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Moving pictures 2018, #4

I still seem to be watching a lot of films. Normal service – well, normal as of 2015 – should be resumed soon…

Cinema Komunisto, Mira Turajlic (2010, Serbia). Back in the day, Yugoslavia as was decided to attract foreign investment by opening up one of its state-run studios, Avala Film in Belgrade, to foreign film-makers. President Tito was a big movie-fan, so it gave him the opportunity to meet many film stars, such as Orson Welles or Kirk Douglas. Cinema Komunisto uses both archive footage and interviews with those who worked at Avala. The facilities are now pretty much ruins, but the massive wardrobe and props departments still exist. It’s interesting stuff, with lots of nice touches – like the bridge Avala helpfully blew up for a US war movie, only for the film-makers to use a model shot in the final cut; or the US film star who complimented Tito on his wonderful palace, only to be told it was the “people’s palace”. Yeah right. “Socialist” dictators and their insulting fiction of non-ownership of their wealth. Worth seeing.

Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa (1961, Japan). I thought I’d seen this, but it seems I think I’ve watched more Kurosawa films than I actually have. And this was one of the ones I hadn’t actually seen. That has now been remedied. Obviously. The title means “bodyguard” and refers to the character played by Toshiro Mifune, who is never named. He wanders into a town in which two rival gangs have the local populace terrorised. Mifune decides to do something about it, by playing one gang off against the other. I’m told the story is based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, which I’ve never read, although Kurosawa claimed it was based on Hammett’s The Glass Key. Yojimbo was certainly lifted pretty much wholesale by Sergio Leone, however, transplanted to the Wild West and made as A Fistful of Dollars. Which seems entirely approproate as, despite its setting in mediaeval Japan, there is very much a Wild West air to the film. There are guns – one of the enforcers in one gang has a revolver, makes much use of it – but most of the fight scenes feature swords. The characters seem a little caricatured, much like in a spaghetti Western, including the boar-like brother of one gangster, and the seven-foot tall enfrocer of the other. Kurosawa clevery ramps up the violence as the film progresses, until the final showdown results in the destruction of the businesses of the two merchants who back each of the two gangs. I’ve stuck a load of Kurosawa on my rental list recently, as I really should watch more of his films.

People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G Ulmer (1930 Germany). I had thought this was a documentary, but it isn’t. It’s actually a drama, made by a film club in Berlin, a fact the film actually makes a point of. It opens by introducing the main actors, and points out that once the film is over they will be returining to their day jobs, which it helpfully indicates. The story follows four friends on a Sunday, as they head for Wannsee to enjy the summer sun on the beach. As siilent dramas go, People on Sunday ticks all the boxes, but what makes the film remarkable – and it can hardly be “a pivotal film on the development of German cinema”, as Wikipedia puts it, if Lubitsch was making popular films in Berlin more than a decade earlier – but what is certainly remarkable about People on Sunday is the number of people involved in it who went on to have careers in Hollywood. Not only the two directors, Siodmak and Ulmer, but also Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann. Worth seeing.

The Calm, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1976, Poland). One of Kieślowski’s favourite actors, Jerzy Stuhr, plays an ex-con who tries to turn his life around after being released from prison. It’s never revealed what he was sent down for, although it seems unlikely to have been a violent crime. Stuhr leaves Kraków and heads out into the country. He gets a job on a building site, where the manager seems to trust him – although not, it transpires, for necessarily the right reasons. He meets a young woman, the two marry and a baby is on the way. His has turned his life around and everything is going well. He is a model member of society. But materials keep on disappearing from the building site, and when the manager threatens to take the cost of the missing materials out of everyone’s wages, they go on strike. Stuhr ends up as an unwilling liaison between the two. And learns that the manager himself is responsible for the thefts – and that he trusts Stuhr because Stuhr, an ex-con, would make a good patsy should the scheme be uncovered. Stuhr can’t resolve the situation and his fellow workers decide he is a scab. So they beat him up. This is not a cheerful film, although it initially appears to be. It seems Kieślowski is trying to say that no matter how hard you work to improve yourself, the system will still fuck you up in the end for no good reason. And in 1970s Poland, that was likely true. So it’s a little ironic that The Calm was banned by the Polish authorities, and didn’t get shown until 1980, because it depicted a strike and strikes were illegal in Poland.

Still Life, Jia Zhangke (2006, China). That’s the last of the Christmas presents, and the last of Jia’s films until the box set containing Mountains May Depart that I’ve pre-ordered arrives. His films really are brilliant, so much so that each time I watch a new one I have to decide whether or not it is my new favourite Jia film. Still Life came close, perhaps just inching out 24 City but not managing to steal the top spot from The World. Still Life is set in the Three Gorges area and tells the story of Han Sanming (played by Han Sanming), who has returned to travelled to track down his wife and daughter who ran away sixteen years earlier. But the address he has for them is now underwater, part of the city that has been destroyed for the Three Gorges Dam project. Sanming joins a local demolition crew, who are demolishing buildings using lump hammers. The film then shifts to Shen Hong (played by Zhao Tao, who played the lead in The World, and Han Sanming played her boyfriend), a nurse who is in Fengjie to look for her husband, who it turns out has become a successful local businessman. In fact, he runs several demolition contracts, and Sanming works for him. He also has a rich girlfriend. When Shen Hong finds this out, she asks for a divorce. In the final section of the film, Sanming’s wife turns up and reveals that their daughter is now working furthe rsouth in indentured labour to pay off the wife’s brother’s debt. Sanming offers to take wife and daughter with him, but he would have to pay off the debt – and he doesn’t have the money. so he returns alone to the coal maines of Shanxi… Although a drama, Still Life plays like a documentary – it’s one of the chief appeals of Jia’s films – and some of the scenery on display is fantastic. The Three Gorges region is astonishingly beautiful, but it is also heavily built-up and, during the period the film was made, was being slowly demolished and flooded for the dam. It makes for some striking cinematography. Excellent stuff.

Ich möchte kein Mann sein, Ernst Lubitsch (1918, Germany). The title translates as “I don’t want to be a man”. Ossi Oswalda plays the high-spirited daughter of an indulgent uncle. When he leaves, she is put in the charge of a new guardian, who is far more strict. So she dresses up as a man and goes out on the town, ending up in a posh ball, where she finds it much harder to be a man than she had expected. She bumps into her new guardian, and tries to steal his date in revenge. Unfortunately, someone else has more success, and Oswalda and her guardian drown their sorrows in drink and become great friends. So much so they begin kissing each other. When they leave the ball, the cab driver drops Oswalda off at the guardian’s house, and vice versa. But it all works out in the end. Oswalda is undoubtedly the star of the film – there wouldn’t be a film without her. Her bad behaviour in the opening section of the film does an excellent job of outlining her character; and her antics when cross-dressed, most of which are based on a complete obliviousness to her disguise, display excellent comic timing. When you consider that Ich möchte kein Mann sein was made a dozen years before People on Sunday, and there’s not all that much that’s technically different between the two… it does undermine the claims to importance of People on Sunday. The latter is undoubtedly the better film – it’s longer, 73 minutes to the 41 minutes of the Lubitsch, and it’s a drama played completely straight and which makes a feature of its amateur cast. Ich möchte kein Mann sein is a flat-out comedy, although not the fall-about slapsatick comedy Hollywood was making at the time, and it makes a meal of its “fish out of water” story. A fun film, but one chiefly for fans of silent cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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Moving pictures 2017, #53

I’m still trying to catch up on my Moving pictures posts. There have been a couple of weeks where I’ve watched as many as three movies in a single night.

Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse (1969, USA). Fosse’s All That Jazz is I think a great film. Sweet Charity, his first movie behind the camera, flopped – and it’s not hard to see why. Shirley Maclaine plays an innocent in New York, a young woman who works as a hostess at a dance hall and has had a string of a bad boyfriends – the films opens with her latest pushing her off a bridge in Central Park and stealing all her money. In an effort to better herself, she visits an employment agency, but has no skills or qualifications. She ends up trapped in the lift on her way down with a claustrophobe, who then proves so taken with her he woos her. She’s never had a normal boyfriend before, so she revels in his courting. And even accepts his offer of marriage. But when he discovers what she does for a living, he jilts her. This is a Fosse movie, so it’s all about the musical numbers, and most of them are pretty good. Sammy Davis Jr as evangelist Big Daddy is definitely memorable. I hadn’t known ‘(Hey) Big Spender’ came from this musical, and Fosse’s version is a prime example of repressed, well, something. Not a great film, but certainly a Fosse film.

Their Finest, Lone Scherfig (2016, UK). I’d seen this advertised on the sides of buses and trams for months, so when I saw a copy of it in a charity shop I thought it might be worth a go despite not expecting much of it. Another jingoistic pre-Brexit comedy, I thought, using WWII and the Blitz to sway public opinion, as if the two situations in anyway map onto each other. But I was wrong on several counts. It’s not a comedy. And while it takes place during WWII and is about Dunkirk, it’s very clear on the differences between the reality and the political narrative. Gemma Arterton plays a young woman hired to write “slop” (women’s dialogue, as the misogynistic screenwriter calls it) for a film unit put together to produce uplifting films for the British public. Her first project is the story of twin sisters who stole their father’s fishing boat to take part in the Dunirk rescue. Except they didn’t. The boat broke down. But Arteron lies, and the project gets the greenlight… and Their Finest turns into a pitch-perfect depiction of film-making in the 1940s, given it all felt very Archers. I’d been expecting some horrible Richard Curtis rom com set during the Blitz, but this was a little gem of a film. It’s by no means the comedy it has been sold as, but instead a solid drama of WWII – more like that Berkof drama than the comparisons its marketing was keen to draw. I liked it. Worth seeing.

Law of the Border, Ömer Lütfi Akad (1966, Turkey). I bought the first Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project because it included a restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. But it proved an excellent box set, so when a second volume was released I immediately bought it. Like the first, it’s a varied mix, not all of which I’d heard of before. Like this Turkish film which is as old as I am. It apparently had a profound affect on Turkish cinema, with its mix of pseudo-western action and sociopolitical commentary. It’s set in a village on the Turkish-Syrian border, and many of the villagers survive by smuggling things across the border. But the authorities have put down new minefields, and now the border is virtually impenetrable. Then a new police lieutenant arrives in town, and a young and attrative schoolteacher persuades the village to open a school. Meanwhile, one of the local farmers has found himself with a flock of 3,000 sheep trapped on the wrong side of the border. So he tries to get master smuggler Hidir to bring the sheep across. But Hidir’s father died in the border minefield and he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to him. So he tries to accept the new order – sharecropping the local landowner’s fields. But that flock of sheep still presents quick riches to anyone who can get them across the border… Law of the Border was apparently pretty much lost – only a single copy survived Turkey’s 1980 coup, and it was in a parlous state. But not it has been restored – although only to the best that could be done given the state of the surviving negative. The film has its charm – it does that declamatory thing so many sociopolitical dramas do, and that I like. But it also wears its western inspiration on its sleeve, and there are lots of shoot-outs. Which does tend to make the last third of the film a bit busy. Hidir’s not exactly well-drawn either, and his character arc is a bit muddled. But for a 51-year-olf film from Turkey, it holds up pretty well.

Johnny Gaddaar, Sriram Raghavan (2007, India). Five men invest large sums of money in a scheme which will double their money in a handful of days. It’s never directly said what the deal is, but it’s probably drugs. One of the five, Shiva, the biggest and strongest of the five, will take the train from Mumbai to Kolkata with the money, collect the goods, and then return with them. But Vikram has other ideas. He sets up an alibi, and then attempts to rob Shiva on the train – but it goes horribly wrong and he ends up killing Shiva. And that’s how it goes. As each member of the five discovers the truth, so Vikram is forced to kill them in order to protect himself. Except for the detective investigating the whole thing on behalf of the leader of syndicate, who is murdered by someone else in an act of self-defence. It’s all very cleverly done, and while Vikram was obviously a bad sort right from the start – and his opening murder, meaning the rest of the film was flashback, seemed a forced start, it did leave a mystery right to the end that provided quite satisfying. This was an entertaining comedy/thriller. As far as I’m concerned, modern Bollywood needs to get equal rating in my watching with modern Hollywood – although I do need to watch more classical Bollywood, having loved Pakeezah, Mughal-e-Azam and everything by Guru Dutt – and I shall adjust my rental list accordingly.

The Crimson Pirate, Robert Siodmak (1952, USA). You can blame Hal Duncan for this one. There was a discussion on Twitter about best pirate movies and he insisted this was the one. So I bunged it on my rental list, and they actually sent it a week later. And… I’m prepared to entertain it as a candidate. I’m not an expert on pirate films by any means, and the high point of Hollywood swashbuckling to my mind is probably The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is, er, not a pirate film… But The Crimson Pirate is certainly a viable candidate. I’m not entirely convinced – it tries to be clever, by introducing anachronistic technology, which is indeed amusing, but it gets it wrong, which kind of spoils the intended effect. And Burt Lancaster in the title role is a just way too much a goody two shoes to convince as a pirate in the first place. His bo’sun, a dour Brit, is great. Nick Cravat, as Lancaster’s silent sidekick, provides some excellent physical comedy. But the villains are paper-thin clichés, and the grand finale is a triumph of spectacle over plausibility. A hot air balloon that goes where directed? Yeah, right. Bonus points for getting the ballast thing right, but in a balloon you’re pretty much in the hands of the wind. Best pirate movie? Not convinced. On the other hand, I can’t think of any reasonable candidates for the top spot.

Céline and Julia Go Boating*, Jacques Rivette (1974, France). Rivette is a singular talent. When a limited edition box set (3,000 copies) of some of his films came out last year, I bought it – back in January 2016. I notice it’s still available. It’s worth buying. Céline and Julie Go Boating is one of his best-known films, but the title is a complete misnomer. It’s a literal transalation ofthe French title, which is better translated as “get caught in a shaggy dog story”. Um, yes. The original phrase has no such connotations in English. Which is unfortunate, because the film is all about two young women who find themselves in a story and discover they can affect its narrative. Julie is sitting in a park reading a park when Céline wanders past and inadvertently drops her sunglasses. So Julie picks up the sunglasses and follows Céline, with the intent of returning them… which turns into a weird sort of voyeurism into her life… before the two end up sharing an apartment… At which point the story jumps the rails when the two visit an abandoned house in which Céline once worked as a nanny… and they find themselves in the house’s past, but able to change what happened… Which they subsequently set out to do. This is where the title is of relevance. I like Rivette’s films. I’ve no idea what they’re about, but I find much in them that is appealing. I bought the aforementioned box set, and it was a worthwhile purchase. I suspect I may end up getting my own copy of Céline and Julia Go Boating. I’ve a feeling the movie requires a few more watchings…

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 882


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Moving pictures, #4

Another dash through across the silver screen. Here are some of the more notable films I’ve watched recently.

The Best of Everything, Jean Negulesco (1959, USA) Three women are employed at a New York publishing house. One makes the jump from secretary to reader to editor. The first half of the film is one of those beautifully-photographed 1950s melodramas, with some lovely shots of the New York of the time. Disappointingly, the second half trades that in for soap opera office politics.

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Elysium, Neill Blomkamp (2013, USA) Rich people live in the lap of luxury in the eponymous space habitat, while everyone else suffers in abject poverty on Earth – but that’s as far as the social commentary goes. This is really just another implausible actioner with a nice line in visuals and a bad handle on the laws of physics.

Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom, Piotr Szulkin (1986, Poland) Barking mad sf film, in which an astronaut lands on another world… which proves to be just like this one, except they treat their heroes somewhat differently. Not so much black comedy as fulginous.

Head-on, Fatih Akin (2004, Germany) Marriage of convenience between young Turkish-German woman and older Turkish-German man, so she can live the life she wants away from her traditional family, turns sour when the pair fall in love and he accidentally kills an ex-lover of hers. Not the most sympathetic of lead characters, but the actors playing them carry the film. Excellent.

Argo, Ben Affleck (2012, USA) You know when Canada rescued those US hostages from Iran back in 1980? Well, it wasn’t Canada that did it, it was the CIA. Yes, Americans. The whole film feels like a petulant grab to correct misplaced credit decades after the fact. And we’ll not mention the stupid race-against-time at the end to get the hostages out of the country…

The Killers, Robert Siodmak (1946, USA) Classic noir told through flashback, which explains why a pair of killers drove into town and killed garage mechanic Burt Lancaster. Turns out Burt used to be involved with a bad crowd, who pulled off a payroll robbery which turned nasty. Ava Gardner vamps it up, but I thought Rita Hayworth was better in Gilda (also released in 1946).

Villa Amalia, Benoît Jacquot (2009, France) Pianist Isabelle Huppert walks away from her life and settles down in the eponymous run-down villa in Italy. Beautifully shot, elegantly told. There something about the feel of the film which reminds me of François Ozon’s Under the Sand.

VILLA AMALIA un film de Benoit Jacquot

The Bank Dick, Edward Cline (1940, USA) WC Fields inadvertently catches a bank robber, is employed as the bank’s security guard as reward, and promptly cocks that up – much as he does everything. Mildly amusing, though not a patch on Laurel & Hardy.

Follow The Boys, Eddie Sutherland (1944, USA) Hollywood stars entertain the troops at training camps throughout the US during WWII, plus back-story showing how it all came about (entertaining the troops, that is, not WWII). Lots of cameos by big names. WC Fields is genuinely funny, Orson Welles puts on a magic act that clearly relies on camera trickery, and there’s a good tap dance in the rain from star of the film George Raft.

The Ugliest Woman In The World, Miguel Bardem (1999, Spain) Near-future thriller about a female killer which seems to have been inspired by so many other films it makes it difficult to remember what you’re watching. The premise is iffy – ugly young woman undergoes experimental gene therapy, which turns her beautiful… so she murders a contestant in the Miss Spain beauty pageant, takes her place, and proceeds to kill the other contestants. But the film is so odd, it sort of hangs together.

The Neptune Factor, Daniel Petrie (1973, Canada) Stone-faced grump Ben Gazzara is captain of a model submersible which is menaced by magnified tropical fish while searching for an underwater habitat lost during a seaquake. Oh, and there’s a giant crab too. They manage to find a pair of survivors, although how they didn’t get squished by the pressure is never explained. Jacques Cousteau it’s not.

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