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Moving pictures 2017, #40

It’s odd how films drop into my viewing schedule – although “schedule” is far too strong a word – but… I watch a lot of rentals and, of course, I have a limited time to watch them (the longer it takes, the less rental discs I can get through in a month), whereas other films I own so I can watch them at any time… And yet only two of the below movies are actually rentals; the rest are films I’ve purchased. Also, we have the first Pasolini from the collection I bought… which makes him the second director, after Truffaut, who I’d seen previously (Truffaut in 2006, Pasolini in 2009) but had not been much bothered about, but in 2017 changed my mind sufficiently about their films to invest in a Blu-ray box set…

Kiss Me Deadly*, Robert Aldrich (1955, USA). This is one of a handful of classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I’d always assumed I’d seen it before at some point, probably because the title is so iconic. But nothing in it seemed familiar as I watched it, so I guess not. Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the maguffin in Kiss Me Deadly inspired the plot of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Ralph Meeker plays two-fisted gumshoe Mike Hammer (a character I know best from the Stacy Keach incarnation of the 1980s), who is out driving on a lonely country road one night when he gives a lift to a young woman wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Thugs then force his car off the road, take the two prisoner, knock out Hammer, torture the woman, then stage a car crash. Hammer survives. Determined to uncover who the woman was, and why she was murdered, he follows a series of clues, which eventually lead him to a beach house owned by a mysterious scientist, and a suitcase containing some radioactive material… which results in the film’s infamous ending – the beach house going up in a nuclear explosion. To be honest, it was all a bit ridiculous. Hammer has always been paper-thin as a character, and though Meeker made him more of a brutal thug than the white knight he’s usually protrayed, it wasn’t enough to make him interesting. The Wikipedia page points out many of the Bunker Hill locations used in the film have since disappeared, but that seems a pretty thin reason for inclusion on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I suppose a certain notoriety has attached to the film, despite its daft premise and incomprehensible plotting, and I did enjoy it… But I’m not convinced it should be on the list.

Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). After watching the slog that was Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) – all 345 minutes of it! (see here) – I wasn’t expecting all that much of Privilege, and the fact it’s a late sixties docudrama and a musical…, well, that didn’t bode too well either. But I was surprised to discover I loved it. Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann at the time, plays Steven Shorter, the UK’s most popular celebrity. The film opens, with documentary-style voiceover narration, as Shorter is welcomed back to the UK with a ticker tape parade. The film uses the same semi-documentary format, with occasional songs, as it follows Shorter’s career as a political tool to appease the masses and, later, a messianic figure to encourage church attendance and obedience. It’s all set in a 1970s dystopian UK, and Watkins is not afraid to use the completely absurd to make his point – the filming of the apple commercial, for example, is absolutely bonkers. I was reminded, while watching Privilege, of V for Vendetta, which covers similar territory, but uses fascist iconography as its dystopian credentials. Privilege, however, looks like it’s set in the same world as that inhabited by its contemporary viewers. Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek, although played beautifully straight – but it does make its point far more bitingly and effectively than V for Vendetta. I want my own copy of Privilege now.

Colossus: The Forbin Project, Joseph Sargent (1970, USA). I hadn’t planned to buy this. I knew of the film, but had never seen it before, and when a brand new edition – the first since VHS, I think – appeared, I fancied seeing it and so put it on my rental list. But then it appeared in a recent Prime Day at a price of great cheapness, and so I sort of found myself sort of clicking on the buy button… A Blu-ray too. And… it’s sort of fun in that early 1970s earnest science fiction B-list sort of way – ie, a serious film the studios never expected anyone to take seriously, although it was made with serious intent. Much like Planet of the Apes. The title refers to a massive computer, supposedly heuristic, and probably more like an AI as sf understands the term, which is put in charge the US’s nuclear deterrent. with no human oversight, or possibility of human intervention. What could possibly go wrong? The film – based on a novel by forgotten Brit sf author DF Jones – avoids the obvious consequences of such hubristic foolishness. It transpires the USSR has only gone and done exactly the same thing. And Colossus and the Soviet AI, called Guardian, begin “talking” to each other – in the film’s most technologically cringe-inducing scene – then form a gestalt and, well, take over the world, ushering in a new age of computer-led fascism. In actual fact, Colossus: The Forbin Project feels like a better-made film than it probably deserves. I can’t quite figure out why. There are no A-listers in the cast, what few special effects the film possesses are adequate and very much of their time (although the Colossus CCTV reticule is quite prescient), and the multiple scenes with the president of the US feel a little soap-opera-ish… I think it’s because the film takes itself seriously and doesn’t talk down to its audience. Yes, there’s plenty of expository dialogue, but it’s well-anchored in the story, and it’s only really its datedness that embarrasses (the aforementioned scene aside). I felt kinder toward Colossus: The Forbin Project after it had finished than I did while watching it, and while I love the aesthetics of early 1970s near-future movies, I don’t think this one is ever going to be a favourite…

Nekem lámpást adott kezembe az Úr Pesten, Miklós Jancsó (1999, Hungary). This is the first of six low-budget semi-improvised comedy films written and directed by Jancsó after a long break from film-making. The films star a pair of gravediggers called Pepe and Kapa, played by Péter Scherer and Zoltán Mucsi. And, I admit, I’m not entirely sure what I watched. This is not an unknown consequence of watching a Miklós Jancsó film and, to be fair, it’s one of the reasons I like them so much. This movie (the title is a bit of a slog to type) opens with a group of men haring up in 4WDs, jumping out of them and then shooting some women and a man in a house. The action cuts to a cemetery, where Kapa and Pepe appear. They start chatting to two old men, Jancsó himself and Gyula Hernádi, the writer of many of Jancsó’s earlier films.  Kapa and Pepe, who wear insignialess blue uniforms, seem to spend most of the time arguing and insulting each other, in quite coarse language, often involving passers by in their disputes. Then there’s a funeral, followed by a wedding and… a new section starts, and now Kapa is a yuppie and Pepe is a policeman, but then he turns into a yuppie too, except Kapa can remember him being a cop and so is confused (he’s not the only one). The two gravediggers are not the only characters to re-appear, or change roles, as the victims of the opening shooting also turn up as Kapa’s family, but this time shot by his niece. Not that he seems overly bothered. And Jancsó and Hernádi turn up too, despite being killed earlier… And then Pepi is walking up the cable of a suspension bridge to the top of the tower, with nothing but a narrow handrail to either side (and it looks massively dangerous). Kapa joins him, and the two start to argue, and I had to look away as I suffer from vertigo and… well, I was lost. I don’t even know what the title – it translates as The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest – means or refers to (Kapa, in the guise of a corporate raider, calls himself “the Lord’s Lantern” after being shot in the head and coming back to life). The style is very different to the other Jancsó films I’ve seen, with cuts and close-ups and zooms and pull-backs, rather than long tracking shots and dolly shots. The acting is also much more natural, far less stylised – in fact, it’s pretty much what you would expect of a contemporary film. It’s all sort of bewildering, but in a completely different way to a film such as Electra, My Love, since the two main characters are not fixed – indeed in that earlier film, the characters are more or less concretized in mythology – but drift through a series of stories, maintaining their own identity even though there’s no narrative link from one story to the next. Despite being baffled by it, I’m glad I bought it. I’ll be watching this again, I think. And I’m looking forward to watching the five sequels…

The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1972, Italy). Pasolini was one of those directors whose name I ticked off after watching the films of theirs which had made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. But then earlier this year I watched his Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (see here), which proved far less gruesome than I’d expected (I’m extremely squeamish) and intriguing enough to persuade me Pasolini’s oeuvre was worth exploring further. So I stuck his Arabian Nights on my rental list, and a few weeks ago it duly arrived, I watched it (see here), and was much impressed. Enough to shell out for Six Films 1968 – 1975, a Blue-ray collection of, er, six films by Pasolini. And the first one, which I’d not seen, that I pulled from the box, was The Canterbury Tales. Annoyingly, I didn’t realise there was an English-language version of the film on the disc, so I ended up watching a film starring British actors dubbed into Italian with English subtitles. (Pasolini famously dubbed all his films into several languages.) And… I know of the source text, but I don’t know it, I’ve never read Chaucer. I don’t even know enough about it to judge Pasolini’s film as an adaptation. But I can judge it as a film and as a Pasolini film (based on the handful I’ve seen so far). In that respect, it clearly does everything Pasolini does, and it does them well. Perhaps the Chaplin pastiche/homage in ‘The Cook’s Tale’ is a bit too overt, and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ does feel a bit too much like a 1970s British sex-comedy, although somewhat… earthier. I’ve also no idea where the film was shot – in the UK, certainly, judging by the cast, but all the locations certainly look the part.

You, the Living, Roy Andersson (2007, Sweden). This is a sequel to Songs from the Second Storey, which I watched just before travelling to Sweden because it was, well, Swedish, although all things considered that might not have been too smart as it was  weird as shit… But I sort of enjoyed Songs from the Second Storey (see here) and I sort of enjoyed this sequel. Although perhaps “enjoyed” is too strong a word. As is “sequel”. Neither film is easy to describe. They have no plot, but are basically a series of vignettes, strung together with occasional linking material. The comedy is blacker than that really black thing they made earlier this year – or was it last year? – that’s the blackest thing ever, and Andersson shoots everything in sombre hues, and puts his cast in pale face make-up, which makes everything look even more miserable. You, the Living is worth seeing, although it’s unlikely to raise a chuckle, but make sure you’re in a good mood when you sit down to watch it.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 875


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Moving pictures 2017, #29

Another mixed bag, including some films I didn’t expect to like but did, and some I expected to like but didn’t…

The Wedding, Andrzej Wajda (1972, Poland). I find Wajda a bit and miss, to be honest. I really like both Man of Marble and Man of Iron, but didn’t take to Ashes and Diamonds. Two of those films are in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets, along with Innocent Sorcerors, Promised Land and… The Wedding. That’s quite a showing, out of twenty-four films. I suspect some of Wajda’s films require several watchings, and The Wedding is one of them. As the title, er, informs, it’s set at a wedding, in 1900 in Kraków, between a middle-class poet and his peasant fiancée. The film is apparently based on a play by Stanisław Wyspiański, and is concerned chiefly with the history of Poland, particularly how it relates to class. The play is apparently held in high regard – and Wajda has also directed the play, it seems – but some of the reviews I’ve seen online of Wajda’s film are less complimentary – although the non-Polish reviews seem uniformly approving. The play has rhyming dialogue, but Wajda dispenses with it for the film, although many lines spoken by the cast use a lot of poetic imagery. As everyone at the wedding gets more pissed, so they start to see apparitions which represent people and incidents from Polish history. In 1900, Poland didn’t exist as a nation, as it was occupied by Russia, Austria and Prussia, and it would not regain its independence until The Treaty of Versailles in 1918. The Wedding takes place at a time when an uprising might have happened – The Wedding partly symbolises the inability of the intelligentsia and peasants to work together. The film has an externsive cast, and crams a lot into its 106 minutes. It doesn’t feel at all stagey, chiefly because Wajda films several important scenes outdoors (I don’t know how the play handles them). But even the interior scenes feel very cinematographic, as Wajda uses close-ups, zoom shots and pull back shots. The Wedding was definitely a film that improved on a second viewing. I’ll probably have to watch it again sometime.

The Eye of Silence, Emmanuel Sapolsky (2016, China). I found this on Amazon Prime, and the synopsis sounded reasonably interesting so I sat down to watch it. Amèlie is a young Chinese woman in Beijing, who enjoys going out clubbing with her friend Coco. They’re both beautiful and looking for a good time. Coco already has a boyfriend, a young and rich property developer. Amèlie makes her living pretending to be French – she lived in France and speaks the language – for a friend who scams companies looking for overseas investment. Amèlie also has extremely sensitive vision and can see in the dark – but she has to wear sunglasses in the light. At a party thrown by Coco’s boyfriend, Coco goes into a diabetic coma and then dies while being raped by the boyfriend and his friends. Even though the lights are out, Amèlie witnesses this, but she doesn’t know what to do. Sapolsky is, I think, a French director, and Xin Wang, the actress who plays Amèlie, has appeared in a couple of his projects – including Ex-Model a series of webisodes about a Chinese fashion model in Paris who discovers she is too old (at thirty) to get more work. They’re also available on Amazon Prime and are quite amusing. Xin Wang is a face to watch, and while the seeing-in-the-dark thing is an important plot-point – it makes her witness to the crime without the perpetrators realising it, and leads to a somewhat bathetic ending – it does feel a bit unnecessary. The Eye of Silence is clearly a star vehicle for Xin Wang, but she’s very good so that’s no problem. Worth watching.

Songs from the Second Floor, Roy Andersson (2000, Sweden). The night before I flew out to Sweden for a convention, I decided to watch something Swedish. As you do. And I found this film on Amazon Prime, which seemed to have added a number of good films in the week or two prior (including the one above). However, I’m not sure Songs from the Second Floor was a good choice of film to put me in a Swedish frame of mind as it was fucking weird as shit. It’s a series of vignettes, all of which are completely depressing, are played totally deadpan, and in which the cast wear white face make-up that makes them look like cadavers. It makes Finnish films look like the Marx Brothers. The vignettes sort of interlock, inasmuch as characters move through them while also having their own stories. In one, a man who has just been fired, clings to the leg of his boss, and is dragged begging for a second chance along the corridor. In another, a man on a subway train carries a bag full of burnt paper. A naval officer gets into a taxi which is stuck in traffic, even though he is late for an important funeral. The film has a very washed-out look, which does everyone the appearance of warmed-over corpses, but given that it’s a mordant commentary on modern life, it’s quite effective. It presents a different character of black humour to that of films from other nations I’ve seen, more absurd and surreal, I think, than, say, Finnish black-comedies. And less cataclysmic than Polish ones. I’m not sure I liked it, but I think I’ll probably have a go at the two “sequels”, You, the Living and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Performance*, Nicolas Roeg (1970, UK). I think I had the wrong idea about this film in my head prior to watching it. Because when it opened as a mockney gangaster flick, with James Fox as a dapper but psycho enforcer for a London gang boss, I wondered if I were watching the right movie. But after Fox pisses off his boss and is forced to go on the run, he ends up hiding out in the house of retired rock star Turner (played by Jagger), and the film I’d been expecting began to manifest. But there was little in it, I thought, to justify a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. As an ultra-violent film with flashes of surrealism, it predated Pete Travis’s Dredd by several decades, but didn’t seem to add anything to either ultra-violent films of its time or surrealist movies. But then the film reached ‘Memo from Turner’, almost a promo video, performed by Jagger, and the whole film went up a level. That happens sometimes: a film is mostly meh, and then something happens to cause you re-appraise what you’ve just watched. Performance still feels like a so-so 1970s British gangster film, and I couldn’t decide if Jagger was actually acting or not (as in, he wasn’t that bad, and he’s usually a terrible actor), but the ‘Memo from Turner’ sequence was really good, and if only for that I think better of this film than I otherwise would.

The Green Ray, Éric Rohmer (1986, France). Among the people I know who actually know who Rohmer is – and it’s a small number of people – The Green Ray is generally proffered as Rohmer’s best film. So I was surprised to find it so disappointing. Rohmer’s films are very talky, but this one seemed even more so than others I remembered. Perhaps I expected too much of it. But his films also tackle thorny moral situations and problems, and YMMV almost certainly given those subjects. In The Green Ray, a young woman’s relationship has just ended, and her holidays planned are torpedoed when her travelling companion pulls out. She joins a beach party, but she’s the only single person there and doesn’t fit in (I know that feeling). She bounces around Europe, looking for a companion but unwilling to engage in the sort of mindless mating games people use when looking for one-night stands (I know that feeling too). You’d think, with Rohmer tackling a situation with which I can sympathise, I’d like The Green Ray more than I did. But Delphine, the main character, felt a little too flat to be sympathetic, and perhaps the over-reliance on dialogue told against the film. Also, when I think of the Rohmer films I like – Chloe in the Afternoon, Pauline at the Beach – the emotional problem which forms the core of the film feels stronger and a more powerful engine for the plot. The Green Ray – a reference to both Verne’s novel of the same name, and the near-mythical green flash sometimes seen at sunset – feels at times as unfocused as Delphine’s holiday plans. I still like Rohmer’s films, and am happy to work my way through his oeuvre, and I suspect The Green Ray is going withstand a rewatch much better than some of his other films… One of these days I’ll have to see if I can pick up a DVD collection of his movies; there are several available.

The Holy Mountain, Arnold Fanck (1926, Germany). I had thought Leni Reifenstahl – of Triumph of the Will fame – had directed this, but it turns out she was its star, not its director. She plays a dancer who falls in love with a mountaineer, but then he gets jealous when she gives one of her scarves to one of his friends, leading the friend to believe she loves him and the mountaineer to think she has betrayed him. The film makes much of the fact its mountaineering scenes were actually filmed in the mountains and not faked up in a studio, and, while there are plenty that were certainly filmed on location, a pivotal scene in which the mountaineer has to hold his friend all night after he’d fallen off a cliff does look a bit like it was done in a studio. About all I can remember from the film is the dancing scenes (bad) and the climbing scenes (good). If the film was sold on its location shooting, it at least did a good job on it. The story – boy meets, girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again after much difficulty – may not have been all that original, and Reifenstahl as an actress has nothing like Louise Brooks’s on-screen charisma, and the film does not go somewhat off-piste towards the end (leading to the film’s title)… but I did enjoy it. And while silent films require a different viewing protocol to “talkies”, I’ve seen aneough them now to appreciate how it’s done. And some silent films, in fact, I’ve thought absolutely blinding. Worth seeing, but probably not worth a rewatch.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 866