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Moving pictures 2019, #34

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This is it, the last Moving pictures post for 2019. Only #34, compared to #69 in 2018 and #70 for 2017. Let’s see what 2020 brings.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino (2019, USA). This is apparently Tarantino’s last film as he’s said he won’t make anymore. Many have also called it the best movie he has ever made – or at least a triumphant return to form. I’ve never been much of a fan of Tarantino or his work. He chooses excellent cinematographers, but his stories are cobbled together from strings of clichés, often with bizarre swerves in the final act. His dialogue can be good, however. Anyway, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about an ex-TV cowboy looking to restart his moribund career, which involves various parodic encounters with Hollywood archetypes. He is driven around town by his old stunt double, who now acts his chauffeur and dogsbody. Both characters are well-drawn, the only well-drawn ones in the entire film, in fact. The important element in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is that the TV cowboy lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate, of course, was famously murdered by members of Charles Manson’s cult. And this is where Tarantino introduces his swerve: the TV cowboy foils the murder. What I don’t understand, however, is the point of the film. It’s alternate history, but alternate history introduces a change in order to explore the consequences and ramifications of that change. Tarantino doesn’t do that. His change, his “jonbar point” (a horrible coinage), is meaningless. It comes at the end of the movie – a long movie – and its trivial impact is quickly dispatched with some voice-over narration. I mean, if you’re going to do alternate history, at least do it. Here it’s just a cheap gimmick, and that detracts from what has gone before.

La Chiesa, Michele Soavi (1989, Italy). The film opens with a troop of Teutonic knights slaughtering a village and burying the bodies, not all of which were dead, in a mass grave. Supposedly because they were devil-worshippers. They then build a massive cathedral on the site. As you do. Cut to the 1980s and the cathedral is now apparently in the centre of a bustling European city. It’s the new librarian’s first day at work – and who knew cathedrals have libraries? somewhat ironic for institutions that have spent much of their existence suppressing knowledge – and down in the catacombs he meets an artist restoring the cathedral’s frescoes. Which sets in motion a chain of events that results in various mediaeval technology mechanisms sealing the cathedral and trapping all those inside it, after the librarian finds a seal in the floor in the catacombs, manages to open it, and releases all that mediaeval evil (ugh, not a phrase that trips lightly off the tongue). Which promptly causes everyone locked inside to go mad and see demons, and engage in sex or violence or both. For a piece of schlocky Italian horror from the 1980s, this was considerably better than expected. According to Wikipedia, the film had quite a convoluted genesis, and the director was keen to make something “more sophisticated” than the usual run of giallo horror. I’m not sure that he succeeded in doing that but La Chiesa is a pretty good horror movie of its time and reminded me in places of the Hammer House of Horror TV series. Worth seeing.

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King, Mikkel Brænne Sandemose (2017, Norway). The Ash Lad is like Cinderella, but male. And stupid. Mostly. Basically, everything he touches he fucks up. But he’s also incredibly lucky, and amiable with it, so everything turns out right for him in the end. He picks things up, mostly rubbish, and hangs onto it because he doesn’t understand why people would have thrown it away. And it proves to be just what he needs to get past various obstacles thrown in his path. In the invented fantasy country of the film – I don’t think it’s supposed to be an historical representation of a real Nordic country, as it all looks a bit identikit West European high fantasy… Anyway, the kingdom is cursed: if the princess is not betrothed by her eighteenth birthday, bad things will happen. An arrogant prince from Denmark turns up to ask for her hand – the Swedes and Norwegians have an… interesting opinion of the Danish – so she runs away. Meanwhile, Ash Lad has accidentally burnt down the home he shares with his father and two brothers, and so has gone off to make his fortune in order to make good on the destruction he has wreaked. His brothers follow to keep him from harm. But he ends up rescuing them from various fantasy encounters. And also rescuing the princess. Of course. The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King looked good, although perhaps a little too CGI-dependent, and it was all very amiable and the story ran along well-established rails. The characterisation of the Danish prince was amusing. It was perhaps a bit generic, although that wasn’t helped by the version I watched being dubbed into American English rather than keeping the original Norwegian soundtrack and providing subtitles. But if you like films that straddle the line between Western European high fantasy and fairy-tale… this is way better than anything by Uwe Boll.

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Sergio Martino (1971, Italy). Edwege Fenech, a French-Algerian actress, made a number of giallo films, and was probably as popular a leading lady in that genre as Barbara Bouchet, if not more so. True, gialli were not known for the calibre of their acting, but certainly Fenech (and Bouchet) had more screen presence than many other giallo leading ladies of the time. Fenech plays the title role in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – the “h” apparently added after a threatened lawsuit by a real Mrs Ward (hm, maybe I should try the same every January…) – the wife of a US diplomat in Vienna sent a series of blackmail letters by a serial killer. Wardh is afraid her ex-lover is the killer, and turns to her new lover to help her. You can guess where this is going… Well, perhaps not, as there are twists within twists. Like many giallo films, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh treads a fine line between sexploitation and female agency – although Fenech’s character triumphs here, and all the male characters are revealed as either venal or stupid. There are several dream sequences, however, each a sort of cross between soft porn and horror, which seem designed more to titillate than present Wardh as a kick-ass heroine. And a party sequence which seems like it comes straight from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Giallo is an acquired taste, although the more you’re exposed to it, the more you begin to appreciate and enjoy it. The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is a stylish thriller, albeit very much of its time, and if the level of acting is not all that impressive – although Fenech is generally worth watching – and the dialogue often cringe-worthy, it’s well-framed and well-shot. A good example of its type.

Ad Astra, James Gray (2019, USA). I’ve heard so much bad press about this film, I’m tempted to like it just to be contrary. Which is sort of how I went into it. And there are things to like… but also things to dislike. But the hate the film has received seems odd given its content. It presents a convincing portrait of its world, which is not so unusual in these days of CGI – but it’s a hard sf world and it sticks to it pretty much throughout. Okay, so the lawlessness of the Moon is the usual libertarian sf bollocks but that’s hardly a blocker as people have been writing stupid shit like that since the 1940s. The opening scenes set on the space antenna are visually spectacular, although I’m not entirely sure such a structure could actually exist, you know, a tower stretching into the upper atmosphere, or perhaps hanging from orbit. But then protagonist Brad Pitt is pushed from pillar to post by Space Command when it turns out his father, who disappeared decades before during a Grand Tour, may be responsible for the “power-surge” (er, what?) which caused lots of damage in the inner Solar system. Space Command sends Pitt to the Moon, then Mars, and along the way he learns more about his father’s mission. There’s a flatness to Pitt’s character – literalised in his ability to maintain a low heartbeat even under stress – that’s echoed in the presentation of his world, a sort of distant but realistic portrayal of an inhabited Solar system a century or so hence (although I think the film is set only a few decades from now). I accept that a well-realised hard sf world will likely blind me to deficiencies in plot, but when sf cinema (Hollywood’s version of it, at least) seems to be dominated by movies that display little or no rigour in world-building and nonsensical plots (see below), I see no problem with my opinion. Ad Astra may be your usual “daddy issues” movie – although expecting Hollywood to produce anything else these days seems to be more of a fantasy than much of its output. I hate “daddy issues” films but Ad Astra worked quite well for me – perhaps because of my aforementioned blind spot – and while it’s by no means a great film, it does make me wonder at all the hate that’s been directed at it. I think it’s a better movie than that suggests.

Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, JJ Abrams (2019, USA). That’s it, the end of Star Wars. Until the next trilogy. Because I don’t see Disney giving up on such an enormous cash cow, not until they’ve absolutely milked it to death, or fucked it up so bad its fandom has turned completely toxic and the latter seems to be already happening to some degree. I’m not a Star Wars fan, or even a SWEU fan, although I have fond memories of the original trilogy and have enjoyed some of the tie-in movies. But this “final” trilogy is a poor thing indeed, especially its last installment. The whole thing reeks of bits and pieces cobbled together, inspired by visuals which actually fail willing suspension of disbelief. That last is, of course, pretty much Abrams’s career in a nutshell: he makes movies that look good but the eyeball kicks do not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. And in the case of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker neither does the plot. There’s this secret planet of a race that’s supposed to have died out – the Sith – which has a fleet of millions of star battleships, with no indication of how and where they were constructed or indeed where their crews came from. And the planet can only be reached if a person is in possession of one of two navigation maguffins – Sith wayfinders – because of course a conspiracy to control the galaxy, which has already succeeded at least once before, would only have two navigation maguffins to reach its secret home world. Which is also a profound misunderstanding of how physics or cosmology work, FFS – and proves to be pretty much meaningless anyway because everyone ends up there for the final big battle. Gah. Why bother? It’s impossible to have an intelligent conversation about Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker because the material is not actually up to it. The hand-wavy relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren that seems to ignore time and space is the only thing that works in the movie, because – and no, “love” is not some magical force that transcends space and time, and anyone who believes that should not be put in charge of a ride-on mower, never mind a billion-dollar franchise – because the presentation of their Force-linked relationship in the trilogy actually works quite consistently and fits within the universe. There are some nice set-pieces in Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and the light sabre battle between Ren and Rey on the wreck of Death Star 2 is impressively spectacular, if over-long. But movies are more than a series of eyeball kicks – perhaps someone should tell Abrams – and Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker fails on every other movie metric. It retcons some of the incidents in The Force Awakens. Badly. Carrie Fisher’s CGI “performance” is actually distracting – she deserved to be there as much as anyone, if not more so than most of the cast, but the footage they used makes her comes across as flat and unconnected to the story. Hollywood proved its point: it can place deceased actors in movies… but it also proved the results are unsatisfactory. At present. (Star Wars is a safe laboratory to test it out because fan service. This is not a good thing.) A blow-by-blow account of the deficiencies of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker would be as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, one thing this new trilogy has revealed is that fandom is happy to find the things it wants in the films whether they exist or not. And that includes sophistication. These are commercial space opera movies, made it would seem with an eye chiefly on the visuals, “what looks good”. Whether or not anything in it a) fits in the universe, or b) makes fucking sense, is of no consequence. Writers working in the SWEU were given a bible; it seems the directors of this new trilogy should have been given one too.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942

7 thoughts on “Moving pictures 2019, #34

  1. Wait, are you suggesting that Ad Astra established “a well-realised hard sf world”? I mean, I think it has some neat stuff, but the amount it gets wrong about basic physics alone kinda disqualifies it for hard sf… and I’m usually pretty forgiving of such things (especially in cinema). I mean, I love the whole lunar rover battle sequence as action spectacle, but nothing about why it’s happening makes any sense. As an overall story, sure, it’s fine I guess – basically Heart of Darkness in space – but nowhere near better takes on similarly shaped stories. I thought it was fine, but man, James Gray going around saying it was going to be the most realistic space movie ever really annoyed me once I got to see the movie…

    But what do I know, I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood! I did wonder how it would play to younger/foreign audiences who aren’t as steeped in the whole Manson murders stuff. For the most part, Sharon Tate is almost completely defined in popular culture as a pregnant murder victim who was married to the future fugitive child rapist Polanski, so I really appreciated that this movie let her exist as a person… and from the first moment that Tarantino holds on the Cielo drive sign, I started experiencing a certain dread for the ending. The twist at the end comes off as a wish fulfillment sorta thing, which may not be the most noble impulse, but whatever. It’s the same trick he pulled in Inglorious Basterds (which was probably a better movie). It’s a great hangout movie, a bit episodic and indulgent and overlong, but I kinda love it for all of that…

    • Well, yes, I did say the libertarian on the Moon stuff was bollocks, although from what I remember the actual battle itself was pretty much scientifically accurate. The reservoir under the Martian launch platform had me a bit puzzled, and the presentation of freefall has been done better in other movies. What were the physics howlers? I didn’t spot anything egregious, although I may have missed them.

      It’s not just unfamiliarity with the details of Tate’s murder, it’s not having that weird fascination for murderous cults and their victims, or even for the darker side of the Hollywood circus. Yes, I noticed the similarity to the end of Inglorious Basterds, but even there it felt like it made the whole movie a bad shaggy dog story.

  2. I enjoyed watching Ad Astra while it was on, and quite liked its downbeat nature, but still some things annoyed me. Some of the scenes in the movie seemed contrived simply to look good rather than to advance the plot or be sensible behaviour for the characters. Why did Pitt have to park on the other side of Neptune’s rings from the Lima Project station a few miles away? Simply to make the journey there and back look memorable. Why did the Earth-Moon ship land on the moon hundreds of miles from where the Moon-Mars ship took off from, and why did they have to use 1970s Apollo-style lunar rovers to get there instead of a 2001-style flying moonbus? Simply to have an exciting battles. And what did the pirates even want? That sequence, and the baboons too, seemed shoehorned in for no very good reason.

    A couple of much smaller things threw me out of the movie too. There was a lot of wasted space in the shopping mall at the moonbase, where efficient use of (indoor) space would be at a premium, not headroom above the escalators (and why escalators in the Moon’s gravity?). It reminded me a bit of David Tennant’s Doctor (In The Waters of Mars) explaining – while he was running down an unnecessarily very long and tall corridor – why there were no bikes on the Mars base: too costly in terms of shipping weight from Earth. Yet if the designers had made that corridor a couple of feet shorter there would have been enough weight saved to send 100 bikes.

    The underground under-launch lake on Mars was odd, though no doubt that was some sort of re-birth metaphor, and perhaps the reservoir fed the launch water dampers (huge waste of water!). Pitt stood beneath the rocket engines while sparks dropped around him – but those generally are set off just ten seconds before launch, on earth anyway (something to do with burning off hydrogen gas), so not giving him much time to climb and break in through an airlock! The timing and point of all of that all felt wrong. And why did they have a massive anechoic chamber studio on Mars for Pitt to send his message from?

    It is quite funny that the psych evals that everyone has to submit to are useless. None pick up the rage Pitt says he feels, the same as his father’s and the baboons’. Not that we see his rage, it is tell-not-show as Pitt never loses his temper. Presumably his father did the evals, and him being a potentially murderous boss wasn’t picked up. The co-pilot to Mars displays cowardice twice, but still gets promoted to lead the mission to Neptune.

    And this rocket to Neptune. It is the same rocket used to fly from Earth’s Moon to Mars, a presumably fairly routine shuttling trip of no great duration that nonetheless requires four cew-members. Great play, if I remember right, is made of Pitt’s father’s mission to Neptune being the last long-distance mission NASA has undertaken; yet within a few screen minutes this Earth-Mars shuttleship is fitted out for a trip to the edge of the planetary system to operate a dangerous, violent and unique mission of civilisation-wide importance, and for this it requires only a reduced crew of three (the captain having been killed by baboons). Could no other ship/ no other specialised crewmembers gone along? It’s like taking an easyJet crew used to flying to Paris and Rome and sending them to bomb a nuclear plant in Iran (but with the captain pre-killed).

    • I had forgotten the baboons. And Pitt managing to climb up a booster during the launch sequence. I didn’t have a problem with shopping mall, probably because I watched Aniara recently. Nor with the lunar rovers – they’re probably cheaper to run than a hopper, given they can be recharged with solar cells. It is not, I admit, a film that stands up to intense scrutiny, although it was visually spectacular. But, in its defence, it doesn’t fall apart after *only* a second’s thought like the new Star Wars films do.

  3. And I believe an egregious physics howler is Pitt “using” the blast of Lima Station to help propel himself back to Earth, but there aren’t blast waves in a vacuum. His ship would have been peppered with shrapnel, though. But maybe the blast/wave was something to do with the anti-matter plasma surges that started the film quest in the first place.

    • I’m going to watch the film again – but much more carefully. I still like its look and feel, and it does seem somewhat unfair that critics have ripped it apart but are happy to accept even more egregious errors – bombers in space! – in Star Wars. (And that Star Wars is space opera is no excuse.)

  4. Someone posted on the film’s imdb goof comments page that driving the distance they were supposed to go in the lunar rovers – 1700 miles – would have taken a couple of days non-stop sitting sealed in their spacesuits (and at 35mph – actual Apollo rovers went at 8mph to a one-time max of 11.2 mph). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2935510/goofs for more from there.

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