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Moving pictures 2017, #54

A couple more posts and I’ll be caught up with my viewing.

Othello, Orson Welles (1951, Italy). I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about Welles – he was a true Hollywood innovator (and, later, a Hollywood outsider), who made some notable movies and some that were less notable… But then I saw his Falstaff – Chimes at Midnight, and was much impressed. Enough to want to see more of his Shakespeare adaptations – his thrillers suffer from over-complication, but his simplifications of Shakespeare to make the material fit his runtime actually seem make them more powerful. Othello is… probably the best adaptation of the play ever put on celluloid. Er, that I’ve seen. I did wonder if it was Welles’s best film… but I think its troubled production tells against it. It contains some of Welles’s most striking cinematography, but it never quite hangs together as a single vision. It was famously a difficult production – begun in 1948, but Welles ran out of money and used his salary from acting jobs to fund more filming, so it went in fits and starts over a three-year period… And yet, the end-result is… really quite astonishing. For the record, I profoundly disagree with blacking up, and no matter that Othello has been played since Shakespearean times by countless white actors in black make-up, or that Welles cast himself in the title role – one of Shakespeare’s juiciest, by all accounts – it still seems off to deny the part to an actor of colour. Even in 1951. But as director, Welles has put together an impressive film, making astounding use of the constraints he encountered while filming. The stark black and white silhouettes of the opening scenes are among the most arresting images I’ve seen in a movie’s opening minutes. And Welles’s use of lighting and shadow in subsequent scenes is borderline genius. I suspect Welles is the closest Hollywood ever came to a true auteur, and even then he was forced to make films outside the system, and even outside the country. He produced an enviable body of work – not just in cinema – and I’m surprised no one has ever thought to collect it: perhaps the wide spread of financing and production companies prevents it, but from Citizen Kane to F for Fake, that’s an oeuvre ripe for celebration.

Limite*, Mário Peixoto (1931, Brazil). This is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I’d pretty much come to the conclusion I’d never get to see it as no copies were available on DVD, nor any other format. According to Wikipedia, the single nitrate print of the film had degraded so badly it could no longer screened. So I did wonder how the makers of the list had managed to see it. But then Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project picked it as one of their films to restore – although some parts of the print were too badly damaged to fully restore, and one scene was missing altogether. But it did mean I got to see it. And… It’s an interesting film, but not especially strong on narrative. It opens with a couple lost in a boat, which is then interrupted by a series of flashbacks. Parts of it reminded me of Maya Deren’s work (which it predates), other parts of some of the early French silent films. Much of the scenery appeared very similar to that in Vidas Secas, which was made thirty years later, so not much had changed during the intervening years. I’m not sure how much of Limite‘s reputation rests on its rarity – it was only shown publicly three times, but was privately screened for Orson Welles in 1942, who greatly admired it. It was certainly worth seeing, but there are films which impressed me more in this collection.

Music in Darkness, Ingmar Bergman (1948, Sweden). Bergman directed this, but the screenplay by Dagmar Edqvist is based on his novel of the same title. A classically trained pianist is blinded after being shot by accident at a shooting range during military manoeuvres. The only person who treats him like a human being is the servant girl in his parents’ house. But any sort of liaison is very much discouraged. The blind pianist decides to train as a church organist – it’s a better career than piano tuner, or piano player in a restaurant, for a person of his training – but even then is discouraged. He bumps into the servant girl, who is now training to be a teacher, and must win back her love. None of this is especially subtle, and while the actor who played the blind pianist – Birger Malmsten, who appears in many of Bergman’s early films – was never entirely convincing as a blind person, he was certainly convincing enough as an upper class Swede to handle that aspect of the plot.

Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari (2010, Greece). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has thrown up the odd gem every now and again, and I admit I hadn’t realised it was Greek until I started watching it. And it’s a bit odd Greek, like a Yorgos Lanthimos film rather than a Theo Angelopoulos film – which is hardly a fair comparison as they’re the only two Greek directors I’ve seen recently, and the latter may be from an older tradition of Greek cinema. But, to be honest, I plan to explore Angelopoulos’s oeuvre further, and if Lanthimos and Tsangari are examples of twenty-first century Greek cinema, then I’m happy to explore that too. Providing, of course, such films are available in editions I can watch. (I studied Ancient Greek as a thirteen-year-old, but my command of modern Greek is non-existent, and I don’t remember what I learnt back then anyway.) There’s not much in the way of plot in Attenberg – a young woman’s father is dying, she enters into a relationship with a stranger who visits the small town where they live, her best friend has sex with her father. The characters are… a bit strange. The film opens, as shown in the DVD cover art, with the young woman and her best-friend ineptly teaching each other how to French kiss. And then sort of ambled along from there. I think I sort of liked it.

The End of Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1961, Japan). For some reason, this film – Ozu’s penultimate movie – has not been released  by the BFI in one of their nice dual edition releases… although now I’ve hunted down a copy, they’ll probably go and do so. The End of Summer is, like every other Ozu film I’ve seen, an ensemble piece, about family, about business, about marriagable daughters who need husbands. It strikes me as a more Westernised film than his others, in as much as some of the characters are quite Westernised, and their Westernisation is part of the tapestry of family life Ozu weaves. A patriarch has an unmarried daughter and a widowed daughter-in-law and wants to finds husbands for them both. He runs a sake brewery which is starting to fail. The daughter-in-law – Ozu favourite Setsuko Hara – has no real desire to remarry; the young daughter would sooner marry a young man she knows who recently moved to Sapporo. But in the travelling back and forth between his offspring, from Kyoto to Osaka and back, the old man strains his his heart and is stricken with a heart attack. He survives the first, but not the second. And all his match-making counts for nothing. There’s a a sense in Ozu’s films of one generation ensuring the next is well settled for their life, so they too can ensure the same for their children. Mostly this comes across as patriarchs trying to find husbands for their daughters. In mid-twentieth-century Japan. Most fathers’ minds, it seems, when not filled with business deals, were exercised with ensuring their children were well settled for their own journeys into retirement. The idea that the previous generation has sufficient “float” to get the next generation started – either in social capital or financial capital – seems quaint at best these days. None of which invalidates Ozu’s movies. They’re well shot ensembles pieces – his technqiue of cutting from speaker to speaker during a conversation may be crude but remains effective – and his choice of domestic plots that illustrate elements if Japanese life of the time of shooting still resonate today. I still maintain Ozu is better than Mizogushi, and maybe one day I’ll convince David Tallerman of that too.

Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott (2017, USA). Back in the 1970s, you used to be able to buy LPs of chart hits, usually published by K-Tel, which featured recent hits but performed by artists who only sounded like the original artists. Alien: Covenant should have been named Alien: K-Tel. It’s like a run-through of all the best bits of the previous Alien films, but done with less quality. And, following firmly in the footsteps of Prometheus, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense or go any way to building a logical narrative out of the franchise. And yet, according to Wikipedia, most film critics in the press were mildly approving. Really? Have they forgotten what a good film looks like? Because this isn’t one. The plot is cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier Alien movies, it introduces fifteen characters and makes no effort to let the viewer get to know them – compare and contrast with the cast of Alien – and said cast also behave completely unprofessionally and fall to pieces at the first opportunity. There’s so many things wrong with this film it seems churlish to list them. That the eponymous ship is caught in a neutrino storm which is detected shortly before it hits (handily ignoring that neutrinos pass through everything without effect – so they’re fucking difficult to detect – and also wouldn’t actually cause any damage) and yet you can’t detect a storm of light-speed particles before it hits because by definition the first evidence of it is when the storm hits… Or the character who intercepts a radio message from a planet in his spacesuit because he is at the time “outside the communication buffers” of the Covenant, which is not what “buffer” means at all. Then there’s that really annoyingly stupid mistake perpetrated by all the Alien films, in which craft drop from the mothership while it is in orbit. It doesn’t work like that. Everything is in microgravity. Sadly, it’s also a major part of the plot in Alien: Covenant – because that’s how they manage to finally kill the alien. Oops. Spoiler. And a plot which blithely skates over genocide, with no apparent moral consequences, well, that’s no good either. This is the dumbest film in a franchise which has grown increasingly dumb with each new instalment. Avoid.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 883

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Boxsets!

Well, not really. Only two box sets. And these days the word tends to be used more in reference to seasons/series of television dramas. My box sets are collections of films, and in this post, it’s the two by Godard…

Both the 10-DVD collection (French-published, but with English subtitles) and the 14-DVD collection were purchased from third party sellers on a large online retailer’s website. I’m currently working my way through the 10-DVD set. And I’m starting to really appreciate Godard’s movies.

Three Blu-rays. Nosferatu and Hawks & Sparrows / Pigsty I bought from eureka! during a recent sale. I also pre-ordered the new edition of Metropolis, but that has yet to arrive. Privilege I bought after watching it on rental because I wanted my own copy (see here).

Actually, there’s another box set in this post: Japanese Masters, bought on eBay, which contains two films by Yasujiro Ozu – Floating Weeds and The End of Summer – and two by Kenji Mizoguchi – The Life of Oharu and The Lady of Musashino. I already have Floating Weeds, but The End of Summer is no longer available. Container is Lukas Moodysson’s experimental film. I watched it several years ago, but decided it needed a second try – so I bought a cheap copy off eBay. Joi Baba Felunath popped up on eBay and I thought it was a hard-to-find film but it turns out it’s in the Satyajit Ray Collection Volume 2. Oh well. And Footprints on the Moon I watched on rental, but I liked it so much I bought my own copy (see here).

A bunch of out-of-copyright films bought on eBay, of varying quality, both of the transfer and the film itself. I forget why I bought most of them, but they are: Sleep, My Love (forgettable Sirk thriller, see here), Black Tights (anthology film of ballet routines, terrible transfer), Beneath the 12-mile Reef (unmemorable Robert Wagner drama about sponge divers), The One-Eyed Soldiers (bad Euro-thriller set in invented Balkan country) and Long John SilverThe Secret of My Success (terrible sixties British comedy), and Criminal Affair (dreadful Italian thriller, directed by and starring one of the stars of South Pacific, another poor transfer too).


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Moving pictures 2017, #19

Another mix of countries again, sadly ruined by a shit Hollywood sf blockbuster, which, yes, I knew would be shit when I sat down to watch it. Oh well.

Death Walks on High Heels, Luciano Ercoli (1971, Italy). I’ve watched quite a few giallos, after being introduced to the genre when I had to review one for videovista.net several years ago. They’re not a type of film that ever aspired to high art, although both Argento and Bava certainly went overboard on the sets, lighting and camerawork quite often. But most of those I’ve seen have been pretty straightforward low-budget thrillers, with the odd horror element, and plots that are often convoluted to the point of implausibility. It seems almost a defining characteristic that giallos hide who is the real villain of the piece until the end. And that’s exactly what Death Walks on High Heels does. Nicole is an exotic dancer in Paris whose estranged father was an infamous thief. The police inform her he’s been murdered but the proceeds of his last crime, a horde of diamonds, is missing. A man breaks into Nicole’s flat and threatens her with a knife, demanding the location of the missing diamonds. She notices her assailant has piercing blue eyes. Later, she finds blue contact lenses belonging to her sponging boyfriend. She flees Paris in the company of an English businessman she met at a club. He takes her to his holiday cottage in Cornwall (I think) and tells everyone she is his wife (he’s separated from his actual wife but won’t divorce her because she has the money). The boyfriend turns up. Nicole vanishes, and her body turns up later. The police investigate. Ercoli thickens the plot so much, it’s never quite clear what’s going on, and there are at least three different attempts at unmasking the villain. The police are also weird, cracking these odd dry jokes like some sort of dysfunctional comedy duo whenever they’re on screen. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film – it’s not quite well-made enough to convince, the cast are uniformly bad, and the plot is over-convoluted. It’s a good giallo, but that’s no real indicator of quality. There’s a sequel, Death Walks at Midnight, starring the same cast, which I might try – but this is like a bad quality film done well, if that makes sense.

Between Your Legs, Manuel Gómez Pereira (1999, Spain). I’ve had this for a couple of years but I’ve never written about it before, so I thought it about time I did. It’s a convoluted thriller, whose story is told in a series of flashbacks. Javier Bardem plays a film producer who joins a therapy class of “sex addicts”. Where he meets Victoria Abril, whose evening dog walks had been a cover for sex with strangers. She works at a radio station, and through her Bardem discovers that tapes in which he describes his sexual fantasies have surfaced. Meanwhile, her husband, a police detective, is investigating the murder of a man found in the boot of an abandoned car in a multi-storey car park. The sex tapes are from phone conversations Bardem had with a woman he met at the airport, when they both missed their flight and so would have died when it later crashed. Except, the woman is not a woman… There are several things going on in Between Your Legs, such as Abril’s husband’s suspicion his wife is having an affair, a policeman who killed his wife, but the flashing back and forth never actually gets confusing. And I think that’s what’s most impressive about it, that it keeps the viewer invested in the story, despite its artificial nature, its leaping back and forth in time, and the way those flashbacks lead up to the resolution. The Spanish do good sexual thrillers, and this is one of them.

Early Summer, Yasujiro Ozu (1951, Japan). I think this might be my favourite of Ozu’s films, despite being in black and white and despite pretty much having the same plot as all his other films… Not to mention three generations of a family in one home, a daughter who needs marrying off, and a lot of familiar faces. Norioko, a secretary, lives with her parents and her sister’s family. A visiting uncle reminds the family that Norioko is past the age when she should be married. Her boss proposes a friend as a match, and the family are pleased with him as a potential husband. But Norioko would sooner marry a widowed doctor she knows from her daily commute, even though this means moving from Tokyo to provincial Akita. The family are far from pleased about her choice, but she refuses to change her mind. It struck me while watching Early Summer that it’s an ur-Ozu film – it does all the things Ozu does so well and it does them in a single movie. There are some early landscape shots – and the film finishes with a shot across a field of barley, as referenced in the original Japanese title – that seem so un-Ozo that, perversely, they make the film more Ozu. If that makes sense. The family dynamics, and the beautifully understated characterisation, are pretty much the same as any other Ozu film, although the fact the story revolves around Norioko, far more than any other Ozo films seems to centre on one of its cast, gives Early Summer more for the viewer to invest in. There’s a wonderful scene in which four young women go out for a hen party and discuss the upcoming nuptials, and it feels more like eavesdropping than plot-service. Which is, I guess, the appeal of Ozu’s films: there are no story beats, there is no three-act structure… there is just superlative film-making.

Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich (2016, USA). Every now and again, I want to a film I can get pissed while watching, and what better candidate than a Hollywood sf tentpole blockbuster? Especially an unwanted sequel to a twenty-year-old film whose moment passed two months after it was released. Independence Day: Resurgence – I’m pretty sure they meant Regurgence – is actually set twenty years after the events of the first film, with the sons and daughters of the original movie’s heroes as the leads. Except for the non-combat ones, like Brent Spiner, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Goldblum’s dad, that bloke from Taxi. The USA – there are two named Chinese characters in the film, but there don’t appear to be any other nations on Earth; oh, except for a random African one which features for about ten minutes – has reverse-engineered the alien technology and now has a base on the Moon. Which has a giant blaster cannon, just in case the aliens come back. So when a giant spaceship appears, which is nothing like those of the aliens in the original film, the US blows it out of space anyway. Oops. They were the good aliens. Because the bad aliens are back for round two and the good aliens could have helped. Instead, the US has to wheel out all old characters from the first movie. Plus a handful of new ones, most of whom seem more concerned with their relationships with their paper-thin love-interests, plus they’re shit at taking orders anyway, just like every Hollywood military character. Everything that was wrong in the first film is even wronger in this one, and it’s the twenty-first century so a lot of stuff that was acceptable back in the 1990s is pretty much borderline offensive these days. The rest is a mishmash of clichés, hogwash, drivel and machismo bullshit. The special effects may be state of the art, but the storytelling is not. Avoid.

Knights of the Black Cross, Aleksander Ford (1960, Poland). It turns out I’d seen this before, but under the title Knights of the Teutonic Order (which is the title of the Second Run DVD release), although I can’t say I remembered any of the story when I came to watch it this time. It was a huge success in Poland at its time of release – in fact, the Wikipedia entry for the film boasts about the number of people who have seen it. Knights of the Black Cross is certainly an epic movie. It’s set in the late 1300s and is about the frankly evil machinations of the titular order. It clearly demonstrates that there is no one quite as evil as someone who claims to have god on their side – and that’s as true now as it was 600 years ago. A Polish knight finds himself at odds with the order after he rescues a caravan they’re attacking. And it all sort of escalates from there. He threatens the king’s messenger, mistakenly thinking he’s a knight of the order and is sentenced to execution. But the young woman he has fallen for rescues him from the headsman by promising herself in marriage. Meanwhile, her uncle is fighting the order, and ends up captured by them. They also kidnap the knight’s betrothed. Knights of the Black Cross packs a lot into its 166 minutes, and it’s all good stuff. It’s a more melodramatic film than, say, The Valley of the Bees, which also features the Teutonic Order, but is a Czech film – and it makes a good fist of its setting and it’s never dull. Worth seeing.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway (2015, Netherlands). Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to love Greenaway’s films, perhaps because at that time they were like nothing I’d seen before. But then his star sort of waned and his films became harder to find – the last few have been pretty much financed by the Dutch – but sell-through DVD happily seems to have allowed him to reach a new audience (although I note his films are still somewhat haphazardly available in the UK on DVD or Blu-ray). He also seems to have embraced CGI to a much greater extent than other art house film directors. Like his last two films, Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is based on historical fact. Sergei Eisenstein, the director of Battleship Potemkin, Strike, Ivan the Terrible and other Soviet classics, did indeed visit Mexico to make a film in 1930. Greenaway presents Eisenstein as an erudite gay libertine, who takes full advantage of the freedoms offered by Mexico and unavailable in the USSR. Many of the scenes feature declamatory dialogue, often while stalking semi-nude around a single set. The whole is part-lecture, part frankly-implausible drama, but entirely clever and engaging. I hadn’t expected to like Eisenstein in Guanajuato, despite being a fan of Eisenstein’s films, or perhaps because of, but I certainly hadn’t expected Eisenstein in Guanajuato to make me think more favourably of Nightwatching and Goltzius and the Pelican Company, which I now want to watch again. My appreciation of Greenaway’s films may never return to its levels of twenty-plus years ago, but I like his films a whole lot better now than I did five years ago…

1001 Movies You must See Before You Diecount: 857


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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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2016, the best of the year

It’s been a funny old year. Not only have we hit that time when the icons of our youth are in their (late) sixties, seventies and eighties, and so coming to the end of their lives… but some of the British people had a fit of madness and voted to leave the EU in the dumbest referendum in British political history… And then the US went one better, as it always has to, and voted in as president Donald Trump, an orange-skinned baboon, a man who makes Nigel Farage look like a mostly-harmless over-educated clown. Trump doesn’t even have his arse officially in the Oval Office yet, and he’s already abusing his powers. We’ve had ten years of damaging and unnecessary austerity here in the UK, and we’re looking down the barrel of a deeper recession, thanks to the morons and racists who voted Leave. But I think the next four years in the US might well be worse than anything we experience…

On the personal front, the day job got really busy around March, when a colleague left the company and a major project he was working on was dumped on my desk. As a result, I’ve not had much energy or enthusiasm for anything other than just consuming culture… which has meant lots of blog posts on films I’ve watched, books I’ve read, and, er, films I’ve watched. I did manage to publish a whole four stories in 2016, however; ‘Geologic’ appeared in Interzone in January; ‘Red Desert’ and ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ appeared in Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of my alt space stories; and Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum I published as a pendant to the Apollo Quartet… but only the last was actually written in 2016. I also worked on the third book in my space opera trilogy, A Want of Reason, in fits and starts. So, overall, not a very productive year.

Fortunately, some of the films I watched and some of the books I read made up for it. A new favourite writer and two new favourite films is not bad going for a single year. And a number of other “discoveries”, both writers and directors new to me in 2016, I thought so good I will be further exploring their oeuvres. But. There can only be, er, five. In each category. Yes, it’s that time of the year – ie, pretty close to the end – when I look back over the aforementioned consumed culture – of which there has been quite a bit, particularly on the movie front – and pick my top five in books, films and albums. And they look something like this…

books
Not a very good year for genre fiction, it seems. Not a single category science fiction novel makes it into my top five. And one gets bumped from the half-year top five (those are the numbers in square brackets) to the honourable mentions. Four other genre writers also make my honourable mentions – Charnock, Whiteley, Duchamp and Park – although I’ve been a fan of Duchamp’s and Park’s writing for many years.

end_days1 The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2012) [1]. Erpenbeck was my discovery of the year. I forget who recommended The End of Days, but I loved it… and then later bought everything else by Erpenbeck translated into English (she’s German). The End of Days re-imagines the life of a Jewish woman born in the early years of the twentieth century in Galicia, and follows her through several variations on her life, as she variously moves to Vienna, becomes a communist, moves to Austria, then settles in East Germany. Erpenbeck’s prose is distant and factual, a style that appeals greatly to me, and I especially like the “facticity” of her protagonist’s many lives. The End of Days is not as readable, or as immersive, a novel as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book it resembles in broad conceit, but I much prefer Erpenbeck’s novel because I love the authority of its reportage-like prose, and I find the life of its protagonist much more interesting than that of Atkinson’s. I think The End of Days is a superb novel – I’ve already bought everything by Erpenbeck published in the UK, and I eagerly await whatever new works might appear.

vertigo2 Vertigo, WG Sebald (1990) [2]. Sebald is a genre all to himself, and his novels defy easy summary. They also – particularly in this case – tread that fine line between fact and fiction which I find so appealing, even more so when the fact is autobiography. (In hindsight, I could have included Vertigo as an inspiration for Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum, but then Austerlitz had partly inspired Adrift on the Sea of Rains, so…) The novel is divided into four parts, all first person narratives – the first is by Stendahl and describes his entry into Italy with Napoleon’s army, the second is by an unnamed narrator presumed to be Sebald and covers two trips he makes to a village in the Alps, the third is about Kafka, and the final section recounts the narrator’s return to his home village and his reflections on the changes, and lack of change, he sees there. Despite its discursive nature, there’s a deceptive simplicity to Sebald’s prose, which tricks the reader into thinking the story carries a smaller intellectual payload than it actually does. I don’t know of another author who writes at such length, and so indirectly, on a topic and yet still manages to make it all about the topic. Sebald did not write many novels – only four, in fact – but I suspect by the end of 2017 I will have read all of them.

nocilla3 Nocilla Dream, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2006). I’m pretty sure it was David Hebblethwaite who mentioned this, and the description sounded intriguing enough I decided to give it a go. It was almost as if it had been written for me – a fractured narrative, split into 113 sections, some of which are factual, some of which hint at further stories. There’s a sense the novel is a work in progress, inasmuch as it’s an approach to narrative that has not been tried and tested – indeed, it led to a “Nocilla Generation” of writers in Spain. I suspect Mallo is guilty of over-selling his concept, but then narrative structure is one of my interests and I should think most writers – including myself, of course! – often think they’re being much cleverer than they actually are… What Mallo has created here may not be wholly new, but it is different enough to be worth keeping an eye on. And yes, I still find it a little disappointing that “Nocilla” is just a Spanish brand-name for a Nutella-like spread. It’s like when I thought Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was a really poetic title until I learnt Teen Spirit is just the brand name of a deodorant…

rites_of_passage4 Rites of Passage, William Golding (1980). I found this in a local charity shop and bought it on the strength of Golding’s reputation and a half-remembered reading of Lord of the Flies from my school days… In other words, I went into Rites of Passage pretty much blind. I will happily admit I’m not over-fond of journal narratives, and the early nineteenth century is not a period that really interests me (especially in British history), but… this novel was so superbly put together, its control of voice, its management of story, so stunningly good, that after reading it I immediately decided I’d like to read not only the rest of the trilogy, of which this book is the first, the others are Close Quarters and Fire Down Below, but also anything else by Golding. Fortunately, I’d also bought The Inheritors and The Spire when I bought Rites of Passage, so I have those two books on the TBR to look forward to…

golden_notebook5 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962). I’d bought this a couple of years ago on the strength of its reputation – and having read several Lessing novels… but it sat there on my bookshelves unread for quite a while because, well, partly because of its reputation, but also because of its size… But I took it with me on a train journey to Scarborough… and discovered it was a great deal less polemical than I’d expected, hugely readable, and fascinating in its depiction of the life of protagonist Anna Wulf (and her fictional/meta-fictional counterparts). The nested fictional/meta-fictional narratives are no longer as excitingly experimental as they were in 1962, so in one respect the book’s impact has been somewhat blunted by time – although, to be honest, I much prefer literature which plays such narrative tricks. Having said that, this diminution in shock factor solely from structure shows how readable and coherent the various narratives actually are. It is slightly sad and frightening that The Golden Notebook enjoys the reputation it does when you think what a reader must be like, and believe, in order to be shocked and horrified by the novel’s content. Even more worryingly, I suspect more people these days will reject the novel due to its politics – Wulf is a member of the Communist Party – and so completely miss its commentary on sexual politics. But I thought it was bloody great.

Honourable mentions: Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015) [3]; A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015) [4]; Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller (2016) [5]; Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008); Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Anne Charnock (2015); The Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley (2015); Never at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011); Cockfosters, Helen Simpson (2015); Blindness, Henry Green (1926); and Other Stories, Paul Park (2015).

Quite a few books from my best of the half-year got bumped down to honourable mentions, but I suspect their authors will not be too upset given what replaced them. Three of the honourable mentions are from small presses – Unsung Stories, Aqueduct Press and PS Publishing – and it’s about fifty-fifty category sf versus mainstream. The gender balance is 2:3 in the top five for female:male, but 8:7 including the honourable mentions. That’s not too shabby. All books mentioned above are, of course, recommended.

films
A bit of a change in this list from July, but then I’ve watched a lot of films this year. Some of the ones in the top five below have even become favourites, which makes 2016 an especially good year in that respect. Of course, my taste in movies has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but even so…

river_titas1 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). I watched Ghatak’s A Cloud-Capped Star back in 2014, after, I think, seeing it mentioned in Sight & Sound, but it wasn’t until this year I saw the only other film by him available on DVD in the UK, A River Called Titas. (Ghatak’s Subarnarekha is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but I had to source a copy via alternative means in order to see it.) I have no idea why I love A River Called Titas as much as I do. It tells the story of a young woman during the 1930s in a village on the bank of the eponymous river, who is married against her will, then kidnapped, rescued by strangers, and subsequently builds a life for herself and her new child in another village not knowing who her husband ever was… until she one day stumbles across him. But he has lost his mind. Then they die, and the film follows their son and the woman who adopted him. It’s based on a novel by Adwaita Mallabarman, which I now really want to read. The BFI DVD is not a brilliant transfer, which is a shame as the composition of some of the shots is beautiful. I’ve watched this film five times already this year – and the final watch was of the Criterion remastered edition, which is such a huge improvement over the BFI print – so much so that it was almost like watching a new, and much better, movie.

lucia2 Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (something of a familiar refrain, I admit), and I knew nothing about it when I put it in the DVD player – indeed, I knew nothing about Cuban cinema. But I loved it. It tells the stories of three women, all called Lucía – the first in the 1860s, the second in the 1930s and the third in the 1960s. It’s a long film and it covers a lot of ground, but it’s a wonderfully human movie. The Mr Bongo transfer is pretty poor – but it’s the only DVD of the film I can find, so can someone please remaster it?  – and the film is black-and-white, so the poor quality is not as noticeable as it might otherwise be… The acting feels appropriate to each of the historical periods, although it does tend to drift into melodrama at times… but when I started watching this I’d never have guessed I’d love it, so much so that Lucía has, like A River Called Titas, become a favourite film.

autumn_avo3 An Autumn Afternoon, Yasujiro Ozu (1962, Japan) [1]. I’d seen Ozu’s Tokyo Story back in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to explore Ozu’s oeuvre. I admit it, I bought An Autumn Afternoon because the cover of the Criterion edition (although I actually bought the BFI edition pictured) reminded me of Antonioni’s Red Desert, a favourite film. And while An Autumn Afternoon was nothing like Red Desert, it is a beautifully observed domestic drama. Ozu had a tendency to use the same actors in different roles, which did intially confuse – Chishu Ryu is playing the patriarch of which family in this film? – but I also think An Autumn Afternoon has the clearest illustration of inside and outside in Japanese culture of all of Ozu’s films I’ve so far seen. There’s a lovely matter-of-fact courtesy among the characters, despite the fact it’s obvious they know each so well they’re extremely comfortable in each other’s company; and it’s the interactions between the characters which are the true joy of Ozu’s movies. The plot, when you think about it, is almost incidental. There’s an effective scene in An Autumn Afternoon, in which Ryu encounters a petty officer from a ship he captained during WWII. It is not, in and of itself, a particularly shocking discovery about Ryu’s character, but it is a powerful reminder that for much of the twentieth century WWII defined a great many peoples’ lives, on both sides of the conflict… and that is something we should not forget.

robinson4 Robinson in Ruins, Patrick Keiller (2010, UK). I forget who mentioned Keiller to me, but I received his London as a Christmas present last year and, having thought it was very good, bought myself Robinson in Ruins, a belated sequel, in 2016. The central conceit, that the films are narrated by a friend of the titular Robinson as secondhand reportage, still occurs in Robinson in Ruins – the original narrator, Paul Scofield, died in 2008, and Vanessa Redgrave takes his place in Robinson in Ruins, and, I thought, she actually worked better. The idea that Robinson had spent the intervening years in prison gave the film a freshness, because we’re seeing what it depicts through Robinson’s eyes. But, more than that, its commentary on Tory politics and finances, at an almost Adam-Curtis-like level of detail and interconnectedness, gave the film an added bite Keiller’s earlier films had lacked. This is not the bite of a Great White, it must be admitted, more the savaging of a tenacious spaniel, but the fact it exists only illustrates how much more of this type of cinema we need. Having said that, Redgrave’s narration is erudite, interesting and perfectly played; and Keiller’s imagery is often beautifully shot. More, please.

entranced_earth5 Entranced Earth, Glauber Rocha (1967, Brazil) [2]. I watched this because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (where have we heard that before?), although I knew nothing about Rocha’s movies – or indeed about Brazilian cinema. I loved it. So much so I bought all three of Rocha’s films available on DVD in the UK – Entranced Earth, Black God White Devil and Antonio das Mortes. Rocha was a leading light of Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement, which sought to bring realism and social conscience into Brazilian films. Entranced Earth has bags of the latter, but not so much of the former. It’s an often hallucinogenic account of an election in an invented South American country, between an established candidate and a populist candidate (back when “populist” didn’t mean orange-faced fascist or goose-stepping Mr Blobby), but neither candidate is ideal – as an investigating journalist discovers. The narrative is non-linear, some of the photography is brilliant (a shot from the top of a TV aerial stands out), and the films wears its politics proudly on its sleeve. Kudos to Mr Bongo for distributing these films in the UK – even if the transfers are not of the best quality – but Rocha made four feature films and five documentaries, so it would be nice to see those too… not to mention actual UK releases of films by another Brazilian Cinema Novo director, Nelson Pereira dos Santos… or indeed any other Cinema Novo director…

Honourable mentions: Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio (1982, USA) [3]; Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzmán (2010, Chile) [4]; Pyaasa, Guru Dutt (1957, India) [5]; Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako (2014, Mauritania); Nuummioq, Otto Rosing & Torben Bech (2009, Greenland); A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke (2013, China); 12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania); A Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand); Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman (1975, France); and Charulata, Satyajit Ray (1964, India).

Only a single US film in the lot, which I consider an achievement – although I’ve been accused of “going too far in the opposite direction”. But I do like classic Hollywood movies, and I love me some 1950s Rock Hudson melodramas, but… that doesn’t necessarily mean I think they’re good films. The above is a pretty eclectic mix, from 13 different countries, of which India manages three entries (which came as a surprise, although I do really like the work of those three Indian directors). If anything, I’m hoping 2017 will be even more of a world cinema year, and I’ll find interesting films from countries whose cinemas I have yet to explore.

Oh, and for the record, my top ten favourite films, as of this post, currently looks like this: 1 All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA) 2 A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India); 3 Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK/USA); 4 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy); 5 Lucía, Humbert Solás (1968, Cuba); 6 The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia); 7 Mięso (Ironica), Piotr Szulkin (1993, Poland); 8 The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009, Austria/Germany); 9 Divine Intervention, Elia Suleiman (2002, Palestine); 10 Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut (1966, USA).

music
It’s been a, er, quiet year for music for me. I went to Bloodstock Open Air, as I have done since 2007 (minus 2009 and 2010), and enjoyed it a great deal. It was excellent to see Akercocke back together again (and I saw them a second time a couple of months later in Sheffield), but I think the stand-out performance of the weekend for me was Shining, who I’d never even heard of until I saw them at Bloodstock in 2014. That was pretty much it, gig-wise, for 2016. I also saw Arch Enemy, who I’d last seen at Bloodstock in 2007, but their set felt a bit lacklustre. Akercocke were better second time around, playing a small nightclub rather than a giant field in Derbyshire. And then there was a one-off gig by Anathema in Holmfirth, and they were as bloody good as they ever are (and yes, they played my two favourite songs, ‘Closer’ and ‘Fragile Dreams’).

I’ve not bought that many albums this year, either as MP3 downloads or olde stylee silver discs, although a couple of my favourite bands have had new releases out. Partly because I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve been so busy there I’ve sort of got out of the habit. I’ve also been carded once too often by couriers because I didn’t hear the doorbell over the music when I’ve been at home. But the year has not been a total dead loss, because I did actually buy some music, and a lot of it was very good indeed. And, amazingly, my top five are all 2016 albums…

no_summer1 A Year with No Summer, Obsidian Kingdom (2016) [1]. I discovered this group when I saw them play live at Bloodstock in 2014, and I enjoyed their set so much I bought their album. This second album has been long-awaited, and it’s particularly good because it’s not more of the same. It is, if anything, even more progressive than the band’s debut, Mantiis. There must be something about the Spanish metal scene that leads to bands which generate these complex soundscapes from drums, bass, guitars and synth, more so than the metal of any other nation – not just Obsidian Kingdom, at the progressive end of the scale, but NahemaH, a favourite and now sadly defunct band, from the death metal end of the scale, not to mention Apocynthion somewhere in between. Whatever it is, I welcome it: A Year with No Summer is a listening adventure from start to finish, and never gets tiring.

on_strange_loops2 On Strange Loops, Mithras (2016). And speaking of long-awaited albums… Mithras’s last album, Behind the Shadows Lie Madness, was released in 2007. There was an EP, Time Never Lasts, in 2011, but it’s been a long wait for a new album-length work from this favourite band. This is pretty much down to the band’s perfectionism, a trait with which I can certainly empathise – and releasing on your own label, or self-publishing, as least gives you the freedom to release when and only when you feel the work is fit for release. Happily, and after all this time, On Strange Loops is definitely worth the wait. It is, of course, more of the same – massively intense and intricate death metal with ambient interludes. It works because of the contrasts and because the muscianship is of such a high level. Mithras toured this year, but I didn’t get the chance to see them perform, which I regret. Maybe next year.

rooms3 Rooms, Todtgelichter (2016) [3]. A friend had this on their wishlist on Bandcamp, so I gave it a listen as we often like a lot of the same stuff. I liked it. A lot. Back in June, I described Todtgelichter’s music as “a sort of guitar-heavy post-black metal”, and I still think that’s the best description because, well, it doesn’t sound at all like black metal but it does sound like the band were at some point a black metal band. If that makes sense. I don’t know; perhaps it’s the sensibility with which they construct their songs. It’s not particularly heavy, inasmuch as the guitar sound is more like heavy rock turned up to eleven than your actual metal guitar, but the whole is metal. Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture (Googles quickly, discover Zappa didn’t coin it, oh well). But the point remains – there is something in Todtgelichter’s music which appeals to me, and I can’t quite identify what it is. But they made my top five for the year.

belakor-vessels4 Vessels, Be’lakor (2016). I’ve been a fan of Australian melodic death metallers Be’lakor since first hearing their 2012 album Of Breath and Bone. It taken four years for a sequel – happily not so long for me, as I found their earlier works, The Frail Tide (2007) and Stone’s Reach (2009) during the years in-between – but Vessels is easily as good as, if not better than, Of Breath and Bone. It’s not just that Be’lakor create polished melodic death metal, as there as many varieties of that as there are bands who profess to play it (not to mention bands who profess not to play it but do), but more that they create layered songs with intricate but melodic guitar parts, with strong melody lines carried by the vocals. It’s a winning combination.

atoma5 Atoma, Dark Tranquillity (2016). A new album by a favourite band, so it’s no surprise to find it here – but it’s at number five because it’s a recent release and I’ve not listened to it as much I’d have liked to. It sounds very much like a Dark Tranquillity album, of course, although nothing on the few listens I’ve had struck me as “anthemicly” stand-out in the way tracks on earlier albums have done, like ‘The Wonders At Your Feet’, ‘Lost to Apathy’, or ‘Shadow in Our Blood’, but, still, this is Dark Tranquillity. They’ve been creating excellent death metal since 1989, and they’ve never stood still, which is one reason why I treasure them so much. Dark Tranquillity are the moving line which defines melodic death metal.

Honourable mentions: Afterglow, In Mourning (2016) [2]; Eidos, Kingcrow (2015) [4]; Changing Tides, Trauma Field (2016) [5]; Departe, Clouds (2016); and Pure, In the Woods (2016).

An odd year for music. A few favourite bands released new albums, not all of which I bought. I went to very few gigs – ten years of Austerity has noticeably reduced the number of bands I’d like to see performing in Sheffield, now they just play Leeds or Manchester. Even the local metal scene seems to have been affected: some of the bigger bands have called it a day, others have not performed as often as in previous years. I’ve certainly listened to less music, and less new music, and bought less music, in 2016 than in previous years. Partly that’s because I’ve spent less time exploring metal on Bandcamp and other sites, but also because I’ve spent less time listening to music than in other years. And partly because fewer bands I want to see have performed locally. Let’s hope 2017 proves a better year musically…


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Moving pictures, #60

Look at that! Another group of films without a single one from the US. And not a bad film in the lot, either. I’m getting better at this.

au_revoirAu revoir les enfants*, Louis Malle (1987, France). The Malle films I’ve watched so far – all of which were a result of following the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – I’ve not found that impressive. Which is not to say I’d totally written him off – after all, I might well have said the same of Claude Chabrol, but then I watched A Story of Women and Le boucher, and revised my opinion – but let’s just say my expectations were not especially high when I put Au revoir les enfants into the player. Malle appears three times on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but there was always a possiblity one of his films might strike my fancy, and… Au revoir les enfants did: I thought it a well-shot and well-played French movie. The story is apparently semi-autobiographical. Set at a boys’ boarding-school in 1943 in occupied France, a class tough, who wets his bed at night, wakes up and discovers one of the school’s three new pupils praying in Hebrew. The priest who runs the school is hiding Jewish children from the Germans. The two boys become friends, but then the Gestapo raid the school and take away the three boys and the priest. They were denounced by the kitchen hand, who had been fired for selling school food supplies on the black market. There’s nothing in particular about Au revoir les enfants that stands out, it’s just a well-made drama, its cast are good, and it tells a story that – in these times more than ever – needs to be told. It’s not a film that deserves to be forgotten or ignored. Recommended.

black_coalBlack Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan (2014, China). Streaming is apparently not a total dead loss. I was looking for something to watch one night and spotted this on Amazon Prime: a recent Chinese thriller. So I gave it a go. It was excellent. When I lived in the UAE, I watched a lot of Hong Kong action films, especially Jackie Chan ones, on VCD (who remembers VCD?), but I watched very little, if anything, from mainland China. And then Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon made wu xia commercially successful internationally, and it was followed by a raft of historical Chinese epics / wu xia movies, the bulk of which looked absolutely gorgeous. But, of course, China’s film industry produces more than just historical epics and wu xia, and in the last couple of years I’ve seen several such films – for example, I thought Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin so good, I stuck all his other films on my rental list. Black Coal, Thin Ice reminded me a little Zhangke’s film, but it also reminded me a little of a French thriller from 2000, Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers). Black Coal, Thin Ice opens with the discovery of a dismembered body at a coal plant. ID found nearby identifies the body as that of Liang, a coal worker. While apprehending a suspect, there’s a shootout and only detective Zhang and his partner Wang survive. The case is closed. The film skips ahead five years. Zhang is now a drunk, and working as a security guard. He bumps into Wang, who is still a detective, and learns that two further murders have occurred since that first one, both with the bodies dismembered. All three victims were linked to Liang’s widow Wu. Serial killer movies are nothing new, of course, and in recent years many have moved from focusing on the drama of the chase, and eventual arrest, onto the psychological effects of the investigation on those hunting the serial killer. Black Ice, Thin Ice falls firmly into the latter category, but it scores by not sensationalising its story, and by characterising Zhang as a failure from the start – it’s not the investigation which traumatises him, it was the shoot-out before they even knew they had a serial killer, when they thought they had closed the case. The cinematography is lovely, although the settings are wholly urban or industrial, and the performances low-key. Recommended.

tokyo_storyTokyo Story*, Yasujiro Ozu (1953, Japan). Watching Ozu’s films is a bit like watching a long-running family drama series, except the actors play different parts, although in broad outline their characters are the same. And it’s all set within the same generation, over a fifteen year period beginning in the early 1950s. So, in Tokyo Story, Chishu Ryu, who also plays the lead in Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, plays one half of a retired couple, with Chieko Higashiyama, who plays the mother in Early Summer (and in which Chishu Ryu plays, er, her oldest son), visit Tokyo to stay with their adult children. One of whom is a widow (she’s actually a daughter-in-law). Single women seem to feature heavily in Ozu’s films. It’s the daughter-in-law who spends the most time with the old couple. On their return to their home in Onomichi, they stop off to see another of their children in Osaka, where Higashiyama takes ill. When the two get back to Onomichi, Higashiyama’s illness worsens and she dies. The family gather for the funeral, but again it’s the widowed daughter-in-law who provides the most support. She points out she is less busy than the others as she has no family of her own, and so Ryu tells her she should remarry as soon as possible. If it’s not a familiar plot, it’s a familiar refrain. I’ve remarked before that Ozu’s films are very domestic, very inside, and the fact they’re chiefly family dramas is a reflection of this. And at the time Ozu was making films, it seems one of the issues which exercised family patriarchs was making good marriages for their daughters. True, this is a Japanese film, but it’s also more than sixty years old, and I suspect “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” is more of an explanation of its concerns than any differences in Japanese and British culture. It also possesses bags of charm, but not because – he says, trying desperately hard to think of UK and US examples – it presents a charming lifestyle, as in, say, All That Heaven Allows (extra points for shoe-horning my favourite film into the post), or any random Rock Hudson rom com from the fifties, or The Man Who Loved Redheads, or Josephine and Men… in which the lifestyle defines the characters. In Ozu’s films, the lifestyle remains essentially unchanged from film to film, and the characters are defined by their relationships (which is good, given Ozu’s penchant for using the same actors in different roles). I first watched Tokyo Story back in 2009, long before I started using the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, and I likely did so after seeing it praised somewhere, perhaps in Sight & Sound… At the time, I enjoyed it, but didn’t bother furhter exploring Ozu’s films. Now, however, I’m getting quite hooked on them. I don’t think I’d count Tokyo Story among my favourites by him, but it is, of course, recommended.

great_african_1Faraw! (une mère de sable), Abdoulaye Ascofaré (1997, Mali). Somewhere or other I’d come across mention of ArtMattan Productions’ DVD series Great African Films, in four volumes so far, and I immediately wanted copies. But their website design seems stuck in the 1990s, and when I emailed them to ask if they’d sell copies to a buyer in the UK I never received a reply. So I ended up purchasing a copy of their first volume – which includes Faraw! (une mère de sable), from Mali, and Harumbaya, from Burkina Faso – off someone on eBay. Annoyingly, it proved to be ex-rental, but I went back and checked the seller’s description and, yes, they did mention that, I’d just missed it. Oh well. The two discs played fine, anyway. Faraw! is set in north east Mali, a desert region, where the twentieth century has made few inroads. A mother, apparently based on Ascofaré’s mother, has trouble making ends meet – her husband is an invalid and his pension is all the income they have, her daughter is rebellious, and the two young sons are more likely to cause trouble than help. In desperation, she approaches the handful of Europeans living in the village, offering the services of herself and her daughter as cleaners. But the Europeans want more from the daughter than just washing and sweeping, so the mother turns them down in disgust. She visits an ex-suitor, and he gives her a donkey. She uses this to fetch water from a spring, and then sells the water to women in and around the village, so earning enough to feed her family. The film ends with a bizarre dream sequence, in which the title character makes a triumphant entry to the village. There’s a freshness and honesty to Faraw! you no longer see in Anglophone movies. While it was obviously made on the cheap, the cast are entirely convincing in their roles (except, perhaps, the Europeans), and Aminata Ousmane – this is apparently her only film appearance – fills the screen with a fierce maternal determination that pretty much defines the movie. It was totally worth hunting down this DVD. Recommended.

east_bucharest12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu (2006, Romania). I mentioned to a Romanian friend I’d been watching lots of films from various countries, so he said, of course you’ve watched some Romanian films… and I was a little bit embarrassed to realise I hadn’t. I immediately added a bunch to my rental list and this was the first one to arrive. I’ve certainly watched a film made in Romanian – East Germany’s Im Staub der Sterne was filmed partly in the country – but never an actual Romanian film. And the fact it proved to be 12:08 East of Bucharest was pure chance. It starts out a bit grim, following the life a drunk in the town of Vaslui, who can barely remember what he gets up to each night, and spends the following morning begging for a drink from his regular bar. Then he makes his way to a television studio to appear in a programme about the day 16 years before when a revolution overthrew Ceauşescu’s brutal regime. He was a teacher at the time, and he claims to have been present in the square when Ceauşescu fled the town hall. Except not everyone remembers it like that. And during the live celebration, people ring in and disagree with the teacher, and the other two panel members, over their claims to involvement in the revolution. So what starts out as grim turns blackly comic before becoming a weird sort of farce in which the three on the TV panel argue back against those who call into the television studio, insisting that the role they played during that year is true. The end result is a black comedy that is really quite funny, makes pointed commentary on Romania’s history, and remains very Romanian (I was unaccountably amused by the many mentions of Timişoreana beer). Recommended.

flickering_truthA Flickering Truth, Pietra Brettkelly (2015, New Zealand). And yet another gem found on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure what possessed me to start watching it, but I’m glad I did. It documents the attempt to rescue the Afghan Film Archives in Kabul after the depradations of the Taliban. The films are in poor condition, and not all have survived – but there are some historically important documents in there. A Flickering Truth is ambivalent toward its protagonist, Ibrehim Arif, who had been imprisoned by the Mujahideen but had fled Afghanistan to settle in Germany – and there’s a suggestion throughout the film that his projects are as much selfish as they are altruistic. It’s true that he does a great deal to rescue the archive, but he also has his critics – although whether they are motivated by the fact he fled to Germany is left to the viewer’s own interpretation. It’s fascinating stuff, and the footage shown from the archives is even more fascinating. I’ve seen Osama, which gives a good indication of what life was like under the Taliban; but many people seem to have forgotten what life was like in that part of the world before Islamism rose in response to Western interference. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan… these were all secular states. – until the Cold War ended and the USA decided to try its hand at foreign affairs in the Middle East. (Which is not to ignore their previous meddling, and how successful it was…) (Nor am I absolving the UK of blame, although it tended not to fuck things up as badly as the US.) (Not that that is anything to boast about…). A Flickering Truth was excellent stuff and reminded me a little of both Kandahar and the aforementioned Osama. Recommended.

1001 Films You Must See Before you Die count: 823


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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