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Moving pictures 2017, #13

The New Year’s resolution is still working. I seem to be averaging one US film per Moving pictures blog post. The films in this post were half-rented and half-owned, and two were rewatches (albeit one of them not since many years).

herzogHeart of Glass, Werner Herzog (1976, Germany). I first saw this many years ago, after buying a Herzog DVD box set in a sale. And of that initial watch, all I  could really remember was the fact the cast were hypnotised before shooting began, and the really weird way they performed on-screen as a result. Which pretty much meant I’d categorised the film as “weird Herzog that’s probably pretty good but still weird”. What I’d forgotten were the parts of the film where the camera focuses on some part of the landscape, like some Caspar David Friedrich painting, lacking only the figure of a man, while some strange German prog rock plays… for ten minutes. I love stuff like that. When the actual story kicks off – a master glass blower at a factory in an eighteenth-century town and takes the secret of the glassworks’s unique ruby glass with him – it feels a bit like the film has landed badly in the proasic after some flight of fancy. The local baron is desperate to find the secret, so much so failure drives him mad. And the rest of the town go made too. While I’d remembered how odd the casts’ performances were, since they’d been hypnotised, they actually proved considerably stranger than I’d thought. In many cases, it was like they weren’t there, their faces seemed completely blank. At other times, they over-reacted as if whatever they saw or felt just got stuck. It was… very weird. And I really did like the musical interludes. Bits of Heart of Glass are among my favourite bits of Herzog.

my_brilliant_careerMy Brilliant Career*, Gillian Armstrong (1979, Australia). I was perhaps unfair in dismissing this as a “dull Australian historical drama”, as I did on Facebook shortly after watching it, yet I really did find it over-long and uninteresting. The title refers to the boast uttered by an independent young woman in late nineteenth-century Australia. She is convinced she will become a much-lauded writer – and given that the film is based on an important Australian novel, it might well be said she did just that. A young woman is sent from the family farm to live with her grandmother in order to calm her down and teach her how to behave like a proper young woman. She meets two men, and she falls for the one with the money. She spends time at his estate. He proposes. She rejects him. His fortune then collapses. She takes a job as a governess in order to support herself, but is sent home because the family mistakenly think she is seducing the oldest son. Her boyfriend proposes again. She rejects him again. And says she wants to become a writer. (Not that writing and marriage are incompatible, as a great many female writers can attest – even in the late nineteenth century… although perhaps not so much in Australia.) My Brilliant Career pretty much stands or falls on how you take to the lead character, Sybylla, the Miles Franklin stand-in. While the film was put together well, and the two leads, Judy Davis and Sam Neill, put in excellent performances, I really didn’t take to Sybylla, which is why I didn’t take to the film. Some films like that, I might decide a second chance is warranted, and so watch them again. But this was a rental and I didn’t get a chance before sending the disc back. So it’ll have stay as a “meh” from me.

astronautAstronaut: The Last Push, Eric Hayden (2012, USA). I have a great idea for a film, it’s it like the plot of my 2011 story, ‘Barker’, about the first man in space, who dies; but in this version it’s a British space programme, because we nearly had one, you know (actually, no, we didn’t, that’s implausible make-believe). Anyway, someone made that film, it was called Capsule, and it was very dull. Astronaut: The Last Push takes that idea one step further. Two US astronauts are being set to Europa, but the most efficient course is a slingshot by Venus, and then a second by Earth. Since this will take several years, the crew of two are put into hibernation. But then the spacecraft is hit by a micrometeoroid en route to Venus, which wakes up one astronaut and kills the other. So the surviving astronaut has to stay awake, and sane, during the remaining weeks of the trip from Venus back to Earth. As does the viewer. Because once the accident is over, the only drama remaining centres on the continued sanity of the surviving astronaut. And his coping mechanisms. And that’s neither dramatic not interesting enough to fill 85 minutes. I’m a sucker for space movies, but so many of them look better on paper than they do realised on the silver screen. Usually because the story isn’t really fit for 90 minutes. But I’ll keep on watching them, in the hope I find a good one.

far_pavilionsThe Far Pavilions (1984, UK). As far as I remember, I read MM Kaye’s novel The Far Pavilions one Christmas or Easter holiday while staying in the Middle East with my parents because there was nothing else to read. It was not my usual choice of book. But I really liked it – so much so, I went on to read Kaye’s other historical novels and, years later, tracked down copies of her crime novels. A later reread of The Far Pavilions reminded me why I had loved it so much the first time I read it. So I was keen to see the television adaptation… and so I did, within a year of two of its release. But I also remember being disappointed with the adaptation, but despite that I was pleased when I stumbled across a DVD of The Far Pavilions in a charity shop for 99p (as indeed were the rest of the family, who’ll be borrowing it from me). The story is simple enough. An English boy, Ash, survives the Indian Mutiny and successfully masquerades as the son of his Indian nurse until the age of eleven. At which age, he makes himself known at the Corp of Guides garrison in Mardan in North-West India. He is sent off to England to be educated, and to grow up, as a proper Englishman, and then returns to India on his majority to take up a place as an officer in the Corps of Guides. The book makes much of Ash’s childhood as Ashok, but the TV series leaves it as off-screen back-history. Which means that Ash’s ability to pass as a “native” (Urdu-speaker? Pushtu-speaker?) has to be taken as dramatic licence in the TV series – especially since all the dialogue is in English and there are no indicators the characters have changed language. (Actually speaking, say,  Urdu, and having English subtitles would be unacceptable on UK and US television in 1984, more’s the pity.) Ash was best friends with a young princess when a kid, but now he’s a pukka sahib he ends up meeting her, only she’s being married off to a nasty piece of work and he has to escort her to her wedding. They reconnect, are horrified by her future, but both have roles to play. There’s some fine landscape in The Far Pavilions, and some good dramatic moments, but the casting is iffy at best. Ben Cross never really convinces as Ashok, a blacked-up Amy Irving makes a poor Anjuli, and Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee as Pathans is just taking the piss. The storming of the Residence in Kabul is effectively staged, and the pomp and circumstance during the princesses’ trip south, and subsequent marriage, looks good. But the miniseries never matches up to the book – which I really must reread one of these days – and, thirty-two years later, feels like a too-thin adaptation that traded on a low-grade celebrity cast and Indian scenery. True, it was the first miniseries HBO were ever involved in, so early days for the format (and kudos to them for actually going to India to film it), but I’d really liked the novel and had hoped to like this just as much.

vagabondVagabond*, Agnès Varda (1985, France). The film opens with the discovery by a vineyard worker of a young woman dead in a ditch, from what appears to be exposure. From the voiceover, it appears this might be a documentary, and a series of interviews with those involved in finding the body, and the authorities and emergency services who turn up, only increases the documentary feel. But then Vagabond abruptly shifts back in time to the earliest appearance of the young woman the narrator admits she has uncovered… and the moves forward with a combination of dramatisation of the young woman’s life – she is a drop-out, travelling about France with a tent on her back and picking up casual jobs to pay for food – and interviews with those she interacted with along the way. Vagabond doesn’t blend fiction and fact as it’s entirely fctional, but it does blend the typical modes of presentation of fiction and fact. In itself, the story isn’t all that interesting – in attempting to track back the young woman’s life and discover who she was, the narrator, and so the viewer, discovers she was perfectly ordinary. She admits at one point to having been a well-paid secretary in Paris, but decided she had had enough of that life and so took to the road. The people she meets are perfectly ordinary, lending yet more of a documentary feel to the film. The only other Varda film films I’d seen prior to this were Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, which I thought okay, and Cleo from 5 to 7, which I loved. Vagabond I thought good. So I really should add me some more Varda to my rental list. Happily, there are two box sets of four of her films each available in the UK.

masterpieces_1Camouflage, Krzysztof Zanussi (1977, Poland). I had a moment of weirdness when watching this when I realised that one of the characters had an English accent when speaking Polish. I don’t speak Polish… but I’ve apparently heard enough of it in films to to recognise some Polish words being pronounced with an English accent. Weird. It turned out the actress was bi-lingual, but brought up in the UK, and in this film was playing a Polish-speaking Brit. She is one of several students at a university summer camp. She is also having an affair with one of the lecturers. And that lecturer is one of the young ones, who has different ideas to how students should be treated than the older lecturers. This comes to a head over the summer camp’s competition, in which each student stands up before the class and gives a a talk on a topic. (The summer camp is specifically for students studying linguistics, incidentally.) The young lecturer favours one student to take the prize, one of the older lecturers disagrees. It causes problems. To be honest, I thought the talk the young lecturer felt deserved the price, or at least what little of it appeared in the film, based on a fallacy and not especially good. But never mind. Camouflage is another one of those television dramas writ large that the Poles did so well in the 1970s. It doesn’t feel like a feature film but an entire series edited together and, in hindsight, I have to wonder if this is because these films take the time to build their characters. They don’t create ones that fall neatly into well-known types. The Polish-speaking English actress mentioned earlier is a good example. Why have someone like her in the film? Her background doesn’t impact the story, is not relevant to the resolution. But the fact she exists makes every character in the film feel more rounded. And when the story revolves around the conflict between two lecturers, of different generations and sensibilities, then well-drawn characters are a must. Camouflage also looks wonderfully 1970s. Not the horribly over-egged 1970s of twenty-first-century attempts at recreating the 1970s, like American Hustle, but the real 1970s, with daft pointy collars, tank tops, and shirts and ties and jackets in different unaplatable shades of brown. A good film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 855


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Moving pictures 2017, #8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 849


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Moving pictures, #7

For all my efforts to watch films from different countries, there seem to be a handful that appear more often than others – and they’re all in this one: India, China, Sweden, Germany and the US. And the UK too, of course, although there’s no British film in this post. Having said that, Poland might be turning up in quite a few Moving pictures posts over the next few weeks…

herzogFitzcarraldo*, Werner Herzog (1982, Germany). The thing with special effects is that none of it is real. With physical effects, it’s faked by physical means. These days, with CGI and digital effects, none of it exists outside a computer. But sometimes, film-makers do exactly what they show on the screen. And one of the famous things about Fitzcarraldo is the central portion of the film, where the cast drag a steamship over a mountain ridge from one river to another. And that’s what they actually did. The story of the film seems almost incidental to that one achievement. Basically, the title character – his name is a Hispanisation of “Fitzgerald” – is an opera lover and plans to bring Caruso to the Amazonian town he calls home. In order to do that, he needs money. So he buys a tract of land that cannot be reached by river – or rather, it can, but the river in question is blocked by fierce rapids. So Fitzcarraldo plans to drag his boat over the ridge between the navigable river and the unnavigable one. And he enlists the help of a local Amazonian tribe to do so. Of course, this is a Herzog film, so nothing goes as well as planned. By all accounts, the filming was as difficult as that of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – there is even an equivalent “making of” documentary, Burden of Dreams (due to appear in a Moving pictures post later). And so the film itself is more or less incidental in the face of that central event – which is every bit as astonishing as you would think. They physically drag a steamship of three hundred tons up and over a mountain ridge a good three or four hundred metres high. The whole film screams difficult shoot right from the start, and the fact the film works, is even successful, is probably more due to the insane ambition of Herzog in attempting it and the unforgiving landscape in which he chose to shoot. It’s one of those cases where everyone suffered for their art, but their act of suffering produced art over and above the norm. And it shows. And that’s without Kinski going completely off the rails during the film – so much so, the crew offered to kill him for Herzog. Definitely in the top five of Herzog films.

hometownPlatform, Jia Zhangke (2000, China). The final film in the Hometown trilogy, although, to be fair, I’ve not watched them in the order in which they were released. In fact, the order goes Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002). Having said that, all three films share a common story: disaffected youth being disaffected youth in different circumstances. In Platform, the cast are a theatre troupe, and they travel about the province putting on state-sanctioned plays. One member forms a relationship with a man, who stays behind when the troupe goes on tour. As China changes, so does the material the troupe performs, until they end up performing rock songs. There’s a definite consistency of vision and approach to the three films in the trilogy, and seeing them in quick succession can feel like too much of a thing in too short a time. Jia has an excellent eye, and his use of mostly amateur cast members and real locations gives the films a documentary feel he has managed to maintain throughout his career so far (both 24 City and A Touch of Sin possess it). I have in recent months found myself becoming a fan of the new cinema coming out of China – not just Jia, but also Zhao Liang, and films like Black Coal, Thin Ice, rather than Hong Kong art house directors like Wong Kar-wai, who I do still like. According to Wikipedia, Jia is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese directors, so I guess I should try films by other members of that group…

pat_mikePat and Mike, George Cukor (1952, USA). In classic Hollywood films, there are great screen partnerships, and there are those that occasionally achieved greatness… Tracy and Hepburn made nine films together, and one or two are judged classics, like Adam’s Rib (1949), although I do have soft spot for the one where Hepburn is in charge of a GIANT COMPUTER BRAIN,  Desk Set (1957). Pat and Mike follows a similar pattern to the other films in which the pair appeared – and pretty much to any screwball comedy / rom com of the period. Hepburn plays a natural athlete who wins lots of competitions… providing her husband is not present. As soon as he appears, she slices the ball, hits the net, etc, etc. And so along comes sports agent Tracy, who spots this and needs to keep the two apart in order to profit from Hepburn’s sporting skill. Naturally, the two fall in love. Naturally, this results in snappy dialogue. I’ve watched a lot of George Cukor films, and a lot of them have been very good… but I can’t say I’ve spotted a George Cukor vision, which is not something I’d say of many directors whose careers I’ve been following. Given his oeuvre, I’d have expected something more consistent from Cukor – he has, after all, made some bloody good films, and you’d expect more of them to be of that quality. Pat and Mike, sadly, is pretty forgettable, not a film you’d be reccommending should you find yourself putting together a list of George Cukor films worth seeing. One for fans of screwball comedies.

classic_bergmanA Ship Bound for India, Ingmar Bergman (1947, Sweden). Apparently, “Classic Bergman” means minor Bergman films you will forget ten minutes after watching them. Now, by definition, any Bergman film is worth watching – he’s one of the best directors the twentieth century produced, and that’s a fucking large field in which to excel – but this box set hasn’t really showcased Bergman’s best. “Classic” then, in this case, means “for completists”. And while I’d happily count myself in that category, I’m not so much a fanboy I can actually remember much of this film despite watching it. The main character was a sailor, or wanted to be a sailor, and had a bad relationship with his parents… and okay, I may not have been entirely sober when I watched this film but at least I own the box set so I can watch it again. But from what I remember nothing in it particularly engaged me, so I’m guessing it’s much liked the other films in the box set, ie, a polished theatrical piece shot in stark black and white, starring some of Bergman’s usual stable of actors. I’ll probablyh have to watch it again.

name_riverThe Name of a River, Anup Singh (2003, India). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m no wiser. I had thought it was a documentary on Ritwik Ghatak and his works, but instead it appears to be a somewhat plotless actual feature film, and a nicely shot one it is too, which was inspired by Ghatak’s movies. Parts of it are sort of restagings of some of the scenes in the movies – the ones set on the distinctive fishing boats of the Titas River, for example, I recognised immediately. There are also interviews, staged more like conversations, between members of the films’ casts – such as the two female leads from A River Called Titas. I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s eight films – although I do have a fourth to be watched now – which is not enough to spot all the references in The Name of a River. But from the section based on A River Called Titas, and the conversation between its two female leads, there’s a lot in here to unpack. I’ve made my opinion on Ghatak more than clear on this blog in other posts, and I admit I was looking for a little more insight into his career than The Name of a River offers – in fact, now I think about it, it didn’t seem to offer any insight at all. I did enjoy it and it is pretty good – it sucessfully replicates Ghatak’s visuals, and makes clear his politics, and there’s some interesting anecdotal stuff from actors who worked with him. But I guess if I want insight, I ought to read Ghatak’s own writings on cinema.

kahaaniKahaani, Sujoy Ghosh (2012, India). This was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I’ve no idea why I stuck it on my rental list, but when I shoved it in the player I was expecting three hours of typical Bollywood entertainment. And then it opened with a gas attack on the Kolkata Metro in which a carriage full of people died. Well, that was pretty dark. Not Bollywood at all. The story then jumps forward two years, and a pregnant woman flies into Kolkata from London and makes her way to a district police station. Her husband had been sent to the National Data Centre on assignment, and then vanished. She has come to look for him. She enlists the help of Rana, one of the police officer, but their investigation goes nowhere. But then the HR manager of the National Data Centre remembers another employee, Milan Damji, who resembled the pregnant woman’s husband. So they start looking for him. But it all spirals out of control – the HR manager is murdered, an Intelligence Bureau officer turns up and starts ordering people about, and then it turns out Damji’s was responsible for the gas attack two years earlier… Kahaani turned out to be a good film, a solid thriller which made excellent use of ts location, and had an especially good lead in Vidya Balan, who plays the pregnant heroine. There’s neat twist at the end, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that hard to spot. Apparently, there’s a sequel, Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, released late last year, so it’s not available for rental yet. But when it is, I’ll be sticking it on my list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 847


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Moving pictures, #58

Continuing on with the movies posts in a world in which superheroes, should they start to appear, would actually look like the good guys…

housekeepingHousekeeping, Bill Forsythe (1987, USA). I’m a big fan of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and have all of her novels, so I was naturally interested to see how she translated to the silver screen because, er, well, I’m not sure. And the answer is, er, I’m still not sure. I enjoyed the film Housekeeping, but not as much as I enjoyed the novel. But one of the joys of Robinson’s novels is her prose, and so a cinematic adaptation has to provide an equivalent – and I don’t think that Forsyth’s Housekeeping does. But, would I have read the book having seen the film? Probably not. It’s a perfect example of how the two media interact. It’s usually said the book is better than the film, although there are a few examples where the reverse is true – Marnie, The Commitments… – and it’s certainly true for Housekeeping, even though the film is not all that bad without knowledge of the book. Christine Lahti is good as the flaky aunt who takes over the upbringing of the two girls (one of whom narrates). However, the landscape as shown in the film never quite fit my mental map from reading the book. Mostly it was too big. Now, the US is big, so I suspect the film was a better representation than what I had imagined, but it still felt weird watching it. Intellectually, I guessed I was wrong, which then felt like accusing myself of a failure of imagination… But then voicover is a poor substitute for interiority, if only because using it to the same extent feels like over-using it. Post-facto narration is one way of presenting interiority via voiceover, but it’s tricky to write in such a way that the lack of hindsight doesn’t seem odd. Mostly Housekeeping succceeds, and on reflection its charm probably carries it further than someone with knowledge of the book would expect. Worth seeing, but I much prefer the novel.

hitch_truffHitchcock / Truffaut, Kent Jones (2015, France). I’m a big fan of Hitchcock’s films – in fact, he was the first director whose movies I collected on DVD because he was the director, rather than buying DVDs based on story or stars or  genre, and I buillt up a collection of pretty much everything he had made. A recent rewatch of his two main collections, after upgrading them to Blu-ray, only confirmed by admiration of the movies. Truffaut, on the other hand… I love his adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 – in fact I love the film but hate the book – but nothing else by him has ever really appealed to me. I’ve always much preferred Godard. But Truffaut was a big fan of Hitchcock and, as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, was instrumental in rehabilitating Hitchocock as an auteur. This documentary includes footage of the original interview which led to Truffaut’s book (I really do need to get myself a copy), as well as present-day talking heads discussing Hitchcock’s oeuvre and Truffaut’s interview of Hitchcock. It’s fascinating stuff, more so because of what it reveals of Hitchcock than because of its commentary – there’s a telling moment where Hitchcock directs Truffaut during a photo shoot, and it’s clear from his comments that Hitch knows exactly what looks best. Recommended.

zero_de_conduiteZéro de conduite*, Jean Vigo (1933, France). I know Vigo from L’atalante, which I bought many years ago from, I think, a sale at HMV. It turns out he only made four films, and both L’atalante and Zéro de conduite make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before  you Die list, which I calculate at 50% of his oeuvre, and that has to be considered a pretty impressive achievement. Except… well, I didn’t think that much of Zéro de conduite. In fact, of the three films included on the disc I rented – it also included À propos de Nice and Le natation par Jean Taris – I thought À propos de Nice more interesting a movie than Zéro de conduite. Anyway, Zéro de conduite – it’s set at a boys’ school in, I suppose, the 1910s. The school is harsh and the pupils eventually rebel. None of it seems entirely real – there’s a teacher who steals food from the pupils, there’s a lack of discipline that seems more wish-fulfilment from the pupils than the teachers… and while it’s all entertaining enough, nothing seemed to really stand out. Le natation par Jean Taris was a straightforward documentary on a swimmer and his technique, and while Vigo’s film-making techniques may have been every bit as innovative as Taris’s swimming technique in 1931, all that remains now is a mildly interesting documentary on swimming which clearly prototypes techniques now commonplace. À propos de Nice, however, is much more interesting proposition. The result of a desire to make a film about Nice, Vigo was determined to avoid common narratives, and so chose to contrast the rich with the poor. The film opens with aerial shots of the city, a surprising enough thing to see on the screen in 1930, before showing the great and good wandering up and down the Corniche. It then moves to the poorer sections of the city, and the contrast is every bit as effective as Vego might have imagined. À propos de Nice did more to persuade me that Vigo was an important early director than Zéro de conduite ever did, and I suspect it rightly belongs on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list.

ray_1Nayak, Satyajit Ray (1966, India). The third and final film in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 1, and while I thought Charulata the best of the three, I’d be hard-pressed to choose whether this one or Mahanagar the next best. The “hero” of the title is a Bengali movie star, Arindam Mukherjee, who has to travel by train to Mumbai to pick up an award. Also on the train is a young editor from a women’s magazine who persuades Mukherjee to allow her to interview him. As he answers her questions, it triggers flashbacks which dramatise some of the incidents which led to his current success. Like Charulata, there are also some dream sequences – so I’m starting to wonder if this is a Ray thing – and they’re both disturbing and effectively staged. One in particular has Mukherjee drowning in a sea of money when he spots a mentor from earlier in his career – except the mentor looks like a statue. Anyway, it’s weird and yet very effective. Nayak is a character study of its protagonist, but it’s also a study of what a character study is. Mukherjee’s present-day actions are explained through flashback vignettes, which also help illustrate why he reacts as he does in later scenes. There’s a running argument throughout the film between Mukherjee and his mentor, the former sees himself as part of a new generation of actors, the latter as a defender of the old tradition. Although I’ve only seen a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I already have him pegged as an urban director, compared to Ghatak’s often rural settings. (But then I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s films, and I suspect he saw himself as more of a Marxist than a defender of the rural way of life.) Certainly the three movies in this box set by Ray are urban, and it makes an interesting change to Ghatak’s films.

herzogNosferatu: Phantom der Nacht*, Werner Herzog (1979, Germany). I prefer the German title to this film, although the version of it I watched this time around was the English-language version. It’s a pretty straightforward remake of Murnau’s film, with Kinski in the Schreck role, and while he doesn’t quite manage to present the same level of menace, Herzog’s film does have some lovely cinematography and use of incidental music. Particularly in the scenes where Bruno Ganz (as Jonathan Harker) approaches Dracula’s castle, which are beautifully shot with impressively evocative background music. Whitby is transposed into Wismar, a small town on Germany’s coast on the Baltic; but the story pretty much follows Bram Stoker’s story. When you have so many cinematic adaptations of a single novel – or of that novel’s eponymous villain – then fidelity to the source text seems pretty irrelevant. By 1979, of course, Dracula had been pretty much set in the public’s mind as a saturnine but urbane aristocrat in dinner jacket and cape. Herzog’s Dracula is a welcome return to Murnau’s frankly quite odd presentration of the vampire, but in that form he at least seems to embody a real sense of menace. Having said all that, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht does seem a little, well, tame for Herzog. Nonetheless, it’s easily one of the better Dracula films made – and yes, it does belong on 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list; and yes, Murnau’s Nosferatu is also on the list, as is Dreyer’s Vampyr

stella_dallasStella Dallas*, King Vidor (1937, USA). This didn’t appear to be available on DVD in either the UK or US, and the copy I finally ended up with was a Spanish release. And it was pretty much a waste of time – the film was a potboiler, with little to recommend it and its presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list is a complete mystery to me. Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, the daughter of a millworker, who has social ambitions. She engineers an introduction to mill manager John Boles, callously gets him to marry her on the rebound, and then uses her new-found position to explore society, much to her husband’s disapproval. But after giving birth to a girl, she sublimates all her ambition into giving her daughter the best start in life. Husband meanwhile has been transferred to New York, but mother and child stay back home, mother hanging out with unsavoury types while daughter grows up like some sort of changeling. But then husband bumps into an old flame, now widowed and with three boys, and they rekindle their relationship. Daughter goes to visit, is a great hit, and… well, you can see where this is going. It’s pure melodrama from start to finish, but has none of the subversiveness of Sirk. I’ve no idea why it was on the 1001 Moves You Must See Before You Die list – it may have been nominated for two Oscars, and the AFI nominated the title character as one of its 100 Heroes & Villains… But it was all a bit meh.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 820


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Moving pictures, #56

A right proper mix this time around. I have recently simplified my lists on LoveFilm. Previously, I was running three lists – one for Hollywood blockbusters, one for classic movies, and one for world cinema. I’ve now combined them into one for English-language films and one for non-Anglophone movies. I am not in the slightest bit desperate to see the latest films released by Hollywood as soon as I can and am happy to wait before eventually watching them. Besides, there’s always Amazon Prime if I want to watch crap US films…

ray_1Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India). This is the second film in the Satyajit Ray collection I bought, but unlike the first it is an historical piece. The title is the name of a young woman in 1870s Kolkata, whose husband asks a friend to keep her company. It’s based on a novella by Rabindranath Tagore. Her husband is rich and publishes a newspaper called The Sentinel. Determined not to be a member of the “idle rich”, he involves himself in every aspect of running his newspaper. To keep his wife company, he invites his cousin to stay. The cousin, Amal, is a bit of a waster but claims to be a writer, and Bhupati hopes Amal will help Charu with her stated intention to write. But the two’s relationship soon moves beyond mentor and pupil – especially after the pupil demonstrates more talent than the master. The film takes place almost entirely within the large house occupied by Bhupati and Charu, and even features a couple of musical numbers. There’s a scene set on s beach which features some nice photography, although Ray is not above using clichés (a camera moving from the foot of a table up to its surface to reveal a letter, for example). Madhabi Mukherjee totally shines in the title role, outdoing many a Hollywood star. It’s an odd film in that it feels complete ahistorical, despite its carefully presented period – not just the set dressing and costumes, but also several mentions that India is still governed by Britain. It’s the first film I’ve seen that has persuaded me Ray is as good as Ghatak, although they each had a very different approach to cinema. For most of its length,  Charulata feels like a cross between a light social comedy and drawing-room farce, with a strong thread of rom com and social drama, but there’s an astonishing daydream sequence in the middle, in which Charu has a blinding moment of inspiration and writes a story which is then published in a magazine. Good stuff.

herzogStroszek, Werner Herzog (1977, Germany). Herzog had stumbled across Bruno S and cast him in the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hausar, but was so taken with the busker, that he wrote this film specifially with Bruno S in mind as the title character. Of course, there are other of Herzog’s interests paraded before the camera, such as a livestock auctioneer, as in How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, auctioning off the title character’s possessions toward the end of the film. Stroszek is a Berlin street performer who has fled Germany with his girlfriend after running afoul of gangsters, They decide to settle in “Railroad Flats”, a dead-end town in middle America. Things initially go well, but their natures will out and the pair end up badly in debt. she does a runner and he turns to drink. A friend persuades him to help in a bank robbery. It goes badly wrong. It’s hard to know what to make of Stroszek. It is, on the surface, a straightforward drama about a hard-luck protagonist. But, on the one had, it’s so clearly tailored to Bruno S that it wouldn’t work without him; but on the other hand, some of the elements of the plot simply don’t ring true as something Bruno S would do. But then Herzog was always more about the philosophy than he was such bourgeois ideas as narrative, plot and structure. Stroszek is not a film about a man who makes a fresh start only to see it turn to shit, it’s about an implacable universe and the way stories too often manipulate that indifference in order to provide the ending the audience desires. Most movies are commercial constructs and so formalising their design – creating a “formula” – helps the industry maximise their effectiveness. But there’s no truth in that, and art is about truth. Hollywood delivers product, Herzog can never be accused of doing the same. He has built a career out of presenting naivety, but doing it in such a way that it not only entertains but also reveals truth. Stroszek is big on naivety – it’s Bruno S’s biggest selling-point – but low on truth. And while the film is entertaining, I can’t help thinking Herzog’s instincts led him astray. There is nothing new in Stroszek, and the film suffers as a result.

loreleiThe Lorelei, Mol Smith (2016, UK). I found this on Amazon Prime, and was sufficiently misled by the description to watch it. The Lorelei is a British independent film, which means it has production values on a par with a double-glazing advert. A young woman hires a private investigator to investigate the death of her step-father in Oxford under mysterious circumstances. He involves his house-mate, a student who moonlights as an escort. The police then become involved when some of the escorts run by the same woman who runs the student are found dead in mysterious circumstances. We’re meant to believe the deaths are the work of a lorelei, a creature living in the Isis who takes the form of a young woman. Who pours water into their mouth from her own mouth and so drowns them. But The Lorelei is not framed as a horror film, but as a mystery. And as a mystery it fails because it can’t keep its central idea secret until the third act. There’s one twist in the story, but it’s a weak one – because it doesn’t really matter, the story has focused so much on other things that the mystery it resolves is secondary. I’ve no idea why I bothered watching this all the way to the end, it was pretty bad.

onceOnce, John Carney (2007, Ireland). This is not my usual viewing, as you no doubt have realised, but Once is on one of the other 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die lists and it was free to watch on Amazon Prime and it was a Sunday afternoon, so… Sadly, Once has a more interesting genesis than it does a plot. A busker in Dublin becomes friends with a young Czech woman, the two perform together, eventually record a demo of his songs, before returning to their separate loves. Initially, Cillian Murphy was going to play the lead role, but he pulled out and the part was taken by Glen Hansard, who had written the songs, and who is probably best-known for playing Outspan in The Commitments. The initial financing for the film pretty much collapsed, and it was eventually made on the cheap for $150,000, only to earn considerably more than that at the box office. That I find heartening. The story itself is packed full of clichés from start to finish, but happily is carried by the charm of its cast and the verisimilitude of its musical performances. It’s not precisely a feelgood movie, although it definitely heads in that direction – but no one is going to walk away from seeing it depressed. I can’t call myself a fan, but I sort of enjoyed it.

black_catThe Black Cat*, Edward G Ulmer (1934, USA). I’ve noticed that some film critics seem to revere monster movies out of all proportion to their quality. They even talk of a “Golden Age”. I’m not sure that The Black Cat fits in that period, but it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so clearly the makers of the list held it in’some regard. I have no idea why. A young married couple are travelling through Hungary when their train breaks down. They have made the acqauntaince of Béla Lugosi, who is returning to the area after many years away (most of which were spent in a POW camp). There’s a bus accident, and they all end up at the home of Boris Karloff, a renowned Austrian architect, whose house in built on the ruins of a castle whose garrison he betrayed during the war. Lugosi was at that garrison and he’s out for vengeance. Karloff also collects the corpses of young women, er, because. One of which is Lugosi’s wife. There’s also Lugosi’s daughter, who is being kept by Karloff. And it’s all to do with some secret Satanic cult which Karloff leads. The sets aren’t bad, although Lang did much better, and the film generally looks quite good for a movie of its period and genre. But Lugosi is absolutely terrible, he gurns and grimaces like a prime hock of ham. The Black Cat is one of those films whose presence on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I find completely baffling.

luciaLucía*, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this film purely because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. I knew nothing about it before putting it into the DVD player. But having now seen it… I’m reminded of my response to Black God White Devil. I watched it… and then went and bought all three films available on DVD by Glauber Rocha. Coincidentally, also released by Mr Bongo. And also piss-poor transfers. While I didn’t dash out and buy all of Solás’s films after seeing Lucía, I did buy myself a copy of Lucía. Because it’s a film that is just so good. Which came as a surprise to me as, much like the Rocha one, I had not expecting to find myself so taken by it. It tells the story of three women called Lucía, in 1895, 1933 and 196-. The first is an historical conflict piece, the second a doomed romance, and the third more of a cinema verité movie. Lucía in 1895 elopes with a dashing young man, only to learn she has been used to discover the location of the nationalists’ headquarters. It’s all completely over-the-top, but in a gloriously historical way. Lucía 1933 is a more sedate affair, in which the eponymous young woman leaves her middle-class family to live with a young revolutionary, and ends up working in a cigar factory. The section marks a cusp between the first and last sections, and contrasts the two social classes. The final section shows Lucía living in a hearty communist utopia, which is couched in terms of her relationship with her new husband. It’s handled with a light, even comedic, touch, and the cast are uniformly good – in fact they are in all three sections. Something about Lucía immediately appealed to me, so I went and bought myself a copy. I shall no doubt now discover there’s a much better, and correspondingly expensive, transfer of the film available from Criterion… Recommended.

1001 Movies you Must See Before you Die count: 812


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Moving pictures, #54

Another varied batch of films. I think I might well end up having watched more movies this year than last year… and I watched 544 in 2015. Oh well.

stagecoachStagecoach*, John Ford (1939, USA). Do westerns belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list? If they do something unexpected and original with the form, or if they’re seminal, then yes, I suppose they do. But I can’t see that Stagecoach does any of those. It’s best-known as John Wayne’s breakthrough movie. He’d made lots of Poverty Row westerns, and his one previous appearance in a big-budget western was a box office flop. But Ford, who had not made a talky western before, wanted Wayne and fought the studio to get him. The film was a hit. But why does that make it one of the 1001 best movies ever made? The story is pretty stereotypical: a handful of people with back-stories leave town on the stagecoach, they pick up Wayne en route, who has just broken out of prison, and then chase the US Cavalry across the state, pursued by Apache. According to Wikipedia, Stagecoach “has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made”. But given that Wayne had been in about eighty Poverty Row Westerns during the 1930s, I find it hard to believe everything in Stagecoach was seminal – some western at some point must have introduced whatever tropes exist in Stagecoach. Of course, a Poverty Row film might not have had the release of a major studio movie… Perhaps it’s just that Stagecoach has been overtaken by westerns that came after it. I mean, some of the westerns from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I’ve seen have been pretty damn good, albeit for a variety of reasons. But I can’t say Stagecoach was one of them.

fantasia_2kFantasia 2000, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt, Hendel Butoy, Eric Goldberg, James Algar, Francis Glebas & Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi (1999, USA). I watched a much earlier Disney anthology film a few weeks ago, one that was put together to keep the studio in work during World War II. Fantasia 2000 has no such excuse. It claims to be a celebration of the original Fantasia, but comes across more like an excuse for its animators to show off – and, to be fair, some of the animation is very impressive. Unfortunately, each of the film’s eight segments is introduced by Hollywood stars at their most smirkingly oleaginous. Instead of a celebration of the original Fantasia, it gives the whole project the feel of a self-congratulatory Hollywood/Disney celebration. Of the segments, the abstract shapes of the opener were cleverly done, the space whales in the second were also good, the Al Hirschfeld-style animation in the third segment was clever but soon wore thin… and then it all started to go downhill, with one of the remaining segments a repeat from Fantasia. One for Disney fans, I suspect.

sacrificeThe Sacrifice, Andrei Tarkovsky (1986, Sweden). I’ve now replaced all my Tarkovsky DVDs with the new Blu-ray releases – well, all except The Tarkovsky Companion, which I don’t think is getting a Blu-ray release – and since I now own shiny new copies in a much better format, I’ve been rewatching them… And it’s been sort of weird sitting through these films, given the high opinion of them I held. Take The Sacrifice. I would have counted it among my favourite of his films, perhaps second to Mirror… And yet, having now rewatched it, it sort of feels like a Bergman film played at slow speed. Of course, this is chiefly because the dialogue is in Swedish (with some English), the star is Erland Josephson, and it was filmed on Gotland. But even then, the concerns of the film feel quite Bergman-esque…. up to the point where the nuclear holocaust takes place. That isn’t Bergman at all. And the wife’s subsequent breakdown, which is harrowing to watch, is not something you’d expect to see in a Bergman film. But would you expect to see it in a Tarkovsky film? And yet… I still think The Sacrifice is one of Tarkovsky’s best films, not because it least resembles the others but because so much of its emotion is there on the screen to see. Kelvin in Solaris was a bit of an enigma, Mirror was too patchy to have a real emotional payload… but The Sacrifice is all about emotion – not just Adelaide’s hysterics, but Alexander’s response to the holocaust. It’s a film that, like a densely-written literary story, rewards attention and rewatching, and even when you’ve given it neither, it still tells you that you should have done. And certainly more so than Solaris or Mirror. It’s as if the cinematic tricks used to tell the non-linear story of Mirror were used in service to a superficially uncomplicated linear narrative. There are films you rewatch because you enjoyed them; but there are films where every time you rewatch it you feel like you’re digging a little deeper into its meaning. Tarkovsky’s films definitely fall into the latter category, and I’m particularly glad buying the Blu-rays has prompted me into rewatching them. Which I will be doing a few more times before the year is out, I think.

ray_1Mahanagar, Satyajit Ray (1963, India). Ray is considerably better-known outside India than Ritwik Ghatak, but he also has a considerably larger body of work. And most of it seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (I wonder if it’s because Ray was championed by Merchant & Ivory…). Like Ghatak, Ray was Bengali, and Mahanagar is set in his native Kolkata. A young couple in Kolkata are having trouble meeting their bills, so the wife takes a job as a door-to-door saleswoman. She proves to be good at it. But when her husband realises this means he’s not being looked after to the degree to which he is customed, he asks her to quit. But then he loses his job, and she becomes the only breadwinner in the family. And the whole experience has given her the confidence and independence to carry the family over her husband’s objections. So much so, in fact, that when a colleague of hers, an Anglo-Indian, is fired because the manager believed she had thrown a sickie, she confronts the manager but ends up resigning in protest. A comparison with Ghatak’s films is, for me, inevitable. And while I’ve seen only a fraction of Ray’s oeuvre, I have seen more films by him than by Ghatak… I do like the urban character of Mahanagar – it doesn’t have those great shots of the river and countryside you see in Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, and its narrative is much more traditional in structure; but it’s an engaging drama and it’s played completely straight, with no frills. The end result is a movie which doesn’t have the scope of  A River Called Titas but handles its constrained domestic drama, and the social changes it documents, in a nicely low-key way. Recommended. And yes, once I’ve watched the three films in this box set, I’ll be buying volume 2 and then volume 3, and then the Apu trilogy if I can find a copy (as it’s been deleted already, I think).

youthYouth, Paolo Sorrentino (2015, Italy). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and since I’d seen and been impressed by Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love and The Great Beauty in previous years, it was an easy decision to watch it. Unlike those other two films, however, Youth is English-language – in fact, it stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in the two main roles, supported by, among others, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda and Paloma Faith. Caine and Keitel are old friends, currently staying at a Swiss health resort. Caine is a famous composer, Keitel a famous director. A “queen’s emissary” (wouldn’t that be an equerry?) visits Caine and asks him to conduct one of his pieces at a special concert for Queen Elizabeth II. He refuses. Keitel, meanwhile, is trying to write the screenplay – with the help of half a dozen screenwriters – for his last movie, his “testament”. As you’d expect from Sorrentino, the cinematography is gorgeous, and there are extended moments when the story is put to one side and the viewer is allowed to just revel in the atmosphere while suitable music plays (it’s part of the narrative, not something imposed by the medium). But the rest of the story… there are a couple of good cinematic tricks, and the dialogue is never actively bad, but it all feels a bit banal and perhaps even a bit stereotyped in places (especially Jane Fonda’s part).  I don’t know; Sorrentino is a master director, but I’ve seen three of his films now and each has left me slightly dissatisfied in some way – and the nearest I can come to articulating why, is that the way he structures his stories seems to flatten their dramatic beats and makes them feel a bit, well, hollow. But his films do look beautiful. So I’ll continue to watch them.

herzogThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Werner Herzog (1974, Germany). I picked up a copy of this Werner Herzog Blu-ray collection a few weeks ago, and have been working my way through it. I already had many of the films on DVD – in a pair of box sets I bought years ago – but Herzog is definitely worth upgrading. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is not as bonkers as Herzog gets, but it is pretty bonkers. It’s also based on a “true” story. In 1828, a young man was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg. He claimed to have been kept imprisoned in a cellar for his entire life up until that point. It was rumoured he might be related to a royal house, although he denied it. It is now considered more likely he was a con artist, and made it all up in order to blag his way to notoriety and riches. Herzog goes with the mystery – but casts Bruno S, a completely bonkers Berlin musician, in the title role, despite Bruno S being in his forties and the historical Hauser being in his late teens. But it works because Bruno S is such a mad actor. Imagine someone had sucked Brad Dourif’s brains out of his ears, and the memory having had brains still remained, and you might get some idea of what Bruno S’s acting is like. And if that wasn’t enough, Herzog has Hauser bark his new-found learning throughout the film in a series of pedagogical conversations and interviews. It is completely unconvincing, and yet totally believable – a quality a lot of Herzog’s films possess. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is by no means Herzog’s best film, although it remains one of his more interesting ones – but this collection is definitely worth getting, and not just for the feature films but also for the special features, such as How Much Wood Would A Woodchuck Chuck, a 1976 German TV documentary on the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in the US.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 809


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Moving pictures, #47

At least half of my movie-watching is not from the US, but I still need to increase the number of non-Anglophone films I watch. (To be fair, the bulk of those I actually purchase these days are non-Anglophone; in fact, it’s been a couple of years since I last bought a Hollywood film on DVD or Blu-ray… at least to keep, rather than a £1 purchase from a charity shop to watch and then take back afterwards…). Anyway, a typical mix this time around: three from the US (although one is silent), and one apiece from Argentine, Germany and Japan.

hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015, USA). Tarantino is a bit of a Hollywood darling, not to mention completely full of himself. His films are hardly typical Hollywood product – although their stories are very much set in those spaces colonised by Hollywood stories – but they still get major releases, with massive marketing campaigns and countless column-inches of approving reviews. The Hateful Eight is apparently a “revisionist Western”, although whether that means revisionist in respect to actual history or Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West I’ve no idea. Because, let’s face it, Shane or Rio Bravo can hardly be considered historically accurate, much as I love them. The Hateful Eight is basically Tarantino showing off about Westerns – all of his films are about him showing off in some respect – which in this case means a bunch of people trapped at a remote trading post during a fierce Wyoming winter, some years after the American Civil War, while en route to a nearby town. Two are bounty hunters, one is a prisoner of one of the bounty hunters, another is a newbie sheriff on his way to take up his silver star, one is an old Confederate general, one is a gruff cowboy, one is an English hangman, and the last is the Mexican assistant who has been left in charge of the trading post by its owner (he claims…). There then follows lots of dialogue, a deal of which is expositional, a minor mystery which is quickly disposed of, and a good deal of gory gunfighting. For a movie that’s 168 minutes long and mostly in a single indoor set, The Hateful Eight proved surprisingly gripping. Some of the photography was also very nice indeed, which is just as well since the characters are mostly stereotypes, and the story goes into this lengthy narrated flashback sequence to explain the entire plot of the movie which is dumb. Tarantino carries his films with wit, which is just as well as he can’t plot for shit and he’s just about capable of handling archetypes rather than real characters. But archetypes are very Hollywood – more than that, they’re classy Hollywood (stereotypes are just commercial Hollywood). A Tarantino film is never less than entertaining; and as Hollywood auteurs go (it should be an oxymoron, to be fair), he’s among the top rank. I just wish everything he did wasn’t polluted by that air of insufferable smugness he carries around with him.

official_storyThe Official Story*, Luis Puenzo (1985, Argentina). One of the joys of having your viewing directed by a list is sitting down to watch a film you know nothing about it and discovering it’s really good. And, it has to be said, of late I’ve found myself more drawn to documentary dramas than I have sfx-heavy fantastical bullshit. The Official Story hints at, but does not plainly state, its topic, although the country of origin and year should be some clue. It’s about the Disappeared. (For an excellent documentary on a similar topic, I recommend Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light.) A well-off couple – he’s something high up in the junta’s government, she’s a teacher – welcome a friend who fled the country shortly after the military seized power. She e’plains why she left – an ex-boyfriend was considered anti-junta and, although she’d not seen him for two or more years, she was arrested and tortured – but the teacher seems unconvinced, while the husband has his own cross to bear in the form of the deals he’s made to prosper during an oppressive regime. There’s a classic scene where the wives – all well-off, all untouched by the regime’s excesses – meet for lunch and the returned woman lays into one of them with an impressive savagery. Driving the plot is the dawning realisation that the teacher’s adopted daughter may be the child of a Disappeared woman, and when she starts looking into it she somes across a woman who may be the grandmother of the adopted daughter. The husband is far from happy when the wife tries to introduce the woman to the daughter, because the guilt of having another woman’s child, of having prospered, child-wise, at the expense of the real mother, and of the mothers’ movement to which the biological mother and grandmother belonged is anathema to him but is also… something new and uncomfortable for her, as mediated partly through her experiences in the classroom as a history teacher for rebellious teen boys, and also informed by the history of her friend who has recently returned. While this is an excellent film, and tells a story that needs to be told, the astonishing thing about it is that it was planned while the junta was in power – but the junta fell just as the screenplay was completed. Nonetheless, to plan a film so critical during the regime… Recommended.

scream_stoneScream of Stone, Werner Herzog (1991, Germany). Apparently Herzog himself disowns this one, and it’s certainly true that it doesn’t feel 100% like a Herzog film. Which is weird, because he directed it, he just didn’t write the script. Which, to be honest, seems to sit pretty much in the same space as most of Herzog’s films. There’s a mountain in Patagonia called Cerro Torre which is notoriously difficult to climb because it is both needle-shaped and its top features a mushroom of ice. A mountain climber challenges a championship indoor climber to accompany him on a climb to the top of Cerro Torre. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Donald Sutherland plays a television producer who kicks off the rivalry, and then cynically feeds it, in order to get something he can make a TV programme about. The script isn’t great, much of the story is a bit cliché, but there’s some lovely photography… and while it’s easy enough to declare it second-string Herzog, it’s still Herzog and so superior to many other directors’ output. So, not a great film, and not one for the Herzog collection, but, I think, still worth seeing.

queen_earthQueen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry (2015, USA). I must have seen a positive mention of this somewhere, which is why, I assume, I added it to my rental list. In the event… there’s a type of American independent movie which seems to rub me up the wrong way. Uusually, they’re talky, and trying to be clever, and mostly reliant on the acting chops of the central cast. I’ve seen a number of films which fit this description and can think of only a handful which make the grade (and most of those starred Brit Marling, who’s definitely going to be something big one day). But. Queen of Earth. Which stars Elisabeth Moss, who I know chiefly from Mad Men. I watched it from start to finish, and there were lots of close-ups in cars; and Wikipedia describes it as a “psychological thriller” but I’m buggered if I can remember an actual story never mind anything as crass as a plot. It’s one of those films where the dullness of the script is not enlivened by some nice landscape cinematography because remains tightly focused on the cast and the no doubt bon mots they are so artfully enuniciating. The movie was, unfortunately, a rental, so I can’t watch it again and re-evaluate it; but on the one showing, I was less than impressed- although that, I suspect, may be due to it more being a type of film I don’t like rather than the film itself. (It’s an entirely different matter, for example, when a film covers a type of story I like but does it badly – it so much easier to a) see that it’s bad and b) that I don’t like it.) So, when all’s said and done, there’s a definite element of YMMV to Queen of Earth

good_morningGood Morning, Yasujiro Ozu (1959, Japan). And speaking of YMMV, I do like these Ozu films and I’d never really expected too. Perhaps it’s that his stories seem to work for me in colour so much more than they do in black and white. I don’t know; I’ll have to re-watch Tokyo Story, or some other early film, to find out. And I probably will… since I seem to be in the habit of buying these excellent BFI editions of Ozu’s films. Good Morning is, like the other Ozus I’ve enjoyed, a domestic drama, and in this case centres around a neighbourhood club in which some funds have apparently gone missing. But it’s just as much about the Hatashi family, who are sort of at the centre of the missing funds mystery and have problematic relationships with their neighbours for a number of different reasons. It is, I suspect, pointless to relate the plot of an Ozu film, because they’re chiefly a series of domestic observations strung together and ostensibly applied to a single family, And that’s just as much the case here, especially the whole sequence in which the two young boys spend time at their neighbour’s house because they have a television. But there’ a clarity to Ozu’s framing and a stark simplicity to his blocking which reminds me more of Hergé’s ligne claire style of artwork than it does any cinema movement. It works beautifully well and, as I’ve said before, it frames uchi and soto in such a clear an unambiguous way that when it re-styles one as the other, it actually suggests an additional dimension to the scene which is not stated but still subtley changes its import (I’m thinking of the framing of the street shots as interior shots in An Autumn Afternoon here, which manages to beautifully define the character dynamics despite the dialogue only baldly stating the relationships). I’ve never been a big fan of Far Eastern cinema, although I’ve watched and enjoyed lots of Hong Kong action movies over the years. But – despite not liking Tokyo Story when I watched it several years ago – I’ve found myself becoming a bit of an Ozu convert. More, please.

eagleThe Eagle*, Clarence Brown (1925, USA). I have in other posts about my movie watching remarked that following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to excellent films I might otherwise have missed – and not just silent films since I already had a few in my collection… But it’s not an area of cinema I’d choose to explore without prompting… Although having done so, I’ve seen some excellent movies made before sound… Sadly, this is not one of them. I’m not sure what The Eagle‘s actual claim to fame is. It’s not Rudolph Valentino’s most popular film, because that would The Son of the Sheik (and it’s pronounced shay-kh, with a “kh” like a softer version of the “ch” in loch; and not sheek, which is an entirely different word from another language altogether). Anyway, Valentino plays a lieutentant in Czarina Catherine the Great’s Imperial Guard. After rescuing a runaway coach – inadvertently taking the empress’s horse in the process – he comes to the czarina’s notice. She offers him a general’s rank, but he’s not willing to pay the price (sexual favours, basically). So he runs away with a price on his head. And ends up as a Robin Hood-type outlaw, the Black Eagle of the, er, title… and he bumps into the nubile young woman from the runaway carriage earlier, who it is the daughter of the local grandee who tricked Valentino’s father out of his estate, and so he pretends to be a French tutor in order to get close to her and win her love as well as conduct his Robin-Hood-ish campaign against her father… Yes, only in a silent film, but it sort of works… even if California makes a piss-poor stand-in for central Russia, and assorted Hollywood mansions make for unconvincing Russian castles. There are silent films that are still astonishingly good even now in 2016, but this isn’t one of them. It may well be the first appearance of a number of heavily-soiled tropes and clichés, but that’s not enough in my book to make the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list… especially when it doesn’t appear to be genuinely new at the time it was made. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 802