It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Moving pictures, #61

The USA has crept back into this post, although I think I’m currently watching on average more non-Anglophone movies than Anglophone ones. Mind you, I did recently re-organise my LoveFilm rental lists, so I now receive two non-Anglophone movies and one Anglophone movies each week.

midnight_in_parisMidnight in Paris, Woody Allen (2011, USA). I am really not a fan of Woody Allen and tend to avoid his films as much as possible. But David Tallerman spoke approvingly of this one, it was free to watch on Amazon Prime, and it didn’t actually star Allen himself… Also, the story sounded sort of interesting. Owen Wilson – who turned out to be Woody Allen in all but name – is a successful Hollywood scriptwriter holidaying in Paris with his fiancée and future in-laws. They don’t seem well matched – he to his fiancée or to his in-laws. While wandering the streets of Paris one night, an old-fashioned car stops and offers him a lift. He’s taken to a party, where he meets F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Cole Porter. And from the party, they move onto a bar, where he meets Ernest Hemingway… and so on, to Gertrude Stein, Pabo Picasso, Man, Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali… And the next morning, he’s back in twenty-first century Paris. And so it goes: he spends his nights with the literati of 1920s Paris, falls in love with a young woman, and slowly realises his fiancée is not for him. But neither is the woman from the 1920s, as the two of them travel back to 1890s Paris and she decides to stay there. Wilson is Allen in all but appearance, and he’s one of the things I find most annoying about Allen’s films. Michael Sheen plays a hugely irritating and patronising friend, and the fact fiancée Rachel McAdams likes him tells you how unsuitable she is for Wilson. Midnight in Paris is by no means a subtle film. The big names of the 1920s and 1890s who make an appearance are little more than caricatures, and the whole edifice is plainly meant to be carried by Allen Wilson. It’s entertaining enough, I guess, and the central conceit has its charm. But it hasn’t caused me to reassess my opinion of Woody Allen’s films.

kings_speechThe King’s Speech*, Tom Hooper (2010, UK). I’d managed to avoid watching this, despite the fact it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, because I really don’t want to watch films about the British royal family which don’t treat them as anything other than the historical embarrassment they are. (I have nothing against the Windsors per se, but “divine right” is primitive nonsense and the whole concept of royalty has no place in the modern world.) Anyway, The King’s Speech popped up for free on Amazon Prime, so I went for it since it was going to cost me nowt. And… it was entirely as I expected: a super-entitled twonk seeks help for his speech impediment, and ends up turning to an untrained Australian therapist with a pet theory. Which apparently works. One of the conditions of the treatment is that the therapist treats his patient as an equal and vice versa – but King George VI (as will be) seems to have real trouble with that. He hides it well, but he’s better than everyone else on the planet because’s a King Emperor. Of course. For all that, the film was pretty innocuous. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the mise en scène, and while the movie had a first-rate cast most of them looked they were going through the motions. How it ended up on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery, as it’s little more than a competent historical drama about an uninteresting topic. Meh.

classic_bergmanSo Close to Life, Ingmar Bergman (1958, Sweden). Three women are in a ward at a Swedish hospital to deliver babies. One is in a loveless marriage, another isn’t ready for a child, and the third is eagerly awaiting motherhood. Bergman keeps the story confined to the ward – and a few other rooms in the hospital – but it’s all about the three women, and their visiting partners; and fortunately Bergman’s cast have chops to spare in delivering the story. In fact, the three female leads – Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin and Bibi Andersson – all won the Best Actress Award at Cannes that year; Bergman walked away with the Best Director Award. So despite being his first work after the critically-acclaimed The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, released the previous year and still considered among his best works (and possibly the two of the best-known films made by Bergman), So Close to Life manages not to embarrass. It has that theatrical atmosphere many of his films never quite managed to avoid, although in this case it’s heightened by the restricted sets. This sort of film-making does throw a lot of onto the cast’s shoulders, but one thing youn can say about Bergman’s films is that he was never let down by his actors. I can’t say So Close to Life was especially memorable, but it was a superior piece of intense and up-close drama, and certainly worth watching.

strangerStranger than Paradise*, Jim Jarmusch (1984, USA). I think this is the last of the Jarmusch’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, which is a relief. Perhaps I saw his films in the wrong place at the wrong time, ie, not the USA in the mid-1980s. Because I don’t get the appeal at all. In this one, which in parts feels like a complete rip-off of Cassavetes, a pair of musicians play lowlifes in New York who befriend a young Hungarian woman, and later drive to Cleveland to visit her after she has moved there to be with her mother. And, er, that’s it. Oh, they drive to Florida as well. But it’s basically jazz musician John Lurie and Sonic Youth drummer Richard Edson, who look confusingly alike, ad libbing at each other. The cinematography is black and white, and pleasingly clean; but I can’t see the appeal of the supposed plot, which I have seen described as both surreal and minimalist – and while I’m in no way chained to the necessity of plot (I love video installations, for a start), I think a feature film has to offer something more if it’s going to skimp on plot – and Stranger than Paradise doesn’t really. Some similar films shift their emphasis to their soundtrack, and use that to carry the film – but Stranger than Paradise didn’t. It just felt meandering, dull, its appearance on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Yoyu Die list is baffling, and Jarmusch’s appeal still escapes me.

shop_on_high_streetThe Shop on the High Street*, Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos (1965, Slovakia). In occupied Slovakia, a man is told to take over a sewing shop owned by a senile old Jewish woman, because Jews cannot own property or businesses. But the old woman’s shop has been doing badly for years and is only kept afloat by donations. The Jewish community persuade the man to keep the shop going and they will pay him a weekly payment. So he stays on… but the old woman has got it into her head he’s her nephew and he’s only there to help her out, and he doesn’t disabuse her. But then authorities round up all the town’s Jewish population, and the man can’t decide if he should turn in the old woman… There’s nothing particularly special about The Shop on the High Street. It’s a blackly comic film was about one of WWII’s lesser known aspects, played well by its cast and well-shot by its directors. Its story, however, is one that certainly should not be forgotten – now more than ever. How long in Trump’s USA before businesses owned by Muslims are handed to “Christians”? (I use quote marks because there’s fuck-all that’s Christian about most of the stuff done by the US Christian Right.) Anyway, Second Run have an excellent eye for good films – I don’t think they’ve released a dud yet – and this is no exception. Definitely worth seeing.

cowboysLes cowboys, Thomas Bidegain (2015, France). An odd film, this. I wasn’t entirely sure how to take it, and as it progressed I found myself changing my perspective on its central premise. In the 1990s, a French family at a local country & western festival discover their teenage daughter has disappeared. They spend several days searching for her, before receiving a letter from her: she has run away with her Muslim boyfriend and plans to live in Pakistan with him. The father is convinced his daughter was kidnapped by white slavers, and spends years tracking down clues to her location. To no avail. It costs him his life in a traffic accident. The son takes over, and even ends up as a relief worker in Pakistan, where he tracks down hs sister’s husband. Except they’re not married anymore, and in a struggle, the son accidentally shoots the husband. He is caught by the police and imprisoned. The French authorities arrange for his release. He buys the release of the dead man’s wife and takes her back to France with him. She would have been killed had she remained in Pakistan, but she’s an outsider in France – indeed, she’s the subject of racial abuse during a visit to the country & western festival. The son marries her, they settle down and have a kid… and then he hears from someone who has seen his missing sister… A good film that manages to remain objective, despite its emotive content, but allows the viewer to see that the behaviour of the characters is often not acceptable, no matter what provocation. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 826


1 Comment

Moving pictures, #29

Half of this post’s films are American, so I seem to be slipping a little. Having said that, movies from countries other than the US (or UK) are surprisingly difficult to find on DVD or as rentals – especially old films. For example, I’d really like to see Vidas Secas, an early Brazilian Cinema Novo movie, by Nelson Pereiros dos Santos… but I can’t find a copy. There are also a number of directors whose oeuvres I’d like to explore, even ones that are really well-known (albeit not Anglophone), but not all of their films are available – Godard, for instance… Ah well. I guess I should have more mainstream tastes… Or learn some more languages…

twilightThe Twilight Samurai, Yoji Yamada (2002, Japan). I am not a huge fan of Japanese historical dramas; I’ve seen several of Kurosawa’s films, for example, but I like Dersu Uzala – which is set in, er, Russia – best. And while Ozu’s are historical in that they’re set in the past, they’re set in the twentieth century, so, er, not really historical then. (Slight digression here on what defines “historical”. The general consensus is that historical fiction is fiction set before the liftetime of the author and written from research not personal experience. So just because a novel, or film, is set in the 1970s, forty years ago, that doesn’t make it historical (unless the author is in their twenties, but, seriously, why would they try writing a novel set four decades ago knowing there are people still alive who remember the decade quite well?).) Anyway, The Twilight Samurai is set a few years before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. A widower samurai spends his money on ensuring his daughters are fed and clothed, and so gains a reputation for being unkempt and a bit smelly. Then a childhood friend turns up after a quick divorce from her abusive husband, and begins spending time with the samurai and his two daughters. The ex-husband appears, very drunk, and challenges the woman’s brother, Twilight’s friend, and so Twilight jumps in and accepts the challenge. He surprises everyone by beating the ex-husband, even though armed only with a stick… Although slow to start, this film began to pick up as the title character became less the butt of jokes and more the protagonist of the story. Turned out better than I thought it would. Worth seeing.

nostalgiaNostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile). I’m surprised this didn’t make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list. Perhaps the makers didn’t think its topic as worthy as that of… Senna, or a film about a female serial killer. But then Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing didn’t make the list either, so perhaps the list-makers aren’t interested in films on state-run massacres. It might remind them of their own nation’s complicity in several such… (Not that the UK is innocent – and Margaret Thatcher was very chummy with Pinochet, and for that, among many other things, deserves our deepest contempt.) Nostalgia for the Light contrasts the search for stars by the astronomers of the Atacama Desert with the search for the bodies of the Disappeared by a group of Chilean women who sift the sand for the remains of their husbands and sons and brothers… The film features Guzmán in voice-over describing how the events shown relate to Chile’s history and character. There’s a telling moment when Guzmán says of one old couple, survivors of Pincohet’s regime, that they represent Chile for him: the man cannot forget anything that happened to him, the woman has dementia and cannot remember anything. A fascinating, but heart-breaking, documentary that both destroys your faith in humanity but also reaffirms (okay, it destroys any faith you might have had in the rich and powerful – but then you’d have to be daft as a brush to have any faith in them in the first place). I’d put this on my own 1001 Movies list.

gatheringA Gathering of Eagles, Delbert Mann (1963, USA). My mother told me there was a Rock Hudson film on Drama one afternoon, and when I learnt it was A Gathering of Eagles, I had two reasons for wanting to catch it: Rock Hudson and SAC. (The actual conversation went like this: Mother: “There’s a Rock Hudson film on Drama this afternoon. Gathering something…” Me: “A Gathering of Eagles?” Mother: “That’s it.” Me: “I keep on thinking today is Saturday.” Mother: “That film is on tomorrow afternoon.”) I like Hudson’s films, he was an excellent leading man during a period whose films I enjoy; and I’m fascinated by the military hardware, especially aerospace hardware, built and used by the US – especially the USAF’s Strategic Air Command – during the Cold War. Rock Hudson and B-52 bombers. Cool. I wasn’t expecting great cinema, but as long as there was some good aerial photography and lots of interior shots of the B-52s, then I’d be happy. I love stuff like that. Strategic Air Command, starring Jimmy Stewart, some B-36s and some B-47s, is one of my favourite films; but it’s a fairly routine drama. And Toward the Unknown showcases the XB-51, which makes it quite interesting. A Gathering of Eagles has plenty of aerial photography of B-52s refueling from KC-135 tankers, but is mostly concerned with Hudson pissing off everyone in the wing he’s been given command of. The movie has its moments, but if you want to see B-52s on-screen you’d be better off watching Bombers B-52.

danishThe Danish Girl, Tom Hooper, (2015, UK). This film has taken quite a bit of stick for taking liberties with a novel which itself takes liberties with the real life of its subject: Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. For a start, her name wasn’t Lili Elbe – that was invented by a journalist. Her name was actually Lili Ilse Elvenes. Eddie Redmayne plays Einar Wegener/Lili Elvenes, and while the film tries to show Wegener coming to the realisation she is the wrong gender, Redmayne spoils the effect somewhat with his smirking. The movie never manages to convince, despite showing a reasonably good depiction of 1920s Copenhagen – possibly because it squeezes the events of nearly two decades into what feels like a handful of years. There are plenty of other inaccuracies too – so many, you have to wonder at the point of making a film about a real person that seems happy to ignore what actually happened. Of course, Hollywood has never let facts get in the way of a good story (although this is a British film), and actually has a well-known history of rewriting, er, history… But then the UK film industry does that too – like The Imitation Game turning Alan Turing into a spy-catcher… I don’t know; The Danish Girl felt like a ham-fisted attempt to tell a story that served its subject badly… and its viewers too. Meh.

martianThe Martian, Ridley Scott (2015, USA). But you didn’t like the book, I hear you cry, so why watch the film? Well, it’s not unknown for bad books to make good films – in fact, I can think of several off the top of my head. And, to be fair, The Martian may have been badly-written but its story read as though it lent itself quite well to a cinematic treatment. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, while Scott’s The Martian looks very pretty – and at times, even resembles the Martian surface – the adaptation only highlights the flaws in Weir’s story. The storm looks very effective, but is complete nonsense – given Mar’s extremely low surface pressure, a hurricane would feel as powerful as a faint breeze. Also, Watney appears to have plenty of food, but still spends all that time and effort growing potatoes. And the final rescue scene is risible – the NASA spacecraft deliberately slows itself down while on a free-return trajectory about Mars… thus ensuring it will never get back to Earth. I was also amused they’d completely toned down the swearing from the book. The script demonstrated how pointless were the scenes set on Earth (badly-inserted in the novel for its publication by a publishing house), especially since they did little more than obfuscate the science. The success of the book was baffling, but the Hollywood marketing machine was there to ensure the movie adaptation was no flop – especially with marquee names like Ridley Scott and Matt Damon attached. So it seems churlish to complain about the quality of the film – since no one seems to give a shit. I mean, this is commercial fiction, and a commercial movie adaption thereof, actual quality is not relevant… but I do object to a story being sold on its science credentials when those credentials are paper-thin (Weir is now being invited to talk to Congress about space exploration!). The Martian is an entertaining, but not especially convincing, film about a man marooned on Mars. I still think Apollo 18 – rock monsters aside – is one of the most realistic sf films ever made.

jazz_singerThe Jazz Singer*, Alan Crosland (1927, USA). This film is famously the first “talkie”, and its commercial (albeit not critical) success pretty much killed silent films – although not entirely: Dreyer’s mostly-silent Vampyr was released in 1932, and Murnau released two silent films after The Jazz Singer, City Girl in 1930 and Tabu and 1931; not to mention a silent film, The Artist, winning the Oscar in 2012… But clearly the moment The Jazz Singer appeared, silent films were obsolete, so it sort of doesn’t really matter what The Jazz Singer was like as a film per se, except… Jolson plays the son of a cantor who would rather sing in music halls, and so is disowned by his orthodox Jewish father. Eventually, of course, they reconcile… but that’s after a good sixty or so minutes of each posturing to defend their own  point of view. The film is not without its problems – chief among which is that Jolson’s career was based upon performing in blackface, and so he does several times in the movie. By all accounts, when singing live he was accomplished at creating an emotional connection with the audience, but this doesn’t really transfer to film. In other words, he doesn’t much look like a leading man, and the various songs he performs don’t really explain it either. There’s no denying the historical impact of The Jazz Singer, but being first at something doesn’t automatically confer quality. Dreyer’s Vampyr, mentioned earlier, would have been a much better “first talkie”… but The Jazz Singer is what we have. I’m tempted to include it on my own 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list because it was the first kind, but reluctant to do so because it’s not a very good film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 774


1 Comment

Moving pictures, #5

And now it seems the Blu-ray player is starting to act up. Bugger. Annoyingly, I recently discovered it’s also region-locked for DVDs, although I was sure it was region-free when I bought it. I definitely need to get myself a new one – region-free for both formats. Sigh.

allthatjazzAll That Jazz*, Bob Fosse (1979, USA). There are some movies I’d never have come to watch if they hadn’t been on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and not just because I’d otherwise never have known about them. On first pass, All That Jazz doesn’t really seem to be my sort of film. It’s a semi-autobiographical musical, based on Fosse’s own experiences staging a big Broadway musical and editing a feature film, a work-load which led to health problems and hospitalisation. I am not much of a musicals-type person – in fact, there’s only one I actually rate, High Society – and if I were I think I’d prefer ones from the 1950s… But All That Jazz is also one of those films in which an unexpected dance sequence makes something very interesting of it. And “unexpected” is not a word associated with dance sequences you’d think would apply to All That Jazz. But there it is. As Roy Scheider lies in his hospital death, he hallucinates a big dance production number featuring the Angel of Death, and it’s cleverly and affectingly done. I found myself really liking All That Jazz, and I hadn’t expected to.

onthewaterfrontOn the Waterfront*, Elia Kazan (1954, USA). Marlon Brando is apparently one of the great actors, but I’ve seen him now in two of his most famous roles – in A Streetcar Named Desire and this one – and, well, he’s just annoying. That stupid voice. I guess that must be Method Acting. Brando plays a dim-witted ex-boxer whom circumstances force into going up against his chapter of the longshoremen union and its corrupt chief. It’s the sort of story which is, I guess, meant to celebrate a good man, but all it does to me is demonstrate that the capitalist model is corrupt, open to abuse and a piss-poor end-result after ten thousand years of civilisation. Seriously, we’re meant to just accept the injustice and violent coercion which was apparently standard operating procedure on the docks of New York some sixty years ago? We shouldn’t be cheering on Terry Malloy as he battles the union, we should be asking why the US government is apparently so inept, corrupt or just plain evil to have allowed the situation to arise in the first place. Either way, this doesn’t really meet my criteria for a good movie.

paradeParade, Jacques Tati (1974, France). I’ve almost finished the Tati box set, and it was definitely one of my better purchases – even if this isn’t one of Tati’s better films. It’s a made-for-TV piece, set in a circus, in which Tati himself occasionally appears as a clown. It is also a film chock-a-block with dungarees. I’ve never seen so many pairs in a single movie before. There are some amusing set-pieces, but if this weren’t Tati it would be just another fly-on-the-ringside documentary, albeit a very 1970s one. Worth seeing, but buy the Tati box set for the other films.

motherkustersMother Küsters Goes To Heaven, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1975, Germany). And I’m about halfway through the Fassbinder box set. I like box sets. (I received a Bergman one for my birthday, only a week or so ago, incidentally). One thing I’m coming to realise from watching these Fassbinder films is that he definitely made use of a stable of actors. Brigitte Mira, who played the female lead in Fear Eats the Soul, plays the title character, a working-class widow who loses everything when her husband kills his supervisor and commits suicide at the factory. She and her family are interviewed by the press, who then libellously paint the dead man as a drunk who was violent toward his wife and a bully to his children. A pair of middle-class communists offer to help Mother Küsters clear her husband’s name, although her family are suspicious of the communists’ motives. But they prove too slow for Mother Küsters and she falls in instead with some anarchists… who invade the local office of the newspaper which published the libellous article. This isn’t exactly the most subtle Fassbinder film I’ve watched so far – he sets out to show the perfidy of the press and the way they monster people, and does precisely that. Interestingly, the film has two endings. One is represented by stills, while a voice-over reads the script, but the other was actually filmed. The latter apparently was written especially for the US market (it’s the happier ending), but I do wonder why the first ending was never actually put on film.

White_HeatWhite Heat*, Raoul Walsh (1949, USA). “Look at me, ma! I’m on top of the world!” Yup, this is where that line comes from. It’s a classic gangster film, in which Cagney plays a complete psychopath – albeit a somewhat tame one by today’s standards, in fact superheroes in twenty-first century films show about as much remorse as Cagney’s character does after killing someone. That’s progress for you. Anyway, Cagney gives himself up for a crime he didn’t commit because it provides an alibi for one he did, a particularly brutal train robbery. A cop goes undercover in the prison, breaks out with Cagney and joins his gang. The film ends with an attempt to rob the payroll from a refinery, and Cagney ends up stuck on the top of a storage tank, starts of a gun battle… which causes the storage tank to blow. KABOOM. A good bit of classic noir.

lesmisLes Misérables*, Tom Hooper (2012, USA/UK). Here’s another film that I’d have otherwise assiduously avoided if it hadn’t been for the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but unlike All That Jazz I can’t really say I’m glad I watched it. I knew going in it wasn’t going to be the sort of film I like and, lo and behold, I really didn’t like it. The singing was terrible, the songs were awful – even that brain-burning one popularised by Susan Boyle – the characters were unredeemable, and the CGI was so over the top it might as well have taken place in some fantasy world. Rubbish.

labelleLa Belle et la Bête*, Jean Cocteau (1946, France). I thought Cocteau’s Orphée really good, but this retelling of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ fairy tale was a bit dull. While the staging was cleverly done, particularly for the time, the production design did resemble some amateur dramatic pantomime production (although the Beast’s make-up was good). Perhaps it deserves a second watch – but it was a rental disc and it’s gone back. On the other hand, I’m only just over halfway through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… although I would like to see more films by Cocteau.

mother-and-sonMother And Son, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Russia). I’ve watched this a couple of times now, and I continue to find it completely mesmerising. A young man cares for his mother as she lies on her death-bed. He reads to her, he carries her outside and shows her the surrounding countryside, he feeds her and nurses her. There is a dream-like quality to the visuals, so much so that some of the landscape shots actually resemble oil paintings. This is a beautiful film, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever watched. I’d place it a close second after The Second Circle as my favourite Sokurov, and while it doesn’t quite make my top ten it certainly makes my top twenty. But I also suspect that more often I watch it, the more my opinion of it will rise. I’ve been watching a lot of Sokurov recently, and have even tracked down copies of some of his hard-to-find DVDs. I think he’s one of the most interesting directors currently making films. There’s something very… literary about his movies. Watching them is like reading a beautifully-written short story.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 567