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Moving pictures 2017, #38

I had a Reading diary post lined up next after my last Moving pictures post, but it takes me longer to write about books – chiefly because books take longer to read than films to watch, so I need to remind myself of the earlier ones in a post, and, also, a lot more happens in a book than in a film. I’m also working on a post about the Clarke Award, perhaps even the current state of awards, but I’m not even sure I’ll bother publishing that one. These days, no one gives a shit about honest criticism, reviews are indistinguishable from marketing hype, and fans are more concerned with protecting the ego of their creator friends than they are in any sort of real conversation about the genre. But who knows, perhaps I’ll end up in a ranty mood one evening… and publish and be damned…

But, until then, it’s…. the return of the film post! Only a couple of days after the last one! And the one before that! And it’s only the thirty-eighth I’ve written so far this year alone! (Out of probably about forty-two actual blog posts. Oh well.) The movies in this batch were all a bit random, chosen chiefly because I wasn’t in the mood to think too hard about what to watch.

The Woman Next Door, François Truffaut (1981, France). So I went and bought the François Truffaut Collection Blu-ray box set, because it was going cheap and I’d found myself increasingly drawn to his films, and of the eight films in the set I’d only seen four, so it was pretty much a bargain. And the first disc I pulled from the box was The Woman Next Door, a film about which I knew nothing. Although from the cover art, it clearly starred Fanny Ardant, whom I’d watched only the week before in, er, Truffaut’s Finally, Sunday, also in this collection (see here). The male lead is Gerard Depardieu, and while I’ve always thought him a good actor, in this film he seemed to shift between blank-faced and hyper-emotive, with nothing in between. He and his wife and small boy live in a house in a village near Grenoble. The empty next-door house is rented by a couple around the same age… and the wife, Ardant, turns out to be a woman Depardieu had had a turbulent relationship with before getting married. Their affair rekindles, but it doesn’t go well. He kicks off at a barbecue with the neighbours, she has an incident at the local tennis club… Much as I enjoyed The Woman Next Door, it felt like many of its narrative hooks were left unexplored or unresolved. Ardant was good, as indeed were the supporting cast, but I wasn’t convinced by Depardieu… And the end result was a film that promised more than it delivered. Even the final shock twist felt a bit meh, given what had gone on before. I still admire Truffaut for his films, but this isn’t one of his best ones; and though its slick performances might convince some that is the case, he’s made much better.

The Lavender Hill Mob*, Charles Crichton (1951, UK). I had a feeling I’d seen this before, but I couldn’t remember the details… and when I came to watch it, pretty much everything in it was immediately familiar. Alec Guiness plays a mild-mannered bank clerk whose job entails fetching gold bullion from a foundry, and accompanying it in an armoured lorry to the bank. He’s completely trusted, but he’s planning to steal a shipment of gold just before he retires. His only problem is how transport the stolen gold out of the country. When the owner of Gewgaws Ltd, a company that makes tourist trinkets, moves into the boarding-house in which Guiness lives, he has his answer. Among the souveniers Gewgaws manufactures are gold-painted lead miniatures of the Eiffel Tower, sold in Paris. By making a consignment out of real gold, they can send them to France undetected. To help them in the robbery, the two recruit a pair of criminals, using the Gewgaws premises as a honeypot by talking loudly about a broken safe there, full of wages, on the Tube. The robbery goes more or less according to plan – there are a few hiccoughs, but the police are clueless, so it all comes right in the end. Until they get to France… and discover their Parisian contact has sold six of the real gold Eiffel Towers… to a party of British schoolgirls. And it’s the robbers’ attempts to get back those missing Eiffel Towers that proves their undoing. Ealing Studios have always been well-branded, and it’s easy to see why – their films are very distinctive. There’s a breeziness to the comedy in them, despite their obvious Britishness, that no other studio of the time managed. It’s almost a a sketch-show type of humour, but grounded in quickly- but effectively-drawn characters that carry over from one set-piece to the next. It is, in other words, jolly good fun. And if it all seems a bit implausible in places, that’s the part of the charm. But I’m not entirely sure why it rates a place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Blow Out, Brian De Palma (1981, USA). I’ve never really known what to make of De Palma. He’s pretty much a straight-to-video director who manages to get theatrical releases, a sub-B-lister who is treated like a low-level A-lister. It’s not as if he makes bad films, although his use of split-screen is an affectation too far, but his movies mostly seem massively unoriginal. Blow Out is, apparently, De Palma’s homage to Antonioni’s Blow-Up, but if it is then De Palma has either never seen Blow-Up or has completely misunderstood it. Travolta plays a sound technician who is out one night recording ambient sound for the latest straight-to-video schlock horror movie he is working on, when he witnesses a car plummetting into a river. He dives in and rescues one of the passengers, a young woman. The other, who dies, proves to be a politician tipped to be the next president. Travolta analyses the recordings he made on the night, and realises there is a gunshot before the car lost control – someone shot out a tyre. The rest of the movie is Travolta trying to figure out what’s going on, while a hired assassin runs round trying to clean up the mess he has inadvertently made, and it’s all pretty much by-the-numbers thriller material. Lithgow is creepy, but not especially plausible, as the assassin, the parts about the film industry feel more like in-jokes than character development or background, and the dimwittedness of some of the characters contradicts their ability to avoid the noose the conspiracy is drawing about them. I have no idea why I stuck this on the rental list.

Clash by Night, Fritz Lang (1952, USA). I mentioned several Moving pictures posts ago that I’d been making an effort over the last few years to see every film directed by Otto Preminger. The same is true for Fritz Lang. Their shared nationality is a coincidence. As are their Hollywood careers as chiefly directors of well-regarded noir films. With Lang, you have those early silent classics, not to mention the Mabuse trilogy, or even the frankly bizarre India-set pulp adventure movies on which he finished his career. But, like Preminger, during his Hollywood years Lang made a wide variety of films – yes, including a couple of Westerns… and melodramas… like Clash by Night. Which is, er, not very good. Barbara Stanwyck plays the wild girl who returns to her fishing port home after years living it up away. She falls in with simple trawler captain Jerry, who introduces her to his wise-cracking mate, Earl, the projectionist. Earl is clearly more Stanwyck’s type, but she marries Jerry. But then Earl is a nasty piece of work, so it’s easy enough to understand why she rejects him. Although only for a few years… and then the marriage begins to fracture when Stanwyck does indeed take up with Earl… This is one of those gritty urban melodramas the US churned out by the yard back in the first half of the twentieth century, in which middle-class problems were ascribed to working-class families, but with added domestic violence. There is a horribly offensive thread running throughout this film in which men claim the only way to control their spouses is through violence. The relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes (Stanwyck’s “brother”) basically consists of him controlling her through threats of violence. It’s nasty stuff. There are some classic US melodramas from the 1950s. This is not one of them. Despite its director. Best avoided.

In Bloom, Nana Ekvtimishvili (2013, Georgia). I can’t remember where I came across mention of this Georgian film, but I suspect it was a trailer on another DVD. The directors are actually given as Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, but given that the former has a Wikipedia page and the latter does not, and the latter is also credited as a producer, I’m tempted to cast Groß as more of a facilitator… except it turns out the two are a couple, so perhaps it’s even more complicated. Still, this is a film set in Georgia, about Georgian people, and Ekvtimishvili is given preference as director, and she is actually Georgian, so I will do the same and credit her with the lion’s share. (And kudos to Groß, he seems content to let his partner represent the two of them.) Two fourteen-year-old girls get into trouble when one of them gets hold of a gun and uses it to rescue a younger kid from a bullying. Except it’s not about that, it’s about growing up during the Georgian Civil War, and about being a teenage girl during those turbulent times, and this is by no means a cheerful film, and certainly not one likely to re-affirm your confidence in humanity’s good nature – these days, the only films which do that are superhero ones, and they only do it for superheroes, so how fucked up is that? But there’s a rawness to Ekvtimishvili’s vision that lends her story a verisimilitude Hollywood could only dream of (this is not something unique to In Bloom, but it is something Hollywood strives for and fails to achieve). A depressing story, but worth seeing.

Two for the Road, Stanley Donen (1967, UK). Apparently eureka! have released a dual edition of this film, but the rental copy I watched was a terrible transfer, no better than VHS quality in places. And, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it deserves the treatment eureka! have given it. It’s pretty much a couple bickering, in cars, over a decade. Okay, so the chronology jumps back and forth quite cleverly, and the way the film signals at which stage of the relationship/marriage it is set works really well (er, it’s the model of car). But it’s still two people bickering. And it’s not helped by the choice of leads. I’ve never really taken to Albert Finney – he plays everything flat and snide, and it makes him unlikeable. When he tries for charm, as he often does here, it often falls flat, especially when he’s doing his terrible Bogart impression. Finney does some things really well, but romantic lead isn’t one of them. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, should be a natural romantic lead – and indeed has been in many films. But here she’s playing a woman from callow teenager to jaded housewife, and it’s beyond her range. She does either end of the spectrum well, but she can’t manage the transition – or rather, the transition doesn’t seem convincing when it happens to her. Of course, it doesn’t help that the version I saw was a terrible transfer. Perhaps there were subtleties I missed. Certainly, the film’s structure was cleverly done, and there were some good lines of dialogue (and an amusing running joke about Finney and his passport), but the couple also went from young and hapless to privileged and insulated with a speed and lack of commentary that is almost breathtaking (although not altogether surprising given the time the film was made). I wanted to like Two for the Road, either as fluff or as something a bit more serious… but it failed on both counts. One for Audrey Hepburn fans only.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 874


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Moving pictures, #43

Well, 2016 is definitely turning into the year of movies. To date, I’ve seen 431 movies, mostly on DVD and Blu-ray, mostly my own or from LoveFilm or Cinema Paradiso or on Amazon Prime. Some of them have been very good indeed, and I will probably watch them again (if I haven’t done so already). Some were rentals I liked so much, I went and bought a copy of my own. And some… well, best not mention them…

Anyway, on with the next half-dozen adventures on the silver screen wot I have partaked:

arabesqueArabesque, Stanley Donen (1966, USA). Who remembers Charade? Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Paris. Lee Marvin as the villain. Missing millions. Which turned out to be a rare stamp on an innocuous envelope. It’s a film with bags of 1960s charm – with a pair of leads like Grant and Hepburn, how can it not have charm? Arabesque was apparently Donen’s attempt to hit the same sweet spot again. Unfortunately, while Donen wanted Grant, he got Peck. And Grant’s dialogue doesn’t work when coming from Peck. Sophia Loren manages to hold up her end, however. But both are hampered by a convoluted plot that’s almost impossible to follow. Donen apparently remarked that the film could only succeed if he made it “so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. And having now seen it, I can certainly vouch for the second half of that statement. Peck plays an Eygptologist who is asked to translate a message in heiroglyphics by head of an Arab state. It’s all to do with some big oil develoment deal and a plan to assassinate the ruler, but most of the plot consists of Peck getting beaten up by the villain’s henchmen or Peck and Loren chasing around London after the scrap of paper with the heiroglyphics on it. Not a high point on all three cvs, to be honest.

texasThe Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Michael Ritchie (1993, USA). In the normal course of events, I’d not give this film a second look, or indeed even a first one. But a film blog I read, Antagony & Ecstasy, wrote a long semi-approving piece on it, and a week or two later I stumbled across a copy in a charity shop… But, well, I guess this is not a movie that travels well. I’ve never seen the appeal of, or humour in, films depicting US white trailer trash or working class, and that’s pretty much what this is – although it’s based on a true story. Holly Hunter plays the title role, a mother who was so determined to see her daughter succeed she sort of agreed when her drunken brother-in-law (Beau Bridges) tried to entrap her into paying him to off a rival mother. The film is framed partly as Hunter preparing for an interview after the fact, and partly a dramatisation of events, and the whole thing seems mostly motivated by stupidity because the actual character motivations are somewhat opaque. Which makes Hunter’s character come across like a sociopath. Which, to me, sort of ruins the whole desperate housewife story. It’s not very funny film, either. I gave my copy to David Tallerman, so we’ll see if he makes anything of it.

crimesCrimes of Passion, Ken Russell (1984, USA). I don’t think I’d ever call Russell an “interesting” director – he made a handful of solid films, one or two near-classics, and a lot of self-indulgent crap. From the write-up, I suspected Crimes of Passion fell on the border between “solid work” and “self-indulgent crap”, so watching it was a bit of a gamble. And having now watched it… yes, it pretty much straddles the two groups. Kathleen Turner plays a fashion designer who moonlights as a prostitute, using the name China Blue. A surveillance expert is asked to spy on her because her employer suspects her of selling designs to competitors, and he becomes obsessed with her. There’s Anthony Perkins, in full frothing-at-the-mouth mode, wandering around as preacher, who alternately demands to “save” China Blue or have sex with her. He also frequents peep shows. And then there’s China Blue’s customers, with their fetishes… It all looks a bit cheap (and I mean that in its pecuniary sense), and with Perkins drooling and spraying spittle one minute, and then Turner chewing the scenery in the next, it makes it all look like a shoestring exploitation flick with bizarrely high production values. An odd film.

star_copsStar Cops (1987, UK). Many thanks to Paul Cornell for tweeting that a third-party seller on Amazon had clearly found a stash of these somewhere and was selling them at a decent prize (around £20, if you must know). I’d missed buying myself a copy of Star Cops before it was deleted, and by the time I wanted one the price had reached silly money. But now I have one. I remembered the series from its original broadcast back in 1987, although having now seen all nine episodes on the DVD I think I might have missed one or two of the episodes. Anyway, I remembered it as smartly-written, with slightly dodgy production design and cheap effects. What I’d certainly forgotten was the vastly irritating theme song by Justin Hayward, which, while not quite as bad as Enterprise‘s, does have the added horror of getting stuck in your head for days afterwards. David Calder plays a British police officer on 2017 who distrusts the computers and continues to investigate a case the computers have ruled a suicide. It turns out he’s right, of course; but it makes him enough enemies, and leads to the murder of his girlfriend, so he accepts a position as the new head of the International Space Police Force, based on a station in LEO. After a coupleof episodes there, the ISPF moves to an office at a base on the lunar surface (which was obviously a relief for the actors and the budget as it meant no more wires). One of the star cops is presented as a bit of an old-school dimwit, but he also does a nasty line in racist and sexist remarks. The other star cops are an Australian engineer, a US engineer, and a Japanese doctor. Most of the stories are pretty good, although the final one, ‘Little Green Men and Other Martians’, despite having a neat premise, does suggest the lunar base is wide open to whoever turns up – which I wouldn’t have thought all that likely. I’m glad I finally got hold of a copy. These days, sf television series may have fancy special effects, but they rarely have writing as good as this.

vidas_secasVidas Secas*, Nelson Pereiras dos Santos (1963, Brazil). This is generally reckoned to be the first film in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement. I wanted to watch it because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – and because I’d become a fan of Glauber Rocha after watching three of his Cinema Novo movies – but Vidas Secas is almost impossible to find on DVD (as I type this, there’s one copy available on Amazon for… £101.95). Fortunately, I managed to get a copy from another source, for no more than the price of a typical DVD. And yes, it was worth it. It’s an adaptation of a novel of the same title, by Graciliano Ramos, and tells the story of a poor family in north-east Brazil. It was entered into the Cannes Film Festival and won the OCIC Award. Its plot isn’t easy to summarise, as it’s really just a series of incidents in which the family move from one place to another, try to scratch a living, are preyed on by those more powerful than themselves, and so move on elsewhere. In one village, a local policeman drags the husband into a card game, but when the husband leaves after losing his money, and so the policeman loses even more, the policeman goes after him, beats him up, and then arrests him for resisting arrest. The husband is thrown into jail and whipped. It’s a grim film, althugh not unaffecting – near the end, the family are so hungry the husband tries to shoot their dog, but it takes him ages to work up the courage to do it, and then he botches it and the dog crawls away to die slowly. This is not a film to watch if you’re not in a cheerful mood. It definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, though.

usherThe Fall of the Louse of Usher, Ken Russell (2002, UK). Well, I mentioned Russell’s self-indulgent crap earlier, and I hadn’t watched this. Which is absolutely awful. It’s Russell’s last film, was shot on his own property, and features himself and friends as the cast. A rock-star, Roddy Usher, played by James Johnston of Gallon Drunk, is consigned to a mental institution after killing his wife and walling up her body. His doctor is played by Russell himself. He gives Usher shock treatment and, well, lots of things happen, few of which I can, thanksfully, remember. It all looked horrible and cheap and amateurish, and I’m surprised it ever saw a general release. The DVD, released by Final Cut, calls it “the ultimate home movie”, but even that fails to convey how crap it is. This is definitely a film to avoid. It was Russell’s last feature film, and a poor epitaph for a man who did make some good stuff during his long career.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 794