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Moving pictures, #42

More films. So it goes.

fanThe Fan, Otto Preminger (1949, USA). I have a fondness for Preminger’s films, although that may well be simply because he was a name I fastened onto when I started tracking my film watching… but I started out watching his movies so I may as well carry on and complete his oeuvre. Of which this is not a good example. It is an especially unwitty adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, which inadvertently has the advantage of making the story much simpler to parse – although, to be fair, I’ve not seen Wilde’s play, so the loss of his dialogue is not one I’d notice. (There are, of course, more faithful adaptations of the play, but I’ve not seen any of those either.) It opens shortly after WWII, when an old woman in an auction room objects that the fan which is for sale, found in the ruins of a bombed house and unclaimed, is hers. The auction house tells her that if she can verify her claim, they’ll hand it over. So she goes looking for Lord Darlington, a friend from many years before… And after a bit of banter (very little of which is Wildean), we’re in flashback territory, and it’s the last decade of the nineteenth century and the “adventuress” Mrs Erlynne has arrived in London and attached herself to the company of Lord Darlington and the young Windermeres. And when Arthur Windermere puts up for a London residence for Mrs Erlynne, and is often seen her company, tongues begin to wag, and a nasty rumour eventually reaches Margaret Windermere. It all comes to a head at a fancy party at the Windermeres, to which Erlynne is invited, and at which she reveals her secret (she’s Margaret Windermere’s black sheep mother, who ran away decades before). As historical drama, this is a pretty solid, if unadventurous, movie, but you expect more from Wilde and the bowdlerisation of his lines has done it few favours. One for Preminger completists, I think.

new_worldThe New World, Terrence Malick (2005, UK). I don’t know what to make of Malick. His films are beautifully shot but also complete nonsense. There is, for example, a brilliant idea at the heart of The New World, but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. It may be that Malick’s use of Hollywood stars, and their highly-promoted identities, works against what he is trying to achieve… The New World tells the story of Pocahontas, although focusing mostly on the English men with which she had relationships. Malick has gone for a completely authentic look and feel to his story – even going as far as getting a professor of linguistics to reconstruct the extinct Powahatan language spoken by the Native Americans of the period and location the film takes place. But the real genius of The New World – or rather, what could have been the real genius – is that the bulk of the dialogue is actually voiceover and is the characters, all of whom are real historical figures, speaking the text from their own diaries and journals. But. It doesn’t quite work because this is not a documentary and the real historical figures are played by recognisable Hollywood actors such as Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, David Thewlis or Christian Bale. True, the pivotal role of Pocahontas is played by an unknown, Q’orianka Kilcher, a German actress, in her first major role. And she’s very good in it too. It goes without saying that The New World is mostly gorgeous to watch, and it looks and sounds exactly how you would expect a English colony in North America in the early seventeenth century to look and sound (well, except for the drama school kids, but we won’t mention them)… I remain conflicted about Malick and his films. They look lovely, he’s probably the closest the Hollywood system has come to slow cinema, but… there’s always something slightly off about them. Perhaps it’s simply that his style of film-making doesn’t work in Hollywood, is fatally compromised by Hollywood’s use of familar names and faces in roles where the baggage they bring undermines their parts. It doesn’t help that Malick’s reputation in the US as “auteur supreme” likely gives him the freedom to be self-indulgent, and a little self-indulgence goes a long way. But whatever it is, there’s something about Malick’s films that rubs the wrong way, and I wonder if it’s the friction between the Hollywood system and the sort of films Malick’s movies try to present themselves as being.

city_of_womenCity of Women, Federico Fellini (1980, Italy). As male writers get older, they enter a Dirty Old Man phase – cf John Fowles’s Mantissa, or anything by Robert Heinlein after the mid-1960s… – and creators in situations which give them more than the usual artistic freedom are especially susceptible. True, Fellini has been self-indulgent since day one, but I do love that self-indulgence in his colour films – or, at least, I loved those I’d seen… But Fellini has made many films, and bizarre as Satyricon is, or Casanova… others would no doubt fall either side of that indulgence divide (to coin a phrase). I had very little idea of what to expect from La città della donne, except perhaps something like a cross between Giuglietta della spiriti and something created by a middle-aged Italian male… And, er, that’s a bit what it’s like. It feels like it can’t decide if it’s an attack on feminism or a celebration of it, and the fact it sends mixed messages is clearly not to its credit. There are things to like in City of Women – and they’re the same sort of things to like in Fellini’s career – but there’s also that weird undercurrent that feels like a, well, MRA attack on feminism. Which is like watching a comedian whose every other joke falls flat, but you’re never entirely sure if that’s deliberate. Things have changed in the four decades since the film was made, and it renders some of its complaints weirdly old-fashioned, others weirdly trivial, and some even more relevant now than they were then. A man on a train (Marcello Mastroianni playing, well, Marcello Mastroianni) flirts with a woman, and when the train stops in the middle of nowhere and she disembarks, he follows her… through some woods to a sort of isolated hotel where a conference on feminism, attended entirely by women, is taking place. And, er, that’s it. This is Second Wave Feminism as the butt of an extended joke… except, there’s a sense throughout that the joke is on those who see the feminism as the joke. I don’t know. Given Fellini’s career I’m inclined to think he was having fun at the expense of anti-feminists (while not subscribing to feminism himself), but parts of City of Women are so bonkers – the final third of it, pretty much – that it’s hard to be sure what he meant. Given his previous films, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, I think; but City of Women still remains the least satisfactory of his colour films I have seen so far.

septemberCome September, Robert Mulligan (1961, USA). I do love me some Rock Hudson rom com, and he was at his best in these during the 1960s. And, let’s face it, how can you go wrong with Gina Lollobrigida as the female lead? And Italian locations? (Although apparently Lollobrigida was not keen on returning to Italy.) Anyway, Hudson plays a successful industrialist who, each year, spends the month of September in his large villa on the Genoese coast. But one year he decides to go in July instead… which promptly screws up a few things. For a start, his girlfriend, Lollobrigida, is about to get married to some English wet, but breaks it off when she gets his call. And his butler, played superbly by Walter Slezak, has been runnnig the villa as a hotel for eleven months of the year. And, en route to his villa, Hudson has a run-in with a bunch of American rowdies led by Bobby Darin. So Hudson finds his girlfriend wavering, his house occupied by a group of young American women and their chaperone, and he has Darin’s rowdies camped outside on the road because Darin fancies one of the guests of the “hotel”, Sandra Dee (Darin and Dee actually married after the film)… Aside from Hudson’s massive sense of entitlement, this is a pretty straightforward 1960s rom com. It has its charms, and some of its jokes are quite good, but it’s hamstrung by the fact that Hudson’s character is actually a nasty piece of work. It’s watchable because Hudson is eminently watchable – and there are probably only a handful of actors of the time who could have got away with playing such a role – but not even Lollobrigida’s screen presence and charm, Darin’s cinematic surliness, or even Dee’s all-American bland chirpiness, can make this more than a middling rom com of the period, even for Rock Hudson.

phoenixPhoenix, Christian Petzold (2014, Germany). I don’t chose my viewing entirely from lists of best films. Sometimes it’s stuff I stumble across that takes my fancy, and sometimes it’s movies recommended by friends. As this one was. By David Tallerman. Who has recommended good films to me in the past (some, it must be said, better than others). In fact, Phoenix had not pinged on my radar at all, and having now watched it I’m glad David recommended it. A Jewish woman who survived the camps returns to Berlin to discover what happened to her Gentile husband. She had been badly wounded in the face, and she requires plastic surgery, which results in her appearance changing. So when she tracks down her husband, he does not recognise her. But he does think she looks enough like his “missing” wife that she could impersonate her and so claim the inheritance left to her. The woman does not reveal her true identity and plays along with this subterfuge, partly to disprove the lie of a friend who insists the husband was the one who gave up the woman to the Gestapo. Phoenix is based on a 1961 French novel, Le retour des cendres, but, to be honest, to my mind it seems to work better with a German setting – it certainly gives the central premise a bigger emotional payload. A good film and definitely worth seeing. It might well make a future 1001 Movies list, if it hasn’t already.

lessonA Lesson in Love, Ingmar Bergman (1954, Sweden). Bergman made a lot of films and some of them are bona fide classics of the medium. Others are little more than cinematic adaptations of middling stage plays – or, at least, that’s how they come across, even if they’d been written directly for film. As far as I know, A Lesson in Love was conceived of and produced purely as a film. But it’s not that easy to tell with Bergman. A Lesson in Love is also minor Bergman, inasmuch as it’s entertaining and has something to say, but when all’s said and done, it sort of fades into that middle Bergman ground where so many of his films reside and where it’s hard to tell one of them from the other. I could put together a list of a dozen top-notch Bergman films, and even for a director who made over sixty films, that’s an enviably large list. Sadly, A Lesson in Love would not be on that list. It’s a 1950s Swedish comedy about a gynecologist and his patients and marriage and affairs, and to be honest it all sort of blurs into one after a bit. There’s some good witty dialogue and some on-target points, but nothing in it really stands out. It probably needs a rewatxch, to be fair, but if there’s one thing about Bergman’s oeuvre that is true it’s that it can stand multiple rewatches. And not many directors can say that.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: 793

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Moving pictures, #16

If I was an organised sort of person, I’d write these as I watch the movies, and then all I’d have to do is gather them together after, say, half a dozen films to make a post. But while my book shelves are all organised alphabetically by author, and chronologically within author, and I, er, pile my DVDs by director, and I have lists of pretty much everything, including lists of lists… I’m a bit crap at organising work. Because it’s work. Well, yes, it’s writing – reviews, fiction, blog posts, etc, but that’s still work, even if it’s not for money. At least it feels like work. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. So there.

oklahomaOklahoma!*, Fred Zinneman (1955, USA). Since I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I have watched films I would never have even thought of bothering to watch… and enjoyed them and found them very good. But there are also those that were no more than ticking off an item on a list. Musicals are not films I normally bother to watch, although there are a few I really like. And yes, they’re from the 1950s (except for All That Jazz, from 1979, which I also like a lot; and Les demoiselles de Rochefort, from 1966 and, er, French). But Oklahoma! – a musical from the 1950s. It is also a Western. Although, to be honest, it didn’t really need to be, it could have been set in an inner city, given that it’s the old love triangle plot. With songs. The leads were likeable enough, the songs were mostly memorable, and Rod Steiger was impressively villainous. But it all felt a bit artificial (and I don’t mean the fact it was filmed in Arizona and not Oklahoma), and contrived. As the only film adaptation of the first musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, I understand the need to put it on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I wouldn’t call it an especially notable example of the Hollywood musical.

sinatraTony Rome, Gordon Douglas (1967, USA). Sinatra and Douglas made three neo-noir films in the late 1960s, in two of which Sinatra played the title character of this movie. Not that Sinatra was ever much of a character actor. And in the three films his hair always seems a step or two behind him in the script (if it was a hair-piece, it was not a good one). In this movie, Rome is asked to take home a young woman who has passed out from drink in a hotel room, in order to prevent the hotel from any accusation of impropriety. When the young woman – who’s from a wealthy family, of course – wakes, she discovers a diamond pin is missing, and hires Rome to find it. Cue the sort of convoluted plot you only ever found in noir books and films. The movie scores well on ambience – it’s hard to imagine a more late-sixties USA film – although Sinatra plays his role with all the depth of a petri dish and the plot seems to think an overly-complex story counts for depth. Good for a lazy Sunday afternoon, but that’s about it.

five_easy_piecesFive Easy Pieces*, Bob Rafelson (1970, USA). All this time and I’d thought Five Easy Pieces was some counter-culture film like Easy Rider, and I’ve no idea where I got that idea from (I hope it isn’t something as dumb as the fact they both have the word “easy” in their titles)… because, well, it isn’t. Not at all. Jack Nicholson plays a middle-class classical pianist slumming it as a wildcat oil worker after a falling out with his family. He even puts on the accent. He also has a girlfriend, a waitress, played by Karen Black. And a friend, who introduced him to wildcatting. But when said friend is arrested for a petrol station hold-up a year earlier, and Nicholson learns his father has suffered a stroke, he heads home, taking Black with him. The title refers to five pieces of music played by classical pianists, and which are heard during the film. Nicholson chews the scenery, as per usual, and the only real notable thing about the movie is the swap from working class to affluent middle class, and the all-too-obvious deduction that Nicholson’s character is play-acting in his working class life, which is hardly something to be celebrated. I’ve yet to actually work out the numbers but I’d guess that at least two or three out of every five films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list have, to me, felt like they didn’t belong – and this is another of them. Meh.

sinatraThe Detective, Gordon Douglas (1968, USA). Unlike the other two films in this box set, this film is not a Tony Rome movie. But Sinatra does play, well, a detective. But not a private one, a police force one. In New York, not Miami. A man is found murdered in his apartment and his body mutilated. Various leads point to New York’s underground gay scene. Then a man commits suicide by jumping from the roof of a racetrack pavilion. And this somehow links back to the first murder, through some convoluted plot involving land sales by corrupt councillors. Sinatra’s investigation is enlivened by help from Jacqueline Bisset, wife of the suicide, who appears completely out-of-place. Compared to the two Tony Rome movies, this one is a bit grim and cheerless. The plot is just as daft as those, however, and Sinatra plays, well, Sinatra (with hair-piece); but this is more of a wet and miserable Sunday afternoon film. Apparently, a sequel was made many years later, and the makers were contractually obligated to offer the role to Sinatra. However, he was seventy years old, so he passed on it… and it went to Bruce Willis. The sequel was released under the title… Die Hard.

mocckingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird*, Robert Mulligan (1962, USA). It’s been hard to avoid mention over the past year or so of the novel from which this film was adapted – first because of the “prequel” and the controversy surrounding its publication, and then because of the death of the author. I have actually somehow not managed to read the book for fifty years, or indeed see the movie. And I have now rectified the latter. And… really? Precocious kids, homespun philosophy, simple living a product of poverty not choice, and paternalism as a response to racism? Not to mention a muddled plot that can’t decide if its focus lies with the court case or with Boo Radley. True, this is a movie, not the novel, and perhaps the latter doesn’t seem so confused given that novels typically cover more ground. I’d always been under the impression To Kill a Mockingbird was about race relations in the US south, and that the court case formed the centre-piece of the story. But it isn’t. And it doesn’t. It’s just part of Scout’s childhood, and like many of the incidents, seems structured to teach her a life lesson. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this film, but it was certainly something a lot more critical and insightful than this. Disappointing.

love+one+another+coverThe Bride of Glomdal, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1926, Norway). Dreyer started his movie career as a writer of intertitles for Nordisk Films. Six years later, he directed his first film, Præsidenten, a convoluted adaptation of an 1884 Austrian novel of the same title. Glomsdalbruden (The Bride of Glomdal) was Dreyer’s eighth film, and the last he made before leaving Denmark for France, where he made The Passion of Joan of Arc. Despite the dour-sounding title, The Bride of Glomdal is a love story – poor man loves rich woman, woman’s father is against the match, etc. It was filmed in Norway, mostly outdoors, and the clarity of the picture is really quite astonishing given its age. There’s also an impressive sequence in which the hero is swept downriver and through some rapids. The plot is based on a pair of stories by Norwegian author Jacob Breda Bull – as far as I can determine, he has never been translated into English. Dreyer’s films are never less than fascinating, and if this one can’t compete with The Passion of Joan of Arc for emotional power, it still remains a superior silent movie.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 748