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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.


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Moving pictures 2017, #64

Six films from three countries – two of each. Odd, how it works out sometimes.

Two Women, Vittorio De Sica (1960, Italy). I found this on Amazon Prime which, in among the populist crap and, well, the just plain crap, throws up the odd gem. This is no gem per se, but it’s De Sica so it’s quality Italian cinema. It’s also typical De Sica fare. Loren plays a mother who attempts to save her daughter from the invading Germans by travelling out into the country. But none of her relatives are keen to harbour the two of them. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays, bizarrely, an Italian-dubbed male lead, although Italian cinema alway preferred to film without sound and add it later through looping, which certainly helped with foreign markets but also explains why so many non-Italian-speaking stars appeared in Italian films, such as Burt Lancaster in The Leopard. I will freely admit I had initially thought Sophia Loren one of those European actresses adopted by Hollywood chiefly because of their looks, but she was a talented actress and a great deal better than many of her contemporaries, Italian or otherwise. Belmondo, on the other hand, is… Belmondo. Even in an Italian film, he smoulders. His character is a teacher with communist sympathies, which leads to several political arguments. There’s a brutal scene in which both Loren and her daughter are raped by German troops, and it’s quite harrowingly shot. Given how lightly commercial media treat rape, it always dismays when it appears. True, in Two Women it’s a vital part not only of the plot but of the protagonists’ character arcs, which is more than can be said of the vast bulk of commercial media, but that doesn’t mean I have to like its presence. Two Women is a good film… but it’s not a pleasant film, and I’d sooner people knew that before they started watching it.

Le petit soldat, Jean-Luc Godard (1963, France). When I bought the 10- DVD Godard box set, I also bought this 13-DVD one. Unlike the other, it was a UK release, not a France release; but, like the other, it did include many films I’d seen before. In fact, Le petit soldat was the first of its 13 films I’d not seen before. There are identifiable phases to Godard’s films – to an outsider, at least – although I suspect I’m missing some subtle distinctions. But, to my eye, his early films were very much influenced by US noir movies, so much so he actively spoofed the genre several times, such as in Made in U.S.A. (see here), but in earlier films the homage was much more straightforward… As it is in this one, which is pretty much a French take on a US noir film but filmed in Switzerland. Bruno Forestier plays a French agent in Geneva, who is asked to murder someone. But he meets Anna Karenina, and, well, so much for principles. The more Godard I watch, the more I appreciate Godard as a film-maker. In his early days, he was one of the Nouvelle Vague, and perhaps a little more in love with US cinema, especially noir, than his peers. Except… how then to explain Le mépris, made only three years after this. Huh. I don’t think Godard was ever as technically proficient as Truffaut, but I think he had a better handle on the medium’s possibilities – and a fondness for narrative experimentation, which definitely appeals to me. Le petit soldat is pretty straightforward – the twists and turns of the plot are there in the noir playbook, so I’m not really convinced any changes Godard rings are all that innovative. It’s a more disciplined film than, say À bout de souffle, and it works best as a Nouvelle Vague than a noir/thriller film. Worth seeing.

La note bleue, Andrzej Żuławski (1991, France). I’m a big fan of Żuławski’s films, although probably On the Silver Globe more than others; but his idiosyncratic approach to film-making, even if the results are, well, odd, appeals to the curmudgeon in me. And it’s for that reason I’ve been picking up the Mondo Vision releases of Żuławski’s films – six  to date, the first they released was Possession, which took me a while to track down… And it was finding a copy of that which reminded a Mondo release of La note bleue was due in 2017… So I checked, it’d been released, and I ordered myself a copy. La note bleue covers the last days of Chopin, during which many of his friends visit. He apparently had a somewhat odd family situation. And many famous friends – oh, and his wife was famous too, George Sands. Among those who appear in this film are Dumas, Turgenev and Delacroix. They visit Chopin’s villa in the countryside, only to discover all the staff have left and they have to help with the cooking. Chopin’s two children – played by Sophie Marceau, Żuławski’s partner after appearing L’amour braque (see here), and Benoît Le Pecq – worship and cosset their father. And… things happen. The performances, as in most Żuławski films, are OTT, some a great deal more than others. There are also, well, personifications, I guess, of aspects of the human personality, such as “demogorgon”, “spirit of fire”, and 8-feet-tall masked figures in gauzy cloaks, which appear in scenes but are ignored by the cast (some even have dialogue). Despite the seriousness of its topic, La note bleue is as mad as Żuławski’s other films. It’s also an especially good-looking film, more so than others of his, I think, and Mondo have done an excellent job on the restoration and transfer. Żuławski is an acquired taste, but La note bleue is worth seeing nonetheless.

Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). Fricke was director of photography on Koyaanisqatsi (see here), which I loved, and he obviously decided to have a go of his own. Which resulted in two films – Baraka and Samsara… but I could initially only find Samsara for rental, which was a bit weird, but I think it was sort of between releases, and Baraka is now available and on my rental list. None of which is entirely relevant, because this is a gorgeous film and I want them both. I want Blu-ray editions of them both. They’re just like Koyaanisqatsi, non-narrative cinema shot around the world, with the focus on the cinematography, which is, well, gorgeous. Samsara is, like Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels, is pretty much just footage of different places, which I hesitate to call “exotic”, because I believe the word has been so abused it should be considered in the same light as “oriental”, but Samsara does include beautifully-shot footage of assorted parts of the world not otherwise seen in cinema. I loved it, I want my own copy. I will buy one too, see if I don’t.

Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins (2017, USA). This is the one film in this post that most people will want to read about. Which is a bit sad. Because it’s probably the worst of the six films in this post. Okay, so the giallo below, Death Walks at Midnight, is no masterpiece, but it’s arguably better at being what it is than Wonder Woman is. I’d heard a lot of comments about Wonder Woman, so I was keen to see it. I was, and still am, very much for a female-led tentpole movie, superhero or otherwise. Initial commentary on Wonder Woman praised its feminist content. And so I stuck it on my rental list, and went it arrived I stuck it in my player and… it had me for the first thirty minutes or so. A functioning all-female society – hand-wavey as fuck, but who cares, it’s presented entirely without comment and it looks like it works – but then a man appears and mega-warrior Diana suddenly turns into a battlefield liability. He pretty much saves her, which is not the message up to that point. Later, the writers have fun with that particular aspect of her character – but, to be honest, it’s the 21st century, and even for stories set in the 1910s, having a woman save a man from peril should not be a plot point, espcially not one that’s player over and over and over again. I mean, for fuck’s sake, grow up. And that’s the biggest problem with Wonder Woman: once she leaves Paradise Island, she’s treated like some sort of clothes horse, even by those who know of her powers; and then, when she does use them she becomes some sort of sexless super-being. Not to mention that by the end of the film her powers are stupidly OTT. I loved the first half-hour of this film, I wanted to give it a fair shake, so I watched it twice. But it really does fall apart once Diana arrives in London. It doesn’t help that the villains are weak, but that’s a common failing with superhero movies. They were at least well-placed in the period, which is something superhero movies don’t always do well. There has been some fuss online recently on the change in Amazon armour between Wonder Woman and the new Justice League movie. How difficult is it to design costumes for women that look plausible? I mean, if I were leading an army I wouldn’t be concerned with whether they looked like sexy women but whether they looked like fucking kick-ass fucking warriors and capable of winning the battle. This is not rocket science. Wonder Woman is not a great film, it’s not even a good film, but for superhero films it’s a welcome step forward. Hollywood should a) put out a shitload more female-fronted tentpole films, and b) give those films to female directors. Then we might start getting actual good superhero films.

Death Walks at Midnight, Luciano Ercoli (1972, Italy). There was a sale on the Arrow website recently, and among the DVDs and Blu-rays I bought was this, the sequel to Death Walks in High Heels (see here), which I’d bought earlier this year and enjoyed. And this is more of the same – also starring Susan Scott, AKA Spanish actress Nieves Navarro Garcia, the wife of Ercoli, although she appeared in many Italian films of the 1970s and 1980s. In Death Walks at Midnight, she plays a model who experiments with LSD and hallucinates the murder of a young woman by a man using an armoured fist with nails. Except there really was such a murder. But six months earlier. And when her experience appears in a low-rent magazine, those involved in the crime are keen to silence her. This is giallo, so it’s cheap and cheerful, and sense is one of the first things to end up on the cutting-room floor. But it does actually hang togehter, albeit only just, as Scott’s character maintains a solid forward trajectory, even if not everything in the film actually adds up. It struck me while watching Death Walks at Midnight, and based on a number of other giallo films I’ve seen, both horror and thriller, that many of their plots rely on gaslighting their female leads. Throughout this film, Scott is misled as to what she has seen and knows, by someone very close to her. It makes for a suspenseful story, and Scott eventually overcomes, despite all the men with which she interacts offering either scepticism or threats. I don’t know that this was a defining characteristic of giallo, and it seems odd that such a feminist take on the thriller/horror genre would come from Italy. If anything, I suspect it’s an accidental consequence of a genre which sought to put women front and centre in order to titillate a male audience. Films like this, Footprints on the Moon, much of the oeuvres of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and numerous titles from both Shameless and Arrow Video… But then there’s all those Italian Neorealist films which featured strong female leads, not all played by Sophia Loren (see above), it has to be said, by the likes of Robert Rossellini, Vittori De Sica and Federico Fellini… And then I remember there are many many more Italian films like Spaghetti a mezzanotte, and I realise it’s foolish to generalise…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 886