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Moving pictures 2017, #9

A mix of the usual suspects this time around, and it sounds good to say that and mean cinema from countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and China. It seems I’m actually sticking to one of my New Year resolutions.

man_movie_cameraEnthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov (1931, Russia). If there are two words which are likely make me buy something I had not otherwise considered purchasing, they are “limited edition”. I’d seen Vertov’s astonishing Man With a Movie Camera a couple of years ago, but hadn’t been that bothered about owning a copy… and then Eureka! decided to release a limited edition dual-format box set of Man With a Movie Camera plus some of Vertov’s other works. So, of course, I had to buy it. On the other hand, it’s also true I treasure the sort of films in this box set, ie, documentaries of other times and other places… and yes, that’s probably a consequence of my love of Sokurov’s films. But I’m also fascinated by films which see cinema as more than just brainless spectacle, and Vertov was a vocal proponent of cinema as a social tool. And of the films in this box set, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donblass is a prime example of the type. It’s pure Stakhanovism – a coal mine in the Don region is determined to beat its quota, and Vertov is there to film them doing it. And, er, that’s it. It’s not a silent film, although the others in the set are. It’s also quite astonishing how crude coal-mining techniques were back in 1930s USSR. Men wielded picks against the coal face, ponies pulled carts of coal from the face to the pit-head. I come from a mining background – my grandfathers all worked down the pit, and although my father joined the Electricity Board when he left school, my uncles all went to work for the NCB. Despite all that, I know little about the actual work of extracting coal from underground, and what little I know of early twentieth-century UK coal-mining comes from, er, DH Lawrence. I suspect Soviet techniques were not all that different, and it’s interesting actually seeing them on the screen. All told, this limited edition box set has proven to be a wise purchase.

lisbon_storyLisbon Story, Wim Wenders (1994, Germany). I stuck this one my rental list thinking it was by Manoel de Oliveira, but it’s actually by Wim Wenders, whose films I’m also happy to watch (although I’ve seen considerably more by Wenders than de Oliveira). But de Oliveira does appear in the film, so blame Amazon rental’s search facility… Although, having said all that, I did enjoy the film. Wenders I find a bit variable, but this was one of his better ones. A German director – the same one, in fact, from Wender’s The State of Things (1982) – asks the sound man from that film to make his way to Lisbon. Which he promptly does. But the director is not there. So the sound man wanders about the city, recording ambient sounds, making friends with the director’s friends (a bunch of kids, mostly, and a string group with a female singer). The philosophy underlying the film, as proposed by the missing director, when he appears, is bollocks… but the film is a mostly sympathetic portrait of its titular city and the characters it finds there, and for that reason it’s watchable and sort of successful. I like many of Wenders’s films, and I’d certainly put him in a list of “100 most interesting directors of the twentieth century”, but… The Million Dollar Hotel? Really? It was so bad. Having said that, it’s a bit unfair to write Wenders off on the basis of one film – and I see from Wikipedia, he’s made nearly 20 films since the aforementioned, none of which I’ve seen. So perhaps it’s time I rectified that. Because Lisbon Story, despite being rented under false pretences, is an enjoyable film.

chungking_expressChungking Express*, Wong Kar-wai (1994, China). This was Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film, and, according to Wikipedia was shot in six weeks as if it were a student film. And it shows. Admittedly, I say that having come to Wong’s films first through In the Mood for Love and loving it, and so I can’t help but compare Chungking Express to it. And while I found it a good film, I did wonder why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. Wong deserves to be represented but this isn’t his best film. It’s important in as much as it signals his new direction and aesthetic, but then why not pick a film that is a better representantive of that new aesthetic, such as In the Mood for Love? Chungking Express comprises two stories, both of which revolve around unnamed Hong Kong police officers and their lack of a love life – or rather, the consequences of their lack of a partner and the efforts they go to in order to find one. In the first story, a cop buys a tin of expired pineapple chunks, as you do, on the anniversary of his break-up with his girlfriend, and falls in with a mule for a drug lord. In the second, a cop falls for a young woman who temporarily takes over the fast food outlet from which he buys a “chef’s salad” every night. The film looks like a mix of rushed shots and carefully-framed shots, an aesthetic Wong honed to excellent effect in his later films. The oblique approach to plotting also stood him in good stead in his later films – compare it with Ashes of Time (or even Ashes of Time Redux). Wong is a singular talent, and as such belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but you sometimes have to wonder at the choices from a director’s oeuvre they’ve picked for the list.

late_springLate Spring, Yasujiro Ozu (1949, Japan). Ozu gets to you slowly. You watch one film and then you start watching another, and before you know it you watch more and you become a fan. And yet each film follows a similar plot: a daughter who must be married, and then a slow parade of the reasons why this cannot happen or must happen. And the beauty of Ozu’s films, of the way they are constructed, is that the viewer sympathises with each and every viewpoint. Perhaps it’s just that he builds strong characters on screen, to such an extent you realise how many characters in commercial cinema are little more than ciphers or tags. There’s no point in describing the plot of Late Spring, or indeed any Ozu film, because that’s not the point. They’re not just domestic dramas, they are ur-domestic dramas. They are so rich with detail, they actually transcend drama. Getting lost in an Ozu film is not getting lost in the story but getting lost in the lives of the characters. And that’s not something you can say about many movies. I came to Ozu late, but I’ve come to love his ability to generate drama from the prosaic, the quotidian. The differences between UK society and Japanese society become irrelevant, because Ozu manages to make the viewer care about the situation from the Japanese point of view. And that makes these rare films. I’m collecting all the BFI releases, why aren’t you?

robin_hoodRobin Hood, Wolfgang Reitherman (1973, USA). I’ve seen this named as one of the best, if not the best, of Disney’s animated feature films. So my hopes were high when I slid it into the player. And the opening credits are really quite well done. But I much prefer the Disney films with the clean lines, rather than the more sketched sort of lines of the 1960s and later. But even with that, Robin Hood just seemed… so small a story, with Nottingham depicted as a village, and everything just too small scale for the story as it purported to be. There was some impressive voice talent – or rather, well-known names – in some of the parts, such as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, and they were good. But it all felt a bit like an unrelated story that had borrowed the trappings of the Robin Hood legend, without bothering to be all that faithful. So far – and I’ve not seen all of the Disney animated feature films yet – I’d rate them as follows: 1 Sleeping Beauty, 2 Cinderella, 3 101 Dalmatians… and er, I need to watch, or rewatch, more Disney animated features to build up that top five. And no, I don’t count the Pixar films. I’ve still got a number of the classics to watch (or re-watch, albeit the last time I saw them was decades ago as a kid), before I can produce a definitive list. All the same, I’m not expecting Robin Hood to score as highly for me as it does for others. Did I mention that I was born in a town that used to be part of Sherwood Forest, so this legend has always felt like part of my heritage? No? Well, it does. Although that’s only a minor part of the problem. I liked the animal characters, even if it was a little worrying that both Robin and Maid Marion were both foxes (no trans-species love affairs in Disney), and some of the non-native species present in the film didn’t really have much reason for being present. And framing the over-arching narrative as some sort of good-ole-boy southern-USA story felt like appropriation. Not one of Walt’s best.

zhao_liangCrime and Punishment, Zhao Liang (2007, China). I loved Zhao’s Behemoth, which is an astonishing documentary that deserves to be seen by everyone. And, one night, having imbibed a certain amount, I decided I wanted to see more by Zhao but the only films available I could find were in a French-released box set. It had English subtitles, so I bought it. And… it’s pretty grim stuff. There are three films, and none of them makes for cheerful viewing. Crime and Punishment follows a small group of police officers in an impoverished town in north-east China. The people they deal with are poor, often not especially smart, and several are habitual criminals. The police officers are, by turns, arrogant, corrupt, violent, naive and not very smart. There’s a lot of shouting in this film, and several instances where the police openly beat up a suspect they’ve apprehended. But it’s the opening sequence to the film which sticks most in memory, a silent sequence in which the police officers fold up their bedding with military precision until each bed contains only a perfectly-formed cube of duvet. With all the guff you see in the press about China’s powerhouse economy and industrial and technological might, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the country’s population live in poverty – as is amply displayed in Crime and Punishment – and those who don’t are pretty much indentured labour – as seen in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and A Touch of Sin (which are, admittedly, not documentaries). I may not have been entirely sober when I clicked “buy” for the Zhao Liang box set, but it proved a worthwhile purchase. Which neatly brings my words on this last film in this post back to my words on the first film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850

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Moving pictures, #68

Half of the films in this post are from the US, but then one of them I did actually see at the cinema. It’s become a bit of a tradition over the last decade to go see something at the cinema during the Christmas holiday, and that usually means something genre and very commercial… like Star Wars. And this year, it was Rogue One.

20462046, Wong Kar-Wai (2004, China). I bought this years ago, along with In the Mood for Love, when they were originally released in the UK on DVD – both as special editions in cardboard sleeves. I’ve no idea why. Somewhere I’d come across the director’s name, possibly in Sight & Sound, and picked up his two latest films… and while I’d clearly liked them enough to hang onto the DVDs, I’d not rewatched them until recently. And… my, 2046 is gloriously self-indulgent, isn’t it? It rehashes the plot of In the Mood for Love, with the same actors, but set in the titular year. Kar-Wai sets his scene through the use of neon-soaked montages, a combination of special effects and live photography, and it’s very effective. The actual set dressing is a little dated, although clearly not meant as an entirely serious attempt to present a real 2046 CE. Certainly 2046 is one of those films that doesn’t so much tell a story as provide a feast for the eyes. I’ll be hanging onto my copies of In the Mood for Love and 2046, I think. I also need to watch more Wong Kar-Wai, I think.

400_days400 Days, Matt Osterman (2015, USA). Some films look good on paper, but fail to live up to their promise. This is a classic example – although it tries hard. Four astronauts are consigned to a simulated space mission for the eponymous period of time in an underground replica of a spacecraft. Rather than build a simulator in a nice controllable environment, like an aircraft hangar, which is what most actual experiments of this type do, in the film they bury their fake spacecraft in a field in the middle of nowhere… Despite this, it all goes well for about 200 days. Then they start to turn psychotic, but that turns out to be caused by a fault in the environmental system. Then someone breaks into the “spacecraft”, and they lose touch with “mission control”. So they climb out of their simulator… and discover a post-apocalyptic world. Apparently, while they were on their mission, an asteroid hit the moon, and a vast quantity of pulverised moon dust dropped into earth’s atmosphere, causing a nuclear winter. However, two of the astronauts think this is all part of the simulation. The other two are not so sure. The film doesn’t resolve itself either way. 400 Days tries hard, but never quite convinces. The simulator in no way resembles a realistic spacecraft, and burying it in a field is just daft. The final scenes try so hard not to resolve the set-up, they end up setting a completely different tone to what’s gone before. This is a film that wants its cake and to eat it too, but manages neither. Avoidable.

death_lazarescuThe Death of Mr Lazarescu, Cristin Puiu (2005, Romania). Some films, on the other hand, don’t work on paper, and should not work on the screen – but somehow manage to. This is a classic example. An old man with a drink problem and past medical problems needs to go to hospital because he feels ill, but gets taken from hospital to hospital – in Bucharest – by the ambulance, because none of the hospitals will accept him. This is a black comedy. Ten years from now, it could be reality. In the UK. Thanks to scumbag Tories. Lazarescu complains of an upset stomach, and blames it on a prior condition. It gets more serious, his neighbours get involved, an ambulance is called for. And then the ambulance, and the paramedic who is taking care of Lazarescu, is bounced from hospital to hospital. Because he drinks, he is seen as less deserving of medical care – and since when did lifestyle become a barrier to healthcare? What next? Skin colour? Nationality? True, drinkers are more likely to suffer from certain conditions – but that doesn’t make drinking the cause of everything they might suffer. And healthcare for all is healthcare for all. Romania was, nominally, a socialist nation, but seriously who thinks the Ceaucescus were an actual socialist regime? Which is not in the slightest bit relevant, as Romania has an apparently quite efficient health service, it just failed the title character in this case – and more for effect, I hope, than an actual representation of the current state of affairs. Despite that, a good film and definitely worth seeing.

rogue_oneStar Wars: Rogue One, Gareth Edwards (2016, USA). Unlike The Force Awakens, I went into Rogue One with no particular preconceptions – this was not a prequel or sequel or midquel, it was a story set in the same universe as the two Star Wars trilogies. Except, of course, it turned out to be a midquel – although it retconned details I hadn’t even known, given that I’m supremely uninterested in EU Star Wars… Anyway, I took Rogue One as I found it, and I even sort of ignored the various moment of fan service as the sort of dumb frills the story didn’t need but the marketing department had insisted on including. And, as a result… it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, by any means. But it wasn’t bad. A science officer who walked away from the empire is tracked down and forced back to work – building the Death Star. Because, of course, the Death Star could only be designed by one man. But his daughter escaped and has become a bit of a freebooter. But now the rebels want her because she’s a link with an extremist group led by Forrest Whitaker and he has an Imperial pilot who has defected and wants to deliver a message to the Rebel Alliance. The message is from the science officer. Cue reluctant hero, lots of heavy-handed Imperial enforcement, and some eye-popping visuals. But, as with all of the Star Wars films, the story logic falls down in several places. We’re supposed to believe the science officer deliberately built a flaw into the Death Star (you know, that bit at the end of the first ever Star Wars film), but, well, couldn’t he have made it a bit fucking easier? And then there’s the Empire’s love of “master switches”, which are usually sited in some totally random place because of course where else would you put it? And an archive of technical plans that isn’t accessible over the network? What use is it, then? It’s like something out of an IBM catalogue from 1988. And how come the rebels could talk to the ships in orbit through the shield, but they couldn’t beam the data out? How does that work? Oh wait, made-up bollocks. Of course. In hindsight, The Force Awakens feels like a canny way to open Disney’s management of the franchise – a giant cheese-fest of fan service with a plot that reiterates the original, and parades all those beloved favourites in all their aged glory across the screen – because, hey, cultural icons turn wrinkly too, or rather, that actors who play them, and get paid to do so, turn wrinkly and, sadly, die. Which, also sadly, ties back into Rogue One and its two turns by CGI actors – Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, and a young Carrie Fisher, who even more sadly died only last month. Neither looked quite real – close enough to be very creepy, anyway. I suspect Rogue One is a good example of what we can expect from Disney in the Star Wars universe: feature-film-length episodes of a long-running series, with a story arc that retcons itself and tangles itself up so completely as it progresses that by 2050 it’s not going to make the slightest bit of sense to even the most ardent of Star Wars nerd. Still, who knows, by then we could have moved past post-truth to a post-narrative world…

red_queenThe Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Emilio Miraglia (1972, Italy). Is this a giallo? I think this is a giallo. Although it’s more like supernatural horror than a detective story. Two sisters, one blonde and one brunette, do not get on. The blonde accidentally kills the brunette, as you do, when they’re teenagers. Many years later, the father dies and his will is held in probate for a year. Because there’s a family legend that the Red Queen will return and kill seven family members, and look!, people are getting murdered in horrible ways. All the clues seem to point to the brunette sister, who everyone has insisted is living somewhere in the US, but yup, her body is still down in the cellar, where the two surviving sisters hid it. There’s a twist, of course, maybe even two or three. To be honest, I only watched this a couple of days ago as I write this and I’m having trouble remembering the details. Barbara Bouchet, as the blonde sister, is very watchable, but it must have been about two-thirds into the film before I even noticed it was set in Germany (everyone speaks Italian, of course). It’s all very silly, one of those films pretty much defined by the bright-red fake blood they use on, er, films of this type. The final scene, in which Bouchet is trapped in a room in the cellars which begins to fill with water – deliberately, it’s a trap – is a cleare reference to The Phantom of the Opera, or perhaps to one of the zillions of films which ripped off the idea from The Phantom of the Opera, but it does make you wonder why they built a room in the cellars of the castle that could be filled with water… A fun night in, providing alcohol is involved.

bad_dayBad Day at Black Rock*, John Sturges (1955, USA). This is apparently not available on DVD in the UK or US, which is a surprise. Fortunately, someone on eBay was selling a Korean copy they’d bought for a cheap price – not that I realised it was a Korean release until I received it. But it was an excellent transfer – and it need to be, because this is Technicolor in all its, er, technicolour glory. The film is set in 1946. Spencer Tracy plays a stranger who appears at titular town, looking for a Japanese man. The locals don’t take kindly to his questions. But that’s because they killed the Japanese man during the war, because he was Japanese and they are racist. Parts of the plot of Bad Day at Black Rock were very reminiscent of Rio Bravo from 1959, although that would require a temporal paradox, and, to be fair, the plot of Rio Bravo was so good Howard Hawks used it at least three times himself. However, the film that Bad Day at Black Rock most reminded me of was Violent Saturday, another Technicolor thriller and absolutely gorgeous to see, although Bad Day at Black Rock‘s desert scenery didn’t really lend itself to the format. But it’s a good thriller, sort of noir without being noir, and looks great, even if some of its performances are a bit over-egged (Ernest Borgnine, for example). Some of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die I’ve had to buy legal rips or foreign-language DVDs because they’re not available in the UK or US… and most, I’ve no desire to keep. But this one is a keeper. A good film.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 839