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Moving pictures 2019, #20

Some more movies…

Seat 25, Nicholas Agnew (2017, UK). There’s an international mission to Mars, but it’s one-way. Twenty-four trained astronauts will be sent to settle the Red Planet, But there is room for one more, and that position will be taken by the winner of a lottery. A young woman in the UK wins the ticket, but is given time to break the news to her family – assuming, that is, she accepts – before it is announced publicly. It’s a neat idea and a good hook from which to hang a low-key drama. The world-building is very light, and mostly concerned with infomercials about the mission to Mars. The story stays entirely focused on the young woman who has won the seat: her life, her husband, her friends, her parents and in-laws, her colleagues… She keeps her win secret from them all, but kicks off a few “hypothetical” discussions to see how they would react if she told them she was going on a one-way trip to Mars. If this were all there were to the film, then it would be a neat little drama. Unfortunately, whoever wrote the script doesn’t seem to have advanced socially since the 1970s. Not only is the young woman brow-beaten by her husband, but the dynamics between the couple are a good thirty years old. And her in-laws crack jokes about people in Africa living in mud huts. Who does that? I heard shit like that when I was at school. And that was many decades ago. It wasn’t funny then either. Seat 25 could have been a good indie film, but it was ruined by gender politics and race relations from the 1970s.

M. Butterfly, David Cronenberg (1993, USA). This is based on a true story. A French accountant at the French embassy in Beijing was seduced by, and entered into long a relationship with, a Chinese opera singer who specialised in playing female roles. The accountant believed the singer was female and never learnt his true gender, even believing an adopted son presented by the singer was his natural son. Even though the Frenchman didn’t realise he was actually in a relationship with a man, and it was never revealed to him, the fact he was in a relationship with a Chinese national was enough leverage to “persuade” him to pass secrets to the Chinese authorities. This went on for two decades. And the Frenchman only learned the true gender of his lover when they were both arrested for spying in 1983. Cronenberg’s film is adapted from a 1988 play by David Henry Hwang, which takes some liberties with the actual story – mostly by compacting the chronology, as far as I could tell. When Cronenberg makes mainstream movies, I can’t honestly tell the difference between his work and any other director’s. The body horror stuff is obviously so signature that any film that doesn’t feature it doesn’t seem like a Cronenberg film. Which is a shame, as he’s an excellent director, and M. Butterfly tells its story entirely convincingly, more so, I think, because Jeremy Irons is perfect as the Frenchman. It works as a slightly off-kilter drama, but it’s off-kilter, I think, more because of the story than because of anything Cronenberg brings to it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile, Fernando Cerchio (1961, Italy). I wonder how many people don’t realise Italy had a huge film industry and churned out movies by the metre. It wasn’t all Antonioni, Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica or Visconti. There was a long series of Hercules films, for example. Not to mention all those “spaghetti westerns”, the sf movies, giallo films, and loads of international thrillers. Some had US stars in lead roles (usually ones whose careers were on the slide). Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile is, of course, an historical film, a swords-and-sandals movie, starring Jeanne Crain (who plays Nefertiti), Edmund Purdom and… Vincent Price. Purdom and Crain are in love, but high priest Price marries Crain off to the new pharaoh. Who happens to be best mates with Purdom. The romantic triangle is tangled up with the overthrow of the state religion, and the institution of a new monotheistic religion. But this is all standard fare: a mid-sixties mangling of history presented as melodrama. It just happens to be from Italy instead of Hollywood. The film also features several really fake-looking fights between Purdom and a lion. Avoid.

Madadayo, Akira Kurosawa (1993, Japan). This was Kurosawa’s last film and while not one of his signature samurai historical films it was definitely an historical film. It’s set in the late nineteenth century and concerns a retired teacher and those of his pupils he stayed in touch with. It’s immediately obvious from the first five minutes of this movie that Japanese teachers and pupils have a different relationship to those in the West. I mean, most of what I know about pupil-teacher relations has been gleaned from films; as indeed for UK schools, since I went to a public school (not a prestigious one) and it wasn’t unusual for pupils of that school to stay in touch with teachers on an irregular basis for a few years after they’d graduated. But in Madadayo, the “pupils” are young men starting their careers, and yet they visit their old professor, throw a party for him, and ensure his retirement is as intellectually rich as his career was. And they did this every year, for decades. Which unfortunately means Madadayo is not exactly heavy on plot. It’s an elegiac piece, the handing over from one generation to the next, embodied in a teacher and his pupils, which feels like the most obvious of metaphors, but… Madadayo is a nice film. It’s well-played, extremely well-filmed… but ultimately its story is so slight it’s a wonder it lasts 134 minutes. One for fans of Kurosawa, I suspect, although I did enjoy it.

Dumbo, Tim Burton (2019, USA). Disney seems to be on a mission to rebuild its brand in the twenty-first century, and it’s chosen to do so by creating “live-action” versions of its classic films, so kids can enjoy cutting-edge versions of old school animations their parents loved as children. As a strategy, it makes sense… but it’s resulted in some odd films. I can’t really see how a piece of Tim Burton whimsy is intended to appeal to the same market as the original Dumbo back in the 1940s. Sure, tastes have changed considerably since then, as have sensibilities. But this new Dumbo is a great deal darker than the original. For a start, it opens with a  soldier returning home from WWI, minus an arm. His home is a travelling circus, owned by Danny DeVito, and he left his two children there while he was away fighting. The story more or less follows the original – as far as I know, as it’s been decades since I saw it – but all with that Tim Burton heightened reality look and feel. DeVito’s circus is failing financially and a successful rival wants to buy him out. But then his single elephant gives birth to a new calf, initially considered a freak because of his over-sized ears. Turns out the baby elephant can fly. And he’s a big draw. The circus’s fortunes begin to improve. But then millionaire Michael Keaton turns up and proposes a partnership between the circus and his New York amusement park. But all is not well at the amusement park, which does bear some resemblance to some sort of twisted Disney World, but the good guys triumph, there’s a a nice environmentally-friendly message, and even a somewhat perverse dig at corporatised entertainment. I’ve never been a Tim Burton fan, but this is the second one by him I’ve seen recently that stars Eva Green and, well, I sort of quite enjoyed it too.

Kursk, Thomas Vinterberg (2018, France). Back in the day, disasters such as the sinking of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered Oscar Class submarine, would have been the a natural subject for a made-for-television movie, with a cast of nobodies all speaking English with bad Russian accents. Instead, we get a French film with a Belgian star and a Danish director who co-founded the Dogme 95 movement with Lars von Trier. Needless to say, the Dogme 95 rules were not in force in Kursk. The story is well-known – submarine sinks after unexplained interior explosion, men are trapped, no rescue is made in time – but the film is very good on the Russian authorities’ poor response to the incident. Initially, they denied the sinking, then they delayed releasing details… The Royal Navy had already offered help but was rebuffed. Perhaps they could have saved some of the crew if given permission early enough, but it seems like pointless speculation. The rich and powerful will always protect their own interests first, whether they’re oligarchs or admirals. Kursk does an excellent job of presenting the  interior of the submarine, both before and after the disaster, but it does all feel a bit like a CGI-fest. We have perhaps became too used to disasters from disaster movies, or just straight-up thrillers, such that we no longer feel compassion, or fear, for those in real peril. Kursk is a good film and worth seeing, for all that it’s framed as a disaster movie and they’re generally best avoided.

1001 Movies You Must See Before They Die count: 940

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