It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures 2017, #55

The Godard box set has proven an excellent purchase. I’ve watched the films in it a couple of times each, and I suspect I’ll be watching them several more times as well. And I have another Godard box set to watch after this one as well. I guess I’m turning into a Godard fan. I don’t think every one of his films work – and the one here was especially mauled by critics – but sometimes it really does come together exceedingly well; and his continual experimentation, and facility with the language of cinema, to my mind makes him one of the most important European directors of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, not everything he made is currently available on DVD or Blu-ray – and he made a lot of films…

For Ever Mozart, Jean-Luc Godard (1996, Switzerland). I think I can safely say that drunkenly buying this box set has proven one of my smarter film purchasing decisions of 2017. It’s taken me a couple of watches of each film to get a handle on them, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen and I know I’ll watch them again. The films are also obscure, defy easy categorisation, and are the product of someone who has spent their entire career experimenting in the medium, and may well have contributed more to cinema narrative forms than any other living director. Having said all that, For Ever Mozart – apparently a phonetic pun as it sounds like faut rêver, Mozart, “dream, Mozart” – acually feels more like a Jacques Rivette film at times than it does a Godard one. But perhaps that’s because so many Rivette films are about rehearsal and narrative, and For Ever Mozart is about a theatre group who stage a play in Sarajevo during the years of ethnic cleansing. It’s a piece which revels in its tone-deafness, because the the whole point of the piece is that it’s tone-deaf. Unfortunately, one of Godard’s weaknesses appears to be the people-running-through-a-wood-in-fear-of-their-lives scenario, and that happens here. A little too often. Fortunately, there is also a lot more going on. Not least of which ties back to the title and the use of Mozart’s music as a theme. Godard is probably best known among non-Francophobe cinephiles for his work during the 1960s, especially that associated with the Nouvelle Vague. But I must admit I find his later stuff far more interesting. I still have the other Godard collection to watch, and it contains many of his better-known films, but I’ve very much enjoyed seeing the lesser-known films in this particular box set. Definitely worth getting.

Highly Dangerous, Roy Ward Baker (1950, UK). After sending me one Margaret Lockwood film, LoveFilm went and sent me another the following week. This one was a British thriller, written by Eric Ambler, which nonetheless managed to be quite dull. Lockwood plays an entomologist sent to an invented Balkan state to discover if their rumoured biological beetle-based weapon is real. But she’s an amateur and inept at spycraft. She screws up meeting her contact at the railway station, and later is immediately spotted as a ringer by a US journalist. Whose help she enlists in in breaking into the secret laboratory to steal samples of the potentially lethal beetles. It’s all very earnest, and very British, and if the invented Balkan country fails to convince it’s because, well, they weren’t very good at that sort of stuff in those days – and I’m not entirely sure why they bothered to invent countries to stand in for, well, actual enemies of the West (of the time). Who knows. Maybe some Yugoslavian trade deal might have been jeopardised. Lockwood is, well, Lockwood, although it’s good to see a female lead in a thriller, and though she has to occasionally defer to her male colleague, she’s very much presented as an expert, which is something you still don’t see that often these days. Given Lockwood is just about the only female character in the film, it’s not going to pass a Bechdel Test… but a female heroine who doesn’t have superpowers who nonetheless drives the film? Um, I seem to remember Lockwood was a lead with agency in the last film by her I watched, The Wicked Lady (see here). I knew there was a reason I put that Lockwood DVD collection on my rental list…

Jackie, Pablo Larraín (2016, USA). I really wanted to like this – it seemed like an interesting subject, and I’d been much impressed by Larraín’s No (see here), enough to want to watch more of his films… Although, to be fair, I would not have expected Larraín to have made Jackie… But… It’s Jackie Kennedy, of course. In the years just before, during, and immediately after, JFK’s assassination. Not being American, I have never understood the fascination with JFK, or the bizarre insistence that he was the best president the US “never had”. True, he created the political will to put a human being on the Moon, and his presidency did much for women’s rights… but he was also responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie, however, is about his wife, and JFK only makes occasional appearances. Natalie Portman is really quite astonishing in the role. Jackie Kennedy comes across as a not very nice person at all, and her fixed grin and wide-mouthed way of speaking feels more like a caricature than an actual character study. “Feels”, because I can’t judge its accuracy. Larraín’s direction seemed as good as that I’d noted in No, and even the back-and-forth-chronological structure seemed to work quite well, although there seemed ample opportunity to ramp up the emotional payload through clever cutting and that didn’t happen… The biggest problem I had was that I’d expected Jackie Kennedy to be a sympathetic subject, and she wasn’t. I should probably watch the film again.

Revenge, Yermek Shinarbayev (1989, Kazakhstan). Beware of films with bland uninformative titles. Further, beware of films with bland uninformative titles from other languages where the film is generally known by its bland uninformative English title. Like Revenge. Because that’s not a title to encourage interest. And yet, Revenge is actually a lovely piece of film-making, a Kazakhstani film about the Korean disapora throughout east Asia, and which ends up on Sakhalin Island. It opens with a prologue set in seventeenth-century Korea, then jumps to 1915 and a Korean village. A schoolteacher murders one of the young girls in his class, and the father vows vengeance on him. He almost has it, but is thwarted at the last minute. So he takes a second wife, has a son, and raises the son to be the instrument of his revenge. The story moves through the decades of the first half of the twentieth century, as the murdering teacher, and the son, now a man, follows him – into China and then the USSR, to Siberia and Sakhalin Island. As the film progresses, so the protagonist and antagonist develop a relationship which is never quite consummated, and each in turn lives out the experience of Koreans in the areas into which they move. The acting is, it must be said, a bit hammy in places, but the mise-en-scène is thoroughly convincing in each of the periods it depicts, and the cinematography is mostly good but occasionally great. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 has a number of excellent films in it, but I did like this one a lot. It’s a movie that bears, perhaps even demands, repeated watches. Recommended.

Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson (2014, USA). I hadn’t realised until I started watching this that it was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel. I know who Pynchon is, of course, and I’ve heard no end of praise about his fiction – but I’ve never actually read any of it. I have Gravity’s Rainbow on the TBR, and I will tackle it one day, buy Pynchon is pretty much unknown territory to me… Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson is not and, well, I’m not a fan of his films. Oh, they’re well-made films; but they’re entirely steeped in the American idiom and that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Which might well explain why I found Inherent Vice a bit dull and uninvolving. I’m supposed to care about a dopehead American who manages to hold together a career as a private detective? Jaoquim Phoenix plays the aforementioned dopehead, who is asked to investigate an ex-girlfriend’s disappearance, only to get sucked into a state-wide conspiracy. I really didn’t get this. The dopehead lifestyle was presented as comical, without actually being funny, which rendered Pynchon’s worldview – something I have not experienced myself as I’ve not read any of his books yet – as weird and incomplete rather than just off-kilter. Pynchon is, I am reliably informed, famous for his erudition, but there was no evidence of that here. The whole thing came across as a gonzo thriller featuring potheads, and while Hunter S Thompson cuold be very funny indeed with his tales of excessive drug-taking, the humour here didn’t amuse me at all. Meh.

The Collector, William Wyler (1965, UK). This is an adaptation of John Fowles’s first novel. I have mixed feelings about Fowles – I consider him a middlebrow writer all too often mistaken for highbrow, and yet he wrote a handful of classic novels. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a bona fide classic, A Maggot is a novel of notable ambition that only just doesn’t quite make the grade… the rest are middlebrow books du jour whose moments have passed, or even Dirty Old Man books. The Collector is a polished thriller novel, which was adapted by a US director and turned into an attractive, if implausible, UK thriller movie. This is not always the case.  Robert Wise shot The Haunting in the UK and it’s a classic piece of cinema. Terence Stamp plays a bullied young man who wins the pools and ends up buying an isolated house in the country. He is also a lepidopterist. And a stalker. He stalks Samantha Eggar, kidnaps her, and imprisons her in his basement. He hopes to make her love him. Which, of course, isn’t going to happen. None of it ever quite adds up, it all feels like it takes place in movie-land, where common sense doesn’t apply, and it’s not as if the cinematography lifts it above the usual as it feels mostly like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror (worth getting; they were of their time but surprisingly entertaining). There’s not much in the way of surprises, and the local colour resembles no UK known to a Brit, even in 1965, but it manages to be entertaining.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 883

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Films do furnish a room

In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…

I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.

After watching The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers (see here), which I had rented, I went and bought everything available by the director, Ben Rivers. Which is A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (co-directed with Ben Russell; see here) and Two Years at Sea. Totally worth it. A director whose career I will be following from now on.

An international bunch here. Splendid Float is Tawianese (see here), Kurotoage is Japanese (see here) and Se Eu Fosse Você 1 and Se Eu Fosse Você 2 are so-so Brazilian comedies (see here).

The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.