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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

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Moving pictures, #36

Nope… FAIL. I started well… but then it all turned into US films. Admittedly, a few are classics but…

idaIda, Paweł Pawlikowski (2013, Poland). Despite his name, despite the fact this film was made in Poland, about a Polish subject, with a Polish cast and Polish money… the director is a Brit and his previous films were all set in the UK. None of which makes the blindest bit of difference, of course. If there’s a sensibility at play here, then it’s undoubtedly more Polish than British – and that’s not just because Ida was filmed in black and white and is paced more like East European “slow cinema” than it is, say, Gosford Park. All of which, to my mind, are good things. The title refers to an orphan about to take her vows at a convent. The mother superior tells her she has one living relative, an aunt, and she should visit her before making her final decision. Ida’s aunt proves to be a judge, and a decade before in the 1950s had a been a state prosecuter known as “Red Wanda” who sent men to their deaths at state show trials. Ida wants to learn what happened to her parents, so the two drive to the rural farm where the family lived. They were Jewish, but had been protected by the locals during the Nazi Occupation; but then one night they disappeared. The family who now run the farm – and had protected the family – are afraid Wanda and Ida want their property back, and are prepared to fight for it. But Ida is really about the relationship between Red Wanda and her niece, and while Ida herself is something of a blank – played by a non-professional in her first role – Agata Kulesza as Wanda quickly takes over the film and carries it through to her abrupt end. Ida was the first Polish film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and I think it’s on a later 1001 Movies You Must See Before Die list than the one I’m using. An excellent film, definitely worth seeing.

taalTaal, Subhash Ghai (1999, India). Bollywood films are now a regular part of my viewing. I admit I prefer the historical ones more than the current ones, but this one did have a good soundtrack. And from my limited experience to date, it seems most Bollywood films follow the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins back girl. There’s also usually a class difference between the two, or at least something that makes the two lovers “star-crossed”. In this case, Akshaye Khanna is the son of a wealthy industrialist, and Aishwarya Rai is the daughter of a lowly folk singer. They meet cute (he nearly falls off a cliff, is saved by her, then inadvertently causes her to nearly fall off), and, er, fall in love, but his father is against the match, and insults her family when they visit in Mumbai. She goes off and becomes a pop star, using songs based on her father’s music, and pop-star/producer Anil Kapoor asks her to marry him. But Rai is still carrying a flame for Khanna, as he is for her; and Kapoor reluctantly realises this and gets the two back together again. So, pretty predictable stuff. But the song and dance routines are good, especially an extended number when Rai performs at a MTV Award ceremony in Canada. Fun.

dallasDallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée (2013, USA). Which is anything but fun. McConaughey apparently lost 21 kg to play the lead role, and he looks bloody awful. It’s quite off-putting. True, he’s playing a man who’s HIV+ and only a heartbeat away from full-blown AIDS… and has a lifestyle that includes heavy drinking and smoking and frequent drug use. But it’s what he does after his diagnosis which forms the plot of the film. Dallas Buyers Club is about the system Ron Woodroof – a real person, and this film is based on his life – put in place to obtain unapproved drugs to prolong his life as a HIV sufferer. He smuggled the drugs into the US by claiming they were for his personal use, and got around the law by not selling them but giving them away free to people who paid him $400 a month to be in his buyers club. It was not his idea – he picked it up from schemes being used in New York – but Woodroof did sue the FDA for the right to take one of the unapproved drugs he had been using. Much has been made of McConaughey’s side-kick in the buyers club, a transgender called Rayon, who was not a real person but based in part on a number of people known to Woodroof, and played by Jared Leto. To be honest, Dallas Buyers Club felt like a film of actors acting rather than a somewhat liberal-with-the-facts retelling of a person’s life- oh wait, of course, biopic… I mean, it felt like an artefact, not that it was helped by being about a bunch of not very nice people who had found themselves in a truly horrible situation not of their making. And while people certainly died because HIV treatment was ineffective and inadequate during the early 1980s, Dallas Buyers Club unhelpfully implies this was partly the FDA’s fault because it refused to approve drugs… Except pharmaceuticals need to be carefully regulated because without controls all manner of horrible shit would be killing desperate people in order to fatten the P&L accounts of Big Pharma. Dallas Buyers Club also apparently claims the drug Woodroof was originally prescribed is toxic and ineffective, but it’s not. And the treatment he self-administered is far less effective than the film claims. It’s bad enough to paint the FDA as the villains when they perform a vital role; it’s another to completely misrepresent drugs and drug regimens in service to drama. Meh.

twentieth_centuryTwentieth Century, Howard Hawks (1934, USA). For a film made only three-and-a-bit decades into the century, naming it for the entire 100 years is a bit of a hostage to fortune. Still, we’re talking Hawks here, and pre-Code, and screwball comedy – so it’s likely to be entertaining if nothing else. And so it proves. John Barrymore is a Broadway actor and producer, and he decides to turn lingerie model Carole Lombard into a Broadway star, despite her initial lack of apparent talent. He succeeds. Three years later, she plits from him, and his career goes into decline and he ends up in jail for debts. He escapes, disguises himself and catches the Twentieth Century train – the real source of the film’s title – from Chicago to New York. Also aboard is, of course, Lombard. The movie then turns into a drawing-room farce, only the drawing-room is very long but very narrow and is travelling across country at a high rate of speed. There are a number of running jokes featuring other passengers, such as a man known for writing cheques he can’t redeem, and he gives one to Barrymore. Of course, the plot runs along rails as set as the Twentieth Century itself, and the presence of a desperate Barrymore after one big hit and Lombard on the same train naturally leads to a new partnership and, if not a happy ending, at least one that could lead to happiness.

shanghaiShanghai Express*, Josef von Sternberg (1932, USA). When it comes to US films from the 1930s I’ll admit I’m frequently baffled why some made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and others didn’t. I could be charitable and suppose the list-makers hadn’t managed to watch every Hollywood film from the decade, but that would be unfairly assuming they’d skimped on their due diligence – I mean, you don’t produce a list called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die without making a serious effort to watch as many eligible films as possible. Perhaps it just comes down to value judgements – after all, “best is just subjective”… Except, of course it fucking isn’t, otherwise everything would mean nothing. But people respond differently to films, as I’ve certainly learnt during my informal project to watch all of the movies on the aforementioned list. So perhaps that’s it. True, I like me a 1930s screwball comedy much more than I like me a po-faced 1930s thriller, especially ones that wears its orientalism proudly on its sleeve and even uses “yellowface” in one of its lead characters. The title refers to a celebrated madam, played by Marlene Dietrich, who is on a train from Beijing (here called Beiping) to Shanghai during a civil war. Also on board are an ex-lover of Dietrich, a French general, a bible-basher, and a half-Chinese businessman. The last is played by Werner Oland, best known for playing Charlie Chan. And he proves to be more than a businessman, he’s actually a rebel warlord. And he takes the ex-lover, a British officer and brain surgeon on his way to operate on the governor-general of Shanghai, as hostage for one of his men taken by the Chinese authorities. It’s all very intense, and each character has a well-defined character arc… but you can’t help noticing that it’s played pretty damn insensitively and for all its star performances it’s still little more than Yellow Peril. If the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list must have a 1930s film set aboard a train on it, it’d have been better off with Twentieth Century – and I don’t think that’s a great film either.

road_to_gloryThe Road to Glory, Howard Hawks (1936, USA). Not sure what happened here – the rental service must have suffered some sort of blip and sent me two Howard Hawks films from the thirties. But never mind. If the title of The Road to Glory reminds you of a later film by a certain Stanley Kubrick, the title is not the only thing the two (nearly) share. Both are set among French soldiers during World War I. And both far from glorify combat. However, where Kubrick’s movie was about three soldiers unfairly charged with cowardice, and the officer who fights to save them from the firing squad, The Road to Glory is about, er, two French Army officers who fall in love with the same woman. Oh well. I tend to think of Hawks as one of those directors who produced solid films with just that little bit more which showed he had a real eye for the medium. He was no auteur, but neither was he a workmanlike director. But that extra touch isn’t always evident in his movies. It’s there in Scarface, a handful of tricks and a certain eye in some of the scenes; but there’s little in The Road to Glory that doesn’t look like anything more than a dab hand at staging, lighting and blocking. I’ve watched quite a few of Hawks’s films by now, but I can’t say I’ve spotted a “Hawks vision”. Which is not something you can say of Hitchcock’s films. There’s something very distinctive about the way the Hitch staged and shot his movies, and if Hawks had an approach all his own I’ve yet to spot it. Perhaps I need to see more of his films. Perhaps no such thing exists.

battle_tankerBattle Tanker, Jeffrey Scott Lando (2011, USA). I spotted this in a charity shop and though it looked like the sort of thing put out by the Global Asymlum, I thought it might be worth a go. It wasn’t. It’s shit. Really shit. There’s this mysterious weaponised substance called ICE-10, which has something to do with a meteorite that landed in the 1960s and something to do with anti-matter – like everything in this movie, it’s all confused bollocks. This ICE-10 is kept in a secure facility in Alaska, but they want to drill there so the US government has decided the safest place for it is at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. The plan is to put the substance aboard an oil tanker, sail it to the trench, and then scuttle the ship. This is all helpfully explained… and the film abruptly cuts to the ship and it seems they’ve already gone and put the ICE-10 aboard and are halfway across the Pacific. We’re told the ship is a Very Large Crude Carrier, and the film’s title seems to confirm this, but VLCCs do not have holds with hatch covers because why would you put a giant deck hatch on a tank of oil? The ship is also entirely CGI, so it’s not like they couldn’t get it right – although it is very cheap and crap CGI. The interiors are just as bad, although at least they’re not tricked-out industrial plants. The character arcs and dialogue follow text-book story beats, which has the unfortunate side-effect of making the characters comes across as complete fucking idiots for most of the movie- oh wait, that’s how these sort of things work, you can’t have common sense in use too early because how else are you going to show that the characters have grown. Seriously, ban all recipes and templates from script-writing – it makes for shit movies. Having said all that, only a complete fucking idiot would expect Battle Tanker to be quality; and while I was expecting a piece of shit, it failed to even rise to those levels. At various points, the ICE-10 containment – the design of this on the monitoring software bore no resemblance to the actual CO2-wreathed hardware, suggesting a budget shortfall – is “vented”, which generates great clouds of anti-matter, or something, which makes things which encounter it blow up, such as US Navy cruisers, airliners, and, er, Honolulu… I found this DVD in a local charity ship, but I think the world would be a better place if, instead of returning it, I destroyed it.

1001 Movies you Must see Before You Die count: 787