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Movie roundup 2020, #23

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I polished off Lovecraft Country. So, that’s two TV series I watched in 2020 that were partly based around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Which is when a bunch of white people, with the approval of the local authorities, attacked and maimed and killed many of the black residents of the city. If the massacre is not required teaching in US schools, it damn well should be. And yes, British schools should teach kids the UK didn’t stop paying compensation to slave owners for the loss of their slaves until 2015, FFS. Not to forget the Windrush deportations, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment”. For all the Labour Party’s antisemitism, and I have little respect these days for the Labour Party, its crimes pale in comparison to those of the Conservative Party.

I gave up on Dark Matter after a season. It started to get interesting – six crew members of a starship awake with no memories, and then discover they were a crack mercenary team, but now they’re no longer interested in a career of death and destruction. But then the series threw it all away, and went for the usual US science fiction fascist future (although the programme is Canadian). It didn’t help the crew of the Raza were allegedly the bestest evah, but seemed to be completely useless most of the time. I think the final straw was when they were all captured but only turned the tables because a member of the team they’d all thought dead turned out to be impossible to kill.  Most people would consider this shit writing, Dark Matter seemed to think it was okay. So I stopped watching.

Despite my move to Sweden two years ago, I’m still mostly consuming English-language culture. Yet most of my favourite directors are not English, nor American; nor are many of my favourite writers. But neither are they Swedish. (I like Bergman’s films a great deal, but none are really “favourites”. And, let’s face it, he’s the international art house face of Swedish cinema, when in fact there are tons more Swedish directors, many of whom never see their films released in the English-language market.) I definitely need to watch more Swedish films. I should make it a New Year’s resolution or something.

But, for the time-being, here are the usual suspects… I still have a couple more of these posts before I’ve finished documenting last year’s viewing, by the way.

Greyhound, Aaron Schneider (2020, USA). This is based on a WW2 novel by CS Forester, about the captain of a US destroyer on escort duty for an Atlantic convoy, and which I note is apparently titled, according to a near-monopolistic online retailer, “Greyhound: Discover the gripping naval thriller behind the major motion picture starring Tom Hanks”, and not The Good Shepherd, its actual real title. It’s almost as if the film came first. I’m surprised they even bothered to mention the author’s name. (To be fair, it’s not the retailer’s fault, it’s publishers doing their shit data thing again. Cue rant on marketing making data shit making search engines useless making marketing less effective.) Anyway, WW2 convoy leaves the US in 1942, led by a US destroyer, USS Keeling, captained by Tom Hanks, and heads for the UK, as part of the US’s vital – although it took them a few years to get actively involved – response to Hitler’s depredations in Europe. The UK likes to think it won WW2. This is not true. The US likes to think it won WW2. This is also not true. (They also like to think they won WW1, which is definitely not true – Germany won WW1 for the Allies, although “won” is probably the wrong word.) The USSR won WW2. Pretty comprehensively. And with the highest death toll of any nation. Which means that celebrating individual – or even group – acts of bravery from WW2 seems disingenuous at best. World War 2 was not won by individual acts of bravery. Or indeed by masterful strategies by state leaders. We are long past the time when celebrating anything about WW2 except the fact it was a victory over a fascist state that tried to commit genocide has any kind of social currency. I think the Second World War should be renamed the Global War Against Fascism, because far too many gammons and right-wingers celebrate it and use it to defend their politics when they’re the actual enemy. Greyhound, sadly, is entirely forgettable. Hanks’s character is some sort of weird Christian martinet, but for all his prayers he still has a really shit voyage across the Atlantic. The movie is a bit of a CGI-fest, which is why Dunkirk is much better, and also Dunkirk offers no commentary – but I can’t blame Greyhound for the latter as it’s more likely from the source material, a novel written less than a decade after WW2 finished, by a man who spent the entire war in the US, well away from the front lines, writing propaganda designed to encourage the Americans to get involved.

Tenet, Cristopher Nolan (2020, UK). I’ve seen it argued Nolan is not a director of films but of events. So much so, he threw his dummy out the pram when the pandemic prevented him putting on a full-on state-of-the-art cinematic premiere for Tenet. My response to Nolan’s films has been mixed – Memento was brilliant, but doesn’t survive subsequent viewings with anything like the same impact; the Batman films are just plain fascist; Inception was rubbish; Interstellar was two good films welded together into one bad one; Dunkirk, I actually love unreservedly… In Tenet, we have… a film that could be all that Nolan has been working toward and so quite genius…. Or a movie that doesn’t really work and only demonstrates all of Nolan’s faults as a film-maker. I’m not sure which. Though the film tries to disguise it, the plot is quite simple. It handles its central premise with impressive aplomb and rigour; but resorts to cliché for pretty much everything else. A CIA agent is dragged into a war between the present and the future, because the future has discovered how to make people live backward through time. And they’re attempting to destroy the world in 2020 to prevent their future world from being destroyed. No, I didn’t get that either. Grandfather Paradox-safe, this film is not. There is a maguffin, invented by some rogue genius, which when put together will wipe out the present. And a Russian oligarch who is actively trying to assemble the carefully hidden parts of that maguffin because he’s dying of cancer anyway. So you have a film in which some of the cast are moving forward in time and some are moving backward, and sometimes it’s the same people, and they’re interacting, and it all comes to a head with a big battle which incorporates a “temporal pincer movement”, and it’s not making much sense anymore because if platoon A joined at the start of the battle and moved forward in time, but platoon B joined at the end and moved backward in time, then when platoon A arrives what they see has already happened, so there goes your free will. And anyway future people would have had to travel backwards in time for hundreds of years to arrive in 2020 and drop off the tech and get the plot started, and that’s not easy as they can’t breathe the air and, wait, how did they manage to live for hundreds of years? Tenet is an impressive movie, but it is not a movie for science fiction fans, which, I suppose, is equally true of all Nolan’s other films. It will probably still win a Hugo, anyway. Because the Hugos are shit. Dunkirk is a great film, the highlight to date of Nolan’s career. Tenet, however, is perhaps the biggest production Nolan has filmed. One day, great big production will meet great big film and we will see the apotheosis of Nolan’s career. But Tenet is not it.

The H-Man, Ishiro Honda (1958, Japan). This film, disappointingly, had a single special effect, which was directly related to its eponymous monster, and was… making people dissolve. I’m reminded of one of Samuel R Delany’s comments on science fiction, and how groundbreaking was the sentence, “The door dilated”, in Robert A Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, and I’m chiefly reminded because Delany himself used the sentence, “The door deliquesced”, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Of course, it’s not doors that deliquesce in The H-Man but human beings. It seems initially to be linked to a drugs ring, but the police investigation soon stumbles across a “dissolving monster” in the sewers, but it turns out there are several such monsters, all of whom were created by an H-bomb test. The end result is a police procedural where the villain is a blue gloop that dissolves people. It’s not one of Honda’s best because it’s light on special effects and model work. But it does feel very much like a commercial late-1950s Japanese film.

Viy 2: Journey to China, Oleg Stepchenko (2019, Russia). This film has been marketed in the UK as The Iron Mask, starring Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Dance. All of which is wrong. First, it’s the sequel to Viy (AKA Forbidden Kingdom) – a Russian remake of classic 1967 Soviet horror movie, Viy, which is definitely worth seeing (the original, that is) – starring Jason Flemyng, who often seemed out of his depth. Viy 2: Journey to China is the sequel to the remake, and again features Flemyng, but is a Russo-Chinese production and its chief stars are Yuri Kolokolnikov and Helen Yao. Flemyng arrives in Moscow and is promptly arrested after pointing out that Tsar Peter the Great is not the Tsar Peter the Great he had met previously. He is eventually released and allowed to set off east, accompanied by a “boy” he befriended in prison. The boy is really the lost princess of a Chinese kingdom with a dragon. But the kingdom is now ruled by a witch, who wears a mask so she resembles the lost princess, and is supported by three “magical” beings. But, as Flemyng proves, with Kolokolnikov’s help (he’s the real Peter the Great, by the way)  – and Flemyng’s English wife, who has travelled east to help him – the magic is all science, and the dragon is fake, except not everything is science, like the real dragon the princess wakens in the final magical battle with the witch for the kingdom. The end result is a fantasy that doesn’t make much sense, has a couple of neat ideas, but pretty much zero connection to either the original Viy or Forbidden Kingdom. The sections starring Chan and Schwarzenegger feel like an entirely different film, and when the movie finally does discover its story, it turns into a CGI-fest that looks like it was based on a third-hand account of a wu xia film. One to miss.

Ana, mon amour, Călin Peter Netzer (2017, Romania). A man enters into a relationship with a student – not one of his own students – and is instrumental in bolstering her self-esteem to the point where, after they’ve married and had a child, she’s the bread winner and he’s a house-husband. Their relationship is a clear progression from him being the controlling influence to her being in charge. And given that she apparently suffers from anxiety, and is in therapy for it, I suppose the role reversal is even more ironic… Unfortunately, the film was non-linear, and while the male lead’s receding hairline was helpful in tracking when in the couple’s chronology a scene took place, it wasn’t enough. The end result is sort of compelling, but also sort of confusing. As a chronological narrative, it might have worked better, but have been more banal. It felt like the non-chronological narrative didn’t work in the film’s favour, but the film’s story wasn’t strong enough to carry a chronological narrative. Disappointing.

Outerworld, Philip Cook (1987, USA). There are films you add to your Amazon Prime wishlist, possibly while drunk, which you can think of no good reason why you might have added them. And Outerworld, AKA Beyond the Rising Moon (WTF does that even mean?), a 1980s low-budget sf move from the US is… a good example. To be fair to the film-makers, they were committed to their production – this is an incredibly1980s sf film and a great number of them were made in the 1980s. An alien spaceship lands on a deserted planet, and there is a race to claim it. A cyborg assassin and some random 1980s sci-fi guy team up to get there first and claim the alien ship for their employers. This is a terrible film, but it had this weird charm – not that “so bad, it’s good” thing, just so perfectly an embodiment of cheap 1980s science fiction sensibilities and aesthetics. Its low-budget cyberpunk represents cyberpunk better than any critically-acclaimed work does. It is, I recognise, a minority view, but cyberpunk’s worst works are more emblematic of the subgenre than its best. And its best aren’t even cyberpunk, really.

The Assassins, Zhao Linshan (2012, China). Back in 200 AD, while Europe was ruled by the Roman Empire, various parts of China were fighting each other for control of, well, each other. The Assassins is set at the end of the Han dynasty, when a warlord became the de facto head of the empire. His control of the throne is repeatedly challenged. To be fair, this is an entertaining, if overblown, film, but the rabbit hole it sends you down regarding Chinese history is way more entertaining. Cao Cao, played by Chow Yun-fat, is a general who proves so successful at defending the lands of Emperor Xian, he is granted the position of vassal king. But no one believes he’s content with that title, or they think they can use him as part of their own plans to take the throne. This is cut-throat stuff. It’s a typical big-budget Chinese historical movie of the early twenty-first century… a lot of money up there on the screen, a story that flips back and forth so many times the viewer has no real idea what’s going on – but blame Chinese history for that – and some quality acting from quality actors. Good stuff.

Lethal Weapon 1 – 4, Richard Donner (1987 – 1998, USA). A couple of months ago, I worked my way through all of the Die Hard films, which I’d seen before over the years – so why not do the same for the Lethal Weapon movies? Of which there were four, rather than five. But which were released, for the initial instalments, pretty much around the same time, late 1980s to late 1990s. In its favour, the Lethal Weapon franchise went for a simple naming convention: numbers. Like Die Hard, it was a franchise structured around its central character – two, in this case, Martin Riggs, a borderline nutcase, played by Mel Gibson, and Roger Murtaugh, Danny Glover, who is weeks away from retirement. The first film was intended as a comedy, because what isn’t funny about a white nutjob repeatedly endangering a veteran black colleague? But there was real chemistry between the two leads, even though Gibson is absolutely terrible in the first film, and that, and the receipts, clearly persuaded Hollywood that sequels were worth producing. The stories are irrelevant – much like the Die Hard films – as it’s all about the relationship between the two. But, what this film series makes plain, and which has been true, if unacknowledged, of Hollywood films for decades is that the two leads create the story of the film. It is the actions of Riggs and Murtaugh that generate the plots of the Lethal Weapon movies – and if not their direct actions, at least consequences of their actions in previous films. Much like Die Hard. Until I rewatched these, I admit it had never occurred to me, but: their stories are defined by what the lead characters do wrong. The only link between the movies is a shared history of failure by the lead characters. Partly that’s because the story paradigm of the time required lead characters to experience jeopardy in order to generate drama, but in retrospect it’s hard to understand how we swallowed stories about incompetents who still managed to win out in the end. And then the incompetent end up in charge, and there’s no “win” in sight, and you start to wonder if a socially responsible media might not be a good thing…

Somersault, Cate Shortland (2004, Australia). A teenage girl seduces her mother’s new boyfriend and, afraid of how her mother will react, flees and heads for the “Australian Alps”, a place I’d not known existed. She gets a job in a shop at a petrol station, and lives in the flat that used to belong to the local motel owner’s son. She ends up up in a relationship with the guy from Avatar, who is the son of a local farmer. And it all plays like an ingenue in a closed society, with the wrong boyfriend, but what is conveniently sidelined for much of the movie is that the girl is fifteen years old. So the film is actually one long drawn-out rape. I get the point the director was trying to make, and the lead role was taken by an Australian pop star who was much older than fifteen, and she does really well in the role… but I don’t think it would have ruined the story to make the girl a few years older. This is a good film, but it treads a fine line and I’m not entirely it does so successfully.

4 thoughts on “Movie roundup 2020, #23

  1. “Germany won WW1 for the Allies” ????
    I’m struggling to catch the meaning of this.

    Certainly the USSR won WW2 in Europe but the US won it in the Pacific, while the British (Empire as it was then) eventually won the sideshow in India and Burma.

    • I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that. Nearly a million Germans died of starvation in the last two years of the war, thanks to the Allied naval blockade. Which prompted the Kiel Mutiny. This led to the revolution which overthrew the Kaiser and ended the war. Without the Mutiny, the war could have continued for several more years.

      • That could be interpreted, though, as it being the naval blockade which “won” the war.
        I also doubt the war would have continued for several more years. The German Army had been in more or less continuous retreat since the failure of its 1918 Spring Offensive and by November was being pushed back a sector at a time all across the Western Front.

        • Yes, the blockade led to the starvation, which triggered the Kiel Mutiny. But it was the mutiny which led to the overthrow of the government. Without that, the war would not have ended when it did.

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