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Moving pictures 2018, #34

Not a single US film in this bunch, although two are still Anglophone – British and Australian.

Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou (1990, China). Although I’m a big fan of films by Chinese Sixth Generation directors, such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in earlier generations – and I don’t just mean early classics like Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934, see here) or Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948, see here). There was also – obviously – a Fifth Generation, to which Zhang Yimou belonged, and those films of his I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. He also has two entries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: Red Sorghum (see here) and Raise the Red Lantern (not currently available on DVD). Ju Dou is Zhang’s third film (he’s better known these days for films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall), and had I not read in the movie’s Wikipedia entry that it was filmed in Technicolor – in 1990! – I’d not have known it from the copy I watched. So can we have a restored edition, please? Because this is an excellent film, irrespective of the motion picture process used. The title refers to a young woman, played by Zhang favourite Gong Li, who is married to a cruel dyer. The dyer’s adopted nephew returns after a weeks-long trip to discover his uncle has remarried… and he begins to obsess over Ju Dou, who is being abused by her husband. It doesn’t end well, these things never end well, especially when Ju Dou has a son, and the dyer is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke and learns the son is not his own… It was clear watching this that colour had been uppermost in Zhang’s mind, and yet the DVD transfer had made a mockery of the Technicolor, washing out many of the colours and, in some scenes, giving the whole frame a faint tint. Now I love Technicolor, especially Technicolor landscapes – the New England autumnal landscape of All That Heaven Allows, the wide open spaces of Shane – and since much of Ju Dou took place in a dye works, there was no shortage of colour. Which, sadly, wasn’t especially obvious on this transfer. A good film, but I’d like to see a restored copy.

Outskirts, Boris Barnet (1933, Russia). I forget where I came across mention of this, and having now seen it I’m surprised it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A Soviet film from 1933 that covers the period prior to the October Revolution via the lives of ordinary Russian villagers? Barnet made several early Soviet films, but only Eisenstein, Vertov and Vsevelod make the list. Which is not to say they shouldn’t. But Barnet belongs on there too. More so than some early Hollywood films anyway. It’s not just that Outskirts documents the lives of villagers in early twentieth-century Russia, which it does very effectively, but also that it is dramatically impressive too. Part of it is set at the front during WWI, or Second Patriotic War, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it’s the equal of any other WWI movie of the time, if not better. Barnet, by all accounts, was in the top rank of Soviet directors, but seems to be pretty much forgotten these days. Eisenstein’s oeuvre is readily available, but I can find only three of Barnet’s twenty-seven films, including this one, on DVD. A shame. On the strength of Outskirts, I’d say his films are definitely worth seeing.

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short*, André Delvaux (1966, Belgium). Govert Miereveld is hired to replace a departing teacher at a school. He begins to obsess over a female student, played by Polish actress Beata Tyszkiewicz (dubbed into Flemish?). He leaves the school and enters the law. Some years later, he accompanies a colleague who needs to attend an autopsy of a body washed ashore in another town. They suspect the body of being a suspect in a case, but in the event it turns out to be a completely different man. At the hotel, Miereveld bumps into the student he had obsessed over, who is now a famous opera singer. She remembers him from school and is surprisingly open to his, er, overtures. He spends time with her and she admits she knew of his obsession at school. She also admits the teacher he replaced had been asked to leave because he had been in a relationship with her. And her father, who had disappeared shortly after she left school, well, his description matches that of the body in the autopsy… The first time I watched this, I liked its focus on its protagonist – including the scene which lends the films its title – but I hadn’t realised how vital to the plot that focus was. Because Miereveld is badly affected by what he learns, and the final third of the film shows the aftermath. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s not entirely clear for much of its length what sort of film it is. It opens as an introspective drama, turns into a thriller, and then becomes something completely different. I liked it so much on second viewing, I considered picking up a copy of the book from which it was adapted… which is, of course, almost fucking impossible to find…

Brick Lane, Sarah Gavron (2007, UK). This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Monica Ali, set among the Bangladeshi community in London on, er, Brick Lane. I’ve not read the book, so I’ve no idea how the film differs from it. Nazneen is the wife of Chanu Ahmed, a man who seems convinced he can succeed in the UK, and is equally blind to the country’s racism – the film opens with him convinced he is about to be promoted, only to learn he has been fired. He’s keen on improving himself, and is evidently a voracious reader, but his wife is not happy, and his two kids seem to have little in common with him. Except Brick Lane is not about him, it’s about Nazneen, who has an affair with an Anglo-Bangladeshi (ie, born and bred in the UK, unlike Nazneen) who is part of a local group agitating for Muslim solidarity. And this is around the time of the 9/11 attacks. I was resident in the UAE when 9/11 happened, and working for a government-owned oil company… so the only version of events I heard was that told by Arabs who had been affected. So I can sympathise with the Bangladeshis depicted in Brick Lane and even understand the drivers which lead to the film’s more dramatic elements. White people are racist. That’s a simple fact. Sometimes it’s ameliorated by experience, sometimes by education, and sometimes by both. I like to think I fall into that last category, thanks to my years in the Gulf. But I also accept that all white people are racist, it’s merely a matter of degree and constant self-policing. And I try my best to self-police. So films like Brick Lane are important, if not the most compelling drama ever. On the one hand, Tannishtha Chatterjee is compelling in the lead role and Satish Kaushik makes her husband seem a lot more sympathetic than he deserves to be… But not much of it feels like it connects with Islam, despite an impassioned speech by Chanu Ahmed; and Nazneen’s lover, Christopher Simpson, comes across more as a paper-thin wide boy than anything else… I don’t know; maybe I was expecting more than the film was prepared to deliver, than the original novel was prepared to deliver. But it all felt a bit shallow and glib to me.

The Last Wave*, Peter Weir (1977, Australia). Richard Chamberlain is a corporate lawyer in Australia – the reason for his American accent is never explained, although his parents are introduced as his adoptive parents – who is assigned by legal aid to defend an Aboriginal man from the charge of murdering his friend. Something about the Aboriginal man Chamberlain finds striking, an inexplicable connection the two seem to have. The crime itself remains a mystery – five men in a bar, they’re thrown out for being Aboriginal, one ends up dead. The barrister assigned to the defence resents Chamberlain’s naivete – he can’t claim tribal murder for non-tribal Aboriginal people, ie, those living in the city. But Chamberlain is convinced it’s tribal murder, and through his dreams becomes swept up in the life  of his defendant, and the crime for which he was charged. There’s an obvious use of Dreamtime here, and Aboriginal beliefs, and perhaps the framing narrative is somewhat banal – it even has the “strange black man” outside the house, which was never an acceptable trope – but Weir handles the way Chamberlain gets sucked into the Aboriginal world-view quite effectively, so much so in fact that the final scene, to which the title refers, remains ambiguous. The Last Wave feels like a film with good intentions that has not aged well. It’s overlong, it’s choice of Chamberlain as the protagonist weakens its story, and its borderline positioning of Aboriginal people as “magical negros” only just manages not to be racist. The fact it has subsequently proven hard to find seems almost fitting. I’d say it was worth seeing, but only for those willing to track it down.

The Whispering Star, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Another random film that looked interesting so I bunged it on my rental list. I suspect I may have thought it was anime and, from the title, sf anime, like 2001 Nights or Voices of a Distant Star. It’s sf, alright, but it’s not anime. It’s filmed in black and white. The director’s partner, Megumi Kagurazaka, plays an interstellar delivery person, although it’s not clear how real this is. Her spaceship resembles a house from the outside, and the opening scenes feature her repeating both a number of simple household tasks and her dialogue. It turns out she is delivering items to survivors of the Fukushima nuclear incident, played in the film by real life survivors. I don’t know if The Whispering Star was filmed in the areas abandoned as a consequence of the nuclear meltdown, but it certainly looks like it. To add to the strangeness, all the dialogue is looped, and delivered in whispered tones. Almost as if it were intended to represent telepathy. There’s no plot as such. The end result is an experimental film that overstays its welcome, and reminds me in many respects of Lukas Moodysson’s Container (there is also something container-like about Kagurazaka’s spaceship), but nonetheless makes a number of valid points about Fukushima. As a result of seeing The Whispering Star, I looked into Sono’s other films, and it looks like he has an oeuvre worth exploring…

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 918

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Moving pictures, #45

More movies!

suffragetteSuffragette, Sarah Gavron (2015, UK). I’m surprised it’s taken until 2015 to make a film like this. Actually, I’m not surprised, just disgusted. True, this film is bsed on fictional characters, and real historical people such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emil Davison do make brief appearances (the former is, in fact, played by Meryl Streep). The film tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK through a pair of invented characters – a working-class laundress played by Carey Mulligan, who more or less accidentally becomes a suffragette. Well, inasmuch ,as she rebels a clear injustice and that brings her into contact with the suffragettes and so she reluctantly joins their campaign. To me, it seems incredible that women should ever have been denied the vote, but I’m not stupid, I realise that historically men have been complete scumbags, and many still are today. I remember thinking while watching Suffragette that most social progress has come about because of violent action, and that decades of insistence on “peaceful demonstration” has only slowed the rate of social progress – if not driven it backwards, as twenty-first century culture seems in many ways less progressive than that of the twentieth century. I have to wonder sometimes if the twentieth century was only a social experiment, and now it’s over. But I suspect what’s more likely is that WWI killed off great swathes of the upper classes and so opened up management of society to the middle classes, but now the upper classes are back in charge once again. But Suffragrette… An important film, I think, because of its subject, but not a great film; and though played well by its cast and directed well, it did all feel a bit meh. Recommended because of its subject, if not as a film per se.

jeremishJeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack (1972, USA). I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I find myself liking several Western films that don’t follow the usual Western story-lines. Like this one. Not a brilliant film, by any means; but there’s lots of lovely scenery in it, and the story is sufficiently distant from your typical Western story that I found it interesting… but I’m not convinced Robert Redford was suitable for the title role. He looks too, well, urbane. The title character heads off into the mountains for a new life. Fortunately, he stumbles across an old timer before he dies of starvation, and the old timer teaches him how to survive. Taking his leave after learning all this is to learn, he finds a homesteader family that had been attacked by Blackfoot. The wife has been driven mad with grief and she insists Johnson take her young son with him. So he does. He then comes across a trapper who had been buried neck-deep in sand by Blackfoot, and rescues him. They track down the Blackfoot who attacked the trapper and steal back his possessions – and killed the Blackfoot braves. This apparently makes Johnson something of a hero among the other Native American tribes of the area. He ends up married to the daughter of a Flathead chieftain, and they and the boy start to make a life for themselves. But the US Cavalry asks for Johnson’s help to resuce a wagon train, and this requires a ride, against Johnson’s better judgement, through a Blackfoot sacred burial ground. The Blackfoot respond by killing his wife and adopted son. There then follows many years of Blackfoot sending young braves to test their mettle against Johnson, all of whom, of course, he kills. We like to think of the Wild West taking place in the scrub and desert of south-west USa, but there’s other scenery which falls within the genre – the Rocky Mountains in this case. And it’s hard to film such landscapes badly… but when they’re filmed well, they’re gorgeous. Pollack had always struck me as a Hollywood stalwart – a director of commercially successful films, with the odd critical success thrown in, but by no means an auteur. And while Redford may not convince as the title character in Jeremiah Johnson, Pollack does a really good job at presenting the landscape (I can’t say “capture” but I have no personal experience of it). The end result is a superior Western, albeit perhaps high second-tier rather than first-tier. But worth a watch.

uchoUcho*, Karel Kachňya (1970, Czech Republic). I wanted to like this film more than I did. For many reasons. For the fact it was banned for many years in its home country, and only shown for the first time after the Velvet Revolution. For its subject: the lives of people in a totalitarian state. For its story: the paranoia endemic in totalitarian states is heightened for a couple after they return from a party and find their front door unlocked, and that tears their marriage apart. And for its use of New Wave cinematic techniques to tell its story. But something about it didn’t quite click for me. Possibly because I have a positive view of the trappings it presents as totalitarian, which I’ve taken from films like Eolomea and Wings. If that makes sense. This is not to say what happened to the Czech Republic – Czechoslovakia as was – at the USSR’s hands is in any way condonable. But in the Eastern Bloc the signifiers they presented for success and happiness I actually find quite appealing, and though they’re all utopian surface, cleverly hiding the totalitarian reality underneath, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the dream. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that Ucho reveals that horrible reality underneath as a commentary by someone who actually lived it. In terms of technique, Ucho has much to recommend it – the use of ambient light, the tight focus on the central charaters… a variety of New Wave techniques, in fact. But the shifting of focus of totalitarian depradations to married-couple dynamics feels at times like diminuation of what should be a major dramatic point. There is, for example, a point in the film when the doorbell rings and the husband and wife work themselves up into such a frenzy believing the secret police have come to take him away that he walks down to open the gate carrying a suitcase of overnight things. But it turns out it’s only a bunch of drunken colleagues from the minsterial party which opens the film. The threat remains – and the movie is clear on that – but the decaying relationship between husband and wife seems to be used a little too often to ratchet up a more existential fear than is deserved by the story. Ucho is an important film, but it is somewhat disappointing as a piece of cinema. Worth seeing – once, at least.

three_coloursThree Colours: Red*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). And so the Three Colours trilogy, and my rewatch of it, comes to a close; and Red is generally considered the best of the three… and so it is, but by considerably more of a margin than I’d remembered. Yes, yes, that final scene where all the major characters from all three films are paraded across the screen is silly and unnecessary; but there’s still a focus and tightness to the story of Red which is so much stronger than that of the other two films. Irene Jacob, who was so good in The Double Life of Veronique, plays a model in Geneva with an absent boyfriend. One night she hits a dog in her car, and it turns out the dog’s owner is ex-judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who cares nothing for the dog. So Jacob pays for the vet bills and adopts it as a pet. But it turns out Trintignant is a bit of a misanthopric oddball, who listens in on the phone calls of his neighbours… and he draws Jacob into his obsession. But she also has problems of her own. I’d started watching Red expecting something similar to my rewatches of Blue and White, so I was surprised to discover how much better than them it is (final scene notwithstanding). There is, now I think back on it, not much that stands out in terms of cinematography – a lot of use of the titular colour, and some nice photography of night-time Geneva. And, to be fair, the cast in all three films have been excellent – but I think it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Trintignant that works so well and lifts the film above Blue and White. The film is supposed to represent fraternity, yet most of the relationships in it have failed by the end – Jacob and her absent boyfriend, a neighbour and his girlfriend… And the strongest relationship in the film, between Jacob and Trintignant, is between two characters who have nothing in common, in fact Jacob is vehemently opposed to Trintignant’s practice of phone hacking. But when Jacob leaves to visit friends in the UK, Trintignant is the only one to wish her good fortune. This rewatch has amended my opinion of the Three Colours trilogy. They’re undoubtedly good films, but having watched so much more non-Anglophone cinema since I first watched them I find them more excellent examples of a particular type of film than merely excellent films. Kieślowski was a gifted film-maker and left an enviably impressive body of work, but I find myself thinking better of his earlier Polish films than I do his later French ones. Go figure.

waiting_womenWaiting Women, Ingmar Bergman (1952, Sweden). Bergman wrote a number of films about women, and while I don’t know enough to call his attitude to women into question, I do wonder sometimes. In Waiting Women, we have a group of women reminscing about the situation which led to their current state of affairs. And it’s all about relationships. The movie opens with a group of women preparing a meal together, before then flashing back to stories of their relationships, the longest and most memorabe of which is that featuring Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – although it does also include a nasty line in misogynistic cracks from Björnstrand. And the infamous elevator scene. Which is, to be honest, one of the highlights. The two are trapped in a lift, and over the course of some ten minutes their rancour turns to humour. The flashback structure at least meant Waiting Women didn’t feel like a televised play, which a lot of Bergman’s films do (even those with scenes that take place outdoors). Not great Bergman by any means, but even his sub-par films are still a cut above most film-maker’s best.

riverRiver of No Return, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). I mentioned in a previous post that Preminger only made one Western… and this is it. And it’s a curious beast. It has many reasons to like it, and yet to fails to, well, impress. The story is an adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves, which is a point in its favour; and the landscape in which the film is set is gorgeous, and often extremely well-photographed… but it’s the things that make it a Hollywood film which spoil it. The close-ups are done in a studio, not on location, and it shows – badly. Marilyn Monroe was a big draw at the time, but she doesn’t bring anything special to this film. In fact, she’s a bit crap – and only seems to really shine when she’s at her most artless (although I guess that was part of her talent as an actress; having said that, by all accounts, she was pretty insufferable during this shoot). Mitchum turns up to a gold-diggers’ camp to pick up his ten-year-old son, who had been left there by arrangement. It turns out the son had been looked after by saloon singer Monroe. Mitchum and son go off to Mitchum’s homestead beside the eponymous river… only for Monroe and fiancé gambler to turn up on en route to stake a claim at Council City. Their raft founders, but Mitchum rescues them. Gambler responds by stealing Mitchm’s horse to continue his jounrey, but Monroe remains behind. Gambler never returns so the three of them make their own way, by raft, to Council City. The location shooting ias lovely, the studio shots anything but. In fact, it seems for much of the film the continuity people were given the day off, as close-up shots often seem to take place in completely different environments. River of No Return is an odd beast. Preminger was a skilled director, and he manages a solid narrative with (mostly) good turns from his cast. But the mix of location shooting and studio shots never quite match and the discrepancy jars badly. One for completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 796