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Moving pictures 2018, #25

A mixed bag, this time around. When it comes to choosing films to watch of an evening, there are several factors to consider: rentals DVDs that I need to send back if I want to get another three for next weekend, the growing to-be-watched pile, the growing pile of DVDs lent to me by my mother, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the sort of day I’ve had at work, whether there’s anything I need to get done that evening, whether I have a Moving picture post to write and I’ve forgotten the details of one of the films in it…

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton’s films and have managed to avoid them for the past decade or so, but this one sounded like it might be worth a go and… well, I actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t massively whimsical, and Burton’s treatment seemed to suit the material. Okay, so Eva Green was as mad as a bucket of spanners in it, but then she is in everything she does – and still she’s eminently watchable. A young man’s grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances – found dead in nearby woods, his eyes missing – and so the young man follows up on stories he was told as a child of a children’s home on  an island off the coast of Wales. He travels there with his father, and discovers that the home was bombed in 1941 and no one knows what became of the children. But then he meets some of them and discovers they still exist, living in an endlessly-repeated day in 1941 (the day, in fact, which ends with the home’s destruction by a German bomb). There are lots of “peculiar children”, although only a dozen or so at the school, and they’re under threat from a group of people led by Samuel L Jackson. He and his group performed an experiment to give themselves immortality early in the twentieth century, but it has slowly been turning them into invisible monsters – unless they eat the eyes of peculiar children, which keeps them human and ageless. And the young man, it turns out he’s peculiar because he can see the monsters… Okay, so it all looked a bit more Cornish than it did Welsh, but the cast were generally good and the villains were pretty effective. A solid effort.

A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies (2016, UK). This is a biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously odd and who this film shows to be very odd indeed. Reading up on her afterwards, I don’t think the film quite does her justice. American actress Cynthia Nixon, perhaps better-known for Sex and the City, which is no doubt doing her a grave disservice as she can’t obviously chose which of her work becomes best-known, plays the title role, with a supporting cast of Brits who mostly seem to have trouble with a US accent. Which means that despite a great deal of care over costumes and setting, this film doesn’t always convince. It doesn’t help that Emily Dickinson was barking, so she’s a hard character to sympathise with in the first place. But this is a Terence Davies film, so it looks great and the performances are top-notch (accents notwithstanding). It certainly inspired me to look up Dickinson’s poetry, which I discovered left me completely cold. She was a… singular talent, with a poetic sensibility very much not of her time. These days, her poetry reads like a cross between doggerel and greeting card, and while her refusal to follow the poetic tradition of her time, and her sheer prolificity are admirable (although she only saw a handful of poems in print during her lifetime), I can’t really defend lines like:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

An interesting film about an interesting person, but don’t expect me to start admiring her poetry as a result.

Submergence, Wim Wenders (2017, USA). I had not known this was a Wenders film until I started watching it. It was the link to diving in submersibles that persuaded me to put it on my watch list. And, after all that, it was a bit meh. It didn’t even feel like a Wim Wenders film, and I wouldn’t have known it was if I hadn’t looked it up. Alicia Vikander is a marine biologist specialising in the hadal zone, on holiday in France. Where she meets James McAvoy, who claims to be a water engineer but is actually a MI6 operative en route to Somalia to meet a contact in a jihadist group. A brief romance ensues. Shortly after arrival in Somalia, McAvoy is captured and held captive. Meanwhile, Vikander visits in the ocean floor off Greenland in a submersible. Both flashback to their romance at the French pension. The only interesting thing about the film was its even-handed treatment of the jihadists, whereas in US films they’re immediately painted as totally evil and fully deserving of extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without due process, making up laws after their capture in order to find them guilty of something, and, of course, illegally invading sovereign nations… Funny how that works…

A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands). Three women are arrested for the murder of a man, and while being interviewed by the police it transpires they do not know each other… The film starts ordinarily enough, introducing the three women as they go about their daily business. One runs a café, another is a secretary in an office, and the third is a housewife, who does not speak. Each of the women are arrested and then interviewed by a police officer. They are accused of beating a man to death in a clothes shop. Nothing up until that point has suggested the women capable of committing such an act. It is only when the crime is shown in flashback, that the motive becomes apparent. The housewife had shoplifted a garment, and the shop owner had insisted she return the garment. The three women attacked the shop owner. The other women in the shop just stood and watched them. A court-appointed psychiatrist tries to understand why the women committed the murder, but they refuse to discuss it. In court, the prosecutor suggests the crime would still have occurred if the shop owner had been female. Every woman in the court room starts laughing. This film definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It certainly does not deserve to be so difficult to find. There are plenty of Dutch films available on sell-through in the UK – most of Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre, for example – and, of course, many Dutch films released in the Netherlands have English subtitles available. But A Question of Silence really was a hard film to track down, and it definitely doesn’t deserve to be. That’s a shame.

Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog (2015, USA). I had not known this was a Herzog film until– well, no, I had known it was a Herzog film but I found it hard to believe it as I watched it. It seemed more like a Kidman star vehicle. She plays Gertrude Bell, one of a number of British female explorers of the Middle East. Another is Frey Stark. Bell graduated from Oxford with a first in History, the first woman to do so, but was not awarded a degree as women were not awarded degrees at the time. Bored with the life planned for her, Bell travelled to Tehran to join her uncle, a diplomat there. She learns Farsi and studies Persian poetry. She falls in love with a member of the embassy staff – played, bafflingly, by an American with a US accent, who’s a made-up character anyway. But her family deem him unsuitable (her real life lover was married), and he commits suicide. So she throws herself into her work, travelling about the region, doing archaeological and philological work. I got the impression from the film that she was involved with Saudis – I distinctly remember mention of the House of Rashid, the original rulers of the Nejd region of the Arabian peninsula – but Bell’s biography on Wikipedia states she mostly travelled and worked in the region now occupied by Syria and Iraq. True, the House of Saud was based in Kuwait at one point, I seem to recall, and that borders Iraq – in fact, the British drew the Iraqi borders, and I think Bell was one of those involved. She also met TE Lawrence several times, and spent WWI working with him in Cairo for British military intelligence. Given I have a long personal connection to the Middle East, it’s no surprise I find the history of the region interesting. But nothing in this film quite rang true. And nothing about seemed very, well, Herzogian. A disappointment on both counts.

La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel (2001, Argentina). I watched Martel’s last but one film, The Headless Woman, last July (see here), and thought it very good. But it wasn’t until I saw a review of her latest, Zama, on Alternate Ending, that I added her other available films to my rental list. This was her first movie. Apparently, the script won a prize at Sundance, but the jury suggested she change it to a more straightforward narrative with clear lead characters. She refused. And so she should have done. Unlike The Headless Woman, which does have a (relatively) straightforward narrative, but – and this is what makes that film so good – it then begins to unravel its own story, until not only the characters but also the viewer begisn to doubt what has actually happened… Unlike that movie, La Ciénaga has no real plot or story. Things happen. And, er, that’s it. There’s no forward momentum. A family have escaped the humid weather in the city by removing themselves to their country house. The mother slips and bashes her head at the side of the pool. She takes to her bed, while her children run riot. The servants take liberties, and she accuses one of theft. Her sister visits with her own children. Martel has made four feature films to date and she really is very good. In fact, Argentina has produced some excellent films by female directors. Lucía Puenzo is another name from the country to watch. It’s not just Argentina – there’s also Claudia Llosa from Peru. And no doubt others from other South or Central American countries I’ve yet to stumble across. The more I see of the cinema of the continent – and it’s not just recent films, but also older ones, such as those by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, of whom I’m a fan – the ‘more I want to explore it. I guess my rental list will be expanding a bit over the next few weeks…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908

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Moving pictures, #28

I was under the impression I’d knocked a few more off the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently, but apparently not. Two of the directors in this post I’m a fan of, and one of them I’m becoming a fan of…

i_want_to_liveI Want to Live!, Robert Wise (1958, USA). Not only was this film based on a real-life murder case, but the movie makes a right meal of its origin, opening with a screen of text that insists how true it is – it’s even signed by the journalist who broke the story in the first place. So it’s a little off-putting to then learn that the story takes some major liberties with the truth. Like presenting the central character as innocent when she was actually guilty. Bah, Hollywood. The story goes as follows: Barbara Graham is a habitual criminal, whose marriage to a drug addict proves the last straw… so she leaves him and joins up with his associates, only to be arrested for the murder they had committed of a rich old woman, Graham is sentenced to death and then executed. The film presents Graham as a pawn in the actual murderers’ plot to commute their death sentences to life. But in reality, she was just as guilty. Susan Hayward plays Graham in an Osar-winning turn, but when all’s said and done I Want to Live! is a boringly ordinary moral drama. Samuel Fuller did it much better in both Shock Corridor (see here) and The Naked Kiss (see here), on a lower budget and without an Oscar-bait star. Meh.

sunset_songSunset Song, Terence Davies (2015, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and having been impressed by Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (although I thought the film much older than it was), I decided to give this one a go. It took several goes. It is grim. Majorly grim. Scottish grim. Beautifully shot, but as grim as the grimmest thing in a list of grim things. It looks beautiful – far too beautiful for Scotland, it seems, as part of it was shot in New Zealand. It’s based on a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Gibbon of the same title, and tells the story of a young woman, and farmer’s daughter, in the years up to and including the First World War. Peter Mullan plays family patriarch, and he’s a nasty piece of work. I’m tempted to say it’s like DH Lawrence but with the boinking taken out, but that’s the not the only thing missing. Lawrence was hardly an optimist but his novels are generally more cheerful than Sunset Song. When it wasn’t people growling at each other in Scottish accents, they were either shouting or wailing. It made for a gruelling viewing experience. I think this is a good film, and really quite beautifully shot at times, but its unremitting grimness made it difficult viewing, and some times your appetite for punishment is not quite as high as at other times. You need to be in the right mood to watch this. Recommended, but with caveats.

kagaazKagaaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt (1959, India). Exploring Bollywood films has been fun, but most of those I’ve seen have been pretty forgettable. A good night’s entertainment, but basically just a Hollywood family blockbuster turned up to eleven. With singing and dancing. So Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa came as something of a surprise… although now I’ve seen him described as “India’s Orson Welles”, his films begin to make more sense. They are clever and well-shot, and make excellent use of Bollywood conventions to tell a story that doesn’t really map onto Bollywood story templates. And this is just as true of Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt’s last film. Annoyingly, there don’t seem to be any good transfers of his films – you’d think he’d be a director ripe for a set of remastered editions by Criterion or the BFI (for one thing, he only directed eight films, between 1951 and 1959). Given the lovely job the BFI has done for Dreyer, I’d like to see them do the same for Dutt. And I say that having seen only two of his films. In Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt plays a Bollywood director whose career is declining. His wife and her family have always seen his career as beneath them, and he now has no access to his daughter. While secretly visiting his daughter at her boarding school, Dutt bumps into a young woman and gives her his coat to protect her from the rain. Later, she visits his studio to return the coat and he realises she has star quality. She becomes a big Bollywood star, and romantically attached to Dutt; but the daughter would sooner her mother and father got back together again, so the star gives up her career and becomes a teacher in a village. This is well-made stuff, and while it feels somewhat back-handed, and not a little insulting, to describe Dutt as “India’s Orson Welles”, it is a label that fits. After watching Pyaasa, I decided to buy this – and despite being disappointed at the quality of the transfer, I think I’ll be buying more of Dutt’s film. But can the BFI please step up and remaster them all, please?

going_my_wayGoing My Way, Leo McCarey (1944, USA). This was the biggest grossing film of its year, and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning seven of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. And yet it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Strange. Or, at least, I thought so… But now that I’ve seen it… It’s, well, it’s sentimental tosh. Bing Crosby plays a young priest sent to the New York parish of St Dominic’s to get it sorted out. The incumbent is old, the church is mortgaged, and both need fresh new management. Which is what Bing does. And he sings too. He turns the local boys’ gang into a choir, sorts out a young woman who has left home, and generally spreads common sense and happiness with his trademark smile and “ba ba ba bum”. He also tries to raise money for the church by selling one of the songs he’s written – performed by an old friend who is now an opera diva. The music publisher doesn’t like the song, but when Bing and choir start singing ‘Swing on a Star’, he likes that one. There’s a relentless cheeriness to Going My Way that fails to offset the schamltzy plot and awful songs. I can perhaps see how in wartime it proved so popular, but its charm has long since dissipated. True, Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald isn’t bad as old Father Fitzgibbon, even if his character is a total stereotype. I’ve no idea why I stuck this on my rental list. Meh.

bossThe Boss of It All, Lars von Trier (2006, Denmark). There’s nothing especially original about the plot of this film – it is, I guess, a variation on La cage aux folles. Or maybe something else. A man wants to sell his successful IT firm, but for the ten years it’s been in operation he’s pretended he’s not the actual boss. So he hires a friend actor to play “the boss of it all” in negotiations with the Icelandic buyers of the company. And, subsequently, with the employees. Of course, it gets very complicated, very quickly. It doesn’t help that the actor is a bit of a twit, and completely out of his depth. But von Trier does an excellent job of characterising his cast – in fact, in many respects The Boss of It All is a masterclass in small-cast drama. But that’s not good enough for von Trier, so he decides to present the movie explicitly as a piece of cinematic comedy, by introducing it in voice-over, explaining its aims, and even some of its story elements. The end-result is a post-modern cinematic approach to a post-modern story. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like it – but like most von Trier films, it ends up making you wonder: is this rubbish… or genius? And the fact he can elicit that response makes me tend toward the latter. Von Trier is experimenting with the medium, and that should be celebrated. If not every experiment is successful, that doesn’t invalidate the attempt… And it still makes him a damn sight more interesting a director than most of the other directors on this planet.

in_the_houseIn the House, François Ozon (2012, France). The near-sociopathic inveigling of a person into another family in this film reminds me of another movie, but I’ve yet to figure out which. Probably because the details are different enough to make comparison difficult. Anyway, I like Ozon’s films – well, I’ve not liked or admired every film he’s made, but I admire him as a director and he’s built up an inpressive oeuvre. In the House is one of the better ones, if not an especially characteristically Ozon film – this is not 8 femmes or Angel or Ricky; but perhaps it’s not so far from 5 x 2 or Jeune et jolie. Perhaps that variety is as much an Ozon trademark as the sensibility which created 8 femmes, Potiche or Le refuge… Whatever; Ozon is certainly one of my favourite directors, so I’m always keen to see his latest. In the House is one of his domestic thrillers, played straight, but with that unsettling edge he does so well. A pupil at a school writes an essay about his weekend for an assignment, and in it describes how he befriended a fellow pupil, went to his house to tutor him in maths, and so ingratiated himself in to the family. The essay ends “à suivre”. The teacher is a failed writer (one novel twenty years ago, nothing since), and encourages the pupil to continue his “story”… And so the pupil becomes more and more involved with the family… until it all goes horribly wrong. A good and unsettling film, with some good performances. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 773