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Moving pictures 2017, #68

Not an especially interesting spread of films in this post, although I did enjoy some of them.

Gold Diggers in Paris, Ray Enright & Busby Berkeley (1938, USA). The Gold Digger series had legs, at least during the 1930s. The first two installments in the series are apparently lost, but it managed a number of films before vanishing into obscurity – although I’m not sure if the series was a casualty of declining audiences or the imposition of the Hays Code. But some of the Gold Diggers films are better than others, and the fact this one is in the second of the Busby Berkeley Collections at least gives a clue as to which it might be… Which is sadly not wrong. France is putting on an exposition and decides to invite ballet companies from several countries. So they send a comedy incompetent to the US, who is tricked into inviting a dance troupe from a nightclub instead of an actual ballet troupe. And, er, that’s it. The US academy of ballet learns they were robbed of the invite and set out to fix things. Meanwhile, the manager of the nightclub dance troupe – and the lead singer of its routines – has to keep the French authorities unaware of his his dancers’ true nature. It’s mildly amusing, and not at all probable, and some of the dance routines in the final act are okay. And the Schnickelfritz Band, who perform several numbers, are actually pretty good. I do like these Busby Berkeley musicals, but some of them are so much better than the others. I’d love to see them in colour. But you take what you can get, and what you can get is worth seeing at least once.

Festival Express, Bob Smeaton, (2003, UK). I don’t really know enough about documentaries to put together a rental list of ones I should watch, so I picked a bunch whose subjects sounded like they might be interesting. And one of the subjects I like is music of the 1960s and 1970s. The title of this film refers to a train hired by a concert promoter in 1970 to transport several bands across Canada to appear at gigs in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary. The promoter provided a carriage with all the equipment for jam sessions, and the idea was the various bands would play music as they travelled. Which they did. They also drank a lot. A lot. And it was all filmed. But the film was held up for years by rights disputes, and then lost, before resurfacing early this century, and all the parts put in place to release the 1970 footage as part of Festival Express. The documentary consists of interviews from 2003 with those who were on the train and are still alive, as well as film shot at the time of the jam sessions, events on the train and at the gigs at the various cities. If you like the music of the time – Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Grateful Dead, The Band, and so on – it’s a pretty good documentary. There’s some good concert footage – and more in the special features – and some of the jam sessions are especially good. The “let’s put a groupie’s chest on the cover” art is less good. But don’t let that put you off. Worth seeing.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Luc Besson (2017, France). I’ve been reading Jean-Claude Mézière and Pierre Christin’s Valerian and Laureline series since the 1990s – one or two in French initially, but then in English as Cinebook began publishing translations of each volume. So when I heard Luc Besson was making a film featuring the two characters – it could hardly be described as an “adaptation” of a 21-volume science fiction bande dessinée – I was pretty stoked. Besson may be a bit and miss as a director, and, to be honest, more miss than hit, but his previous attempt at space opera, The Fifth Element, had been lots of fun. But then the reviews of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets began to roll in and… oh dear. It sounded like he’d made a right pig’s ear of it. But I was famliar with the source material, and most reviewers apparently were not, so I decided to reserve judgement until I’d seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for myself. And… oh dear. Let me say straightaway, it looks gorgeous. It’s a total CGI-fest, and shows a great deal of imagination in the CGI creatures and aliens it presents. But. The Valerian and Laureline series is about, well, Valerian and Laureline. And that’s where Besson’s movie mostly falls flat. In the bande dessinée, Valerian mostly resembles Belmondo (with maybe a soupçon of Lazenby thrown in) and Laureline is basically Bardot with red hair. So the casting of DeHaan and Delevingne is absolutely mystifying. The two characters’ relationship also develops over the course of the series, with Valerian the competent Galaxity agent and Laureline the unsophisticated young woman he rescues from Earth’s past… only for Laureline to turn out to be much more competent of the two, and her use of Valerian as “muscle” becomes a running joke. There are flashes of that relationship in Besson’s movie, but mostly it seems to be Valerian as a hormonal fifteen-year-old boy and Laureline as a seventeen-year-old girl who has already seen it all. And both played by actors that are plainly in their twenties. There are other weird bits. Like the bizarre appearance of an Apollo CSM in the final sequence – but it’s not a real Apollo CSM, as it has a glass cockpit. So what’s that about? And the actual plot, where an area in the centre of Galaxity, sorry Alpha Station, is impervious to sensors, but turns out to hide the Pearls who survived genocide in the opening sequence… Well, it’s all a bit confused and the timelines don’t really add up. But then French films, and especially Besson’s films, are infamous for leaving important elements of the plot on the cutting-room floor. Pace, apparently, is everything in France. The band dessinée series, on the other hand, is very very big on common sense and narrative logic. It is one of its virtues. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has lots of pace. It is indeed headlong. It does not have much continuity or common sense. I can only hope this film persuades the film-making world that Mézière’s and Christin’s series is a good property for adaptation. And that whoever attempts it next does a better job.

Little Caesar*, Mervyn LeRoy (1930, USA). This was apparently Edward G Robinson’s first appearance on film as a gangster, a role he would occupy for much of his career. Which is, I guess, mildly interesting, but not a good reason for the film to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Because as far as I could tell, that seemed to be the only thing about Little Caesar that was notable. Especially when you compare it to contemporary gangster films like Scarface. Robinson is keen to claimb the gangster ladder, which is what he does. He works his way up to top dog, but then things start to go wrong and he goeson the run and ends up a drubk living in a doss house. Until the DA starts making public statements calling him a coward, and because these sorts of characters are so one-dimensional all it takes is threatening their manhood to force them out of hiding, so Robinson makes an attempt on the DA’s life and is defeated. Yawn. There are some seminal gangster movies from the 1930s, but I fail to understand why this is considered one.

Le château de mère, Yves Robert (1990, France). This is the sequel to Robert’s La gloire de mon père and, like that film, is also based on an autobiographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and is in fact the adaptation of Pagnol’s sequel to La gloire de mon père. So, the same characters, the same general situation, roughly the same period, certainly the same place… and a slightly different plot. The boy, who’s the narrator of the films, is put forward as the school’s representative in some sort of academic competition, and so needs to study hard. Meanwhile, the family decide to return to their holiday home, but this entails a 3-hour walk from the railway station. Until, one day, they’re surprised by a canal guard, who has access to all the gardens through which the canal runs and so provides a shortcut which makes it a 30-minute walk. So the family start using the shortcut. They’re accosted by one of the property owners, but he’s happy for them to trespass. A guard on another property is less forgiving and reports them. La chaâteau de ma mère is more of the same, pretty much. A rose-tinted version of Provence during the 1920s, a soupçon of social commentary, lots of nostalgia, and lots of shots of Provençal landscape. It was every bit as dull as La gloire de mon père, although some of the humorous scenes were better. Not being French, I don’t understand the appeal of these films – but then I don’t understand the appeal of Heartbeat or Last of the Summer Wine and I live in Yorkshire…

You’ll Never Be Alone, Álex Anwandter (2016, Chile). I’ve no idea where I came across mention of this film. I suspect I added it my list because it was a recent drama from Chile and available for rental. Given that my previous experience of Chilean cinema is Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries (and if you’ve not seen them, you must), I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was… surprisingly brutal. A man is the manager of a factory that makes shop window dummies. He has worked there for 25 years and feels he should be a partner in the business, and so has been persuaded by the owner to invest some of his own money in order to buy partnership. His son is openly gay. One night, his son is attacked by some local youths who know him – including one who has been fucking him – and put into a coma. The man has to spend the money he planned to invest in the company on his son’s medical bills. And then, the factory owner sells the mannequin factory to a rival company. His son is racking up expensive medical bills – millions of pesos – and his twenty-five years of loyalty are apparently worth shit. So he does something about it. This is a grim film, and the gaybashing which is its most dramatic moment is horrible and brutal. And, of cource, because that’s how these things go, the perpetrators are not even charged as there are no other witnesses than the victim, even though everyone knows who did it. When the father confronts one later in the film, the youth seems more scaredof being caught than ashamed of what he has done, even though he took advantage of the gay son by having sex with him. You’ll Never Be Alone is worth seeing, but for god’s sake, watch something cheerful after seeing it.

1001 Movies You Must See You Die count: 894

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Moving pictures 2017, #60

My film viewing seems to have been bouncing all over the place of late. A 1950s melodrama (but… Rock Hudson!), a Marx Brothers comedy, a classic Japanese film, a British historical farce…

One Desire, Jerry Hopper (1955, USA). I find it hard to resist 1950s melodramas, especially ones starring Rock Hudson, even if they’re not, well, set in the 1950s. Like this one, which is based on a novel by Conrad Richter and is set at the turn of the twentieth century. Anne Baxter plays the madam and co-owner of a brothel/casino in the mid-West. Hudson is Baxter’s lover and dealer at the casino, but he’s ambitious and keen to head to Colorado and the silver mines. When he gets fired, he persuades Baxter to accompany him. At their destination, Hudson bumps into the local senator’s daughter, Julie Adams, charms her and ends up being appointed manager of the local bank. Baxter meanwhile takes in a young Natalie Wood after she’s orphaned when her miner father dies in a cave-in. Adams has her sights set on Hudson, and uses a PI to dig up Baxter’s past and show she is an unfit guardian for Wood and Hudson’s young brother. Baxter, humiliated in court, goes back to her old job in the casino. Hudson marries Adams, but doesn’t love her. Years later, Wood runs away and finds Baxter. Baxter returns and opens a saloon opposite Adams’s house. Adams accidentally sets her own house on fire and perishes. Hudson marries Baxter. Happy ending. Sort of. A pretty typical Technicolor period drama. I enjoyed it… but then I like 1950s Technicolor dramas.

La gloire de mon père, Yves Robert (1990, France). My mother lent me this – it’s a two-film set, with Le château de mère – and it was not a film known to me. It apparently was very successful in France, and I can sort of see why. It’s very… nice. It reminded me of the sort of the dreadful nostalgic crap the British industry churns out these days (alongside mockney gangster movies and horrendous rom coms, the latter mostly written by Richard Curtis). The first clue is the voice-over – the main character is a kid, and the voice-over is his adult self, commenting on the events of his childhood. Like anyone can actually remember their childhood in that level of detail. In this case, the boy’s father is a socialist atheist teacher in the south of France during the first decade of the twentieth century. The boy’s aunt marries a local businessman who is the complete opposite of the father. One summer, the two families stay in the country, in the area in which they are originally from. And, during a hunt, the father shoots and kills two rock patrridges and celebrates his success – the “glory” of the title. The irony of this is that the father had previously taken the piss out of someone who had been photographed with a fish he had caught, and now he glories in a photo of himself with his two rock partridges. Other than that… I’m not entirely sure what point the film is trying to make. It’s based on a 1957 auto-biographical novel by Marcel Pagnol, and though I’ve not read the book, and am unlikely to ever do so, I very much doubt it’s as saccharine as this film. The DVD came packaged with a sequel, Le château de mère, and I’ll probably watch it. I hope it has more bite than this one.

The Cocoanuts, Robert Florey & Joseph Santley (1929, USA). I’ve never seen enough Marx Brothers’ films to determine whether or not I ought to be a fan, in fact I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen any of their most famous films (you know, the ones with titles Queen stole for their albums), although I’m familiar with the characters and many of Groucho’s best-known quotes. Since there was a new collection of their’ films just released by Arrow – The 4 Marx Brothers at Paramount 1929 – 1933 – I added its contents to my rental list. This was the first to arrive – and, coincidentally, the earliest film in the collection. The film is set in a Florida hotel run by the brothers – there’s no plot as such. There are several muscial routines, like out of a Busby Berkley film, but the rest of it is just the the Marx Brothers running aruond and playing their characters. Groucho is, surprisingly, not all that witty. Harpo is just as creepy as usual. Chico is probably the funniest character, for all that his put-on accent is considered offensive these days. Zeppo is in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t remember him. I guess that’s why he dropped out. I’d expected more of The Cocoanuts – it wasn’t especially funny or witty. And while the production numbers were a big part of it, I like Busby Berkley films so I’ve seen better (and more eye-boggling). The Marx Brothers films are worth seeing as historical Hollywood documents, but don’t expect too much of them.

Joseph Andrews, Tony Richardson (1977, UK). Some films just seem to appear on my rental list and I’ve no idea why. If it’s a Japanese or South Korean film, then David Tallerman probably added them using the app on my phone when we were down the pub (but he won’t be able to do that anymore, as Cinema Paradiso doesn’t have an app). Sometimes, I vaguely recall seeing a trailer and so must have added the film myself. But there are some which, for the life of me, I cann’t recall why I put it on my rental list. Like Joseph Andrews. A British historical farce, based on a 1742 Henry Fielding novel, starring Colin Firth, Ann-Margret, Michael Hordern, Beryl Reid, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Jim Dale, Wendy Craig, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Kenneth Cranham, Timothy West… and lots more familiar Brit thesp faces. Firth plays the title character, a young man who draws the attention of libertine aristocrat Ann-Margret. Then he’s waylaid on the road, or something, and ends up at an inn, where he’s nearly arrested. The plot, such as it is, has Firth bouncing from one comical encounter to another, before eventually rejoining his love back in his home village. I can think of little to recommend this film – nothing about it stands out. I spent most of it playing “spot the luvvie”, which is a bit like watching the Carry On film without the jokes. Meh.

The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi (1951, Japan). I bought the Japanese Masters box set – deleted for several years, so hard to find – because it included an Ozu film that was no longer available. The other “master” is Kenji Mizoguchi, and the set includes two of his most celebrated films: The Life of Oharu (see here) and The Lady of Musashino. The latter film is set shortly after WWII. The title character lives in a village just outside Tokyo – the films opens with them witnessing the bombing of Tokyo from Musashino. Her husband is a drunkard who abuses her. Her cousin’s husband keeps on propositioning her, and a younger cousin who comes to live with them fancies her. The film navigates these complicated relationships – which is something Mizoguchi does really well – before finding a solution that suits all but the title character – which is something Mizoguchi also does a lot. When it comes to Japanese cinema from the first half of the twentieth century, I prefer Ozu’s ensemble pieces to Mizoguchi’s character studies (some of which are historical), and I really should watch more Kurosawa (which I’ve recently remedied by adding a bunch of his films to my rental list)… Anyway, the title character of The Lady of Musashino must find a way out of the complicated personal relationships that have accreted around her, and yet also protect Musashino. I like that Mizoguchi puts a woman front and centre, even in a society in which gender roles are extremely constrained, as he also does in The Life of Oharu – and I like that he does it so well she is the best-drawn charatcer in the film. The transfer, it must be said, is not great, but it’s not as much of a hurdle as it is with The Life of Oharu, several important scenes of which take place at night. I’ve seen several Mizoguchi films over the years – the first was apparently Ugetsu Monogatari back in 2012 – more by accident than design, I think, but I have a box set of four of his films, given to me by David Tallerman, which I’m now quite looking forward to watching…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 885