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Moving pictures 2018, #63

I’m a bit behind on these, chiefly because I’ve been busy with other things during the last couple of weeks. Such as getting a new job. In Sweden. So those few nights when I’ve been at home, and not celebrating, I’ve been mostly watching TV series, such as season two of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, season three of Lost, and the first season of Dollhouse. I’ve got three or four of these posts to get out before the end of the year. Not to mention picking the best five movies – I’m dropping the documentary split I used in my best of the half-year post (see here) – out of the 600+ films I watched in 2018…

Anyway, aside from the last two films here, and they’re hardly twenty-first century commercial Hollywood extruded movie product, this post goes on a bit of a global tour, with a film from Europe, two from Asia and one from Africa.

Winter Sleep, Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2014, Turkey). It took me a couple of goes to get into this, but once I was twenty or so minutes into it, something clicked and I found myself engrossed – for all of its 196 minutes. True, I’ve seen films by Ceylan before, and I know he’s an excellent director. His cinematography distinguishes him, but I’ve found the tone of each of his films very different. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for example, is almost Tarantino-esque. And Winter Sleep very definitely isn’t. Aydın, once a famous actor, now owns a cave hotel in Cappadoccia and several properties in the town. The film opens with Aydın accompanying his agent to collect rent from a tenant… who has no job and no money, and reacts angrily to threats of more of his possessions being taken by bailiffs. But not as angrily as his young son, who throws a rock through the window Aydın’s Land Rover. That starts off an ongoing feud, in which Aydın cannot understand why the tenant is so angry and so uncooperative. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife is deteriorating, to the extent that he muscles in and rubbishes her charity campaign to fund local schools. So he decides to head to Istanbul, to work on his pet project, a history of Turkish theatre. But he gets sidetracked because one of his friends has been badmouthing him… And this is one of those films where things follow on naturally from one to the other but there’s no real story as such, except perhaps some form of realisation by Aydın over how badly he’s treated his friends and family. And tenants. A slow-mover, but definitely worth watching.

Prison, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). Bergman made a shitload of films – some for the cinema, some for television, some released on both media. Prison is Bergman’s first film both directed and solely written by him, and it’s notable because of its film-within-a-film narrative structure. Bergman apparently later disowned Prison, although there’s no good reason I could see while watching it why he should have done. It’s an early work, sure, and he used similar techniques, and covered similar topics, much better in later films. But Prison is still a good piece of drama, and if its story feels a bit belaboured at times that’s likely a consequence of Bergman’s lack of experience, although he had directed five films before this one. A film director is approached by an old teacher who tries to sell him a very obvious and very belaboured story of good and evil. The director has his co-workers discuss the story, but they pass on it… only to find real life sort of illustrating the old teacher’s story. But there’s another level of film-within-a-film, and that’s an explicit take on an early silent comedy, with people jumping in and out of windows and closets, all at faster-than-normal speed. Though its subject matter is as weighty as anything Bergman made, Prison didn’t feel especially grim or humourless. Perhaps that was why Bergman disowned it…

Let’s Make Laugh, Alfred Cheung (1983, China). This was apparently the most successful film in Hong Kong in 1983, and one of the most successful comedies in China for that decade. Shame then that it’s not at all funny. And I don’t think it’s an 1980s thing, or a Hong Kong thing. I mean, I’ve seen enough Hong Kong films to get the gurning thing, and the physical comedy, but while there’s plenty of the former there’s very little of the latter and much of the movie seems more focused on its romantic subplot. Idiot security guard is asked to guard a house because its owner has substantial debts, not knowing that owner has abandoned his wife and she’s still living in the property. But then the woman’s parents turn up, and she asks the guard to pretend to be her husband… The problem is the guard is such an idiot, and so useless, that he ever seems to achieve anything. And the wife is completely self-centred. Which means the romantic sub-plot, er, isn’t. I’ve seen some successful and very funny Hong Kong comedies – anything by Jackie Chan, for example – so the success of this one as a comedy is baffling.

Mandabi, Ousmane Sembène (1968, Senegal). I’ve now seen six films by Sembène, and have a seventh yet to watch, and I really do think his films are bloody brilliant. I’m astonished they’re so hard to find. He made eleven films, and only three are available in the UK, two on a single dual release. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed from the films I’ve watched, a theme that unites them, it’s that, in Sembène’s world, when men run things it’s absolute chaos, and it’s only when the women take over that things run smoothly. I can go for that. In Mandabi, a postman approaches the two wives of Ibrahima Dieng, who has been unemployed for several years, and tells them there is a money order for 250 Francs waiting for him at the post office. So he heads off to collect it. But the post office won’t give it to him without ID. And when he goes to the police station to get himself an ID, he needs another piece of paper… Meanwhile, his friends and family all want a piece of the money, and have started spending it. None of them realising, because none of them have read the letter accompanying the money order, that 30 Francs of the Fr 250 is for the nephew’s mother, Fr 200 to kept for the nephew, and only Fr 20 for Ibrahima… So on the one hand you have everyone spending money that isn’t theirs, while on the other Ibrahima gets himself further into debt in his efforts to persuade the post office to hand over the money order. The sight of Ibrahima, in his shining boubou, strutting down the street, convinced his fortunes have finally turned is one of the great comedy visuals.

The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles (2018, USA). This is one of those movies which has a more interesting production history than it does a plot. Welles, of course, was a true Hollywood maverick, and would finance his films himself, shooting them in parts over an extended period as he worked to raise the money to continue filming. And yet, in most cases, the films that resulted are pretty damn seamless. I came to Welles late, but I became a fan after seeing his later films rather than because of his more famous earlier ones. The Other Side of the Wind was not Welles’s last film, but it was locked in legal limbo for so long it’s only just finally been re-edited and released, thirty-three years after Welles died. And, in fact, pretty much the entire cast of The Other Side of the Wind are also now dead. It’s a mockumentary about a great director, played by John Huston, and the film he is working on, which appears to be the worst sort of New Hollywood soft porn director-as-auteur excess. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast – which comprises a number of familiar faces – all play pretty horrible Hollywood stereotypes. Movie industry stereotypes, that is, rather than the usual simplistic Hollywood characterisation. The end result is… an interesting historical document. But not a good film. Thee are good bits, of course – Welles was one of the best directors the US has produced – but this doesn’t feel like Welles at his best, and this version here – edited by Peter Bogdanovich, who plays Huston assistant – does its best but it’s not Welles’s vision and you can’t help but wonder how Welles would have put together the footage, especially when you remember other of his films, such as Mr Arkadin

After the Thin Man, WS Van Dyke (1936, USA). The thin man of The Thin Man was actually the villain of that original movie, but it proved so successful a film, and the characters played by Myrna Loy and William Powell so popular, that a sequel was made, with the perfectly understandable title of After the Thin Man (as in “following the previous film” or “following on from the villain of the previous film”), but which served only to confuse audiences into thinking Powell’s character, a semi-retired PI, was the Thin Man. And so the moniker sort of became his as the film series progressed. Otherwise, there’s no link between the story of After the Thin Man and The Thin Man. Loy and Powell are returning to their San Francisco home after a holiday away when they’re contacted by Loy’s tearful sister, whose playboy husband has vanished. He proves remarkably easy to find. Unfortunately, he’s involved in an extortion scam, and gets murdered for his pains. And the chief suspect is Loy’s tearful sister… Watching this film, you have to wonder how much of the boozing was acted, because while the dialogue between the two leads was certainly witty and snappy, and occasionally sounded ad-libbed although it may not have been, Powell did seem to have a shit-eating grin on his face for much of the film. The Thin Man was popular enough to spawn a series, but this follow-up felt weak, perhaps because it spent more time exploring Powell’s and Loy’s relationship than it did its mystery plot. Still, worth seeing if you like 1930s Hollywood movies…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2017, #52

My viewing of late has been partly dictated by LoveFilm’s imminent demise and a desire to watch as many films on my list that only it offers for rental. I can guess why it’s shutting down: there’s more money to be made in streaming. Let’s charge someone £2.49 to watch a film once instead of allowing them to rent up to twelve DVDs for £9.99 a month. Although, of course, you can pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services. And I would… if their selections weren’t so shit. There are now apparently dedicated streaming services – for Curzon, for Mubi, etc – which show the sort of films I want to watch. But I have to pay for each of them. Technology: finding more ways to separate you from your money for things that were cheaper, or even free, in the past…

Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA). Another recommendation from David Tallerman. Johnson is a documentary director, and Cameraperson is excerpts from the films she has made, assembled as a testament to her life and career to date. Er, that’s it. There is footage of Johnson’s children, or footage from, for example, her documentary about bin Laden’s driver… I’m not familiar with Johnson’s work, I admit; in fact, I really should watch more documentaries. I tend to watch only those on topics which interest me, like James Cameron’s descent to Challenger Deep, or the Apollo missions, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune… But documentaries, of course, cover a vast range of subjects, and I should know this because I live in a city that has an annual documentary festival (at which, incidentally, Cameraperson won the Grand Jury Award in 2016), and Johnson’s body of work covers some important topics. For the last year or two, I’ve split my rental DVDs between US/UK films and movies from the rest of the planet. But since I receive three at a time, perhaps I should introduce a third category for documentaries, and take one from each for each mailing. That sounds like a good plan, actually.

The Thin Man*, WS Van Dyke (1934, USA). William Powell plays an ex-private eye, married to wealthy socialite Myrna Loy. While visiting New York, a man they know disappears, and then his secretary is murdered. The disappeared man is assumed to be the murderer. The press repeatedly asks Powell if he’s investigating the case, but he points out time and again that he’s retired. But, of course, he starts looking into it, and, of course, he figures out what happened… resulting in a dinner party to which all the suspects are invited, and at which he reveals the murderer. Both leads were cast against type, but have real on-screen chemistry – although Powell does seem like he’s had a few too many throughout the film. But the way Loy and Powell actively take the piss out of each other is entertaining to watch. Loy is especially good. Apparently, director Van Dyke pushed Loy into a swimming-pool at a Hollywood party to see how she would react before casting her. Which is a pretty mean trick. Incidentally, the title refers to the disappeared man, not Powell’s character, but was mistakenly believed to be the latter – so much so, it led to five Powell and Loy sequels, all featuring the phrase “the Thin Man”. Not to mention a TV series that aired from 1957 to 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. I’m not entirely sure why The Thin Man is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It was certainly entertaining, but not I’d have thought an important film. True, it spawned a legacy that lasted a quarter of a century – but it’s mostly forgotten now.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax, Alexandre Aja (2016, Canada). I rented this because I’d read the book – it’s not one of Liz Jensen’s best, but she’s always worth reading. In fact, I’m surprised she doesn’t have a higher profile. Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy who is in a deep coma after falling off a cliff at a family picnic. His father has disappeared, and it’s not clear if Louis’s fall was accidental or deliberate. Louis, who narrates the film, considers himself accident-prone, and several such incidents are shown in flashback. Actually, much of the film takes place in flashback. Louis was actually pronounced dead after his fall, but came back to life on the mortuary slab – but is now in a coma. A pediatrician who specialises in comatose children becomes interested in Louis’s case and has him moved to his clinic. Louis’s mother starts to take an interest in the handsome doctor. Meanwhile, Louis meets with a rock monster in his coma dreams, and in the real world threats are made against his mother. I’d forgotten the novel’s plot when I watched the film, but it wasn’t difficult to see where it was going. It was one of those films where everything felt a little fake, the outside scenes more like a studio set plus CGI than open air, the ward in which comatose Louis is kept not looking anything like a hospital… A triumph of set-design over actual realistic surroundings. But not a bad film.

Pigsty, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969, Italy). There are two types of Pasolini film: one I like a great deal, one I’m less keen on. Pigsty does both. It has two seemingly unrelated narratives. In one, a young man wanders naked across a volcanic landscape (last seen in Pasolini’s Theorem), before finding a sword and armour. And then it’s a series of fights, as he meets up with other soldiers, kills them, builds his own army, and so on. But there’s nothing in the blasted landscape to eat, so he turns to cannibalism, but is eventually arrested. The other narrative is set in the 1960s, and features a German industrialist who is clearly intended to be Hitler, even down to the toothbrush moustache and virulent anti-semitism. But his wife would sooner breed pigs, which later come in useful in getting rid of a rival. The problem with Pigsty is that the Hitler narrative is too silly to have much bite, and while the one set in ancient times is effective and looks pretty damn good, it takes too long to get to its point. This year has been the Year of Pasolini for me (well, among a couple of other directors), and from knowing nothing about him and his films I’ve worked my way through at least two-thirds of his oeuvre in around twelve months. And I like it. Some more than others, it has to be said. But I don’t doubt his importance as a director, or the uniqueness of his vision. I suppose in some respects I find him a bit like Fellini, another Italian director whose importance is beyond doubt but whose oeuvre I personally find a bit hit and miss – I love Fellini’s more self-indulgent films and find his Neorealist ones a bit meh, but that’s just me.

Soigne ta droite, Jean-Luc Godard (1987, France). Godard’s films from the 1980s and 1990s, that I’ve seen, seem to be structured in parts, which I suppose is little more than more overtly delineated acts. Soigne ta droite has several, er, parts. It opens with a man instructed to carry a film can to another city, but he’s abused by another man, and left to fend for himself. And then there are several scenes set on a small prop airliner, in which the passengers behave like children. There are musicians rehearsing, discussing music, and performing it. There are some aerial shots of the (Swiss, I think) countryside. And there’s a voice-over narration for much of the film, which explains little and confuses more. Some of the dialogue is declamatory, and tries to be philosophical but doesn’t always make the grade. Unlike in, say, Miklós Jancsó’s films, the dialogue in the scenes often feels unlinked, a sequence of non sequiturs – in one scene, some passengers are haranguing a ticket agent at an airport, but what they say to her does not match what is being acted out in the scene. Despite watching this film two or three times, I’ve yet to work out what it’s about. Godard apparently described it as “a fantasy for actor, camera and tape recorder”, which is not very helpful. I shall probably have to watch it again.

The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss (1945, UK). For some reason I do not recall, I added a couple of Margaret Lockwood films to my rental list, and this was the first to arrive. I don’t know if it qualifies as a “quota quickie”, although it displays all the attributes – including James Mason in a leading role (as a Quaker and pacifist, he did not fight during WWII). (Um, it seems “quota quickies” only lasted from 1928 until 1938, so British films made during WWII don’t qualify – although Mason did make a lot of films during the period.) Lockwood plays the title character, an adventuress who steals her friend’s beau, only to find herself in a dull marriage… which she enlivens by taking up highway robbery, eventually teaming up with the infamous Captain Jackson (Mason). In many respects, it’s the dictionary definition of a bodice-ripper – apparently, it was considered very racy at the time. I would have thought the concept of a female leading lady who not only has agency, but pretty much breaks every rule of acceptable female behaviour for the time the film was set and also the time it was made (although the war would have changed some of those attitudes)… that I’d have thought more notable. And yet, for all that, the film is bit, well, dull. I think maybe the pacing is off or something. Certainly the plot is entirely predictable. And Lockwood makes a good leading lady, although somewhat bland at times. Mason is, well, Mason. The rest of the cast are your usual 1940s British actors with either cut-glass accents or put-on random regional accents. So, a bit meh, really.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 881