The Films I've Watched This Year #23

Film Watching something like BBC Four's Glyndebourne: The Untold History is always a bit dangerous because by the conclusion you're already making plans for holidays you'll never take because you'll never be able to afford the train fare, hotel rooms or show tickets.  Luckily the show under discussion is available to watch on the interwebs, so that's half of the psychological calamity averted, but if ever there was a reminder to me that some of the really cool stuff is at the other end of the country it was this.

For the most part this was two very good documentaries uncomfortably fused together.  At first this seemed like it would a complete history of Glyndebourne, from its inception as a bit of amateur entertainment for toffs in a shed to one of the most influential opera houses in the world, but somewhere in the middle it became a spoilery exploration of its latest production of Der Rosenkavalier and although the two weaved in and out of one another, with behind the scenes material, there was a sense of trying serve two masters.

The Telegraph's review is a thoughtful exploration of what was left out in the crush to include these two topic at the same time, but as even they admit what was here was entirely fascinating, especially from the singers in relation to creating a performance in the modern era and the expectation for someone to have an actor's psychological understanding of a character and be an perfect classical singer and how that merges with the administrative details of running an opera house ("We haven't received our payslips yet...") to create the best experience for the audience.

The Informant!
Star Trek Into Darkness
Chinese Puzzle
Once Upon a Time in China
Thanks for Sharing
Magic Mike

In the Soderbergh home stretch now, just two films to go and there's an even greater sense of the director trying to cross as many genres off the list as possible before he finishes, something I want to save and talk about in a separate post.  Missing from this list is The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg. which he produced with the cast of a play in Australia in 2009 as a way of keeping everyone's mind focused and which can only be seen if you're a friend of a cast member or the director himself or some such.  Anyway it's never going to be released in his lifetime and is essentially a high class home movie.  Which probably cheeses off Cate Blanchett completists as well, since she's the star.

In short order then.  The Informant! feels slightly inert and isn't quite as funny as it thinks it is in that way Coen Brother farces (Burn after Reading etc) aren't either.  My guess as to why is because we're not quite as sympathetic as we could be about Matt Damon's character because so much information is withheld about him that we're forever distanced by his unreliable narration.  The story looks like it would have been better served being told from Scott Bakula's FBI character's POV rather than Damon's whistleblower, more subjective than objective.

Apparently Haywire isn't much liked by the kinds of people who tend to like these kinds of things which is probably fair because it's designed to be a purposefully generic action film for the kinds of people who don't like purposefully generic action films.  It's forever flouting genre expectations, undercuts pretty much every fight scene, kills off chase scenes before they become boring and has a David Holmes soundtrack that's not at all interested in attempting to falsely punch up any tension and is in the end a classic action film for all those reasons.

Did Soderbergh know during Contagion that he'd be giving up films soon?  At this point it's almost as though he's not just working through genres (disaster movie) but also getting in as many actors as possible.  Apart from Matt Damon (again), pretty much everyone here is new to him and relatively unexpected though you can sense that they're presumably desperate to have him on their CV before he goes.  One of those glorious films which can be used along with Rotten Tomatoes to gauge if a reviewer knows anything about the form. If they splatted this, they don't.

Aha Magic Mike.  Finally.  This was released when I began working through his biography and so understandably didn't want to watch it out of sequence.  Really pleased that I waited.  Presumably the massive audience that surprised everyone by turning up for this haven't seen his low budgeters so won't have noticed he's essentially applied much of his approach to Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience of mixing apparently improvised dialogue with the heavily scripted, long oners and resting reaction shots.  I wouldn't if I'd not seen them in such close proximity.

During the stripping scenes, I wondered how they'd square in relation to the male gaze and what Laura Mulvey would think.  Judging by this search, I'm not the only one.  Soderbergh's clearly aware of the implications and there's a key moment when Cody Horne's character Brooke attends the strip club and is shown in reverse shots being firstly repelled by her brother's antics on stage but then excited by Channing Tatum in a way which can clearly be seen as a gender reversal of the kinds of scenes Mulvey talks about in her essay.

Not being female, I don't know if the same rules apply.  As a male, I reacted to it on a narrative level but was impressed with the way the film didn't make it the character's defining trope, even though it's true that outside these odd moments she has almost zero narrative agency which is to be expected when she's doesn't have the lead role.  I'd also be interested to know if the film works on the level of pure titillation in the same way as perhaps something like Showgirls, Sin City, Rock of Ages or even Burlesque does.  Ahem.

I always thought Christina Aguilera was pretty good in Burlesque and her Lady Marmalade colleague P!nk turns up in Thanks for Sharing, credited under her real name Alicia Moore playing a sex addict and offering the most surprising, arguably the most fulfilling performance in a cast of otherwise professionals which includes Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth, Tim Robbins, Joely Richardson and Josh Gad to the point that you forget that she isn't a professional actress or indeed P!nk and she's doing so in what's otherwise a pretty generic, albeit entertaining ensemble piece about addiction.

Apparently it was an occasion when a writer director wrote in a character who was a bit like a person, ala Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits and Sean Connery and then asked the person on the off chance if they'd be interested in appearing and they accepted and although she's not unlike the other actors who are all playing to type and she's essentially offering Josh Gad a useful manic pixie dream girl figure.  But think on that we have a film that would cast Pink sorry, P!nk as the manic pixie dream girl figure screaming in the face of the very narrow expectations which cinema in general has now.

Anyway, other than the significant rewatch, my film of the week is Chinese Puzzle because of course it is.  Having seen the first two films in the trilogy at the Cornerhouse, I made the special journey to Manchester on Tuesday for it and in a strange sense of closure, having seen The Spanish Apartment (UK title Pot Luck) in screen one there and its sequel Russian Dolls in screen three, this was in screen two which seems less significant as I type it than it did as I sat on the front row of the almost empty screening room.

Like the Before... films and others, having grown up with these characters it's almost as though we're watching to catch up with some old friends as much as wanting to see a film, though the timeframes are much shorter in this case and unlike the Before... films, more pressingly identifiable to me because everyone is stressing how close they are to forty.  I'm thirty-nine which provide an extra element of identification, if in fact not all every other significant way, not least that they have much more complicated lives involving dependents and history.  Than I do.

But despite the cast, which includes Romain Duras, Audrey Tautou, Cecile De France and our own Kelly Reilly it's also a trilogy which still feels inside, barely mentioned, culty.  There's even minimal coverage in this month's Sight and Sound other than a review which seems like it should be all over it.  The distribution's tiny.  This is all really rather disappointing but also oddly gratifying because the best thing about the last two films was that unlike the Before series it had retained that feeling of being a kind of secret.

That being the case and wanting you, even begging you to catch up, I don't want to go into to much detail on this installment other than to note how these four actors, whose careers have had their ups and downs between films have all returned for this installment and been given equal weight, unlike the tendency elsewhere in which some characters have clearly been forefronted because the actors who play them have become much more famous than their colleagues (though admittedly that tends to happen more in Hollywood).

If I've a criticism, it's that of the three female characters, it's Kelly Reilly's Wendy who ends up with the short straw of having to spend most of it on the fringes scowling for various reasons when she was such an object of affection in the previous two and it's only towards the end that she's allowed to relax a bit.  On the upside that scowl does provide one the films many big belly laughs which I enjoyed even if there were only two of us in the audience of about ten on Tuesday lunchtime who did.

What I did particularly enjoy was how Klapisch has updated the various visual storytelling elements.  The first film was all about paper, so paper maps and postcards and old media flew across the screen and provided relevant captions.  This is full of tweets, instant messaging, email, Skype and Google Maps.  Then, one of the elements was about collecting messages and making phone calls in the department and this underscored how connected everyone is, mirroring my own experience.  But it never forgets that none of this can replace human contact, especially with loved ones.

So if this is just a trilogy, it's the perfect end.  But Klapisch has said in various interviews that he's not against a fourth installment if there's a reason for it, for example Europe as an entity being destroyed or something which would be worth commenting upon using these characters.  He also said that he'd try to bring Kevin Bishop back too, who missed this installment due to a tv commitment and I oddly missed.  He's a massively irritating presence in the first film, but in the second you saw how you can't assume that someone's personality when they're young will dictate who they will always be.

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