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Moving pictures 2017, #27

Not sure what to make of this batch of films – I thought them all well worth seeing, and a pretty good illustration why varying the films you watch is a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of excellent films because I no longer immediately turn to Hollywood for something to watch of a night. In fact, so far this year, less than a quarter of the movies I’ve watched have been from the US – but I still have a way to go before the percentage of all of the films I’ve watched (since I started recording them back in 2001) that are from the US drops below 50 percent… Admittedly, it’s currently at 52 percent, so not there’s not that far to go… But I’ve seen a lot of films, so it’s taking a while to get those last few points down…

Journey to Agartha, Makoto Shinkai (2011, Japan). This was the second Shinkai film lent to me by David Tallerman – on Blu-ray this time. He thought I might not enjoy it as much as other Shinkai films as it’s clearly fantastical. But… I’m not dead-set against fantasy, I just like it to be used interestingly. And, to be fair, the whole Agartha mythology is something that’s fascinated me for a number of years. True, Journey to Agartha goes off on some wild tangent pretty much totally unconnected with the mythology, but I knew where it was starting from, which is a bonus. A teenage girl, Asuna, spends much of her free time hanging out at a hideout she has discovered on a hill, tuning into strange music with a crystal radio set. Returning home from one such session, she is attacked by a weird-looking creature, like a cross between a bear and a dinosaur. She’s saved by a mysterious young man, who seems to have magical powers. The young man says he is from Agartha, a name Asuna hears a few days later in something read out in class by a substitute teacher. Anyway, Agartha is a mythical realm on the inside of the earth (hollow earth and all that). Asuna finds another mysterious young man at her hideout, also from Agartha. They’re attacked by men in paramilitary uniform, there’s a fight… and Asuna ends up entering Agartha with the substitute teacher, who, it transpires, wants to bring his wife back from the land of the dead (which, to be fair, confuses hollow earth mythology with the underworld, not mention chucking in elements of the Orpheus myth… but it works, so what the hell). It’s certainly true this film is fantastical, in much the same way as Spirited Away is, but I much preferred it to the Studio Ghibli movie. The world of Agartha was presented really well, and while the story may be a little confused in places (a lot happens), the animation is lovely and the production design inventive. Recommended.

Born to be Bad, Lowell Sherman (1934, USA). My mother lent me a boxed set of Cary Grant films, some of which I’d  not seen before. This was one of them. It’s a pre-code film from 1934, in which Loretta Young is actually the star… although a Loretta Young box set is unlikely to ever happen, whereas there are already plenty of Cary Grant box sets… Young plays a single mother, with a son she has left to do pretty much as he pleases. Until he gets hit by a milk truck. Driven by Grant. Who turns out to be the wealthy president of Amalgamated Dairies. Young is persuaded to try and sue Grant by exagerrating the extent of her son’s injuries (he was shaken and bruised), but in court Grant’s lawyers demolish Young’s case. The boy is put in a home. Grant offers to adopt him. The adoption goes ahead, and the kid thrives in his new wealthy home. But Young doesn’t like the arrangement and seduces Grant in order to break up his marriage. It doesn’t work. Realising she’s done him wrong, Young returns to her meagre life. This wasn’t bad (no pun intended), to be honest. Young plays a good part, and her character is a strong female protagonist. It’s not that the film is feminist, but it’s a damn sight closer than most films of that decade… or indeed the following two or three decades. It’s an early Grant film (well, his sixteenth… of seventy-six), so he’s bouncy rather than urbane… which doesn’t quite work here. But Young carries the film – and yes, her kid is an annoying brat. Worth seeing.

Do the Right Thing*, Spike Lee (1989, USA). Lee has a couple of films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he’s clearly an important film-maker in US cinema – although the fact it took until the 1980s for someone like him to appear doesn’t speak too well. He documents the black lived experience in the US – although more so, I thought, in She’s Gotta Have It than in this one. Do the Right Thing is set in a black neighbourhood of Brooklyn, and centres around a pizzeria owned by an Italian-American family. There are racial tensions between the pizzeria family – one son is outright racist, the father and other son are not, but the father is protective of his heritage to a degree that upsets some 0f his customers. The film focuses on a handful of characters, none of which are especially sympathetic, and then shows the events leading up to a night of violence, during which the pizzeria is trashed and the police kill one of the protestors – and, of course, the police get away with it. Do the Right Thing is a hugely more polished film than She’s Gotta Have It and, obviously, much more political. It boasts a professional cast, and while none are stars, one or two went on to become quite big. It also feels curiously small scale – it’s set in a single neighbourhood, but there never seems to be as many people around as you’d expect. So how the pizzeria manages to stay in business is a bit of a mystery. Do the Right Thing belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although it’s one of the more middling films which actually deserve a place on it.

Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène (1966, Senegal). Diouana is hired as a nursemaid by a French family living in Dakar. She looks after the family’s kids, takes them to school, makes sure they’re fed, etc. When the family return to France, they ask Diouana to go with them, and she accepts. She assumes her duties will be the same, but back home in France, the family are not affluent enough to afford more than one servant – so Diouana has to do everything. She quickly realises she is only there because a black housekeeper is something to show off. She’s over-worked, under-paid, and given little or no freedom. The film is played very simply, with straight shots and a voice-over narration by Diouanna. It’s structured as Diouanna’s life in France intercut with flashbacks which explain how she came to be there, and it’s pretty harrowing stuff. That Diouanna was desperate for a job to support her family is made clear, but the fact the French family totally take advantage of her – and this is why we needed film-makers like Sembène – is documented, and occasionally editorialised by Diouana, with an honesty you won’t find in French films of the time. The ending is shocking, and sadly inevitable. The callousness of the French family is astonishing, as is their patronising racism. It’s a shame there are not more films by Sembène available – or indeed by any director from an African nation. Did you know, for example, that the Nigerian film industry, Nollywood, is the third largest in the world, second only to Bollywood and Hollywood? How many Nollywood films are routinely given English-language releases on sell-through? The Figurine: Araromire by Kunli Afolayan is considered a major film from Nigeria, but despite being only eight years old it’s never been made available in the UK (or the US, as far as I can discover). Non-Anglophone cinema (I’ve never liked the term “world cinema”) should not just be the province of dedicated cineastes, it should be on equal terms with Anglophone cinema.

Kamikaze Girls, Tetsuya Nakashima (2004, Japan). Once again, I texted David Tallerman and asked him, “WTF am I watching?” He suggested I stick with the film, and, to be fair, it was a good call. Every now and again we meet up and swap the titles of films we think good, and David borrows my phone and adds a bunch of movies I’ve never heard of to my rental lists using the LoveFilm app. I return the favour, of course – earlier tonight, as I write this, he asked me if the Chadian film A Screaming Man was one of my recommendations and admitted it was very good. (Yes, it was one of mine.) Having said that, David’s taste in films is a little… stranger than my own. Kamikaze Girls is something I’d never have watched unless prompted, and I’d have missed out on what is actually a pretty good movie. The title refers to two high school girls, a Lolita and a biker girl, who become unlikely friends. There’s a very cartoony style to the cinematography and it works really well – it’s sort of a toned-down version of Japanese television shows, the ones with the flashing graphics and pop-up kanji/kana. There’s not much to the plot – it’s bit like Cinderella, a bit like West Side Story. It’s also a huge amount of fun, and even the Jamie Hewlett-style animation sequence in the middle works pretty good (it’s also a much better film than Tank Girl). Definitely worth seeing.

Mother Joan of the Angels, Jerzy Kawalerowicz (1961, Poland). Polish historical drama is starting to feel a bit like a specific genre, given I’ve now seen a number of them. But I could also say the same for 1970s Polish dramas, which I love – although to be fair the Poles do historical drama really well, I’m just not so keen on it as a genre. The title of this film refers to an abbess who is supposedly possessed by the devil. A priest is sent to investigate, and what he witnesses seems to validate what has been said about the convent. To be honest, I don’t get this demonisation (literally) of female sexuality, or indeed of women in general. I mean, it’s not like the title character was really possessed by a demon. It’s a metaphor, obviously. Although played literally in the film. But women weren’t burnt at the stake, or drowned, or whatever barabaric execution method men of the time thought appropriate, because their bodies had been actually taken over by imaginary creatures. Organised religion is, after all, ninety percent politics (and a great proportion of that must be sexual politics).  Mother Joan of Angels is effectively staged and shot in black and white. It’s like Ken Russell’s The Devils, but without the excess. Or not so much excess, anyway. In other words, the possessed nuns keep their habits on. And the protagonist is an everyman, rather than some sort of melodramatic hero. Now, I think The Devils is an excellent film, and probably Russell’s best – but it’s good because it’s excessive. Mother Joan of the Angels covers similar ground, but with a stark aesthetic that works just as well. There’s also a level of fatalism and black humour to Kawalerowicz’s film that Russell’s lacks; but then the British have always been piss-poor at fatalism and a bit hit-and-miss at black humour (but we are masters of self-deprecating humour, an entirely useless, and not espeically marketable, talent). A Polish film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and that is the joke. A British film will present the viewer with a bad but inevitable situation… and then add jokes. Um, on reflection, I’m not sure the former is unique to Polish films, as I’ve seen something similar in Romanian films. And others can no doubt name other nations where it applies. But. The Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema volumes 1, 2 and 3 box sets were not cheap purchases, but they were totally worth buying. With these and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project (wich includes a wonderful restoration of A River Called Titas!), I now think much more highly Scorsese than I ever did after watching his movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 864


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Moving pictures 2017, #11

An even odder selection than usual. Two US films that are on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, another film by a favourite director, and a film I knew nothing about but which blew me away when I came to watch it…

nemuritoriiNemuritorii, Sergui Nicolaescu (1974, Romania). I had thought this was a science fiction film, although I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it was the translation of the title, which means “The Immortals”. It is, in fact, an historical drama, set during the Middle Ages, and about a group of mercenaries who return to their homeland, Romania, and attempt to oust its current ruler. And, er, that’s it. There’s a running joke about a wooden chest which carries a great treasure, and which all their enemies are keen to possess… but the chest proves to be empty. In places, Nemuritorii reminded me of Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood – it has that same earthy and violent approach to Middle Ages history – and Nicolaescu’s reputation as a good filmer of battle scenes is amply demonstrated. But Nicolaescu’s relationship with the Ceaușescu regime was problematic at best, and though he entered politics after the 1989 revolution, I’m told he’s not held in especially high regard by modern Romanians. I can’t say that Nemuritorii struck me as a great film, although it was entertaining enough and shot well enough. That earlier mention of Flesh and Blood was not entirely unwarranted – this film felt much the same: an entertaining Middle Ages adventure, with numerous battles, a cast of near-stereotypes, and a carry-through gimmick. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it’s a good film.

shes_gottShe’s Gotta Have It*, Spike Lee (1986, USA). I don’t think I’d actually watched any Spike Lee films until this watching this one, his debut, although I knew full well who he is and am aware of some of the films he has made. and while I can’t say the film appealed to me a great deal, I can see why it belonged on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – so I’m glad I saw it. It’s not just that’s it’s an entirely African-American film, made wholly within the African-American culture of the US, but that it also takes a nicely meta-cinematic approach to its story and plays around with cinematic narratives and conventions. For a debut film, that’s pretty ballsy. And it works. The title refers to Tracy Camilla Johns, a young African-American woman living in Brookyln. She has three suitors (all three of which she regularly has sex with), but she cannot decide which one would be best-suited as her permanent partner – and, to tell the truth, she likes having three boyfriends. Characters in the film frequently talk directly to camera, there’s plenty of character assassination, and the film ends on an ambiguous note. The acting is not great – John Canada Terrell is especially bad – and the artificiality of the narrative structure is occasionally pushed a bit too much in the viewer’s face… but for a debut piece of work this is an astonishingly ambitious movie and its success rate is amazingly high. On top of that, She’s Gotta Have It was also one of the films that led to the resurgence of US indie films in the 1990s. I suspect its narrative experiments have been overlooked because of its importance as an African-American film and an indie film (and Lee’s character’s later appearances in Nike adverts), but She’s Gotta Have It has a lot to recommended it. Worth seeing.

reasonReason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India). This was Ghatak’s last film – he died in 1976… although according to the University of California Press edition of A River Called Titash, Ghatak’s adaptation, A River Called Titas, an earlier film, was not released until after his death, although Wikipedia claims otherwise. Whatever the truth, Ghatak made only eight feature films, and I’ve now seen half of them. And though they’re black and white and mostly exist only in bad transfers or prints, and were probably produced and shot on tiny budgets, I find them fascinating. Not just because they depict life in India – or rather, Bengal, and now Bangladesh – in a fashion not commonly seen in Indian films… but also because they were as much political and sociological essays about Indian life as they were dramatic stories. A River Called Titash, the book, has been described as an ethnological account as much as it is a novel, and that’s equally true of the film. Reason, Debate and a Story is not an historical film, although it is in parts ethnographical, particularly when it documents the dances by Bengali villagers. Ghatak himself plays a drunkard writer who has been critical of the partition of Bengal – and I suspect he was pissed in several of the scenes (he was an acoholic, after all). His wife leaves him so he decides to leave Kolkata, and as he wanders out of the city he picks up assorted waifs and strays. There’s his brother-in-law, who is educated but cannot get a job; an extremely handsome young woman; and a teacher of Sanskirt teased as “mad” by his pupils. The woman is, I think, a metaphor for Bangladesh, which desires reunification with West Bengal (and later does one of the worst lip synchs of a playback singer I’ve seen in a film). The Sanskrit tracher is obviously the history of India. And later, when they meet up with a villager who makes masks for dances, you have literate suburban India versus uneducated rural India. Ghatak doesn’t disguise his arguments, and as avatars his characters are hardly subtle. But there is also some very nice landscape cinematography (badly served by the poor quality film stock used), and I will admit to having thought Bangladesh was chiefly delta and alluvial plain before seeing this film. The aforementioned dances, which appear to be based on mythology, with dancers in masks dressed as Hanuman, Durga, Ganesh, etc., are fascinating. Ghatak’s message on the reunification of Bengal gets a little lost, although I’m doubtless missing lots of references as my knowledge of the area is quite poor. Weirdly, the film opens with a trio of dancers in black zentai outfits dancing on a set meant to represent a desert. They reappear two-thirds of the way through the film, and at the end. I have no idea what they’re intended to signify. But I still think Ghatak is a genius director.

broadcast_newsBroadcast News*, James L Brooks (1987, USA). Nope, don’t get it. This is an average drama, well played by its cast – although with Hurt and Hunter, that’s a pretty high-powered cast – but I have no idea why it’s on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s just not that interesting. Hurt plays a sports anchor from a regional station who has landed a job as news anchor of a national station. (It’s probably worth pointing out that no other country has the US’s bizarre regional/national broadcasting set-up, and we non-USians have no fucking idea how it works.) Hunter is a top news producer, and Albert Brooks a gifted TV journalist. Hurt wants to pick Hunter’s brains to make himself a better anchor, but she won’t have it.  Brooks wants his try in front of the camera. It’s all completely boring and trivial, and Brooks’s career as an actor continues to mystify me. Hurt and Hunter are both good, but they’re in the top rank of Hollywood talent (not that they can draw salaries commensurate with their ability; that’s not how Hollywood works). But even so top talent needs a story more interesting than this. Broadcast News is a Sunday-afternoon film, or maybe a Saturday-afternoon-instrad-of-football film, it’s not 1001 of the top films ever made.

asthenic_syndromeThe Asthenic Syndrome*, Kira Muratova (1990, Russia). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still not sure what it’s about, or indeed if it’s any good. It’s two films with unconnected stories. The first is black-and-white (well, more of a sepia colour) and opens at a funeral. The widow is grief-stricken, and, it seems, slightly unhinged. She attacks a man at a bus-stop, she bumps into people, she shouts and rants at no one in her flat, she drops wineglasses on the floor and breaks them… As if that weren’t baffling enough, the dialogue is completely bizarre. People shout at each other, and over each other’s voices, and what they say usually has no relevance to what’s happening in the story. Halfway through The Asthenic Syndrome‘s 153 minutes, the film appears to end, and the camera pulls back to reveal a man on a stage in front of a cinema screen in an auditorium. He introduces the actress who played the widow in the black-and-white film, but the audience are uninterested and file out noisily. One man remains after the others. He’s a teacher and the protagonist of the second film, which is in colour. The dialogue in this film is much like it is in the first. The teacher has narcolepsy – in fact, he fell asleep during the film-within-a-film (Wikipedia mistakenly implies the title refers to his narcolepsy, but asthenia is just a medical term for “weakness”). The Soviet Union depicted in the film is a grim and run-down place – I like the phrase someone used to describe The Asthenic Syndrome, “the last Soviet film and the first post-Soviet film” – but I  find it more interesting as a contrast to earlier optimistic Soviet films such as, say, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, made only a decade earlier. The Asthenic Syndrome‘s avant-garde approach does wear a bit thin over two and a half hours, although there’s some quite arresting imagery, and there’s a lot of repetition, particularly in the dialogue. I’m going to have watch The Asthenic Syndrome again, I think, to get a proper handle on it, but I sort of fell on balance that it belongs in the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. And I’d like to see more of Muratova’s films.

50_cubanI Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the Mr Bongo 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because it included Lucía and Memories of Underdevelopment, and I knew little or nothing of the other two films. Well, one was by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed Memories of Underdevelopment; but I knew nothing about I Am Cuba (AKA Soy Cuba). So late one night I stuck it in the player, expecting an earnest documentary of communist Cuba, likely something of a chore to watch… but I loved it. And I don’t understand why it’s not on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. It’s one of the most technically innovative films I have ever seen. It is a documentary about Cuba, but it uses some of the most astonishing camera techniques I’ve seen since first watching Eisenstein or Vertov. Obviously, some of the shots are almost routine these days, and done using CGI, but back in the early 1960s, they didn’t have that – and there are several where you have to wonder how the hell Kalatozov managed it. There’s one where the camera swoops from the street up the side of a building, then from the rooftop through windows and down to the street, that is quite astonishing. I Am Cuba is not a documentary in the usual sense of the word – there’s no earnest voiceover explaining what’s shown on the screen, just people and events in Cuba being filmed almost fly-on-the-wall. Apparently, the film didn’t go down very well when it was made, and was pretty much forgotten for thirty years, and only rediscovered in the early 1990s – and championed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. That 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution turned out to be an excellent buy – three excellent films and one very good one.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 853