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Moving pictures 2017, #25

My first Vietnamese film is in this post. I was sure I’d seen a movie from that country, but if I have I’d never recorded it. So The Lady Assassin earns the dubious distinction of being my first film from Vietnam. Otherwise, six films equals six countries.

The Last Day of Summer, Tadeusz Konwicki (1958, Poland). Despite having seen a number of Polish films, and being a fan of several Polish directors – although not so much Kieślowski these days, who I recently decided is somewhat middle-brow – I don’t know all that much about the cinema of the country. Konwicki’s name, for example, is completely new to me. And the place he occupies, and the place this film occupies, in Polish cinema is also unknown to me. So I’ve no real idea why it’s in the second box set of Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, which is not something I could have said of several of the films in the set. Anyway, A MiG fighter dives on a beach, a man and a woman meet on a beach, and, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t really get this film, to be honest. It felt experimental, in the way many Polish films of the 1950s and 1960s were experimental (and in a way the resolutely commercial cinemas of the US, UK and France, for example, of the time – other than in their independent or avant garde cinema traditions – were not). The Last Day of Summer bears rewatching, perhaps even demands it, so the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema sets have proven smart purchases in that respect – and these days, my main criterion when purchasing films on DVD or Blu-ray is whether I will want to, or need to, watch it a number of times. The Last Day of Summer is perhaps in the bottom half of the eight films in this box set, but it’s a strong box set so that’s no bad thing.

Cosmos, Andrzej, Żuławski (2015, France). This was Żuławski’s last film – he died in February 2016 – and while it’s clearly a film only he could have made, it doesn’t seem quite as intensely bonkers as some of his others. It’s still OTT, at least in comparison to other films of its type, but that’s hardly unexpected. It just seems tame as a Żuławski film… Which does not mean it’s not worth watching. To be fair, Żuławski was a singular talent who made singular films, most of which are probably not to everyone’s taste. I find him a bit hit and miss, but I appreciate his misses as much as I adore his hits. I think, for example, that Na srebrnym globie is actually improved by the random footage of shopping centres, added to cover the gaps Żuławski never managed to film a decade before. And L’amour bracque is the most 1980s film ever made, which makes your eyes water, but that has to earn respect. Cosmos doesn’t feel like a film to end a career on, n0t that it was ever intended to be, but sadly that’s what we must take it as. Żuławski was always technically excellent, and it shows here – more so, in fact, because the technology allows him to better realise his vision. The story has the vague shape of a French cinema standard, but Żuławski makes of it something that is uniquely his own, and does it in a way that is both technically superior to his other films but not quite as emblematic of his career as those earlier films were. Worth seeing, although Żuławski fans will get more mileage from it. I’m a fan.

The Lady Assassin, Quang Dung Nguyen (2013, Vietnam). I’m not sure why I bunged this on the rental list – perhaps after watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, its title persuaded me it might be similar. It isn’t. But neither was it as bad as it could have been. Which feels a bit like damning it with faint praise, or at least a faint insult… when it actual fact it proved quite entertaining. The film opens with a funeral party in mediaeval Vietnam coming across a remote inn staffed by four young women. The women initially refuse them hospitality, but eventually agree to let them stay. Midway through their meal, the women attack and prove to be accomplished assassins (who do tricks with a ball on a long ribbon, which they kick). It turns out the inn is a trap, and the women kill all those who stay there. But this time, they discover a woman hiding in the funeral party. She is fleeing a plot against her family, of which sh’es the only survivor. She is offered the opportunity to stay on at the inn, train as an assassin and thus have revenge on her family’s killers. She accepts the offer. And, er, that’s about it. There’s a strange sort of volleyball game, where they have to kick the ball not punch it. There are lessons on cleaning the inn by rolling up and down ropes. It’s all hugely implausible but still entertaining. The pulpy cover art doesn’t do the film any favours, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless.

Track 29, Nicolas Roeg (1988, UK). Having watched the three Roeg films ninety-nine percent of film-watchers can name – ie, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout – I decided to explore his oeuvre a little more. (Yes, okay, some people might also know of Roeg’s debut, Performance, but I’ve not actually watched that yet.) Anyway, the first Roeg rental off the list was this one, Track 29, and… it’s an odd piece. It’s like a cross between David Lynch and Ken Russell. Which is just as unpalatable as it sounds. Gary Oldman plays a young Brit looking for his birth mother, Theresa Russell, an American, who turns out to be married to Christopher Lloyd, a doctor who spends more time with his train set than his wife. Except perhaps Gary Oldman is not real, and Russell’s relationship with him is just a fantasy of hers… Whatever ambivalence Roeg might have initially tried for he quickly drops in favour of Russell-seque (Ken, that is) excess. So we see Lloyd’s train set, and home, destroyed in a number of impressive ways, but none of them are real. It’s all a bit hyper-dramatic. I remember the performances in Walkabout being quite laid back, but everyone in Track 29 gurns like a Carry On star. Oldman’s OTT performance in this is matched only by his performance in Besson’s The Fifth Element. After seeing Roeg’s three best-known films, I ‘d expected more of him. I’ll try some more of his films, but I’ve no idea what happened here, that the man who directed The Man Who Fell to Earth could produce a piece of sub-Russell-esque nonsense. Um, I see his film just prior to this was Castaway, which I seem to remember didn’t do very well…

Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg (2016, USA). My fascination with deep sea exploration, such as using saturation diving (which is, to be fair, almost entirely commercial these days), has extended a little to the design of offshore structures. I find oil rigs and their like interesting – although I didn’t especially enjoy my one visit to an offshore supercomplex back in 2001, as I’m not fond of heights… Anyway, Deepwater Horizon is a dramatisation of the events of April 2010, when the titular rig exploded and caused a massive oil spill that posioned much of the Gulf  of Mexico and cost BP billions of dollars in fines. The film pretty much recounts the events leading up to the explosion, and ignores all the political shenanigans which followed. The thing to remember about BP is that it was originally called Anglo-Iranian Oil and is reponsible for two regime changes in that country. So this is a company with a history of putting profit before people. As it is, Deepwater Horizon the film is populated by gruff everyman oil riggers who try to do their jobs to the best of their abilities in a solwly-worsening situation that management seems to content to ignore. This is neither unique to the oil industry, nor uncommon. But for the oil industry, the consequences of failure are much higher. And much more expensive. Not that the film makes much of this aspect. It’s a workmanlike piece – it stars Mark Wahlberg, so of course it is – and the special effects are done well (Berg is usually good with sfx), but making a hero out of John Q Public during a preventable disaster is a good way of deflecting criticism from those who could have prevented it. Deepwater Horizon makes a show of finger-pointing, but it’s feeble at best. I enjoyed the film because I’m interested in oil rigs, but that’s about all it has going for it. After all, this is a director whose most interesting film to date has been Battleship, a piece of sf nonsense based on a boardgame, but which managed to do more interesting things genre-wise than Michael Bay’s entire output…

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, Kunihiko Ikuhara (1999, Japan). I’d asked David Tallerman if I could borrow a couple of his anime DVDs, particularly the Makoto Shinkai ones, and for reasons best known to himself he threw in Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie (or Adolescence of Utena, as Wikipedia has it). After I’d finished the film, I texted him: “WTF have I just watched?” There’s a line in Wikipedia’s plot summary for the movie which perfectly sums it up: “Utena is then inexplicably swallowed by a sporadic car wash, and, inside, she is metamorphosed into a pink car”. Um, yes. It started well enough, although I wasn’t too keen on the stylised art – pointy noses, big eyes, long writhing hair in a variety of implausible colours, tiny torsos and long skinny legs – but hey, that’s like such a popular style it’s become part of the iconography. And the story too throws you straight in at the deep-end, with princes and fencing and a Rose Bride, and just enough not-exactly-subtle exposition to further confuse… But just when the pieces start slotting together, it goes completely batshit insane. Not just the aforementioned “sporadic [sic] car wash” and the ensuing Death Race, but the castle on wheels which tries to crush the pink car, and all of it enfolded in the sort of metaphysical/philosophical framework that you dare not think about too hard in case it comes crashing down about your ears. And yet… the film lingers. It’s not only dramatic, or even melodramatic, it’s two-dimensional animated characters actually chewing the scenery like the shark in Jaws, Jaws 2 and even Jaws 3D. Just when the story starts to add up… it veers away into babble. It makes for an interesting, and memorable, viewing experience. I don’t think I’ll ever become a fan of this sort of anime – sorry, David; I prefer my anime more like Only Yesterday – but I’m still glad I got to see Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die count: 863

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Moving pictures 2017, #14

I’ve done it again – not a single US film in this half-dozen, well, seven, to be precise. In fact, not a single Anglophone movie. Instead, we have Romanian, Schweizerdeutsch, Polish, Russian, Mandarin/Taiwanese, and Kurdish.

californiaCalifornia Dreamin’, Cristian Nemescu (2007, Romania). When I asked some Romanian friends for films from their country to watch, this was one of the titles they suggested (unlike Nemuritorii – see here). And having now seen it, I can see it reflects well on the Romanian film industry but perhaps not so well on the Romanian people. I’ve visited the country and can think of nothing bad to say about the people I met there… but this film is not entirely flattering. Of course, there’s no requirement a film should be. Although US films do tend to show US culture in a flattering light, even while a US character is committing genocide. But US films are notoriously mendacious, and will promote the “American Dream” even in situations where it has plainly failed – which is, in part, germane to the plot of this film, as it is the riches of the US, and its treatment of other places, which leads to the situation the film depicts. A NATO detachment of US soldiers is accompanying a radar unit to Kosovo, and it travels by train through Romania. But when it reaches a small village in the middle of nowhere, the station master, who is corrupt as they come, decides to play the bastard and halts the trains because it lacks the necessary papers. This is all based on a true story, incidentally. The presence of the American soldiers understandably disrupts the village, so much so that the US commander eventually persuades the villagers to riot against the corrupt station master and police chief. The riot turns violent, and the Americans sneak away during the fighting. There’s a running joke throughout about a Romanian soldier seconded to the US company, and so wears their uniform, who pretends to be American to a pretty village girl who does not speak English. But if some of the Romanians come across as venal and corrupt, the majority are just ordinary people struggling to survive in a failing system. The Americans are worse – arrogant, ignorant, and unwilling to make the effort to understand another culture. The US commander is played by Armand Assante, an odd piece of casting, but it turns out he does a “officer with a stick up his ass” quite well. As an advert for Romania, California Dreamin’ fails; as a film, it succeeds really well. Fortunately, films should not be adverts or tourist brochures.

aloysAloys, Tobias Nölle (2016, Switzerland). This was a freebie, thrown in by the seller when I bought half a dozen other DVDs – most of which have appeared in previous Moving picture posts. So I knew nothing about it, but since the seller has chucked in a freebie on previous orders and they’ve proved to be good, interesting films, I had no doubts Aloys would prove the same. And so it did. The title refers to a young man who works as a private detective. He had been the junior partner in the firm with his father, and the film opens with his father’s funeral. Aloys is a loner, preferring to avoid people, and perform his assignments by filming his targets from a distance. He films other people too. After his father’s cremation, he gets drunk, falls asleep on the bus, and wakes up in the depot to discover his video camera and tapes have been stolen. There is one videotape in his pocket. On it, a woman’s voice admits she took the tapes and camera and that she disagrees with what he does. The two of them begin “phone walking”: one describes a place, imaginary or real, over the phone in such a way that the listener can imagine themselves there. When one of Aloys’s neighbours tries to commit suicide, he realises she was the thief and telephone caller. They continue their relationship, she from her hospital bed, leading to a quite wonderful party scene in which the pair play a duet on an electric organ to an audience of their neighbours – but it’s all in his imagination. The realisation of his imaginary walks and meetings is really well done – it makes the film, in fact. Worth seeing.

masterpieces_1Jump (Salto), Tadeusz Konwicki (1965, Poland). While watching this, I couldn’t help be reminded of Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, and it’s for the slimmest of reasons: in both films the protagonist continuously wears sunglasses. A man – in sunglasses – jumps from a train as it passes through the countryside, and makes his way to a nearby village. Once there, he claims to know people from having spent time there during WW2, but he tells a different story to everyone he speaks to. And eventually they figure out these contradictory stories cast everything he said in doubt, and so they turn on him. It’s never entirely clear if he’s a total con man, or just a chancer imposing on past acquaintance… and in a country like Poland, with its troubled history during World War 2 and immediately afterward (as documented in films such as, er, Ashes and Diamonds), treading such a fine line is sure to eventually end in disaster. As it does. The townspeople run the man out of town  – a dog even chases after him and tries to bite him as he flees down the road – and then the film presents a nice circularity in having the man run through a field and catch a passing train in a sort of reverse of the sequence which opened the film. This wasn’t one of the best films in this box set, although the restoration and transfer were excellent. I’m glad I bought the box set, despite the price, and even more pleased I chose to shell out for all three box sets. Expect lots of Polish films to appear in these posts over the next few months.

man_movie_cameraThree Songs for Lenin & Kino Pravda #21, Dziga Vertov (1934/1925, Russia). There are two types of utopian vision – those that include everyone, and those that include only those people like the person having the vision. Which is as good a description of left-wing and right-wing as any. And while the USSR turned increasingly totalitarian in the decades after the October Revolution, so much so that I suspect any utopian revolution’s ideals are unlikely to last longer than a generation, Vertov was there at the beginning of the USSR and he filmed it. So while there’s actual footage here of Lenin giving speeches, or meeting and greeting fellow Russians, all silent, of course, given the time, there is also footage of citizens of the USSR celebrating Lenin’s achievement… and it’s mostly from the south, from places like Azerbaijan, with women in burkas and men in dashikis. No one bats an eye at this – they are all comrades. True, this is early Soviet propaganda, although I think Vertov was more guilty of seeing the good cinema could do than of consciously using it as a government tool. But when we live in a world in which Daily Mail readers actually regret the Nazis not winning World War 2, I can only point to these films and say despite all the reasons the USSR was a bad thing, what they show is a good thing. When Soviet art was optimistic, it was a great and wonderful thing; when it was pessimistic, it was a sharp-edged tool. And what do we in the UK, or even the US, have to set against that? An industry which produces commercial product which has perpetuated the greed-is-good narrative so successfully that people would sooner have slavery than multiculturalism! How is that acceptable? There’s no point in being generous about it: if you voted Leave, you are either a racist or ignorant, or both. Likewise if you voted for Trump. You have fucked up the future. And watching Three Songs for Lenin and Kino Pravda #21, I envy the optimism of the people in the films. They had built a new world order and it was a fair one. They couldn’t know it wouldn’t last, but that failure in no way invalidates the attempt to set it up. Perhaps it’s time for a new revolution.

yi_yiA One and a Two (Yi Yi)*, Edward Yang (2000, Taiwan). This is a family saga, covering three generations, although not the entire length of those generations. And while it’s a well-observed drama, I could see no good reason why it made the 1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die list. A good film, yes – but a great film? The film opens with a woman infiltrating the preparations for a wedding banquet and making a scene with the bride’s mother. And then it sort of follows around members of the family… and I honestly can’t remember if there was a plot or not. I seem to recall that at times it felt like a documentary and at other times like a family drama, but that none of it really quite gelled for me. And it was long, too: 173 minutes. I think I should have given it a second go, but it was a rental DVD and I sent it back before I could rewatch it. Having said that, I seem to have made a habit of buying films I’d previously watched on rental, although this one does appear to have been deleted, or at least I’m sure I saw an Artificial Eye edition at some point but can no longer find it online. I think I’d like to see it again, because I remember it being good even if I can’t remember the details of the story.

blackboardsBlackboards, Samira Makhmalbaf (2000, Iran). Samira Makhmalbaf is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daughter, but if this film is any indication she has a singular vision all her own. A group of men carry blackboards on their backs across the mountains to teach literacy to the children of the valleys. But there is a war on, and they must avoid being shot at or strafed by jet fighters. And when they do meet up with a bunch of boys from the valley villages, none of them are interested in learning to write. One of the men perseveres, and follows the boys along mountain tracks, trying to persuade them of the benefits of reading and writing. There’s not much in the way of plot here, just the presentation of people in a deplorable situation. The film’s cast appear to be mostly non-professional, but as I’ve learnt over the past year or two that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Makhmalbaf captures their plight well, and keeps sympathy with both those who carry the blackboards on their backs and those into whose lives they intrude. Iran has produced a number of excellent directors of the past few decades, and has a cinema better than many other nations of equivalent size. Some of its directors seem to have their films released in the UK (and US) more often than others – Asghar Farhadi, for example; or Abbas Kiarostami – but then not all of Kiarostami’s films have seen UK DVD releases, and others such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf are woefully under-represented. Nonetheless, Iran has one of the strongest cinemas of any non-Anglophone nation, and it’s always worth watching one of its films.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 856