The Films I've Watched This Year #12

Film Anyway, so yes I went to the cinema this week to FACT Liverpool, where Captain America: The Winter Soldier was perfectly screened digitally in 2D (apart from an initial volume problem with the sound) on the main screen (unlike this Cineworld preview of Raid 2 where it looks like everything went wrong). Decent audience too. Mostly silent apart from the odd paper rattle and cap twisting and the couple behind me only chatted once that I noticed when the thing happened and they were presumably discussing the thing, which to be fair I did myself during the credits. As always happens with MARVEL films, there were a couple of audience members who left before the first post credits sequence, some more who stopped when they realised there was more happening and then about three of us who waited through to the end for the throw forward to Cap 3.  About the only grumble was the price, £8, which when you consider that it'll be available to own at roughly that price plus bus fare is pretty steep.

The other news was that after Lovefilm sent me the same disc again, and much as I enjoyed In This World ... I was expecting something else, when I was called back by Amazon, I was served by someone from Lovefilm's original staff who had the ability to tell me now their service ability had changed and was able to talk through three ongoing problems.  Used to be if a title like Beauty & The Beast had been in "high priority" for months they could send it out as a special dispatch.  Not any more.  The advisor was a bit frustrated by this, as well he might, though as I've found out working in call centres when there's been a system changeover, it's often the case that the new system is actually worse than what went before and not always because you're used to working in a different way.

What To Expect When You're Expecting
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Family
Le Week-End
The Underneath
Only God Forgives
Runner Runner

Bijou week again this week thanks to spending Monday night in the company of a slightly bonkers production of Purcell's King Arthur from the Saltzburg Festival in 2004, which was essentially Monty Python's Flying Opera, including at one stage most of the chorus dressed as penguins.  But every minute of that was more entertaining and original than What To Expect When You're Expecting, in which a bunch of very good performers many of whom we've loved in other productions ask us to hate them.  A film about pregnancy written by women but inevitably directed by a bloke, it's the kind of film in which said pregnancies and so forth are generally presented from the men's perspective and it's about the men's reservations about becoming a father and which horrifically puts the one female character whose pregnancy experience is to the fore throughout most of the film in jeopardy so that her husband has all the narrative agency at the end in a way which makes the Emma Thompson storyline in Love Actually look about as emotionally manipulative as a Robert Bresson film.

When I was writing about hyperlink films for my dissertation in the mid-noughties, and trying to decide if they were a genre or narrative technique, I didn't really have an answer.  Now that these films have followed the usual cycle process and reached the nadir of simply become a way of having romances with dozens of stars (see also Valentine's Day and New Year Eve), I suspect they might have been a genre after all.  Used to be in the likes of Short Cuts, Magnolia or even Crash, the connections were thematically interesting and surprising.  Now they're so loose that a character will turn up at a place at the end they have no business being and justify as such by saying they're another character's "cousin".  The kind of cousin who'll invite themselves to a hospital but wasn't on the guest list for the baby shower.  The poster's especially weird.  Only two of the women in the heavily photoshopped top section actually meet and only one of the blokes in the bottom section is connected to them in any way.

Welcome to the third paragraph.  I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that Cheryl Cole appears playing herself as a judge on a Dancing With Stars knock-off.  She plays herself badly.  Rebel Wilson is in there too in a secondary role and is forced mangle the few jokes she has through a Texan accent.  Astonishingly one of the credit screenwriters also wrote the novel of Whip It and the screenplay it was based on.  The other wrote the Lohan/Curtis Freaky Friday and the book for the stage version of Legally Blonde.  It feels inconceivable that their hands would be on the godawful golf kart chase sequence or anything in the "I can't believe it's not Richard Curtis" Jennifer Lopez adoption storyline.  But infuriatingly there are some sweet bits.  The chunk about Anna Kendrick's one night stand pregnancy, in other words the least serviced storyline, feels like it could be a whole film and she has some real chemistry with Chase Crawford.  When they're on screen it becomes a different, more rooted production.  Everything else is horrible, horrible.

I've probably said everything I need to about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but given the clamour for a Black Widow film now, the release of the trailer for Luc Besson's Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson was especially well timed.  The Family is Besson's entirely unheralded piece from a couple of years ago, so much so I didn't know it was a Besson film until I saw his credit.  Arguably the third item in a loose assassin trilogy with Nikita and Leon, The Family looks at their job from the perspective of the prey, in this case Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer and some kids in witness protection in Normandy having sold out their mob family to the feds.  Executive Produced by Martin Scorsese and somewhat spoofing Goodfellas in the same way that The Freshman riffed on The Godfather, it's genuinely funny and a little bit subversive in testing exactly what characters are capable of while maintaining our sympathy.  Perhaps I was being sympathetic after seeing WTEWYE, but the 29% on Rotten Tomatoes is unbelievably harsh.

Only God Forgives is also about family though I didn't enjoy it half as much.  Of course, given that it's a hour and half art piece dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, in which the director Nicolas Winding Refn offers a fairly convention revenge thriller in a series of lushly illustrated tableau and the audience is offered simultaneously a visual technicolour feast and horrific dismemberments perhaps enjoyment in the traditional, visceral sense isn't the point.  For all the five star reviews and whatnot, it's a piece to be admired, I suppose, but it's fair to say that within about half an hour I realised I was bored and an hour in I paused the blu-ray to go the toilet and make a cup of tea readying myself for the final half hour neither of which are normal behaviour.  I was uninvolved, observing rather than participating, none of which can be said for Jodorowsky's work, Refn's previous films or the kinds of art films I usually adore.  It wants to resonate in the same way as something like Last Year at Marianbad, but these films thrive on layering extraordinary images on purposeful obfuscation.

There's none of that here, almost as though having secured financing and these actors, the production team bollocked out on just how much of the typically mainstream audience they wanted to capture.  So on the one hand the film is Sight and Sound coverbait but on the other Empire is happy to carry a few pages and an interview with Kristen Scott Thomas.  She's magnificent by the way, almost unrecognisable behind a wiry figure and long peroxide hair, but with inexpressive saucer like eyes and mask-like face, only bursting with anger when she attempts to understand how her son has managed to develop a moral conscience.  Bangkok has also rarely been this beautifully portrayed, cinematographer Larry Smith's wide angle lense capturing in astonishing detail of the urban landscape.  Perhaps the project would have been better served by being presented as a series of large print colour photographs filling an art gallery, though that obviously would deny us the few wince inducing moments of the local policeman going about his bloody business.

After a longish gap, I'm also back to watching all of Steven Soderbergh's films in order which leads me to The Underneath which was the experience which led to him entering the "wilderness" for a few years.  Going in I knew he hadn't been happy with it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a something which is of a piece with his other work, with mono-colour filters, experimental editing and time structure and glib dialogue.  The performances are good and if in places it could seem like someone trying to direct Blood Simple in the style of a Soderbergh film, it's certain more emotionally evolved than Only God Forgives which is arguably trying to do something similar.  Wanting to find out exactly what problem Soderbergh has with his work, I inevitably went online and found this interview with Criterion in which he explains where he was during the making of the film and why he then went off and made Schizopolis, but subtly doesn't explain why he was in that place:

Though that is part of a much longer interview for the blu-ray edition so it's possible there's more to it than that. The only other comment I found after a cursory search was:

"Well, ultimately (The Underneath) was kind of a mess. I didn't quite unlock it or figure it out. Some things about it are interesting, but others are...if there's a successful element to The Underneath it was finding a way to use color in the same way that noir films used to use black and white. That was the one part of the movie that worked. Everything else about the movie I can't defend. It was a failed experiment, but a good experiment to attempt. The results of that experiment were necessary in making (Out of Sight). They can't all be gems. It's a process." [Venice Magazine, July 1998]

Perhaps it was the lack of control, of feeling part of a machine. It's probably a coincidence but the film was financed by Gramacy, who also funded Kevin Smith's Mallrats in a similar period and which led that filmmaker to go off and make something cheaper under which they had much more control in Chasing Amy.

But my favourite non-action adventure, shared universe comic book superhero film of the week has been Le Week-End about an elderly couple spending their wedding anniversary in Paris revisiting some their old haunts and generally getting on each other's nerves.  Scripted by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell, the elderly couple are played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsey Duncan who give the impression of having been married for decades and about ready for retirement.  As they wander around Paris, you could imagine that this will be Celine and Jesse from that series in a few decades, especially when later the film takes the thematic leap into talking about the generational disappointment that the collective potential of society in the 60s and 70s when everything seem possible became narrowed by short term greed in the 80s, with depth of thought replaced by surface understanding and how that impacts on the connective tissue of a marriage where one of the participants is a failed academic.

The indie spirited flipside of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel it's unafraid to show what really happens when you go on holiday,  like throwing financial caution to the wind and spending an hour trying to gauge the quality of prospective restaurants based on the menus attached to the outside, constant unapologetic referencing of the French New Wave especially Bande à part and the sudden unheralded arrival of Jeff Goldblum playing Jess Goldblum in that way that only Jeff Goldblum can play as Broadbent's old college friend coincidentally living in Paris with a gorgeous pregnant wife in a way that only a Jeff Goldblum character might.  As Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park wanders through, you do wonder, how is this film managing this?  Jeff Goldblum in this should be about as incongruous as Michael Caine flying a giant bee in Journey 2, yet it works, works, works.  As amazing scene tumbles after amazing scene leading a beguiling climax, I was reminded of just why I love cinema. Again.

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