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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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Moving pictures 2018, #25

A mixed bag, this time around. When it comes to choosing films to watch of an evening, there are several factors to consider: rentals DVDs that I need to send back if I want to get another three for next weekend, the growing to-be-watched pile, the growing pile of DVDs lent to me by my mother, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, the sort of day I’ve had at work, whether there’s anything I need to get done that evening, whether I have a Moving picture post to write and I’ve forgotten the details of one of the films in it…

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Tim Burton (2016, USA). I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton’s films and have managed to avoid them for the past decade or so, but this one sounded like it might be worth a go and… well, I actually enjoyed it. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t overdone, it wasn’t massively whimsical, and Burton’s treatment seemed to suit the material. Okay, so Eva Green was as mad as a bucket of spanners in it, but then she is in everything she does – and still she’s eminently watchable. A young man’s grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances – found dead in nearby woods, his eyes missing – and so the young man follows up on stories he was told as a child of a children’s home on  an island off the coast of Wales. He travels there with his father, and discovers that the home was bombed in 1941 and no one knows what became of the children. But then he meets some of them and discovers they still exist, living in an endlessly-repeated day in 1941 (the day, in fact, which ends with the home’s destruction by a German bomb). There are lots of “peculiar children”, although only a dozen or so at the school, and they’re under threat from a group of people led by Samuel L Jackson. He and his group performed an experiment to give themselves immortality early in the twentieth century, but it has slowly been turning them into invisible monsters – unless they eat the eyes of peculiar children, which keeps them human and ageless. And the young man, it turns out he’s peculiar because he can see the monsters… Okay, so it all looked a bit more Cornish than it did Welsh, but the cast were generally good and the villains were pretty effective. A solid effort.

A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies (2016, UK). This is a biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously odd and who this film shows to be very odd indeed. Reading up on her afterwards, I don’t think the film quite does her justice. American actress Cynthia Nixon, perhaps better-known for Sex and the City, which is no doubt doing her a grave disservice as she can’t obviously chose which of her work becomes best-known, plays the title role, with a supporting cast of Brits who mostly seem to have trouble with a US accent. Which means that despite a great deal of care over costumes and setting, this film doesn’t always convince. It doesn’t help that Emily Dickinson was barking, so she’s a hard character to sympathise with in the first place. But this is a Terence Davies film, so it looks great and the performances are top-notch (accents notwithstanding). It certainly inspired me to look up Dickinson’s poetry, which I discovered left me completely cold. She was a… singular talent, with a poetic sensibility very much not of her time. These days, her poetry reads like a cross between doggerel and greeting card, and while her refusal to follow the poetic tradition of her time, and her sheer prolificity are admirable (although she only saw a handful of poems in print during her lifetime), I can’t really defend lines like:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

An interesting film about an interesting person, but don’t expect me to start admiring her poetry as a result.

Submergence, Wim Wenders (2017, USA). I had not known this was a Wenders film until I started watching it. It was the link to diving in submersibles that persuaded me to put it on my watch list. And, after all that, it was a bit meh. It didn’t even feel like a Wim Wenders film, and I wouldn’t have known it was if I hadn’t looked it up. Alicia Vikander is a marine biologist specialising in the hadal zone, on holiday in France. Where she meets James McAvoy, who claims to be a water engineer but is actually a MI6 operative en route to Somalia to meet a contact in a jihadist group. A brief romance ensues. Shortly after arrival in Somalia, McAvoy is captured and held captive. Meanwhile, Vikander visits in the ocean floor off Greenland in a submersible. Both flashback to their romance at the French pension. The only interesting thing about the film was its even-handed treatment of the jihadists, whereas in US films they’re immediately painted as totally evil and fully deserving of extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without due process, making up laws after their capture in order to find them guilty of something, and, of course, illegally invading sovereign nations… Funny how that works…

A Question of Silence*, Marleen Gorris (1982, Netherlands). Three women are arrested for the murder of a man, and while being interviewed by the police it transpires they do not know each other… The film starts ordinarily enough, introducing the three women as they go about their daily business. One runs a café, another is a secretary in an office, and the third is a housewife, who does not speak. Each of the women are arrested and then interviewed by a police officer. They are accused of beating a man to death in a clothes shop. Nothing up until that point has suggested the women capable of committing such an act. It is only when the crime is shown in flashback, that the motive becomes apparent. The housewife had shoplifted a garment, and the shop owner had insisted she return the garment. The three women attacked the shop owner. The other women in the shop just stood and watched them. A court-appointed psychiatrist tries to understand why the women committed the murder, but they refuse to discuss it. In court, the prosecutor suggests the crime would still have occurred if the shop owner had been female. Every woman in the court room starts laughing. This film definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It certainly does not deserve to be so difficult to find. There are plenty of Dutch films available on sell-through in the UK – most of Paul Verhoeven’s oeuvre, for example – and, of course, many Dutch films released in the Netherlands have English subtitles available. But A Question of Silence really was a hard film to track down, and it definitely doesn’t deserve to be. That’s a shame.

Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog (2015, USA). I had not known this was a Herzog film until– well, no, I had known it was a Herzog film but I found it hard to believe it as I watched it. It seemed more like a Kidman star vehicle. She plays Gertrude Bell, one of a number of British female explorers of the Middle East. Another is Frey Stark. Bell graduated from Oxford with a first in History, the first woman to do so, but was not awarded a degree as women were not awarded degrees at the time. Bored with the life planned for her, Bell travelled to Tehran to join her uncle, a diplomat there. She learns Farsi and studies Persian poetry. She falls in love with a member of the embassy staff – played, bafflingly, by an American with a US accent, who’s a made-up character anyway. But her family deem him unsuitable (her real life lover was married), and he commits suicide. So she throws herself into her work, travelling about the region, doing archaeological and philological work. I got the impression from the film that she was involved with Saudis – I distinctly remember mention of the House of Rashid, the original rulers of the Nejd region of the Arabian peninsula – but Bell’s biography on Wikipedia states she mostly travelled and worked in the region now occupied by Syria and Iraq. True, the House of Saud was based in Kuwait at one point, I seem to recall, and that borders Iraq – in fact, the British drew the Iraqi borders, and I think Bell was one of those involved. She also met TE Lawrence several times, and spent WWI working with him in Cairo for British military intelligence. Given I have a long personal connection to the Middle East, it’s no surprise I find the history of the region interesting. But nothing in this film quite rang true. And nothing about seemed very, well, Herzogian. A disappointment on both counts.

La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel (2001, Argentina). I watched Martel’s last but one film, The Headless Woman, last July (see here), and thought it very good. But it wasn’t until I saw a review of her latest, Zama, on Alternate Ending, that I added her other available films to my rental list. This was her first movie. Apparently, the script won a prize at Sundance, but the jury suggested she change it to a more straightforward narrative with clear lead characters. She refused. And so she should have done. Unlike The Headless Woman, which does have a (relatively) straightforward narrative, but – and this is what makes that film so good – it then begins to unravel its own story, until not only the characters but also the viewer begisn to doubt what has actually happened… Unlike that movie, La Ciénaga has no real plot or story. Things happen. And, er, that’s it. There’s no forward momentum. A family have escaped the humid weather in the city by removing themselves to their country house. The mother slips and bashes her head at the side of the pool. She takes to her bed, while her children run riot. The servants take liberties, and she accuses one of theft. Her sister visits with her own children. Martel has made four feature films to date and she really is very good. In fact, Argentina has produced some excellent films by female directors. Lucía Puenzo is another name from the country to watch. It’s not just Argentina – there’s also Claudia Llosa from Peru. And no doubt others from other South or Central American countries I’ve yet to stumble across. The more I see of the cinema of the continent – and it’s not just recent films, but also older ones, such as those by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, of whom I’m a fan – the ‘more I want to explore it. I guess my rental list will be expanding a bit over the next few weeks…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 908