The Films I've Watched This Year #25

Film We painted the kitchen.

The Great Beauty
How I Live Now
This Means War
Two Lovers

This deeply average week for films was probably the last thing I needed given the situation described above the list.  Since I chose to watch two of them from streaming services it was partially my own fault.  That's especially true of This Means War which I knew was going to be rubbish before watching but having enjoyed McG's previous output, especially Charlie's Angels, held out some hope that it might not be awful.  It's awful.  Mugging, charisma-free unfunny performances from the three leads, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as two spies chasing one girl Reece Witherspoon, perfunctory action sequences and a conclusion which sets feminism back fifty years.

If however you do find yourself having to choose between this and Little Man as the only two choices other than sitting in silence looking at a wall if you've gone on holiday by mistake, you can take some comfort as you put the dvd on that the cliched wisecracking best friend Trish (yes, it's a character so generic she's called Trish) is played by Chelsea Handler is involved in at least three decent laughs and that you'll also have the "entertainment" of trying to work out what the excised material was because this looks it had a torturous post-production, offering reaction shots clearly meant for something else and the casting of Angela Bassett in a nothing role that must have been larger in some original version.

The Great Beauty was the greater disappointment because of the critical acclaim and the general sense of it being an important film and I tend to quite like important films.  But despite the winning performances, the lustrous visuals and the gorgeous music, I was bored, which considering that in many ways there isn't anything especially boring about it in the traditional sense is probably quite an odd reaction.  Glancing through those reviews in the post-match confusion, I realised that although I understood what Paolo Sorrentino's experiment in Italian decadence was trying to do, I simply didn't care, not least because he isn't adding anything new, simply reiterating the same notions as Rossellini and Fellini but utilising the language of the perfume commercials which appear on television at Christmas.

But part of me knows that my boredom stems from the sheer predictability of seeing an aging male writer going through these creative philosophical motions.  There are some good female roles in there, not least of his editor, but in general they're part of the visual landscape, to be gazed at.  I wonder what a film in this world would be like with a female protagonist, if we'd watched the story of his editor or one of the any number of contessas who feature or indeed if the writer had simply been female.  Instead we're offered another iteration of a particular tradition, in which the narrow potential both in viewer expectation and commercial viability have led to repetition rather than innovation.  Not that you can or should blame The Great Beauty for the entire industry's lack of imagination.  Probably.

The same defeatist, unfair argument could be made against Prisoners, which has Hugh Jackman as a distraught father and Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop searching for his abducted daughter, a thriller which would automatically be a hundred times more interesting if it had been gender reversed.  As it is, it's a two hour wait for confirmation of a twist which is obvious within the first twenty-minutes because, as a friend joked to me on Twitter, "Obvious casting is obvious."  Paul Dano plays the bloke fingered with the abduction and although that's not quite enough for the whole story to reveal itself, anyone who's seen enough of this kind of thing before will be left watching Gyllenhaal wilfully ignoring obvious clues because narrative structure needs him to, leading us to wonder if we're supposed to be ahead of him.

Denis Villeneuve wasn't an obvious choice for directing the material and it's true that a certain point Bryan Singer was attached with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in the central roles.  Leonardo Di Caprio was on the project for a while too.  Presumably that iteration was more generic in form.  But Villeneuve steers it more towards statement and austerity, long on psychological investigation, Roger Deakins's moody blue photography suggesting a piece which is more interested in form rather than story.  Perhaps in resting on clues for long enough for us to notice them, he is deliberately tipping his hand so that we're not strictly watching a mystery but a meditation on the inevitability of human behaviour, a subtler version of the game played by Hitch in the second half of Vertigo.

Which leaves How I Live Now as my film of the week.  Essentially the German film Lore with an unknown futuristic antagonist but without the socio-political tension, this has Saoirse Ronan's American teenager wandering the British countryside attempting to avoid "the other" whilst searching for her new boyfriend and protecting her neice.  Just the sort of thing which could be mucked up in the wrong hands, there's an alternative reality version of this somewhere presented as found footage, director Kevin Macdonald keeps much of the focus on Ronan (not all, see below) so that we share her confusion about the threat but continually wants to surprise us with her strength of will, subverting the expectations we have of the character superbly developed in the opening half hour.

If there's a problem it's that MacDonald and I'm guessing his producers, are desperate for the piece not to come across as too artsy, sacrificing some of the subtlety.  At a certain point Macdonald cuts away from an important conversation that Ronan is having with an official in her living room (you'll understand when you see it) to the boyfriend watching from outside the house in order to create some tension and empathy for him, when this really should just be just her story, her conflict.  Plus there's an absolutely godawful concluding voiceover, a poetic philosophical mush, which ploddingly sets out how Ronan's character's feelings and where the world is.  It feels imposed and undercuts a conclusion which would have worked perfectly well with just the existing visuals and music.  Sigh.

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