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Movie roundup 2020, #25

In 2020, I watched 380 films, of which 275 were new to me, 41 I’d seen several times before, and 58 I’d watched once previously. Most were streamed – I no longer subscribe to a DVD rental service (are they a thing in Sweden?); and I bought a grand total of nine Blu-rays (one is a box set) and two DVDs in 2020, not all of which I’ve watched yet. The movies were from 39 different countries, the top five of which by number of films were USA, UK, China, Italy and India. Ninety percent were directed by men, five percent by women, and five percent by more than one person. The most popular decade was the 2010s, followed by the 1970s and 1980s (equal), and then the 1990s.

I also binged on a number of television series – from Sweden, Australia, UK, China, USA and Canada. They were mostly either science fiction or police procedurals/murder-mysteries. I completed Stargate SG-1, Quantum Leap, Unforgettable, Wire in the Blood, and The Professionals. I can’t honestly say any of them were any good.

Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, David Dobkin (2020, USA). I didn’t want to watch this film. I don’t think Will Ferrell’s movies are very funny, and, well, Eurovision is a difficult subject to tackle and it means so many different things to so many different people. In the UK, it’s either ignored or celebrated as an excuse for a major piss-up; in Sweden, they have a month-long television contest just to choose who will represent the country. So my expectations were not high. But I’m also a sucker for movies about bands. Ferrell plays a monomaniacal Icelander who is determined to represent his country at Eurovision. Together with his childhood friend, Rachel McAdams, as the band Fire Saga, they submit a demo song to to the Icelandic pre-selection TV show… and are randomly added to the bill after another act is disqualified. But Iceland is pinning all its hopes on a singer (played by a US Pop Idol winner or something). Fire Saga’s TV appearance is a disaster. When all the other contestants are killed when the boat they’re partying on explodes, only Fire Saga are left to represent Iceland… The humour is played completely deadpan throughout. I find Ferrell annoying at the best of times, but there were some good jokes here (and some really bad ones too, of course). The flamboyantly gay Russian contestant was good, seeing Gunvald Larsson in another role was a bit weird, the elves thing was a bit odd at first but gradually improved, and some of other acts were impressively accurate pastiches of the real thing. Overly mawkish in parts, a bit too much moralising, never really laugh-out-loud funny, but better than expected.

Toy Story 4, Josh Cooley (2019, USA). I remember the fuss when the first Toy Story film appeared. True, it was ground-breaking. But did it need a sequel, never mind three sequels? To be fair, all four films have stayed true to the characters and setting. By the time the fourth film hit the screens, the shine had surely rubbed off. The characters and set-up are just too familiar, and it just feels like it’s going through the motions. There are a couple of good jokes, but it’s all very much a formula of its own making. The animation remains impressive, but there’s nothing here that’s, well, exciting or novel. It’ll appeal to fans because it’s all very familiar, but I admit my attention wandered a bit while I was watching it. Meh.

WW84, Patty Jenkins (2020, USA). The general reaction to this sequel has been one of underwhelm. It was a bit meh, but I think a lot of the criticism has been somewhat unfair. Rather than MCU’s bombast, it offers moralising, and yet there’s an immoral act at its core. The film opens with a young Diana competing in some sort of Amazon pentathlon, which she wins, despite being half the age of the other competitors. Quick cut to a shopping mall in 1984, and Wonder Woman foils a jewellery store robbery, but asks all the witnesses to keep her intervention a secret. By day, she works in the Smithsonian, where a colleague, Kristen Wiig, uncovers an ancient artefact with special powers – it makes wishes come true. Wiig wishes she were confident and popular like Diana Prince… and slowly gains Wonder Woman’s powers. Meanwhile, an ineffective con man has also learnt of the artefact, steals it and wishes its powers on himself – so he effectively becomes the artefact. And he uses his new-found power to greatly improve his lot, while inadvertently leaving chaos behind him. (I’ve known managers like that, and they didn’t need magical powers.) Wonder Woman, of course, makes a wish too – that her long-lost love, Steve Trevor, is returned to her. Which he is – in the body of another man. Which is… What happens to the man’s original mind? Where does he go? And replacing that actor with Chris Pine, so the viewer knows the character is now Trevor hides the fact it’s another man. Also, how did a WWI pilot know how to fly a 1980s jet fighter? (The invisible plane thing is silly, but it’s part of the Wonder Woman story, so why not include it?) Like the first Wonder Woman film, WW84 starts well, sags badly in the middle, and then falls apart in the final act. But the most puzzling thing about it is the decision to set it in 1984. I don’t remember anything in the movie specifically tied to that year. And there was certainly no reference to Orwell. Which would have been weird anyway. Nostalgia? No idea. WW84 has likely been dumped on more than it deserves, chiefly because it’s about a female superhero and it was directed by a woman. But I do like the fact the DCU films are very different to the MCU ones, even if the latter are starting to look like some sort of extended Robert Downey Jr vanity project in which he repositions himself as God.

Death to 2020, Al Campbell (2020, USA). A piss-take documentary on last year, focusing mostly on Trump, his mishandling of the pandemic in the US, and the UK’s equally appalling handling of Covid. If you lived through 2020, it does seem like a satirical recap of it is… unnecessary. If anything, a piss-take generally means you have no power to change anything. And we already know that’s not true, as Trump slinks out of the White House and, we fervently hope, off to prison. We can only pray a similar fate is visited on Boris Johnson and his corrupt government, not to mention the fat cats who have profited from the Conservative Party’s corruption. There are, I admit, a couple of laugh-out-loud moments in Death to 2020, and it’s certainly a good deal more true than anything that’s been broadcast or printed by the US and UK press over the past twelve months, or, of course, anything said by either Johnson or Trump. If I thought Death to 2020 would change anything, I’d be the first to praise it. But it won’t. It will make some people feel better about their powerlessness or inaction, but it won’t change minds. In a world in which someone uses the phrase “autonomy of opinion” to justify their irrational disbelief of a verifiable fact, it’s going to take more than a satirical film to overcome the astonishing stupidity of a significant proportion of the populations of the US and the UK.

When Marnie was There, Hiromasa Yonebiyashi (2014, Japan). Studio Ghibli seems to like adapting British children’s literature. There was Diana Wynne Jones, and The Borrowers, and now When Marnie was There, adapted from a 1967 children’s novel by Joan G Robinson, whose name, I must admit, was completely unknown to me. (Wikipedia describes When Marnie was There and later novels as “Young Adult”, but no such category existed then.) A twelve-year-old girl, Anna, goes to stay with country relatives of her foster parents after suffering a bad asthma attack. While exploring the countryside, she meets a precocious girl of the same age who lives in the local manor. Whenever Anna accompanies Marnie to her home. everything appears very old-fashioned, which strangely does not seem to register with Anna. The two become friends and have several minor adventures. But all is not as it seems – although the viewer should have little trouble figuring out what’s going on. Studio Ghibli often have a problem with mawkishness, but When Marnie was There manages – just – to stay the right side of it. I’ll confess I much prefer Ghibli’s less overtly genre films, but this one had that sort of gentle English children’s fantasy I couldn’t help by find appealing. A good film.

Two Weeks in Another Town, Vincente Minnelli (1962, USA). Washed-up and dried-out actor Kirk Douglas is flown out to Rome to work on a film directed by an old friend, Edward G Robinson, a US director whose career is also on the slide. But when Douglas arrives at Cinecittà, he discovers the producer has refused the additional budget for Douglas. Determined to make a go of it, Douglas accepts a lower position supervising the looping of the dialogue. (Most Italian films had the dialogue added in post-production, and, in the case, of non-Italian cast members, their voices were provided by Italian actor.) Confusing matters is the presence of Douglas’s  ex-wife, Cyd Charisse, who is now seen about Rome on the arm of some wealthy industrialist. Things come to a head when Robinson has a heart attack and hospitalised. Douglas volunteers to direct the film, despite having no experience, but does a good job. Robinson accuses him of betrayal. Douglas goes on a bender and nearly kills himself in car crash. The film is pretty much a two-hander – Douglas and Robinson – and they play off each other well. It’s also a very late-1950s to early-1960s drama. The Roman setting gives it an edge, and reminds me a little of Godard’s Le mépris, but this is also a Minnelli film and he was always very good at putting nice pictures up on the screen. A good solid 1960s drama, with an excellent cast.

Valhalla, Fenar Ahmad (2019, Denmark). A poor smallholding in Denmark is  visited one night by Thor and Loki. To feed the family and two gods, Thor slaughters one of his giant goats, but warns the family not to break any of the animals bones… So, of course, Loki tricks the teenage boy of the house into doing just that. And when Thor reanimates the goat the next morning using Mjolnir, the goat is lame. So Thor takes the boy to be a slave in Valhalla. But the daughter hides on the cart and is not discovered until they are halfway across Bifrost. It turns out there is a legend about a “Child of Light”, and it might be the girl – because she can control Fenrir, the giant wolf, currently running wild in Asgard. The two escape Valhalla with the help of an intellectually-challenged jötunn, taken as a slave earlier. Which triggers a war between the gods and the jötnar… Given the story, this is a surprisingly small film. There are no more than half a dozen gods, and slightly more jötnar. The interiors are far from grandiose – in fact, they’re caves. It looks a bit like LARPing, but it actually works as a movie. It’s the complete antithesis of MCU’s bombastic Thor movies, and all the better for it. Worth seeing.

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, Khurram H Alavi & Ayman Jamal (2015, United Arab Emirates). Because Islam forbids representations of the Prophet Mohamed, films made about the early days of Islam have this weird hole in their centre. And this is certainly true of Bilal, which covers the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the early Sahabah (disciples), who went on to become the religion’s first muezzin. Bilal was born a slave in Makkah, at a time when idolatry was the chief religion in the Arabian Peninsula. Bilal: A New Breed of Hero is hardly historically accurate – and even its opening deviates from the actual history of Bilal ibn Rahman, by showing him being taken as a slave child, rather than being born a slave. In terms of story, the film hits a series of fairly typical beats – rivalry with richest merchant’s arrogant son, taken under the wing of a wise mentor, and a powerful warrior… But then a man appears preaching equality and emancipation, and Bilal becomes one of his followers. Obviously, this is Islam. But it’s never mentioned by name, nor are any of its tenets given. The idol worshippers are painted as venal and deluded, and positioned as the enemy, leading to a war in the third act, but the good guys are a blank because they’re not categorically identified. It’s like The Lord of the Rings without the One Ring. I suspect the real history would be a lot more interesting, but it’s not a well-documented period – or rather, like another extremely popular book, the history has been compiled from a variety of sources, many of which were not writing until a generation or two after they had ended. An interesting film, although not entirely successful.