Film Surprise. Since this weekend I've decided to binge on Orange is the New Black and some ballet in the evenings, here we are on Friday instead. As you can see it was a bit of an updown week with about a fifty percent success rate, though you could argue that statistic is thrown off slightly by the presence of two best picture nominations at the Oscars and a documentary which has won every award available. Apart from that one.
Summer in February
Stories We Tell
The Woman In Black
Kick Ass 2
Pain & Gain
What this selection does prove is that in the best films, the very best films, the filmmakers and that can stretch from writer through director to executive producer to studio are aware not just of the kind of story they want to tell but the best way to focus that story. But on a couple of occasions this week it became obvious that what could and should have been the focus of the story simply wasn't, that the people in that chain hadn't realised what they'd had. That was particularly noticeable in both Kick-Ass 2 and Pain & Gain.
In the case of Kick-Ass 2, we witness a writer-director, Jess Wadlow, who's seen the first film, read the comic books and then fundamentally misunderstood the source material. The first film worked because it purposefully fought against the comic book film cliches whilst simultaneously utilising them as a touchstone and offered in Kick-Ass, a loveable lead character. This sequel, which also suffers from "too late" syndrome (four years in this case), dumps all of that and simply ends up being a cliched comic book film.
As is so often the case when creating sequels to surprise successes, everyone got cold feet. So rather than continuing with the same ballsy attitude, Kick-Ass 2 plays it safe in an attempt to keep the larger, more homogeneous audience who turned up anyway last time, not least in such things as the blanding out of comic book references to only include characters who've appeared in recent film adaptations and choosing a plot rather than character based approach.
But the main problem is the lack of focus. Rather than closely adapting the comic as the first film did and which would have foregrounded Hit Girl, Wadlow is all over the place, keeping Kick-Ass as the narrator when Hit Girl would have been the more natural fit and as I suggested, adding a massive fight scene at the end when the film calls for a much more downbeat ending just as the comic has.
You can see how this might happen. The studio and Aaron Taylor-Johnson presumably couldn't see how a film called Kick-Ass 2 would have him as a supporting character, plus having hired Jim Carrey as the head of Justice Forever, there's the presumed need to give him enough material to justify his salary. So what could and should have been a coming of age story about a teenage girl who just happens to be slightly psychotic and well, kick-ass, it all become a bit of mess with loads of disconnected scenes and cutting back and forth between weaker storylines. Sigh.
With Pain & Gain, it's possible to blame the whole thing on Michael Bay, the man who destroyed the Transformers franchise, so I will. Here the problem's an even more fundamental misappropriation of a great story, turning what might have been an excellent neo-noir about a retired PI investigating an increasingly ludicrous and unbelievable crime which has been ignored by a disbelieving local police department, the stuff of Robert Towne or David Mamet, into a leery sub-Soderbergh mess.
The tragedy about that is Ed Harris's performance, which has, despite Bay's best efforts, it's usual integrity and whenever he appears you simply wish that the whole film was about him, perhaps with the messy details of the crimes presented in testimonial flashbacks from the key witnesses. That certainly would have been a more sympathetic approach to the victims in this true story, whose deaths are mainly treated as a joke.
Compare those with Gravity and Captain Phillips, both of which are made by filmmakers which also have, yes, integrity, know exactly what their films are about, focus on a single character, structure the story around them and provide the audience with an tense but thematically resonant entertainments (if that's the right word). True it's unfair to compare what amount to films for teenagers with films for adults, but why shouldn't the former aspire to greatness?
I've probably said quite enough about Gravity already, but I will quickly recommend the blu-ray release which has a pleasingly nerdy set of documentaries attached which focus on the screenwriting and technical achievement of the thing, only stopping short at naming the brands of camera and software. Luckily that's here in a thorough interview on the ASC website.
It's also a testament to Sandra Bullock, who having become one of the most famous actresses on the planet, still agreed to spend three months in a light box and on wires, with mostly just her face visible in shot, and totally alone for most of the shoot taking direction via earwigs. Admittedly she's done well for herself from it (or "the causes that need it"), but it was still a major commitment for someone who could have continued to coast in rom-coms.
If I have to mention something new, it's that I don't think Gravity would have worked as well with Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. Although both are capable of playing against type, in tiny narrative and characterisation crawl space the Cuarons had, Bullock has the instant element of vulnerability and Clooney the warmth neither or which quite fit Jolie or Downey Jr, who tend to work more as "character stars", in quite the same way.
It's odd to think of Captain Phillips being made by Ron Howard. The concept, to present a hijacking from the point of view of the ship's captain as a drama-documentary which investigates exactly why Somali pirates exist is very Paul Greengrass, certainly more than Rush which was the production that he and Howard essentially swapped with each other. Would Howard have included the initial scenes about the hiring under threat of the lead pirate played by Barkhad Abdi?
What Greengrass's film demonstrates is that it's possible for such a film offer that kind of backstory for other characters without losing focus on who the protagonist is. In nearly every scene, Phillips has narrative agency, with Greengrass cutting back to Tom Hanks as our viewpoint character and his reaction. Despite the subtitles, it's always clear that Philips is studying and following his captor's body language, and Abdi's fisherman's inner conflict.
All of which discussion about telling stories is a reflection of my favourite new film of the week, Sarah Polley's brilliant, brilliant Stories We Tell. A documentary meditation on how real life becomes a story through the viewpoints and opinions and memories of the people involved, it's a brave, exciting, involving and raw piece of filmmaking that's leaps and bounds ahead of her fictional work, though you suspect that it's also the kind of piece which can only be done once.
It's also something which should be seen without much prior knowledge (if possible), because like one of the best stories from This American Life, for example, the twists and turns are just as important as the fundamentals of what occurred, how information is revealed to the audience and the flipping of our expectations. Like Gravity, there are moments of pure visual and aural poetry which demonstrate just what films and their creators can be capable of.