Film #284: The Devils (1971)

director: Ken Russell
language: English with some Latin
length: 107 minutes
watched on: 19 April 2017

My friend gave me this DVD (along with other recently-reviewed films like Sebastiane and Grey Gardens – the connection with Sebastiane is that Derek Jarman was also the set designer for The Devils). The cover promises something that was very controversial at its time of release, and has been specially restored to a previously-unavailable version.

A bit of digging and research later, (i.e. listening to Mark Kermode’s introduction and looking at the DVD notes) I found that it is actually still missing some key scenes that were in the original uncut movie – ones that were much more explicitly blasphemous such as the infamous “Rape of Christ” scene. The BBFC made some cuts to the original, and the MPAA in America made further cuts – the latter version was available on DVD in both countries, and this DVD is the original BBFC-cut version. It’s a bit confusing!

I’ve never actually seen any of Ken Russell’s other work, but his name precedes him, and I went into this movie not really knowing what the story was about in detail, but hoping for the best. It’s based on a historical story, and set in Medieval France. The two biggest characters are a corrupt priest and a nun with a hunchback and a lot of suppressed sexual desire. The main scene is one where the nuns are consumed with hysteria and dance naked through the halls of the church.

I think the DVD cover built me up to expect something a lot more shocking – the fact that it’s the first time it’s been restored, for example, and that it has an 18 certificate. But I think the most shocking and gory scenes have still not been reinserted into the film. I also reckon I’d be more shocked if I was religious – as it stands, what is in the film doesn’t shock me so much.

The film seems to be in a parallel reality – apparently they wanted to convey that Loudun, the setting of the majority of the movie, was considered a modern city by the standards of the time, so they designed the sets and dressed the characters as if it was modern in the 20th century. Sometimes, anyway. Bits of it look like the Paris Metro in shiny breeze blocks, and other bits are made of stone. The costumes seem to be period-accurate… until you get to the guy wearing purple sunglasses, and the 70s haircuts. I’m quite glad that the characters didn’t put on French accents for the movie, too. Occasionally we’re reminded that if it were real they would be speaking French, and they switch to Latin for some of the Catholic parts, but otherwise they use their normal English accents. I’m reminded of movies like Chocolat where some of the actors use faux-French accents and the others don’t, and the result is incongruous – not so in this film.

It’s generally a well-edited film, and it often does the thing I like that The Fifth Element also does, where it jumps between different sets of characters having the same conversation, and uses this to set up comedic moments. There are quite a lot of comedic moments in general – I liked the cardinal who never walks anywhere, for example, or that the nun is irrationally worried about her hunchback.

The cuts made by the BBFC somtimes jar a bit – it was obvious to me when watching the exorcism scene in the third act that this had been sloppily cut and re-edited. Shots I’d expect in a modern movie were just missing, like cutting to show the result of some violent action, which was deemed too gory back in 1971 but might have been left in if it had been released today. I’ve watched a lot of films, and know the rhythm that they usually take, and the cut scenes obviously didn’t flow as well as the others.

So overall good, I just hope I can see the uncut version someday!

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Film #276: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

aka: Avril et le monde truqué
directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
language: French
length: 101 minutes
watched on: 23 March 2017

I picked this up randomly when I was back in the UK at new year. In fact, I think I bought it mainly because if I bought two DVDs with a particular deal, they’d be £20 for two (it was this and Departure, if anyone’s wondering, and I also bought a bunch of other movies too). DVDs are expensive, yo!

Anyway, my last foray into French animation was a complete dud, so I was slightly worried that I’d have the same problem again, but this is not computer-animated. Phew! It’s gone down the Japanese route of adapting a comic book (manga, bande-déssinée, whatever you want to call them) to the big screen, and it looks the part. A lot of the character styles, and the sensibility of the animation, remind me strongly of Tintin, and likewise a lot of the humour seems to be drawn from a similar source.

The movie is an alternate history story where the age of steam didn’t die out, electricity was either never discovered or never harnessed properly, and things stayed roughly as they were in the 19th century. The film is set around the 1930s or so, but the history is completely different: needing coal and wood to power everything, Europe faces an energy crisis and starts fighting over who gets to strip-mine Canada. It’s “steampunk”, in a word. Things that would be controlled by electricity in the real world are clunking great steam machines. It’s very much in the vein of Howl’s Moving Castle, or the Japanese anime Steamboy, which I watched a few years ago. In fact, the plot of Steamboy, just reading back on Wikipedia, seems suspiciously similar to this one. There’s a MacGuffin (the elixir of life, or something), and people have to fly around on clunking machines to get at it.

Anyway, the characters are funny – I like the fact that the main character is female, for one thing. She has a talking cat pet, which also tangentially reminds me of Tintin. I think the world is well-developed and looks nice, if very brown. From the exquisite descriptions on the DVD case of the visual style of the film, I was expecting something less beige. But it does make the colourful parts come alive a bit more.

Say no more for now, but the film just goes bonkers in the third act when the identities of the secret captors are revealed. I think by this point I’d decided just to enjoy the film, and even though it’s stupid, it ties together somehow. So I can let it off.

The level of technology in steampunk stuff always amuses me. It’s always way above and beyond what we in the real world can produce, despite being set a hundred years ago. This is guilty of that – the “bad guys” have some kind of super space age ‘copter that can control the weather and go invisible, but the rest of the world are stuck with heavy pollution and mechanical parts that break a lot. It reminds me of the bonkers last act of Wild Wild West, when Kevin Kline has a giant mechanical spider. Like, there’s steampunk, and there’s pushing the boundary of what can be considered physically possible, and that danced right over the line.

It’s enjoyable, anyway, one of those gems I was lucky to find by browsing (this is why physical stores are important). And if anyone wants to borrow this or any of the other DVDs I have, you’d be welcome. Has anyone else seen this? What do you think?

Film #262: Departure (2015)

departure-2015director: Andrew Steggall
language: English and French
length: 104 minutes
watched on: 20 Jan 2017

I heard about this movie last year, and like a lot of the other movies I’ve reviewed recently, it was one of my eagerly anticipated movies of the last year or two. I’d been waiting for the DVD price to go down a bit – eventually, I bought it when I went back home for New Year this time. As usual, good luck getting it released over here (it can be delivered internationally, though!).

Heaven knows I’ve watched enough gay coming-of-age stories in my life already, but I still fall for it very easily. But watching the trailer I could see a hint of something special there, and I liked the folk music accompaniment. Inadvertently, I’ve also completed a kind of trilogy of gay coming-of-age movies set in the rural south of France, this one following Being 17 and Summertime. In fact, the opening shots of this movie reminded me a lot of the latter film, and the imagery and composition was reminiscent of the former. Seasons are again very important to this film, and it provides the autumn counterpart to winter, spring and summer of the other two movies.

The story is about a mother and son, who go to their creaky old holiday home in the south of France to get ready to sell it. They have to pack up their old life, but neither really wants to. Then the son (Elliot) comes across a French guy (Clément), in that time-honored gay coming-of-age story way by seeing him naked from afar, followed by quickly approaching him and inducting him into the family’s life. Clément also awakens something in the mother, triggering a tense competition between mother and son. Such animosity was already developing between them, but it gets worse over the course of the movie.

Elliot is played by the very cute but very young-looking Alex Lawther, who’s already picked up a couple of accolades for his other work. His character is fundamentally bored, and he’s on the cusp of adulthood – a big theme of the movie is endings, with the autumn setting and the sale of the house, which ties into him leaving behind childhood. He’s got a poetic mind, and already seems to know his sexuality – he proudly announces at one point that all the French writers he knows are gay. He occasionally has fantasies that are reflected in strange magical realism or imaginary moments in the film – one of him as St Sebastian, and another later on with falling leaves indoors.

The mother, Beatrice, is superbly performed by Juliet Stevenson, and perfectly captures the feeling of a woman who feels abandoned by her husband and son, but is trying to put a very middle class brave face on it. She gets upset very easily and is obviously in emotional turmoil. I think she hit me closer to the bone than the other characters, as she reminded me a lot of my own mother in many ways, desperate to rekindle the childhood relationship she had with her son, yet very isolated and going through a lot of emotions all at once.

Ultimately the boy that they end up fighting over is window-dressing – the central conflict is between Elliot and her, him trying to be aloof and not so keen to be treated like a child, and her trying desperately to reconnect with him. Or he’s embarrassed by her in a typical teenager way and shocked that she’s trying to flirt with the French guy too. But we’re reminded at key moments that the French guy has real feelings too – too often they’re ignored by the main characters, causing upset and argument.

The sexual content in the movie weirded me out a bit – while it’s nothing explicit, of course, it’s showing Elliot masturbating off camera, and later finding a carrot as a conveniently-sized vegetable to … use on himself in bed (followed by one of the movie’s more comedic moments when his mother almost catches him and makes an inadvertent innuendo). I couldn’t quite take the movie seriously at these points. They’re important to the movie and its repressed atmosphere, but I just started laughing. I think it’s just because Elliot is still obviously a child, by the way he acts otherwise.

The movie is a lot of melodrama, overall, and there are a lot of overwrought images in it. Sometimes the themes can be shoved in viewers’ faces a little too forcefully – especially the whole theme of endings, constantly reinforced by the autumn imagery. The movie was treading the line between pretension and fine art for quite a lot of the runtime.

So I don’t think it’s a perfect movie by any means, but I was deeply moved by parts of it, I loved the imagery and cinematography, and I’m definitely going to be watching out for those actors again. And I couldn’t get the movie out of my head for a few days. Highly recommended.

Anyone else seen it?

Film #255: Summertime (2015)

labellesaisonaka: La belle saison
director: Catherine Corsini
language: French (and a little bit of Spanish)
length: 105 minutes
watched on: 26 Dec 2016 (plane 6/6)

I mentioned in my review of the short film I watched on the way back to the UK that I’d been sifting through Air France’s selection for anything LGBT-related, and this film was basically the only one I could find (I had a vain hope that I might be able to find Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17), with proper subtitles, but it wasn’t to be). I heard about it last year because it was the opening event at the LGBT film festival in Tokyo (now called Rainbow Reel Tokyo – I wrote some reviews last year starting with this one), and if I’d had a little more time and money, I might have tried to go, but it didn’t make the cut, eventually.

The movie is about a country girl who goes to university in the city, in the 70s. She gets accidentally caught up in a feminist group, by saving one of them from an aggressive man – she then starts a passionate love affair with that woman. And so on. The other woman comes back with her to the countryside and tries to fit in, but finds it difficult.

Just opening with farmland vistas it was already shaping up to be very similar in tone and style to Being 17. That other movie also had farms and landscape almost acting like another character. Seasonality is also important – this time it’s summer in particular. The characters spend large parts of the second act lounging in fields and having picnics. There’s something very French about that, it makes me nostalgic for going on holiday there as a child. There’s also something very French about the frank nudity in the second act, incidentally – what else should we expect?

I’ve mentioned a lot recently the tendency for filmmakers to exaggerate the distinction between now and the periods they’re portraying, to the point that it becomes parody or cartoonish – I’ve noticed this in High-Rise, Toast, and Stranger Things, just to name a few. I was reminded of High-Rise in this movie by the fact that people are constantly smoking, at least in the Paris scenes – but these scenes are actually more evocative of nouvelle-vague due to that and a few other things, reminding me a lot of Jean-Luc Godard’s work.

There is a familiar tension between the city and country in this film, especially between the two leads – the one girl who has to go back to the countryside to take care of her mother and dying father, and the other who kind of follows her reluctantly and never fits in there. And of course with homophobia – attitudes to such things in liberal Paris are at odds with how the mother reacts late in the film when she finds out about the two women sleeping together.

The film touches on a much wider variety of issues than that, though – sometimes it feels like it’s making too much of an effort, in fact. But I really enjoyed it. It was uplifting, despite a lot of heartbreak and emotion. It had a lot of comedy moments, despite often being very sad. It chronicles the entire course of a love affair from beginning to end, over the course of a brief summer (as I mentioned, and as the title proclaims, seasons are very important), and I think that is one of the main things that differentiates it from Being 17, which is all about beginnings.

It can be all too easy when exploring the world of LGBT cinema to stick to your own gender – a lot of gay men don’t watch lesbian films and vice versa – and I don’t think I need to convince any lesbians to watch this. So this goes out to all the guys, and straight people, reading this review – watch this. It’s good.

Film #247: Being 17 (2016)

qoa17ansaka: Quand on a 17 ans
director: André Téchiné
language: French with a bit of Spanish
length: 109 minutes
watched on: 16 Dec 2016

There’s been a bit of buzz about this movie in LGBT circles over the last few months, and I finally got around to watching it in December. Now, I don’t usually talk about this publicly, but if you know about it already or you look at the IMDB page now, you will know that it’s only had a limited release in the US, and certainly not in Japan or even the UK. Spoiler alert: I downloaded it. But honestly, I don’t recommend that, not yet: it’s only had a DVD release in the Netherlands, and the subtitles included with the torrent are Google-translated from Dutch. My French is good enough that I could just use the subtitles to understand the more difficult words, but this lack of proper subtitles may ruin one’s enjoyment. However, next spoiler alert: I really liked this movie, and I would definitely see it again on the big screen if I get the chance (fingers crossed it comes to the festival in Tokyo this year). So I’d hold out for that, or a proper DVD release.

The film is set in the Pyrénées, and it opens with extraordinary vistas of the mountains in the winter. Seasonality is very important in the movie, and it transitions in the second and third acts to spring and summer. Honestly, I haven’t seen such an immediately beautiful movie in a while. It really revels in the scenery, and that’s the main reason I want to see it again on the big screen.

The plot follows two boys, who don’t get on at school – they’re always fighting. But one’s doctor mother helps the other’s sick mother, who turns out to be pregnant. She then helps out the other family by taking in the other boy for a while, much to the chagrin of her own son. Then in the time-honoured tradition of gay films, he falls for the other guy. Long story short, anyway.

It’s not completely true to my experience – I didn’t roughhouse with my fellow students so much, and I wasn’t so brutally honest with my crushes when I was a teenager. But it has a universality to the kinds of anxieties it captures, of being that age, beyond the usual coming-out anxieties typical of gay films. I’d be very disappointed if it gets relegated only to LGBT film festivals, but as usual, this is almost certainly going to happen.

I also like the slow-burn realization that they’re into each other, as I think it’s not until the third act that they finally do something about it, and not before a lot of angst, and quoting Rimbaud at each other, talking about desire and need. They’re also downright cute together by the end.

Is it the perfect movie? Not quite, but it’s very beautiful. Did it tear my heart into a thousand pieces? Yes…

Anyone else seen it?

Film #202: Nikita (1990)

nikitaaka: La Femme Nikita (in America)
Director: Luc Besson
Language: French
Length: 115 minutes
Watched on: 29 June 2016

I watch new stuff all the time, and this was one of the few things I’ve watched recently that I’ve seen before. I’ve caught wind that there’s been an American remake of this movie much more recently, and a TV series, but this is the original by Luc Besson, following the story of a drug addict who is forced to become a secret agent for the French government.

The film is a good balance of some light and very, very dark humour (a sequence near the end with Jean Reno comes to mind), and a bit of action-thriller and romance thrown in. Ultimately it’s a very complex film and it’s entertaining. It shows Luc Besson’s talent developing strongly close to the beginning of his career – there are obvious signs of later films such as The Fifth Element.

Perhaps unfairly to the film, that’s not what I wanted to write about today. I last watched it during my year of films in 2008, and it was somewhat drowned out in the surrounding haze of other films – so watching it again this year I noticed a lot more than I remember from before. I paid a bit more attention during the opening sequence in the training facility, and the film felt more connected together – although as it is, it’s structured as separate episodes in Nikita’s life.

No, the main thing is that I noticed how utterly dated the movie feels now – especially things like the hairstyles and the contemporary idea of what a strong, confident woman should look like – a three year period disappears without so much as a montage, and Nikita comes back looking like a parody of late-80s/early-90s fashion. I think the last eight years since I watched the film have made all the difference, actually – now that the 90s is two decades ago, this movie 26 years old, such differences are more stark.

In exactly the same fashion, I rewatched two more of Besson’s movies recently, The Fifth Element and Leon – and also Trainspotting (I don’t want to re-review any of them, that would be overkill). None of them have dated quite as much, and it’s been less time since I watched them (Leon and Trainspotting were both in 2011, and The Fifth Element maybe two years ago) but I had to stifle a groan at some of Trainspotting’s soundtrack, which screams 90s from every corner.

Leon has also dated a bit, but perhaps just because the New York depicted is grimier than I’m used to seeing in other movies. The Fifth Element has hardly dated at all, of course, but there are references to 90s songs like All Night Long, and I reckon if it were made today it would look slicker and have more CGI. Incidentally, I did get the “ultimate edition” DVD of The Fifth Element, mainly to see the behind the scenes bits that I hadn’t seen before. The most interesting is the “full” Diva Dance without cutting back and forth to a fighting scene as happens in the movie itself.

Anyway, that’s all an aside – 90s atmosphere notwithstanding, Nikita is good and you should watch it too!

Film #142: My Old Lady (2014)

molDirector: Israel Horovitz
Languages: English and French
Length: 107 minutes
Watched on: 7 Jan 2014

This was the last film I watched while I still had time to kill on the way back to Japan this January. It had a good review, as far as I could tell, but I want really sure what to expect from it.

In the story, Maggie Smith plays an old French lady, and the American main character inherits her house from his father – but he also inherits the strange and uniquely French viager arrangement, which means he only has the right to the house after she does, and until then has to pay for her pension, or something. It seems like a very strange system to me.

The film is adapted from a play, and this shows: in particular, it’s heavy on the dialogue and features three characters – and the setting, though it’s important that it’s Paris, is entirely incidental. But I think that it was adapted fairly well, despite being blatantly theatrical – perhaps it helps that the director of the movie also wrote the play. It’s also deft in the way it sets up narrative expectations early on and fulfils them later. Character is a recovering alcoholic? Guess what he drinks in act two! Character’s origins or relationships are unclear? We’d better get to unearthing them, then! Chekov’s gun is very much in full force in this movie.

The acting is pretty good too. I can’t remember who the main guy is – perhaps I hadn’t heard of him before. But Maggie Smith is definitely strong in this movie, and I’m starting to feel like it wouldn’t be a French movie about sad middle-aged people without Kristin Scott Thomas – she’s really carved out a niche for herself.

But that leads me to my main problem with the movie: although it’s leagues ahead of the second-rate American comedy of This Is Where I Leave You, the main subject matter is almost exactly the same: the main character’s father dies, and as a result, he goes through a midlife crisis. For me personally, I think I need a bit more life experience in order to relate to it.

That said, I think this movie, unlike the last one, is good enough to recommend. Just be sure you’re happy with saying something solidly theatrical and you should be fine with this. Oh, and if I remember correctly, there are no subtitles, and while you don’t need French to appreciate this film, as it’s told from the point of view of the monolingual American character, it probably helps. It’s not for everyone, I suppose.

Film #79: Ratatouille (2007)

ratatouilledirector: Brad Bird
language: English and some French
length: 111 minutes
watched on: 7 January 2013

The last of four films that I watched on the long journey back from the UK. I think I watched some truly terrible comedy afterwards just in the final hour or so, but I can’t even remember the name, just that it had Mark Heap and the kid from the Inbetweeners in it. Anyway, I was on a streak of Pixar and realised that this was the perfect opportunity to catch up on one of the few by them that I haven’t seen – apart from this, I think I’ve missed out on Cars, which I’ve heard isn’t very good by their standards. There’s probably at least one more. I don’t know.

Ratatouille is alright, not that great, especially compared to some of the other classics. It basically lived up to my expectations; one area in which it didn’t was that I was expecting a full-on talking rat, whereas here we see an intelligent rat but not one that can talk – he communicates with the boy by pulling his hair.

The concept of a rat pulling a boy’s hair to use him like a puppet is inherently comedic, but beyond that I didn’t think the movie does anything special with it. There’s a lot of slapstick humour, and a caricaturish villain in the head chef of the kitchen where the boy works. Nothing special.

Oh, one thing I remember was that it was a bit of a mess regarding accents: it’s set in Paris, but the main characters have American accents, while some other characters have put-on French accents. Annoying at best. And there was a tepid romance between the boy and a woman working in his restaurant, which was predictable and boring (actually, much of the plot was).

So I’d say it’s not bad but I’d rather watch most other Pixar movies over this one.

Film #54: Hugo (2011)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Language: English
Length: 126 minutes
Watched on: 13 Mar 2012

I watched this film at a very late-night screening back in March, purely out of curiosity for what it’d be like to go in at half past midnight and leave at around 3. Thanks to a quirk of the way things are timetabled in Japan, this was marked as “24:30-27:00” on the timetable (they do this to emphasise that it’s part of the previous day’s schedule rather than the next day’s, since 00:30 is potentially ambiguous). Afterwards, the first train back wasn’t until 5 am or so, so I had the chance to experience a Japanese internet café for a couple of hours (a bit boring, to be honest), and to be approached by several pimps on the main road…

As for the film itself, I went to see it in 3D, sort of on the recommendation of Mark Kermode, who seems insistent that it was the one film actually worth seeing in 3D. I didn’t really think it added anything. And I found most of it disappointingly bland. It has too much of a kids’ film feel for my liking.

It was certainly good in places. Sacha Baron Cohen (who I didn’t recognise at first) had an excellent turn as a bumbling policeman, after the manner of Clouseau or Crabtree; indeed, he looks very much like Officer Crabtree. The sequences looking at old silent films were quite interesting, too. It’s gained a lot of critical acclaim, to my knowledge.

But the whole thing with the clockwork steampunky robot thing was a bit ridiculous, and the rest of the story was just a bit disappointing and unmemorable.

Overall I think it was a nice film, and I’m glad I went to see it, but it wasn’t great.

Film #35: An Autumn Tale (1998)

aka: Conte d’automne
director: Éric Rohmer
language: French
length: 107 minutes
watched on: 6 November

For films that are so full of dialogue, Éric Rohmer’s works have a very simplistic quality to their plots, and I like them for that. There was something rather universal in the way this story is told, in such a way that I’m assured becomes more and more relevant as one grows older.

It’s a story of a woman who wants a relationship with a man but doesn’t do anything in particular about it (this is pretty much the perennial situation for me at the moment, which is the part that makes it the most relevant). But then her best friend and her daughter both attempt to set her up with someone. And yet the men are more interested in the other two women than in her. Light French farce ensues.

Rather slow pace with a lot of foreign language dialogue means that it can be easy to get distracted if you’re drinking and chatting at the same time as watching this film, but it gets a thumbs-up from me because I quite enjoyed the fact that it’s easy to see aspects of yourself in the characters in the story. Plus, quite aside from that, it also has very beautiful sweeping views of the south of France.