Saturday, 15 August 2015

Recent films I have seen; or, cultural relativism at the flicks...

I've seen several films for the first time lately and looking back I feel they contrasted rather well with one another.  Two were on dvd and three were at the cinema.

They were all, in different ways, very professionally done; slick, highly commercial pieces of work; and they were object lessons in how to do commercial cinema well, and how not to.  At least for my money.

First up was Marvel's "Ant-man".  When I saw a trailer for this, a few months ago, I thought it looked pretty cheesy.  Even the special effects (which after all would of necessity be central to the storytelling) looked poor.  I only agreed to go because my friend Dip the Dipterist wanted to see it (because ants).  In the end Dip wasn't feeling very well and I went on my own; and, guess what? - I loved it.

I gather it has aspects that can be considered highly problematic if you are a fan of the comics on which it's based; in particular, there's a blatant case of fridging of a (of course) female character in order to explain a male character being a prick; and the only black characters are treated as primarily comic relief, despite the fact they are integral to the plot and come up trumps when the shit hits the fan.

But it did have some pluses to compensate for that.  We have an age-appropriate actress playing the female lead, instead of a girl of 20 pretending to be 35 because Hollywood doesn't believe anyone can bear the sight of a woman with a few tiny creases at the corners of her eyes when she smiles.  We have a non-hunk hero.  We have a step-father figure for the hero's child, who isn't a plot device and who acts with exemplary good sense throughout - and doesn't get bumped-off, humiliated or otherwise shelved at the end.  The aforementioned female lead is angry because she has bloody good reason to be, not because she's stuck in a delayed adolescent rebellion - the second film I've seen this year (after "Mad Max; Fury Road") that accepts the idea that women are entitled to be angry if they are treated shittily.  Plus, the special effects are actually fine, and I gather that the ants are pretty accurate from a biology point of view.

And it's good fun.  Where recent Marvel films have been getting pretty dark and bleak, this returns suddenly to the warmth and lightness of spirit of "Guardians of the Galaxy".  Darkness and sadness may be more realistic, but sometimes that fairytale of happy endings for the good-of-heart is an incredible relief.

The next thing I watched was a dvd my mother lent me; "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."  I came to this with really seriously low expectations, having been terribly disappointed by the first two Hobbit films (bloated, messy, self-indulgent and poorly-scripted).  It was even worse than I feared; which is almost an achievement.  If you felt the first two were bloated, messy, etc, this one is far, far more so.

It's such a shame.  Martin Freeman is a tremendous Bilbo, and most of the rest of the cast are also good-to-excellent (with the exception of a few bits of stupid stunt casting).  It all looks great.  But the padding-out of the plot is ludicrous, there's a pointless romantic sub-plot shoe-horned in for Kili (or was it Fili? - I never could tell them apart - handsome Aidan Turner rather than the other slightly-gormless chap), and on the rare occasions when the dialogue is the original Tolkien rather than invented new stuff, it sticks out like real butter in a plate of bread-and marg, because it suddenly has the ring of Middle Earth in every word, instead of the ring of modern English in pretentious vintage clothes.  Please excuse the bad mixed metaphor there.

With the exception of those few lines of real Tolkien, about the only good thing you can say about the script is that they had just enough nerve not to bottle-out of killing Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Oh well, never mind.  Glad I hadn't forked out to see that in the cinema, though.

Forking out for films is a thing of the past for the next twelve months, anyway, since I've just joined the Cineworld Unlimited scheme.  And my next two movies were both seen on my new Unlimited card.

"Jurassic World" does exactly what it says on the tin.  Fabulous special effects, loads of smashing dinosaurs smashing stuff smashingly, and Chris Pratt on a motorbike.  Oh, and the T Rex gets to win the day and save the day (well, kind-of); the closing shot is his triumphant roar over his regained kingdom.  I suspect the science is wince-making if you know anything about genetics.  But for an enjoyable evening at the flicks, with a straightforwardly exciting plot and a few squeal-moments, this would take some beating.  Ever so much fun.

That was followed by the new Mission Impossible film, "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation".  It's a silly title, but nobody's perfect.  This also did exactly what it should; daft plot, stupidly great stunts, terrific action sequences, lots of Simon Pegg, and the good guys win in the end.  There's a tremendous sequence filmed in the Viennastaatsoper and set to a soundtrack of long chunks of "Turandot", which I'm pretty sure came in the right order and were sung by real singers.  Even in a franchise famous for its exciting theme tune, a slab of full-on Puccini adds instant drama.

There wasn't enough Agent Brandt (but then I would say that, wouldn't I?!) and though he was pleasantly sarcastic and wry in what screen-time he did get, he didn't have much real action; someone seems to have decided to relegate the character to a desk job.  Doesn't seem fair, if you ask me.  On the other hand, we got the first really interesting heroine the MI films have given us; Rebecca Ferguson's bold and capable Ilsa Faust.  Who had agency and motivation, wasn't used as a love-interest, saved the day repeatedly and was generally utterly cool.  Ms Ferguson is also stunningly beautiful, incidentally; but with the beauty of an athlete rather than a supermodel.  Douze points for the MI series for that.

And finally, the second film I saw on dvd; "Les Miserables".  Oh dear.

Unlike the Hobbit, I was really looking forward to this.  It's taken from one of the most famous and succesful modern stage musicals.  It had rave reviews and rave word-of-mouth.  It was praised as "sheer heaven" and seemed to satisfy everyone from the most arty to the most populist of critics.  It had a great cast.  Where could it possibly go wrong?

Okay; the cast are indeed mostly great, though I remain mystified by the attraction of Eddie Redmayne.  Ann Hathaway deserved her Oscar; she's heart-rendingly good and doesn't milk a role that could have been one solid wallow of self-indulgence.  And it looks really good (with the exception of the blank Mr Redmayne); the sets and costumes are uniformly splendid.  I did get a bit tired of all the tight close-ups of singing people with their mouths open showing off their theatrically-blackened teeth, but that's a minor detail.

But for my money there's one big problem with "Les Mis"; the music is rubbish.

If someone wanted to write an opera, but didn't know how, and was too self-confident to ask for help, but also couldn't bear to just not do it, this is the kind of thing they might write.  It's sung-through, but most of the time the vocal lines cling nervously to a tiny range of safe notes; and the orchestration is almost all solid movie-score string-heavy stodge.  There are a couple of Big Numbers, with actual outright melodies.  There are a few of what one might call Small Numbers, with a bit of melody, carefully confined within that safe-note zone.  And there is tons, and tons, and tons, of recitative.  Extremely dull recitative.  They all chunter on and on, up and down on two notes, for hour after hour.  Even one of the supposed Big Numbers is actually almost all sung on just two notes.

It's some of the most boring music I've heard in years.  Pity, that.  Seeing it a few days after "MI:RN" with all that Puccini only served to emphasise how dull and flat and tumty-tum-y it was.

Well, as I said at the start of this post, they were all commercial films.  But I find it interesting that the one which was nearest to being considered Serious Cinema, which was most praised, and least mainstream in subject, which was un-pop enough to please even "serious" critics, was for my money the most disappointing.  "Les Mis" had major pretentions to be Real Art; but it was fundamentally dull, and most of the big "emotional" moments left me feeling cheaply manipulated.  "Ant-man", "Jurassic World" and "MI:RN" all of them made no great claims to be art, and no great claims to have the right to make us cry.  They set out to entertain and thrill, and they achieved it.  Two of them even managed to slip in a tiny amount of genre subversion (okay, maybe 15% subversion maximum; but that's still more than one expects).  And they were highly enjoyable when the would-be Serious Real Art was basically not.

I can't really draw any profound conclusions from this; except to say, I am not ashamed of my eclectic tastes, or of liking things that are "low" culture and not liking something that is "high" culture (or at least, in cultural snobbery terms, very much higher than Mission Impossible).  I like what I like and that's all there is to it.

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