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Moving pictures 2017, #64

Six films from three countries – two of each. Odd, how it works out sometimes.

Two Women, Vittorio De Sica (1960, Italy). I found this on Amazon Prime which, in among the populist crap and, well, the just plain crap, throws up the odd gem. This is no gem per se, but it’s De Sica so it’s quality Italian cinema. It’s also typical De Sica fare. Loren plays a mother who attempts to save her daughter from the invading Germans by travelling out into the country. But none of her relatives are keen to harbour the two of them. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays, bizarrely, an Italian-dubbed male lead, although Italian cinema alway preferred to film without sound and add it later through looping, which certainly helped with foreign markets but also explains why so many non-Italian-speaking stars appeared in Italian films, such as Burt Lancaster in The Leopard. I will freely admit I had initially thought Sophia Loren one of those European actresses adopted by Hollywood chiefly because of their looks, but she was a talented actress and a great deal better than many of her contemporaries, Italian or otherwise. Belmondo, on the other hand, is… Belmondo. Even in an Italian film, he smoulders. His character is a teacher with communist sympathies, which leads to several political arguments. There’s a brutal scene in which both Loren and her daughter are raped by German troops, and it’s quite harrowingly shot. Given how lightly commercial media treat rape, it always dismays when it appears. True, in Two Women it’s a vital part not only of the plot but of the protagonists’ character arcs, which is more than can be said of the vast bulk of commercial media, but that doesn’t mean I have to like its presence. Two Women is a good film… but it’s not a pleasant film, and I’d sooner people knew that before they started watching it.

Le petit soldat, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). When I bought the 10- DVD Godard box set, I also bought this 13-DVD one. Unlike the other, it was a UK release, not a France release; but, like the other, it did include many films I’d seen before. In fact, Le petit soldat was the first of its 13 films I’d not seen before. There are identifiable phases to Godard’s films – to an outsider, at least – although I suspect I’m missing some subtle distinctions. But, to my eye, his early films were very much influenced by US noir movies, so much so he actively spoofed the genre several times, such as in Made in U.S.A. (see here), but in earlier films the homage was much more straightforward… As it is in this one, which is pretty much a French take on a US noir film but filmed in Switzerland. Bruno Forestier plays a French agent in Geneva, who is asked to murder someone. But he meets Anna Karenina, and, well, so much for principles. The more Godard I watch, the more I appreciate Godard as a film-maker. In his early days, he was one of the Nouvelle Vague, and perhaps a little more in love with US cinema, especially noir, than his peers. Except… how then to explain Le mépris, made only three years after this. Huh. I don’t think Godard was ever as technically proficient as Truffaut, but I think he had a better handle on the medium’s possibilities – and a fondness for narrative experimentation, which definitely appeals to me. Le petit soldat is pretty straightforward – the twists and turns of the plot are there in the noir playbook, so I’m not really convinced any changes Godard rings are all that innovative. It’s a more disciplined film than, say À bout de souffle, and it works best as a Nouvelle Vague than a noir/thriller film. Worth seeing.

La note bleue, Andrzej Żuławski (1991, France). I’m a big fan of Żuławski’s films, although probably On the Silver Globe more than others; but his idiosyncratic approach to film-making, even if the results are, well, odd, appeals to the curmudgeon in me. And it’s for that reason I’ve been picking up the Mondo Vision releases of Żuławski’s films – six  to date, the first they released was Possession, which took me a while to track down… And it was finding a copy of that which reminded a Mondo release of La note bleue was due in 2017… So I checked, it’d been released, and I ordered myself a copy. La note bleue covers the last days of Chopin, during which many of his friends visit. He apparently had a somewhat odd family situation. And many famous friends – oh, and his wife was famous too, George Sands. Among those who appear in this film are Dumas, Turgenev and Delacroix. They visit Chopin’s villa in the countryside, only to discover all the staff have left and they have to help with the cooking. Chopin’s two children – played by Sophie Marceau, Żuławski’s partner after appearing L’amour braque (see here), and Benoît Le Pecq – worship and cosset their father. And… things happen. The performances, as in most Żuławski films, are OTT, some a great deal more than others. There are also, well, personifications, I guess, of aspects of the human personality, such as “demogorgon”, “spirit of fire”, and 8-feet-tall masked figures in gauzy cloaks, which appear in scenes but are ignored by the cast (some even have dialogue). Despite the seriousness of its topic, La note bleue is as mad as Żuławski’s other films. It’s also an especially good-looking film, more so than others of his, I think, and Mondo have done an excellent job on the restoration and transfer. Żuławski is an acquired taste, but La note bleue is worth seeing nonetheless.

Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). Fricke was director of photography on Koyaanisqatsi (see here), which I loved, and he obviously decided to have a go of his own. Which resulted in two films – Baraka and Samsara… but I could initially only find Samsara for rental, which was a bit weird, but I think it was sort of between releases, and Baraka is now available and on my rental list. None of which is entirely relevant, because this is a gorgeous film and I want them both. I want Blu-ray editions of them both. They’re just like Koyaanisqatsi, non-narrative cinema shot around the world, with the focus on the cinematography, which is, well, gorgeous. Samsara is, like Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, is pretty much just footage of different places, which I hesitate to call “exotic”, because I believe the word has been so abused it should be considered in the same light as “oriental”, but Samsara does include beautifully-shot footage of assorted parts of the world not otherwise seen in cinema. I loved it, I want my own copy. I will buy one too, see if I don’t.

Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins (2017, USA). This is the one film in this post that most people will want to read about. Which is a bit sad. Because it’s probably the worst of the six films in this post. Okay, so the giallo below, Death Walks at Midnight, is no masterpiece, but it’s arguably better at being what it is than Wonder Woman is. I’d heard a lot of comments about Wonder Woman, so I was keen to see it. I was, and still am, very much for a female-led tentpole movie, superhero or otherwise. Initial commentary on Wonder Woman praised its feminist content. And so I stuck it on my rental list, and went it arrived I stuck it in my player and… it had me for the first thirty minutes or so. A functioning all-female society – hand-wavey as fuck, but who cares, it’s presented entirely without comment and it looks like it works – but then a man appears and mega-warrior Diana suddenly turns into a battlefield liability. He pretty much saves her, which is not the message up to that point. Later, the writers have fun with that particular aspect of her character – but, to be honest, it’s the 21st century, and even for stories set in the 1910s, having a woman save a man from peril should not be a plot point, espcially not one that’s player over and over and over again. I mean, for fuck’s sake, grow up. And that’s the biggest problem with Wonder Woman: once she leaves Paradise Island, she’s treated like some sort of clothes horse, even by those who know of her powers; and then, when she does use them she becomes some sort of sexless super-being. Not to mention that by the end of the film her powers are stupidly OTT. I loved the first half-hour of this film, I wanted to give it a fair shake, so I watched it twice. But it really does fall apart once Diana arrives in London. It doesn’t help that the villains are weak, but that’s a common failing with superhero movies. They were at least well-placed in the period, which is something superhero movies don’t always do well. There has been some fuss online recently on the change in Amazon armour between Wonder Woman and the new Justice League movie. How difficult is it to design costumes for women that look plausible? I mean, if I were leading an army I wouldn’t be concerned with whether they looked like sexy women but whether they looked like fucking kick-ass fucking warriors and capable of winning the battle. This is not rocket science. Wonder Woman is not a great film, it’s not even a good film, but for superhero films it’s a welcome step forward. Hollywood should a) put out a shitload more female-fronted tentpole films, and b) give those films to female directors. Then we might start getting actual good superhero films.

Death Walks at Midnight, Luciano Ercoli (1972, Italy). There was a sale on the Arrow website recently, and among the DVDs and Blu-rays I bought was this, the sequel to Death Walks in High Heels (see here), which I’d bought earlier this year and enjoyed. And this is more of the same – also starring Susan Scott, AKA Spanish actress Nieves Navarro Garcia, the wife of Ercoli, although she appeared in many Italian films of the 1970s and 1980s. In Death Walks at Midnight, she plays a model who experiments with LSD and hallucinates the murder of a young woman by a man using an armoured fist with nails. Except there really was such a murder. But six months earlier. And when her experience appears in a low-rent magazine, those involved in the crime are keen to silence her. This is giallo, so it’s cheap and cheerful, and sense is one of the first things to end up on the cutting-room floor. But it does actually hang togehter, albeit only just, as Scott’s character maintains a solid forward trajectory, even if not everything in the film actually adds up. It struck me while watching Death Walks at Midnight, and based on a number of other giallo films I’ve seen, both horror and thriller, that many of their plots rely on gaslighting their female leads. Throughout this film, Scott is misled as to what she has seen and knows, by someone very close to her. It makes for a suspenseful story, and Scott eventually overcomes, despite all the men with which she interacts offering either scepticism or threats. I don’t know that this was a defining characteristic of giallo, and it seems odd that such a feminist take on the thriller/horror genre would come from Italy. If anything, I suspect it’s an accidental consequence of a genre which sought to put women front and centre in order to titillate a male audience. Films like this, Footprints on the Moon, much of the oeuvres of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and numerous titles from both Shameless and Arrow Video… But then there’s all those Italian Neorealist films which featured strong female leads, not all played by Sophia Loren (see above), it has to be said, by the likes of Robert Rossellini, Vittori De Sica and Federico Fellini… And then I remember there are many many more Italian films like Spaghetti a mezzanotte, and I realise it’s foolish to generalise…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886

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Moving pictures 2017, #58

Bit of an odd mix this Moving pictures post, although it’s a good geographical spread. Not so much of chronological spread, however, with one from the 1960s, one from the 1980s, and the rest less than a decade old (well, nearly). Half of the movies are by directors I’ve seen other films by – Edwards, Park and De Sica (two, four and six respectively). One of the films below was excellent, one was better than expected, and the rest were meh.

The Beast in Space, Alfonso Brescia (1980, Italy). I really liked Footprints on the Moon (see here), an Italian giallo released by Shameless, and I enjoyed The Tenth Victim (see here), also a Shameless release, but that doesn’t mean every film they’ve published is worth seeing. I’ve seen a number of spaghetti sci-fi films over the years – the most celebrated is probably StarCrash (see here) – and I’ll probably watch many more. But it’s a stretch to describe any of them as good, and The Beast in Space, which adds very mild softcore porn to the mix, is a case in point. It opens in a bar, and everything screams bad science fiction – the decor, the costumes, the dialogue… A studly man defends a woman from the approaches of a group of space merchants. Later, he offers her a position in his crew on the best spaceship in the galaxy, or something. It’s all about a planet at the edge of the galaxy which is the source of a valuable ore, but which few people have returned from. So the studly man’s spaceship flies there, and they discover the world’s secret – its inhabitants are immortal thanks to the unique ore… And there’s some giant satyr-like creature which chases the woman through a forest. Or something. The Beast in Space is pretty tame, and though the bad science fiction feels mostly like its in service to the titillating parts of the movie, the end result is something that doesn’t convince as either.

Priceless, Pierre Salvadori (2006, France). Audrey Tatou plays a young woman who lives as a kept woman. She targets rich old men, and enjoys a rich lifestyle as a result. One day, she mistakes a waiter for a rich playboy. He plays along, spending all his savings in the process, but is quickly dropped when Tatou realises her mistake. But then he is picked up by a wealthy older woman and becomes her toy boy, and so starts to follow the same lifestyle as Tatou. So, of course, they keep on bumping into each other and, of course, fall for each other. They try to outdo each other, seeing who can scam the most out of their patrons. And they manage a relationship under the noses of their sugar daddy/mummy. In an earlier decade, this might have played as a light fun comedy in which a pair of ne’er-do-wells take advantage of the rich. But these days it feels like a complete mis-step. We’re not the rich’s problem, they are ours. They take our money and hoard it. We know trickle-down theory doesn’t work. In fact, we know any economic theory which concentrates wealth decreases quality of life for everyone else. So there’s nothing amusing about rich people being shown as unwitting dupes. Oh my, someone cons a Rolex out of them. Boo hoo. When the truth of the matter is: a government should tax the shit out of them. You want fairness? Then redistribute wealth. The American Dream is a pernicious lie, and serves only those already in positions of wealth and power. So it’s a little disappointing to see European cinema opting into the same mendacious narrative.

The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook (2016, South Korea). You know those films which are structured in several parts – not acts – in which each part tells the story from a different character’s point of view and so offers a different persepctive on the story to the viewer. This is one of those. In the first part, a young woman is put in place as the maid of a rich man’s daughter, so she can gaslight the daughter into marrying the con man who arranged for her hiring. Once married, he plans to consign his wife to an asylum and live off her fortune with the maid. But he pulls a switch at the end, and the maid is committed while the daughter goes off with the con man. Except… in the second part, the story is told from the daughter’s point of view, outlining quite how horrible her father – a collector of rare Japanese porn – is, and the things he makes her do. And, well, the daughter discovers the con man’s game and decides to turn the tables on him… And there’s yet another take on the story in the third part… and any real discussion of the plot would involve lots of spoilers so maybe not… The movie looks gorgeous, and its structure, with its voiceovers and overt exposition, works extremely well. I don’t think it’ll make my top five for the year, but it’ll certainly get an honourable mention.

Ghost in the Shell, Rupert Sanders (2017, USA). There was a lot of fuss when this film was announced because it’s an anime property and yet its main roles in this, its Hollywood live-action adaptation, were being played by white actors. Certainly they could have found an Asian actress to play Scarlett Johansen’s role, they’ve done it in other films. And you have to wonder how much influence stars have on box office, especially for known genre properties like Ghost in the Shell, a popular anime series. True, Beat Takeshi plays Johansen’s boss – but unless you know Japanese cinema, and that means you’ve likely seen the original Ghost in the Shell anime, that probably means little. The original was very much influenced by Blade Runner, and this US remake pushes that even further. The CGI is actually very pretty throughout. Unfortunately, the plot is dull. Johansen plays a woman given a cyborg body after a horrific accident. She is a member of an anti-terrorist squad which is chasing a mysterious villain who is threatening Hanka, a powerful robotics company. There’s a sideplot about Johansen remembering little of her past, and discovering that what she does remember has been falsified, but it’s given little weight against the main shoot-em-up plot. I can see why this film didn’t do very well, despite looking flash – in an OTT-CGI sort of way – in parts.

Monsters, Gareth Edwards (2010, UK). Edwards is, of course, the director of Rogue One, a gig he landed after this film and Godzilla. Which is a pretty meteoric rise. Star Wars is, after all, a massive property, and jealously guarded by Disney. They don’t just let anyone near it – and they’ve quickly fired anyone who treated it in a way Disney felt it should not be treated. Which makes Monsters surprising on two fronts – that the director of Monsters would be chosen to direct Rogue One, and that he would stay in the job as director of Rogue One. Monsters is set in Central America, and depicts a US couple’s efforts to to return home through an “infected zone” – northern Mexico – that has been devastated by an alien invasion. Initially, the aliens are never actually seen, only the damage they’ve wrought. But toward the end, once the couple reach the US, the aliens do make an appearance – and the CGI is a bit dodgy. Unfortunately, the film seems to depict the Central Americans as chiefly either corrupt or violent. A businessman charges them $5000 for a ferry ticket to the US coast. The male half of the couple – he’s actually an employee of the woman’s father – is then robbed by a woman he picks up in a bar… forcing the couple to take a more dangerous route. The treatment of the aliens is cleverly done – final scene notwithstanding – and the wrecks and ruins the couple witness on their journey north are convincingly staged (I assume they’re pretty much entirely CGI). The giant wall forming the US border – I expect Trump has that part of the film on a loop so he can masturbate over it – is especially effective. Better than I’d expected, even if the male lead is annoyingly useless.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Vittorio De Sica (1963, Italy). De Sica is, like Visconti, one of those directors whose films I have watched sort of accidentally. The films of his I have mostly watched have been Italian Neorealist, which is not a film genre I’m especially fond of (but there are a number of them on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list). I’m pretty sure Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow doesn’t qualify as Italian Neorealist. It’s actually a sort of anthology film, although all three of its stories were directed by De Sica, and all three star Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The first is set just after WWII. Loren and Mastroianni are poor. He’s out of work, she makes a living selling contraband ciagrettes. But she’s caught and fined. They can’t pay the fine, so the police come to arrest her. But they can’t because they’re not allowed to arrest pregant women. Loren manages to maintain her freedom by getting serially pregnant… for seven or eight years. Eventually, she decides enough is enough, and agrees to go to prison. But Mastroianni persuades a lawyer to petition for a pardon, which she receives. I wouldn’t have thought carrying, giving birth and caring for seven kids was preferable to a prison sentence. In the second story, Loren is an industrialist’s trophy wife, who gives her lover, Mastroianni, a ride from the airport in her husband’s expensive Rolls-Royce convertible. They bicker. En route, she is forced to swerve to avoid a child on the road, and crashes the Rolls. The damage to the car pisses her off more than the fact she nearly killed someone. Mastroianni is not impressed. She flags down a sportscar, and goes off with tis driver, leaving Mastroianni with the crashed Rolls Royce. In the final story, Loren is a high-class prostitute. Her neighbour’s grandson visits, and falls in love with Loren. Unfortunately, he’s all set to head off to the senminary, and his grandparents are horrified by his decision to pack it in to woo Loren. So Loren, with their help of one of her clients, Mastroianni, a playboy, try to convince the erstwhile priest not to give up his calling. Of the three stories, the first was the most memorable, and the second by far the most dull. Meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885


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Moving pictures 2017, #24

I’m continuing to watch a varied selection of films, which does make me wonder why people limit themselves to the latest Hollywood blockbusters…

The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan). David Tallerman has recommended a number of films to me, both anime and live action, and they’ve generally been good calls – more so for the latter than the former, as he’s a big anime fan and I’m not. But… I really liked this. (It’s anime, incidentally,) Perhaps because I like anime that isn’t overtly fantastic or about mecha – well, except for the Neon Evangelion films, that is – as witnessed by the fact my favourite Ghibli films are Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves and From Up On Poppy Hill. But I do also own a copy of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, so who knows, one day I might sign on fully  to it… A teenage girl moves to a new town and is bullied by the her new classmates as they claim she is the “Judas”, a girl in the class who was murdered the prevous year. The only person who can shed light on this mystery is Hana, Alice’s next-door neighbour, who no longer attends school. The art is very clean-line, without some of the exaggerations normally found in anime, and I liked it for that. It’s not entirely mainstream, however, as there some low-key fantastical elements which appear. But the whole thing is so stylishly done that it’s hard not to like it. David has recommended  several films I’ve considered adding to my collection, but I think this is the first anime film he’s suggested that I’d like to own a copy of (I think it was Jonathan McCalmont who recommended Neon Genesis Evangelion). Looking on a certain online retailer, there appears to a Blu-ray edition of The Case of Hana and Alice (but not cheap!) – I might well add it to my next basket…

The Harder They Come*, Perry Henzell (1972 Jamaica). I had somehow got this linked in my mind with Superfly from the same year, possibly because both were films about the black experience in the US, except it turns out The Harder They Come is a actually Jamaican film about reggae and any connection between it and Superfly were a product of my imagination (and, let’s be fair, a small amount of racism, which I try at all times to educate myself out of, but I’m white so it’s a 24/7 task). It doesn’t matter to me in what cultural milieu a film is set – I love Chinese films, I love Indian films, I love films from various African nations… among  many others – but The Harder They Come wrongfooted me because it wasn’t what I had mistakenly expected, and so I found it much more interesting than I’d anticipated. I am not, I must admit, a fan of reggae music, but I am a fan of cultural expressions that are deeply embedded in a nation’s culture – a consequence, I suspect, of growing up in Islamic countries – and reggae one hundred percent informs the story and style of The Harder They Come. It did not appeal to me so much, in the way, say, Easy Rider, another film very much tied to its music, did that I put it on my wishlist – but I came away from watching The Harder They Come considering it a film I’d be happy to recommend. Worth seeing.

Boccaccio ‘70, Mario Monicello, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti & Vittorio De Sica (1962, Italy). Those Italians and their anthology films. I’ve seen a few of them now, and all seem to have featured names known pretty well internationally, even at the time the anthology film was made. I mean, Monicollo might be a bit of an unknown, but in 1972 Fellini, Visconti and De Sica must have been household names around the world among cineastes. Boccaccio was apparently “an important Renaissance humanist”, although there is likely a subtlety to the Italian use of the word I am missing here completely. I mean, I don’t even understand why they called it Boccaccio ’70 when it was released in 1962… Anyway, there are four segments, of varying degrees of success. The opening one by Monicello is actually a pretty good realist drama, in which a company clerk hides her marriage because her boss disapproves of married women in his department and so she must put up with his flirting. Fellini’s segment is less subtle – a prude campaigns against a giant billboard of Anita Ekberg advertising milk and then finds himself terrorised by a giant Ekberg, and while it has all the implausibility of Fellini’s work it has none of the excess and so feels lacking; Visconti provides an extended vignette about an aristocratic couple whose marriage hits a rocky patch, and while Romy Schieder is a joy to watch, it’s hard to know what to make of the piece; and finally, De Sica has Sophia Loren as a carnival worker in so need of money she auctions off her body but then has second thoughts about what she promised, and it all seems predicated on some aspect of Italian male character that quite frankly passed me by. I’m all for having this film available to watch, and at least two of the segments are definitely worth watching… But then I have to wonder what better films did not get a UK release because this one did… and I’m less charitable toward it.

The Girl on the Train, Tate Taylor (2016, USA). You know when someone writes a novel set in the UK and it’s a bit unbelieveable but sort of plausible, but then they make a movie of it and transplant the story to the US and it’s totally implausible? That. The railways in London are so stitched into the urban landscape, and travel so slowly, that it’s eminently believable someone could see something odd from a train in an area they know and so seek to investigate… But in the US? Do posh houses even overlook railways? Do trains travel that slowly? The rest of the plot is something about a drunkard’s memory loss actually being gaslighting rather than true drunkeness, which is way more a British plot than a US one, so much so I’m frankly astonished someone in the US thought this might even fly with a US audience. But then I guess there’s no underestimating Hollywood’s underestimation of its audience’s capacity to swallow anything. The Girl on the Train is a dull and over-long thriller peopled with unlikeable characters that feels like it would have worked much better in its native country. One to avoid.

Illumination, Krzysztof Zanussi (1973, Poland). It took me three goes to watch this, and not just because I typically put it on late while a bottle of wine down. But it’s an experimental film in terms of narrative – indeed, it feels like it has none – and though it’s well-shot and has a well-drawn cast of characters, it’s hard to work out, even after a totally sober viewing, what to make of it. It’s a sort of’slice-0f-life of the central character, who is a physicist. He’s searching for meaning, while the film tries to avoid anything as bourgeois as a plot. I think it works, but chiefly because it does that thing Polish cinema of the 1970s does so well: ie, come across as highly intelligent television drama. It’s certainly a film to rewatch, and perhaps one day I’ll figure out what Zanussi was trying to achieve. Fortunately, it’s one of the Blu-rays in the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets I bought, so I can watch it again whenever I want. On the one hand, it would be nice to “de-clutter” and get rid of the DVDs and Blu-rays I have piled everywhere; on the other hand, can I seriously expect a film like Illumination to be available to stream whenever I might want to rewatch it?

The Rainbow (BBC, 1988). One of the joys of Lawrence is that he’s there, straddling his works, very much a presence in the prose. One of the frustrations is that every sod and their progeny feels they have the “adapt” his work. True, his prose is open to interpretation – inasmuch as he’s so much better at some things than others – and also true, many of his works could not be adapted’for film or television given the lengths expected of similar material. But The Rainbow is not a complicated book, and for all its documenting of the Brangwen family history, the adaptor of the novel for this BBC version ended up with something very different to the novel. It has a good cast – Imogen Stubbs as Ursula Brangwen, Clare Holman as a badly under-written Gudrun Brangwen, Tom Bell as their father, and Jon Finch as the uncle Ursula goes to stay with. The major scenes from the novel are there, but the through-line is not the one I took away from the book, nor the one that Russell’s adaptation, released the following year, apparently took. Lawrence’s prose is never less than colourful, and this version of The Rainbow seemed to lose that. Lawrence also has a great sense of place, and I could not honestly say where this BBC adaptation was supposed to be set. I  suspect there’s no such thing as an ideal Lawrence adaptation, since everyone finds their own Lawrence in the books. But it’s telling that the best one I’ve found so far has been Pascale Ferran’s French-language film, Lady Chatterley

1001 Movies you Must Watch Before You Die count: 863


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Moving pictures 2017, #18

I don’t seem to have watched a film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list for weeks. But then I have got to the point where, bar a few really populist movies I’m not especially keen on watching (The Lion King, The Sound of Music, etc), the films I’ve yet to see are getting hard to find. I suspect I may never actually watch all 1001 – not that I want to die, either – but if I can get pretty damn close to completion I’ll be happy. And then I’ll move onto a different list…

The Last Man on the Moon, Mark Craig (2014, UK). The title refers to Gene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to land on the surface of the Moon. Cernan died earlier this year, although this film about him, and sharing a title with his autobiography, was made three years ago. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – talking heads, including Cernan himself, discussing his career prior to NASA, his career at NASA, and his flight to the Moon, intercut with archive film of naval aviators and astronauts. The footage shot on the Moon’s surface is, of course, fantastic, and the nearest anyone will ever get to an actual alien planet this century. (I suppose there might be a commercial, or Chinese, or even Indian, flight to the Moon before 2199, but the way things are going I suspect climate crash will get us all first.) There are a handful of documentaries about the Apollo programme made over the last 45 years, which had theatrical releases, and they’re all very good indeed. Later ones have perhaps featured more talking heads, but then they’ve been more about the people involved than just the achievement itself. Which is hardly surprising, given technological progress since 1972 and the complete lack of political will to contribute to human space exploration. Recommended.

The Man in the Sky, Charles Crichton (1957, UK). I like films whose plots heavily feature aeroplanes, although I much prefer Cold War fighters and bombers than other types of aircraft. The plot summary of The Man in the Sky mentioned a rocket plane, so I bunged it on my rental list and… Well, it’s not really a rocket plane. It’s a Bristol Type 170 Freighter, a late 1940s prop-powered cargo plane, that has had JATO rocket pods attached to give it a much shorter take-off run. Jack Hawkins plays the chief test pilot who takes it up for a demonstration flight for the owner of a freight airline who is planning on buying the plane. The aircraft manufacturer desperately needs the sale, or he will go out of business. So it’s a bit of a downer when one of the engines catches fire during the flight. The crew and passengers parachute to safety, but Hawkins has to figure out how to bring the aircraft down safely because the fire has damaged the ailerons on one wing. It’s all very British Stiff Upper Lip drama, making light of a crisis, etc, and Jack Hawkins plays Jack Hawkins the way he always has done. It’s a mildly entertaining British drama and very much of its time.

Uniform, Diao Yinan (2003, China). This is the second Diao film I’ve watched, after the excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice (see here). A slacker tailor, with an ill father and nagging mother, tries to return a uniform left by a policeman who needed it ironing. But the policeman isn’t home, and a neighbour tells the tailor he was in an accident. On his way back home, the tailor is soaked in a rainstorm, so he swaps his shirt for the policeman’s. And he discovers that people treat him differently when they think he’s a policeman. So he starts doing it more often. And when his father has to go into hospital, but he has no money to pay for it, so he impersonates a policeman and shakes down people for money. He starts seeing a girl who works in a CD shop, but then he discovers she works for an escort agency as well. This is a pretty bleak film – and, to be fair, a lot of the Sixth Generation Chinese directors seem to go for bleak – but it also has that documentary air I find so appealing about recent Chinese films. The protagonist of Uniform is hardly admirable, or even sympathetic – he’s a slacker who turns into a bully. But his situation is certainly sympathetic, and not just unique to twenty-first century China. I’ve said before that China has an especially strong cinema at present, and this film is ample evidence.

Lenny, Bob Fosse (1974, USA). I wanted to see this since the editing of Lenny plays such an important part in Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, a film I really like. I know very little about Lenny Bruce as he was a) American, and b) before my time. Dustin Hoffman plays the title role, and the film follows his career, intercut with excerpts from some of his later stage performances. It’s astonishing how badly he was treated by the authorities – repeatedly arrested for using words like “cocksucker” in his act – but then the hypocrisy and corruption of the US establishment is hardly news. (Of course, the same can be said of the establishment of pretty much every country.) As biopics go, it’s a good one. But biopics are also dependent on the person being covered, and Lenny Bruce wasn’t all that interesting a person. He was a professional arsehole who ran afoul of the establishment, which hardly makes him unique; but the subject of his comedy seemed fresh and necessary, and was also the reason he was targeted. It makes for a good story. The problem is that when this is real, and the heroes are so deeply flawed, it often invalidates the point being made. Lenny Bruce was a knob. He also had important things to say. So what does that say about his message? Very little, sadly. Most of what he complained about is, these days, generally  acknowledged to be true, but no one seems especially interested in changing things. So US society remains sexist and racist, even more so now than when this film was made.

Marriage Italian Style, Vittorio De Sica (1964, Italy). This is the fifth film by De Sica I’ve seen, and I think most of the earlier ones were Italian Neorealist, a film genre of which I’m not a big fan. Marriage Italian Style, however, is very much a 1960s drama, although it opens in the late 1940s. Sophia Loren plays a prostitute frequently visited by successful businessman Marcello Mastroianni, and he eventually sets her up in his own house, ostensibly to look after his ageing mother. But when Mastroianni plans to get married to another woman, Loren feigns a mortal illness and extracts a promise from him to marry her instead. Then she “recovers”. He marries her, she moves her three sons into the house (one of which was fathered by Mastroianni, but she refuses to tell him which). They start shouting at each other. The two leads are experienced actors, and very good ones too, and they play their parts as well as can be expected. Burt none of it actually adds up to much, and the story never really ignites. Sadly, you don’t much care what happens to the marriage. I’m not sure why I stuck this one my rental list, and having now watched it I’m even less sure.

The Class, Ilmar Raag (2007, Estonia). After Georgia in the last Moving pictures post, it’s now the other end of Europe and another country I can cross off the list of nations whose films I’d never previously seen. The Class is set at a high school in an unnamed Estonian town. One boy in the class is consistently bullied, first by a group of jocks but then by pretty much everyone in the class. But then one classmate decides enough is enough, and he fights the bullies. Which makes him a targe0 toot. Which eventually ends up with the two of them walking through the school with guns, shooting those who had bullied them. It is, sadly, these days a somewhat clichéd story – at least in certain parts of the world – Estonia, it has to be said, not being one of them (but the Wikipedia page mentions two school shootings in Finland which quote the film as inspiration). The problem here, of course, is not kids shooting up schools with guns, but bullying. The Class presents a story that feels very European – this could never be mistaken for a Hollywood film – even if the story is one Hollywood has covered several times. It is also an extremely polished piece of work. Pretty much all nations have a film industry, but not all of their output makes it out of their country – and for some, none of it does. I saw something recently about Jia Zhangke, a Chinese director whose films I rate highly, and whose first three films were made without official approval. It was the international film festival circuit at which his movies were shown which helped finance his later films and also persuaded Beijing to give him their approval. And while I realise there’s been a cinema underground as long as cinema has existed – Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man are evidence of the US’s own underground avant-garde cinema scene – the twenty-first century has made it much easier for the armchair enthusiast to access previously hard-to-find material. While I’ll happily travel to Sweden or Iceland for a science fiction convention, I’ve yet to work up the enthusiasm to travel to London to see a specific film (damn you, Curzon for showing Francofonia only in London).  Which is, I admit, a purely personal fault. But while I can continue to explore the world’s cinema from my armchair, I will do so – rental, if I can, and I’ll buy them if I think them good enough (as I have done). Because I think it’s important to watch films from as many nations as possible.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 857


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Moving pictures 2016, #3

Continuing the, er, continuing series of blog posts on my movie-watching. Once againm a nother varied selection, not all of which were from the list.

texas_chainsawThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre*, Tobe Hooper (1974, USA). Not a film I’d normally choose to watch, but it was on the list so… And no, I don’t know why it made the list. I don’t know enough about horror films to know if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was seminal or heralded a sea change in the genre or anything like that. I can only judge it as the movie I watched. And in that respect, it did not fare well. It looked cheap – not necessarily a bad thing, it has to be said, as cheap and amateurish is what drove the whole found-footage craze of the late nineties, and, in most cases, it actually worked quite well (more so, it must be said, for the earlier films, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, than for Hollywood’s jumps on the bandwagon like Cloverfield). But, anyway. Young hippies travelling across the US run into a bunch of psychotic freaks living in a farmhouse, murderous mayhem ensues. Involving chainsaws. Not being a fan of the genre, I saw nothing to admire or like in this film. I suspect fans of the genre would be hard-pressed too – other than perhaps its position in the history of horror films. Still, at least I can say I’ve now seen it and so can cross it off the list.

lesgirlsLes Girls, George Cukor (1957, USA). Three dancers accompany Gene Kelly (well, his character) on a tour of Europe: a Brit, an American and a French woman. The Brit later marries a member of the aristocracy and writes a kiss-and-tell memoir of the tour. The other two sue her because some of the details are less than accurate. So what we get is the same story, more or less, told from the point of view of the characters played by Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg, none of which actually agree. This film is, by most accounts, minor Cukor, although it boasts a score by Cole Porter and choreography by Jack Cole. This is a shame. The slightly unusual structure actually adds interest to a relatively straightforward story. The leads are all on top form – especially Kendall – and the musical numbers are quite good, as are the costumes. I’m surprised this film is not better known – I certainly enjoyed it more than, say, Guys and Dolls, which appeared only two years earlier.

wooden_clogsThe Tree Of Wooden Clogs*, Ermanno Olmi (1978, Italy). If I had to choose a list of favourite film genres – although perhaps “movements” would be a better word – then Italian Neorealism would be somewhere in the top ten, and likely higher than France’s Nouvelle Vague. But this is a film that really strains my liking for that genre. It is, on paper, a movie that should appeal – the life of a peasant family in 1898 in the province of Bergamo, a communist tries to drum up support but is ignored, a young couple are married, and a family is booted from their tenancy by their landlord. Life was brutish and short, although not for those who lived off the labour of the peasantry – a situation the current political class seem determined to return to – and this film simply documents it in a way which cannot fail to garner the viewers’ sympathy. Despite all that, The Tree Of Wooden Clogs was a bit of a, er, slog. It wasn’t that it was slow-paced, as I quite like “slow cinema”, nor that it was unremittingly bleak – I seem to be more tuned to that than I am to mindless optimism, anyway – but that the film seemed to lack focus or movement. I’ll try some more Olmi, but this is supposed to be his masterpiece.

finziThe Garden of the Finzi-Continis*, Vittorio de Sica (1970, Italy). And speaking of Italian Neorealism, de Sica was a leading director in the movement but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is not a movie that qualifies as one (and no, I don’t know why the Arrow DVD cover singularises the family and removes their hyphen). It’s based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani, about a wealthy Jewish family who become victims of the Nazis. It opens in the 1930s, with a group of bright young things, some Jewish, some not, who meet in the titular locale to play tennis and be idle rich (although not all are rich). The film follows Giorgio, a middle-class Jew, who is friends – but hopes to be closer – with the Finzi-Contini daughter. But she has an affair with a man she admits she despises, and then leaves to stay with relatives in Venice. When she eventually returns, most of the Jews of the town have been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Only the fate of the Gentile characters is shown. While it would be unfair to say the upper classes routinely collaborated with the Nazis, many of them did just that, partly because they shared their views but also as a means of protecting themselves (as if they deserved it…). Not that it was always successful. As The Garden of the Finzi-Continis shows. I much preferred this film to The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, for all that it was an historical drama set during a period for whch the entire human race should be ashamed, and not Italian Neorealism.

new_girlfriendThe New Girlfriend, François Ozon (2014, France). I admire Ozon as a director, although I’ve not liked or admired every film he has made. Nonetheless, when a new one is released, I stick it on the rental list. Although, for some reason, I actually bought this one on DVD. I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story of the same title, which I read many years ago in a  collection, also of the same title. But once I’d spotted that, I also realised that Ozon’s script doesn’t follow Rendell’s story all that faithfully. The basic premise is the same – a woman enters into a relationship with a man who is a transvestite. But from what I remember, the original story ends badly, whereas the film gives us a relatively happy ending. In pretty much all other respects, this is a typical Ozon film – it’s colourful, although not quite saturated, the characters are handled sensitively, and there is a plenty of wit in the script. I can’t say it’s my favourite Ozon, but it’s definitely one of his better ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 709


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Moving pictures, #39

Trying to get the last of these out of the way before Christmas. It doesn’t help that I’ve been watching a couple of films a night, more on the weekend. And it’s not as though I mention every film I’ve watched in these posts – some because they’re rewatches, but mostly because they’re some rubbish I stumbled across on TV, Amazon Prime or charity shop DVD… Anyway, here’s the latest batch…

blancanievesBlancanieves, Pablo Berger (2012, Spain). Back in 2011, The Artist was released, a silent film produced in France, which went on to win a raft of awards. This was a bit of a blow to the makers of Blancanieves, who had decided to make a silent black-and-white film several years before but didn’t make it into production soon enough to beat The Artist to release. To be fair, The Artist is a very good film, but you have to wonder how many of its awards were a result of the novelty of a silent B&W film in the 21st century. But then we have Blancanieves, also a silent B&W 21st century film, against which to compare it. And, sadly, Blancanieves does not compare too favourably. It’s good, but it’s doubtful it would have beaten The Artist to any awards. Not in Blancanieves‘ favour is that it’s about bull fighting, a sport (and I use the term loosely) that only the Spanish seem to think is not barbaric. The plot is apparently based on ‘Snow White’, albeit transplanted to Spain and, er, matadors. It’s certainly a nice-looking film, and it works quite well as silent and B&W. And, but for inevitable comparisons to the Oscar-winning The Artist, it would likely count as a good film. But comparisons are inevitable, and it loses out to them. All the same, worth seeing.

destryDestry Rides Again*, George Marshall (1939, USA). If there’s one story which appears again and again in Western films, it’s the lone hero who cleans up a town under the corrupt thumb of the local cattle baron. Given the bad name cattle barons have in Western literature – which is the nearest the US gets to a native mythos (native to its colonisers, that is) – it’s surprising unfettered capitalism is still seen as admirable. Maybe everyone is just waiting around for the lawman to turn up and clean up the town… although I wouldn’t go looking to that gallery of clowns the GOP is currently fielding as they’re so deep in the cattle barons’ pockets they’ve forgotten what daylight looks like… Ahem. Anyway, wild west town is dominated by criminal sorts, led by owner of the local saloon, at which Marlene Dietrich performs nightly. Villain has been cheating people at cards in order to get their land, and now owns the route needed by ranchers on their drives – and he’s going to charge them a fee per head to cross his land. When this leads to the sheriff’s murder, the corrupt mayor gives the tin star to the town drunk… who promptly sends off for Jimmy Stewart. In the past, the drunk had been deputy to Jimmy’s dad, the original Destry, a much respected lawman, and the drunk hopes the son has followed in the father’s footsteps… Except, it seems, he hasn’t. He doesn’t wear a gun. He lets the villains make fun of him. He even upholds the eviction of a homesteader who had lost the title to his land in a crooked card game. But, of course, Destry is playing a long game, and it all comes right in the end. Of course. This is a Hollywood western, after all. Even Dietrich, the saloon singer and accomplice of the saloon owner, proves to have a heart of gold. The best of the film, however, is when the women of the town, the wives and girlfriends, decide to intervene in the big fight between the forces of law and the villain’s henchman, and march straight in with various blunt instruments and proceed to hammer the shit out of the bad guys. That’s not something that normally appears in the mythos. And, perhaps, given more focus in the narrative, it might have made something special of Destry Rides Again. As it is, it’s a good western – though more for its breaking from the template than its slavish following of it – but there are a number of good westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, compared to the vast number of ordinary and just plain bad westerns that Hollywood made. Worth seeing.

spring_small_townSpring in a Small Town*, Mu Fei (1948, China). This is generally reckoned to be one of the greatest Chinese films ever made – which is quite an encomium given the size of Chinese-language cinema (yes, I know “Chinese” is a language family, not a language, but you know what I mean – the film is actually in Mandarin). A classic piece of cinema it certainly is, not only because of its age. It is also a really good film, a film I watched on rental DVD but would like to pick up my own copy so I can rewatch it. A woman’s life post-WWII is interrupted when a suitor prior to her marriage arrives in town. The film takes its time telling its story, but that actually works to its advantage because it allows for a nuanced presentation of the various relationships – wife and her husband, wife and old boyfriend, wife’s younger sister and the old boyfriend… To be fair, there’s not a great deal of subtlety in who the characters are intended to represent – the husband, for example, spends his time pining for the past and complaining about his various illnesses. And the wife is the heart of the film, and whose heart is torn. I really need to be get my own copy of this. Incidentally, the film was remade in 1993 by Zhuangzhuang Tian. I’ve not seen the remake, but I’m definitely intrigued…

defiantThe Defiant Ones*, Stanley Kramer (1958, USA). It is horrible to think this film may well owe its position on the 1001 Mosvies You Must See Before You Die list because back in 1958 it was considered transgressive, perhaps even shocking. Because it’s about two cons who escape a chain gang while chained to each other. One is Tony Curtis, the other is Sidney Poitier. A white man chained to a black man. Curtis coasts, as well he might given his role, but Poitier is good (both were nominated for Oscars, but neither won – the award went to David Niven for Separate Tables). The two struggle through the swamps before stumbling into a company town, where they are captured and about to be lynched. But one of the residents argues against such vigilante “justice” and later helps them escape. They come across a boy, who takes them home to his mother, who has been abandoned by her husband. And she uses race to drive a wedge between the two, because she needs a man to look after her. There is not much, it must be admitted, in this film to like. The central premise should not be shocking or transgressive, and the responses of others to the two main characters throughout the film is deeply racist. True, the movies does comment – is itself a commentary – on those racist attitudes, but showing such things without actively presenting consequences seems to me a waste of time. Because, you know, there are people out there stupid enough not to see something bad in what they’re watching. All together, probably a film not worthy of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list.

bike_thievesBicycle Thieves*, Vittorio De Sica (1948, Italy). I do like Italian Neorealist films, and this is considered an important work in the genre – an important work in Italian cinema, in fact – but I have to admit I didn’t much enjoy watching it. Chiefly because of its plot. An out-of-work man in post-WWII Rome is offered a job putting up posters, but he needs a bicycle to get the job. So his wife pawns the family heirloom linen to raise the money. But on his first day on the job, the man’s bike is stolen. And he spends the rest of the day trying to find it and its thief. Without success. Grinding poverty is a problem, but it is a structural problem in society. Certainly it’s fertile ground for drama, but such stories always to me imply that such conditions are either normal, inevitable or inescapable – and I disagree with all three conclusions. True, Italy after WWII was not in the best of places economically – but neither was the UK and it managed to create the NHS. The US, of course, was in a much better place – it profited from WWII – and it still treats its citizens like shit. Worse, certain of its citizens kill other ones if they try improve things for those who are not well off. All of which, however, has nothing to do with Bicycle Thieves. As mentioned previously, I like Italian Neorealist cinema, but I didn’t enjoy this particular example. Worth seeing, definitely, and certainly it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but that’s as far as it goes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 692


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Moving pictures, #1

The first “films seen” post of 2015… Last year was a bit epic for DVD-watching, and I expect this year to be much the same… Three weeks into the year and I’ve already seen 29 films and rewatched season 1 of Babylon 5. I don’t document every movie I’ve watched in these posts – I mean, the less said about Solar Crisis the better (it was a charity shop find, okay?). Some films were rewatches, some were simply forgettable, and there’s not a lot I can say about Babylon 5 that’s not been said before by many others. So, it’s the usual mix of (mostly) classic films, I’m afraid…

playtimePlaytime*, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I knew very little about this film when I sat down to watch it – I knew who Tati was, of course; in fact, I’d seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot the year before (see here). But I hadn’t known quite how much of an… undertaking Playtime had been, how expensive a production, how enormous a film it proved to be. Apparently, it was a bit of a commercial flop on release, although critics acclaimed it. I loved it. Right from the opening in the mock-up of Orly Airport, with its clean retro-futurist lines. I loved the modernist look of the film, its Brutalist interiors and futurist gadgets. The plot, in which Hulot wanders from set-piece to set-piece, is almost incidental. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, more so than I seem to recall from the other Tati film I’d seen. And, of course, it just looks absolutely fantastic. So I bought a Blu-ray of it on eBay.

fearFear Eats The Soul*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Fassbinder famously based this film on Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows and, to be honest, I was expecting it to closer resemble Sirk’s movie that it actually did. Partly, this was because it was my first Fassbinder, so I had no real idea what to expect – it was probably also the first New German Cinema film I’ve seen; but I suspect my expectations were unrealistic and likely spoiled by Todd Haynes’ take on All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, which apes the look of Sirk’s film while extending its story. Fassbinder, on the other hand, makes free use of the story, but sets his story in present-day (for 1974) Munich. A widow in her sixties drops into a bar to get out of the rain, and so meets Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter who speaks broken German (the film’s actual title, Angst essen Seele auf, is broken German). The widow, Emmi, and Ali become friends, and then lovers, and she invites him to live with her. When the landlord tells Emmi that her lease doesn’t allow her to sublet, she tells him Ali is her fiancé. So Ali and Emmi marry – much to the disgust of Emmi’s adult offspring. But soon Emmi’s attitude toward her husband begins to align with those of her racist neighbours and friends, even though her children have come to accept Ali. Like Sirk’s masterpiece, Fear Eats The Soul shows a conventional woman entering into a relationship that which is uncomfortable to her family and peers, and then choosing to formalise that relationship (although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson don’t actually get married in All That Heaven Allows). But where Sirk’s film is about class, Fassbinder’s is very much about race, and especially about the presence of gastarbeiters in Germany. It’s a powerful story, and works especially well because of its low-key realist approach (unlike Sirk’s colour-saturated mise en scène, which I admit I love). Having now seen it, I think Fear Eats The Soul is not so much a reflection or homage to All That Heaven Allows as it is a complement to it.

mariabraunThe Marriage Of Maria Braun*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979, Germany). Did I mention I received a boxed set of Fassbinder DVDs for Christmas? It’s the Commemorative Collection 73-82 Volume 2. Obviously, I picked out the two best-known films in it to watch first. In The Marriage Of Maria Braun, the title character marries her boyfriend while he is home from the Front, they spend a day and a night together and then he’s off fighting again. Cut to the end of the war, and he doesn’t return home – she doesn’t know if he’s dead or still a POW held by the Russians. She gets a job at a bar that caters to American occupiers, and becomes the lover of one GI regular. At which point, her missing husband turns up and catches the pair in flagrante delicto. A struggle ensues, and Maria accidentally kills the GI. However, the husband takes the blame and is sentenced to prison for murder. Maria is determined to better her lot so when her husband is eventually released they can live a life of comfort. She meets a rich industrialist on a train, and he hires her as his personal assistant/mistress. She proves to have a head for business, and becomes rich. Meanwhile, the industrialist approaches the imprisoned husband, and the husband agrees to leave Germany on his release and not return to Maria. Later, after the industrialist has died, he returns – Maria has inherited everything, and is now very rich indeed. While Fassbinder didn’t evoke post-war Germany especially well – no doubt due to budgetary constraints; although von Trier, I thought, did a better job in Europa, albeit it was more representational – I thought this film a much more subtle piece than Fear Eats The Soul, and much the better for it. Maria Braun is a well-drawn and well-played character, and if the film puts the atrocities committed by the Nazis to one side (and, like Europa, paints the occupying Americans as heartless invaders rather than saviours), Maria’s profound selfishness and determination gives the story a solid anchor. Excellent stuff.

streetcar_named_desireA Streetcar Named Desire*, Elia Kazan (1950, USA). One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I watched only because it was on the list. I was aware of the film, and that it had made Marlon Brando a star, but that was about all. And, to be honest, what I knew of it didn’t really make me want to watch it. But it was on the list, so I bunged it on my rental list and, in due course, it popped through the letter-box. So I watched it. And… meh. It’s one of those films made on an indoor set whose stark lighting can’t hide the fact it’s as fake as a theatre flat. Brando was widely praised for his acting in the film, but I just found his put-on voice really annoying. Vivian Leigh was better, and managed to evoke the fragility of her character, but the final descent into madness was pure bathos. I can see how people would have liked it back in the day, but it’s all a bit OTT, a stage play turned up to 11, with much yelling and wailing and outbreaks of sudden violence. Ah well. One to cross off the list.

maleficentMaleficent, Robert Stromberg (2014, USA). The title character is, apparently, the evil queen in the Snow White story, although quite how this dark fantasy fits into the fairy tale is anybody’s guess – I think even Disney’s marketing department gave up on trying to persuade audiences of that one. Angelina Jolie, with prosthetic cheekbones and a pair of big fuck-off horns, plays the title character, who is really just misunderstood and not the evil piece of work the Brothers Grimm et al have painted her. Her peasant boyfriend, on the other hand, is. Evil, that is. Well, nasty. He even gets to be king – which is not how dynastic succession or divine right works, but this is a US film and they’ve never really understood the concept of royalty. For reasons I now forget, said king decides to raze the magic wood near his castle and in which Maleficent and her Thumper-y friends all live. So she seeks revenge by cursing the king’s new-born daughter. But I don’t recall the daughter being put to sleep – it may have been me who was sleeping – but instead she gallivanted about the magic forest and played  with all the weird faery creatures, while being maternally looked over by Maleficent. I’m not really sure what this film is meant to be – it reminded me of that other fairy tale mangled into a dark fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman; and while I have no problem with using fairy tales as source material, I’m not convinced Maleficent reflects well on the Sleeping Beauty story.

cranesThe Cranes Are Flying*, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957, USSR). I’m a big fan of both Tarkovsky’s and Sokurov’s films, and I’ve seen a number of other Russian movies – including bonkers sf film Kin-Dza-Dza, yet more bonkers Через тернии к звёздам, and even mighty Soviet historical epic Ilya Muromets. But I’d not seen much socialist drama, so The Cranes Are Flying was something new for me. It’s a WWII film, centred around the character of Veronika, a young woman. Her boyfriend Boris volunteers to fight, but is posted missing in action. Her parents are then killed in a bombing raid by the Germans, so Boris’s parents invite Veronika to live with them. Boris’s cousin Mark is also staying there, and he begins to pursue Veronika – she, of course, does not know Boris is dead, and she rejects his advances. He assaults her and shames her into marrying him. The family are moved further east, and Veronika works in a hospital caring for wounded soldiers. After an incident in a hospital, she decides to commit suicide, but at the last minute saves a boy from being hit by a car and adopts him. Boris’s father then learns that Mark escaped conscription by bribing an official, so he boots him out of the house. A comrade of Boris’s then turns up and informs Veronika that her boyfriend died a hero’s death… It’s all very grim, and each of the characters quite clearly maps onto roles played by the people of the USSR during WWII, both good and bad. While Veronika’s ending is hopeful rather than happy, the bad guy is caught and punished for his anti-socialist actions. As propaganda goes, The Cranes Are Flying was entertaining, if a little heavy-handed. The stark black-and-white cinematography was effective, and Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova was good as Veronika. Worth seeing.

timesevenWoman Times Seven, Vittorio de Sica (1967, Italy). Shirley MacLaine has made some odd films throughout her career, and this, I think, qualifies as one of them. It’s an anthology film, in which MacLaine plays seven parts, and they’re pretty much all the same. In the first, she’s a widow following her husband’s hearse to the cemetery, while her late husband’s doctor, played by Peter Sellers, tries to persuade her to marry him. In the second, she’s a young wife who returns home to find her husband (a different husband, obviously; MacLaine is playing different women) in bed with her best friend, so she heads out and meets up with a bunch of prostitutes. In the third, she’s a hippie translator who reads poetry, while naked, to a Scot and Italian who are members of the congress where she’s interpreting. The fourth sees MacLaine married to a best-selling author who is more in love with his fictional character than his wife, so MacLaine tries to become the fictional character, prompting the husband to have her examined by a psychiatrist. In the fifth, a society woman goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure a rival doesn’t wear the same designer gown as herself to the opera. The sixth appears to be set in New York and features a young married couple who are determined to commit suicide, except the husband isn’t quite so determined. And the seventh has MacLaine being stalked by Michael Caine after she meets Anita Ekberg for lunch. An odd film, and not even remotely funny.

affairAn Affair to Remember*, Leo McCarey (1957, USA). Unbelievably, I’d never actually seen this TV perennial, and since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I thought I should. I like 1950s melodramas, so I expected to like An Affair to Remember, but… Cary Grant was at his most tea-bag-tan-ish, and didn’t really convince as a French playboy (the former more than the latter). There was a little bit too much singing, and as the film progressed the schmaltz began to heap up in droves. And yet it all started so well – the shipboard romance was nicely handled, with plenty of witty banter. But after Deborah Kerr had been hit by a car… and gives up her singing career to teach poor children (sticks fingers down throat)… Obviously, a happy ending was always going to happen, but McCarey made sure he hit every emotional beat in Hollywood’s lexicon before reaching it. To be honest, it felt like a good 1950s melodrama badly welded to an inferior non-musical remake of An American In Paris.