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Moving pictures 2017, #62

Let it not be said I don’t watch a variety of films, as this post should demonstrate. Okay, half are from the US, but from the 1930s and 1990s and the current decade… and the last is a spoof a 1970s exploitation film…

Animal Crackers, Victor Heerman (1930, USA). There were two films on one Blu-ray disc I was sent from this collection, and I wasn’t especially impressed by the first, The Cocoanuts (see here). But I had at least heard of Animal Crackers; if someone had asked me to name a Marx Brothers films, it’s one of four titles I could have given. And, after all that, I liked it even less than The Cocoanuts. It’s based on a musical play of the same title, which also starred the Marx Brothers. Groucho plays a renowned explorer who has been invited as guest of honour to a weekend party at the house of a wealthy socialite. An art collector, also invited, plans to unveil a painting he has recently acquired by a famous French rococo painter as a treat for the guests. Cue Groucho insulting host and guests, a running joke in which two groups of people try to steal the painting and replace it with a copy, leading to total confusion over which is the original, and a mildy amusing gag in which Chico asks Harpo for a “flash” (he means a torch, but the gag wouldn’t have worked if he’d said flashlight) and Harpo pulls out a succession of incorrect items – a fish, a flush, a flute… Given their stature, I’ve been surprised at how unimpressed I’ve been by the Marx Brothers films I’ve seen so far. I’ll keep them on my rental list, and hope they improve.

Raising Cain, Brian De Palma (1992, USA). I don’t get De Palma. I get that he makes thriller films, and quite effective ones… but they’re so, well, rubbish. I mean, they’re not in the least bit plausible or convincing, although they’re presented with an absolutely straight face, impressively straight faces by the cast in fact. In Raising Cain, John Lithgow plays twins, one of whom is a child psychologist who needs volunteers for his pioneer child psychologist father’s experiments in Norway… and so ends up kidnapping a kid from a playground, with the help of his twin, who is, well, evil. Except they’re not twins. There’s only one of them, and he has multiple personalities. Lithgow also plays the father, who turns up halfway through the movie. And he’s like some sort of Mengel figure, but in child psychology. And it turns out he deliberately gave his son multiple personality disorder because reasons. It was all very silly, even if it started out quite well – which is something De Palma’s films do, I seem to recall. I don’t remember why I put this one on my rental list, but at least I won’t have to watch it again. Meh.

Crisis, Ingmar Bergman (1946, Sweden). According to my records, I’ve now seen 34 films by Bergman, which makes him my second most-watched director after Hitchcock. (The figures look like this for the top ten: 1. Hitchcock (44), 2. Bergman (34), 3. Herzog (33), 4. Sokurov (28), 5. Jennings (27), 6. Godard (25), 7. Lang (23), 8. Preminger (22), 9. Ozon (21) and 10. Hawks (19).) Crisis is actually the first film Bergman directed. He also wrote the screenplay. And it’s very, well, Bergman-esque. A young woman in a small village finds herself torn between her foster mother, a piano teacher, and her real mother, the glamorous owner of a beauty salon in the city… Not to mention exploring her own power over the young men of the village. The bulk of the film seems to be about generational conflicts, with the young people of the village, egged on by Jack, a dodgy friend of the young woman’s real mother. At a recital, where all the elders of the village are gathered, Jack kicks off an impromptu jazz party in the next room, and incenses all the village worthies. Bergman spreads his conflict widely – across generations, city versus village, men versus women… For all that it was his first film, Crisis feels like a solid piece of Bergman work. But then Bergman wasn’t new to drama, having been involved with film-making since 1941. Even so, that demonstrates a notable talent, which he more than demonstrated over the next fifty years. Ingmar Bergman is not just a giant in Swedish film, but globally. It’s a shame he’s considered a bit fringe by most Anglophone cinema-goers.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang (1985, Taiwan). This is the last of the films on the Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2, which includes DVD and Blu-ray (sadly, region A) copies of six movies, from the Philippines, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Turkey and Taiwan. Having now seen several – well, three – of Yang’s films, and having thought all three of them excellent, I think I have a handle on his film-making. His films are about people trying to make sense of their lives in Taiwan. In Yi Yi (see here), it’s initiated by the preparations for a marriage. In Taipei Story, it’s a young woman and her relationship with her boyfriend, an ex-baseball player, whose finances are precarious. Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose films I love, plays the male lead, the female lead is a Taiwanese pop star who ended up marrying Yang. There is something about Yang’s films that appeals greatly – and not just to me, judging by the plaudits he has received. They seem almost documentary-like in their starkness, a likeness only heightened by their use of real locations, rather than sets, and handicams. In fact, on reflection, one of the appeals of Chinese and Taiwanese cinemas, especially sixth generation Chinese cinema, is its lack of soundstage footage and the fact much of it is location shooting. Hitchcock was a master of soundstage shooting, and I do love it in my 1950s melodramas, but Taiwanese and Chinese cinemas’ seeming insistence on less artificial staging is very much in its favour. I don’t know enough about the cinema tradition in the two countries to know if this was an artistic choice, or a result of the constraints on film-making in the country, government or otherwise – but The Goddess, made in 1934, was plainly made on a set, although that was a world away historically and politically; on the other hand, Jia Zhangke’s first three films were made illegally as he did not have government permission… None of which is entirely relevant. Anyway, Taipei Story is indeed excellent, and I plan to watch more of Yang’s films.

The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA). I want to make a film, I know, I’ll make a pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s exploitation B-movie… I’m not sure it’s a thought process I’d have followed, had I the talent, skills and resources to make a feature film – although I can think of many bad films I’d like to remake (sf ones, of course). But I can also think of a number of sf novels I’d sooner adapt, rather than remake or reboot an earlier film… And I think my first choice for such a novel would be AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still, a hackity mess of California noir and pulp sf, and for which I have a completely unjustifiable love… And okay, I guess I see why Biller made The Love Witch. And it’s so beautifully done you’d swear you were watching a 1970s movie – except, that is, for the feminist lecture in the middle. Which is well deserved, I might add. Because it’s all very well aping the forms of 1970s exploitations cinema, but aping the sensibilities requires a tone-deafness to present day society that is, well, strictly Hollywood. Biller, happily, is not Hollywood. This may be a note-perfect spoof of a 1970s film but it’s also a 2017 film and that’s undeniable. I watched The Love Witch expecting a guilty pleausure and ended up becoming a fan of Biller.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Tony Richardson (1962, UK). I picked this up from a charity shop for £1.99, which isn’t bad for a dual-format BFI release. I’d certainly heard of the film before, and while Tony Richardson was not a name I knew particularly well – see Joseph Andrews here – my knowledge of the film was enough to lead to high expectations… which it failed to meet. Tom Courtenay plays a youth – although he looks his age, twenty-five, rather than the youth he’s supposed to be – who is sent to a borstal, Ruxton Towers. The borstal’s governor spots that Courtenay is a good runner, and so encourages him. The film ends with the borstal boys running against the pupils from a nearby public school (for non-British readers, that’s a private school). Their best runner is James Fox. Courtenay beats him, but refuses to cross the finish line. Throughout the film, Courtenay’s life is told in flashbacks. He lived in Nottingham – so it’s very much Saturday Night, Sunday Morning territory (also adapted from an Alan Sillitoe novel) – and was arrested for stealing a cashbox from a bread van. I’d expected more of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which is often held up as a classic of 1960s UK cinema, especially its kitchen-sink realism side. But it all felt a bit put-on, like a cross between a BBC play for today and a Northern soap opera. Meh.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 885

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Moving pictures 2017, #60

My film viewing seems to have been bouncing all over the place of late. A 1950s melodrama (but… Rock Hudson!), a Marx Brothers comedy, a classic Japanese film, a British historical farce…

One Desire, Jerry Hopper (1955, USA). I find it hard to resist 1950s melodramas, especially ones starring Rock Hudson, even if they’re not, well, set in the 1950s. Like this one, which is based on a novel by Conrad Richter and is set at the turn of the twentieth century. Anne Baxter plays the madam and co-owner of a brothel/casino in the mid-West. Hudson is Baxter’s lover and dealer at the casino, but he’s ambitious and keen to head to Colorado and the silver mines. When he gets fired, he persuades Baxter to accompany him. At their destination, Hudson bumps into the local senator’s daughter, Julie Adams, charms her and ends up being appointed manager of the local bank. Baxter meanwhile takes in a young Natalie Wood after she’s orphaned when her miner father dies in a cave-in. Adams has her sights set on Hudson, and uses a PI to dig up Baxter’s past and show she is an unfit guardian for Wood and Hudson’s young brother. Baxter, humiliated in court, goes back to her old job in the casino. Hudson marries Adams, but doesn’t love her. Years later, Wood runs away and finds Baxter. Baxter returns and opens a saloon opposite Adams’s house. Adams accidentally sets her own house on fire and perishes. Hudson marries Baxter. Happy ending. Sort of. A pretty typical Technicolor period drama. I enjoyed it… but then I like 1950s Technicolor dramas.

La gloire de mon père, Yves Robert (1990, France). My mother lent me this – it’s a two-film set, with Le château de mère – and it was not a film known to me. It apparently was very successful in France, and I can sort of see why. It’s very… nice. It reminded me of the sort of the dreadful nostalgic crap the British industry churns out these days (alongside mockney gangster movies and horrendous rom coms, the latter mostly written by Richard Curtis). The first clue is the voice-over – the main character is a kid, and the voice-over is his adult self, commenting on the events of his childhood. Like anyone can actually remember their childhood in that level of detail. In this case, the boy’s father is a socialist atheist teacher in the south of France during the first decade of the twentieth century. The boy’s aunt marries a local businessman who is the complete opposite of the father. One summer, the two families stay in the country, in the area in which they are originally from. And, during a hunt, the father shoots and kills two rock patrridges and celebrates his success – the “glory” of the title. The irony of this is that the father had previously taken the piss out of someone who had been photographed with a fish he had caught, and now he glories in a photo of himself with his two rock partridges. Other than that… I’m not entirely sure what point the film is trying to make. It’s based on a 1957 auto-biographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and though I’ve not read the book, and am unlikely to ever do so, I very much doubt it’s as saccharine as this film. The DVD came packaged with a sequel, Le château de mère, and I’ll probably watch it. I hope it has more bite than this one.

The Cocoanuts, Robert Florey & Joseph Santley (1929, USA). I’ve never seen enough Marx Brothers’ films to determine whether or not I ought to be a fan, in fact I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen any of their most famous films (you know, the ones with titles Queen stole for their albums), although I’m familiar with the characters and many of Groucho’s best-known quotes. Since there was a new collection of their’ films just released by Arrow – The 4 Marx Brothers at Paramount 1929 – 1933 – I added its contents to my rental list. This was the first to arrive – and, coincidentally, the earliest film in the collection. The film is set in a Florida hotel run by the brothers – there’s no plot as such. There are several muscial routines, like out of a Busby Berkley film, but the rest of it is just the the Marx Brothers running aruond and playing their characters. Groucho is, surprisingly, not all that witty. Harpo is just as creepy as usual. Chico is probably the funniest character, for all that his put-on accent is considered offensive these days. Zeppo is in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t remember him. I guess that’s why he dropped out. I’d expected more of The Cocoanuts – it wasn’t especially funny or witty. And while the production numbers were a big part of it, I like Busby Berkley films so I’ve seen better (and more eye-boggling). The Marx Brothers films are worth seeing as historical Hollywood documents, but don’t expect too much of them.

Joseph Andrews, Tony Richardson (1977, UK). Some films just seem to appear on my rental list and I’ve no idea why. If it’s a Japanese or South Korean film, then David Tallerman probably added them using the app on my phone when we were down the pub (but he won’t be able to do that anymore, as Cinema Paradiso doesn’t have an app). Sometimes, I vaguely recall seeing a trailer and so must have added the film myself. But there are some which, for the life of me, I cann’t recall why I put it on my rental list. Like Joseph Andrews. A British historical farce, based on a 1742 Henry Fielding novel, starring Colin Firth, Ann-Margret, Michael Hordern, Beryl Reid, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Jim Dale, Wendy Craig, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Kenneth Cranham, Timothy West… and lots more familiar Brit thesp faces. Firth plays the title character, a young man who draws the attention of libertine aristocrat Ann-Margret. Then he’s waylaid on the road, or something, and ends up at an inn, where he’s nearly arrested. The plot, such as it is, has Firth bouncing from one comical encounter to another, before eventually rejoining his love back in his home village. I can think of little to recommend this film – nothing about it stands out. I spent most of it playing “spot the luvvie”, which is a bit like watching the Carry On film without the jokes. Meh.

The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi (1951, Japan). I bought the Japanese Masters box set – deleted for several years, so hard to find – because it included an Ozu film that was no longer available. The other “master” is Kenji Mizoguchi, and the set includes two of his most celebrated films: The Life of Oharu (see here) and The Lady of Musashino. The latter film is set shortly after WWII. The title character lives in a village just outside Tokyo – the films opens with them witnessing the bombing of Tokyo from Musashino. Her husband is a drunkard who abuses her. Her cousin’s husband keeps on propositioning her, and a younger cousin who comes to live with them fancies her. The film navigates these complicated relationships – which is something Mizoguchi does really well – before finding a solution that suits all but the title character – which is something Mizoguchi also does a lot. When it comes to Japanese cinema from the first half of the twentieth century, I prefer Ozu’s ensemble pieces to Mizoguchi’s character studies (some of which are historical), and I really should watch more Kurosawa (which I’ve recently remedied by adding a bunch of his films to my rental list)… Anyway, the title character of The Lady of Musashino must find a way out of the complicated personal relationships that have accreted around her, and yet also protect Musashino. I like that Mizoguchi puts a woman front and centre, even in a society in which gender roles are extremely constrained, as he also does in The Life of Oharu – and I like that he does it so well she is the best-drawn charatcer in the film. The transfer, it must be said, is not great, but it’s not as much of a hurdle as it is with The Life of Oharu, several important scenes of which take place at night. I’ve seen several Mizoguchi films over the years – the first was apparently Ugetsu Monogatari back in 2012 – more by accident than design, I think, but I have a box set of four of his films, given to me by David Tallerman, which I’m now quite looking forward to watching…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885


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The endurance of the human bladder

As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, but some of the films below stretch that endurance somewhat – happily, not as much Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó… which is 432 minutes long! Of course, these are DVDs and Blu-rays, so there’s always the pause button, a boon to the bladder….

I’ve started to become a bit of an Orson Welles fan, even though I’ve had a DVD of Citizen Kane for a couple of decades… but it’s his other stuff I’m now finding more interesting. Macbeth was cheap on eBay and and Touch of Evil was a charity shop find. La note bleue, on the other hand, is the latest Mondo Vision release of an Andrzej Żuławski film, and I ordered it from their website.

I liked Pakeezah so much (see here), I wanted my own copy. It wasn’t expensive (I see it has now gone up in price). And the rental copy of Mughal-e-Azam I watched (see here) was the original black and white, but I wanted to see it in its colourised version. Which I now have done. And my eyes are still burning. Ran was a charity shop find. I’m not a big Kurosawa fan, so maybe I need to watch some of his films again.

I’ve been trying to complete my Bergman collection – hence, Crisis and Prison. I’m still nine short, although seven of them don’t appear to have ever been released on sell-through… The Beast in Space (see here) was a whim purchase – I’d enjoyed a couple of other Shameless releases, so I chucked this one onto an order.

I pre-ordered the new Metropolis 90th anniversary edition from Eureka’s own website. It arrived recently. The  Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a charity shop find. A Brighter Summer Day I bought because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and wasn’t available for rental. I seem to have picked up a few Edward Yang films now. And Oedipus Rex, well, 2017 has been the Year of Pasolini for me…