Film Evening. Towards the end of the last week, Indiewire published what's becoming an annual list of everything Steven Soderbergh watched in 2013. I like to think he was inspired by my own review 2004, though his doesn't mention the format he enjoyed the films in, but does have some books and music so I suppose everything balances out. What's most notable is that his tastes don't differ that much from mine and he has similar whims like "I think I'll spend the evening with some Orson Welles documentaries..." or "I must catch up on some David Fincher's stuff..." Also he watches just as much television -- mostly HBO -- but also some UK stuff. He's seen that superb BBC's miniseries about The Great Train Robbery and on the same day as a UK episode of BBC Four's Getting On alongside what looks like an episode of the US version, perhaps for comparison. I wonder what he'd make of my tastes..
The Short Game
The Gentle Sex
Welcome to the Punch
The Look of Love
Le Grande Depart
The Last Stand
The only item I watched this week not released in 2013 is The Gentle Sex, Leslie Howard's 1943 wartime romantic drama about a group of women from various walks of life who meet in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Amazingly dated even taking everything into account, it's burdened by a patronising voice over from Howard himself commenting on the foibles of "these ladies" few of whom have anything in the way of dimensional characterisation mostly boiled down to regional and class stereotypes. The culture clash is enunciated with scenes like one in which middle class women offer shock and awe when they hear their working class colleagues whole families wash in the same bath water and the only Scottish character is a big fan of Robbie Burns and manages to find what seems like the only other Scottish man in the war and he happens to be wearing a kilt. All of which commentary probably seems a bit churlish given that this sort of film had to begin somewhere and it's heart is in the right place. But it's difficult to get past the final piece of voiceover in which Howard essentially says, "Oh well, goodbye girls, you've all had a lovely war and you've certainly deserved the chance to go and make a good home with a nice man to protect you." Sigh.
Other than that, the main theme of the week was that I didn't see anything remarkable. Actually, no that's probably not quite fair. The Square deserves its Oscar nomination as a long form piece of reportage from inside Tahir Square in Egypt during the various revolutions following the lives of three men caught up and with differing ideological perspectives on events including Khalid Abdalla who played the grown up Amir in The Kite Runner. As the horror and bloodshed unfolds, and the protestors and the country exists through cycle after cycle of uncertainty it soon becomes clear, and this is impassioned by Ahmed, one of the other revolutionaries, that it's not about who's in power there but how they use that power and if they're prepared to make that power the subject of a constitution which is fair to all peoples and separated from rather than governed by religion, speaking for all the peoples of the country - in other words what some of us elsewhere can take for granted (even if it sometimes doesn't seem like that separation is as clear as it should be). This is powerful filmmaking and editing and in zooming in on events there's plenty not covered elsewhere in the media.
By remarkable, I think I mean, different. Welcome To The Punch is an disappointingly empty (for its director) crime thriller which attempts to present a Hollywood aesthetic on a much smaller budget in London and just about manages it thanks to Ed "Chalet Girl" Wild's glistening glass photography and sterling performances from a kitchen sink cast, but there's not one moment not sign-posted and few surprises. That's also somewhat true of Broken City about a private investigator who becomes mixed up in a political scandal in which the director Allen Hughes and most of the cast doesn't seem to have noticed (though most of the critics did) Brian Tucker's written a neo-noir filled with all of the usual archetypes, not least Catherine Zeta Jones's femme fatale (practically the only reason I bothered to watch it). So while Mark Wahlberg's wandering around underplaying the sort of PI role Fred MacMurray would have enjoyed against Russell Crowe's Edward G. Robinson-like mayor but it's not really shot with any great flare, or rather it's shot with less flare than an average episode of The Wire by the cinematographer behind Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Pain & Gain and World War Z.
But neither of these films are unenjoyable. They're genre pieces and if I learnt something this week it's that films don't always have to be remarkable, that it is ok to simply be a genre piece. Hotel Normandy's a frothy French romantic comedy about a holiday misunderstanding which isn't particularly funny but mostly good hearted manages to gather France's Sandra Bullock, Héléna Noguerra opposite the country's Steve Carrell, Ary Abittan. At a certain point I began to wonder if I was already watching the US remake, not that Sandy would touch this kind of material post-Gravity. Probably. Similarly, there's not one part of Rush, at least in terms of how the film's visually constructed, which couldn't be predicted beforehand even for those of us who didn't really know the outcome. Director Ron Howard has noticed the slight risks Peter Morgan's taking with the screenplay in forcing the audience to make the value judgements F1 fans made at the time between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, both protagonists and antagonists, both heroic and repugnant in equal measure. Not that it would convince me, with my liberal sensibilities to actually start watching the real F1 though.
Except critics were pretty harsh on most of these because they don't transcend their genre roots which brings us to the most fun I this week film wise, The Last Stand. Objectively, it looks rubbish. It's post mayorship Arnold, creaking about as the Sheriff of a small town with Johnny Knoxville as a comedy side kick and directed by South Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon making his US debut with a film which contains the elements featured already in this sentence. But, well, it's hilarious, exciting and still manages to fit in Kim's ouvre featuring as it does, as the IMDb notes as his trade mark in fact, an anti-hero, a cold villain and a goofy yet smart sidekick (see above). The film's bit of experimentation is in contrasting what amounts to a Michael Bay-like big action at the opening as a drugs chief escapes from FBI custody (a sequence which is exactly of the kind Welcome To The Punch aspires to) with essentially Fargo in a desert as the small town which sits between the fugitive in a fast car and the Mexican border, with Arnold in charge, prepare for his arrival. In other words it's a B-movie and if I would have been weary of paying to see it at the cinema, just the sort of thing worth streaming from Netflix on a Thursday night.
How purposefully ropey is it? It's the kind of film in which one of the characters, played by Knoxville, keeps a convenient collection of antique weaponry as though this sleepy small town was always going to be invaded by a hired army bent on destruction. It has Forest Whitaker as the chief FBI investigator, a genre nod if ever there was one. Lady Sif herself Jaimie Alexander plays the token female sheriff's deputy and proves once again that thanks to the Marvel connection, she's going to be to Wonder Woman what Clive Owen has been to James Bond. Incidentally I read recently that Liam Neeson, who was the first choice for Arnold's role here, was offered Bond in the early 90s, for Goldeneye, but turned it down because "he has never been interested in starring in action movies". Snigger. "I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you." Snigger again. There aren't many speeches as good as that in here, and the tone's all over the place, but I laughed and laughed. Oh no wait, there's, "You're talking to a 72 year-old man with high cholesterol, eating a bacon and cheddar omelet with extra cheddar. Do I look like I'm afraid of death?" Yes, there's that.