Stalker (1979)

aka Сталкер

2018 #100
Andrei Tarkovsky | 162 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

Stalker

Described by the blurb on its Criterion Collection Blu-ray release as “a metaphysical journey through an enigmatic post-apocalyptic landscape”, Stalker is… probably that… I guess…?

Adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which, according to critic Mark Le Fanu in Criterion’s booklet, is more hardboiled pulp than artistic thinkpiece), it follows a professional ‘Stalker’ (Alexander Kaidanovsky) — someone who can enter and navigate a mysterious restricted area known only as the Zone — as he guides two latest clients, a depressed writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and an inquisitive professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone and to the attraction at its heart: the Room, a place which is rumoured to grant a person’s innermost desires.

That’s the plot, anyway. Considering it’s over two-and-a-half hours long and I just summarised most of the story, you know it’s About more than that. But suffice to say I didn’t get it. It’s just some blokes wandering around, being depressed, occasionally philosophising about bugger all; then the ‘stalker’ chap is depressed even more by his clients’ attitude at the end, for some reason; and then we see his kid has telepathic powers because… um… People think director Andrei Tarkovsky’s previous sci-fi film Solaris is slow and obtuse, but it’s pacy and its meaning is crystal-clear compared to Stalker. Indeed, watching this just made me want to watch Solaris again — that was a slow Soviet sci-fi I actually found thought-provoking and interesting. One inspired thought I will credit it with is the notion of what “innermost desire” actually means. We might think we know, but do we? If the Room grants, not what we choose to ask it for, but our true innermost desire, then it reveals the truth of our self to us… and we might not like what we find.

Some blokes being depressed

The film “resists definitive interpretation” says Geoff Dyer in a featurette on Criterion’s Blu-ray. It’s “a religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself […it] envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings,” adds the blurb. Oy. So is it profound or just pretentious? I think the lack of clarity — the lack of definitive interpretation — can be used as evidence for both sides. Its acclaim would suggest most think it profound, so I’m the one missing something. That’s always possible. Also, I’m always wary of calling something “pretentious” — that’s become too much of a catch-all criticism for people who don’t understand an artwork and want to blame the work itself rather than their own intellectual capabilities. So we’ll have to settle on me just not understanding it.

Some of it does look good, at least… which is handy when long stretches of it are just staring at things in unbroken takes (there’s something like 142 shots, which is about one cut every 88 seconds). Whatever the film is or isn’t trying to say, I feel fairly certain it didn’t need to take so much time to say it.

Equal parts Annihilation but without the exciting stuff, privileged white male angst, and flicking through a photo album of deserted urban environments at someone else’s too-slow pace — with strange dashes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and X-Men Origins: Jean Grey for good measure — Stalker is… definitely something.

2 out of 5

Stalker was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

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Blindspot 2019

I already waffled on a lot at the start of my 2019 WDYMYHS list, so if you’ve not read that then do check it out for a full introduction to what this is all about.

The relevant part, though, is that this is a list of 12 films I should’ve seen but haven’t that I must watch this year — and, because I’m doing both WDYMYHS and Blindspot, that’s 24 films I must watch. Whereas the WDYMYHS selection contains 12 films chosen by consulting lists of great movies to find what the consensus feels I should’ve seen, these Blindspot choices are simply personally selected from my DVD/Blu-ray collection. Nonetheless, I do try to add a bit of variety to the mix, with different countries, genres, and eras represented.

Anyway, here’s what I picked out this year, in alphabetical order…


All the President’s Men
All the President's Men


The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club


Les diaboliques
Les diaboliques


Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler


Dracula
Dracula


The Ipcress File
The Ipcress File


The Killer
The Killer


The Player
The Player


Rififi
Rififi


Rope
Rope


Scott Pilgrim
vs. the World
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is actually a two-part film (why so many online sources insist on listing it only as one movie when it seems to have been originally released as two, I don’t know), so you could argue I’ve given myself 25 films to watch for these challenges this year. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Only time will tell…

What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019

A new year, a new challenge… or, rather, an old challenge with new components.

Yes, for a seventh year I’m setting myself the goal of watching 12 specific films I really should have seen but haven’t.

And, because I’m a crazy madman, I’m doing it twice — i.e. 24 films.

I’ve been doing two of these lists since 2017 (separated as “Blindspot”, which you may’ve seen on other blogs, and my own version, “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (aka WDYMYHS), which is the same thing by a different name), but previously only put ten films on the second list. Well, I got into such a rhythm of watching these films during 2018 that it felt weird in November and December after the WDYMYHS list had run out. So, I thought for 2019 I’d go all-in and do two full lists of 12.

“Why do you have two lists of 12 rather than one list of 24?”, you may ask. Fortunately for you (or unfortunately, if you don’t care), I’m happy to answer. I started doing WDYMYHS as a 12-film challenge before Blindspot came along, but for my 10th anniversary in 2017 I decided to do ‘both’ — the regular 12-film challenge, plus a ten-film one, marking my blog’s 10th anniversary by selecting one film I really should’ve seen from each of the previous ten years. That went well, so I repeated it in 2018; and that went well too, so I’m making it that little bit trickier this year (9.09% trickier, to be precise).

The exact difference between the lists is that Blindspot is a ‘free choice’ of 12 films I personally feel I should’ve seen, whereas WDYMYHS is selected by analysing lists of great and/or popular movies to try to determine a consensus view of what I’m a fool to have missed. I vary which lists I consult, and how much value I put in them, year by year (to some extent, anyway). This year, the formula to calculate these picks was based on the three Top 250 lists that are tracked on iCheckMovies — the ones from IMDb, Reddit, and FOK! — plus They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. These lists were factored with various weightings to give the films a score. Then I applied a couple of rules: films had to appear on at least two of those lists, including at least one out of IMDb and TSPDT; I had to already have access to them (either on DVD, Blu-ray, or if they’re currently streaming on Netflix/Amazon/etc); and, as usual, no repeat directors. That led to a load of high-scoring films being passed over (I had to go as far down as #32 for my 12th pick).

After all that, this is what I ended up with, in the order they finally scored (from highest to lowest)…


Ikiru
Ikiru


Untouchable
Untouchable


The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush


Life is Beautiful
Life is Beautiful


All About Eve
All About Eve


Sherlock, Jr.
Sherlock, Jr.


The Thin Red Line
The Thin Red Line


Eyes Wide Shut
Eyes Wide Shut


The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes


Cool Hand Luke
Cool Hand Luke


The Royal Tenenbaums
The Royal Tenenbaums


Memories of Murder
Memories of Murder

Some noteworthy exclusions…

  • To Kill a Mockingbird actually made the list (in 6th), but it was on my list in 2015. I once had the rule that a film only had to sit out one year before being available for reinclusion, but, I dunno, I like mixing it up. But if I don’t watch it anyway during 2019, I might let it back in for 2020.
  • If I hadn’t ruled out films I don’t own, the “true top 12” (i.e. based on score alone) would’ve included In the Mood for Love, , Cinema Paradiso, Andrei Rublev, Come and See, and A Separation.
  • If I didn’t rule out repeat directors, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid would’ve been in 8th place.
  • If I’d kept the “must own/have access to it” rule but allowed films that were only on one list, it would’ve included Dangal, Taare Zameen Par, Ordet, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Fanny & Alexander.
  • Finally, if I’d had to own it and have it on multiple lists, but it didn’t have to be on IMDb’s or TSPDT’s, then Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would’ve been the 12th film.

Of course, just because something got cut out of my WDYMYHS, doesn’t mean I couldn’t choose to include it in my Blindspot picks…

What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018

In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

To select this year’s ten, I noted films from IMDb’s Top 250 (or whatever they want to call it nowadays) that I already owned or had ready access to, then saw which were also on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. Then I narrowed that long-list to films that also helped complete a list on iCheckMovies. After ruling out Princess Mononoke under my old “no duplicate directors” rule (because I really wanted to include Nausicaä on my Blindspot list; and also because I’d already had a shot at Mononoke during 2015’s list), these were my final ten — listed here in whatever order they ended up ranked.


Das Boot


The Lives of Others


Full Metal Jacket


Stalker


Amadeus


Scarface


Ran


Casino


The Elephant Man


Rocky

Exciting observation: six of them are from the ’80s. No idea how or why that came about.

Blindspot 2018

In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

Although this is a ‘free choice’ list, I did get a helping hand: I determined I wanted to include films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, but how to choose which from their lengthy and acclaimed filmographies? So I turned to iCheckMovies to see which were on the most lists, had the most favourites, that kind of thing. That produced clear frontrunners for each director, and they’re the ones I went with.

Below are all 12 of my selections, in alphabetical order.


The 400 Blows


Attack the Block


Big Fish


Black Narcissus


The Hunt


Nausicaä of the
Valley of the Wind


Snowpiercer


Strangers on a Train


Suspiria


True Romance


The Wild Bunch


Wild Strawberries

Exciting observation: eight of them (aka two-thirds) are non-US productions. How cultured of me.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

aka Hauru no ugoku shiro

2016 #193
Hayao Miyazaki | 114 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | U / PG

Howl's Moving Castle

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s first film after he won the Oscar for Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy adventure about a young girl encountering a magical world. Well, I’m bending that similarity a bit — the heroine is considerably older than the one in Spirited Away (a young woman rather than a girl) and she already lives in a world where magic exists (but she doesn’t seem to have encountered much of it).

Adapted from a novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle concerns Sophie Hatter (voiced in the English version by Emily Mortimer), who works in her family’s hat shop in a fictional Mitteleuropean country in a steampunk-y past (anime really gets away with launching you into these subgenre-mash-up worlds in a way no Western work ever dares, doesn’t it?) After a brief chance encounter with famed wizard Howl (Christian Bale), Sophie is attacked by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) and transformed into an old woman (now voiced by Jean Simmons). She goes hunting for Howl’s titular abode/transportation, wherein she meets sentient fire Calcifer (Billy Crystal), Howl’s young assistant Markl (Josh Hutcherson), and alongside them gets swept into a brewing war with a neighbouring country.

Frankly, the plot is a bit messy, flitting from one situation to another in a way that feels in need of some streamlining. The climax is particularly hurried, underpowered, and under-explained. For example, there’s a missing prince who suddenly turns up to resolve the whole war storyline — a prince who was only mentioned in passing in some background dialogue nearly two hours earlier.

Running up that hill, no problem

However, much of the film is enjoyable in a moment-to-moment sense. The affable characters are quite delightful to get to know even as they’re getting to know each other, and there are some magical sequences. Plus it’s all beautifully designed and animated, as you’d expect from Studio Ghibli, though we should never take such achievements for granted. The English dub is pretty good too, benefitting from Disney picking it up and getting a starry cast, and no doubt the direction of Pete “Monsters Inc / Up / Inside Out” Docter and Rick Dempsey. No disrespect to the professional voice actors who work in anime day-in day-out, but they often perform with a certain stylisation that isn’t always naturalistic.

Apparently Howl’s Moving Castle is Miyazaki’s favourite from his own work, probably because some of its themes (anti-war sentiment, a positive depiction of old age, the value of compassion) are close to his heart. While those are worthwhile topics, they sit alongside the aspects mentioned above as good parts that aren’t wrapped up into a whole that equals their sum. But even if it’s not Ghibli’s finest work, it’s still a likeable fantasy adventure.

4 out of 5

Howl’s Moving Castle was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Studio Ghibli’s first TV series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA (and presumably elsewhere too) from today.

What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017

As you’ll know from reading my Blindspot post, this year I’ve separated these very similar film-watching goals into two separate projects.

So what differentiates my WDYMYHS selection? Well, to mark my 10th blogiversary (did I do that “did I mention this already” joke already?)* I’ve attempted to identify the films from the last ten years that I really should have seen. Rather than my usual loopy array of repurposed lists, however, I just popped on Letterboxd and dug out the “most popular” film I’d not seen from each of the last ten years. I was interested to discover I already own half of them on Blu-ray, have another downloaded and another recorded, and can find the rest on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Now TV — one on each, in fact. I mean, I couldn’t’ve planned that more neatly.

Anyway, these ten films — in chronological order — are:


2007

Into the Wild


2008

Gran Torino


2009

Moon


2010

Black Swan


2011

Drive


2012

Silver Linings Playbook


2013

Her


2014

Nightcrawler


2015

Room


2016

Hail, Caesar!

So that’s 22 films I must watch among this year’s 100. Okay.

Oh, but, one more thing…

* Yes — twice. So far. ^

Blindspot 2017

In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Blindspot, it’s where you pick 12 films you’ve never seen but feel you should have and resolve to watch one per month over the course of the year. Some people review them every month too, but I’m far too disorganised in my posting schedule for such things (I still have pieces on four of my 2016 picks in draft stage).

It’s also what I used to call “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (aka WDYMYHS), but in a foolhardy move to mark my 10th blogiversary (did I mention that yet?) I’ve decided to make these two goals. I mean, when you’re already trying to watch 100+ films in a year, why not specify what almost a quarter of them will be? Okay, I don’t have a 100% track record with even trying to watch 12 a year, but I have hit 91.7%, so…

In the past I’ve developed a complicated system using multiple “greatest films” lists to dictate what my picks should be, but I’ve used a variation on that for WDYMYHS this year, so instead I’ve just chosen these 12 myself. The criteria? I went through every unwatched DVD and Blu-ray I own and tried to pluck out films that it shocked me I haven’t seen — and I am me, so I dread to think what you all think (probably “why does he think we care about what films he has or hasn’t seen?”) I’ve tried to keep some variety in era, genre, country, etc, though there’s a slight bent towards sci-fi because, as an avowed SF fan, those gaps glowered at me the most.

Anyway, that’s enough ado. Here are the 12, in alphabetical order:


The 39 Steps


The Cabinet
of Dr. Caligari


The Conversation


Dances with Wolves


District 9


The Exorcist


Forbidden Planet


Jackie Brown


A Matter of
Life and Death


Nashville


Planet of the Apes


Yojimbo

Now, on to my WDYMYHS picks…

The Sting (1973)

2016 #127
George Roy Hill | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The StingSet in Chicago during the Great Depression, The Sting follows a young street-level con artist (Robert Redford) as he seeks revenge for his murdered partner by teaming up with a seasoned big-con pro (Paul Newman) to scam the mob boss responsible (Robert Shaw).

If that sounds like a somewhat violent crime movie… well, it kinda is. Although The Sting is often billed as a caper, sometimes even as a comedy (look at those grinning mugs on the poster!), it actually has more of an edge. I mean, it’s not The Godfather, but it’s not Ocean’s Eleven either. The star power and chemistry of Redford and Newman are what give the movie a buoyancy to overcome the storyline’s inherent darkness, though I wouldn’t say that reaches far enough to regard the film as a romp, which is the impression I’d obtained over the years.

Indeed, I wonder if it suffers from its age more broadly. Not because the filmmaking quality has dated (they may not make ’em like this anymore, but great filmmaking is timeless), but because it was so influential that it’s been copied to death. It still has a lot of points to commend it, but the heist — the driving force of the plot — lacks freshness to modern eyes. Newness is not the be-all-and-end-all, of course, but the con only really comes to life in a flurry of last-minute twists… most of which have also been copied ad nauseam, of course.

The Sting is certainly not a bad movie — and, for all my talk of it being mercilessly copied, it did manage to con me in a couple of places — but it wasn’t exactly what I’d anticipated. Perhaps I’ll like it more on some future re-watch.

4 out of 5

The Sting was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

2016 #100
Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestBy many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.

Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.

Wretched RatchedHollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.

Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in Only sane one hereThe Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.

I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.

4 out of 5

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.