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Moving pictures, #65

In this post, a new nation joins the roster of countries from which I’ve now seen films: Burkina Faso. I really need to get more of those Great African Films DVDs, as I do like films from African countries – as much for the variety as for what they reveal of life in the various nations on the continent. Other than the Burkina Faso movie, only the two US directors were unknown to me (and one of them turned out to be a Brit, anyway).

preciousPrecious, Lee Daniels (2009, USA). This is on another list, rather than the one I’ve been using for the past two years. And it wouldn’t otherwise be the sort of film that would interest me. The title refers to the central character, an overweight black teenage girl with learning difficulties, a physically abusive mother, and a child with Down Syndrome (who actually lives with the girl’s grandmother) fathered by her own father. The film is adaptation of a novel, Push, by Sapphire, and it’s pretty grim stuff. The mother is especially horrible, subjecting Precious to a litany of verbal and mental abuse, and the occasional moment of violence, throughout the film. Precious herself is an innocent, completely unable to see a way out of her circumstances. But then she’s given a place at an alternative school, and she begins to open up… in the process revealing her mother’s behaviour toward her and that her child is the product of incest (oh, and she’s pregnant once again, also incestuous, when the movie opens). The book’s prose apparently reflects Precious’s improved command of language as she attends the alternative school, but the voiceover narrative doesn’t make this especially clear. The film has been accused of throwing a bit too much at the protagonist, and although there’s a clear arc toward some sort of happy ending, it is pretty heavy-handed. Still, that’s what drama does…

american_history_xAmerican History X, Tony Kaye (2009, USA). Another film that’s on another list, but this one was also free to watch on Amazon Prime so… To be honest, the story of the making of the film is more interesting than the story of the film. In American History X, Edward Norton plays a neo-Nazi who goes to prison after viciously murdering two black guys, sees the errors of his ways after being sexually assaulted by another neo-Nazi in the showers and spending time working alongside a black guy who was imprisoned for six years for stealing a TV. On his release, Norton tries to prevent his younger brother, who has fallen under the spell of the same neo-Nazi guru Norton had, from following in his footsteps. These days, neo-Nazis get upset when they’re called neo-Nazis, or even just straight Nazis, but fuck ’em. They’re neo-Nazis. “Alt-right” is just as much a bullshit right-wing propaganda term as “political correctness”. Ignore anyone who uses either. But, American History X… Apparently, the studio were unhappy with Kaye’s first cut. And his second cut.’Then Norton hired an editor to cut the film to his taste. So Kaye played the prima donna, famously hiring a rabbi, a RC priest and a Buddhist monk to sit in on a meeting with studio bosses. Um, yes. The film has its moments, but Norton is too weedy to convince in his role (just compare him to the meatheads Nazis he meets in prison), and the whole thing over-inflates the success of neo-Nazism so much it dangerously normalises it. I’m all for rehabilitation narratives, but they need to be stronger than this to justify their existence. It doesn’t help that every black character in American History X is a gang banger, except for Avery Brooks’s mentor, which only just feeds into the whole neo-Nazi white supremacy thing. Seriously, films about Nazism and neo-Nazism should make the politics so unpalatable – as they are in real life – that no one would want to have anything to do with them; they should not leave enough wiggle room for an intellectually-challenged viewer to start giving brainspace to the toxic shit they peddle. We all know the dangers of “post-truth”, which is another word for “lie” or “fiction”. After all, 52% of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote even though the actual facts show Clinton won it by nearly three million votes. And don’t get me started on the lies put out by the Leave campaign…

sons_roomThe Son’s Room, Nanni Moretti (2001, Italy). And from the “look at my award-winning turn playing a toxic character in a toxic film” American History X to a drama that has a cast of human beings and deals with a very real situation. Moretti himself plays the father in a middle-class Italian family. Teenage boy and teenage girl cause the usual familial disruptions. Moretti’s job as a practicing psychiatrist means he has his patients’ problems as well as his family’s to deal with. Nonetheless, the family are generally easy-going, centred, good-natured, although attractive in a sort of lifestyle magazine advert way. And then the son dies in a diving accident, and the surviving three members of the family have trouble dealing with their grief. Moretti’s character replays over and over his last day with his son, when he cried off from the promised jog together because a patient had called him and asked for his help (the patient had just been diagnosed with cancer, it transpired). My only previous experience to Moretti’s films was his Caro diario, which I thought pretty good. That was a more personal film, although The Son’s Room covers such an emotive topic it feels a much more personal movie. I should probably watch more Moretti – he’s very good. Recommended.

great_african_1Haramuya, Drissa Toure (1995, Burkina Faso). As mentioned earlier, and evident from the DVD cover art, this is the second film in the Great African Films Volume 1 DVD I bought on eBay. This is pretty much a slice-of-life drama set in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. A teenager gets a job in a shop, but worried that his parents cannot affort to eat, he steals some flip-flops to sell, but is caught and fired. There’s a long-running plot-thread about stolen mopeds. And also a police investigation into drug dealing – which one dealer manages to evade by feeding his marijuana to an uncle’s goats… who promptly start butting each other and everything in sight. Haramuya is light on plot, but it’s also an excellent window onto a world I would not otherwise be likely to see. Toure’s direction is effective, but workmanlike more than anything else. The film comes across as a social drama, but structured as a series of interlinked narratives. The cast are natural, with only one or two moments where it feels a little amateur. Of the two films in Great African Films Volume 1, Faraw! is clearly the better, but Haramuya is still worth seeing. There are, to date, a further three volumes – 2 Tasuma and Sia, The Dream of the Python (both Burkina Faso), 3 Daratt and Desert Ark (Chad and Algeria), and 4 The Pirogue, Colobane Express and The Silent Monologue (all three Senegal). I plan to buy them (although I’ve already seen Daratt).

sonatineSonatine, Kitano Takeshi (1993, Japan). I stumbled across this in a local charity shop, and since I know Takeshi’s name, it was an obvious decision to buy it. Only later did I discover it’s the film which brought him international attention. And having now seen it, I can understand why. A Yakuza enforcer and his team are sent to Okinawa to sort out a dispute between two gangster plans but the enforcer realises it is all a plot to remove him. So he hides out with his team at a beach house, where they play games and tricks on each other… before it all comes to a violent end when the Yakuza boss turns up looking to resolve the situation. And, er, that’s sort of it. When the enforcers are hiding out at the beach, they act like kids. Takeshi, who plays the lead role, plays it totally deadpan, so the humnour is even funnier because it bounces off him completely. Of course, being a Takeshi, it’s also pretty violent, with lots of gun battles and violent murders. But there’s also a strong thread of black humour running throughout the film. For example, when the enforcers first arrive in Okinawa, they’re taken to an office building used by the clan. They’ve not been there five minutes when someone shoots at a window. What’s that? asks one of the Okinawa team. That’s just the other clan, they’re always shooting at us… This DVD only cost me a quid, and I fully expected to drop it off in a random charity shop after I’d watched it… But I think I’ll be keeping it. Worth seeing.

gabbehGabbeh*, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (1996, Iran). Iran, despite its theocratic regime, perhaps even in spite of it, has a strong presence internationally in the cinema world, and has produced a number of excellent directors and films. Some have worked within the system, some have worked around it. I’m not sure which group Makhmalbaf belongs to, although the fact his name is important to the plot of Kiarostami’s Close-up suggests he has the approval of the authorities. And, to be fair, there’s nothing in Gabbeh that might offend them. It’s an Iranian fairy-tale, based around the style of rug from which the film takes its name. An old couple make their way to a stream to wash their gabbeh, and a young woman, who answers to the name of Gabbeh, magically appears out of the picture wiven into the rug. Gabbeh’s story is also depicted in the rug, which changes as the film progresses. She is betrothed to a young man, but each time they try to set a wedding date something happens to put it off. She tells this story to the old couple. As should be evident from the DVD cover, this is a gorgeous-looking movie. Recommended. And no, I didn’t pay the price show on Amazon, I bought my copy on eBay for considerably less.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 834

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Moving pictures, #40

Cracking on, so to speak… More cinematic consumption by Yours Truly.

BSG1978Battlestar Galactica (1978, USA). So this Black Friday seems to have infected the UK from the US (and to be fair it’s a better tradition than the UK’s home-brand Black Friday) and Amazon had a whole bunch of mostly uninteresting deals going, but one which caught my fancy was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica Ultimate Collection on Blu-ray for £60 reduced from £160. To which I succumbed. And then the following week, they had Cyber Monday, and fuck knows what the fuck that is, but Amazon were selling a bunch of stuff cheap, among which was the original Battlestar Galactica series from 1978, plus the much-maligned Galactica 1980 sequel series, on Blu-ray for half-price at £20. So I bought it too. Foolishly. And watched it. Even more foolishly. I remember Battlestar Galactica quite fondly from the 1980s – it used to be on at 6 pm on BBC2 in Janet Street-Porter’s “yoof” spot. Much as I loved the universe of Star Wars, so I loved the universe of Battlestar Galactica. The uniforms, the spaceships, the, er, well, that was about it. Certainly not the stories. After all, who can forget the episode in which they spend an hour trying to figure out how to put out a fire on the Galactica before deciding to “let the vacuum in”? And the mangling of English in pursuit of a futuristic dialect is both annoying and embarassing – “frak” is okay, “felgercarb” is acceptable, but “chancery” is not the right word for a casino, and when a warrior goes on leave it’s not a “furlong”. Argh. I was, however, surprised by how closely the rebooted series followed the plots of the original series. Not entirely, obvs – but some of them were a lot closer than I’d remembered. The original Battlestar Galactica remains a notable piece of science fiction television, even if it was designed to totally cash in on Star Wars, and the things it did right mostly, but not always, outweigh the things it got wrong. Which is more than can be said for Galactica 1980

sensoSenso*, Luchino Visconti (1954, Italy). Visconti is a director I think well of – he has directed a number of films I admire. So I was predisposed to like Senso, despite knowing little about it. Other than the fact it was a period drama, which is not necessarily in my book a fact which might affect my opinion. And so it proved. Senso is a good period drama, but I’m not sure why it is a better period drama, other than perhaps its director’s name. Admittedly if its period is not of interest to audiences, that’s hardly the fault of the film-maker. But the whole point of period dramas is that they’re recognisable – or something about them is recognisable – to the viewer. For Senso, this is undoubtedly true of an Italian audience, much as it would be for Visconti’s excellent The Leopard… But Senso, for all its plaudits, never quite manages to evoke its time and place as a time and place sufficient to persuade audiences of its story. To be honest, I don’t recall much of the film (I write these posts a week or two after viewing the movie) and from what I do remember it struck me as mostly unsuitable romances during a period when such a thing existed and had very real social consequences. Nothing in the cinematography stood out, which I would have expected of a film by Visconti. He’s done better, and I’m surprised this one made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

BSG1978Galactica 1980 (1980, USA). Ever watched something – several episodes of something – and then wonder why the fuck you bothered? Admittedly, Battlestar Galactica, the original 1978 TV series, is far from great television. But even fans of that are hard-pressed to say something nice about Galactica 1980. It’s not just that the project started off with a dumb premise, but also that the premise was shot down by the network after the pilot and then replaced with an even dumber premise. It’s a generation after the original Battlestar Galactica ended and its stars all have better things to do except Lorne Greene whose career must have been in the toilet as he’s back but this time with a fake beard. And there’s another villain, another nasty member of the Council, played by Richard Lynch, who also played a villain in an episode of the previous series. The “ragtag fugitive fleet” has finally reached Earth, but our world is, er, far too technologically primitive to help them fight the Cylons. But Betamax! I hear you cry. Walkmans! Sinclair ZX81s! Ford Pintos! Legwarmers! So Xavier, the councillor played by Lynch, decides to travel back in time in order to boost Earth’s technology – and the period he chooses is – yawn – Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Peenemünde, to be precise. Xavier is going to help von Braun invent the V-2. But grown-up Boxey – now called Troy because Boxey is a dumb name, even for a kid – and Barry van Dyke sidekick Dillon are sent back after Xavier – whose name is at least not pronounced ecks-avier because that’s not how you fucking pronounce it, you fucking stupid X-Men – and manage to destroy the V-2 prototype as it launches and so, er, stop V-2s from raining death and destruction on London– no, wait. That happened anyway. Anyway, they don’t change history. Xavier escapes to another time period to continue his dastardly plan. However. The network didn’t like the idea of Galactica warriors chasing Xavier through time-period-of-the-week and asked for a rethink. So we got… space scouts! A bunch of kids from Galactica are stranded on Earth, chaperoned by Troy and Dillon, who decide to disguise the kids as a scout troop. The remaining six episodes involve Troy and Dillon having adventures in USA 1980 – including a cringeworthy double episode featuring Wolfman Jack – sometimes with, sometimes without, the super-strong, high-jumping super scouts who can also turn invisible. The final episode is a flashback in which Starbuck crashlands on an alien world, finds a crashed Cylon fighter, reprogrammes one of the Cylons into a middle-American, and then becomes the father – without actual sex – with a mysterious and flighty young woman of the young genius who directed Galactica’s strategy in earlier episodes. Both, I should add, remain remarkably clean during their ordeal. And the woman wears a quite flimsy nylon dress. Even the Cylon is shiny as fuck. Battlestar Galactica is pants; Galactica 1980 is an entire underwear department. I expect the Blu-ray will prove useful at persuading unwanted guests it’s finally time to leave…

hanabiHANA-BI*, Takeshi Kitano (1997, Japan). According to Wikipedia, the title of this film should properly be in all caps. So that’s how I’ve done it. I have a lot of time for Takeshi Kitano – he has a wonderfully varied oeuvre, and some of his films are actually classics (plus if you don’t love the final musical number in his version of Zatoichi then you are clearly not human). This, however, is an early work, although apparently not early enough not to be known to display his trademark. er, trademarks. Such as gory violence. Which it contains in abundance. The film also follows an achronological narrative. Kitano plays Nishi, a police officer, whose wife has cancer. His partner is confined to a wheelchair after a shootout with a Yakuza. Nishi retires, and finds himself in debt to a Yakuza loan shark. So he masquerades as a police officer and robs a bank. The film skips back and forth in time, without clues (remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s plaster on her face in Sliding Doors?), which initially makes the film hard to follow. But it soon becomes clear and starts to grip. The moments of violence are shocking and bloody. Nishi, however, remains a cipher. A good film and a deserving entry on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I think.

henry_vHenry V*, Laurence Olivier (1944, UK). One of the joys of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list has been finding films you really enjoy and/or greatly admire that you would not otherwise have come across. Now I respect Shakespeare, and I’ve been intermittently working my way through the BBC adaptations of his plays (I really ought to buy the damn boxed set), but he’s hardly my first choice, or second , or third, choice of viewing. More so for a 1944 adaptation. By Olivier, who, for all his evident ability, has been characterised as a “luvvie”. So, unexpectedly, I found myself really liking his staging of Henry V. Not because he’s chopped it down to a suitable movie length, or because everyone acts like an actooor (including some godawful Welsh characters)… but because he chose to represent the world of his play as towns and cities are represented in mediaeval art, because he framed the play as a play, and because he staged the battles really quite effectively. It works, it works really well. From the opening pan across a model London to the Globe Theatre, its cast and audience, to the not-quite-Technicolor of its costumes and sets, to the faux mediaeval representations of places to the battle itself… it all works wonderfully well. It is Shakespeare made real. It’s not the dry play as learnt by schoolgirls and schoolboys, it’s visceral and real… and yet still a play. I had expected Henry V to be dull and firmly up its own arse, but in fact it is a great piece of cinema. It needs a proper re-issue , remastered on Blu-ray, not some afterthought “classics” DVD release.

hearts_darknessHearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse*, Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper (1991, USA). I like Apocalypse Now, I think it’s a good film. It wears its inspiration a little too obviously on its sleeve, but it doesn’t suffer because of that. And some of the supporting cast pretty much define stereotypes of Vietnam War movies (except Dennis Hopper’s character, which is a stereotypically Dennis Hopper character). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, however, is the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, a notoriously difficult film to make. Partly it was money – Coppola had to stump up his own cash, and it still went over-budget. Partly it was the location – the Philippines stood in for Vietnam, and despite promises by the government the borrowed military helicopters often disappeared with little or no notice to fight rebels. And partly it was Coppola not knowing what the fuck he was doing. Then there was Marlon Brando, who demanded $3 million for three weeks’ work, and who then spent days sitting around discussing his character’s motivation. What a prima donna. Seriously, that’s totally unprofessional behaviour, and I doubt his name on the credits added significantly to the movie’s takings. Coppola also spent a week filming Harvey Keitel in the lead role, before firing him and casting Martin Sheen (Sheen is very, very good, but it would have been interesting to see what Keitel was like, but sadly no footage is included). Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is an object lesson in how not to make a film – there are a few problems which are a result of the location, but the main takeaway is that Coppola didn’t know what he was doing and bit off more than he could handle. Having said all that, Apocalypse Now is a genuine piece of classic cinema, but so perhaps it was all worth it…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 696