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Moving pictures 2018, #44

Not a single US film in this half-dozen. I’m steadily reducing the number of American films I watch, although there are still a large number of countries I’ve not seen films from.

Deewaar*, Yash Chopra (1975, India). There are only three or four Bollywood films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, while around half of the list are from Hollywood. Despite the fact the two film industries are not so different in size (Indian cinema, including Bollywood, is around a third bigger than Hollywood, and Bollywood accounts for nearly half of Indian cinema’s ticket sales). Of course, the list is aimed at English-language film-watchers, but even so there are some excellent historical Bollywood films that have been missed off, such as Kaagaz ke Phool (see here), Mughal-e-Azam (see here) or Pakeezah (see here), just to mention a few of my favourites. Anyway, Deewaar is neither an historical epic, nor the usual boy-meets-girl Bollywood story, but a family drama and thriller. The film opens with a police officer being decorated, and in his acceptance speech he tells everyone he owes everything to his mother… And then the film heads straight into flashback territory. The two sons of a trade union activist go their separate ways after their father is blackmailed into betraying his fellow workers. One son becomes a criminal, the other a police officer, and… you can guess where this is going. Deewaar apparently had an enormous impact on Bollywood, and it’s certainly a much grittier and realistic – and yes, with singing and dancing – movie than others I’ve seen. In places, this means its age tells against it, as later films have covered similar territory – and, to be fair, it’s not an uncommon story in other countries’ cinemas. I think there should be more Indian films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but I can see why this one is there.

Accident, Joseph Losey (1967, UK). Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter made three films in the UK during the 1960s: The Servant (see here), The Go-Between (see here) and this one. Accident opens with a, er, car accident, from which Dirk Bogarde manages to rescue Jacqueline Sassard but Michael York is already dead. The two were on their way to visit Bogarde, who was York’s tutor at Oxford. But this is Pinter, so nothing is quite as it seems, and the female characters are never treated well – in this case, that’s Bogarde sexually assaulting Sassard after the accident. Confusing matters is Stanley Baker, another Oxford don, who has been sleeping with Sassard but, unlike York, has no plans for matrimony. The car accident is amazingly shot, not like it would be these days with OTT physical/CGI effects, shot from a number of surprising angles that really evoke the accident extremely well. It’s an arresting opening, and the film takes advantage of it, so when it starts the flashback main narrative it still has the shock of the opening sequence echoing. Which is just as well, as the story which follows is not the most exciting. It’s a cross-between a romantic triangle and a campus professor/student illicit affair story, and fuck knows what sort of shape that makes. It doesn’t help that it all takes at Oxford University, and over-entitled white men no longer play as sympathetic as they once – apparently, bafflingly – did. Bogarde plays a role he’s good at: the quiet restrained type who doe something nasty. Michael York plays, well, Michael York. As usual. Jacqueline Sassard is apparently better known in Italian cinema, and retired from acting two years after Accident when she married the head of the Lancia family (that’s cars, of course). The three Pinter/Losey films are worth seeing, but I couldn’t say which was the best of them. Probably the first.

The Spring River Flows East, Zheng Junli & Cai Chusheng (1947, China). I’m a big fan of current-day Chinese cinema, especially that of the Sixth Generation directors (and Fifth Generation too), but I also like early Chinese cinema a great deal, especially contemporary dramas from the 1940s, like Spring in a Small Town (see here) and this film, The Spring River Flows East. Which is a bit epic. 190 minutes epic. Released-in-two-parts epic. The story opens in Shanghai in 1931 and follows the fortunes of a family during the Japanese invasion. A man joins the resistance, but his wife and child are put in a refugee camp when the Japanese reach Shanghai. The man is later captured but manages to escape and heads for Chungking, which is under the control of the Kuomintang. Years pass, the man becomes a successful entrepreneur and marries another woman. The Japanese are defeated. The man returns to Shanghai. At a party, his first wife, working as a waitress, recognises him and reveals he is a bigamist. His second wife insists the first divorce him, but she finds another solution. The story is pretty much a soap opera, but played out against a backdrop of war, occupation and postwar deprivation. Obviously, the first wife is the sympathetic heroine – she’s played by Bai Yang, the foremost of China’s “Four Great Actresses” – although much is made of the fall from grace of the husband, from working-class hero to bourgeois lackey. The film isn’t as well-shot as Spring in a Small Town, which is really excellent, but what it lacks in cinematography, staging or script, The Spring River Flows East makes up for in breadth of story and scale. I can understand why it’s so highly regarded in Chinese cinema. I’d like to see it again too.

Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas (2007, Mexico). After watching this, I added all of Reygadas’s available films to my rental list – which, fortunately, appears to be all of them. This film takes place in a Mennonite community in Mexico, and the dialogue is chiefly in their language, Plautdietsch. The cast are also mostly non-professional – with the exception of Miriam Toews, a Canadian Mennonite author and actor, who plays the wife of the main character. He is having an affair with a single woman, and his wife knows about it. She confronts him, whch leads to her suffering a fatal heart attack. At the wake, the mistress kisses the wife’s body and she comes back to life. This is one of those films with long static takes and sparse dialogue. The movie opens with a gorgeous shot of the sun rising, and closes with one of it setting, and I thought the whole thing from start to finish excellent. It’s very much the sort of cinema I really like, almost faux-documentary, but with those long slow-moving takes where the very lack of action draws attention to the smallest of details. It’s the polar opposite of Hollywood action movies, with their relentless series of short-span jump-cuts, CGI-enhanced action, and so much detail on screen you’ve no idea where to look or what the fuck is actually going on. Reygadas is definitely a name I’ll be keeping an eye open for from now on.

Yellow Submarine, George Dunning (1968, UK). I think I may have seen this before, although whatever bits and pieces I remembered may well have been from watching only parts of it rather than the whole movie. And that was likely over thirty years ago, during the early 1980s or late 1970s. So when it popped up free-to-view on Amazon Prime – and there’s some surprising stuff on there, but searching on the Fire Stick TV interface is next to useless (mind you, it’s next to fucking useless on the Amazon website too) – I decided to watch it. It’s… very much of its time, and very much what you see on the DVD cover-art. Young Freddie is sent in the Yellow Submarine to recruit the Beatles to help free Pepperland from an invasion by the music-hating Blue Meanies. En route, we’re treated to a number of tracks from various Beatles albums, some well-known, some pretty much forgotten except by fans of the band. I was never much of a fan of the Beatles – I’m still not one – and of the bands popular at the time (which was, I hasten to add, years before my own time), I much preferred the Hollies. I’ve always been slightly baffled by the Beatles’ level of success, but one thing I noticed watching Yellow Submarine was how familiar so many of their songs’ melodies were. I don’t mean familiar because the songs were famous, but familiar because the melodies were simple and sounded very like many other songs. Everything felt, well, a bit re-used. Maybe that was the secret of their success. After all, Oasis were huge too, and every one of their songs sounded like it was ripped off from something else. (I still think Oasis were a scam played on the British public by a jaded music press.) Anyway, I’m glad I watched Yellow Submarine, but I doubt I’ll bother rewatching it.

Le Samouraï*, Jean-Pierre Melville (1967, France). I borrowed this from David Tallerman, as it’s not available  for rent in the UK. (There isn’t even a UK release, and the only one for sale here is the US Criterion Collection DVD.) The only film by Melville I’d seen previously was Bob le flambeur, which has, to be honest, sort of mingled together in mind with a whole bunch of noir films I’ve seen over the years, so much so I don’t really know whether something I remember from it is actually from Bob le flambeur or a film by Dassin, Carné, Tourneur or Duvivier. So Le Samouraï came as a bit of a surprise, as it reminded me of Tati’s Playtime more than anything else. I mean the colour palette, of course. And some of the staging. Not the plot. Alain Delon (I prefer Belmondo, to be honest) plays a hitman, who lives alone in a small barely-furnished apartment with a canary in a cage. He shoots the owner of a nightclub, and is witnessed in the act by the club’s singer. However, when he is pulled in by the police – among many other men – the singer insists he was not the killer. He also had an alibi for the time of the murder – his girlfriend claims he was at her place. Then the hitman finds himself the target of an assassin, but he succeeds in forcing the assassin to tell him the name of his boss. While the plot was almost pure noir, the look of the film was definitely not Nouvelle Vague. The subdued colour palette and the minimalist set design, along with several industrial locations, gave the film a flat affect which suited its story. Delon played his role mostly stone-faced, but the rest of the cast felt more like types than characters. I’d not expected much when putting the disc in the player, but I found myself liking Le Samouraï a great deal. A good film, but I’m unsure whether it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 929

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Moving pictures 2017, #20

Another good mix of films, and no Hollywood shitbusters to spoil it either.

Pauline at the Beach, Éric Rohmer (1983, France). I think the first Rohmer I ever watched was Triple Agent, and I forget why I’d added it to my rental list. But as I learnt more about his career, so I wanted to watch more of his films. I’ve been steadily working my way through them and have seen a dozen to date – rentals… although I’ve been tempted on occasion to pick up a box set of his various series… but never quite tempted enough. Rohmer’s shtick is to present moral dilemmas as well-observed drama, and then let the viewer make their own call on what went down. It’s a curiously cowardly way of presenting a story, as if Rohmer doesn’t have the courage to comment on the situations he dramatises. But I don’t think that’s actually the case – indeed, it takes courage to present a scenario that is not plainly black or white. Pauline at the Beach, the third of Rohmer’s “Comedies & Proverbs” sextet, is a good example, although I’ve no idea what proverb it’s intended to illustrate. The titular character, a young teenager, is staying with an older cousin at a beach resort. She is present as her cousin bumps into a male friend from a previous summer, and a repeat holiday romance is mooted… but the cousin instead ends up sleeping with an older man who befriends them. Meanwhile, Pauline finds a boyfriend of her own. But one day, while the cousin has had to return to Paris on business, the older man beds a young woman who sells sweets on the beach; and when the cousin returns unexpectedly early, he makes out it was Pauline’s boyfriend who was shagging the sweet-seller. So Pauline falls out with her boyfriend. Later, she learns the truth, but her cousin refuses to believe it, preferring to accept her lover’s version of events. It’s a story that’s told in a deceptively simple way. It’s likely the most emblematic of Rohmer’s oeuvre I’ve seen. As in all his films, the direction is straightforward but effective, but it’s the cast who shine. I plan to eventually work my way through all of Rohmer’s films, and Pauline at the Beach only encouraged me to do so.

Veer Zaara, Yash Chopra (2004, India). To be honest, I’m starting to wonder why Bollywood films are not a routine part of most people’s film-viewing. Especially Brits. Our links with the country go back to Elizabethan times, when we first started exploiting it… and we’ve never really stopped. Exploiting it, that is. But the only people with whom I have conversations about Bollywood films are Indians (although pretty much all of them seem unaware of Bengal’s “parallel cinema”, which I personally have much more time for…). Veer Zaara was a Bollywood film I’d stuck on my rental list because I’d seen it on another list somewhere and… it was fun. It rang a few changes on the story – this time, it was: boy meets girl, boy is imprisoned on trumped-up charge for 22 years, human rights lawyer brings boy and girl back together again… So, not your average rom com plot. A young Pakistani woman takes her grandmother’s ashes back to India to scatter them in the village of her birth, but is involved in a bus accident en route… where she is resuced by an Indian air force helicopter pilot. They fall in love. He goes back with her to Pakistan to meet her family. But her marriage has already been arranged, and her impending husband has powerful contacts in the Paskistani establishment. He arranges for the Indian pilot to be arrested as a spy… Twenty-two years later, a human rights lawyer takes on the pilot’s case. Since he had originally refused to name the woman he loves back then, and still refuses to do so, it makes things difficult. But the lawyer figures it out, and discovers the woman called off the wedding on being told the pilot was dead, and has since devoted her life to running an orphange in his home village back in India. Obviously, this is not the most cheerful of stories, but this is Bollywood so there is singing and dancing. More than that, Veer Zaara is a very nice-looking film, with some excellent, if somewhat enhanced, photography. The plot is pure cheese from start to finish, but that’s hardly unexpected. I can see why it’s counted a classic Bollywood movie. Worth seeing.

The Night of the Shooting Stars*, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani (1982, Italy). So confusing. Although the only UK DVD art I could find calls this The Night of San Lorenzo, it’s best known as The Night of the Shooting Stars, except when it’s known as just Night of the Shooting Stars. And it’s under that last title that it’s mentioned on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and it’s because it’s on the list that I watched it. And… In WWII, a village in Italy is on the retreating Germans’ route, and since they have stated they will destroy everything, the villagers hide in the church. Except some don’t. Instead, they go looking for the liberating US army… I’m not entirely sure what The Night of the Shooting Stars was intended to convey. Bertolucci’s 1900 did a better job of showing the war’s impact on Italian society, Pasolini’s Sálo did a better job of expressing the Germans’ impact on Italian society, and there are no end of war films which show how it all happened, including really bad ones starring Rock Hudson in a 1970s haircut… Taken on its own, The Night of the Shooting Stars is a good film and perfectly watchable. I couldn’t get invested in it, possibly because it seemed to cover well-trod ground – it was not Neorealist, but it was about WWII, for example – and nothing in it seemed to stand out especially. There is a good scene in which one of the characters is killed by a mythical figure, but it was too few and too little to rescue the film. I can understand why some people rate it highly, but for me it didn’t quite make the grade to justify its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d sooner put another Fellini in its place.

Hélas pour moi, Jean-Luc Godard (1993, France). The more Godard I see, the more Godard I want to own. Truffaut was, I think, a better director, but Godard was the better film-maker. If that makes sense. I mean, I love both Fahrenheit 451 and Mississippi Mermaid, both of which use the language of commercial cinema to present non-commercial films (and neither of which are in collections of his work; bloody typical). And then there’s Tirez le pianiste, which is likely the most definitively New Wave of all the New Wave films… And those are just Truffaut’s films. (Without even mentioning the excellent interview he did with Hitchcock, a director I greatly admire.) But then you look at Godard’s oeuvre and, quite frankly, it’s a mess… Of his films I’ve seen, some are works of genius – Le mépris, 2 or 3 things I know About Her – while others push the boundaries of cinema in interesting new directions – Week End, Détective, Hélas pour moi, Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language… But he could be enormously self-indulgent – sometimes it worked, as in Film Socialisme – but other times he seemed to let his stars get in the way of his film: both 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Made in USA were filmed at the same time (one in the morning, the other in the afternoon), yet I find the former much more successful than the latter. Sadly, as is always the case, little of Godard’s oeuvre is available on DVD in the UK. Hélas pour moi is late Godard, like Film Socialisme, and so is about cinema as much as it is about its story. Which, to be honest, I have no clue what it was. Gerard Depardieu and Laurence Masliah play a married couple, who are involved in some sort of incident in a Swiss village, but other than that, no idea… And yet, I enjoyed this film. It was clearly meta-cinema, something Godard has played with to varying degrees,  but not only was Godard playing with the conventions of cinema but also with the narrative conventions of the story he was telling. I want to watch this again… The only problem is finding a Godard box set that has more films I don’t own than ones I do own… and I don’t own that many. His entire oeuvre should be available, to be honest. Bfi, do your thing, please.

Walkover, Jerzy Skolimowski (1965, Poland). The Masterpieces of Polish Cinema box sets have proven somewhat variable. Some of the films are bona fide classics, and I’m hugely glad I now own decent copies of them. Others I wouldn’t describe as classics but I’m glad I have well-restored copies to rewatch. Some, however, have proven unremarkable and you have to wonder why they were selected for inclusion. Walkover is… a borderline case. It’s a solid drama of the type the Polish do so well, told against a backdrop of socialist industry – another thing the Poles were very good at: presenting socialism in a positive light while also highlighting its failings… The USSR’s version of socialism, that is of course. An unreasoning fear of communism can be blamed for a huge number of really bad, and very damaging, political decisions made between 1950 and 1990… although JFK’s decision to put a human being on the moon by 1969 was not obviously not one of them. Ahem. In Walkover, a young man joins the staff of an industrial plant. and finds himself dragged back into boxing, a sport at which he excelled but which he no longer participates, and this is contrasted with the rise of a female engineer within the plant’s staff. It’s… solid drama. The shiftlessness of the boxer’s life, a result of his academic failures, is contrasted with that of the female engineer. This is socialist propaganda as feature film, and I see nothing wrong with it as it takes the facts of a socialist society and sets a drama in them, unlike Hollywood, which continues to push the American Dream like it weas real thing and actually acheivable. FFS.

Morgan, Luke Scott (2016, UK). I saw mention of this somewhere and stuck it on my rental list, and lo, it arrived, so I watched it one weekend with a bottle of wine at hand. Dynastic film-making at its, er, best: Luke is the son of Ridley. The title refers to a genetically-engineered person – played by a woman but implied to be neuter – who had viciously attacked one of her handlers. A risk assessment consultant is brought in to decide if the project should be canned. There are many references to an earlier project in Stockholm, which resulted in the deaths of several researchers. Morgan tries to keep its cards close to its chest, but the hand it holds is so bloody obvious the effort is totally wasted. Morgan is a genetically-engineered soldier. They built a sociopath and seem surprised when it acts like one. The consultant brought in proves to have expert unarmed combat skills… because it too is a genetically-engineered soldier. That’s like the most obvious reveal ever in sf film. Morgan looks good, and its cast do quite well with a script that clearly recognises it’s one long string of clichés and tries to disguise what it’s actually about. Like Ex Machina, Morgan is Hollywood’s idea of a clever treatment of a difficult sf topic, in which nice visuals can’t hide an entirely trope-bound exploration that illustrates nothing. I seriously do not understand the point in doing that.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 858