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Moving pictures 2018, #22

Sometimes, I even convince myself these posts must be taking the piss – I mean, there may be two films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list here, but both are pretty obscure… and they’re probably the least obscure of the half-dozen. Jancsó films I buy as soon as the come available. Colorful was lent to me, and A Silent Voice was added to my rental list when I wasn’t looking. And Penda’s Fen I stumbled across on Amazon, and it looked interesting enough to give it a go…

Silence and Cry, Miklós Jancsó (1968, Hungary). I’m a fan of Jancsó’s films, even if I don’t understand them half the time. Watching Silence and Cry, it felt like an early attempt at Red Psalm (see here), a film it precedes by four years. Like the later film it is set at the same farmhouse, and it has the same sort of flowing camera movement, following the cast as they move around. And, also like that film, the cast are never still. Even when in conversation, they continue to stroll around. However, Silence and Cry is set in 1919, not 1890, after a nationalist revolution against the communists in power. A troop of soldiers occupy the farm – it may be a village, as it contains several separate dwellings; I don’t know – unaware that one of the men who lives there was a member of a Communist battalion. For their own amusement, however, they force him to undergo demeaning trials. All of which comers to a head. Like Red Psalm, the characters are more stand-ins for the roles played by people in Hungary’s chequered past than they are actual characters. But given Jancsó’s predilection for filming against flat landscapes in which only sparsely scattered trees appear, or framing such landscapes in the doorways and windows of interior scenes, then their lack of depth seems entirely appropriate. Despite the staged fell to much of the story, Jancsó’s camera-work, almost continually on the move, gives the story a flow and urgency it would not other wise possess. As far as I’m concerned, Jancsó is one of the great directors. I’d definitely put him in my top ten greatest directors – in alphabetical order, at this moment in time, they’d probably be: Antonioni, Dreyer, Ghatak, Godard, Haneke, Hitchcock, Jancsó, Jia, Ozu and Sokurov (sadly, no female directors).

Colorful, Keiichi Hara (2010, Japan). David Tallerman lent me this as he seems to be on a mission to convince me anime is not all completely weird shit like Utena Revolutionary Girl (see here). I know that already, of course, but I’m not going to turn down the lend of a film worth watching. And, okay, I thought Colorful laid it on a bit thick, but it was a good film nonetheless. Some of the animation was really quite lovely. A soul is prevented from reaching heaven, and returned to earth to inhabit the body of a fourteen-year-old boy who has just committed suicide. A guardian angel tells him he has six months to figure what he did wrong in his former life, and to fix whatever led the boy whose body he is currently occupying to take his own life. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy, and after making a complete hash of everything – through a combination of his own self-centredness and his failure to make an effort to tackle the problems of his host body. Eventually, he is befriended by a fellow pupil, whose completely non-judgemental treatment of him, and indeed everyone, leads him to redemption… and the discoveries he needed to fulfil his contract with his guardian angel. Who offers him as a reward, a continued life, with no knowledge of the trial he has just undergone. I do like these sort of anime films – ie, the realistic dramas, not that the central premise of this one, with its A Matter of Life and Death conceit, is especially realistic – but when I worked my way through the Studio Ghibli films, I much preferred the high school drama ones, and that seems to be holding true for anime films in general.

Wanda*, Barbara Loden (1970, USA). I’m not sure why this made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It feels a bit like a John Cassavetes film – improvised, almost guerrilla film-making, about working-class Americans, very strong representation of women (I should like Cassavetes’s films more than I do) – but it’s not an ensemble piece, it’s not telling the story of a group, it’s telling the story of a single woman and it’s very much from her point of view, with entirely female gaze. That’s something you won’t find in Hollywood movies, and forty-seven years ago I suspect it was vanishingly rare in independent US film-making. The title refers to a woman who leaves her husband, does not contest custody of their kids at the divorce hearing, runs away with a one-night stand, only to be abandoned by him, before falling in with a bank robber and being forced by him to act as accomplice. For all that, like Cassavetes’s films, Wanda struck me as more admirable than likeable. Barbara Loden was best-known as an actress, and was married to critically-acclaimed and influential director Elia Kazan. But Wanda was made on a budget of $100,000, with a crew of four, and Loden as writer, director and star. That’s about as good a definition of vanity project as you can get. And, of course, not all vanity projects are ego trips with no redeeming qualities. I suspect Wanda is a more important film than a single viewing might suggest, and, of course, it doesn’t help that it’s a grim and depressing story… Apparently, Loden directed it because she could not interested anyone else – including Kazan – in doing so. It was critically well-received on release, but Loden died ten years later, at age 48, while preparing to direct her second feature film. After seeing Wanda, I must admit I’m now interested in seeing some of her other films roles.

Peking Opera Blues*, Tsui Hark (1986, China). I should have guessed what this film might be like since I knew the name Tsui Hark and had seen his Once Upon a Time in China (see here), but the title fooled me as I thought it might be more like Farewell My Concubine. It wasn’t. The story does feature Peking Opera, from which women were banned from performing, but it’s by no means the central plot. Peking Opera Blues is more of an action/comedy than it is a social drama. It’s set in the 1920s, and depicts the attempts by Sun Yat-Sen supporters to get hold of a document proving the emperor has borrowed money from Western bankers. The paper is held by a general, and his daughter is one of the supporters trying to steal it. Then there’s a young woman who had stolen a box of jewellery during a raid on another general’s house, but she lost it. While trying to hide from the general’s soldiers, the rebels hide out in an inn hosting a Peking Opera show. The impresario’s daughter gets caught up in the whole thing, helping to hide them, then assisting them in their several attempts to purloin the letter (did you see what I did there?). Other than the setting, and the three female leads, this is a typical Hong Kong action/comedy of the time. The fight scenes are good, there’s plenty of broad comedy, and the three leads – Brigitte Lin, Cherie Chung and Sally Yeh – are especially good. But the final scenes set during a performance of the Peking opera troupe, in which the three women, and their male accomplices, have taken over some of the roles, is a lot of fun. I’m not sure if Peking Opera Blues deserves its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – it’s a lot of fun, but is it there because it’s atypical for its type? Is that enough? Not, I think, when you consider all the films that belong on the list but aren’t there. Still, it’s worth watching.

A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada (2016, Japan). This anime film I actually rented – only to discover after watching it that David Tallerman had stuck it on my watch list during one of our afternoons out in Shalesmoor. The story is relatively simple: a deaf girl joins a new school, is bullied by the other students, years later the biggest bully bumps into her, having spent years unable to deal with people because of guilt over how he treated her, and tries to kindle a friendship. Her willingness to forgive him, despite the the mockery of other members of the class whom he still runs into, helps him deal with his guilt, and he soon finds he can meet the gaze of other people – and they don’t much care about, or even know, what he did. However, the other members of that high school class are happy for him to carry the blame for their treatment of the deaf girl, and many still deny their own cruelty and hate him for forcing them to confront their own behaviour. There’s a lot about A Silent Voice that reminded me of Makoto Shinkai’s films, especially his latest, Your Name (see here), although A Silent Voice is straight-up drama that uses some elements that feel like genre to emphasise aspects of its story. Whereas Your Name uses a time-slip narrative, which is about as genre as you can get. Recommended.

Penda’s Fen, Alan Clarke (1974, UK). The title refers to an area near the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. A teenager, the son of the local vicar, is not liked by his peers, chiefly because he’s a priggish know-it-all whose ideas on religion appal his liberal low Anglican parents. The government is engaged in some secret project nearby – probably digging a secret nuclear bunker – and the locals have had several meetings on the topic, at which the chief opposition has been a playwright known for writing controversial television plays. The schoolboy, meanwhile, who is very irritating, has various fantastical encounters, including angels, Elgar, whose music features heavily, and eventually King Penda. This is good stuff – unassuming, but with real intelligence and depth. It was broadcast as a Play for Today in 1974, and written by David Rudkin. It’s very English, in the way that Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood is very English, but it’s an England that’s as foreign to me as it would be to a non-Brit. My England is the run-down and neglected industrial areas of the Midlands and Yorkshire. Their streets of terraced houses, mills and factories and works fallen into ruin, tap rooms and chip shops. The only mythology is that which attaches to generations of the same family working in the same industry. There are no sleeping kings at the bottom of a pit shaft. So I find films – or, technically, television plays – like Penda’s Fen almost as fascinating as I would a film set in, say, Mali, or China, or Greenland… Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 906

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Moving pictures, #26

MOAR MOVIES…

saragossaThe Saragossa Manuscript*, Wojciech Has (1965, Poland). Imagine the Arabian Nights set in eighteenth-century Spain but with a Polish cast speaking Polish throughout, and you might get some of the flavour of The Saragossa Manuscript. The film is based on an actual book, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, allegedly by Count Jan Potocki, originally published in 1805, although the book was added to in later years, bits were lost, and even the complete contents are not entirely certain. A plot summary would take up a lot of bandwidth, chiefly because it consists of stories nested within stories nested within stories, to such an extent it’s no longer clear which is the framing narrative. Mostly it’s based on the adventures of a Spanish nobleman in the eighteenth century, as written down in the aforementioned manuscript, which is discovered by a pair of officers from opposite sides in Zaragoza during the Napoleonic Wars. The first half of the film seems to consist of the hero of the story, an ancestor of one of the officers, being enchanted by ghosts and then waking up under a set of gallows; but in the second half, the stories become even more inter-nested, and the film begins to get much more interesting. So much so that by the end of it, I quite fancied having a copy of it. Wikipedia claims “multiple viewings of the film are recommended in order to comprehend the plot”, although I didn’t find it that hard to follow (once, that is, I’d realised it aped the Arabian Nights’ structure), but I’d still like to watch it again. Recommended.

first_manFirst Man into Space, Robert Day (1959, UK). I have no idea why I put this on my rental list – I’m guessing it’s because of the title. I’m not sure I’d describe it as “Best of British” as the cover claims, given that it’s set in the US, was filmed partly in the US, and features a mostly US cast hardly makes it especially British. But it was produced by a UK company and filmed by a British director. An astronaut pilots a rocket-plane into space, encounters some weird cosmic storm, and crashes back on Earth transformed into a monster… and promptly goes on a rampage. It’s fairly typical B-movie nonsense of the period, of course, although interesting inasmuch as the rocket-plane was the very real X-1, and stock footage of X-1 flights was used (at least for the in-atmosphere bits). True, the cockpit as depicted in the film bore no resemblance to the real X-1’s, and the X-1 never reached Mach 2.5 or flew out of the atmosphere (it wasn’t until the X-15 that either of those happened – and it held speed and altitude records for decades). I think the actual last flight of the X-1 captured on film was an appearance in Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot from 1957 as a Soviet “parasite fighter”, and actually flown by Chuck Yeager for the production. Filming for Jet Pilot took place between 1949 and 1953, but the film wasn’t released until four years later.

dancerDancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier (2000, Denmark). This was a “lucky” charity shop find, and I say “lucky” because I’m still not sure if von Trier is a genius or a complete charlatan. And I’m no nearer knowing after watching this… although I am starting to incline toward to the former. Dancer in the Dark is an unholy mix of made-for-TV true-crime drama and late twentieth-century music video. It’s a musical, but its star is Björk, which means every musical number (and she’s in them all) bears more resemblance to her music than it does musical film or theatre of the time. Now, I still consider Björks’s Post from 1995 a classic pop album – although I no longer own a copy (whereas Chapterhouse’s Blood Music, from 1993, I still own and think is the best shoegazer album ever made). Anyway, Dancer in the Dark… Björk plays a Czech emigré to the US who works in a factory. She is steadily losing her sight, but is saving up her wages to pay for an operation so her son will not suffer the same fate (plots like this DO NOT WORK in the UK, because we have the NHS – THIS IS A GOOD THING, DO NOT KILL THE NHS). Anyway, her boss finds out, she loses her job, she kills her landlord (at his request) and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s arrested and charged with his murder. Then there’s a court case, which owes more to The Thin Blue Line than it does Law & Order. The supporting cast is surprisingly high-powered – and in one notable scene, Björj plays against Catherine Deneuve in a prison visiting booth… and though Björk isn’t actually acting she somehow or other manages to hold her own against Deneuve. Unfortunately, that’s not true of every scene she’s in, and her gauche artlessness often works against the others’ much more polished performances. Still, von Trier is not a director who follows the rules, and you watch his film for that reason as much as for any other. [2]

once_chinaOnce Upon a Time in China*, Tsui Hark (1991, China). Well, there’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and even Once Upon a Time in Mumbai… not to mention many other variations, or the fact that Once Upon a Time in China is actually a series of films, comprising Once Upon a Time in ChinaOnce Upon a Time in China IIOnce Upon a Time in China IIIOnce Upon a Time in China IVOnce Upon a Time in China V, Once Upon a Time in China VI and Once Upon a Time in China and America. I think I’ve seen that last one too. I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something like Hero or even Hark’s later Seven Swords. But Once Upon a Time in China felt very small-scale, more like those Hong Kong films I used to watch on VCD back in the 1990s. Jet Li plays a martial arts instructor and apothecary who finds himself caught in the middle of a fight between the local milita and a criminal gang, while Americans are trying to move into the country, looking for slave cheap labour to use back home. Some of the fight scenes are cleverly done, particularly the final one in the godown, with the combatants on huge ladders. Of the twenty Chinese films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I’ve now I’ve seen around half. One or two I loved, but most, like this one, seemed little better than those VCDs I used to watch. Oh well.

descendantsThe Descendants, Alexander Payne (2011, USA). This is not actually on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve been using, but it’s on the combined list given on listchallenge.com, so it must have appeared on an earlier, or later, edition of the list. I’m baffled as to why. Clooney plays a laid-back Hawaiian lawyer whose wife is in a coma aftet a boating accident. According to the terms of her living will, it’s time to turn off her life-support, so he gathers in their two daughters (and the older one’s dim-witted boyfriend). Also at stake is a large parcel of land on the island – Oahu, I think – which the family wants to sell for a huge amount to a developer. Clooney is not against the sale, but when he learns his wife was having an affair it sort of complicates matters. And… they put this on one of the iterations of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list? Seriously? It’s a not very interesting family drama about a bunch of unlikeable characters – Clooney is not very good at playing unlikeable, obviously, but he’s so passive in this he’s not very sympathetic. Not worth seeing.

101_dalmatians101 Dalmatians, Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman (1961, USA). I’m not sure why I’ve been watching so many Disney films recently. Some are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I found myself admiring a couple of them enough to buy copies for myself… but several have also appeared on Amazon Prime and so I thought I might as well give them a go. I suspect I saw 101 Dalmatians way back in the 1970s when I was a kid, but I have no memory of doing so (much as I didn’t for The Rescuers – see here), and it’s impossible to tell if what I do know of the film is from having seen it or just simply picked up from more than five decades of commentary on it. Anyway, I spent a Sunday afternoon watching 101 Dalmatians… and was surprised to find it a considerably more charming film than I’d expected. I hadn’t known it was set in the UK, although I should have guessed since I sort of knew that Dodie Smith was a British author. And, of course, a lot of successful Disney properties of the 1960s were based on UK books and set in the UK. Rod Taylor (an Australian) was an odd choice for Pongo, the male lead, but he was good in it. Cruella De Vil was somewhat OTT and, while the rest of the cast were standard Disney types, the dogs were good and surprisingly not annoying. And the art was good too. Better than I had expected.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 769