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Moving pictures 2019, #1

We’re a month into the new year, and I’m still having trouble coming up with something more interesting to post than reviews – if that’s the right word – of obscure, and not so obscure, films I’ve watched. But then I’ve been busy: trying to declutter prior to my move. Five thousand books and two thousand DVDs, it transpires, take a lot of sorting out…

Anyway, until all that’s out of the way, have half a dozen movies I watched in January…

Copying Beethoven, Agnieszka Holland (2006, USA). My mother lent me this one and the only reason I agreed to watch it was because it was by Agnieszka Holland, a Polish director whose few films I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. Copying Beethoven is not her only English-language movie, nor even her first. In fact, she’s made quite a few, most of them not in Hollywood, and several of them starring Ed Harris, who plays Beethoven in this one. The story is simple enough. Beethoven requires someone to produce neat copy of his manuscripts. A young woman, with ambitions of being a composer herself, despite the fact women composers are exceedingly rare at that time, manages to persuade Beethoven to take her on. And later co-composes one of his pieces, as well as composing her own. The problem is, it’s all historical nonsense. It’s a nice idea, and it’s well played by its leads, although Ed Harris does overplay his part somewhat, but it’s entirely invented and it’s supposed to be an historical film. Some of us, you know, look this shit up. And when something pretends to be historical, I want to know if it is and go visit Wikipedia. Which is where Copying Beethoven fails. Badly. It would be nice – it would be great – if it had really happened, and I like the idea of pretending as if it had happened by making a film about it. But… Maybe I’m being as bad as those arseholes who complain about female blacksmiths in fantasy novels… except the worlds in fantasy novels are entirely invented, and this purports to be real, and yet it’s a story I’d sooner was true than invented…  So let’s pretend it really was like that. History is, after all, written by the winners. And if from 2006 onward it’s accepted as actual history that Beethoven had a female amanuensis, then good, excellent in fact. Which makes this adaptation of our new history (and I’m not being sarcastic there, I hasten to add) somewhat disappointing inasmuch as  the leads are, well… Harris is OTT and Diane Kruger is a bit of a blank. The previous films I’ve seen by Holland were ensemble pieces, so perhaps she let the reduced cast in this one get the better of her.

Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou Hsiao-hsien (2007, France). The title of this film is a reference to a French short, Le ballon rouge, from 1956, in which a young boy finds are balloon, which then follows him around. And Hou’s Flight of the Red Balloon opens with a young boy also finding a red balloon, but it proves to have a mind of its own, resists his please for it to follow him and goes off on its own way. The film then shifts to the boy’s mother, Juliette Binoche, who is a puppeteer, and has just employed a Chinese student in Paris as a nanny for her son. And, er, that’s it. The balloon has drifted off, and whatever purpose it played in the plot seems pretty much and over and done with ten minutes in. Bar the occasional brief appearance. Perhaps the Chinese nanny is the red balloon – except, no, that doesn’t really work either, as the film is about Binoche, her son, and the boy’s older sister, who had been living with Binoche’s divorced partner in Brussels but has moved to Paris for college. It’s all very low-key, with much of the film taking place in Binoche’s tiny apartment. The performances are very natural, as is the lighting; and the movie manages that trick Hou has down to a fine art of making the quotidian feel like it’s important, making small drama feel like it should be melodrama. I do like Hou’s films, but some of them I find more successful than others. Flight of the Red Balloon struck me as middle-tier Hou, but perhaps that’s because it’s a French family drama, set in Paris, and that’s hardly an under-subscribed genre of film…

The Predator, Shane Black (2018, USA). It’s the Decade, maybe even Century, of Reboots, I mean Spider-Man has been rebooted like thirty-five times in the past eight years, so why not reboot a piece of low-brow populist sf crap from the 1980s and hope its macho bullshit finds a new audience in Trump’s America? What could go wrong? And anyway there’s always the marketing machine to make sure it sure it earns a profit even if it is a piece of shit. And this reboot certainly is. A piece of shit, that is. It opens with the protagonist on a mission to kill some unspecified baddie in, I think, Mexico. Which is not the US, and is a separate sovereign nation. But that doesn’t matter because this is the US and the only national boundaries they recognise are their own, with or without a wall. Said protagonist witnesses a Predator spaceship crash, and steals some of the armour. Back in the US, he’s taken in for questioning because of what he saw and then dumped with a bunch of soldiers incarcerated for various offensively stereotyped mental conditions. So he breaks them out, they become his squad, and it’s all so macho and fucking American it makes you want to do that thing from The Exorcist and projectile vomit while your head spins around. I was rooting for the Predators; I wanted them to wipe out the US. Because every single US character in this film was a total shit and deserved to be ripped into pieces by an alien. The Predator also did a shitload of retconning when it came to the franchise, and not entirely to the franchise’s benefit. This is a film that has no brains, revels in its brainlessness, and proclaims its lack of brains as the epitome of American manhood. And manages some pretty offensive characterisation to boot. It can get fucked.

Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry (2003, UK). Since I was going through a phase of reading Evelyn Waugh, it made sense to watch the film adaptations of his novels. So I found a copy of Sword of Honour (see here) and… Vile Bodies, that last under the title Bright Young Things, which is the term used in Waugh’s novels for the dissipated twentysomethings of the 1930s and 1940s he writes about in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Put Out More Flags and so on. Fry you would expect to have a feel for the material – and I say that based on his public persona and nothing else – and so it proves. Bright Young Things does  feel a bit like an early who’s who of UK thesps, as it’s full of familiar faces – including Sir John Mills in his last ever part, a non-speaking role – but as an adaptation of its source material it actually scores pretty well. Waugh doesn’t seem to adapt well – his satires become dull dramas; well, except for Brideshead Revisited, where a dull-but-clever drama is adapted as a dull-but-clever drama. But Fry clearly does not take Vile Bodies seriously and it shows. Most of the comic set-pieces from the novel are there, although not all, and some are changed and not to their benefit. But the end result is probably the most faithful adaptation of Waugh’s oeuvre I’ve so far seen. Worth seeing, but you’re better off reading the books.

The Great Wall, Zhang Yimou (2016, China). I remember the fuss when this was released. OMG whitewashing a Chinese movie! Matt Damon stealing a role from a Chinese actor! All complete bollocks. This was a Chinese film, made by Chinese film-makers with Chinese money, who just happened to cast Matt Damon in one of two roles for European characters. Having said all that, I was expecting an historical film and, er, The Great Wall is certainly not that. I think the first clue was the demon-like creature that attacked Matt Damon and his colleagues, but by the time the army of demons attacked the Great Wall of China I was pretty sure this was outright fantasy. It is, unsurprisingly, for a twenty-first century big budget Chinese film by a big-name director, a polished piece of work. The story may well be bollocks, but it makes damn sure it’s entertaining bollocks. And the film does so many things Chinese cinema does so well, and Hollywood quite frankly has no clue about, and though the story is completely risible it all hangs together with an economy of, well, action, because that’s what drives the story, and it provides as few opportunities as it can for the audience to sit back and think about it what it is watching. It’s very entertaining. Complete bollocks, but very entertaining. Sort of like a MCU film – but without the dodgy politics.

Opening Night, John Cassavetes (1977, USA). You know how you want to like a director’s films, and some of their films you even do like quite a bit and think are really very good, but you still have this overall impression that the director’s oeuvre is not one that appeals to you… And then you watch a film by them and you wonder maybe they really are your thing after all. I think I just did that. I’ve seen half a dozen films by Cassavetes, and some of them I’ve thought are really quite good. But the first few movies by him I saw poisoned by view of his oeuvre. Much as I liked Too Late Blues, I really didn’t take to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie… And yet, I loved Opening Night. It is much like his other films – thin on plot, reliant on his cast, especially the lead (usually his partner, Gina Rowland, or a friend), with dialogue that feels more improvised than scripted. Rowland plays an actress in a stage play, opposite Cassavetes himself, who has her age abruptly brought home to her when a young female fan is hit and killed by a car after a performance. It doesn’t help that the play is about a woman who is having trouble accepting that she is ageing. Rowland’s stage role and “real life” echo each other, and her response to her realisation impacts her behaviour and performance. And it’s a bravura performance from Rowland. I mean, it’s not like she hasn’t shown her chops in other Cassavetes films, but she carries this one above and beyond. Opening Night made me want to watch the other Cassavetes films I’ve seen all over again.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 933

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Moving pictures 2018, #35

A good mix, nothing too populist, but instead some good films from a number of different countries… Well, okay, maybe not all of them are that good…

Caravaggio*, Derek Jarman (1986, UK). That’s the last of the Derek Jarman box set and it’s a film I first saw many years ago – not at school, as it was released two years after I sat my A Levels, but perhaps when I was a university student. I don’t remember, I just remember the film itself… and this rewatch did not in that respect provide any surprises. There were a few scenes I had forgotten, but much of the film had remained in memory. Which I guess means something. Jarman’s use of deliberately anachronistic set dressing I’d certainly remembered, so the appearance of trucks and such in some scenes did not seem as shocking as perhaps intended. Which is not to say they did not perform their purpose – perhaps even more so, because the shock value no longer applied, I could see them for what they were. Which was elements of an idiosyncratic retelling of the life of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which used his paintings – or those that have survived – as inspiration to document parts of his life. The  title role is played by Nigel Terry, who has never been better, but there are plenty of other familiar faces in there. Also in the cast is Sean Bean, in his first major role, as is Tilda Swinton, whom he snogs. Which was weird. The film is mostly told from Caravaggio’s death-bed, using it to jump back to incidents in his life. It works as well inasmuch as it allows for commentary. The film’s aesthetic, anachronisms and all, I thought especially effective, and I ended up liking the film more than I had expected. I bought this box set on a whim, and because I’d not seen Jubilee but some recent watches on Jarman’s films had persuaded me it might be worth a punt. And it was indeed. It’s even turned me into a sort of fan of Jarman’s films, which I wasn’t before. I’m now eagerly awaiting the Volume 2 box set.

Black Rose Mansion, Kinji Fukasaku (1969, Japan). Fukasaku, who is best known these days for his film of Battle Royale, made two films with famous Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Miwa (AKA Akihiro Maruyama) – this one and Kurotokage (see here). Having seen both, I can definitely say Kurotokage is the better of the two. Which is not to say Black Rose Mansion, AKA Kuro bara no yakata, is bad. It has its moments. Miwa plays the mysterious singer in the titular roadhouse. Not only is Ryuko’s past a mystery, but it also seems wildly inconsistent, as a series of men turn up claiming to be her lover and she refuses to admit whether she had affairs with them. It is, to be honest, all a little over the top, especially given that some of them profess their undying love by killing themselves and the deaths are presented with all the technicolor relish of B-movies. The whole thing began to pall after a while, it must be said, given that Miwa’s character remained stubbornly mute on her past and the parade of past lovers didn’t seem to prove anything. If you must watch a camp 1960s Japanese thriller, then I’d recommend Kurotokage over this one.

Okja, Bong Joon-ho (2017, South Korea). This was recommended by a number of friends, both those who watch Korean cinema and those who don’t. And having now seen it, I can understand why, as it sort of feels like a Korean film without actually being one. Although it certainly opens like a Hollywood movie. A US company has a bred a super-pig and sent super piglets around the world to be reared by indigenous farmers. Ten years later, they will be assessed and the best will win a prize. There’s a problem right there – not just the genetically-engineered pig, but the idea of using subsistence level farmers to grow it, given that the governmental and corporate world have been trying to wipe out subsistence level farmers for decades. Anyway, the one in South Korea, called Okja by the young woman who cares for it, wins and is shipped to New York for the ceremony. But an animal rights group try to prevent this, as they’re convinced the corporation’s motives are not as advertised. And it’s all the slightly off-kilter approach Boon brings to a story married to the usual Hollywood glib depiction of corporatisation and the near-future, sort of like cyberpunk with its raison d’être surgically removed so smoothly it hasn’t even noticed… It didn’t help that the titular super-pig looked more like a hippo, or that Tilda Swinton, playing the twin sisters who ran the corporation chewed the scenery more than the super-pig… It all felt like a fun movie that was trying so hard to appeal to a Hollywood market it had lost whatever charm it might have had. It looked very nice, but it was not very likeable.

Xala, Ousmane Sembène (1975, Senegal). Xala, pronounced khala, means “temporary impotence” in Wolof, and is also the title of the novel by Sembène from which this film was adapted. The film opens with a voiceover describing Senegal’s independence, with actors playing the parts of the new Senegalese government. One of these, a minister, is congratulated on his upcoming nuptials. To a woman less than half his age. And she’s his third wife. I’m sorry, I don’t give a shit what your religion is, but there’s no justification for polygamy. Women are not property. Sembène is making the same point, although he’s also setting out an allegory about independence, in which the new wife is the country’s new-found freedom. Which results in impotence – the minister can’t get it up despite the manifold attractions of his new wife. He is not only too wedded to the old ways, he prospered too well under them. Now he has control, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So to speak. I have to date seen five films by Ousmane Sembène and I think they’re all pretty damn good. It’s not that they’re polished pieces of work, because they’re not – there are no special effects, no studio sets, most of the cast are non-professional, Sembène’s lack of resource as usually there to see on the screen… But they’re so well-presented. Not just as depictions of life in Senegal – in Dakar – at the time of filming, but also as drama and as political statements. Sembène made 13 movies (four of them shorts) and wrote ten novels. I want to see all his films, and have a bash at some of his novels.

Winter Kills, William Richert (1979, USA). This film is allegedly a forgotten classic, and “forgotten” certainly applies to it as I’d never heard of it until I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime. And yet it received many positive reviews on its initial release. It also had a troubled production history, and I wonder if that has added to the film’s reputation… because as a straight-up thriller it leaves something to be desired, and as a comedy, black or otherwise, it fails dismally; although it nevertheless manages to mostly entertain. The plot is a thinly-disguised reference to the assassination of JFK. Twenty years after the death of the president, his brother is approached with evidence demonstrating the commonly-accepted narrative is wrong. So he investigates further, and follows a chain of anecdote and interview to… I’m not sure if it’s worth the spoiler. I can’t honestly see what was so good about this film it gained the label “forgotten classic”. The cast are pretty good, true, but the plot stumbles from the obvious to the inane, and its so-called humour falls flat more often than not. Its production history is actually more entertaining – look it up on Wikipedia. The version I watched was the director’s cut, which is not always the best cut. But, to be honest, it’s hard to see how any cut could make this film a classic unless there were thousands more feet of film left on the cutting-room floor. Best avoided.

Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999, China). More Chinese cinema, from a well-known Fifth Generation director. The teacher in a countryside village has to leave for family reasons, so a substitute teacher is sent… but she’s thirteen-years-old and hardly qualified. And it shows initially. When one of the boys runs away to the city to earn money to pay off his mother’s debts, she follows him. But he’s not where he’s supposed to be, so she tries to persuade the radio station manager to broadcast a message to him. Instead, a local TV station take up her story and interview her on air – or at least try to, as she clams up from nervousness. But the boy, who’s living on the streets, sees the broadcast, the two are united, and they’re returned to the village with money and school equipment – chalk, basically – by the TV station, who smell a better story. Everyone in the movies is a non-professional actor, and many filled roles they hold in real life. It gave the whole thing a very documentary air, something I especially like about Sixth Generation movies, and I have to wonder if this is one of their touchstone works. Zhang, from the films of his I’ve seen, has had a varied career, but Not One Less so much resembled the sort of Chinese film I really like that I couldn’t help but love it. The cast of mostly children are really good, especially the two leads, and the whole thing is both excellent commentary and excellent drama. Apparently, the Chinese authorities made Zhang change the text at the end which claims one million children drop out of school due to poverty because the real figure – three to five times that – was too embarrassing. The poverty of the schooling actually shown on the screen should be embarrassment enough. An excellent film.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 918


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Moving pictures 2018, #34

Not a single US film in this bunch, although two are still Anglophone – British and Australian.

Ju Dou, Zhang Yimou (1990, China). Although I’m a big fan of films by Chinese Sixth Generation directors, such as Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai and Lou Ye, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in earlier generations – and I don’t just mean early classics like Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (1934, see here) or Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948, see here). There was also – obviously – a Fifth Generation, to which Zhang Yimou belonged, and those films of his I’ve seen I’ve thought very good. He also has two entries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: Red Sorghum (see here) and Raise the Red Lantern (not currently available on DVD). Ju Dou is Zhang’s third film (he’s better known these days for films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and The Great Wall), and had I not read in the movie’s Wikipedia entry that it was filmed in Technicolor – in 1990! – I’d not have known it from the copy I watched. So can we have a restored edition, please? Because this is an excellent film, irrespective of the motion picture process used. The title refers to a young woman, played by Zhang favourite Gong Li, who is married to a cruel dyer. The dyer’s adopted nephew returns after a weeks-long trip to discover his uncle has remarried… and he begins to obsess over Ju Dou, who is being abused by her husband. It doesn’t end well, these things never end well, especially when Ju Dou has a son, and the dyer is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke and learns the son is not his own… It was clear watching this that colour had been uppermost in Zhang’s mind, and yet the DVD transfer had made a mockery of the Technicolor, washing out many of the colours and, in some scenes, giving the whole frame a faint tint. Now I love Technicolor, especially Technicolor landscapes – the New England autumnal landscape of All That Heaven Allows, the wide open spaces of Shane – and since much of Ju Dou took place in a dye works, there was no shortage of colour. Which, sadly, wasn’t especially obvious on this transfer. A good film, but I’d like to see a restored copy.

Outskirts, Boris Barnet (1933, Russia). I forget where I came across mention of this, and having now seen it I’m surprised it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. A Soviet film from 1933 that covers the period prior to the October Revolution via the lives of ordinary Russian villagers? Barnet made several early Soviet films, but only Eisenstein, Vertov and Vsevelod make the list. Which is not to say they shouldn’t. But Barnet belongs on there too. More so than some early Hollywood films anyway. It’s not just that Outskirts documents the lives of villagers in early twentieth-century Russia, which it does very effectively, but also that it is dramatically impressive too. Part of it is set at the front during WWI, or Second Patriotic War, against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And it’s the equal of any other WWI movie of the time, if not better. Barnet, by all accounts, was in the top rank of Soviet directors, but seems to be pretty much forgotten these days. Eisenstein’s oeuvre is readily available, but I can find only three of Barnet’s twenty-seven films, including this one, on DVD. A shame. On the strength of Outskirts, I’d say his films are definitely worth seeing.

The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short*, André Delvaux (1966, Belgium). Govert Miereveld is hired to replace a departing teacher at a school. He begins to obsess over a female student, played by Polish actress Beata Tyszkiewicz (dubbed into Flemish?). He leaves the school and enters the law. Some years later, he accompanies a colleague who needs to attend an autopsy of a body washed ashore in another town. They suspect the body of being a suspect in a case, but in the event it turns out to be a completely different man. At the hotel, Miereveld bumps into the student he had obsessed over, who is now a famous opera singer. She remembers him from school and is surprisingly open to his, er, overtures. He spends time with her and she admits she knew of his obsession at school. She also admits the teacher he replaced had been asked to leave because he had been in a relationship with her. And her father, who had disappeared shortly after she left school, well, his description matches that of the body in the autopsy… The first time I watched this, I liked its focus on its protagonist – including the scene which lends the films its title – but I hadn’t realised how vital to the plot that focus was. Because Miereveld is badly affected by what he learns, and the final third of the film shows the aftermath. If the film has a flaw, it’s that it’s not entirely clear for much of its length what sort of film it is. It opens as an introspective drama, turns into a thriller, and then becomes something completely different. I liked it so much on second viewing, I considered picking up a copy of the book from which it was adapted… which is, of course, almost fucking impossible to find…

Brick Lane, Sarah Gavron (2007, UK). This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Monica Ali, set among the Bangladeshi community in London on, er, Brick Lane. I’ve not read the book, so I’ve no idea how the film differs from it. Nazneen is the wife of Chanu Ahmed, a man who seems convinced he can succeed in the UK, and is equally blind to the country’s racism – the film opens with him convinced he is about to be promoted, only to learn he has been fired. He’s keen on improving himself, and is evidently a voracious reader, but his wife is not happy, and his two kids seem to have little in common with him. Except Brick Lane is not about him, it’s about Nazneen, who has an affair with an Anglo-Bangladeshi (ie, born and bred in the UK, unlike Nazneen) who is part of a local group agitating for Muslim solidarity. And this is around the time of the 9/11 attacks. I was resident in the UAE when 9/11 happened, and working for a government-owned oil company… so the only version of events I heard was that told by Arabs who had been affected. So I can sympathise with the Bangladeshis depicted in Brick Lane and even understand the drivers which lead to the film’s more dramatic elements. White people are racist. That’s a simple fact. Sometimes it’s ameliorated by experience, sometimes by education, and sometimes by both. I like to think I fall into that last category, thanks to my years in the Gulf. But I also accept that all white people are racist, it’s merely a matter of degree and constant self-policing. And I try my best to self-police. So films like Brick Lane are important, if not the most compelling drama ever. On the one hand, Tannishtha Chatterjee is compelling in the lead role and Satish Kaushik makes her husband seem a lot more sympathetic than he deserves to be… But not much of it feels like it connects with Islam, despite an impassioned speech by Chanu Ahmed; and Nazneen’s lover, Christopher Simpson, comes across more as a paper-thin wide boy than anything else… I don’t know; maybe I was expecting more than the film was prepared to deliver, than the original novel was prepared to deliver. But it all felt a bit shallow and glib to me.

The Last Wave*, Peter Weir (1977, Australia). Richard Chamberlain is a corporate lawyer in Australia – the reason for his American accent is never explained, although his parents are introduced as his adoptive parents – who is assigned by legal aid to defend an Aboriginal man from the charge of murdering his friend. Something about the Aboriginal man Chamberlain finds striking, an inexplicable connection the two seem to have. The crime itself remains a mystery – five men in a bar, they’re thrown out for being Aboriginal, one ends up dead. The barrister assigned to the defence resents Chamberlain’s naivete – he can’t claim tribal murder for non-tribal Aboriginal people, ie, those living in the city. But Chamberlain is convinced it’s tribal murder, and through his dreams becomes swept up in the life  of his defendant, and the crime for which he was charged. There’s an obvious use of Dreamtime here, and Aboriginal beliefs, and perhaps the framing narrative is somewhat banal – it even has the “strange black man” outside the house, which was never an acceptable trope – but Weir handles the way Chamberlain gets sucked into the Aboriginal world-view quite effectively, so much so in fact that the final scene, to which the title refers, remains ambiguous. The Last Wave feels like a film with good intentions that has not aged well. It’s overlong, it’s choice of Chamberlain as the protagonist weakens its story, and its borderline positioning of Aboriginal people as “magical negros” only just manages not to be racist. The fact it has subsequently proven hard to find seems almost fitting. I’d say it was worth seeing, but only for those willing to track it down.

The Whispering Star, Sion Sono (2015, Japan). Another random film that looked interesting so I bunged it on my rental list. I suspect I may have thought it was anime and, from the title, sf anime, like 2001 Nights or Voices of a Distant Star. It’s sf, alright, but it’s not anime. It’s filmed in black and white. The director’s partner, Megumi Kagurazaka, plays an interstellar delivery person, although it’s not clear how real this is. Her spaceship resembles a house from the outside, and the opening scenes feature her repeating both a number of simple household tasks and her dialogue. It turns out she is delivering items to survivors of the Fukushima nuclear incident, played in the film by real life survivors. I don’t know if The Whispering Star was filmed in the areas abandoned as a consequence of the nuclear meltdown, but it certainly looks like it. To add to the strangeness, all the dialogue is looped, and delivered in whispered tones. Almost as if it were intended to represent telepathy. There’s no plot as such. The end result is an experimental film that overstays its welcome, and reminds me in many respects of Lukas Moodysson’s Container (there is also something container-like about Kagurazaka’s spaceship), but nonetheless makes a number of valid points about Fukushima. As a result of seeing The Whispering Star, I looked into Sono’s other films, and it looks like he has an oeuvre worth exploring…

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 918


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Moving pictures, #57

Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.

down_by_lawDown by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

red_sorghumRed Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

the_deadThe Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.

sergeant_yorkSergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.

chrysanthemumsThe Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.

criminal_loversCriminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near  as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817