04 July 2011

Some thoughts on movies

Well, the 90th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party has come and gone, complete with an internet blackout, and I am officially back – or so it appears. I have recently watched two movies of note: Founding of a party and X-Men: first class, and am here giving my thoughts on each.

Founding of a party had both the virtues of being historically and cinematographically interesting, and the vice of being theatrically dull. Beginning with the Revolution of 1911 and moving up to the founding of the Communist Party in 1921, they had a lot of ground to cover, a lot of faces and names and dates to mark, and a story to tell – and sadly, that story was a bit disjointed in places. The cinematography was fabulous and some scenes were emotionally moving and gripping, whether it is Liu Ye’s Mao Zedong sharing tender moments with Li Qin’s Yang Kaihui, whether it is the dramatic and visceral war scenes of the Guomindang forces fighting against the troops of Yuan Shikai (played by the always-excellent-even-in-the-horrible-Dragonball-movie Zhou Runfa), or whether it is student protesters being roused into righteous fury by patriotic firebrands after the humiliations forced on China after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (before they are hustled off into prison by the authorities). The tragicomic irony of the movie is that China’s government, though it is politically more independent than it was 90 years ago, still presides over a society which is toxically unequal, and they do so with an authoritarian hand which could give the Beiyang administration a definite run for its money. And then, of course, there is the delicious, delicious irony that an epic film praising the Chinese Communist Party would be produced largely on money straight from the pockets that emblem of global American capitalism, General Motors. I haven’t checked Mao’s mausoleum yet, but chances are he’s rolled over a couple of times by now…

Other than that, there really isn’t that much to say. The only real empathetic characters here are Mao Zedong, his lover Yang Kaihui and her father Yang Changji, and Mao’s boss and tutor Li Dazhao. Other characters don’t really get enough screen time to be that well-developed. Though Zhou Runfa’s Yuan Shikai swaggers and evil-grins enough to give one a cinematic cue that he is a Really Bad Egg, we don’t get to really see it that much… same with the other warlords. On the flip-side, poor Zhou Enlai (perhaps, outside the singular exception of my girlfriend Jessie, my favourite real-life Chinese Communist) is only introduced forty minutes before the end of the film, and when we first see him he’s sitting in a gaol cell and not saying anything! Characters are introduced sympathetically only to die off or never be seen from again half an hour later… which may be consistent with the actual history, but doesn’t really work well from a movie-goer’s point of view. Anyway, that’s my two cents on what is, to my mind, an ambitious but ultimately confused and overdone movie.

X-Men: first class is actually understated – for a superhero movie, mind – yet vastly more successful. It introduces the characters we all recognise and love from the first three movies: Charles Xavier, Magneto and Mystique. But this time, the film subverts all of the expectations we have from the first three movies. Xavier is not the wise old professor here, but a mid-Atlantic child of old money (read: ‘twit’) with no small attitude of entitlement and a penchant for hitting on girls in clubs with bad pick-up lines – who also happens to carry a whiff of hopeless idealism about him. It’s an idealism with which, by the end of the movie, we’ve lost patience (even though we wanted desperately for Professor X’s vision to be made manifest in the first three movies). Erik Lehnsherr – who becomes Magneto – is introduced in a highly sympathetic light as Frankenstein’s monster, a tortured soul scouring the world to take vengeance upon his creator. In the end, though, he’s not so much Frankenstein’s monster as Richard III: he may be a villain, but in a very real sense we cannot help but see the world through his eyes (particularly since, at the end of the movie, he is proven right). Rare is the movie that can pull off this twist in perspective so well.

The movie takes as its backdrop the Cuban Missile Crisis – but it is actually being orchestrated by a group of mutants whose aim it is to either destroy humankind or convert it to mutant-kind through a nuclear catastrophe (that’s never really made clear, nor is the point of how mutants themselves would survive a nuclear war), in a plot which is discovered by the CIA with help from its new mutant division… but the real drama of the movie lies in the friendship-turned-rivalry of Erik and Charles. Charles has been blessed throughout his life with shelter from the inhumanity of man against, in this case, mutant, whereas Erik grew up with it, and that comes across in many of their conversations (as when Erik sees Charles’ home for the first time, for example). In between there is the character of Raven, who becomes Mystique – a young girl who wants desperately to be accepted for who she is, she is put off by Charles’ insensitivity to her desire for acceptance and encouraged by Erik’s preference for ‘the real Raven’.

I enjoyed the way the film nearly turned the franchise on its head, but it almost helps me not to think of it as an X-Men movie – call it the Star wars prequel syndrome (except, this movie was of a similar quality to the original trilogy, rather than being – as the SW prequels were – complete and utter bollocks). There were several welcome wink-nods to the original X-Men movies, mostly in references to Charles Xavier having to shave his head or grow bald or whatnot, though there was one brief-but-memorable appearance by Hugh Jackman (which thus reduces his Bacon number to 1). But mostly, it was just an enjoyable film in its own right.

My sister believes Michael Fassbender would make a good James Bond. I think, after watching this movie, I have to agree.

Cheery-frightfully-ho to my long-suffering and patient readers; please forgive the longish absence; I promise to be more timely with my updates in the future!

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