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Moving pictures 2018, #53

I think I’m starting to suffer from Film Fatigue. I’ve watched so many movies so far this year, I find my attention wandering when I have one playing. So I tried watching television series instead. During August and September, I worked my way through all the past series of New Who, after finding them available on the BBC iPlayer. I was surprised to discover that of all the Doctors since the relaunch, I much preferred Matt Smith. I also tried watching the first season of Andromeda, but I’m not sure how much of it I can take. I like the central premise, and even one or two of the characters, but all the Nietschean bollocks is hugely annoying, not to mention the constant use of twentieth-century cultural references… But then it went and disappeared from Amazon Prime when I was only about ten episodes in. Oh well.

Anyway, here’s another half a dozen movies. I’m a bit behind on these posts, but once I’ve cleared the backlog, I think I’ll slow down a bit on them.

Oliver Twist, David Lean (1948, UK). Although this had been on my list to watch for many years, I’d made no effort to seek it out. So it was good it popped up on Amazon Prime. And an excellent transfer too. I don’t know the book – I’m not a Dickens fan and have read only Great Expectations – although, being English, I’m familiar with the story, as Dickens’s more popular novels are pretty much defining parts of English culture. Oliver Twist is set among the workhouses of Victorian England, and anyone who thinks we  should return to that is a total scumbag and I would quite happily knife. Just point me at them. (Quick note for the police and security services: that’s not an actual threat, although when you finally get around to criminalise thoughts I might have a few problems justifying it…). Anyway, Oliver’s mother dies in poverty and he’s given to a workhouse. After being persuaded to ask for more food – “Please, sir, I want some more.” – he’s apprenticed to a funeral director, where he’s not treated like a slave, but it’s not much better. But he attacks a fellow servant, is promptly whipped, and so runs away to London. Which is where he ends up in Fagin’s gang. The film was criticised on its release for Alec Guinness’s antisemitic portrayal of Fagin. Lean’s defence was that the make-up was intended to make Guinness resemble George Cruikshank’s illustrations from the story’s first appearance. But it doesn’t wash. Cruikshank’s illustrations may well have been antisemitic; Guinness’s portrayal certainly is. The story ends with Oliver being adopted by a family who turn out, amazingly coincidentally, to be the parents of his mother, who had run away from home after becoming pregnant. Oh, and Bill Sykes murders Nancy, but he then accidentally kills himself by falling off a roof trying to escape an enraged mob. The story relies too much on melodrama and coincidence, but Lean’s treatment of it is excellent. His Victorian London is every bit as scary as it would appear to a young boy, and deliberately so. The adult characters are caricatured, not just as written by Dickens, but also visually. I can understand why the film is so highly regarded, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s only the depiction of Fagin that kept it off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Karan Johar (2006, India). This Bollywood film was lent to me by my mother, who has a completely uncritical approach to film watching. Our family connection to Scandinavia means she now watches a lot of films and television from that region, and she’s not at all phased by watching anything with subtitles. I’ve also recommended so many foreign films to her she tends to looks at the story first and not the language. Which, to be honest, hardly applies to Bollywood films as they all have the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy gets girl back again. And Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna sort of follows the formula, except for being set in New York and being about adultery and two relationships that are consequently split apart. Shah Rukh Khan is a successful footballer in the US. He meets Rani Mukerji at her engagement party (his mother is doing the catering). Shortly after curing her of her last-minute nerves, he’s hit by a car and his football career is over. Four years later, Khan is a little league football coach, while his wife is a successful editor of a fashion magazine. Mukerji is a teacher, and her husband runs a successful PA agency. Meanwhile, his mother and her father have met up and started dating. Which brings Khan and Mukerji together, and their friendship soon turns into something else. There are many words you can use to describe Bollywood, but “bittersweet” is not a common one. But that’s what Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna feels like. It takes a while before the two leads finally get together, and they’re all too aware of the fact they’re married to other people. Khan and Mukerji make a good couple, and the supporting roles are well played. It’s a polished piece, more so than many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. It would probably make a good introduction to Indian cinema to those wanting to try it.

Twelve Chairs, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1962, Cuba). I’ve a feeling there’s a British film which covers the same territory as this, but perhaps it’s just because it’s such a familiar story. The matriarch of a wealthy Cuban family hides the last of her wealth in one of twelve “English” antique chairs. The rest of the film follows her descendants’ attempts to track down the correct chair and so recover their fortune. It smells like an Ealing comedy. But it’s not presented like one. Mostly. It’s Alea, of course, who directed a number of Cuban comedies during the 1960s, although it’s clear here where his inspirations lay. At least it was to me. But perhaps that was because I’d watched a bad British farce starring Alfred Marks – and Bob Monkhouse! And Anna Karina! – only a few days earlier. In many respects, Twelve Chairs seemed of the same comedy tradition as that which led to the UK film (and both were released in the same year). Which is obviously why I’m almost half-convinced there’s a British film with a similar plot… I’ve seen several Alea movies, but this I thought lightweight stuff compared to them. It was only his second feature-length film, and I’ve not see his first, Stories of the Revolution. But he made Death of a Bureaucrat (see here) and Memories of Underdevelopment (see here) a few years later, and they’re both excellent.

Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman (1982, USA). I’d heard of this film years ago but never expected to see it. But then a copy popped up on Amazon Prime for free, and it was a good – no, an excellent – transfer… And you know what, it’s actually a bloody good film. Very eighties. Amazingly eighties. I had thought the most eighties film on the planet was Andrzej Żuławski’s L’amour bracque (see here), but I was wrong. Liquid Sky is as fucking eighties as it gets. Anne Carlisle, who plays both the male and female leads, is especially impressive. It’s not like the acting is good throughout, it is in fact mostly terrible, and the plot is total nonsense. There’s a tiny flying saucer, which looks really fake, and lots of parties where people sneer at each other in a very eighties way, and lots of drugs and arguments about drugs. None of it hangs together, but then it’d be a surprise if it did. Carlisle has considerable screen presence in both of her roles. And yet… it’s the 1980s as we see it depicted in film and television, but it’s not the 1980s I remember. I mean, I was there, I even remember a lot of the cultural moments – Duran Duran first appearing on Top of the Pops, Spandau Ballet with those ridiculous rugs over their shoulders, all the “greed is good” stuff, shoulder pads, Dynasty, Bowie, all that shit. I was there. And while Liquid Sky seems to capture the decade’s essence, it isn’t really an accurate portrayal. But that, I think, is the point, and much of the appeal. They say if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there; but I suspect if you remember the 1980s, it’s the later depictions of it you “remember”, not the actual decade. It’s been entirely confabulated. The same will likely happen to the current decade – because, seriously, the shit that’s going down now? You could not make it up.

La captive, Chantal Akerman (2000, France). I need to watch more Akerman. I’m not really sure what to make of her. I mean, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is a particular type of film and an excellent one too. But it’s almost plotless and just recounts the life of its titular character. La captive, on the other hand, is narrative cinema, with a plot… although that may be too strong a word. A young man lives with his grandmother and his girlfriend, and he is totally controlling. He follows his girlfriend, making sure she is doing what she tells him she is doing, and he is only capable of having sex with her when she is pretending to be asleep. I will admit I was not concentrating all that much as this film – a rental DVD – was playing, and so I came away from it with an impression of a movie that was much like other French dramas of its time, such as those by Godard – a personal drama, shot cheaply on a single camera, without any expansive, or expensive, shots, just the two main characters talking to, or at, each other as they performed everyday actions. In fact, now I think back on it, there was a lot that reminded me of Godard’s twenty-first century films, although perhaps not so experimental – although Akerman was certainly experimental during her career, cf the aforementioned film by her. I need to watch more Akerman. She directed around thirty feature films, but only La captive seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a UK edition of the US Criterion release). I suspect she is another director, like Marguerite Duras, who, despite their reputations, have seen only limited sell-through release in the UK because of their gender. That really needs to change.

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, Julio García Espinosa (1967, Cuba). If there’s one thing that’s become clear about Cuban cinema from the dozen or so Cuban films I’ve watched over the last year or so, it’s that they don’t think kindly of their pre-revolutionary days and yet made numerous movies set during those times. Especially historical ones. Amada, for example, (see here) is based on a 1929 novel; two of the three sections of a favourite film, Lucía (see here), are set in the 1890s and the 1930s; and Cecilia (see here) is adapted from a novel published in 1839… On the other hand, Death of a Bureaucrat (see here) pokes fun at the apparatchiks created by the Revolution. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, however, is set before the Revolution, but it’s not clear exactly when. The title character is a bit of a chancer who tries a variety of ways to make money, but is eventually declared a bandit by the authorities. Although I may have that wrong. The film opens with Juan Quin Quin cornered in a wheat field by the army. They set fire to the field in order to either smoke him out or kill him. He survives and evades capture. The rest of the film may be flashback, I’m not entirely sure. Because Quin (or perhaps Quin Quin) is next at a cock fight and is inspired to open a bullring. He approaches a circus owner for a bull, ends up working for him, and steals his lion. He then bounces from career to career, at one point ending up playing Jesus Christ in a circus (and the presence of two go go dancers in this section suggest at least one reason why films set in pre-revolutionary Cuba might have been popular in post-revolutionary Cuba…). And, of course, film, especially comedy, was a perfect vehicle for political allegory. At one point during the circus section, a fakir (played by Quin) lies down on a bed of broken glass. The ringmaster asks for volunteers to stand on the fakir’s torso. A large man in military uniform volunteers himself and seems determined to jump onto the fakir’s chest. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors… Quin ends up running a plantation, which brings him into conflict with the owner, and so the authorities, leading to his final career as a bandit, which circles back to the opening sequence… The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin was apparently entered into competition at the 5th Moscow International Film Festival, but lost out to a tie between The Journalist by Sergei Gerasimov and Father by István Szabó. Also entered, incidentally, from the UK was A Man For All Seasons.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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Moving pictures 2018, #50

Work has been very busy the past few weeks, and likely to remain so for at least another month. Hence the paucity of content here other than Moving pictures posts – and the occasional Reading diary post – since they’re a) pretty easy to write, b) it doesn’t take long to watch a movie, and c) I watch two films a night on average…

I’ve never claimed these are full-on reviews, and half the time I’m just trying to string a series of vague impressions into a description that’s somewhat recognisable and, er, informative. But most of them sort of turn into mini-rants. Oh well.

The Idol, Hany Abu-Assad (2015, Palestine). A young boy in Gaza forms a band with his sister and two friends. They play at weddings, that sort of thing. Then his sister dies of kidney failure. The story jumps ahead a decade or so, and the boy is now a young man, paying his way through university by driving a taxi. But he’s desperate to escape Gaza, and singing is his only possible means of escape. But, of course, Israel has Gaza locked up, and its inhabitants do not have freedom of movement. The young man – his name is Muhammad Assaf – arranges to audition for a Palestinian talent show, but he has to Skype his audition as he can’t leave Gaza and the studio is in Ramallah (on the West Bank). But just before the audition, the Israelis cut off power to Gaza… but Muhammad manages to source a generator; but it catches fire during the song… The “success” of the audition persuades Muhammad he needs to audition for Arab Idol, but it takes place in Cairo and he can’t get a visa to attend. He uses his contacts to get himself a forged visa, but then breaks down and admits it’s forged when he gets to the border post. When asked why he’s travelling to Cairo, he tells the border officer that he’s going to a Qur’an recital competition, and recites so beautifully when asked that the officer approves his fake visa. But when Muhammad gets to the auditions, he discovers all the tickets have gone. He breaks into the building and hides out in the toilet. In desperation, he starts singing when he hears someone else enter. The guy who hears him is so impressed by his singing that he gifts him the ticket he had queued for – he’d only applied “for the experience”. So Muhammad gets to sing in front of the judges. And he impresses them so much, he shoots up through the various stages of the competition… And all it seemed a bit too good to be true. Not the Gaza bits – they rang all too sadly true (it looks like a bombsite, basically; and at one point, a Palestinian parkour team go past, jumping from one wrecked building to another). Muhammad had, against all odds, made it to Arab Idol, but he seemed to do so well so easily in it – he was even nicknamed “the Gaza rocket”. And then it’s the Arab Idol final and there are three contestants remaining… but Muhammad Assaf looks, well, different. It’s not the same guy as earlier in the film. Because The Idol, it turns out, is a true story, and the final stages of the film show the real Assaf’s victory on Arab Idol. A postscript explains that Assaf became a UN Goodwill Ambassador and was given a diplomatic passport. But he can only visit family and friends in Gaza with special permission from the Israeli authorities, who still occupy the territory despite it being mandated to the Palestinians. What is it with right-wing governments, that they’re not happy until they’ve burnt everything down to the ground? At the rate they’re going, they’ll bring on the apocalypse before the climate or the economy crashes – both of which, of course, they’ve been happily bringing about sooner…

Death of a Bureaucrat, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1966, Cuba). There is a sensibility, I have found, common to those Cuban films I’ve seen, and it is mostly critical of the regime while also acknowledging its social and political ambitions, all in a blackly comic way. And Death of a Bureaucrat is a pretty explicit presentation of that sensibility. A well-respected worker is killed by a piece of experimental apparatus he has been building, and is buried with his labour card as a mark of respect. Unfortunately, it seems his widow needs the card to claim the pension she is now owed. So the son tries to get it all sorted out. But the authorities won’t allow an exhumation unless the body has been interred for more than two years without special dispensation. He digs up the body himself and retrieves the card, but now he can’t re-bury it… because it hasn’t been officially exhumed. So he still needs that special dispensation, but this time so he can bury his father. He fails to get it because the bureaucracy just sends him round in circles. Even breaking into the offices one night to steal the necessary form only results in him being chased by the police because he climbed out of a window and was thought to be a suicide. Eventually he fakes the paperwork, but the cemetery refuses to let him bury his father because he has the body with him even though he has a permit for exhumation. This results in a fight in the graveyard, and they fail to complete the funeral… The bureaucratic comedy of errors is a well-established subgenre, and it’s not just found in the cinemas of communist regimes. There have been several made in the UK, where the civil service has often been an object of fun; and possibly even a few in the US, although none spring immediately to mind (corporate versions are, I suspect, much more common in US cinema). Death of a Bureaucrat judges its absurdities well, and if one or two people are overly officious – particularly those at the cemetery – most are victims of the system as much as everyone else. I’ve seen three films by Alea now, and thought them all good. Must try and track down some more.

Ocean’s 8, Gary Ross (2018, USA). This was an idea just waiting to happen – an all-female heist movie – and in the hands of a less-than-stellar director, it could have been fucking awful. Oh wait, it was fucking awful. The sister of Danny Ocean (star of Ocean’s 11 and sequels) is released from prison and is determined to get her revenge on the crooked art dealer who put her there. This involves persuading a dimwitted actress (Anne Hathaway) to wear the most expensive Cartier necklace ever to one of those stupidly expensive charity dos, that cost more money than they raise, at a museum, where the sister (Sandra Bullock) plans to steal the necklace. So she recruits a bunch of people, as you do, to pull off this majorly implausible sting. Which only works because – surprise, surprise – one of the principles is a ringer. Gosh. Never saw that coming. Other than that, it’s a showcase of the sort of ridiculous meaningless affluence that makes you want to stick the heads of the ultra-rich on pikes and let off a string of EMPs over Panama. Bullock doesn’t even look human, Blanchett is completely wasted in her role, Hathaway is too smart to play dumb although she plays dumb well, and the others are a hair short of stereotypes. In all other respects, it’s your usual glossy heist flick, and while it’s good to see a female-fronted version, it would have been better if it hadn’t relied on them being used as clothes horses. It’s one of those films where it looks like the cast had a lot more fun making it than viewers have watching it – although with Bullock it’s hard to be sure. With Bullock, it’s hard to be sure of anything she’s feeling. Me, I’d have just machine-gunned everyone at the charity gala and sod the necklace.

Salvatore Giuliano, Francesco Rosi (1962, Italy). The title refers to a bandit in Sicily in the latter half of  the 1940s. He started out selling food on the black market, the only way Sicilians could obtain food during and after WWII, but soon became leader of a powerful gang. He was seen as something of a Robin Hood figure, despite being wanted for killing the police officers sent to apprehend him, and being implicated in the Portella della Ginestra massacre, in which 11 people were killed and 27 injured during May Day celebrations. He was also a contributor to Sicily’s independence movement, which resulted in the island gaining autonomous status, and which won four seats in the 1946 general election but lost them in the 1948 general election. The film, however, opens with Giuliano’s death – considered suspicious even now – and then jumps back and forth in time, covering the court proceedings against the surviving members of Giuliano’s gang and the events leading up to Giuliano’s death. First, it’s worth noting that the restoration of this film has been done well – the transfer is lovely, and I can’t think of any other 55-year-old black-and-white Italian films that look as good on Blu-ray. But its a good film and worthy of the treatment it’s been given. It’s Italian Neorealist – not my favourite film movement, it must be said – but it’s also semi-documentary and uses a fractured timeline to tell its story. It keeps Giuliano something of an enigma – his character is built up from hearsay – and yet is also deeply critical of Italy’s treatment of Sicily, especially during the courtroom sequences (in which American actor Frank Wolff rants angrily in dubbed Italian). I must admit, when I stuck the film on my rental list I was expecting another giallo or poliziottesco, like Milano Calibro 9, but it’s nothing like either of them. Worth seeing.

The Shop Around the Corner, Ernst Lubitsch (1940, USA). This appears on one or another Movies You Must See Before You Die list, or maybe a They Shoot Picture Don’t They list – although not the 1001 Movies You Must Before You Die list from 2013 that I’m using – and so it seemed like it was worth seeing. Also, Jimmy Stewart. The story is set in Budapest in, er, the 1920s? the 1930s? It’s certainly not 1939, as there’s no mention of war, and it’s unlikely to be a few years before that as there’s no mention of the likelihood of war. Having said that, it’s a US film… Anyway, Jimmy Stewart is chief salesman at a prestigious leather goods store in Budapest. A young woman, Margaret Sullavan, approaches him and asks for a job. He tells her he can’t offer her one, so she goes above his head and persuades the shop’s owner to employ her. Christmas comes around and a private detective tells the shop’s owner that his wife is having an affair with one of his employees. So the shop owner fires Stewart, believing him to be the culprit. Meanwhile, Stewart has been conducting a postal relationship with a woman he met through a newspaper advert, and they’ve finally agreed to meet IRL. Guess who she turns out to be. Yes. Yawn. And of course it wasn’t Stewart boinking the shop owner’s wife after all, it was the oily creepy shop assistant. Unfortunately, discovering this prompts the shop owner to commit suicide, but he is saved by the delivery boy. Jimmy Stewart gets his job back, and gets to publicly fire oily shop assistant. And he turns up to a date with Sullavan but does not reveal he is the man she has been corresponding with. But the two get chatting and… fade to black. As rom coms of the period go, this is quite a good one, but then it has a good cast and a slightly-off-the-wall setting  – leather goods shop on Budapest? WTF? – but that setting also slightly works against it as you have to wonder why they bothered setting the story there and then. I mean, I’m all for introducing parochial US audiences to the concept that there are other nations on this planet and they’re inhabited by people very much like them (biologically at least, although it would be nice if US culture acknowledged they were different culturally), but sometimes it feels like the setting is a hangover from a previous iteration of the story and is rendered pretty much meaningless by the Hollywood treatment. Hungarians you would expect to behave like Hungarians, and only an idiot, or an American (#notallamericans), would expect their sensibilities to be exactly the same. Of course, this is a Hollywood movie aimed at a US audience… but that does again beggar the question, why set it in Budapest? I suspect  the only answer that will ever make sense is: because. The Shop Around the Corner is a fun rom com for its time, not one of Jimmy Stewart’s best pieces of work, but it will entertain.

Youth, Feng Xiaogang (2017, China). The only place the subtitle of this film “Medal of Courage” seems to appear is on the Blu-ray artwork. The film is known as Youth, and in Chinese territories as 芳华 (fang hua), which apparently can be translated as “young/blooming flowers/young women”. So, Youth is sort of relevant, but Medal of Courage is completely irrelevant. So the dumb wargame subtitle is a shame, as this is a film is nothing like that might suggest but is actually totally worth seeing. The film opens in the mid-1970s when a young woman, He Xiaoping, joins an army entertainment troupe as a dancer. The first act introduces the main characters – He, who is bullied by the members of the troupe; Liu Feng, who repeatedly turns down military academy as he prefers to be a dancer than an officer or commissar; Lin Dingding, the sweetheart of the troupe, and she knows it; and Xiao Suizi, who narrates the film, and seems to often act as mediator. Liu injures his back and can no longer dance, and eventually becomes a military doctor. He Xiaoping is bullied out of the troupe and joins a military nursing unit. Both end up on the frontline in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. This is act two. It is pretty brutal (and possibly the justification for the film’s subtitle), with graphic depictions of battlefield injuries. For example, a soldier is shot, but the bullet hits one of the grenades on his belt. Seconds later, he explodes messily and blood and guts rain down on all those around him. Both Liu and He survive, although Liu loses an arm to a Vietnamese bullet. He is given a medal for her work, including the care of a soldier suffering severe burns from a flamethrower (he did not survive). The third act takes place years later, in Reform-era China. Everyone has gone their own separate way. Lin married a Chinese-Australian and moved to that country. Liu is now an impoverished haulage contractor. Xiao works in a bookshop. She witnesses Liu being extorted by the local branch of commissars, who have impounded his truck and are demanding an expensive fine to to release it. Admittedly, the film sort of peters away, as Xiao then explains how Liu and He later met up and recognised they had both been damaged by their war experiences, and so sort of drifted together. But the first act is a fascinating portrait – and yes, it’s pure propaganda – of life in a military entertainment troupe, including a visit to a division in the mountains, where the performers suffered from altitude sickness (as, apparently, did some of the film’s cast). If you like war films, and the gorier the better, then act two will appeal. I’ve seen reviews that declare act three unnecessary but I don’t think it is. The thing far too many war films forget is that war heroes do not prosper: medals one day, homeless sufferers of PTSD five years later. That’s the true reality of war. But then the sort of people who lionise war are the same fucking idiots who have neither fought in one nor actually expended much thought in anything other than what to shoot next in their FPS game. Cinema, like any artform, can address truths, but that doesn’t mean viewers will necessarily understand or assimilate what they have to say. Youth makes it explicit – and still idiots complain the third act ruins the movie. FFS. Maybe they should stick to cartoons.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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Moving pictures 2017, #8

This seems to be a mostly classic film post, except for a recent Swedish TV series. One movie is a rewatch (the Herzog), the rest proved not as expected…

adviseAdvise & Consent, Otto Preminger (1962, USA). In the week in which a White Supremacist installed himself in the White House, and his meat puppet president signed whatever Executive Order was put in front of him, well, that probably wasn’t a good week to watch this film, which shows how US democracy works, or doesn’t work. The president has put forward a candidate for secretary of state, Henry Fonda, but it’s an unpopular pick with some of the senators, especially good old boy the senator for North Carolina, Charles Laughton. So Laughton sets out to sabotage Fonda’s acceptance by the Senate. The Party Whip, on the other hand, wants to push it through. So they convene a subcommittee of friendly faces to lightly grill Fonda before accepting his apointment. But Laughton pulls a fast one and introduces a witness who claims Fonda was a communist when at college. Fonda denies it and makes the witness look like a lying fool. He later admits to the president it was true. One of Fonda’s allies subsequently turns on him because Fonda lied under oath, but he’s already being blackmailed over a homosexual affair when in the army. Winston Churchill reputedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones”, and there’s also that famous poll run by sf editor Donald A wollheim back in the 1960s in which the government of choice of sf fans was “benevolent dictatorship”. In other words, after more than ten thousand years of civilisation we humans still have no fucking idea how to run a society fairly. And despite repeated attempts at utopia – and I consider there to be two great historical attempts at utopia, neither of which remained utopian beyond a single generation – such experiments only work with small communities. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe total devolution to the lowest possible level, say a couple of hundred people, is the answer. There are those, after all who swear by Athenian democracy, as practised in small village town halls across the US during the first half of the twentieth century. But, Advise and Consent… I watched it because I’m trying to work my way through Preminger’s films, but I wouldn’t otherwise recommend it unless you’re interested in historical treatments of Washington politics.

herzogCobra Verde, Werner Herzog (1987, Germany). If I had to pick the most bonkers of Herzog’s feature films, I’d be hard-pressed to settle on just one. Cobra Verde has its moments, but despite having Klaus Kinski in the lead role, is saner than many of Herzog’s other movies. Cobra Verde is, however, a bigger spectacle than many of Herzog’s other movies. Kinski plays a rancher in nineteenth-century Brazil who loses his property to drought, works at a silver mine but murders his boss when he discovers the workers are being exploited, goes on the run as the eponymous bandit (Green Cobra! Sounds like a superhero), before eventually becoming the slave overseer of a sympathetic sugar baron. When Kinski gets all three of the sugar baron’s daughters pregnant, the baron decides as punishment to send Kinski to west Africa to re-open the slave route (and hoping, of course, that he’ll get killed in the process). But Kinski manages to persuade the king of Dahomey to accept rifles for slaves, sets himself up in a local abandoned castle, and all I can pretty much remember is Kinski doing his thing (apparently to such an extent the cinematographer quit, and Kinski and Herzog’s friendship finally bit the dust). There are massive set-pieces, with what appears to be the populations of small towns running around or dancing or fighting. Despite Kinski’s presence, and the over-the-top staging of some of the scenes, Cobra Verde does feel more sane than many of Herzog’s other films. Not dialled back, by any means, just less insane than what Herzog actually went through to realise some of his other movies. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Cobra Verde, and I suspect Herzog’s films are immune to criticism to some degree. Cobra Verde is a good one, but perhaps not a great one, and I’d rate some of his documentaries above it. But if you call yourself a film fan, you should have all of his movies and documentaries anyway.

goddessThe Goddess*, Wu Yonggang (1934, China). This was a lucky find on eBay. Doubly so. I’d ordered one copy I found there, only to be sent a CD of background music for Chinese restaurants. I complained, they sent me a freepost address label to return it, and gave me a full refund. Fortunately, a second copy popped up on eBay for sale, for two-thirds of the price I’d paid before. So I bought it. Annoyingly, the BFI now plan to release a new restoration in April ths year. Argh. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The Goddess is a well-regarded silent film from the early decades of China’s film industry. Wikipedia refers to that period as “China’s cinematic golden age”, but I’m pretty sure the country has been having another golden age for the last couple of decades – see Jia Zhangke, Zhao Liang, Wang Xiaoshuai and Diao Yinan, among many others. The Goddess is also known as one of the last films by Ruan Lingyu, one of the most popular actresses of her day (and who committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1935). I tracked down a copy of The Goddess because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I do like many silent films… but The Goddess, to be honest, felt much like the other silent films I’d seen. The setting and cast were, of course, Chinese, but the story itself was one that transcends nations. And the treatment of the story, and the way it was framed, seemed much in line with other silent dramas from other countries. There was no sense of vision, such as you’d get from directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer or FW Murnau – see The Passion of Joan of Arc or Nosferatu – although Ruan Lingyu’s talent was plain to see. I don’t know where The Goddess sits in the history of Chinese cinema – Ruan made over two dozen films before The Goddess, and Wu directed a further eleven films (his last in 1980) after The Goddess, his debut. I suspect there are more important films than The Goddess, but I also suspect  any better candidates have either been lost or are unknown in the US. Which is a shame.

seventh_victimThe Seventh Victim*, Mark Robson (1943, USA). There are some odd choices on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, and not just because they’re films I don’t care for, or, while good, don’t seem good enough to be one of the 1001 best films ever. But there are also those films which just aren’t all that good or innovative or important, so why are they on the list? Like The Seventh Victim. Which is a B-movie. A young woman at a residential school is told that her fees have not been paid for several months, and attempts to her contact her older sister, her guardian, in New York have failed. So the woman goes looking for her sister herself – and encounters a mystery. No one has seen her sister for weeks, her cosmetics business is now owned by an other woman, and the sister apparently rented a room above an Italian restaurant which she never used… and which contains only a noose hanging from the ceiling and a chair. It turns out that the sister had been recruited into a Satanic cult – although they’re presented more like Freemasons than the Hellfire Club – but told her husband about them and so broke one of the cult’s laws. Which is punishable by death. So she’s been hiding out, with the help of her psychiatrist. And that’s about it. It’s all very intense and earnest, but the Satanists aren’t in the slightest menacing. The sister’s disappearance adds a noir feel, but that collapses once the actual plot is revealed. There are a couple of earnest monologues on the sort of psychological claptrap Hollywood B-movies loved to lard their films with back in the 1940s and 1950s, but none of it is convincing or insightful. The Seventh Victim is entertaining enough, but it’s no more than a B-movie, and it certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

jordskottJordskott (2015, Sweden). I found this in a charity shop, misread its price tag and thought it an excellent bargain, but could hardly refuse to buy it when I got to the till. It was still cheap, however. And I’m glad I bought it, because it proved to be pretty good. It starts off as a Nordic crime series, and then turns into something more like Grimm. Eva is a crisis negotiator with the Piketen special operations police task force in Stockholm – in fact, the first episode opens with her trying to persuade a man armed with a shotgun to give up his hostage, his wife. Afterwards, she learns that her father has died, and so takes a leave of absence and heads to her home town of Silverhöjd. She has not returned there since her daughter, Josefina, disappeared in the forest surrounding the town seven years before. Eva was also estranged from her father. Shortly after her arrival, a young boy goes missing, and she sees a link between his disappearance and that of her daughter. Then another young child goes missing. Eva is heir to Thörnblad Cellulosa, a logging and mining company, which owns much of the forested land around Silverhöjd, and it is the company’s operations in the forests which has led to the kidnappings. It’s all to do with a pact signed in the eighteenth century between Eva’s ancestor and the mysteroious race which lived in the forest. But, Eva’s father, and now the acting CEO, want to mine the area because silver has been discovered underneath it. Eva’s daughter mysteriously returns, but has been infected with a parasite which is slowly taking over her body. It’s this parasite the title refers to – and when “fed” properly, it gives its host heightened senses and much greater strength and endurance. Because it seems there are group of people with this parasite who help protect the various creatures from Swedish folklore which live among humans. The plot lost it a bit toward the end, when a single character starts pushing everyone toward the worst possible end, and Eva’s decision to turn her back on it all felt out of character. I’d also liked to have learnt more about the secret society with the parasite, but perhaps they’re saving that for a sequel (although none has been made so far). The unexpected mix of Nordic crime and Swedish folklore went well together, despite the odd bit that was a little too hard to swallow. Good stuff. And if you see a copy going in a charity shop near you, it’s definitely worth shelling out for.

50_cubanStrawberry and Chocolate, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío (1994, Cuba). This is the second of two films on the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set by Gutiérrez, and the last-but-one film he made. Ill health forced him to enlist the help of a friend as co-director. Although released 1994, Strawberry and Chocolate is set in 1979. The lead character, David, is a student. He stops for an ice cream at a café, and is approached by a gay man, Diego, who tries to chat him up. When Diego reveals he has some hard-to-find foreign books at his apartment, David agrees to accompany him home. Diego is hoping for more, and the two become friends – but nothing more – and David learns about life after the revolution, as seen by someone on the fringes of society. David’s homophobic room-mate, on the other hand, sees the friendship as a chance to investigate Diego and his circle of anti-revolutionary friends, and so denounce them. There’s something astonishingly cheerful about this film, although it does quite emotional in places. The two main leads – and the female lead, Nancy, one of Diego’s neightbour, and who David ends up in a relationship with – are all likeable and well-played. Gutiérrez, known to his friends as Titón, was a film-maker in the New Latin American Cinema, which I think is a sort of umbrella term which includes Brazil’s Cinema Novo. New Latin American Cinema was, as Wikipedia put it, “largely concerned with the problems of neocolonialism and cultural identity”, and put the social usefulness of cinema ahead of artistic considerations such as cinematography or three-act stories or storybeats. It’s certainly true that cinema is a powerful tool in that respect; it’s equally true that most Western audiences appear to prefer brainless spectacle. But even then, there are ways of effecting social change without writing in-your-face social drama. Strawberry and Chocolate is a charming drama, and, to be fair, some of its social concerns are over my head as I’m unfamiliar with Cuban history and society – but it makes an effort. And so few Hollywood movies do. They just re-iterate and valourise and normalise the same old right-wing bullshit that has turned the second decade of the twenty-first century into a copy of the fourth decade of the twentieth century. Art has meaning and cinema is an art. And on the strength of Strawberry and Chocolate, and Guttiérrez’s earlier Memories of Underdevelopment, I’m going to try and see more of his films.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 849


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Moving pictures 2017, #5

I’d say this time it was an odd mix of movies, but I’m pretty sure that applies to most of the film posts I’ve been sticking up here…

4_months4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007, Romania). After being embarrassed by a Romanian friend at not having seen any films from his country, I’ve now seen three in the space of a couple of months. And I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best of those three. It’s not only that all three are excellent films – the other two, for the record, were 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mr Lazarescu – but they all tell stories of importance: about the collapse of the Ceauşescu regime, the pressure the Romanian public health system finds itself under, and, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Ceauşescu regime’s handling of abortion. (And no, I don’t consider abortion a sensitive or offensive topic, I consider the choice a right all women should have; on the day I can grow a foetus inside me, then I’ll be qualified to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in the 1980s. A student at university is pregnant and needs to have an abortion. But it is illegal in Romania. She enlists the help of her room-mate, and the two track down someone who is willing to do it secretly for money. He gives them a series of instructions. They manage to screw them up – they book a room in the wrong hotel, they don’t have enough money, they lie about how long the woman has been pregnant… However, while the abortionist’s increasingly offensive demands on the two young women are, well, offensive, what is also scary about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the invasive control the Ceauşescu regime had on the daily lives of Romanians. The Ceauşescus were overthrown in 1989 – I was in my early twenties then, and remember it on the news. But I’ve never asked my Romanian friends what they remember of it – they’re younger than me, true, but not too young; and they lived it. Movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are important in that they are a window on bad times, and keep the horror of them alive in the hope that no one is daft enough to bring them back. A decade or from now, I suspect there will be a fuckton of films made about the Trump years in the US.

alfredo_garciaBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia*, Sam Peckinpah (1974, USA). This was apparently a critical and commercial failure on its release, but has since become a cult favourite, so much so it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but I’m not convinced any “critical re-appraisal” in the years since 1974 justifies a place on the list. The title character is – off-stage – the preferred heir of a Mexican jefe, but he deflowers the jefe’s daughter and flees when her pregnancy is discovered. The jefe issues the titular order. A pair of, it must be said, somewhat effete US goons stumble across ex-GI bar-piano-player Warren Oates, who happens to know Garcia. Oates decides to try for the reward on Garcia’s head himself, a task made easier when he discovers that Garcia died in a car crash and is now buried in a country graveyard. So, with girlfriend in tow, he heads off to find Garcia’s grave, intending to dig him up, cut off his head, and take it to the jefe to claim the reward. Needless to say, it does not go as smoothly as planned. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, quite frankly, a B-movie – it looks like a B-movie, it plays like a B-movie. True, I’ve yet to be convinced of the genius of Peckinpah, but I can see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia flopped on release. In many respects, it feels like a made-for-TV movie, with its stock footage and stock villains, although it is considerably more graphically violent than any US television network would allow. I think you have to be a fan of a particular type of film, which I am not, as should be blindingly evident from the movies I document in these Moving picture posts, to appreciate something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or even to hold it in any kind of positive regard. I have watched films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die which I have subsequently purchased for my own collection, and even some where I’ve purchased everything by the director for my own collection. I won’t be doing that for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Even if Arrow have recently released a remastered limited edition Blu-ray of the film…

naked_spurThe Naked Spur*, Anthony Mann (1953, USA). This film isn’t available on DVD in the UK, not for rent or for sale, but fortunately, one evening, while flicking through cable channels I found it playing on TCM… So I watched it. Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter determined to capture murderer Robert Ryan and bring him to justice in Abilene, Kansas. He misrepresents himself as a sheriff to an old prospector and an ex-Cavalry soldier, and the three succeed in capturing Ryan. The four, plus Janet Leigh, the daughter of an old friend of Ryan, who had been with Ryan, set off for Abilene. En route, Ryan does his best to undermine Stewart, break up the group and so engineer his escape. And that’s pretty much it – a bunch of cowboys bitching at each other for 91 minutes. Well, except for the last act, where Ryan does escape but dies crossing a river swollen by floods. There are a lot of Westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can understand that they’re the closest the US gets to a homegrown mythology, and a handful of Western films are bona fide cinema classics but… I’m not convinced this is one of them. There are Western films which mythologise the landscape, there are Western films which have had their story patterns followed by many other Westerns… And while The Naked Spur certainly puts a novel spin on your average Western story, I don’t think that’s enough – despite the presence of Jimmy Stewart – to make this more than just above average. Perhaps a fan of Western films could explain to me why The Naked Spur is one of the 1001 films a person must see.

satyajit_ray_3The Home and the World, Satyajit Ray (1984, India). And that’s The Satyajit Ray Collection volume 3 box set completed, and while I consider fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak a genius film-maker, I’m still unconvinced Satyajit Ray is no more than a very, very good one – albeit considerably more prolific. He is, I suppose, an Ingmar Bergman rather than an Andrei Tarkovsky. Which is not to say that neither Bergman nor Ray did not make superior films. But there is more than just their respective positions in my own mental map of world cinema that the two have in common. Like Bergman, many of Ray’s films are theatrical. This is one of them. It is set almost entirely in the home of a Bengali noble in 1907, just after the 1905 Partition of Bengal. A UK-educated noble tries to introduce Western ideas into his home, and into his dealings with his wife, on his return home. But this opens her up to the fiery independence rhetoric of the nobleman’s best friend… which leads to a romantic triangle between the three. Since the marriage was arranged, the noble allows his wife her emotional freedom… which, of course, because this is how such stories pan out, pushes her back toward her husband. The film is based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, a prolific Bengali writer, who Ray adapted on a number of occasions. I really need to try reading some Tagore. As for the film, it sets up a fascinating situation, but it slowly settles out into a somewhat stereotypical romantic triangle. On the whole, I don’t think this volume 3 has been of as high quality as volume 1… which does make me wonder what volume 2 will be like and why I bought volume 3 before I bought volume 2…

memoriesMemories of Underdevelopment*, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968, Cuba). I rented this film from Cinema Paradiso, but a week after sending it back, and when it came to write this post, I decided I needed to watch it again. So I had a look on Amazon and discovered it was one of four films in Mr Bongo’s 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set. The box set also included Lucía, which I already own, but that was no problem, I could give my copy away. So I ordered 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution… The following morning, I remembered I had 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution on my LoveFilm (ie, Amazon) rental list. Oops. I’d better remove it. Too late! As luck would have it, they’d dispatched a film from the box set with my next set of rental DVDs. And it just happened to be… Memories of Underdevelopment. Oh well. Both copies of the film arrived on the same day, but I watched the one I’d bought. And… on second viewing I thought it much better than I had first time around. This has happened before with some of the movies I’ve watched – the appreciating it more on second viewing thing, not the buying only to be sent it on rental as well thing, although to be honest the latter has happened once or twice before too. Anyway, Memories of Undevelopment follows an intellectual, a writer, as he tries to survive and make sense of the new Cuba post-revolution. It does this by focusing on his relationships with women – interspersed with some historical commentary and a long sub-plot about a friend who inherited a furniture store. As the film opens, Sergio’s wife has left him and fled to Miami to escape the revolution. Sergio has stayed. He is, to put it bluntly, something if a lecherous pig. He flirts with his young housekeeper, Hanna, and has a sexual fantasy about her adult baptism. He then meets aspiring actress Elena and seduces her. But her family are far from happy about this, especially since Elena is only sixteen (or seventeen). Sergio promises to marry her, but doesn’t so, he is arrested and charged with rape. I’m still not sure if Sergio’s relationships are intended to be allegories – Alea was apparently pro-revolution, and Memories of Underdevelopment is certainly critical of Cuba’s Spanish occupiers. Which does mean it’s a little hard to tell where the film’s sympathies lie. A negative stand seems too obvious a reading, but then a broadly positive critical reading doesn’t seem to fit either – in terms of the film’s response to the Cuban revolution, that is. Perhaps it needs another rewatch…

classic_bergmanDreams, Ingmar Bergman (1955, Sweden). Havng now seen four of the five films in this “Classic Bergman” box set I’m starting to wonder what “classic Bergman” actually is. After all, his most-celebrated film is The Seventh Seal, and that was made only two years after this one. And Bergman’s first film appeared in 1946 (he did not direct 1944’s Torment, only wrote the screenplay), and the earliest film in this box set is… well, 1946’s It Rains on Our Love, but the latest is 1958’s So Close to Life… Anyway, in Dreams, the owner of a model agency travels from Stockholm to Gothenburg for a commission with her most popular model, Doris. The model finds herself a sugar daddy in Gothenburg, while the agency owner has hooked up with an ex-lover (who turns out to be married). The film has all the ingredients of a typical Bergman film, and manages them all in a typically Bergman-esque fashion. I’ve said in the past that watching a Bergman film is like reading a story by a classic literary author. It’s a good story, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be thinking about it for weeks afterwards. And this is one of Bergman’s films like that – which is why, I guess, it’s in a “Classic Bergman” box set, and not given a premier release, like Smiles of a Summer Night, also released the same year. True, an also-ran from Bergman is always going to be worth seeing, but this entire box sert has shown itself to be more for Bergman fans than cineastes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 846