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Moving pictures 2018, #43

I’ve been a bit lazy with my choices of viewing of late. I blame the weather. Although I have an air-conditioner, it’s not very effective, and it’s often too hot in the evenings to sit and concentrate on a movie. Not that any of the below could be described as moving wallpaper… But you know what I mean.

Love Me Tonight*, Rouben Mamoulian (1932, USA). Given the power of Hollywood, it’s often easy to forget – in the Anglophone world, that is – that Hollywood was not the only place where films were being made during the medium’s first few decades. Germany had a strong film industry in the 1920s – Alfred Hitchcock learnt much of his trade there. Then there’s the UK: during the same decade, HG Wells wrote three short silent films especially for Elsa Lanchester, as I recently learnt. And France, where Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made some of his best films; not to mention local directors such as Abel Gance or Georges Méliès. And China, which produced The Goddess (see here) and Song at Midnight in the 1930s. And the USSR… In fact, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list contains 83 films from the 1930s. Fifty-seven are from the US! France is next highest with 12, then Germany with 5, the UK with 3, and then China with 2. The remaining nations are Brazil, Spain, Japan and the USSR. But 57 from the US! Okay, so it’s easier for the US-based list makers to find early US films than early films from other nations, but that shows a piss-poor effort to track down non-US examples. One of which, Limite (see here), from Brazil, wasn’t even available at the time the list was first made, and its reputation existed mostly as hearsay (bolstered by Orson Welles declaring himself a fan after a private showing back in 1942!). All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying I cannot honestly see why Love Me Tonight made the list. It’s basically a fairy-tale recast as an early Gene Kelly musical, but with Maurice Chevalier in the lead role. You know what I mean – there’s something fairy-tale about all of Gene Kelly’s musicals, whether it’s the plots or the dream-like dance sequences or the character Kelly usually plays. Chevalier is a tailor, who is owed a great deal of money by an aristocrat (this is a recurring motif in Western European history and fiction, you’d think we’d fucking learn not to trust the nobs), so he sets off to demand what he is owed. He bumps into a princess, declares his undying love, is presented as a baron at the chateau because his debtor doesn’t want to embarrass himself… and, well, it’s a story which should end with a tumbril and not with the two lovers re-united. And I really can’t understand the appeal of Chevalier, who galumphs about like a Cary Grant cast in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and whose singing voice was nothing to, er, shout about. I have enjoyed, and even admired, some of the 1930s US films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I’ve been baffled by the inclusion of most of them. This definitely falls into that latter group.

The Odyssey, Jérôme Salle (2016, France). The more sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the three actors on the cover of the DVD have the wrong names underneath. Which seems like a pretty dumb mistake to let through on the packaging. Anyway, The Odyssey is a biopic of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as played by Lambert Wilson. I remember Cousteau from my own childhood. His films seemed to always be on television, although whether that was UK television or UAE television, I can’t remember. But I certainly remember his ship Calypso, the diving saucer, and the divers with their distinctive streamlined yellow scuba gear. I’m not young enough to remember his Conshelf underwater habitats, although I’ve read up on them in the last few years, and even have a  copy of the film made about Conshelf II, World Without Sun (see here). So Cousteau was not a figure that was unfamiliar to me, and I was aware of many of his achievements. Having said that, I knew little about his career, just the highlights really. I hadn’t known he was partly funded by the French Ministry of Petroleum, and was responsible for discovering a number of oilfields in the Middle East. Or that his business was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars during the 1980s. Unfortunately, The Odyssey wants to be about JYC’s (as his friends called him) relationship with his youngest son, Phillippe, who initially turned his back on his father and his career, but later joined him and became Cousteau’s lead cinematographer. He also died in a seaplane crash in 1979 – this is no spoiler, as the film opens with the crash. On the one hand, The Odyssey wants to be a biopic of JYC; on the other, it wants to be a father-son drama (because apparently the French think that’s what cinema should be about too); and on the other hand, you have Audrey Tatou as the put-upon wife who acts as “mother” and “shepherdess” (her nickname) to the crew of Calypso… The end-result is a film which has plenty of drama but none of the wonder of Cousteau’s own films about the oceans. The leads are good in their roles, but the focus feels too… land-bound. It comes as no surprise that Cousteau was a bad businessman, or that he was bad at picking business partners. He was a dreamer, and his films get that across much better than The Odyssey does. I enjoyed it, and I find Cousteau an interesting person, but I’d sooner watch one of JYC’s own films, if I’m honest.

The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau (2016, USA). Disney has been on a mission this century to remake all its classic animation feature films as live-action. I’ve no idea why. Earlier attempts, like 1996’s 101 Dalmations, were hardly successful. Having said that, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from 2015 (see here) isn’t half bad, and Sleeping Beauty (see here; the greatest Disney film ever made) was not so much remade as, er, sequelised with Maleficent. But The Jungle Book is not a film you’d expect to be given the live-action treatment. Chiefly because all of its character but one are, well, talking animals. And while WC Fields may have said, “never work with animals or children”, animals can’t actually, er, talk, which pretty much fucks up the entire story of The Jungle Book. So Jon Favreau uses CGI animals. And they look very realistic. But, of course, each animal character – Baloo, Arkela, Shere Khan, Bagheera, King Louie, and so on – needs a human actor to provide their voice. And that’s where Favreau screwed it up. It’s a good cast, an excellent cast, But so hugely miscast. Idris Elbas as Shere Khan? WTF? Bill Murray as Baloo? What the actual fuck? Disney’s original The Jungle Book is a film from my childhood. I remember seeing it in the gym at the Doha English Speaking School in the early 1970s. We also had a LP of songs from Disney films, which featured the best-known song from The Jungle Book abd other films, and which we played relentlessly when we lived in Rumeilah (an area of Doha). So, on the one hand, it’s “mess with my childhood icons at your own peril”, but, on the other, some previous attempts had actually been quite good. I wish I could say The Jungle Book fell into the latter category. The CGI animals are, unsurprisingly, fantastic to look at – even if their voices are so badly chosen. And the story sticks mostly to the Disney animated film. The musical cues make use of the songs from the animated film, without actually being, well, sung. Which feels sort of half-hearted and is disappointing. King Louis is converted into a Gigantopithecus (which allegedly existed from the late Miocene to the mid-Pleistocene), which is no more plausible than the animated film’s orang-utan but does, I have to admit, look pretty cool. But, despite all that, The Jungle Book feels mostly like a showreel for CGI. It’s like an advert for the state-of-the-art. Kipling’s collection of short stories has been well and truly buried. Instead of making a “better” The Jungle Book, Favreau should have gone back to the source. Instead, he’s produced a photo-realistic version of Disney’s 1967 animated film, but taken all the fun out of it. I admit The Jungle Book is not a Disney animated film I hold in especially high regard, but it deserved a better remake than this.

Devil Girl from Mars, David MacDonald (1954, UK). There are a lot of sf B-movies available on Amazon Prime, probably because they’re all out of copyright and watchable copies have been digitised at some point somewhere. Whether they should have been is an entirely different matter. I’d argue that Devil Girl from Mars, which is British rather than American, is one that deserved being better known, even if it’s not that good a film and was roundly panned on its release. Perversely, it is its failures to abide by sf B-movie clichés which makes it interesting. It is, sort of, an Alien precursor. A group of people are trapped at a remote Scottish hotel when a flying saucer lands nearby. They are terrorised by the UFO’s crew, the so-called “Devil Girl”, and her crap-looking robot. They plot among themselves to save the Earth from the threat represented by the Devil Girl – she is, apparently, the scout for an invading force from Mars. The plot is enlivened by the trapped guests’ dynamics. One is an escaped murderer under an assumed name. Another is a scientist sceptical of UFOs. True, the story is somewhat formulaic – N’yah, the Martian, appears in the hotel, tells the trapped guests what they can and cannot do, and leaves. They then discuss what she has said. But the focus is on the characters trapped in the hotel, in response to the threat posed by N’yah, than it is in the N’yah and the threat she poses. In the end, the scientist figures out a way for N’yah’s flying saucer to be destroyed… but only by someone willing to sacrifice themselves. Which leads to, well, a competition among the men to decide who should be the one to blow up the UFO. The acting is not especially good, the special effects are risible (especially the robot), and the studio sets aren’t very convincing. N’yah’s fetish wear doesn’t much resemble what you’d expect the captain of spaceship from Mars to be wearing. This is by no means a great film, but for all its faults it’s not a bad B-movie.

By the Bluest of Seas, Boris Barnet (1936, Russia). I mentioned films from the 1930s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, sand that there was only one from the USSR – it’s Zemlya by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (see here). Which is an excellent film. But Boris Barnet also made some excellent films during the 1930s. Not just By the Bluest of Seas, but also Outskirts (see here). Not to mention Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (see here). Eisenstein does appear on the list – several times, in fact. But not Barnet. Which is a surprise. This film has been accused – by Western critics – of being propaganda, which shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, if not honesty, on the part of those critics, as Western, especially Hollywood, movies have been propaganda for, variously, the American Dream, capitalism or consumerism since the early days of cinema. And in these times of overt product placement and merchandising, they’re even more propaganda tools. But, of course, when it applies to capitalism, it’s not propaganda. Because propaganda is political but capitalism is not. If you think that, I suggest you go back to kindergarten as you’ve entirely missed the point of the modern fucking world. Anyway, in By the Bluest of Seas, two sailors are washed ashore a Caspian Sea island during a storm, and join the collective farm located there. Both of them are attracted to the leader of the kolkhoz – that’s her on the DVD cover – and so vie for her attentions. But, after various attempts to win her favour, including a fishing trip during which she is washed overboard and believed lost, but then washes ashore later, they learn she has a fiancé off fighting in the Pacific. It’s not the most original of stories, and its depiction of kolkhoz life probably understates the hardships, but Barnet’s cinematography is really quite good, especially the scenes set on boats during storms. And, for all that, nothing in it felt like propaganda. I could argue that not only is all cinema propaganda, but that it should be more overtly propaganda. And sf should be didactic. But I like my propaganda honest about its intentions – which is more than can be said for Hollywood’s product placement deals, etc – so that at least I can decide how to take it. If, as stated earlier, By the Bluest of Seas presents an overly rosy view of life in a kolkhoz, not to mention the benefits of such a system, then what’s the problem? By the Bluest of Seas is an extremely well-shot, if somewhat hackneyed, romantic triangle set in 1930s USSR. This film should certainly have been considered for the 1001 Movies  You Must See Before You Die list; all of Barnet’s film probably should have been.

Desert Ark, Mohamed Chouikh (1997, Algeria). I now have all four of these Great African Films DVDs. ArtMattan are continuing to release DVDs, but the fourth volume seems to be the last in this series. Their DVDs are also really hard to find – ie, expensive – on this side of the Atlantic, and their website is so 1990s you can only order on it and pay by “check”. Sigh. A big shame, because Africa – which is a continent – has a rich tradition of film-making, some African nations perhaps more than others, but pretty much all of which are hard to find in the UK. This particular volume of Great African Films also includes Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun, a Chadian director, whose movies are released on DVD in the UK (and for good reason – they are excellent) The other film in this set is Desert Ark, by Algerian director Mohamed Chouikh (that’s French orthography, so in English orthography it would probably be Shwaykh). The story pits two tribes, one nominally Berber, against each other over an illicit love affair between a young man from one and a young woman from the other. On the one hand, it’s all intended to be figurative; on the other, artificial tribal affiliations aside, this is something that happens in real life and, despite the attempts of reconciliation by a local mullah, it quickly escalates to violence and outright war. Chouikh’s film is clearly meant to be cautionary, but in the twenty years since it was made the world has become much more violent and intolerant. Which means that Chouikh’s flights of fancy – casting the film as an allegory of life aboard Noah’s Ark – actually mean less than the narrative as presented. The final scenes, in which the two lovers stumble across a ship becalmed in the desert, feel like whimsy rather than the culmination of an allegorical commentary. There is, of course, nothing allegorical about a bullet. Or indeed metaphorical. If anything, bullets are items that are usually turned into metaphors. But when you have two tribes using guns to protect something as nebulous and worthless as “honour” – even worse than that, male honour as embodied in women as chattel – then you have a conflict that is never really going to be resolved until all the men involved have been re-educated as human beings. Desert Ark tells a story specific to its country of origin, but its themes are universal. It really deserves a wider release than it received.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 927


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Moving pictures, #24

Onward with the movie posts…

christinaQueen Christina*, Rouben Mamoulian (1933, USA). You know that thing about “Garbo laughs” and they used it as the tagline for Ninotchka, which was released six years after this one, but Garbo, who plays the title role in Queen Christina, does quite a good impression of laughter on a couple of occasions in this film. The title character is a real historical figure, queen of Sweden from 1632 to 1654, and she did indeed abdicate and convert to Roman Catholicism. But not, as the film would have it, for love. In the film, she’s out hunting one day when she comes across the Spanish envoy, whose carriage is stuck in a snow drift. She gives his servants advice on how to extricate the coach. Since she dresses as a man, the envoy mistakes her for one. And does the same later, when they meet at a nearby inn. Queen Christina, who is now actively pretending to be male, has taken the last room. The envoy demands “he” vacate it. They end up sharing and the queen reveals her gender – but not her identity. She saves that little surprise for when the envoy is officially introduced to her at the royal palace. The real Queen Christina was raised as a boy and was in a long-term lesbian relationship. She’d also been fascinated with the Roman Catholic Church from a young age. But when has Hollywood ever let history get in the way of a good story? Or their marketing, for that matter. I’m not entirely sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I didn’t see anything that was technicially or cinematically ahead of its time, and though it was enormously successful and popular in 1933, it doesn’t seem like anything particularly special these days.

fantastic4Fantastic Four, Josh Trank (2015, USA). Given the success of the MCU films, it can hardly be a surprise that Hollywood is rebooting every superhero franchise it can in a desperate effort to keep the rights and find a moneyspinner. Spider-Man is about to see its fourth incarnation, and here’s the Fantastic Four, another iconic Marvel property, on its third incarnation (although the first was never actually released). Like the Spider-Man reboot, they’ve rolled back the ages of the heroes to high school, because twentysomething heroes were apparently fine for twentieth-century kids but in the twenty-first century it’s got to be totally about the kids. And if that wasn’t enough of a change, this film has completely rewritten the Fantastic Four’s origin story. True, the original, er, origin story – four rich twentysomethings build a rocket, go into space, get bombarded by cosmic rays and develop superpowers – was pretty daft, but try naming an origin story that isn’t completely ridiculous. In this new version, Reed Richards spends years developing a teleportation machine, is then recruited by the Baxter Foundation, and with the help of studly Latverian genius Victor von Doom, builds a full-scale model… except it’s not a teleporter, it’s a portal to another dimension. And it’s on a drunken trip there that the four get their fantastic powers… and Doom is left behind and turns into a metal man with awesome mental powers. The military weaponizes the four – except for Richards, who goes on the run. But eventually he is brought into the fold. This is a completely charmless affair, with a charisma-free cast. And where previously the Fantastic Four spent most of their time saving the world, here they’re just “military assets”, tools of US imperialism – and while superheroes are often just as destructive as the supervillains they fight, that change in mission is just downright offensive. Marvel adopts manifest destiny. If superheroes had always seemed a little fascist before, with this film they’ve openly embraced it. Happily, Fantastic Four tanked at the box office. Avoid.

antonio_mortesAntonio das Mortes, Glauber Rocha (1969, Brazil). This is the third of Rocha’s Anotonio das Mortes trilogy (its origin title is actually O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerriro, “The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior”), following on from Black God, White Devil (see here) and Entranced Earth (see here). Unlike the preceding film, this one is set in Brazil and not an invented country. The north-east of the country was once controlled by bandits called cangaceiros, the greatest of whom was Lampião, who died in 1938. But a new cangaceiro has appeared, accompanied by a young woman believed to be a saint, and a host of peasants. The blind coronel, the landowner of the town of Jardim de Piranhas, sends for Antonio das Mortes to kill the cangaceiro. Antonio fatally wounds the cangaceiro in a duel, but then suffers a change of heart and demands the coronel hand out his food reserves to the poor. The coronel refuses and orders Antonio killed… Antonio das Mortes is the only film of the three in colour, and Mr Bongo have done another slipshod job on it – the print is far from perfect, and the many folk songs on the soundtrack have French translations of their lyrics burned in. It’s also a less declamatory film than Entranced Earth, although not by much – the cangaceiro, for example, introduces himself by speaking in rhyme to the camera. And even much of Antonio’s dialogue is self-reflective. A lot of the violence is staged almost like a dance, which works well with the local folk songs on the soundtrack. The landscape appears much stranger in colour than it does in black and white, with some effective landscape photography that demonstrates just how huge and featurless is the region. I’ll admit I bought these films while under the influence after watching Entranced Earth, but I don’t regret the purchase. Not only are they very political films – the coronel in Antonio das Mortes is portrayed as over-entitled and completely lacking in compassion, and the stories of all three films centre on the common people fighting the ruling classes – but the tactic of playing the political elements flat and affectless and the cultural elements full of sound and colour is especially effective. Not to mention the over-the-top and hammed up violence. These films are very much folk-tales, but they’re colourful and political folk-tales. And I really like movies like that. Recommended. It’s a shame more of Rocha’s films aren’t available on DVD. [0]

femme_publiqueLa femme publique, Andrzej Żuławski (1984, France). I am, I admit, slightly puzzled by Żuławski’s success. After fleeing Poland in the early 1980s, the only place he could go and still make films was France. It’s unlikely he’d have fitted in to the film traditions of any other country. Because his films really are quite strange. Even La femme publique, which is an adaption of an autobiography by Dominique Garnier, in which she describes her arrival in Paris and attempt to break into cinema acting, and her subsequent domination by the director who hires her. In most hands, this would be enough for a story, but Żuławski, with Garnier’s help, decided to add in a subplot about plot to assassinate a Lithuanian archbishop… The end result is an intense drama that might or might not be a somewhat bonkers thriller, which manages not to lose sight of its story. Valérie Kaprisky plays the young actress who, despite having no experience, is cast by enfant terrible Czech director Francis Huster in his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Demons. Through Huster, Kaprisky meets fellow Czech emigré Lambert Wilson, whose wife has recently disappeared (and proves to have been murdered). Kaprisky is convinced Wilson is the murderer, so she pretends to be his wife (his grasp on reality is shaky to begin with, and visibly deteriorates). Huster meanwhile seems to be involved in some sort of plot to brainwash Wilson into assassinating the archbishop. It sort of makes sense when laid out so baldly, but this is a Żuławski movie so the reality is somewhat different. The performances are intense to a degree that’s rarely seen in Hollywood films, and the story’s focus on the psychology of the major characters is also something not often seen in plot-driven Hollywood movies (never mind Hollywood’s mindless adherence to various screenwriting techniques, such as the three-act structure, McKee’s Story or Snyder’s Save the Cat!). I don’t know that I’d call La femme publique Żuławski’s best film as I still like Na srebrnym globie a lot – but it’s certainly the best-presented film on DVD. This Mondo Vision Signature edition comes in a fancy box, with a soundtrack CD, publicity photos and a booklet. Recommended. [1]

khartoumKhartoum, Basil Dearden (1966, UK). Remember when they used to open films with ten minutes of music, so you had time to buy your ice cream from the usher down at the front, and then they’d have an intermission so you could buy another ice cream or a box of Treets Poppets… or was that just in the UK? As the title of this film no doubt makes clear, it’s about the siege of Khartoum in 1884, when the forces of the Mahdi tried to capture the city from General Gordon, who’d been sent there by the British to evacuate the British and Egyptian population before the Mahdi attacked. The film is a typical historical epic of the period – not just that ten-minute entr’acte and a ten-minute intermission, but also a cast of thousands and big names playing the major roles no matter how inappropriately cast. I mean, Charlton Heston as Gordon is one thing (although apparently it was meant to be Burt Lancaster), and he at least attempts a British accent (albeit not very well); but Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi is just blackface. Khartoum was apparently filmed in Egypt and makes much of its locations – this is big-screen entertainment, and it makes sure you get what you paid for. And yet… it’s all a bit bland and unexciting – despite the battle scenes. Gordon was, by all accounts, an odd bloke – a drunkard, possibly queer, but also a gifted leader and tactician. He actually sounds quite interesting. He was lionised following his death in Khartoum, and it wasn’t until several decades later that his actions, or indeed his character, were questioned. Khartoum is pretty much the dictionary definition of a Sunday afternoon film – at least it was a decade or two ago – and that’s about its level. As history, it’s perhaps a little more reliable than the typical Hollywood movie; and as entertainment it’s very much of its time.

fires_were_startedFires Were Started*, Humphrey Jennings (1943, UK). This is the only Jennings film on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, despite him being called one of Britain’s greatest film-makers. And he made thirty-two films, although most were documentary shorts. The BFI DVD case shown here contains five films, all from 1941 or 1943. Fires Were Started is about a London fire brigade, beginning with a new arrival to the watch, and following the watch members as they go about their duties. Although some of the film is reconstruction, and filmed at Pinewood Studios, it all looks very real (the fires, I think, are real fires – certainly the cast were actual firemen and not actors). I do remember that the firemen had their own bar and drank beer… until called out by an alarm. The technology also seemed surprisingly crude, especially when compared to the military technology of the time. But Jennings had a really good eye, and was especially effective at making his subjects seem likeable and sympathetic. The new member of the watch, for example, is university-educated, whereas the the current members are all working-class… but Jennings shows how accomodating both are toward each other and how well they work together. Fires Were Started is one of three collections of Jennings film released by the BFI. I quite fancy getting all three – um, maybe I should just wait until I’ve had some wine and do as I did for Glauber Rocha…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 764


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Moving pictures, #9

Yet more moving pictures watched by Yours Truly. The plan to watch those 1001 films before I die continues apace, although perhaps if the title of the list is to be believed I should slow down a bit… Nah. Once I’m done, I’ll just set about making a list of my own, or find another list – 1001 East European Films To See Before You Die, or something… (Incidentally, I’ve marked films from the 1001 films list with an asterisk.)

Silk Stockings, Rouben Mamoulian (1957, USA) Another Fred Astaire / Cyd Charisse musical, with a plot taken from an earlier film starring Greta Garbo, Ninotchka (1939) – yes, the “Garbo laughs!” film – about a Soviet envoy sent to Paris to bring back three missing attachés, only to be seduced by the decadent West herself – not its political freedoms, I hasten to add, but its lingerie. It’s all very silly, Charisse’s accent is not even remotely convincing, and most of the songs are forgettable. The three attachés are mildly amusing – especially Peter Lorre – but then they are played as clowns. Even as a Charisse/Astaire vehicle, this film fails on many levels. It’s as fluffy as candy floss and that’s what it’ll turn your brain into when you watch it.

Orphée*, Jean Cocteau (1950, France) Cocteau’s re-working of the Orpheus myth works amazingly well, although it starts off somewhat dubiously, with rive gauche types in the Café des Poètes being all beatnik and full of themselves. But once the viewpoint settles on Orphée and follows him, with the princess, to the ruined chateau, and then the following morning back to his home and wife, Eurydice, the film starts to pick up… and pretty soon it turns fascinating. Some of Cocteau’s optical tricks are a bit feeble, even for 1950, but they’re effective all the same. I’d like to watch the other two films in the trilogy now, please.

orphee

Starship Troopers: Invasion, Shinji Aramaki (2012, Japan) I still think Verhoeven’s film was a superb treatment of Heinlein’s novel, and while the second Starship Troopers film was dull, the third at least made an effort at satire – it was, admittedly, cheesy as hell, and pretty ham-fisted, but in a good way. However, most people it seems only care about power armour and killing bugs, and think life is like the Vietnam War which was of course cool. They are stupid people, and this is a film made for them. It’s an all-CGI follow-on that uses the same characters and production design as Verhoeven’s masterpiece but has all the subtlety and intelligence of a FPS. It even includes a gratuitous female nude scene. In a CGI film. This is Starship Troopers for spotty oicks who really need to get out of their basements every once in a while.

Meet Me In St Louis*, Vincente Minnelli (1944, USA) Given that this film is set in St Louis, and all the characters are resident in the city, you have to wonder about the title. Teenager Judy Garland’s family is set to move to New York, but she fancies the boy next-door… so they sing a bit, the other kids get into a few scrapes, and eventually papa sees the errors of his ways and they all stay in St Louis. Yawn.

Funny Games, Michael Haneke (1997, Austria) I’ve had this for a while, and had tried watching it last year but had given up halfway through. Not because it was bad, but because it was too uncomfortable. I finally got around to giving it another go and managed to make it all the way through to the end – and it was still really uncomfortable. Mostly it’s the motive-less violence. The two young men who invade the family home are creepy, and their smug condescension only makes their violence even more unsettling. On the other hand, the moments when the film breaks the fourth wall are genius – although I remain ambivalent about the remote control rewind bit, as it seems a bit too much. Finally, if you’ve not watched any Haneke, why not?

but-you-want-a-plausible-ending

47 Ronin, Carl Rinsch (2013, USA) Keanu Reeves in a CGI-heavy treatment of a story that’s so popular in Japan it is its own genre, Chūshingura. Reeves plays a half-Japanese, half-English man, who is treated like a lowly servant, but secretly happens to be a master swordsman. Or something. Apparently the film lost $152 million, making it second only to The 13th Warrior as the most expensive box office bomb ever. That takes real talent with such a well-known story, but I suspect Reeves’ presence helped.

Cat People*, Jacques Tourneur (1942, USA) I have no idea how this film ever got made – I mean, with an elevator pitch that goes “a woman thinks she’s descended from a race of people who turn into cats when sexually aroused”, it’s hard to imagine any producer, even back in 1942, greenlighting the movie. But then things were different back then – Cat People was written and produced by Val Lewton, who ran RKO’s horror unit, and he was given free rein providing the films did not exceed $150,000 each to make, and didn’t run longer than 75 minutes. Lewton’s supervisors, however, provided the films’ titles. I can’t actually remember much of the plot of the movie, although it’s considered a classic of its type.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams*, Werner Herzog (2010, Canada/UK) Herzog’s documentaries are as odd as his fictional movies, but he has a real talent for picking fascinating topics. And so he does here: Chauvet Cave in France, site of the oldest cave-paintings so far discovered, some of them dating back 32,000 years. Admittedly, the film was doubly fascinating as I’d just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, which was itself inspired by the paintings in Chauvet Cave. And now that I’ve seen it, I want to get the Blu-Ray version.

The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov (1968, USSR) This was a rewatch, and while the film is an astonishing spectacle, I still have no idea what it’s about. I’m also surprised it’s not on the list of 1001 films. Nominally about the life of eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, the film comprises a series of tableaux intended to represent episodes from his life (although Sayat Nova is actually played by a woman, Sofiko Chiaureli, who played a further five parts in the film). The Colour of Pomegranates is impossible to describe, you really have to watch it. After watching it for the first time, I bought the other three films by Parajanov available on DVD in the UK – Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, Ashik Kerib and The Legend of the Surami Fortress – but he made several more and they really ought to be made available too.

Pomegranates_snapshot

Nashville*, Robert Altman (1975, USA) I’ve never much of an Altman fan, perhaps because I came to cinema after the elements which made his films stand out had become commonplace, such as over-lapping dialogue, semi-improvisation and multiple narratives. The film follows the lives of various musicians in the titular town, most of which have somewhat clichéd story-arcs. Apparently, the actors all wrote their own songs, which probably explains why they’re so bloody terrible. I mean, I’m not a fan of country and western, but the music throughout Nashville is really bad. I’m puzzled why this film should make the 1001 films list but The Colour of Pomegranates doesn’t – in fact, Nashville is one of six Altman films on the list, so I guess the list-maker was a fan… although they don’t appear to be that much of a cineaste…