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Moving pictures 2019, #19

Yet more films. Getting closer to being up to date. The last week or two I’ve been mostly watching TV series, which I don’t blog about, which should help me get my movie-watching fully documented.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Norman Jewison (1974, USA). I have a vague memory of my parents owning the original soundtrack to this – the original stage musical, rather than this film adaptation – many many years ago. Or it might have been Hair. In fact, now I think about it, perhaps it wasn’t Jesus Christ Superstar because it’s a Lloyd Webber/Rice musical and I don’t remember ever owning any of those on vinyl (actually, it was a rock opera first). Although we did go to see Cats once at some West End theatre in the early 1980s. But Jesus Christ Superstar is, er, about a certain prince of the House of David, a deposed ruling dynasty in occupied Judea and who, two thousand years later, has probably been responsible for more than deaths than Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot and the Black Death combined. And it’s a musical. Of course. The story mostly focuses on the relationship between Jesus and Judas. The latter thinks Jesus is not practising what he preaches, an attitude present-day televangelists seem to share, and so leaving himself vulnerable to the Roman authorities. But, of course, Judas is a Bad One, and gives up Jesus to the Romans. Who is then strung up on a cross. And his followers adopt the cross as his symbol. You’d think that would be the last thing he’d want to see if he ever came back. Jesus Christ Superstar is actually framed as a group of actors and musicians staging the original play in an Israeli desert (cunningly suggesting that all of Israel is an inhospitable desert; but that’s a discussion for another day). The framing narrative works really well as a conceit, and the deliberate use of anachronisms throughout the film is very effective. But it’s a musical, so the music… The opening track is really good, as is the one sung by the Pharisees, but a lot of the other songs were less memorable. It’s all sing-through, like Jacques Demy, with only one or two lines of spoken dialogue. Which has the advantage of making the segues into the songs feel like a natural part of the narrative, rather than imposed by the format. I had no idea what to expect when I started watching Jesus Christ Superstar – a not uncommon occurrence for me when watching films, it must be said – but I kind of liked it? I’m by no mean a Lloyd Webber/Rice fan, or indeed a fan of musicals in general; but I do like 1970s rock and I do like idiosyncratic approaches to narrative cinema.

Fanney Khan, Atul Manjrekar (2018, India). And from one musical to another. Although calling a Bollywood film a musical is a bit tautological. The title refers to the singer in a band who never makes the big time. Instead he ends up working in a factory and brings up his daughter with dreams of stardom. She enters a singing competition but doesn’t win because of her weight. So her father kidnaps the latest star, Baby Singh, in order to use blackmail to give his daughter a singing career. This is hardly the most original plot on the planet. But then Bollywood has never used original plots, preferring to put its own spin on well-known stories. And so it does here. The friend asked to look after the kidnapped singer falls in love with her and the two end up in a relationship. The kidnapper becomes a folk hero. And the daughter, despite several setbacks, ends up as a successful singer. This a big-time feel-good film, and does it really well. I mean, I don’t put on a Bollywood film expecting to be depressed, but some do feel-good bit better than others, and Fanney Khan certainly excelled at it. Worth seeing.

Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski (2018, Poland). I’m not sure what to make of Pawlikowski, a Polish film-maker who is not Polish, in as much as he grew up and is based in the UK, but nevertheless makes Polish films. Mostly. He started out in documentaries, before making several British features films. But his last two have been Polish. They have also been very good. Cold War is filmed in black and white and is set in the years following World War II. A man and woman fall in love. He’s older than her. She’s a singer and he’s a music teacher. The film takes place over several years, both in Poland and in France, after they’ve managed to leave Poland. Most reviews of this film have rightly pointed out that the cinematography is gorgeous. But the music around which the story is structured is also good, and the two leads do an excellent job of carrying the movie. This is a quality piece of film-making and Pawlikowski is definitely a name worth noting.

Wilson City, Tomás Masín (2015, Czechia). This much is actual history: the city of Bratislava, now capital of Slovakia, was chiefly known as Pressburg, since it had a large German-speaking population. Other names included Prešporok (Slovak), Prešpurk (Czech) and Pozsony (Hungarian). But after the First World War, the city was briefly named Wilsonov after President Woodrow Wilson of the US, in an attempt to encourage US protection when the city declared itself a free city in order to resist annexation by the newly-formed Czechoslovakian state. It didn’t work, the city became part of Czechoslovakia and was renamed Bratislava. The film Wilson City is set during the years just before that name change. A demon is loose and the US sends an FBI agent to help catch it. The mayor assigns a police cadet to assist the agent. But there are other things also happening – the mayor wants to cede the city to the US, which is why he plans to rename it Wilsonov, or Wilson City. For all that it tackles a serious bit of history, Wilson City is definitely a comedy. But a slightly off-kilter one. And the FBI agent, Food, is a really oddball character. Worth seeing.

Henry V, Kenneth Branagh (1989, UK). There is a certain type of thespian-turned-director, almost always male, who seems to feel a need to prove, well, something by directing themselves in a movie adaptation of a play by Shakespeare. And it’s pretty much always one of the history plays. To be honest, this isn’t actually a bad thing. Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of this same play is actually pretty good; and Orson Welles made three films of Shakespeare’s plays (sort of: Chimes at Midnight was cobbled together from several plays, including Henry V) and they were pretty damn good. But Branagh. He’s so young in this film. I mean, he’s six years older than me and he’s been there on television and in films since the early to mid-1980s, so about as long as I’ve been a consumer of popular culture. He plays King Henry as soft-spoken but very much aware of his power, which does seem a bit weird to modern sensibilities since we would expect there to be something more underpinning that awareness than “divine right”. The battle scenes reminded me a great deal of both Olivier’s and Welles’s takes, in the use of close-in camera work to hide how few actors and extras were actually involved. Plus lots of mud. The other notable thing about Branagh’s adaptation is the number of faces recognisable to anyone who grew up on British TV during the 1980s. It’s almost a who’s who. Olivier’s version used some interesting cinematic techniques and some clever staging. Welles relied on his acting chops and some clever script-writing. I’m not sure what Branagh brings to the table. There’s a very 1980s brashness to his adaptation: a contemporary and un-theatrical presentation of violence, and a development of the characters which owes more to the language of cinema than the language of the theatre. It’s not entirely successful. Emma Thompson plays her role as Katharine, daughter of the French king, but isn’t very convincing. Some of the actors’ accents are a bit wobbly. And Branagh’s king sometimes seem more Godfather than noblesse oblige. But it’s worth seeing. And now I wish I hadn’t put my box set of BBC adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays into storage and brought it to Sweden with me. Ah well.

Pan Jinlian’s Revenge, Wu Shuang (2016, China). Pan Jinlian is a famous figure in classical Chinese literature. She is the central character of The Plum in the Golden Vase and also appears in Water Margin. She is effectively an archetypal character in ancient Chinese literature. She was considered beautiful but was married to a man most thought ugly. She had an affair with a handsome warrior, and she and the warrior poisoned her husband. The husband’s brother, however, investigates and discovers the truth. In Pan Jinlian’s Revenge a young man from the present is accidentally set back in time to the seventeenth century. He is familiar with the story of Pan Jinlian, and so very surprised when he actually meets her and her husband. She is, after all, a fictional character. The film is pretty much the young man trying to prevent Pan Jinlian’s husband from being murdered by his wife. It’s a conceit that clearly works best for viewers familiar with the source material. I have not, I admit, read any classical Chinese literature, although I would like to. But a bit of Googling helped while I was watching Pan Jinlian’s Revenge, although the film could certainly be enjoyed without it as a straightforward timeslip romance (sort of). I mean, it’s not an especially well-made film, more the polished output of a studio that churns out movies, possibly for TV, to a tight schedule. It looks like it was filmed in a heritage village, the cast are good without having any noticeable screen presence, and the story moved on well-oiled rails to its finish. I enjoyed it, and was interested to learn of Pan Jinlian, but that’s about all I could say.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940