Film I've just spent the past half an hour trying to remember the film I watched last Sunday night, eventually resorting to glancing through Last.FM to see if whatever it was inspired me to seek out connected music as happened with Drinking Buddies and found I'd been listening to The Swingle Singers that night and then remembered I hadn't watched a film at all but instead had read this month's Sight and Sound Magazine's article about pre-code Hollywood cinema. I should really have remembered because just afterwards I had one of my periodic existential viewing crises in which I realise I may be watching some films because I feel like I should rather than because I necessarily want to (see previous existential reading crisis for more information) and decided to, well we'll get to that. The upshot was I deleted almost everything on my Amazon Instant, Netflix and Lovefilm-by-post lists and started again. I'm tired of just watching films made in the past couple of years ...
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
The Last Airbender
Out of Sight
... though the best new film I saw this week was Drinking Buddies and it was released this year so, well, shrugs. High end mainstream mumblecore from director Joe Swanberg, this stars Olivia Wilde , Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston as a what, love square? cube? set around a brewing factory and the imbibing of its contents. I throw the term mainstream mumblecore around, but on this occasion the genre lines are especially bleary since it's not doing that much which is different to the average indie comedy drama, but yet it's also arguable that Swanberg isn't not working within his usual creative throughline except with actors people will recognise and that if Olivia Wilde et al weren't in this and it had been shot on 16mm it wouldn't simply be mumblecore. If this had starred Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass and been shot ten years ago, it'd be mumblecore plain and simple. Except what was mumblecore was to begin with other than a handy marketing term, a way of characterising those films to college students and hipsters and hipster college students?
Anyway, so yes, Drinking Buddies. Well, Drinking Buddies is first and foremost about showing the world that Olivia Wilde can act in films. She's one of the executive producers and you can see why she'd be attracted because it allows her to simply exist in the frame and have an easy chemistry with her co-stars over longer takes as opposed to her usual film roles which have tended to be in action films where she's lucky is a close up lasts more than a few nanoseconds or House which I've never seen but because it's network genre television I imagine only gave her a very limited box to work in. On the basis of her work in Drinking Buddies, I'm thinking of catching up (assuming House turns up on one of the streaming services). She has an instant likeability and her scenes with Johnson (and his amazing beard) are beguiling as another man and woman try to be friends without the sex part getting in the way.
Which isn't to say all paradigms are swerved. Like When Harry Met Sally, there are periods when the narrative agency, which is mostly with Wilde is handed over to Johnson when their character's friendship runs into difficulties. Similarly it's a rare occasion when Anna Kendrick hides her light under a bushel, plays the slightly mousy other woman. But unlike, pertinently, What to Expect When You're Expecting, the characters are so damn likeable, the scenario so damn interesting, with Ron Livingston about as full on as Ron Livingston tends be these days, that you are able to sort of ignore it. Largely improvised, there are moments when you wonder if Swanberg simply let the camera keep rolling at the end of the take and a glance at the outtake reel shows that's pretty much what he did in places with Johnson and Wilde and Kendrick unable to keep a straight face and making each other giggle just as their characters do in the actual film. Marvellous.
The other two main strands this week have been the continuation of #soderberghwatch which we'll, well ok, I'll talk about in a minute and working my way through all the films the Youtube channel Cinema Sins has covered in their Everything Wrong With... videos so I can get all of the jokes which is what led me to finally seeing Carrie and sitting through Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins and Racist Cartoon Adaptation #534. At first glance both films have the remit of trying to be the new Harry Potter, and as with that franchise and to be fair Buffy The Vampire Slayer, we have the same character structure of "the one" helped by her two best friends, a boy who's most comic relief and strong willed girl. Not just Buffy. Even Sherlock's arguably adopted it in recent years and it's even come and gone in Doctor Who. Rory and Amy especially, though Jamie and Zoe before that. Interestingly, this doesn't quite map onto the Vladimir Prop's morphology of the folk tale. The characters are there, but the structure isn't quite.
At first glance these films both seems to be doing much the same thing, exploring ancient mythology through the eyes of children or young adults. The difference is one's better than expected and the other makes you feel sorry for Dev Patel who clearly thought he was signing up for the new Star Wars. Is it worth rehearsing again the litany of problems The Last Airbender has? The Honest Movie Trailer pretty much does the job, but there's a general sense of a creative failure even before filming began with a director, actors and massed ranks of the crew trying to make the best of it. A lot of the problems are there in the script, with poor character introductions, inconsistent plotting and a general sense that someone at some stage should have at least glanced at a synopsis of Vladimir Prop's morphology of the folk tale. Most of the time it simply looks like the CG budget was drastically cut leading to whole action sequences being reduced to the minimum of shots and effects needed to tell what story there is. Awful. Awful. Awful.
In contrast, Percy Jackson's not half as bad as its reputation suggests. It is Harry Potter with Greek mythology, but there's an almost metafictional understanding of itself that somehow makes it work. It's essentially an ITV version of Potter which makes the Ron Weasley character a sexual deviant with goats hooves, the Hermione character a warrior whose actress Alexandra Daddario will be an ideal Wonder Woman in about ten years when DC inevitably reboot and in Logan Lerman a central screen presence who's more immediately likeable than Daniel Radcliffe which is unfair of course because he's here fully formed whereas part of the charm of the Harry Potter series is in seeing these younger actors learning their trade. The story's hogwash, a meaningless quest for marbles or some such, but it's really difficult to not like a film which has Piers Brosnan as centaur with the horses legs and everything and the brass balls to have Steve Coogan apparently playing Alan Partridge playing Hades. The sequel is already in my Lovefilm queue.
Also better than expected is Premium Rush, the little actioner that could. Unusually for an experimental Joseph Gordon Levitt starrer, Rotten Tomatoes thinks it's fresh, and I do to. Set amongst bicycle couriers in New York, it has in its DNA the likes of Run Lola Run and The French Connection as JGL has to deliver a package and is chased across half of the city for it by Michael Shannon in full on Warner Bros cartoon mode. Joe's character's called Wilee just in case we missed the point. Despite the less than subtle flashback structure, this is an old fashioned actioner with a series of ticking clocks but importantly about a very small story that not about saving the world but offering a single character the chance at a new one. If Shannon had been allowed this level of wacky as General Zod, that film would have been twice as amusing as he spends most of this cursing out of the corner of his mouth, his eyes boggling with rage as he's unable to make his car attempt any of the tricks Gordon Levitt's cyclist is capable of.
On then to watching all of Steven Soderbergh's films in order. Though reputation suggests otherwise, Soderbergh's wilderness years only really amounted to two films. The Underneath did moderate business for what it was, but the underlying point was that the director's auteur gene wasn't being flexed. He's recently said of his early King of the Hill that it's "too beautiful" but arguably it's also anomalous. None of his films until this point particularly feel like the work of a single director and you could suspect that Soderbergh was concerned that he'd end up as a bit of a journeyman producing a series of well respected and sometimes classic films but without a particular directorial voice. John Boorman in other words (not that he's ever said that). Michael Apted. One of those figures. He'd end up being the Sex, Lies guy for the rest of his life apparently capable of creative risks but stymied by the work he can get funded unable to get the more interesting material into production, so stuck as the genre guy. John Dahl.
So he makes Schizopolis. This is creatively important for two reasons. (1) It shows that he's willing to return to square one if necessary and make a low budget indie few people might want to see and (2) that he's willing to keep doing that until he has full creative control. In truth, though bits of it are very funny, especially the language games in the domestic scenes, large sections of it are unwatchable in much the same way as most sketch anthology films are, notably Python. If Soderbergh had turned this out instead of Sex, Lies quite simply he'd have a career making art films which would only be shown in the kind of c-list festivals which have a catering budget that can stretch, just about, to pretzels. Yet, as a creative document it's a marvel as rather like Radcliffe et al in the Potters, we see Soderbergh learning his craft from scratch, what film is capable of and stylistically it's one of the first of his films which genuinely feels like one of his films (helped obviously by the fact he's in almost every shot).
So be makes Gray's Anatomy. This is creatively important for two reasons. (1) It shows that he's willing to return to square one if necessary and make a low budget indie a few people might want to see and (2) that he's willing to keep doing that until he has full creative control. In truth, though bits of it are very funny, especially the section about Gray visiting the psychic surgeon, large sections of it are unwatchable in much the same way as most monologue films are, notably The Telephone. If Soderbergh had turned this out instead of Sex, Lies quite simply he'd have a career directing the kind of off broadway theatre reviewed in c-list free sheets and which have a PR catering budget that can, just about, stretch to Quavers. Yet, as a creative document it's a marvel as rather like Olivia Wilde in Drinking Buddies, we see Soderbergh relearning his craft from scratch, what film is capable of and stylistically it's one of the first of his films which genuinely feels like one of his films (even though Spalding Gray is in every shot).
That Out of Sight is his next film is some creative step up, especially since it's arguably the best film of his career. Except, there's nothing in here which he hasn't already done before. The golden colour palette in the Florida scenes is pure King of the Kill contrasted with the Detroit scenes which borrow their look from The Underneath. But it's in the use of hand held camera and editing that we seeing the fruition of experiments begun in Schizopolis, especially the use of changes in time frame. The real miracle are the performances as we can see George Clooney's later career mapped out in front of him as a bona fide movie star as it had in no films previously and Jennifer Lopez turns in a career best performance. It's unfair but the trajectory from this to What To Expect shows a career path heading in the opposite direction to that which it should. The rot set in with The Cell and creatively at least her acting career never recovered. If only she'd allowed her character to become the Elmore Leonard equivalent of Charters and Coldicot or some such. That would have been fuuun.