It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Moving pictures 2018, #9

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Only five films this time, for some reason. Two of them are recent Hollywood blockbusters – one I thought over-rated, the other was terrible. You can probably guess which is which…

The Song of Bernadette, Henry King (1943, USA). I found this in a charity shop, and thought: classic Hollywood, probably worth a punt. It wasn’t. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Franz Werfel, which tells the story of the woman who “discovered” the “miraculous” spring at Lourdes. In the late 1850s, Bernadette, a schoolgirl, reported eighteen visions of the Madonna, and discovered a spring, following the instructions in one of those visions, which subsequently proved to have healing properties. Put that in a work of fiction and you’d find yourself on the sf and fantasy shelves. I mean, seriously? Lourdes is big business now, of course, with over 200 million visitors since 1860, despite the waters being repeatedly examined by scientists and displaying no unusual characteristics whatsoever. The Song of Bernadette comes across as a star vehicle for Jennifer Jones, who was married to producer David O Selznick, although she did win an Oscar for her role in this film…. despite playing a fourteen-year-old even though she was a decade older. (Another Jennifer Jones vehicle, Indiscretion of an American Wife – see here – is, despite the awful title, much much better.) The Song of Bernadette is all played very earnestly, with the sort of gravitas that suggests it’s based on historical sources, when it’s actually adapted from a novel which took a number of liberties with the life of the real St Bernadette. It’s all so fucking po-faced and serious despite the ridiculousness of its premise. The Song of Bernadette actually won four Oscars – best actress, best art direction, best cinematography, best music – but then it’s not like the Academy Awards have displayed all that much critical acumen over the decades… Not worth hunting down.

Inversion, Behnam Behzadi (2016, Iran). I have to date seen twenty-two films from Iran, a number of them by Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, two excellent directors. Iran has a strong film-making tradition and a number of brilliant films have come out of the country. Pretty much all of them have been deeply-rooted in Iranian society and the situation as it pertains in Iran. Inversion is a case in point. Niloofar lives with her mother and helps look after her. But when her mother collapses and is taken to hospital, and the only cure is to move her out of Tehran and its polluted air… Her brother assumes Niloofar will give up her life and move to the north with their mother. Niloofar doesn’t want to go – she has a successful business and she’s just started seeing an old flame who has returned to Tehran and is single once again. But her brother says he can’t go, and he’s not willing to shoulder part of the burden – why should he? He’s male. Since he owns the lease on Niloofar’s busines premises, he sells it under her so she’s forced to find new premises, and generally makes life difficult for her until she agrees to give up her life and move north to look after their mother. But she won’t budge. Even though it means refusing the role Iranian society expects her to play. All of the Iranian films I’ve seen have, to some degree, been critical of Iranian society, and mostly in regard to the role of women. In some it has been explicit, as it is in Inversion; in others, it is less obvious, such as in Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. When your cinema is overwhelmingly negative, you have to wonder if there’s something about your country you need to change. So… how has the UK film industry reacted to Brexit? With fucking propaganda. Films about Churchill and Dunkirk. FFS. The man was not the greatest Briton who ever lived, he was a war criminal many times over, responsible for millions of deaths around the world. His leadership during WWII does not excuse his crimes, although it would not be fair to judge him without taking it into account. But. Iran under the shah was a repressive regime propped up by the West, Iran as an Islamic state is no utopia and the films it produces show as much – although the fact they exist shows an openness to criticism the shah was unlikely to allow. Inversion is definitely worth seeing. I will not be watching the Churchill ones.

Osaka Elegy, Kenji Mizoguchi (1936, Japan). I told David Tallerman, who gave me this box set, that I preferred Japanese films set in the twentieth century to historical films, and he pointed out that half of the films in this Mizoguchi collection are actually set in the twentieth century. Including this one. It’s an early film – released in 1936 – and its story is contemporary. I’ve seen enough films by Yasujiro Ozu (well, I’ve seen pretty much all his feature films from the 1950s onwards), so I think I have a good handle on the shape of his movies. Like Mizoguchi, he tended to use a stable of actors, and his films were very similar in the stories they tell. But I haven’t got to that stage with Mizoguchi yet, although I do find myself appreciating his films much more than I did when I first started watching them. In Osaka Elegy, a young woman is pressured into becoming the mistress of her employer. But hat affair ends when the wife finds out. She finds herself in a position where she needs money, and borrows it from her new sugar daddy. But when he demands it back, she has no one to turn to, not even her boyfriend, who had asked her to marry him. You would think, given the plot and my love of 1950s melodramas, Osaka Elegy would be right up my street, And it’s true that most of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen so far have told women’s stories – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Sansho Dayu and Utamaro and His Five Women being exceptions – but Osaka Elegy didn’t feel as centred on its female lead as, say, The Life of Oharu or The Lady of Musashino. But it’s not just that. Ozu’s films are really good illustrations of uchi-soto, inside-outside, but I don’t get that same feeling from Mizoguchi’s films. Yes, they’re more melodramatic, and the stories are based around the trials and tribulations of the central character – in this case, it’s telephone operator Ayako – and as such provide a dramatic commentary on Japanese society, and women’s role in it… But… I don’t know; perhaps they have too much plot for a melodrama. These are good films – although I could wish for better transfers – but so far they’ve yet to grab me the way Ozu’s films have done, or keep me entertained the way classic Hollywood melodramas have done. But they’re at least good for rewatches, so we shall see…

Atomic Blonde, David Leitch (2017, USA). This is based on a graphic novel, which I have not read; and I do wonder at the recent popularity of graphic novels as sources for movies. Okay, cinema is not an especially sophisticated form of entertainment – in story-telling terms, that is, rather than technically – and neither is the graphic novel, and their stories map out at around the same sort of time-lengths… But if you take a medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is partly baked in, and adapt it to another medium that has a tendency to simplify, which is also baked in… It’s not going to do much for your original story, is it? And when said story is a twisty-turny Cold War thriller that likes to think it can match Le Carré or Deighton for, er, twisty-turniness… Put it this way: there’s a cunning plot twist in Atomic Blonde and it was blindingly fucking obvious about ten minutes in. Charlize Theron, in what smells overpoweringly like a star vehicle or vanity project, plays an MI5 agent sent to Berlin in 1989 to clean up a failed attempt to hand over a stolen Stasi list of all foreign operatives in East Berlin. It’s supposed to be an easy job. But Berlin resident (the technical term for a spy undercover in a city) James MacAvoy seems to be playing his own game. So there’s lots of shooting, lots of fist fights, lots of bloody violence, in which Theron gives as good as she gets, and a plot that thinks it’s a hell of a lot clever than it actually is. And a film that looks really quite nice. The DVD cover should tell you that much, that this is a film which revels in its look. And in that respect, it succeeds really well. It looks great. But the story is pants, and has that blithe disregard to killing off characters graphic novels so often exhibit (because graphic novels don’t do characterisation), but which can be a real flaw in a movie. Even a Cold War thriller. Atomic Blonde looked very nice, but it really wasn’t very good. A shame.

Justice League, Zack Snyder (2017, USA). When the current generation of superhero films first appeared, I quite liked them. Even the bad ones. I liked that CGI had reached the point where it could show superpowers onscreen and they actually looked, well, real. At the time, of course, I still read comics – or rather, I read the trade paperback omnibuses of various superhero titles. So I was sort of into fascist violence enacted via Spandex-clad goons. But in an ironic way, of course. (Who am I kidding? I would read superhero comics like a thirteen-year-old, and watched the films with the same sensibilities; it could never last.) After all, for all that Superman is called “the last boy scout”, like that’s an insult, he’s still judge, jury and executioner much of the time. And he’s one of the least objectionable ones. But it’s not the concept of superheroes which makes Justice League a bad film. It’s not even Zack Snyder, who does some things really well – and there a lot of those sort of things in Justice League. To be honest, I can’t think of another director who could have done anything with Justice League that would not have been unrecognisable. And yet, it’s a shit film. It has to pull together six superheroes, while also presenting the origin story of three of them. Although one of them had an origin story in a TV series but they decided to retcon that. We know Superman and Batman, although both have been rebooted that many times it’s hard to be sure which is which; and of course we know Wonder Woman from last year’s successful film. But the Flash is not the Flash of the television series – more than one, IIRC – and Aquaman and Cyborg are complete unknowns. Of course, when you have superheroes, you can’t have them beating up muggers and bank robbers – well, not unless they’re Batman – which means you need a global threat that only superpowered dudes can fight, and then only if certain things happen, including them actually agreeing to work together. Because when the planet is in peril, superhero egos need to be tamed first. But never mind. Apparently, evil supervillain Steppenwolf – the only supervillain named after a novel, unless I’ve missed one called Oliver Twist – failed to gain control of four Mother Boxes on a previous visit to Earth because the Amazons, gods and Atlanteans all managed to fight him off. But the death of Superman has made Earth an easy target, so he’s back. And there are no gods anymore, so the Mother Boxes safeguarded by the Amazons and Atlanteans are easy grabs. So much for that cunning defence plan then. The problem with writing stories based around Mother Boxes – sorry, plot tokens – is that the story totally depends on them being picked up one by one, and as soon as the enemy has one, well, there’s your conflict and your conflict’s resolution all in one easy-to-understand package. Except real fiction – real life – is not like that, not that fiction has any requirement to be like real life. I’m not a fan of story templates or three-act structures and the like, and I’ve seen many excellent films which make a point of not using them, but if it’s going to be used it needs to be done so with rigour and consistency. And Justice League doesn’t. It flails all over the place. Introducing heroes, only to have them write themselves out of the story, but then re-appear and help save the day. The Flash is completely re-invented as a twentysomethihg nerd so Joss Whedon has a character he can actually write dialogue for, because if there’s one thing his career since Buffy has prove it’s that he’s a one-trick pony. Amd then there’s Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman… And Affleck is actually not bad as Batman, probably slightly better than his precursors. Which sounds like heresy. Maybe it’s the grey hair at the temples that does it. Cavill just looks too chiselled to be Superman – an actual human being who looks to be good to play a superhero, who would have believed it? Wonder Woman is underused; the other three superheroes are paper-thin, perhaps because they have no origin film of their own. The end result is a movie that has a threat and a defence to that threat which don’t stand up to a second’s scrutiny. But it has lots of nice visuals, most of which are implausible, and some character beats that don’t seem to follow the same rhythm track as the main plot. One day, superhero films will grow up; Justice League suggests there’s a way to go yet.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 895

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