strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I'm woefully behind with both film and book blogging, and it's really weighing on me and stopping me from getting on with other things I want to do. So I'm determined today to get caught up, at least on the films. I'm sure at one point I could have said more on all which follow below, but since we are literally going back to July for these ones, I have inevitably forgotten much of my initial reaction - which for catch-up purposes is probably a good thing. The watch-words here are key points and light touch - not exhaustive detail.

17. Qu'est-ce qu'on a fait au Bon Dieu? (2014), dir. Philippe de Chauveron

I saw this on DVD with my sister and Nicolas while I was in the Midlands for Christophe's first birthday. It's a French comedy about families, religion and racism - quite a cocktail of topics to take on, but it does work really well.

The basic set-up is that a traditional wealthy Catholic family in possession of a moderately-sized château has four daughters, three of whom have already married husbands of varied religious and ethnic backgrounds - specifically, a Muslim, a Jew and a Chinese man. The parents have stoically accepted their choices so far, but have pinned their hopes on their fourth and final daughter choosing a Catholic husband. Great news! She does. The only problem is that he's a black immigrant from the Ivory Coast. Inevitably, the rest of the film from the moment when they find this out follows their journey (and that of the husband-to-be's family too) from initial shock and horror, through a fragile attempt to behave reasonably about it, a dramatic blow-up and finally discovering that they all had more in common than they had ever realised and becoming bosom buddies.

While checking that I had remembered the title of the film correctly, I came across this article in the Telegraph, claiming that it didn't get a release here as distributors judged it was too racist for British viewers. But in my view this entirely misses the point of the film. All of the racism expressed in it is the butt of a joke, and very explicitly coded as a bad and problematic thing which needs to be dealt with so that everyone can be happier - which is exactly what happens at the end of the film. In fact, it seems to me that the judgement made by the distributors here is a sad reflection of a fear culture which we've managed to create around potentially-controversial material. Rather than attempt to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful portrayals of racism, cautious distributors just Won't Go There at all - which of course only leads to silence and erasure and lots of stories which act like racism doesn't exist. It does, and I think it's better to acknowledge that up-front than pretend otherwise. So well done France for that.

There is more of a case for saying that a film which shows, as this one does, that racism can easily be overcome by just getting drunk together and bonding trivialises the structural and pervasive nature of actual racism. But this is a comedy. Its treatment of racism is pretty far-reaching in spite of that, but the genre does ultimately depend on light-hearted simplicity. Besides, any film with a happy ending gives a rather false impression of how easily life's many complexities and problems can be solved. So I'm happy with this one as an enjoyable watch and a very human story, and am only sorry it won't be widely seen outside of France.

18. Scream Blacula, Scream! (1973), dir. Bob Kelljan

Watched with [ profile] ms_siobhan in July, this is a sequel to Blacula, which was rushed out the following year to capitalise on its success after it proved so popular. It's very much what you would expect given those circumstances - definitely enjoyable in many of the same ways as the first one, but also feelings like a re-tread of the same ground with a lower budget and generally more limited horizons.

William Marshall returns as Mamuwalde, having been resurrected in a voodoo ritual, but while he puts in a strong performance, there's a sense that his characterisation hasn't entirely been thought through at script level. On the one hand, he wants to be freed of his vampire curse and asks a voodoo practitioner to conduct a ritual which will exorcise him - but on the other, he doesn't actually seem to show any real conflict or anguish about going round biting people the rest of the time. Elsewhere, we have some good characters, including plenty of strong and self-assured women, some excellent funky party scenes and some truly enormous shirt-collars. But the plot never achieves very much sense of momentum, and overall, it feels like a classic case of attempting to replicate a successful movie without quite understanding what it was that made the first one so good.

There's still a bit of conscious social commentary in this one - particularly when Mamuwalde encounters a black prostitute, and upbraids the also-black pimps who are controlling her for making a slave of their sister in that way. [ profile] ms_siobhan also very rightly noted a careful coding in the characters' hair-styles - that the good guys (and gals) all had more 'natural' Afros, and could thus be read as at ease with their Afro-Caribbean heritage, whereas the power-hungry or selfish characters (again both male and female) generally had straightened hair or weaves, signalling a greater adherence to western ideals of beauty. So, like the first film, there is plenty in this too which boils down to black producers, writers, directors and actors articulating their own realities of being black in 1970s America, and that makes for interesting viewing. But it was all just embedded in a stronger drama the first time around.

19. The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

Still in July here - I watched this one late in that month with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House. Obviously it is a massive classic, and with extremely good reason. I hadn't seen it before, but am glad now to understand at last the many iconic images and quotable lines from it which I have come across before without ever quite 'getting' them. It's well-plotted, beautifully shot, fantastically well-acted, and captures the fragile world of a Europe just starting to rebuild after the war very powerfully. And it is so very Grahame Greene, especially I think in the essentially isolated nature of the characters. Of course Anna Schmidt and Holly Martins don't get together at the end, because there are unsurmountable barriers between them and Greene has spend the whole film showing us that. No unthinking happy endings here.

I particularly appreciated the huge amounts of effort which had obviously been poured into getting the fine details of every scene just right in order to tell the story being conveyed - like the autumn leaves slowly falling in the last scene, which certainly weren't falling from the trees we can see as they are already bare, and must therefore have been dropped by an unseen stage-crew just above the camera's field of vision. Or the fact that Martins and Lime agree to meet in a cafe called the Marc Aurel, which acknowledges that Marcus Aurelius died in Vienna (then the frontier fortress of Vindobona), and I think actively adds to the story by evoking the wars which dogged Europe during his reign too, as well as perhaps a sense of tragedy around the passing of the last of the Five Good Emperors and the accession of Commodus.

It was nice, too, to see it relatively soon after my own trip to Vienna last September, especially since on the final day of that trip I walked up to the Danube from where we were staying, and as it happened my route took me right past the enormous ferris wheel, properly known as the Wiener Riesenrad in which Holly Martins and Harry Lime first confront one another. I had no idea what it was as I walked past it that day , and certainly no idea that it dates right back to 1897. But I do remember feeling (on what was anyway a rather overcast day with few people around) that the ferris wheel itself and the amusement park it stands in had an air of bleak desolation about them which has now transferred very nicely into my experience of this film.

Right - that's three done out of six which needed it. I'm having a break for dinner now, and hopefully will get the remaining three done this evening.

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strange_complex: (Twiggy)
Seen this afternoon at the Hyde Park Picture House with [ profile] ms_siobhan. In one sense, it is another Monsieur Hulot film, and thus follows on from Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, which we saw at the Cottage Road almost (I am shocked to discover) five years ago now. Certainly, it includes M. Hulot as a character. But he is less prominent this time, and the feel of this film as a whole is quite different.

Les Vacances was already in part about vignettes of everyday life and capturing the character of the location, but Playtime is noticeably more concerned with both of those, and less so with M. Hulot himself and his antics. The farce and comedy also often require a pretty sharp eye to spot. In Les Vacances it would usually be the main focus of the shot, but in Playtime you are often looking at an extensive scenario with a lot of different things going on at once, and while things like chairs coming apart, people using a lamp-stand as a pole on a bus, people sneaking contraband glugs of alcohol etc. are there to see and are intended for comic effect, they aren't as in your face in this film.

In fact, it reminded me this time rather of Fellini's Roma (1972), which is definitely not a comparison Les Vacances would invite. It's the way both lack a traditional plot and instead just follow people around the city, documenting their strange little ways both individually and collectively. And, as I said to [ profile] ms_siobhan, the way Playtime has a brief little scene of nuns with wimples that bounce as they walk, which took me right back to the clerical fashion parade in Roma, where the wimples do just the same - only more so. Now that I know about the similarity, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Fellini was deliberately referencing Tati there, in fact. This certainly seems much the sort of film I can see Fellini liking.

The big difference between Roma and Playtime, though, is that Roma is very much about Rome's many strange juxtapositions, and especially the contrast between different layers of time in the city. But Playtime is all about an ultramodernist Paris, in which the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Coeur appear only as reflections in plate-glass windows, and which doesn't actually exist. The Wikipedia article explains all about this - the locations are almost exclusively purpose-built sets full of plate-glass and tower-blocks, including photographic images for some of the buildings and cardboard cut-outs for some of the people (which I certainly noticed, and which adds to the surreal, inhuman feel). So it is not a biography of a real, living city like Roma, but an exploration of a particular kind of urbanism, and what it means to try to be a human being in the midst of it all.

As such, a lot of it feels quite muted, regimented and claustrophobic, because that is what Tati is basically trying to say about ultramodernism. But things become more exuberant towards the end of the film, when we spend a good half hour or more following the goings-on of the opening night at a new restaurant called the Royal Garden. This is full of disasters (lights shorting out, décor falling down, waiters' clothes getting ripped on chair-backs), but it doesn't stop the patrons having a rip-roaring time as the band plays and the alcohol flows. This was lots of fun to watch, and [ profile] ms_siobhan and I agreed that there were some fantastic frocks on the lady patrons, too.

Earlier on, I also absolutely loved the man who is selling doors which close "in golden silence", gets really angry with M. Hulot, and launches into an extensive rant at him which includes several dramatic door-slams - but of course finds that his treasured product does not make the required noise. And, in a different way, the shots of an American tourist, Barbara, looking around at the posters in a tourist agency, and finding that every single one shows a nearly-identical tower-block with a small token image of an actual local feature or landmark shoved into one corner.

All in all, an interesting, enjoyable and often poignant film which is certainly beautifully shot, but is sometimes also a little slow, and definitely wouldn't make a good first introduction to M. Hulot. Stick with Les Vacances for that.

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strange_complex: (Asterix Romans)
Seen with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and [ profile] big_daz at the Cottage Road cinema. IMDb page here.

Yup, it's another of the Cottage Road Classics. The evening of course began with the usual vintage adverts. We were informed that Shell has the power to lubricate, and that Bobbi perming solution would not give us kinky curls. We also got to see some gloriously 1970s adverts for Coke and shoes, the latter featuring Lulu in some cracking flares. And there was a Fairy liquid ad from the 1950s, featuring a young girl who wanted her mother's used Fairy bottles to play skittles with. That one hardly felt like a novel and exciting view into the past, though, since Fairy draw so much on their advertising back-catalogue anyway in a drive to create a sense of nostalgia and tradition around their product that we are still seeing scenes just like it on our TVs every day.

The film itself is a French comedy classic. Actually, I'd never heard of Monsieur Hulot before this showing came up, but apparently the character was a HUGE phenomenon in his day, with a whole series of films and a massive popular following. More recently, the films have provided direct inspiration for Mr. Bean, both in the sense of presenting a central character who is awkward and accident-prone, and in the sense that they have very little dialogue - mainly just gestures, facial expressions and occasional trivial chatter.

M. Hulot is definitely not the same as Mr. Bean, though - thank goodness, because I can't stand Mr. Bean. Where Mr. Bean is creepy, childish and mean-spirited, M. Hulot manages to seem quite sweet and well-meaning even while he is also gauche and absent-minded. I've never felt the slightest scrap of sympathy for Mr. Bean - only an urgent desire to change channel or, failing that, leave the room. But though M. Hulot certainly does things which are annoying (like inadvertently setting off an entire shed-full of fireworks while everyone else is trying to sleep), he does also at least try to be polite and gentlemanly and thoughtful. He even turns out to be unexpectedly good at tennis - not because he has any real skill, but because he faithfully mimics some rather odd racket movements demonstrated to him by the lady in the tennis shop, and they turn out to be a winning formula. By the end of the film, quite a few of his fellow vacationers have had enough of him, mainly because of the fireworks. But others bid him fond and enthusiastic farewells, in terms which suggest that they've secretly rather enjoyed his little antics.

The film has no plot as such, which is why dialogue isn't really necessary. But it more than makes up for that in characterisation. It comes across as an extended bout of high-quality people-watching, interspersed with idyllic shots of a French seaside town and overlain with lilting summery music. We simply follow M. Hulot and his fellow holiday-makers about their day to day business, dropping in and out of people's conversations, picking up on their funny little quirks, and then shifting our attention onwards. The little boys playing naughty tricks on the beach, the bossy mother, the pretentious intellectual, the young woman in search of romance, the jolly English tennis coach, the bored restaurateur, the military veteran reliving his greatest moments. They're all lovingly sketched out and beautifully played off against one another.

It's a tradition at the Cottage to round off classic film nights by playing the national anthem and projecting a picture of the Queen (or occasionally one of her predecessors) onto the screen. In deference to our French cousins, though, this time we had the Marseillaise and a picture of the Arc de Triomphe instead! And then it was out into the evening air (and a huge cloud of dandelion-seeds) to walk home, laughing once again over all our favourite moments. The moment when he got a stuffed fox stuck on his riding-boot; the moment when he was flipped into the harbour by a tow-rope; the deflating tyre at the funeral; the man who dropped his pen in a fish-tank, carefully rolled up one sleeve but then accidentally stuck the other arm in to retrieve it; the paint tin washed in and out by the tide; and so on and so forth. Not the sort of comedy I usually think of myself as liking - but somehow here done just right.

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strange_complex: (One walking)
Another proper historical story - and it feels very traditional now after the more subversive approach of The Myth Makers. That's not to say it isn't good, though. We're sort of back with John Lucarotti (of Marco Polo and The Aztecs fame), and this script offers the same kind of weighty moral debates, and the same grappling with the issue of whether the TARDIS crew can or cannot affect history, as his earlier efforts. But apparently it was largely re-written by Donald Tosh, so it is not 'pure' Lucarotti - a pity, because it would have been interesting to see more directly how a writer of season 1-style historical stories had worked in the context of the changes which had occurred at production level by season 3. I can only assume the re-writing scenario means that the answer to that is 'not very well'.

The initial set-up )

Bleakness and moral balance )

The Doctor's double )

Non-intervention and the resultant dilemma )

Steven )

Dodo )

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I saw this last night at the Cottage Road cinema with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and Rachel WINOLJ (AFAIK). It was another of the Cottage's Classic film nights, like when we went to see Meet Me in St. Louis before Christmas, so once again we were treated to adverts from the 1950s to the 1980s before the film - though not, alas, a Pathé news reel this time. We got instructions on how to behave at a drive-in movie, two Hamlet cigar adverts, a very surreal cereal advert featuring a couple dressed as the people in the American Gothic painting singing about how great their cornflakes were, and a seductive soft-focus advert all about the pleasures of eating Wall's ice-cream in the sun, with a heavy emphasis on the posterior of a female bicyclist wearing tight blue satin hot-pants.

The film itself is an Ealing comedy. I didn't think I knew it, but recognised the plot point about trying to smuggle gold bullion out of the country disguised as souvenir Eiffel towers, so maybe I have seen snippets of it on TV at some point. Anyway, it was great, especially on the big screen, with lots of comic misdemeanours, farcical chase scenes and cracking characters. I especially liked the game old lady in the boarding house who had picked up loads of criminals' slang from reading detective novels; and the scene with Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway desperately attempting to leap on a cross-channel ferry, but having to work their way through a series of bureaucratic ticket officials, passport controllers, customs officers and foreign exchange dealers first. It reminded me painfully of some of my experiences in Schiphol airport, which it seems to be impossible to negotiate via anything other than a painful combination of mad dashes and frustratingly-slow queues.

The end credits threw up a surprising link with the last film I watched, too. I'd thought one of the characters in the opening scene looked rather like Audrey Hepburn, but assumed that it couldn't be, since her role was so minimal - all of about 10 seconds and two lines. But, sure enough, the credit list confirmed that it was indeed her, two years before she shot to fame in Roman Holiday. Her very brief scene is in this Youtube clip if any of you would like to see it for yourselves.

Finally, we were once again invited to stand and salute for the national anthem - but this time it was George VI who was projected on the screen in front of us, rather than a youthful QEII like last time. The film stock was clearly very old, as you could hardly make him out through the dust and scratches, but there he was in glorious technicolor with a Union Jack flying proudly behind him.

Another brilliant evening out, and once again I can't wait for the next time.

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strange_complex: (Poirot truth)
It's no secret that I've been watching a lot of Poirot lately. It's part of my growing obsession with the 1930s - in fact, in a sort of circularity, it's probably also part of the reason why I was so attracted to my house and its neighbours in the first place. For a girl drawn to the style moderne in any case, the luxuriant treatment which it gets via ITV's Poirot cemented that attraction, iconising it into something truly to be aspired to. And, once I moved in, how much more exciting the TV series became in its turn, as I could imagine myself inhabiting the same universe as the strange little Belgian detective.

A tangential eulogy on the TV series )

Thus have I gone from half-watching Poirot whenever it happened to be on without really paying full attention, to being utterly caught up in it, and indeed last weekend finally deciding to invest in the DVD boxed set. And it seemed to me also that it was about time I extended my interest to actually reading some of the books. In fact I did read a Poirot novel some years ago, when I had just turned 17 and we were staying for a family holiday at a gîte in France. There on the bookshelf I found a copy of Le Crime de l'Orient Express, which I devoured during the long afternoons when it was too hot to go out. But while it taught me a great deal about how to use the past historic tense (the one tense we hadn't 'done' as part of our French GCSE, and which I felt disempowered without), it obviously wasn't an authentic encounter with Christie's original English prose.

This time instead, I've gone right to the root of the matter. I spent my Christmas book-token on a volume containing the first four of the Poirot novels to feature the character of Hastings, including the very first one of all, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Technically, I've seen the story on TV, but since it belonged firmly to my 'not-really-paying-attention' phase, I could remember very little about the plot. I knew there was something important about the spills on the mantelpiece, but I had no idea whatsoever who had committed the murder, so it didn't really spoil the 'whodunnit' aspect of the novel for me. Not that I think that will ever be the important thing for me anyway - as with my watching of Doctor Who, it is the (semi-)fantastical settings and the characterisation that attracts me to the Poirot stories.

Now, having read the novel, I am half-satisfied by what it offers on those fronts. The characterisation which I so love on the television is definitely nascent here. It isn't perhaps yet quite so rounded or so profound as what David Suchet does - but then, this is only the first novel, whereas he had the benefit of Christie's total Poirot corpus on which to base his characterisation from the beginning. There's definitely enough here, anyway, to make me want to return and read the other three volumes in my collection at some point.

The setting, though, is pretty deficient. Of course, Christie doesn't have the visual resources at her disposal which the ITV production team do. And fine clothes and elegant stream-line moderne houses don't really belong in a novel set at the end of the First World War. But, as I said above, the settings for these stories are not merely window-dressing in the television series. They are all about creating an appropriate world in which the characters can come to life, and an atmosphere to suit the developments of the plot. The same effect can be achieved on the printed page, as Thomas Hardy demonstrates so brilliantly. But Christie largely eschews it in favour of dialogue and action. The result is that although I do see that what she achieved in her novels was tremendously innovative and exciting and important, I'm left feeling that it was the ITV series which really added the richesse that now makes them masterpieces of the small screen.

I don't know whether that continued to be the case as she developed as a novelist - it's one of the things I hope to find out as I explore her other stories. But for the moment, I think their value to me will be largely as the foundation stones on which a beloved TV series has been so carefully constructed. And there's much to be said for standing on the shoulders of giants.

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strange_complex: (Cities Esteban butterfly)
I know the entire world saw this film and loved it nearly a decade ago, but I somehow never got round to it, so I'm just catching up.

I may not have chosen the best time, actually. I think the circumstances of my life at the moment mean I'm a bit too tired and cynical to really engage with its life-affirming message. Ironically for a film about escapism, it wasn't escapist enough for my present needs.

Still, I did enjoy it as a finely-crafted work of art. All of the performances are excellent, the camera-work was playfully innovative and interesting without being distracting, and I loved the muted colour palette which managed to make modern-day Paris look as though it had slipped backwards into the golden haze of the '50s and '60s. It made me laugh sometimes, too, especially when we saw the results of the naughty tricks which Amélie played on M. Collignon (the green-grocer), so I'm not completely beyond hope.

It did give me a bit of a shock language-wise, though. I've been watching TV5 Monde at home quite a lot lately, and it had lulled me into a false sense of security about my French language competence, since I can watch it quite happily with no need of subtitles and follow pretty much everything that's going on. But TV5 Monde consists mainly of news programmes and documentaries, in which clear factual information is explained slowly and distinctly in the crispest of accents by presenters who are aiming quite consciously at a global audience, including non-native French speakers. Amélie, on the other hand, is full of people speaking in idiomatic and sometimes slangy everyday French at an enormously rapid pace. I didn't half need the subtitles, I can tell you.

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