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Moving pictures 2017, #65

Some lucky finds in this batch. I don’t know how many TV channels I get via Virgin Media, but there are so many repeats and so much crap on them it’s near impossible to find anything worthwhile to watch. So I don’t usually bother. The same is true of Amazon Prime, although I’ve managed to find an occasional gem. The advantage of Amazon Prime, or indeed any streaming service, is that when you find something worth watching, you can watch it whenever you want, you don’t have tune in at a specific time. Not all free-to-air channels have apps or players, after all.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Francesco Barilli (1974, Italy). As I’d enjoyed the gialli I’d seen, when I found this one on Amazon Prime, I stuck it on my watch list. It was more of a supernatural thriller than the others I’ve watched, but despite being cheap and cheerful was really quite effective. Mimsy Farmer plays an industrial chemist who has mysterious visions of a young girl, and it turns out they’re sort of flashbacks, or rather manifestations from her repressed memories, especially those surrounding her mother, who committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. Not all films made in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy are giallo, and although many of them take their inspirations from the cheap comics after which they’re named, some managed to rise above their genre. True, most of the ones I’ve seen have managed that, but I suspect I’m seeing the cream of the crop. The Perfume of the Lady in Black was another good one – not the cheap giallo its title promised, but an atmospheric supernatural thriller that even the Italian film industry’s cheap production values could not completely destroy. Worth seeing.

200 Pounds Beauty, Kim Yong-hwa (2006, South Korea). There was that Farrelly brothers film years ago, famous chiefly for Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, in which Jack Black is hypnotised to see the “inner beauty” of people – well, women – and so sees Paltrow as really hot rather the fat-suited character she plays. And while there’s almost nothing to recommend the film, other than its overall message of not judging people by their appearances, it manages better than this recent and highly successful South Korean rom com. Hanna Kang is a ghost singer for pop star Ammy. She is also very overweight. But she fancies the svengali behind Ammy’s career, and mistakes his kindness for interest (human, rather than financial). When she learns the truth, she walks away. And undergoes extensive plastic surgery to reduce her weight. She auditions for her old job, pretending to be a Korean-American called Jenny, but is instead groomed as a pop star in her own right, so eclipsing Ammy and winning the heart of the man of her dreams… Of course, no rom com can end happily on false pretences, so Hanna comes clean but still gets her man and her career. The comedy is quite good, but I’m really not sure about the message of the film. The same actress plays Hanna and “Jenny”, and the make-up is extremely effective. But it all feels very old-fashioned and fat-shaming,

Captains Courageous* Victor Fleming (1937, USA). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I wasn’t truthfully expecting all that much from it. An early Hollywood film, one of those mystifying choices they stuck on list because it’s so, well, Hollywood-centric, but never mind, I’ll watch it. And… it was actually a good film. Not at all what I expected. It’s based on a Rudyard Kipling novel, but there are significant changes from the book which, to me, make the film a great deal better. (Er, not, I hasten to add, that I’ve read the book. I’m going on the Wikipedia plot summary.) Harvey is the spoilt son of a billionaire, and if the film had been about his adventures at school it would have been irritating as shit… But, yes, while he’s painted as an annoying little manipulative prick, his last attempt goes awry and he’s rusticated. So his father – his mother had died years before – decides to take him to Europe on a business trip in an attempt to bond. But the lad falls off the cruise liner just off the US coast… and is picked up by a fisherman out of Massachusetts. But the fishing schooner will not return to port for another three months so Harvey is forced to work for his passage. And it makes a decent person of him. It’s typical Kipling, and the Hollywood treatment is manipulative as hell, but it’s actually quite affecting. Having Spencer Tracy play a Portugese fisherman with poor English is appalling casting. and if they’d wanted him that desperately in the role they could have rewritten it, or done the right thing and cast a Latino actor… But this was 1937, and Hollywood was busy making sure only white people got to do anything. As they are still doing today. I’ll be honest: I was expecting another forgettable Hollywood film from the 1930s for this entry in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I actually thought Captains Courageous done quite well. Worth seeing.

Paisan*, Roberto Rossellini (1946, Italy). I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealism, although I’ve seen plenty of films that qualify as it. I have, to date, watched three of Rossellini’s films, although plenty more by his contemporaries, such as Fellini, De Sica, Pasolini… Paisan, or Paisà, comprises six unrelated stories set during the Allied liberation of Italy. It’s done on the cheap – with a mostly non-professional cast – but it actually works quite well for the stories the movie tells. As the Germans move out, the Americans move in.  But only some of the Italians welcome them. The rest expect the Germans to return and defeat the Americans, and uphold the rule of fascism. Even though this film was made 70 years ago, immediately after a long war against fascists, there were still those who’d sooner follow Mussolini or Hitler. and yes, they were just as stupid back then as they are now. Because there’s nothing remotely intelligent in the right-wing world-view – but, as someone astutely pointed out on Twitter recently, common sense and/or logic is no antidote to thirty years of brainwashing that liberalism/socialism will destroy civilisation. Paisan is set, in effect, at the end of civilisation – ie, a country torn by a long global war… and for those who lived there it’s easy to imagine how liberators could be seen as invaders. Which is somewhat ironic, given that in the twenty-first centry invaders tend to be presented as liberators anyway… I’m not a big fan of Italian Neorealist films, nor of many of those made in Italy in the immediate aftermath of WWII (and let’s not forget, they were Axis), but Paisan was actally pretty damn good. It deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Come Drink With Me*, King Hu (1966, China). I’d had trouble finding a copy of this to watch as it seems it has never been released in the UK… and then it pops up on Amazon Prime. So there you go. It’s a Hong Kong historical martial arts/wu xia film, by the director of A Touch of Zen, and notable chiefly because its lead is female. And, er, that’s it. It’s a fun film, in much the same way wu xia films from the 1960s are fun films. The lead character, Golden Swallow, played by Cheng Pei-pei, is referred to as “sir” throughout, but I don’t know if that’s because others are meant to take her as male – and they profess to know the name Golden Swallow, and her reputation – or because treating her as male is a sign of respect. Which is odd. Other than that, Come Drink With Me‘s plot is pretty straightforward and little different to that of other films of its type and time, or indeed of other King Hu films. I enjoyed it, but then I do like a good wu xia… but I’m not convinced it belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list. If its one claim to fame is having a female lead, then the film should be celebrated, but it seems a bit hypocritical to put it on the list for that for Hong Kong cinema and not do the same of Hollywood cinema. Call it a film that fans of martial arts or wu xia films should watch, and leave it at that.

Utopia, James Benning (1998, USA). I’m pretty sure my favourite form of art is the video installation – and I’ve explored these in a number of  cities’ museums – but such installations generally comprise looped films of no more than 30 minutes in length. Benning’s films are often long – this one is nearly 90 minutes. And yet, they’re not non-narrative cinema either, as that would be Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka. Benning’s films are art. But they’re a moving picture, and, unlike video installations, the installation itself is the same as that of narrative cinema. (Mostly, although some of Benning’s works are actual installations.) The really interesting thing about Benning’s films, or at least many of them, is that they resemble non-narrative films but present a narrative in non-traditional ways. In Casting a Glance, it’s a recreation of the water levels throughout the lifetime of Spiral Jetty; in El Valley Centro, it’s the position of the horizon in each 2.5 minute shot; in Deseret, it’s excerpts from the New York Times, read out over short static footage of the state of Utah; and so on… I like the fact some of these “narratives” are extra-textual; I like that they are not obvious; and I certainly like that they require work by the viewer to make sense. In Utopia, a female voice describes the life of Che Guevera, while the camera shows static shots – I’m not sure of the exact length, or if it is indeed exact, but it seems to be about two minutes each – of desert countryside from the southern US, including some industrial landscapes. It is a story told through voices, in which the pictures extend that story, a reverse if you will of the common approach to cinematic narrative. As a creator of video installations, Benning would reign supreme, but his films are too long. He is a unique talent, and his films are amazing works of art. But his works are difficult to see, with only half a dozen or so released on DVD and assorted other ones appearing every now and again on Youtube. And yet… when I consider a painting, a reproduction of it gives me access to that painting, but I would often still like to see its original, in a museum or gallery. Video installations are very much a product of their, well, installation, and so must be seen in situ to appreciate best. But Benning’s films? Is watching one at a film festival any different to watching it at home on DVD or Youtube app? Given that the presentation of video installations is an element of the art, but for Benning’s films that’s not true, I suspect not. Where you watch Benning is unimportant. Given that, I’d urge him to make all of his works freely available. These are important works, they need to be as visible as prints of famous artworks.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 888

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Moving pictures, #63

Still trying to to catch up… Half of the films in this post’s half-dozen are from the US, but only one of them is an actual feature film per se. Both Benning’s and Baillie’s work are better considered art, or video installations – a form of art I especially like. The remaining films are an odd mix – one I expected to like but didn’t, one turned out to be a lot better than expected, and one wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hope although still quite good.

gangs_new_yorkGangs of New York*, Martin Scorsese (2002, USA). If Terrence Malick is the nearest Hollywood has produced to an actual auteur, then Scorsese, although a resolutely commercial director, is perhaps closest in Hollywood to him. Personally, I find Scorsese’s films well-made but over-rated; but he has the advantage of a career pretty much explicitly laid out in the films he’s directed, all of which are still readily available in a format of your choice. Gangs of New York was a commercial success, and a critical one too – not just appearing on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but also nominated for a shedload of Oscars, BAFTAs, Gold Globes and assorted other film awards (although it won no Oscars, Day-Lewis got best actor BAFTA, and Scorsese won best director Golden Globe). The story is set in New York during the 1840s to the 1860s. The film opens with a pitched – and gory – battle between the Irish immigrants and the native New Yorkers (of course, they’re all immigrants, the so-called “natives” arrived a couple of generations earlier). The movie then follows Amsterdam, son of the murdered leader of the Irish faction, and played by Leonardo di Caprio, as he returns to New York as a young man and goes to work for leader of the natives, Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is apparently historically accurate, even down to the accent used by Day-Lewis and others, and it’s pretty gruesome stuff. Quite how the US built a reputation as the Land of the Free and the Land of Opportunity when its biggest city was a cesspit of violence and corruption is a mystery. But then you have the myth of the wide open spaces of the Wild West, when it was all land stolen from the Native Americans, and those who stole it were mostly as violent and venal as the worst criminals. That was all pretty much around the same time. And not so long ago. Mind you, Dickens’s England was no less grim a place. Although it does seem a little like the new governments of both the UK and USA are determined to return us to those days…

holy_motorsHoly Motors, Leos Carax (2012, France). This film had all the ingredients which should have led to me loving it, but for some reason it never quite worked for me. The story is enigmatic, very little is explained, in fact it’s more of an anthology than a single plot, the cinematography is excellent, and the cast are very good too… But the whole thing felt like a film-making exercise to me, and only more so when I learnt that one of the longest segments is based on a short film made by Carax four years earlier. I’ve heard Holy Motors described as an anthology film, deliberately broken down into more easily-digestible chunks to prove a point about art house cinema, but I’m not sure I buy it. The celebrity cameos seem to suggest a personal project from a director with more of a reputation than his oeuvre suggests. Eve Mendes, for example, plays a model abudcted by Mr Merde and says nothing during her part in the film. Kylie Minogue plays a colleague of the main character, and ends up singing a really quite awful song that can’t decide if it belongs in a Broadway musical or a rock jukebox musical. The framing narrative doesn’t explain the individual segments, only links them. And while the cinematography is excellent, as is the cast, the story is enigmatic to the point of nonsense – the segment in which the protagonist – well, a cleverly-disguised stunt double – does a motion-capture sequence for an ugly CGI sequence of two great wyrms mating is entirely meaningless. That this is later followed by a sequence in which a father picks up his teenage daughter from a party, only to learn she hid in the bathroom because she’s afraid of not being popular… it shows only that the guiding principle here is directorial whim. There’s no pattern, no story-arc, no point. There’s only a director who feels like he’s not in control of his creative process – and, though I’m only going on the one film I’ve seen by Carax, he strikes me as someone who may one day make a great movie… but Holy Motors is not it.

travelling_playersThe Travelling Players*, Theodoros Angelopoulos (1975, Greece). I’ve been aware of Angelopoulos for a couple of years, although I’ve never previously seen any of his films nor had much of an idea what his films were like. But The Travelling Players eventually worked its way to the top of the rental list and was duly sent to me and… One thing I hadn’t known about Angelopoulos is that his films tick a lot of my boxes: long static shots, declamatory dialogue, plots that cover decades… This is stuff that I love in films, and apparently The Travelling Players is not unique in Angelopoulos’s oeuvre in doing so. The Travelling Players is currently available as a part of a box set, so I think I’ll be getting the box set. But, The Travelling Players… It’s about a troupe of actors, who travel the country with a play about Golfo the Shepherdess, between 1939 and 1952. As well as the covering the events in Greece during that time – the invasion by the Nazis, the war between the fascists and the communists, the British and US occupations, the Regime of the Colonels… – but the troupe’s internal dynamics are all based on the story of the House of Atreus. There are parts of the the film where a character talks directly to camera. There are some frankly bizarre scenes, like the British platoon forcing the troupe to perform on a beach, only to end up dancing with each other, or the dance hall where the fascists and communists clash like the Jets and the Sharks… The Travelling Players is also a very long film, clocking in at 230 minutes; but it’s fascinating throughout. Angelopoulos’s name was not unknown to me, but until now I’d not seen any of his films. Having seen The Travelling Players, I plan to explore his oeuvre. Recommended.

baillieVolume 1: Five Collected Films by Bruce Baillie (1964-1968, USA). I stumbled across mention of Baillie’s All My Life on a list of best films somewhere, and found a copy of it on Youtube (it’s only 2 minutes and 45 seconds long, but it is quite excellent – see here). So I did a little more research, and learnt that Baillie is best-remembered for Castro Street, a short film from 1966. Canyon Cinema, a collective he helped found, released some of his films on DVD, but they appear to have sold out. Fortunately, they’re available on Youtube in HD, including this collection, which contains Tung, Mass (for the Lakota Sioux), Valentin de las Sierras, Castro Street and All My Life. The first three are experimental/avant garde cinema, and middling successful, but Castro Street, a montage of industrial plants on the titular street, is fully deserving of its high reputation; and even In My Life, which is 3 minutes of Ella Fitzgerald singing as Baillie pans a camera along a fence, hs a beauty all its own. I discovered Baillie by accident, but it turns out to have been a happy one. I won’t be forgetting him.

13_lakes13 Lakes, small roads and Easy Rider, James Benning (2004/2011/2012, USA). I’ve made no secret of my admiration for James Benning’s work, and while I have everything he has so far released on DVD through the Österreichesches Filmmuseum, one of his best-known works, 13 Lakes, is still unavailable from them. Fortunately, someone has loaded it up onto Youtube, although it’s not a brilliant transfer. And since I’d figured out how to watch Youtube using the app on on my telly via Amazon Prime, I used it to watch 13 Lakes. Benning’s titles tend to the literal, so 13 Lakes is indeed about thirteen lakes, each of which is filmed from a static position for ten minutes. That’s it. The shots are framed such that water fills the bottom half of the screen and sky the top half. Whatever happens while the camera is running, is captured; and the soundtrack is entirely ambient sound. I happen to think Benning is a genius, and while he does really interesting things with narrative in Deseret, American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide, other films such as RR and the California Trilogy are more in the nature of video installations. As is 13 Lakes. So he presses lots of buttons for me. Small roads is more of the same, static shots of minor roads in the US, each shot a couple of minutes long and the soundtrack composed entirely of ambient sound. Unlike in 13 Lakes, the screen is not split in two, in fact the proportion of land to sky increases as the film progresses. It is mesmerising, despite the lack of narrative. Easy Rider, however, is something different. Benning retraced the route taken by the actors in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but focused his camera on the landscape. He uses the soundtrack of the film – some music, some dialogue – but other times relies on ambient sound. What I especially like about Benning is that he’s mythologizing the landscape of the North American continent using the artefacts of its current colonising culture. Not entirely, of course – Four Corners covers Native American cave art, after all. But Deseret explicitly charts the impact of people on the Utah landscape, and while 13 Lakes shows the transient nature of the marks humanity makes on a body of water (the wake of a boat or jetski, soon erased), small roads documents a more permanent marker on the landscape: tarmac. And Easy Rider ties the landscape directly to a cultural object, the story of a feature film, a fiction. I would dearly love to have copies of all of Benning’s films, but sadly only a few have been released on DVD. Equally sadly, I do not live in a city with a world-renowned modern art museum that is likely to exhibit his work. (I do, however, live in a city with Curzon cinema, but even that means nothing – as Curzon, in all their wisdom, have so far chosen not to show Sokurov’s Francofonia here, but only in their London venues. Bah.)

rogopagLet’s Wash Our Brains: RoGoPaG, Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti (1963, Italy). Alfredo Bini apparently had the bright idea of putting together an anthology film comprising four shorts from well-known directors, although I’ve no idea if the concept was as commerically viable back then as it is now – ie, not at all. It’s not like this was the only example – there’s films such as Le Bambole from 1965, for example. Certainly RoGoPaG had a better line-up of directors… but given how little your average audience cares about who directs a film – many lists of best films don’t even name the director, for instance – it’s arguable how relevant that is. In the event, we get four short films that are emblematic – perhaps too much so – of the four directors’ works, without being their best work. Roberto Rossellini provides a story about an air stewardess who attracts the unwelcome attentions of an American who flies her route – to Bangkok – and who she decides to repel by acting more seucally-liberated than she actually is. It’s a thin piece, and it hard to work out what the point of it all is. Godard provides the second part, a five-finger exercise based on the thinnest of plots: a nuclear bomb has exploded near Paris, and two young actors get to practice acting exercises as a response to the explosion. The third film is by Pier Paolo Pasolini and is easily the best of the four. Orson Welles is making afilm about the Crucifixion, although he actually appears to be re-staging in real life famous paintings of the Crucifuxion. One of the extras has not eaten for a while and spends the entire film trying to find something to eat – to his eventual detriment. The humour is broad, the acting broader, Welles looks the part but is dubbed so he doesn’t sound it, and the re-enactments of the Crucifixion are quite astonishingly effective. The final film is the most traditional, and tells a straightforward story of a middle-class Italian family looking to upgrade their home by buying a plot of land on a future development. The kids spout advertising slogans, the family are clearly victims of consumer culture, and their final realisation of their situation is rewarded with an undeserved death. Despite the names attached to RoGoPaG, I suspect Bini thought he had something weightier on his hands than he actually had. The Pasolini apparently caused a bit of a fuss on release, though it seems tame stuff these days to non-Catholic eyes. I’m still not entirely sure what purpose anthology films served, or why anyone ever bothered to make them. I suspect they were mostly vanity projects for producers – “hey, I got to work with Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and, er, Gregoretti!” – but they’re certainly an odd fit in the world of twenty-first century cinema.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 831


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Moving pictures, #62

These posts are starting to back up, so I’m going to have to get a few of them out. But hey, you like reading about films, right? It can’t be science fiction all the time, after all. Er, not that it has been this year. Anyway, movies… The US keeps on creeping back in – although in this case it’s two classic Hollywood movies. I’d like to keep my viewing on a 2:1 basis – ie, two non-Hollywood for every one Hollywood… but it doesn’t always work out that way. Oh well.

rome_open_cityRome, Open City*, Roberto Rossellini (1945, Italy). I thought I’d seen several of Rossellini’s films, but it seems this is only the second – the first was Journey to Italy, back in 2014. Rome, Open City was apparently financed by a wealthy old lady, as the war had pretty much destroyed the Italian film industry. She wanted Rossellini to make a documentary about a Roman Catholic priest who’d helped the partisans against the Nazi occupiers. Rossellini then persuaded her to fund another documentary about Italian children who had planted bombs and fought against the Germans. Fellini’s screenwriter suggested combining the two documentaries into a single feature film, and work began on that two months after the Allies had driven the Nazis from Rome. Rome, Open City pretty much tells the stories of those two documentaries in Neorealist style, and it does it quite effectively. A lot of the cast were non-professionals, and that, and the black white photography, actually gives the film a documentary feel. I’m still not a big fan of Italian neorealism, at least not of the  films under that label I’ve seen so far, although I like them enough to want to continue to explore the genre; but Rome, Open City was pretty good. Interestingly, some of the stock Rossellini used was supplied by a US Army private called Geiger stationed in Rome. Geiger claimed to have contacts in the US film industry and some have credited him with the global success of post-war Italian cinema. Fellini, however, called him a “half-drunk nobody” who claimed to be a producer. Geiger sued Fellini for defamation in 1983 but lost the case.

nostalgiaNostalgia, Andrei Tarkovsky (1983, Russia). And so the Tarkovsky rewatch continues, with this, his next to last film, made in Italy but starring a cast from various countries. A Russian writer is travelling about Italy, researching the life of an eighteenth-century Russian who lived in Italy but committed suicide after returning to Russia. The writer is accompanied by an Italian interpreter; and during their travels about Tuscany, they hear of a man who repeatedly tries to cross a mineral pool while carry a lit candle, and his story fascinates the writer. The old man (played by Swede Erland Josephson) had been in an asylum, but was released when the state closed them all. He’d been committed because he had imprisoned his family inside his house for seven years. (There’s more than an echo, and not just from the casting, with Tarkovsky’s next film, The Sacrifice.) I love Tarkovsky’s films, but I think Nostalgia might be the least satisfying. It looks lovely, of course; and the glacial pacing is pure Tarkovsky from the first frame. But it suffers because it has two male centres of attraction. Tarkovsky’s films are typically told from a single male viewpoint (he didn’t do female characters, more’s the pity). Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev are about the title character, Solaris is about Kris Kelvin, Mirror is about the director, The Sacrifice is about Erland Josephson’s character… the nearest he gets to more than one is in Stalker, but it’s still the title character who provides the real focus. But in Nostalgia, you have the focus bouncing from the Russian writer to Josephson’s character, and it makes the movie feel unbalanced. The final scene, in which Josephson lectures a crowd and then self-immolates, also comes across as a weird change in tone, and though it feeds back into the emotional and narrative closure of the Russian writer’s story, it results in an ending that provides only a limited resolution. I think every self-respecting film fan should have Tarkovsky’s movies in their collection, but that doesn’t mean all Tarkovsky films are equal. Or indeed that I will feel the same way about each and everyone of them if I rewatch them all five years from now.

gunga_dinGunga Din*, George Stevens (1939, USA). Despite the title, the film is not just based on Kipling’s poem but also some of the stories from his collection Soldiers Three. In the film, the three are Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen, and they’re NCOs in the Royal Engineers on the Northwest Frontier of India in the 1880s. In the first half of the movie, the three are sent with a company of sepoys to a British outpost which had ceased transmitting on the telegraph mid-message. They find the outpost deserted, but are then set upon by Thuggee bandits. They manage to fight them off, and return to their garrison. Fairbanks is all set to leave the army, marry Joan Fontaine and become a tea planter. But his old buddies still need him, especially when they learn the Thuggee guru is holed up in a gold temple. Their plan to capture him (and steal the gold) goes wrong, and they’re taken prisoner… but they turn the tables and capture the guru. But they can’t escape. And when the British army comes marching toward the temple, the guru reveals the whole thing is a trap and he has an army of his own hidden in the hills. He gives an angry speech about British imperialism and Indian self-rule, but it means nothing because the title character, a humble water carrier played by a US actor in blackface, manages to warn the British army. The poem’s race relations are pretty shit to start with, and the film only amplifies them. And yet there’s that bizarre speech by the Thuggee guru – an Italian actor in blackface, incidentally – which riffs on some pretty unpleasant truths about the British empire, and you have to wonder about sentiments more common now in the twenty-first century (except perhaps among Trump voters and Leave voters) appearing in a seventy-seven-year-old American film…

grapes_wrathThe Grapes of Wrath*, John Ford (1940, USA). Hollywood has a long history of churning out worthy adaptations of classic American novels, much like the BBC does for dramatising English nineteenth-century literary classics, although by the 1980s I suspect Hollywood had managed to cover all the major works. The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about Oklahoma migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. To be honest, I’d not expected much of this film, and I’d probably taken onboard a few too many stereotypes about the story, and the period of history it covers, over the years; and I’m fairly sure I read a Steinbeck novel back in my early teens but I can’t recall whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men… Anyway, I had relatively low expectations for The Grapes of the Wrath movie, and so the selfishness of US society it depicted came as little surprise… but the story also showed a side to the Okies – intentionally, obviously – in which they displayed a lot more human kindness and fellow feeling than those most at that time, and certainly more than those who were exploiting them. There’s even a government camp which looks after the migrant workers, provides them with shelter, hygiene and safety. Of course, all the local growers try to close down the government camp, because they want the Okies as desperate as possible so they will accept their rock-bottom wages. Despite a long history of films like this which show the dirty underbelly of capitalism (actually, more like the unvarnished reality of capitalism), US audiences still seem to revere the sociopaths who succeed materially in their flawed system – hell, they even make them president. Trump is not fit material for a folk hero. Tom Joad, the character played by Henry Fonda in this film, who is an ex-con returning home when the film opens, after being sent down for killing a man in a bar fight… well, Tom Joad would make a much better folk hero. And probably a better president too.

hijackHijack, Kunal Shivdasani (2008, India). Until watching this, I’d forgotten how shamelessly entertaining Bollywood movies are. I’ve been watching a lot of art house/world cinema this year, more so than in previous years certainly, and though I like such films as much because they show other parts of the world, as well as telling stories I find more appealing, it had slipped my mind how brain-switched-off entertaining some films can be. Hollywood does it well. But Bollywood does it better. With songs. Seriously, there’s no comparison. I can’t even remember what Hijack was about – a plane hijack, I guess – but I do remember starting to grin at the ludicrously cheesy opening credits, and the lyrics to the song played over the credits, and not stopping until the film had finished. I don’t even remember the song and dance numbers, and you’d think they at least would be memorable. But I don’t think it matters all that much – in the same way it doesn’t matter when you see a tentpole blockbuster: you’re there for the two to three hours of experience, and why should it matter if you can remember nothing five minutes after leaving the auditorium? Except, well, cinema – or at least film – is an artform, and it succeeds as an artform when it is memorable. Nothing happens in James Benning’s movies but they are memorable, they are art. Hijack punches all the buttons for mindless entertainment, but will probably be ignored by those most likely to enjoy it because it’s in Hindi. And has songs. But it was fun, it was dumb, and it was entertaining. And if that’s all you’re looking for then Bollywood is as valid a source as Hollywood.

bandeBande à part, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I’m slowly working my way through Godard’s oeuvre, and while I have a lot of time for what he tried to achieve I do tend to find his films a bit hit and miss. This one, despite being highly regarded, I found a miss. The plot is nominally based on that of an American noir novel. Two men and a woman, all in their twenties, decide to rob the woman’s aunt, who has a large stash of cash. But one of the men’s uncle finds out, so they bring the robbery forward a day. It goes wrong – they kill the aunt and cannot find the money. So they leave. One of the men goes back, as he thinks he knows where the cash might be hidden. His uncle follows him. They find the money and kill each other. The aunt reappears, not dead after all. She, and her lodger, take the money. The young woman and the surviving young man ride off in disgust. It’s all filmed in black-and-white, and very Godard-seque – he was married to the film’s star, Anna Karenina, at the time, and I find his films suffer when he’s more interested in his stars than in his movie – although Bande à part is not as consciously Nouvelle Vague as, say, Truffaut’s Tirez le pianiste (which I suspect is going to be my yardstick for New Wave-ness from now on). Worth seeing, but only middling Nouvelle Vague and slightly-above-middle Godard.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 829


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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