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Moving pictures 2017, #23

A few more US films than usual in this post, although one was a Disney, one an independent film, and the last a silent movie from the 1920s.

Peter Pan, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske (1953, USA). Look at that face on the DVD cover – doesn’t he look, well, a bit evil? I thought all the way through this Disney adaptation that Peter Pan looked impish, but more in the sense of a small devil than a prankster kid. I get that he’s completely immature and thoughtless – it’s there in every word he says and everything he does – but I’d never thought of him as a villain, or even an antihero. And yet, that’s how he’s characterised in Disney’s adaptation – not as a boy who didn’t grow up, though I suspect that’s a characterisation beyond Disney’s writers, and I say that as a boy who never grew up in some senses myself – hey, I read science fiction! – but Peter Pan as an evil force is a complete misrepresentation of the character. Although not altogether uninteresting, and the fact the Darlings are so ordinary and drawn so much like other ordinary families in Disney – comical dad, doting mother, responsible older sister – the whole thing feels like a bad mishmash of two or more movies. Peter Pan is, like many Disney classics, also a pantomime, with the title character played by a woman. As too is Tinkerbell (I forget who the dames are in pantomime Peter Pan), and who has become something of a Disney icon herself, with people cosplaying her just as much as they do all the Disney princess characters and, I think (although I’m not about to investigate), a whole line of Tinkerbell straight-to-DVD animated adventures. And yet Wendy Darling is clearly the most important, and best-drawn, character in the film, and probably the source text too – her invented name did, after all, become popular enough to be considered an ordinary name these days – but then Pan and Tinkerbell are all about the fantasy and Wendy is about making sense of it and who would be interested in that? I’d expected more of Disney’s Peter Pan. I certainly hadn’t expected to take against Pan himself because he looked so bloody evil. I don’t think this one will make my top ten of Disney films…

Springtime in a Small Town, Tian Zhuangzhuang (2002, China). This is a remake of the 1948 classic by Mu Fei, which is a film I very much like. And it’s always odd watching a remake of a film you admire because it makes you wonder why you admire the original film. And in this case… I’ve no idea. This remake is pretty close to the original, but what I like about Mu Fei’s version doesn’t really seem to exist here. I think the reason the original works is because it’s an historical film, made and set during the 1940s, whereas Springtime in a Small Town is set during an historical period but is a contemporary film. The story is the same –  a woman’s old boyfriend, now a doctor, comes to visit and to succour to the woman’s ailing husband, and their old love is rekindled, but never quite requited. The mannered nature of Mu Fei’s version fits brilliantly with the material – not for nothing is it considered one of China’s greatest films – but the same approach feels somewhat artificial in Tian’s remake. It’s a valiant effort, and certainly should have been attempted – it’s only when we attempt to recreate great works of the past that we come to truly appreciate them – but I suspect Springtime in a Small Town was always going to be an also-ran. That’s not always the case, of course: there have been remakes which eclipsed the original, such as Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much. Mu Fei’s original is a bona fide classic of Chinese cinema, but Tian’s remake is a bold attempt at recapturing it, which doesn’t quite make the grade. It’s a good film despite that, and had I seen it first I might well hold it in higher esteem. Worth seeing, but watch the original first.

David Holzman’s Diary*, Jim McBride (1967, USA). After making this film, McBride went on to make a raft of commercially-successful films for studios. In other words, he totally sold out. You have to wonder why. Because while David Holzman’s Diary has its faults – it’s pretty boring, for a start – it also has a great deal of originality. A young New Yorker decides to film his life, and is very forthright about how, and with what equipment, he plans to do so. But his girlfriend is none too happy with his decision, and throughout the film their relationship deteriorates quite badly. For most of its length, David Holzman’s Diary manages to convince with its premise, but there are times when its staged nature is a little too obvious – and it is, perversely, when it’s at its most cinema verité that it feels most fake. There’s a scene with a “goddess of the street” that feels both very real and also really staged, more because it feels like “Holzman” is forcing an encounter for the sake of his film where none would normally exist. I can see why David Holzman’s Diary made it onto the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I suspect history has been less than kind to it, and will continue to be less kind to it as the years pass, than the list has supposed.

It’s All About Love, Thomas Vinterberg (2003, Denmark). Vinterberg’s Festen is the first official Dogme film and it is a bona fide classic. Which makes It’s All About Love, with its incredibly bland and uninteresting title, even more of a mystery. It has huge ambition, and I admire it for that. But it fails at pretty much everything, which is not totally a deal-breaker… but its interesting bits don’t quite add up to an interesting whole, which is a deal-breaker. Joaquin Phoenux and Claire Danes play a pair of Poles – she is a world-famous figure skater, he is married to her but their relationship has long since soured and now he’s stopping off in New York on the way to a new job in Canada in order to get her to sign divorce papers. But Danes is surrounded by a group of frankly creepy hangers-on and managers… Phoenix is given the run-around, but he’s not sure why – and it doesn’t help when his elder brother, played by Sean Penn, phones in randomly from several other scenes. It transpires Danes’s managers have hired four Russian ice skaters, and had them surgically altered to resemble Danes so they can take over her career, allowing her to retire, with, it’s proposed, Phoenix, as their relationship seems to have rekindled. But then there’s a slaughter on the ice, but the real Danes escapes, and she and Phoenix fly off to Russia and end up somewhere really cold where she dies of exposure. As I said before, It’s All About Love is all about ambition. The world is not our own, and there are thunking great clues dropped throughout the film – the resolution, in part, depends on the world Vinterberg has created. Sadly, none of it really convinces. The small details ought to, but the whole edifice teeters so much on the edge of disbelief that none of it helps. Festen is a great film, and I wanted to like It’s All About Love but, to be honest, it doesn’t even qualify as a noble failure, it’s just a failure.

El Desenlace, Juan Pinzás (2005, Spain). The Spanish do erotic thrillers really well, but I’m not convinced this falls into that description, despite being pretty much exclusively about sex. A director of a film, his producer (who is also his mistress), and the writer of the source novel, along with a prying journalist, all meet in Galicia to discuss the upcoming adaptation. El Desenlace has been promoted as a Dogme film, and it’s certainly shot on digital video with unflattering lighting, although it’s no Festen. Much of the film consists of the director character winding up the writer character over his choice of sexual partner – specifically a transgender cabaret artist who appears at a local nightclub. Which is where things get complicated – because the director’s producer  promises the cabaret artist a major career, while the cabaret artist has also decided it’s time to drop the writer sugar daddy. I can certainly understand why El Desenlace is touted as a Dogme film, but it’s also a very talky film – the entire plot is carried in dialogue – and for all its arguments, and its reliance of a central cast of four – five, including the cabaret artist – it doesn’t do a great deal with the material it has. Disappointing.

The Big Parade*, King Vidor (1925, USA). There’s always something slighlt risible about US films set during WWI. It was called the Great War, and The War to End All Wars, at the time, and World War 1 later, but the US calls it the 1917-18 War and likes to pretend it contributed – when it was only there for the last year and suffered only a tiny fraction of the damage suffered by European nations. So a film about the 1917-18 War from a major Hollywood studio, less than a decade after the war finished, is just adding fucking insult to injury. John Gilbert plays the playboy son a of a mill owner who signs up and discovers the horrors of war for himself. There is so much that is wrong with this film – it glorifies the US’s piss-poor contribution ot WW1, and it legitimises the existence of over-privileged nitwits like Gilbert’s character. Yet it all makes for top-notch Hollywood drama of its time. Vidor was no amateur, he knew his stuff. This is a silent film, and it had the full resources of Hollywood behind it. Some of the long shots, with the casts of hundreds, if not thousands, are impressive. But, please, stop valourising the rich, stop pretending the US won all the world wars, and stop fucking pretending you’re anything but a socially backward nation with access to relatively high technology. The Big Parade‘s position on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is dubious at best, although on balance I’m currently tempted to let it remain.

1001 Movies You Musrt See Before You Die count: 862


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Moving pictures, #10

And 2014 continues to be the year of the films and I continue to get my money’s worth out of Amazon film rentals. Seriously, would you find the movies I’ve been watching on Netflix? I think not. Annoyingly, this month I discovered that my “region-free” Blu-ray player isn’t actually region-free – well, not for Blu-ray discs, only for DVDs. And apparently unlocking them is a lot more difficult than it is for DVDs. So it looks like I’ll have to buy myself a new properly region-free Blu-ray player… But on with this instalment of films seen…

Again, films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are asterisked, although I’ve since found a rival list which actually has more films on it I’ve seen and which I think belong on such a list. And I’ve just checked the list the above links to, which is where I got the list I’m using from in the first place – and the bastards keep on changing it. They’ve added more 2013 films – and so must have dropped others to make room for them. So how exactly are you supposed to see all the films on the list if they keep on changing it? Argh.

Dogville, Lars von Trier (20036, Denmark) Notable chiefly for being the film in which von Trier used black box theatre staging – ie, no scenery, just chalk lines with labels, and only a handful of props. Nicole Kidman plays the girlfriend of a mobster who runs away, seeks sanctuary in the titular small mountain town, where she performs everyday task as payment for sanctuary. But the tasks get more and more onerous, until she’s treated like a slave and then actually assaulted. I enjoyed the film up until the point where the violence started and Kidman was abused. It seemed… unnecessary. Von Trier had already made his point.

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Whisky Galore!*, Alexander Mackendrick (1949, UK). This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, which was in turn based upon a real incident. In 1941, the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Erisday, and the islanders looted it of its cargo of whiskey. In the film, the SS Politican becomes the SS Cabinet Minister, and Eriskay becomes Todday. There are a couple of sub-plots, including a romance, but the bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities over the missing whiskey. Mildly amusing. There is apparently a sequel, Rockets Galore! (1957), which sounds much more kind of thing (but at £145 for the DVD, I’ll not be buying it any time soon…).

The Blair Witch Project*, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez (1999, USA) I’d managed to avoid seeing this for fifteen years, and would happily have done so for another fifteen… if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Films list and if I hadn’t found a copy for £1 in a charity shop. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it. The found footage concept might well have been fresh and exciting back in 1999, but it’s been used, if not over-used, so much since that you end up treating the film as if it were filmed normally. And in that regard The Blair Witch Project does not score well. It is mostly dull, the scares are driven chiefly by the reaction of the cast rather than the situation they’re in, and the ending falls completely flat. There were apparently nine million sequels, but I shall not be bothering with them.

The Man Who Loved Redheads, Harold French (1955, UK) This popped up on one of those “people who bought this also bought…” things when I was buying a DVD and it was very cheap and looked mildly interesting, so I bunged it on my order… It’s based on a Terrence Rattigan play and is very silly for much of its length, but there’s a surprising and quite interesting twist at the end. A man spends his entire life seeking a lost love – a young woman he met as a teenager – and encounters women who look like her at various points in his life, all played by Moira Shearer. It’s all very terribly terribly – he’s in the Civil Service and a baronet or something – although one of Shearer’s incarnations is a shop girl and it’s played smartly.

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The Gleaners and I*, Agnès Varda (2000, France), is one of those documentaries where the film-maker slowly inserts herself into the subject being filmed. It begins by studying people who hunt for edible vegetables among those rejected by farmers, such as potatoes that are too small, or too oddly-shaped to sell to their corporate masters… but it soon moves on to film homeless people in and around French cities. And as Varda involves herself with these people, so she begins to sympathise with them and their attitudes. I had not expected to like this, but I thought it really good. I think I’d like to see more films made by Varda.

The Great White Silence*, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK) Scott took Ponting with him on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 as the expedition’s photographer, and this documentary was put together from the footage Ponting shot with a cinematograph. There is straight footage of Scott and his fellows as they leave New Zealand and sail to Antarctica, set up camp, and explore the surroundings. The footage of Scott’s fatal attempt on the pole itself is done using stand-ins as Ponting remained at the main camp with the rest of the expedition. There is also some quite effective model work. The whole is a fascinating, and quite affecting, record of Scott’s expedition. Apparently, it was not a commercial success at the time and Ponting died a pauper, but it has been subsequently re-evaluated and has taken its place as one of the great documentaries of all time. Recommended.

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Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia) Not only is this the first film made in Saudi Arabia to be entered for international competition, but it was also written and directed by a woman, a Saudi national woman. That’s quite an achievement. The story, about a girl who rebels against societal expectations by demanding a bicycle, is perhaps nothing new but it’s handled well, the cast are uniformly good – especially Waad Mohammed in the title role – and it makes some pointed observations about Saudi society (so much so, in fact, I’m a little surprised the Saudi authorities allowed it – they’re not exactly known for their liberal tendencies).

Star Trek Voyager – Season 1 (1995) Having worked my way through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was more or less inevitable I’d eventually find myself doing the same for Star Trek: Voyager. Initially, DS9 was considered the best of the franchises, but it seems time has been kinder to Voyager than it has to the other two. While Voyager’s set-up was just a reboot of the original Star Trek series, and its central casting all come out of, er, Central Casting, with their “back-stories” and “character conflicts”… But it actually hangs together quite well, and the format does give the series a lot more freedom in terms of story-of-the-week. But, of course, this is 1990s television drama, so there has to be at least one story arc… And Voyager falls back on the Trek staple of the omniscient aliens who, well, they’re only omniscient as far as the plot dictates, and then they’re not. Still, you don’t watch Trek for rigour, scientific or dramatic. Actually, I’m not sure what you do watch it for…

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran), is set in Iran but was actually filmed in Morocco, as director Shirin Neshat has been banned from visiting Iran since 1996. It takes place in 1953, during the US-led coup which put the shah back in power – which the Americans engineered because prime minister Mosaddegh has nationalised the Iranian oil industry. The film follows four women during this period, a prostitute, the wife of a general (ie, part of the secular elite), and an unmarried woman  and her religious friend. It’s been likened to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but I can’t see it myself. Yes, Women Without Men is an excellent film, although a recurring image of the women walking along a road in the open country seems more The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie than it does Haneke to me.

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Suspiria*, Dario Argento (1977, Italy) I am not much of an Argento fan, I prefer Brava – though I’ve only seen a small handful of movies by either director. On the strength of this film, I see little reason to change my mind. It has its moments, and the mise en scène is… interesting, all Dutch angles and saturated colours and ersatz Expressionist set designs. A young woman joins a strange ballet school, but it appears to be haunted and lots of strange events occur, including a rain of maggots while the pupils are readying themselves for bed, a few gruesome deaths, and the frequent appearances of a mysterious heavy-breather. It was a fun film, but I’m a bit baffled as why it should be on the 1001 films list.

Festen*, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark). This is not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic. A large and affluent Danish film gather at the country hotel they own to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch. During the celebratory dinner, one of the sons accuses his father of sexually abusing him as a child, and of abusing his twin sister – who has committed suicide in the hotel shortly before the celebration. The family try to laugh off the son’s accusation, but as the weekend progresses the family begins to fall apart. This was the first film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, so it’s made entirely with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, which gives the picture a somewhat grainy look throughout. An excellent film.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song*, Melvin van Peebles (1971, USA) I may have an incorrect number of s’s in the title of this film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right number of a’s. A young African American, Sweet Sweetback, working in a brothel is “volunteered” to be arrested as a suspect in a murder – they know he’s innocent, but the police need to arrest someone to appease the community, and plan to release Sweet a few days later for “lack of evidence”. But the police also arrest a Black Panther, who the police beat up, but he’s defended by Sweet and the two manage to escape. Sweet goes on the run, heading for Mexico, and en route has several adventures, including a run-in with a gang of Hells Angels. There’s a definite amateur feel to the film, but the use of montage was done extremely well – and not something you saw in films of that period.

Punishment Park, Peter Watkins (1971, USA) Watkins is a documentary maker, and while Punishment Park is both fictional and more than forty years old, it could easily be a documentary of twenty-first century USA. Hippies, draft-dodgers and other political undesirables are taken out into the desert, charged and sentenced at a kangaroo court in a marquee tent, and then given a choice – a full sentence served in a federal prison, or three days in “punishment park”. This later requires them to cross 53 miles of California desert without food or water in three days, while being chased by armed police and National Guard. If they make it, they can go free. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s faux-documentary presentation, this was a brutal film. A bit too talky in places, and some of the dialogue felt a little too… not staged, but not natural either, but the sort of dialogue where characters explain their thoughts and feelings and attempt to do the same for others – the sort of dialogue that only appears in fiction, in other words. Nonetheless, an excellent film, and was that really ought to be on the 1001 films list.

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Man of Marble*, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland) I saw the sequel to this, Man of Iron, before I was aware of this film. But when Second Run – who I heartily recommend, they have released some amazing DVDs – released Man of Marble, I immediately bought a copy. I like Polish cinema, some of my favourite films are from Poland, and a number of directors I greatly admire are Polish… but Wajda was one I’d mostly missed out, for some unknown reason. I’m now rectifying that. The title of this film refers to a statue of a worker who became a national hero after breaking a record for laying the most bricks in a working day during the building of a new socialist town. A film student is making a documentary about him for her thesis two decades later, but what she discovers – that it was all created and managed as propaganda; and what prompted the hero’s later fall from grace – means it becomes increasingly difficult for her to make her film. Man of Marble follows both the film student and the brick-layer, swapping effortlessly between the two decades. Like Man of Iron, it felt like a television series edited into a single long episode, but with high production values; but that worked in its favour. I really liked this film. And I can’t disagree with its presence on the 1001 Films list.