph plays an ex-con who leads a robbery on a resort hotel. Though they plan it to the smallest detail, it all goes horribly wrong. Ida Lupino is good as the femme fatale. She had a fascinating career, incidentally – a Brit who moved to Hollywood, played in a number of noir films, before becoming one of Hollywood’s first female directors. (And Hedy Lamarr, a contemporary, held a patent for the maths used by torpedo guidance systems. Just compare those two with the current crop of Hollwood actresses…). The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die could do with having some noir trimmed from it.

black_narcussisBlack Narcissus*, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (1946, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Archers for many years, and thought I had seen Black Narcissus years before – at least, I’m pretty sure I had – but I stuck on my rental list for a rewatch as it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. And… yes, it’s the film I thought it was, and it’s also very much not the film I thought it was. It is deeply problematical – Jean Simmons in blackface as a young Indian woman; the whole colonialist attitude to the locals – but it is also a gorgeous-looking film, which is especially surprising as it was filmed entirely in a studio (even the model of the mountain-top monastery looks gorgeous). I recently rewatched the Archer’s The Red Shoes, but didn’t enjoy it as much as I had on previous viewings – and I expected much the same for Black Narcissus, a film I could admire, with very much an Archers’ look and feel, but something of a Sunday afternoon movie and soon forgotten… Except I actually really did find myself liking it. It’s pure melodrama, it’s colonialist melodrama, it is, as I’ve said, deeply problematical… but there’s also a faint whiff of knowingness to it, and a definite series of hints that its viewpoint is skewed (the local British agent, for example, is very much sceptical view of his role). It all adds up to something considerably more than a Sunday afternoon movie, and I wouldn’t mind watching it again…

shrinkingmanThe Incredible Shrinking Man*, Jack Arnold (1957, USA). I was taken to task for not liking this film much by a friend on FB. But I really couldn’t get excited about it. Not only does it have that B-movie moralistic voice-over, in which the whole film is presented as an object lesson because no one involved in making the film had enough confidence in the audience to get the point of it all, but the special effects may have been shocking in 1957 but seemed relatively humdrum in 2015. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a B-movie and nothing more, and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is either an acknowledgement that some B-movies have transcended their origins, or a completely mystery. I acknowledge the former, but incline to the latter in this case. The moralistic posturing in The Incredible Shrinking Man actually spoiled it for me, whereas I suspect a reliance on the pure visceral thrill of a tiny little man fighting a GIANT SPIDER might have given the film more authority in its central premise. Despite it s appearance on the list, this is a B-movie, it looked like a B-movie, it played like a B-movie, and its presence on the list is not enough for it to magically transcend its B-movie origins.

hitchcock2Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock (1966, USA). Among the first DVDs I bought when the format appeared was a pair of Alfred Hitchcock collections. I replaced both of these with Blu-ray editions during a recent Amazon Prime Day, and have been slowly working my way through them – rewatches all, of course. I’ve not bothered mentioning them in these Moving pictures posts because they’re films I first saw decades ago, and have rewatched several times since. But I thought it worth writing about Torn Curtain for a number of reasons. It’s considered minor Hitchcock despite its high-powered stars (who were apparently forced on Hitch by the studio), but it’s also an odd film even within Hitch’s oeuvre. It’s set mostly in Europe – I was dead chuffed, for example, on my first visit to Copenhagen when I spotted the Hotel’d’Angleterre, which appears in this film – and it is a surprisingly European film for a major Hollywood player. Paul Newman is a US scientist who fakes a defection to the East so he can steal some formulae from an East German rocket scientist; Julie Andrews plays his wife, who inadvertently gets herself involved in the whole plot. I had forgotten how wonderfully Technicolor Torn Curtain is, and how surprisingly unpretentious it is. The fight scene between the Stasi agent and Paul Newman, which takes place in total silence, I pastiched in one of my novels I liked it so much. The pair’s trip across East Germany to a contact who will smuggle them into the West is resolutely ordinary, with weird moments of humour interrupting the jeopardy. I actually liked the film a lot more than I had done afterprevious viewings. And yes, it was totally worth replacing my DVD copies with Blu-ray ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 686

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Moving pictures, #13

I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…

darlingDarling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.

demoisellesLes Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.

deepseaJames Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…

sokurovSave and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.

spivetThe Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.

thiefofbagdadThe Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.

jeuneJeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 591


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Moving pictures, #5

And now it seems the Blu-ray player is starting to act up. Bugger. Annoyingly, I recently discovered it’s also region-locked for DVDs, although I was sure it was region-free when I bought it. I definitely need to get myself a new one – region-free for both formats. Sigh.

allthatjazzAll That Jazz*, Bob Fosse (1979, USA). There are some movies I’d never have come to watch if they hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and not just because I’d otherwise never have known about them. On first pass, All That Jazz doesn’t really seem to be my sort of film. It’s a semi-autobiographical musical, based on Fosse’s own experiences staging a big Broadway musical and editing a feature film, a work-load which led to health problems and hospitalisation. I am not much of a musicals-type person – in fact, there’s only one I actually rate, High Society – and if I were I think I’d prefer ones from the 1950s… But All That Jazz is also one of those films in which an unexpected dance sequence makes something very interesting of it. And “unexpected” is not a word associated with dance sequences you’d think would apply to All That Jazz. But there it is. As Roy Scheider lies in his hospital death, he hallucinates a big dance production number featuring the Angel of Death, and it’s cleverly and affectingly done. I found myself really liking All That Jazz, and I hadn’t expected to.

onthewaterfrontOn the Waterfront*, Elia Kazan (1954, USA). Marlon Brando is apparently one of the great actors, but I’ve seen him now in two of his most famous roles – in A Streetcar Named Desire and this one – and, well, he’s just annoying. That stupid voice. I guess that must be Method Acting. Brando plays a dim-witted ex-boxer whom circumstances force into going up against his chapter of the longshoremen union and its corrupt chief. It’s the sort of story which is, I guess, meant to celebrate a good man, but all it does to me is demonstrate that the capitalist model is corrupt, open to abuse and a piss-poor end-result after ten thousand years of civilisation. Seriously, we’re meant to just accept the injustice and violent coercion which was apparently standard operating procedure on the docks of New York some sixty years ago? We shouldn’t be cheering on Terry Malloy as he battles the union, we should be asking why the US government is apparently so inept, corrupt or just plain evil to have allowed the situation to arise in the first place. Either way, this doesn’t really meet my criteria for a good movie.

paradeParade, Jacques Tati (1974, France). I’ve almost finished the Tati box set, and it was definitely one of my better purchases – even if this isn’t one of Tati’s better films. It’s a made-for-TV piece, set in a circus, in which Tati himself occasionally appears as a clown. It is also a film chock-a-block with dungarees. I’ve never seen so many pairs in a single movie before. There are some amusing set-pieces, but if this weren’t Tati it would be just another fly-on-the-ringside documentary, albeit a very 1970s one. Worth seeing, but buy the Tati box set for the other films.

motherkustersMother Küsters Goes To Heaven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). And I’m about halfway through the Fassbinder box set. I like box sets. (I received a Bergman one for my birthday, only a week or so ago, incidentally). One thing I’m coming to realise from watching these Fassbinder films is that he definitely made use of a stable of actors. Brigitte Mira, who played the female lead in Fear Eats the Soul, plays the title character, a working-class widow who loses everything when her husband kills his supervisor and commits suicide at the factory. She and her family are interviewed by the press, who then libellously paint the dead man as a drunk who was violent toward his wife and a bully to his children. A pair of middle-class communists offer to help Mother Küsters clear her husband’s name, although her family are suspicious of the communists’ motives. But they prove too slow for Mother Küsters and she falls in instead with some anarchists… who invade the local office of the newspaper which published the libellous article. This isn’t exactly the most subtle Fassbinder film I’ve watched so far – he sets out to show the perfidy of the press and the way they monster people, and does precisely that. Interestingly, the film has two endings. One is represented by stills, while a voice-over reads the script, but the other was actually filmed. The latter apparently was written especially for the US market (it’s the happier ending), but I do wonder why the first ending was never actually put on film.

White_HeatWhite Heat*, Raoul Walsh (1949, USA). “Look at me, ma! I’m on top of the world!” Yup, this is where that line comes from. It’s a classic gangster film, in which Cagney plays a complete psychopath – albeit a somewhat tame one by today’s standards, in fact superheroes in twenty-first century films show about as much remorse as Cagney’s character does after killing someone. That’s progress for you. Anyway, Cagney gives himself up for a crime he didn’t commit because it provides an alibi for one he did, a particularly brutal train robbery. A cop goes undercover in the prison, breaks out with Cagney and joins his gang. The film ends with an attempt to rob the payroll from a refinery, and Cagney ends up stuck on the top of a storage tank, starts of a gun battle… which causes the storage tank to blow. KABOOM. A good bit of classic noir.

lesmisLes Misérables*, Tom Hooper (2012, USA/UK). Here’s another film that I’d have otherwise assiduously avoided if it hadn’t been for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but unlike All That Jazz I can’t really say I’m glad I watched it. I knew going in it wasn’t going to be the sort of film I like and, lo and behold, I really didn’t like it. The singing was terrible, the songs were awful – even that brain-burning one popularised by Susan Boyle – the characters were unredeemable, and the CGI was so over the top it might as well have taken place in some fantasy world. Rubbish.

labelleLa Belle et la Bête*, Jean Cocteau (1946, France). I thought Cocteau’s Orphée really good, but this retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale was a bit dull. While the staging was cleverly done, particularly for the time, the production design did resemble some amateur dramatic pantomime production (although the Beast’s make-up was good). Perhaps it deserves a second watch – but it was a rental disc and it’s gone back. On the other hand, I’m only just over halfway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although I would like to see more films by Cocteau.

mother-and-sonMother And Son, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Russia). I’ve watched this a couple of times now, and I continue to find it completely mesmerising. A young man cares for his mother as she lies on her death-bed. He reads to her, he carries her outside and shows her the surrounding countryside, he feeds her and nurses her. There is a dream-like quality to the visuals, so much so that some of the landscape shots actually resemble oil paintings. This is a beautiful film, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever watched. I’d place it a close second after The Second Circle as my favourite Sokurov, and while it doesn’t quite make my top ten it certainly makes my top twenty. But I also suspect that more often I watch it, the more my opinion of it will rise. I’ve been watching a lot of Sokurov recently, and have even tracked down copies of some of his hard-to-find DVDs. I think he’s one of the most interesting directors currently making films. There’s something very… literary about his movies. Watching them is like reading a beautifully-written short story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 567