The Films I've Watched This Year #8

Film The banner headline news this week is that the items in Amazon's Lovefilm's by-post list are back in alphabetical order, though none of the rest of the functionality seems to be back, not that anyone who had to deal with it when it was broken is probably brave enough to check. Oh and the items in the reserved list are in alphabetical order by priority rather than next release date. I haven't decided if that's helpful or not yet.

This week's meagre list can be explained by a night watching Game of Thrones (#redwedding #harsh) and spending yesterday evening in the company of Margot Fontaine and this extended version of the recently discovered 1959 tv recording of The Sleeping Beauty featuring her colleagues in the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House's symphony orchestra which is just extraordinary and worth seeing just as a piece of television regardless of anything else.

Watching on a relatively big screen, and with almost every camera angle presenting the sets in a kind of proscenium arch, the effect was of being on the front row of the auditorium, and working against the current tendency for close-ups, short shots and rapid cutting even when presenting live recordings, each section of the show appeared in a sing, long, master allowing the viewer to see the athleticism and precision of the dancers, especially Fontaine, who really is remarkable.

Having generally been a bit "someone's else's artform" about it, I've been utterly transfixed by the BBC's ballet season so far, not least because I've become a little a bit in love with main presenter Darcey Bussell with her voice which is almost but not exactly like Audrey Hepburn and giddy presenting style that also manages to explain the technical challenges in conveying character and story through dance.

My favourite piece of trivia is from Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet in which David Bintley, director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet describes the histories of the Royal Ballet Company and his own outfit.  He explains that back when they were The Sadler's Wells Ballet, they toured Holland in Spring 1940 as way of helping the British to shore up relations with what was a neutral country.  Margot Fontaine was amongst the dancers on the trip.

After successful residencies across the country they were enjoying a well earned break in The Hague but one night realised that something untoward was happening and after spilling out onto the roof of their hotel realised Germany was invading.  They quickly ran down to the basement where they stayed until the Dutch cultural minister could negotiate their passage on the next to last ship out of the country and they made it to safety after fifteen uncomfortable hours in the hold.

Imagine that.  If the Germans has got wind of their presence, Fontaine and her colleagues would certainly have lived out the rest of that war in prison and as they suggest in the documentary it would have been end of the ballet company.  As it is they lost forever some of choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton best work in the rush to go.  The last boat to leave carried the Dutch royal family which rather demonstrates how dicey it was.  Amazing.

White House Down
Wish Upon a Star
Safe Haven
The Grey
The Conjuring

White House Down is rubbish but it's a welcome return to the Roland Emmerich who's more interested in pure entertainment rather than po-faced, idiotic misinformation about William Shakespeare.  About the only element which really works against it, probably, is how fake some of the green screen work looks in comparison to some other modern action films.  FilmmakerIQ has a typically superb history of chromakey which demonstrates that it's entirely possible in post production to make the shifts between OB, sets and CGI invisible, but in places here the transitions between are almost as jarring as the cuts between video and film in old BBC television as lampooned by the Pythons here especially between the front of the White House lawn and the rest of it, none of which is quite what you expect in a Hollywood film with this budget.  Perhaps it's an artifact of the shift to using digital cameras for everything.  2012 had similar issues, although there it really was in the shift between material shot on 35mm and digital, the latter being used for all the process and special effects shot.

But other than it's really, really great fun, with Channing Tatum's agent and Jamie Foxx's President making for a useful unlikely buddy combo and the likes of Lance Reddick, Rachelle Lefevre, Richard Jenkins and James, James Woods playing the kinds of characters Lance Reddick, Rachelle Lefevre, Richard Jenkins and James, James Woods usually play.  Oh and Jimmi Simpson turns up as a weaponised version of Gavin from House of Cards a year or two early but sans guinea pig.  Perhaps it's the overall sense of familiarity which led to the sniffy critical reaction and though there is an argument that if you want to see the bit in Die Hard when Holly McClane is discovered as related to the thorn in Hans Gruber's side due to idiotically intrusive television coverage you might as well watch Die Hard rather than the shameless knock-off presented here, as we've discussed in previous weeks, there's sometimes something very satisfying in seeing the same notes being played in a slightly different order, especially since in this version Twinkie loving Sgt Powell ("It's gonna need a paint job and a shit load of screen doors.") is replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Psychos sees Steven Soderbergh merging together Alfred Hitchcock's original masterpiece with Gus Van Sant's underrated remake into a spectacular new film. You can watch it yourself here. Most commenters seem to have written it off as a folly or an upscale YouTube supercut. But far from simply dropped scenes together to see how they match or as The New Yorker suggests "making every character appear onscreen as a “split personality" ", Soderbergh has made very specific choices about how the footage is deployed, repurposing each to show how the various characters think of themselves, with the Gus Van Sant material representing Marion, Norman and the rest in private moments, Hitchcock representing them in public, a transition which sometimes occurs with a dissolve within a scene. A prime example is the moment when Marion Crane is pulled over on the highway and Soderbergh cuts between Janet Leigh and Anne Heche depending on where she is in relation to the cop's point of view. It's worth noticing that Sam Loomis is mostly played by Viggo Mortenson; I think this is supposed to mean that both the Crane sisters feel like they can be themselves with him.

How to talk about Safe Haven without spoiling the whole thing?  Is even mentioning that it has the potential to be spoiled a spoiler in and of itself?  Can adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels be spoiled?  Either way if you haven't seen it and are even remotely thinking about it skip the rest of this paragraph, and the next, and go to the section about The Grey.  You're still here?  As you may have seen if you have Netflix where it currently resides, Safe Haven has a twist ending.  I saw this twisting ending coming about half an hour into the film.  Of course she's a ghost/angel/whatever.  What I don't know is whether I realised this because I've been to film school and seen a few films or if it's just simply really, obvious.  The fact that we never see a photograph of Josh Duhamel's wife, or that everything about Cobie's character's past is entirely obscured and inferred and despite her and Julianne Hough's character becoming great friends we never see Smulders's house.  There are other instances of the film trying to sneakily obscure narrative information, but it's the sheer oddness of her presence within scenes which marks her closest to being of the supernatural despite the conventional Sleeping With The Enemy like noodling going on elsewhere.

Of course, this Blyth Spirit either doesn't make any sense or is a really interesting approach to the idea depending on your reaction to the fact that when Hough's husband enters town Cobie has narrative agency in that scene as we see her spotting him from the crowd and although they're pretty good at not having this ghost be too corporeal apart from when she's sitting on things, she does spend time in town and it's only afterwards we have to deal with potential rules about who can see her or not.  But it's also a rare example of a film in which the genre only becomes obvious in the closing moments amyway and even then it doesn't really understand the implications.  Having received the letter which gives away Cobie's previous presence as a supernatural entity, Hough's character doesn't freak out at all, doesn't run to her boyfriend and tell him she's spent the best part of the past few months conversing with his dead wife.  She just decides to go on the boat trip.  Apparently in the book, Cobie's character is still knocking around even while they're leaving waving them off.  This is a Cinema Sins video waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, Liam Neeson's punching wolves in the icy wilderness.  Whilst watching The Grey, I was very proud of myself for noticing that it's a fair example of the Liam Neeson action film, but as it might have been directed by Terrance Malick, with long lingering shots of man within nature, poetic existential voiceovers, dream sequences set between the sheets and a general sense of this being another artwood film like Gravity or Inception.  Then I saw the Cinema Sins episode "Everything Wrong With The Grey In 6 Minutes Or Less" which says as Neeson's character is pulled out of bed and into the reality of the plane horror, "We interrupt this Terrance Malick wolf-killing movie to bring you Inception" ("Ping!").  In terms of director Joe Carnahan's career it's of a piece with his (rather troubled in production) Pride and Glory or Narc rather then presumably (because I haven't seen it) The A Team, but it's impossible to really pin down who the auteur is here though it's fair to say it is one of the best of Neeson's recent performances, not least because he was apparently, poignantly, channelling his grief over the death of Natasha Richardson into his character's similar tragedy.

The week ended with a thud and The Conjuring which I literally only watched so I could enjoy the Cinema Sins video.  On release Mark Kermode wondered if the reason he didn't find it scary is because he's seen too many horror films and so many of these genre tropes before.  Well, I haven't seen nearly as many horror films as him and I didn't find it scary either.  There seem to be two main reasons for this.  Firstly, there's no particular viewpoint character.  Period British horror The Awakening is effective because Rebecca Hall's compellingly forthright character is at the centre of the action and so we're caught by her peril.  Here our sympathy is distracted between the various members of the family living in the house and the supernatural investigators and there's barely enough time to latch on to anyone.  In aping The Exorcist and Poltergeist, it fails to notice that the threat is more potent if you choose the investigator or the family as the viewpoint characters.  You can't really do both.  To an extent, it looks like the writers have tried to switch the protagonist in the middle ala Psycho, but this isn't the kind of material which can support that kind of experiment.

The other problem is that so much of it is shot on steadicam in lengthy oners or faux-oners, and although that choice must have been made so that we see the house and action from the character's POV and unsettle the audience without going full on "found footage" it means that they lose all of the potency horror can gained from cutting between a variety of shots, from close-ups to masters in quick succession (FilmmakerIQ's short history of horror explains what can be achieved).  Plus it works against the early 70s setting and although there are odd scenes which seem to have been designed to reference the style of horror films of the period, especially Friedkin, Donner and Roeg, for whatever reason director James Wan falls into more conventional shot choices for much of the film so that what feels like it's trying to be a homage to a period, just somehow, isn't.  The IMDb reveals that a sequel is in process from the same writers but Wan hasn't been confirmed.  He's taking over from Justin Lin on the Fast & Furious films which as you might gather fills me with dread.  With Lin moving on, it seems odd that they'd tap a horror director, especially this horror director as his successor.  Oh well.

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