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Moving pictures 2018, #51

Another eclectic bunch of movies in this post. Six films and four countries, half of which are Anglophone. I’ve seen films by four of the directors – Greengrass makes good action films, but they’re not my thing, and I’ve never been a fan of Bresson’s work, for all his critical acclaim. Anyway, see below…

United 93, Paul Greengrass (2006, USA). I was living in Abu Dhabi when the World Trade Center was attacked. From what I remember, I was at home – I’d finished work a couple of hours earlier – when I heard on the radio that a plane had hit one of the towers. I turned on CNN and watched as the second plane hit the South Tower. The world changed on that day – and not for the better. And now, seventeen years later, there’s little doubt who has done more damage in the years since: the US. The Middle East is pretty much fucked up completely, and even the Arab Spring seems to have failed to improve things. Which is not to say the UK does not deserve its fair share of the blame. Wars will continue to be fought as long as people are willing to sell the combatants weapons – and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that many of the ultra-rich are pretty much war criminals in that regard. Anyway, United 93 is the most celebrated film about the events of 9/11 (an event which has been treated surprisingly rarely in film and television, although it’s far from uncommon in literature). United 93 is named for the one flight of the four hijacked which failed to hits its target, and that was because the passengers aboard fought back against the hijackers and managed to overpower them, albeit too late to prevent them from crashing the aeroplane. United 93 uses a lot of the actual people who were part of events, and a cast of relatively unknown faces in other roles. I don’t have a problem with non-professional actors, particularly in films that are trying for a documentary feel, as this one is. In fact, often dramatisation through the use of actors robs the depicted events of their authenticity. Greengrass, however, successfully keeps everything very real. But what had not occurred to me before watching this film, and which surprised me, was quite how brutal it was. It’s not just the raw emotion of the scenes aboard the eponymous flight, but also the violence when the passengers take back control. United 93 is on one or the other of the 1001 Movies list, although I don’t recall offhand which one. I think it belongs on the list, and not just because of its subject matter. True, such an important event in world history should be represented, but United 93 does it in a way that successfully evokes the emotional turmoil of 9/11. Which is why it should be on the list.

Lancelot du Lac, Robert Bresson (1974, France). Bresson is a highly-regarded director – he’s a favourite of my favourite director Aleksandr Sokurov, for example – but even after seeing some of his most celebrated films I’m not entirely sure I “get” his work. And yet, he does things I like in other directors’ films. In Lancelot du Lac, for example, he uses a mostly non-professional cast. He’s not the first French director to do that – I’ve a feeling Jacques Rivette did, but looking up his films apparently not – but I’m pretty sure some French director, beside Bresson, made extensive use of non-professional actors. Which is, to be fair, a comment more on my bad memory than it is this movie. The film covers the main points of the Lancelot / Arthur / Guinevere legend, focusing particularly on the Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere. A bad thing, obviously, as she was Arthur’s wife at the time, and a part of the mythos that feels more invented than the rest of it, if only because an adulterous queen feels like imposed commentary (and misogynistic commentary at that, given Guinevere is just about the only woman mentioned in the mythos). The setting doesn’t really convince – if anything, the cast look more like Larpers in a French wood than actual knights of the Round Table. King Arthur also appears a little too saturnine, and more resembles a villain than Mordred. There have been plenty of films made about the Matter of Britain, from musicals to Roman re-imaginings to Guy Ritchie’s mockney mediaeval fantasy. I don’t think any of them have been any good, or presented interesting treatments of the mythos. I think perhaps the most interesting one that comes to mind is a book, and that’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Maybe someday someone will make a good King Arthur film. This one certainly isn’t it.

Battle for Sevastopol, Sergey Mokritskiy (2015, Russia). I’d tried half a dozen films on Amazon Prime but given up on each after ten minutes as they were either really bad or I wasn’t in the mood to watch them. But Battle for Sevastopol pretty much dragged me in from the opening minutes, and I find it slightly worrying that I should find a war film more engrossing than the other films I tried watching. Although perhaps that says more about those other films… Anyway, Battle for Sevastopol is based on the true story of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Soviet army sniper who killed over 300 men and survived the siege of Sevastopol. The film opens in 1957, with Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the USSR and asking her minder to let he visit an old friend. The film then flashes back to 1942where Pavlichenko is being introduced to an audience in the US. She is there to drum up support (financial, of course; also armaments) for the USSR – this is after the siege, incidentally. Eleanor Roosevelt, on meeting Pavlichenko, takes a shine to her and invites her to stay in the White House. The film then flashes back again, this time to just before the war. Pavlichenko is studying history at university. Annoyed when some male friends are trying to show off on a rifle range, she insists on having a go herself. She proves to be a crack shot. She is sent off to sniper school – even though war has yet to break out. War breaks out. She serves on the Eastern Front as a sniper. The battle scenes are done extremely well. The film flips between Pavlichenko’s wartime experiences – including the loss of her lover, and the loss of a second lover – and her time in the US. I’m not a big fan of war films, although I’ve probably seen all the big WWII ones over the years – it was a popular subject in the 1950s  and 1960s… Not only is Battle for Sevastopol told from a perspective not often seen in Anglophone cinema – if at all – although it’s a little sanitised, after all Stalin killed more Russians than Hitler did, but it also tells its story from an interesting viewpoint: a female sniper. The special effects are pretty much what you would expect for a big budget of the second decade of the twenty-first century; and if the Americans in the film mostly have weird accents, that’s hardly a deal breaker. Worth seeing.

Bright Star, Jane Campion (2009, UK). I remember years ago – back in the 1980s some time – reading a Tim Powers novel and discovering that the Romantic poets were quite fascinating people. I certainly hadn’t learnt that at school when I’d studied Wordsworth’s The Prelude for O Level. I’m not sure who led the most interesting life of them, Byron probably, or the Shelleys perhaps. But Keats is a possibility, a doctor who was also a lauded poet, and who died young, at the age of twenty-five, of tuberculosis. Literature, especially poetry, venerates creators who die young. I’ll admit I know little of Keats’s poetry – I vaguely remember ‘To Autumn’ from school – and what I read after seeing this film I thought pretty awful. I didn’t, to be honest, think much of the film either. It recounts Keats’s betrothal to Fanny Brawne, the daughter of his neighbours in Hampstead Heath. Unfortunately, Brawne is played by Abbie Cornish, who has a noticeable Australian accent. And Keats’s housemate, Charles Brown, is played by an American actor who puts on a Scottish accent, despite Brown apparently being from Lambeth. Keats, incidentally, is played by Ben Whishaw, who is of course the voice of Paddington. While Bright Star does a good job of presenting early nineteenth-century England, the cast aren’t entirely convincing, and the story is extremely dull. Meh.

French Cancan, Jean Renoir (1955, France). Jean Renoir, he made films like La grande illusion, Boudu saved from DrowningLa Règle du jeu… The last thing I’d have expected him to make is this over-colourised fluffy French mid-fifties musical. The title pretty much says it all. It’s 1890s Paris and a nightclub owner’s business is failing, and his main attraction, a belly dancer, is not pulling in the punters. But then he discovers that the cancan is still being performed in Montmartre, so he decides a cancan chorus is just what he needs. As is usually the case in these sorts of films, he manages to magic up the cash for a new nightclub – he calls it the Moulin Rouge – plus costumes and props for a chorus of cancan dancers. One of which proves to be a star and draws in the punters. It’s based on a true story, of course, but it does seem the bulk of the problems he encountered were emotional. I’m not even sure if this is one for fans of Renoir or French musicals. It’s definitely colourful, very colourful. Meh.

Letters from Baghdad, Sabine Krayenbühl (2016, UK). A few weeks ago I watched Werner Herzog’s biopic of Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert (see here), and was not impressed. I knew of Bell, but thought Herzog had been indulging in artistic licence when he showed Bell visiting Bedouin tribes in what is now Saudi Arabia. But, as I discovered in this documentary about Bell’s life, she did indeed go there. To Ha’il, a town in the Nejd, ruled by the House of Rashid (later deposed by ibn Saud). Letters from Baghdad has Tilda Swinton reading out Bell’s correspondence to her parents, interspersed with talking heads acting people who knew her and some archive footage of her or representative of what she experienced. It’s fascinating stuff, and a clever technique that prevents the film from being too dry. But then Bell led a fascinating life. She graduated from Oxford with a first in history, which was not awarded as women could not earn degrees, and was sent out to Baghdad to stay with her uncle, a British minister there. She fell in love with the country and travelled around it extensively. She learnt Arabic and made friends among the tribal leaders. She was not, however, the first foreign woman to visit Ha’il, as Lady Anne Blunt had done so a couple of decades earlier. Bell was one in a long line of British Arabists during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of them, like Bell, provided instrumental in creating the nations which now exist there. Letters from Baghdad is an excellent film about a fascinating person.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 931

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Moving pictures, #48

Only two out of the six are US movies this time, so I’m definitely getting better at this… Although a recent check through which countries’ cinema I’ve watched revealed there are a number of gaps in my viewing. Which I plan to rectify. For now, it’s two French, two Russian and two American. Two were also rewatches.

live_becomeLive and Become, Radu Mihǎleanu (2005, France). I found this on an alternative 1001 Movies list and it looked interesting enough to add to my rental list. And I’m glad I did. In 1984, some 12,000 Ethiopian Jews walked to refugee camps in Sudan, where the 8,000 who had survived the march were airlifted to Israel. Live and Become follows a Christian Ethiopian boy whose mother persuades him to pretend to be a Jewish woman’s son so that he might have a chance at a new life. His new mother dies soon after arrival in Israel, and the boy proves too difficult for the orphanage to manage. He’s a adopted by a French Jewish family who have settled in Israel, and the film then follows him through his teen years into his early twenties, as he masquerades as Jewish, tries to find out what happened to his birth mother, and becomes a victim of a racial backlash against the Ethiopian Jews. Although the film implies the 1984 airlift – Operation Moses – was a one-off and well-planned coup by the Israelis, it was actually one of several attempts to patriate African Jews to Israel, beginning in 1961 and culminating with Operation Solomon in 1991. But that’s a minor quibble – it’s a heart-breaking piece of history and deserves to be better-known. Mihǎleanu uses different actors for his lead character at different stages of his life but keeps the continuity strong between them. I had not expected to find Live and Become as gripping as I did. Recommended.

faustFaust, Aleksandr Sokurov (2011, Russia). Sokurov’s films are hardly easy viewing, but I find this one among the more difficult of his – possibly because it seems at first to be relatively straightforward. Faust, a doctor in a mediaeval town in what is now Germany, is studying human anatomy, trying to find the seat of the “soul”; but his clandestine researches means he has little or no money. While trying to pawn something, he meets a moneylender called Mauricius, who seems not quite human. They spend time together and, in a large bathhouse/laundry, Faust spots a young woman and begins to obsess about her. She refuses his blandishments, a situation not helped when Faust accidentally kills her brother in a pub brawl. This is when Mauricius offers Faust a, er, Faustian bargain – his soul for a night with the young woman. Faust signs. However, he fails to act on his desires, and so Mauricius leads him to a strange land of stone and geysers where, in a rage, Faust kills Mauricius by burying him under rocks. But now Faust cannot find his way home. For a Sokurov film, Faust is played almost straight – there are occasional moments of distorted picture, much like he does in Mother and Son, but if there was a logic to them I didn’t spot it. The colours are pale and washed out, but that only gives the setting a more mediaeval feel. Even the occasional oddness – Faust’s assistant drops a bottle containing a foetus in formaldehyde and it proves to still be alive, for instance – only seem to amplify quite how strange Mauricius is… And he is odd – in the bathhouse scene, when he strips to bathe, all the women remark he “has nothing in front” and yet he appears to have something at his rear… which is far stranger than the earlier scene where he drinks a vial of poison and appears to enjoy it. I’ve seen Faust described as a German story told with Russian sensibilities, and there’s certainly a Sokurovian feel to the story – I’m tempted to describe it as having a certain identifiable philosophy, but then isn’t the Faust story itself a philosophical story? I’m unsure where I’d place Faust in Sokurov’s oeuvre. It has considerably higher production values than much of his output, and it’s evident in every frame… And the story is less elliptical than many of his other films… But it’s also less personal – the relationship between Faust and Mauricius, or Faust and Gretchen, is in no way as close as that between mother and son or father and son or grandmother and grandson… But then the relationship between body and soul is either the closest relationship of all, or no relationship at all… and that’s what Faust opens the film exploring…

diaryDiary of a Country Priest*, Robert Bresson (1951, France). There are five films by Robert Bresson on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’ve now seen them all… and everyone one of them has left me cold. The huge regard in which he’s held, I just can’t see it. And this one, Diary of a Country Priest, apparently Claude Laydu’s performance in the title role is, according to Wikipedia, considered “one of the greatest in the history of cinema”. Um, right. Now, I like that Bresson treats his material with a straight face – even a stone-face, perhaps – and the deadpan delivery is presented with remarkable clarity and economy. But I still don’t get why Bresson is so revered – and I say that knowing that my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov, is a fan of Bresson’s films. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me see why Laydu’s performance in this film should attract such accolades. He plays a priest whose performance of his duties draws the criticism of his parishioners, and who also happens to be quite ill. There’s no thematic link between his illness and his actions – although not being a Catholic – or, indeed, the slightest bit religious – perhaps that’s a distinction lost on me. I have mentioned in the past that one of my apparent blindspots is French cinema prior to the Nouvelle Vague (bar the odd exception, such as Renoir’s films), and if so then Bresson sits squarely in it. I’m loath to say that Diary of a Country Priest does not belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain why it does belong on the list.

mirrorMirror*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1975, Russia). If you’d asked me a year ago what my favourite Tarkovsky film was, I’d probably have said Mirror. Having now watched it one more time – on Blu-ray this time – I found myself…conflicted. It frequently looks gorgeous – there’s a lambent quality to the cinematography in the scenes set on the farm that is absolutely stunning. And the black-and-white sections have that sort of concreteness which makes the space station in Solaris looks so much like a real place. But despite having watched the film several times, I’m still no clearer as to its actual story, and at times it seems like little more than fantastic moving wallpaper. It feels like a hot mess, but one that hovers on the edge of understanding. Tarkovsky’s genius was, in part, that he could make something feel like a coherent whole despite the lack of overt links between sections – as in Andrei Rublev. Mirror is supposed to present the memories of a dying poet, and indeed it has a stream-of-consciousness look and feel (the slow motion bath falling through the ceiling? WTF?), but while there’s a plain sense of thematic unity I’m not convinced the narrative hangs together in any real meaningful sense. But the genius of Tarkovsky is also that his films are eminently rewatchable, and each rewatch will reveal something new to appreciate and admire. There are films I admire hugely, and directors I admire hugely although none of their films make the first list… but Tarkovsky plainly belongs on both. I don’t know that anyone has ever equalled him, and much as I love Sokurov’s films it’s as much for his contradictions, whereas Tarkovsky is a director with remarkably few contradictions. If that makes sense. I opened this “review” wondering which of Tarkovsky’s film I liked best… At the moment, I’m tending toward The Sacrifice… but I have yet to rewatch it as the Blu-ray version has not yet been released. However, there’s still Ivan’s Childhood, Stalker and Nostalgia to rewatch; and probably further rewatches of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and Mirror… and the fact I can even consider watching these films again and again is one reason why I consider Tarkovsky a hugely important and favourite director.

wolf_manThe Wolf Man*, George Waggner (1941, USA). An American, Lon Chaney Jr, learns of the death of his brother and so returns to the ancestral home in, er, Wales, to patch it up with his father, Claude Rains. The people in the Welsh village speak with English or American accents – among the former is the young woman who runs a local antiqiue shop, and among the latter is the local chief constable. While out walking in a swampy wood with the young lady, Chaney saves a woman being attacked by a wolf, but the wolf manages to bite him. Later, the police find a dead man, but no wolf’s corpse. Then there are the gypsies, who all dress like flamenco dancers or something, not to mention Chaney as a werewolf looks more like Puppyman, about to advertise Andrex, than he does a fearsome creatures from horror’s bag of fearsome tropes… and it all feels a bit risible. It’s an early Hollywood horror movie, and while it may have done something new, seventy-five years later it’s hard to spot exactly what. It feels like one of those films that are only on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list because the listmaker has fond memories of it from late-night showings on obscure cable channels or in seedy fleapit cinemas. I don’t see that appeal myself. Meh.

wonderTo the Wonder, Terrence Malick (2012, USA). I’ve no idea why I rented this. Perhaps it was in the vain hope that Malick might at some point produce a great film instead of ones that bounce between occasional moments of great beauty and the much longer moments of pretentious self-indulgent twaddle. The first third of this film, for example, resembles nothing so much as perfume commercial. And the stream-of-consciousness voice-over, which in The New World felt like an idea that could have worked really well, here only heightens the likeness to that sort of bullshit world in which perfume adverts make sense and are legitimate tools for selling a product. Ben Affleck plays an American in Paris who falls in love with Ukrainian divorcée Olga Kurylenko (who has a young daughter), marries her and takes her back to Oklahoma. But she doesn’t fit in there, and returns to Paris. Malick reportedly told his cast to keep on moving while he was shooting them, and their endlessly spinning and jumping about wears thin very quickly (and heightens the likeness to the aforementioned commercials). I have now watched most of Malick’s oeuvre and can happily admit I don’t get him. I don’t understand why he is so admired. His cinematography is frequently absolutely gorgeous, this is true; but there is more to movie-making than a stunning sunset caught just right. He also has a well-documented tendency to basically recreate his films in editing, such that half the cast end up on the cutting-room floor. In To the Wonder, that means Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all had their parts cut completely from the film. (Why would you work with someone who did that to you? For the money? Is there some sort of weird Hollywood prestige in ending up on the floor of Malick’s editing suite?) Malick feels like a director with a lot of interesting ideas but whose slightest whim is happily indulged by Hollywood. Some people need reining in, some people only produce good work when limited. I’m increasingly starting to think Malick is one such person.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 804


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Moving pictures, #22

More films. No excuses or explanations. Deal with it. Or not.

captain_bloodCaptain Blood*, Michael Curtiz (1935, USA). An odd film, this. It starts out very German Expressionist, as Doctor Blood (Errol Flynn), is called out in the middle of the night to see to a wounded man. Who happens to be a rebel. So Blood is captured and sentenced to death, which is then commuted to slavery in the Caribbean. But he’s such a smiley charismatic bloke that even as a slave he gets it easy – medical skills help, of course, as does getting sassy with governor’s daughter, Olivia de Havilland. And then he escapes when the French attack, becomes the titular character, and plays the buccaneer against both English and French ships. All this part of the film is, of course, pure Hollywood. Flynn was much better a couple of years later, and in colour, as Robin Hood, although I don’t think he ever lost that shit-eating grin of his. I’m not entirely sure how Captain Blood qualifies for the 1001 Films list – perhaps it’s a seminal work or something, but had it stayed German Expressionist throughout, and less bloody clichéd, it might have been a much more interesting movie.

woman_influenceA Woman Under the Influence*, John Cassavetes (1974, USA). Some films are interesting because of how they were made rather than because of the footage that eventually appears on the screen. This one, for example, was such a difficult sell that Cassavetes ended up financing it himself, with the help of friends (including Peter Falk, who stars as the eponymous woman’s husband). And then he lucked out into a distribution deal, and the film went on to become a favourite of critics and cult film fans. So all’s well that ends well. The film stars Cassavetes’s wife of the time, Gena Rowlands, as a blue-collar mother who begins act increasingly strangely, so much so her husband has her committed. While she is being treated, he must cope with their three children, and learns it’s not as easy as he had imagined. When his wife is released, she’s clearly not been cured, but they decide to continue together anyway. When an industry has been churning out product for decades that is not only artificial but actually revels in that artificiality, as Hollywood does, I can understand why stripping things back to something closer to real life might appeal to many. But we have that here in the UK in our soaps – Coronation Street and Eastenders are not brainless glossy sagas of rich and powerful families like US soaps such as The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara. Kitchen-sink drama is popular entertainment here and has been for a long time, it doesn’t exist only in the theatres. All of which maybe an entirely unfair characterisation of Cassavetes’s work, but at least explains why I can’t celebrate blue-collar/working-class drama simply for the fact of existing – and I’ve yet to see anything in Cassavetes’s films so far which, for me, lift them above that. Still, he has four movies on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve only seen three of them to date, so who knows…

man_escapedA Man Escaped*, Robert Bresson (1956, France). There are a number of movies by Bresson on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve now watched a few of them. But I’m not sure I fully understand the appeal. He seems to like having his leads play their roles completely deadpan, almost expressionless, and it makes it hard to clue into how you’re meant to read their stories. In this one, a young man, a member of the French Resistance, is arrested by the Germans and taken to Montluc Prison. The film then follows the man as he settles into the prison routine and then plots to escape before he is executed by the Gestapo. Which he eventually does. That’s it. The plot. Wikipedia says, “The film is sometimes considered Bresson’s masterpiece”, which is an odd way to put it – it is sometimes, but at other times it’s not? It might well be Bresson’s masterpiece, although I would find it hard to judge, given that of the thirteen feature films Bresson made, I’ve only seen four  – and just now when checking how many, I learnt I’d seen Pickpocket twice… and had completely forgotten that first viewing. Which I suppose tells you as much as you need to know.

dontbothertoknockDon’t Bother to Knock, Cyril Frankel (1961, UK). A fluffy rom com which trades a little too much on star Richard Todd’s on-screen appeal. He plays a travel agent in Edinburgh with an eye for the ladies, which he shamelessly indulges while travelling about Europe checking out destinations for his company. The actual assignations are slyly hinted at but never explicitly described. After the trip, he returns home to his flat, and then a succession of people turn up, with keys he had given them, hoping to stay. His long-time girlfriend, naturally, is none too impressed. But it all works out in the end, because the visitors aren’t really after Todd – well, except for French femme fatale Nicole Maury, and she’s not really serious about it – in fact, she’d sooner Todd and his girlfriend patched things up. One of those slight but charmingly daft rom coms set in a world – despite its age – you don’t actually recognise or believe ever really existed.

hotel_terminusHôtel Terminus*, Marcel Ophüls (1988, France). As is clear from the DVD cover, this documentary is about Nazi Klaus Barbie and his (eventual) trial. Barbie spent much of WWII as the head of Gestapo in Lyons, where he beat, tortured and murdered locals because, well, Gestapo. After the war, he was recruited by the US intelligence services, those bastions of morality, where he instructed them in interrogation techniques and helped in the fight against the dastardly Reds. (As they were fond of saying about the Space Race, the Americans’ Germans were better than the Soviets’ Germans – but what they actually meant was, the Americans’ Nazis were better than the Soviets’ Nazis. Let’s be honest here: principles are the first things to be abandoned when there’s an end in sight. That’s what “expediency” means, after all. Ahem, digression over.) Barbie was a monster – a not unique state of affairs among the Nazis – and lived free and clear for forty years before the French managed to get him extradited from Bolivia in 1983 after a) a change of government, and b) Barbie’s involvement in an earlier military coup. If it’s a truism that the winning side of a war get to pick and choose what are defined as war crimes, and who is charged with them, then Barbie was living proof that principle was worth about as much as a politician’s sworn promise. Barbie should have been in prison serving a sentence for war crimes from 1945, not 1987. Ophüls’s documentary makes a somewhat confused case against Barbie, but it certainly reveals enough of his activities – and the US government’s complicity – to disgust anyone with an ounce of sense. To his credit, Ophüls tries to present a balanced argument, even door-stoppping several interviewees, much as Michael Moore does, and making them look foolish if not complicit. Definitely worth seeing.

hauntingThe Haunting*, Robert Wise (1963, UK). I found this in a local charity shop. It’s not a film I’d normally bother watching, but 1001 Movies list. I mean, I’m a bit squeamish and I really can’t watch all those torture porn franchises like Saw and Hostel and so on. Many years ago, a friend lent me several seasons of The X-Files on DVD and over a period of several months I watched two to three episodes a night. I was paranoid as fuck for a month or two afterwards. Anyway, The Haunting… which is a cult horror film from fifty years ago, and which was apparently a bit of a flop on release but has subsequently been re-evaluated and found very good indeed. It’s based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and was shot in the UK – but set in the US, with British actors putting on bad American accents – because no US studio would finance it. The end result is a peculiar film that manages its scares effectively, presents a group of interesting characters – including the first openly lesbian character in a mainstream feature film – but never really convinces in terms of setting (it feels too British to be American, in other words). I wasn’t expecting much of The Haunting and was pleasantly surprised by how it went. I think I’ll be hanging onto the DVD to watch it again. I didn’t think it was great, but I think it deserves another watch or two before I form a final opinion. Which certainly puts it ahead of many films I’ve seen on the 1001 Movies list.

viyViy*, Konstanin Ershov & Georgi Kropyachov (1967, USSR). I have seen Ruscico films before, I even have a couple in my own DVD collection. And I think they’re very good, an excellent resource. Viy was a film completely new to me, though I’ve browsed the Ruscico site countless times this one had passed me by… until I spotted it on the 1001 Movies list. It was, apparently, made by a group of students from a film school and is generally considered to be the first horror film released in the USSR. The plot is deceptively simple, well, not really deceptively. A seminary student encounters a witch but escapes. Soon after he is asked to sit vigil for three nights with the dead daughter of a local grandee. Each night, the dead young woman comes back to life and tries to kill him, but he is protected by the holy circle he has drawn about himself. On the final night, she revelas herself as the witch of earlier and calls all the monsters of hell to her aid. It’s all a bit too silly to be proper scary or horrifying, but it’s effectively done all the same, especially for the time. The humour is a bit broad-brush, and though the special effects are crude, they’re ingeniously done and more than suffice. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 621


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Moving pictures, #12

Time to catch up on films again…

carnalCarnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols (1971, USA). According to imdb.com, this is a sexual satire but I couldn’t see much that was satirical in a film that unironically treats women like objects. At one point, Jack Nicholson even gives a slide show of his girlfriends, giving a running commentary on each woman’s appearance and sexual prowess. You see Nicholson and Art Garfunkel were at college together, and they both fell in love with Candice Bergen, but Nicholson ended up marrying Ann-Margret… and years later both men treat the women in their lives like shit, and I seriously have to wonder why this is classified as entertainment. There are a lot of classic films that have never been released on DVD, there are a lot of foreign films that have never been released in English-language editions on DVD… So you have to wonder why they bothered to waste non-biodegradable plastic on crap like Carnal Knowledge.

sokurov_earlyWhispering Pages, Aleksandr Sokurov (1994, Russia). And speaking of foreign languages films not release in– ah wait, I’ve said this before about Sokurov. Whispering Pages is only available as part of a US-only release, Early Masterworks, on Blu-ray and DVD. The films opens with a distorted image of a riverside block of flats in St Petersburg, before eventually focusing on a series of pillars which distortion have rendered almost two-dimensional, and then a man sitting on some steps at the side of the river. He wanders through a series of buildings, a sort of enclosed city, on some sort of quest. I’ve watched the film three times now I’m no clearer as to what’s going on. I’m guessing it’s Limbo or Purgatory, existence as a struggle with some lesson to be learnt, but Sokurov is so allusive and the references so opaque – according to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, the film borrows from both Dostoevsky and Gogol, the works of neither of whom I’m familiar with (although I should be grateful for small mercies in that I didn’t wake up the morning after watching the film and learn I’d ordered their books from Amazon…). But all this, of course, is part of the appeal. The film defies easy understanding, and the beauty and strangeness of the cinematography – it’s weird shifts from sepia-tinted to washed out blues and greys to black and white – sucks you into a world in which there is clearly a pattern but it requires work to discern. I will be watching this again; eventually, I will figure out what it’s about.

guysanddollsGuys and Dolls*, Joseph L Mankiewicz (1955, USA). If I added up all my pet hates, I’d have a respectable zoo. Well, a small petting one. Probably full of hamsters. And maybe a goat or two. But one of my pet hates is surely that stupid formalised language like that what is used by the writer Damon Runyan in the speech of his gangster characters in the stories that he wrote. Which is what’s used in Guys and Dolls – likely because the stage show, and so the film, were both based on a pair of stories by Runyan. As it is, Sinatra seems peculiarly charisma-free, Marlon Brando is actually less annoying than usual (although not at first), and Jean Simmons provides a surprisingly common-sensical romantic lead. I didn’t think the songs especially memorable, although one or two of the set-pieces were amusingly done. I am not, it has to be admitted, a fan of musical films, and though I have watched many of them – for reasons I have yet to figure out – I thought this one middling at best.

sonataviolaSonata For Viola, Aleksandr Sokurov (1981, Russia). And here’s another film that features music, that is actually about music – or rather, a composer. I know very little about classical music, it just isn’t my thing; so the appeal here is likely to be limited. And so it proves. Sokurov puts together a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich based on archive footage. It’s an early work, so the voice-over tends to be more factual and less philosophical than later documentaries; and while it does a good job of laying out Shostakovich’s life, and setting it in context, it’s not likely to attract viewers unless they’re interested in the topic or the director. One for the collection, without a doubt. But no, not a favourite in Sokurov’s oeuvre.

pickpocketPickpocket*, Robert Bresson (1959, France). Bresson is a highly regarded director, and several of his films appear on various lists of great or top 100 or films to see before you die lists. Which is why I’ve seen several… despite not actually taking to any of them. Such as Pickpocket. Non-professional actor Martin LaSalle plays a young man who drifts into thievery, initially for kicks but later as a means to make a living. He meets various other pickpockets and thieves, learns the tricks of the trade, has metaphysical discussions with assorted people, finds himself in a battle of wits with a police inspector… but it’s all played so flat, so affect-less, that’s it’s hard to give much of a shit. LaSalle is a cipher, the remainder of the cast are mouth-pieces, and the story’s only saving grace is its irony. But for irony to really bite, you have to care about its victims. And Bresson does a piss-poor job of making LaSalle, or indeed anyone in the film, sympathetic. He can do it for a donkey, but apparently not for a criminal. Disappointing.

shock_aweNymphomaniac, Volume I and II, Lars von Trier (2013, Denmark). I remember seeing posters for this all over Copenhagen when I was there for Christmas in 2013. And since catching a film at the cinema is an sort on-and-off family tradition over the holiday, I did briefly consider this as a possible contender… But it’s 241 minutes long in total, and I suspected it wasn’t really suitable family viewing… Both facts I can now confirm, having watched it on Blu-ray – although I saw the version bundled in the Shock & Awe von Trier box set, which is not the 325 minute director’s cut. So beware. Stellan Skarsgård finds a badly-beaten Charlotte Gainsbourg one night, takes her home and sees to her injuries. Once recovered, she explains she is a nymphomaniac and tells him her life-story – which is shown in flashback, with Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg. It begins with teenage sexual games, moves onto unhealthy relationships, and finally a marriage which slowly disintegrates, in part because Martin is now visiting sadist Jamie Bell on a regular basis. Skarsgård tries to explain Gainsbourg’s stories by relating them to fly-fishing, as he later admits to having never experienced sex himself. Both parts of Nymphomaniac are pretty much typical von Trier, that unhappy mix of beautiful cinematography, keen observation of the banal, and an almost schoolboyish desire to shock. He also does that thing where a line of genuine insight is often followed by a banal cliché – because he’s at his best when he’s observing and at his worst when he fails to resist the temptation to let his story jump the rails. I still think von Trier is an important director, and the Shock & Awe box set was certainly worth purchasing… but of the von Trier films I’ve seen so far I think Antichrist is the best in this collection – it’s the most emblematic of his later work, not to mention the least misogynistic. It often feels as though von Trier considers himself the enfant terrible of cinema – and tries just a little bit too hard to live up to the label.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 589


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Moving pictures, #12

More films seen recently, and it’s the usual mix. As if all that many of the films I’ve been watching this year could be described as “usual”…

fast_timesFast Times At Ridgemont High*, Amy Heckerling (1982, USA). Time has not been kind to this film. Pretty much everything in it has since been used in later high school films, so it now looks like a string of tired old clichés. Which is not to say much of it wasn’t clichéd to begin with. I’m not a fan of high school movies to start with, chiefly because I never went to an American high school – so such films mean pretty much nothing to me. I’ve no idea why this film was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was perhaps mildly amusing in 1982, but in 2014 it’ll make for an evening’s entertainment only if you’re easily please and if you’ve consumed several beers.

Au Hasard Balthazar*, Robert Bresson (1966, France). The title refers to a donkey, owned by the young daughter of a farmer. As she grows up, so the donkey changes hands, and undergoes a series of indignities and cruelties – it may be a beast of burden, but it’s not treated at all well. The farmer’s daughter also suffers abuse at the hands of the various people, although emotional rather than physical. In fact, the two lives broadly mirror one another, although the similarities seem to bounce between too obscure to be easily spotted, or glaringly signposted. But a good film, and worth seeing.

wearethebestWe Are The Best!, Lukas Moodysson (2013, Sweden). I’ve been a fan of Moodysson’s films since seeing Lilya 4-Ever several years ago, so anything new by him goes straight on the wish list. I did consider going to see this at the cinema earlier this year – it was on around the same time as Under The Skin – but in the event decided to hang on for the DVD. Which is what I did. The film is based on the graphic novel Aldrig Godnatt by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson. It’s about two early-teen punks in 1982 Stockholm – in the graphic novel, one is called Coco, so its plainly based on the author’s own childhood; but in the film, the character has been named Bobo. The two girls decide to form a band, and recruit a shy Christian girl as guitarist. They then link up with a boy punk band, which causes a few problems as two of the girls fancy the same boy. There’s a beautifully-handled scene in which one of the mothers lectures the girls on tolerance for Christianity, which is not something I ever thought I’d say about a film. We Are The Best! is effortlessly good, and the central trio play their parts superbly.

Journey To Italy*, Roberto Rossellini (1953, Italy). George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are in Italy to sell a property they’ve inherited near Naples. Things happen. Sanders flirts with another woman, Bergman is jealous. Bergman goes off and does her own thing, Sanders assumes she has a man friend and is jealous. Then, just before the end, they reconcile. By all accounts the production was pretty chaotic, and it shows. Not the most captivating Italian realist film I’ve seen.

americanhustleAmerican Hustle, David O Russell (2013, USA). I’d seen the trailers for this back when it was out in the cinemas, and it looked like it might be enjoyable. Of course, you should never trust a trailer, it’s a marketing tool, and a good one can make a shit film appear to be worth shelling out £10+ to see it. And while I rented this on DVD, so it didn’t cost me anywhere near a tenner, it was still a waste of money as I didn’t like it very much at all. The characters were all horrible, the production design was garish – yes, it was set in the 1970s, but so was Life on Mars, which was a little bit of a spoof, and even that didn’t manage such horrible production design – but worst of all, American Hustle was boring. And while Robert De Niro was supposed to be speaking Arabic, it didn’t sound anything like it. But then he allegedly learnt the language while visiting his casinos in the Middle East – I think Abu Dhabi was mentioned – which is rubbish, as gambling is haram and no Islamic state would licence casinos. (At Nad -Al-Shiba racetrack, they used to offer a prize, usually a car or a racehorse, to anyone who guessed the winners of the night’s races correctly; it wasn’t gambling because it didn’t cost money to guess.)

Shame*, Steve McQueen (2011, UK). I picked this up in a charity shop, which is where it’s going now that I’ve watched it. Michael Fassbender plays a self-centred, er, executive of some sort, in New York who is addicted to sex – he downloads porn at work, he sneaks off to the bogs for a wank, he frequents prostitutes… Then his sister comes to stay with him, and she has a history of suicide attempts. Although beautifully shot, the characters were so unlikeable, the pace so glacial, and the story so uninteresting that I’m mystified by the high regard in which the film is held.

The Cabin In The Woods*, Drew Goddard (2011, USA). I might not think every film on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list belongs there, but for some of them it’s possible to make a case. But not this one. It’s a piss-take horror full of the usual allegedly witty Whedon banter, with some silly explanatory story driving the plot. This is a film better-suited to a midnight showing on some cable channel, to be watched after copious beers and a doner kebab.

hiroshima mon amour dvd (Small)Hiroshima Mon Amour*, Alain Resnais (1959, France). Resnais is one of those directors whose films I want to like, but every time I watch one I can’t bring myself to do so. He does interesting things, he pushes the boundaries of cinematic narrative. This one is a case in point – the central relationship between the two unnamed characters is handled beautifully, but the documentary footage of Hiroshima is disturbing and I’m far too squeamish to enjoy watching it . It’s too visceral to be likeable as a movie – I might have found it easier to appreciate as a book – but then, that was probably the whole point. Though I didn’t enjoy it, I can understand why Hiroshima Mon Amour is on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list.

Far_from_heavenFar From Heaven, Todd Haynes (2002, USA). This was a rewatch, as I’ve had the DVD for a couple of years. I originally bought it because it is, of course, famously inspired by Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows – in fact, the film sort of follows the basic plot of Sirk’s film, and its cinematography is clearly inspired by it. Like other Haynes films I’ve seen, I love some things about it and dislike others. Haynes’ 1950s small-town America is beautifully coloured and shot, but I’m not really convinced by Julianne Moore in the lead role. And while her relationship with her gardener works really well, I’m not sure about her husband’s homosexuality – it feels like Haynes has thrown in two scandals for the price of one.

monumentsmenThe Monuments Men, George Clooney (2014, USA). It’s WWII and Clooney recruits a bunch of art experts to hunt through Europe during the latter weeks of the war to hunt for art stolen by the Nazis. Each of them has a piece they obsess over, and would even die for – it certainly leads them to take risks, and results in at least one death. We all know the Nazis were very naughty boys, but stealing art is pretty low down on the list of their crimes. And, to be honest, I think we might have been better off if much of it had never been recovered. Great art should be there for the world to see, not changing hands for ridiculous amounts of money and then hidden away in private collections. That’s just turning paintings into substitute penises, which pretty much misses the whole point of Art. Films like this don’t help.

violentsaturdayViolent Saturday, Richard Fleischer (1955, USA). I didn’t have high expectations for this film, it looked like it might be a minor piece of 1950s noir, something to do with a riot in a small town on the titular day of the week. But when it opened with a car driving down into a working copper mine, and then an explosion to bring down a section of cliff-face, it was obvious this was not going to be your average noir. In fact, Violent Saturday is 1950s melodrama meets thriller, with a trio of bank robbers planning a heist on the day in question, while about them various dramas in the lives of the townsfolk take place, including but not limited to: the wastrel son of the mine owner failing to hold his marriage together, the mine’s manager trying to keep his son’s respect despite not fighting in the war, a bank clerk trying to work up courage to ask out the mine’s nurse… And all shot in beautiful widescreen Technicolor. Loved it.

cloudcappedThe Cloud Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara)*, Ritwik Ghatak (1960, India). This was a bit grim. A young woman, a refugee from East Pakistan, lives with her family in a camp outside Kolkata. Her brother is a wastrel and wants to be a singer – he sings frequently throughout the film, and he’s good. Her fiancé is forever borrowing money off her so he can complete his studies. She is having trouble completing her own studies, with so many demands on her time and finances. And then things start to get worse. Filmed in a very stark black and white, intensely realist, and with an interesting and effective use of close-in mise-en-scène and much wider vistas, particularly across the Hooghly River, this is an excellent film, although perhaps a little long. Definitely a film that deserves repeated watches. And I might have a go at something else by Ghatak.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 528