The Films I've Watched This Year #4

Film Now that these week in film reviews are becoming the regular occurrence I didn't want them to be, I'm starting to think about what I'm going to write which is why these film reviews are becoming the regular occurrence I didn't want them to be.  But the upshot of that is I'm becoming more of an active participant again, not simply grazing through things which is somewhat where I was drifting towards, now really trying to decide once again if the filmmakers achieved what they set out to do.

Lovestruck: The Musical
Mademoiselle C
Sketches of Frank Gehry
The Girl
Hank: Five Years from the Brink
Man of Steel
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
The Wolverine
Red 2

The makers of Lovestruck: The Musical certainly did what they set out to do. It's a jukebox television musical in which a peroxide blonded Jane Seymour drinks a magic potion which makes her thirty years younger with the face of Chelsea Kane so she can sabotage her estranged daughter's wedding by seducing the fiance because said offspring is supposed to be the star of the broadway show she's producing.  It's rubbish, of course, but it does have the spectacle of Seymour singing and dancing to a cover of Lady Gaga's Let's Dance and luckily it's just during the opening credits so I've essentially seen the rest so you don't have to.  As to what possessed me to watch in the first place, you can blame the genre games posts for which I'm researching the next entry.  Oh and that it's on Netflix and I'm trying to get my money's worth.

But for all of that, it's not as rubbish as Man of Steel.  Stop raising your eyebrows.  At least Lovestruck: The Musical is honest about what it is and fulfill the viewer's low expectations.  Man of Steel manages to take one of the most iconic and celebrated characters of the past century and put him at the centre of a poorly structured, badly written, routinely directed, ill-conceived dirge that's depressing to watch largely because having made some money at the box office it's become the basis for what Warner Bros will be doing with DC's characters in the cinema for the next decade.  It is to Superman what the Leakley Bible would have been to Doctor Who had that been pressed into service as the basis for the US TV Movie with Paul McGann.

Oddly, it's a very well cast film.  Henry Cavill looks suitably heroic, Amy Adams can do the screwball comedy that's central to Lois, Larry Fishburne's a fine Perry White.  But none of them really get to do the things they're very good at because Snyder's decided that to underscore that this is a mythic character he must be backed by a ton of mythology most of which is the kind of doggerel Lucas would turn his nose up at and overburdens a character far too early in his story.  Superman can be an angsty character to be sure, the burden of power, last of his species, at its core this story is The Front Page or His Girl Friday with male journalist gifted with super powers and his partner a sharp tongue, something no previous incarnation of these characters, especially in the cartoons across the years has forgotten.

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Imagine if instead of a twenty-minute action sequence that looks like the work of someone with Thor-envy, we had instead greeted Lois and Clark in the Daily Planet doing their thing before the latter has to go off and do something super before a flashback structure kicked in layering the origins and explaining who Zod is.  Yes, it's somewhat Superman II, but at least  the core elements would be in place and the audience would have something to latch onto.  There's actually nothing wrong with taking narrative chances like making Lois aware of the secret identity or killing Jonathan Kent, such things are in the air and should be.  But you shouldn't forget, just as the makers of The Wolverine or Red 2 don't, which genre you're in and there's nothing wrong in having a few action sequences which focus on heroes being heroes and fun.

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Three personality led documentaries this week.  Mademoiselle C follows Carine Roitfeld, the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris as she launches a new fashion quarterly in a fluff piece which makes The September Issue look like The World At War but does at least have the spectacle of Karl Lagerfeld pushing a baby stroller around an office.  Sketches of Frank Gehry is the late Sydney Pollack's fascinating investigation into the architect's working methods which funnily enough has a similar structure to the fashion film but has the bonus of featuring people with something interesting to say about their subject.  Gehry was a fairly middle of the road architect until his decided to take a risk in his mid-sixties and revolutionised the business.  There's a lesson for all of us in that.

Director Joe Berlinger's Hank: Five Years from the Brink is also a lesson.  Having enjoyed Charles Ferguson's The Inside Job I was weary about what looked for all the world like a reposte to that earlier film (which effectively doorstepped the bankers who perpetrated the financial collapse of 2008), the cinematic equivalent of the subject of a newspaper column writing an open letter in rebuttle.  There is an element of that, especially in the latter stages, but away from the footage of Senate hearings (which also appears here) we're presented with a very complex figure who's portrayed as being caught in a whirlwind during which he was forced to make decisions he really didn't want to in the face of (surprise, surprise) the Republicans in US government who didn't understand why he needed to take those decisions.

Hank's an interesting example of interview film.  It is a documentary but the only two newly shot interviews which appear are with Poulson and his wife, the rest of the story explained through archive news footage and intertitles.  Yet it remains solidly cinematic thanks to the editing techniques and rich musical score that grips like a thriller.  Hank isn't afraid to enunciate his personal failings, about how a personal misunderstanding led to him accepting the job of Secretary of the Treasury and how he sometimes overestimated the intelligence of some of the people he had to deal with.  He's clearly exasperated that the systems which led to the financial collapse are still in place and his attitude is that it's not about whether it's going to happen again but then.  So actually it's a horror film too.

As per the opening paragraph, I had expected to say Calendar was my favourite film of the week.  Mislabeled as being released in 2013, this 1993 art film by Atom Egoyan, like the Poulson documentary utilises just a limited numbers of types of shots to tell its story about the dissolution of a marriage.  Egoyan himself plays an egotistical photographer who's tasked with visiting Armenia and photographing churches for the eponymous calendar.  But the only parts of the country we see, apart from brief VHS recordings, are through the viewfinder of his camera as his wife, who's also acting as translator falls in and out of love with their driver and guide.  These are intercut with shots of the photographer at a table in his apartment on a series of dates with European women.

What makes the film spectacular is that with just this limited amount of shots, Egoyan's able to weave a story which is lucid and compelling.  There are mysterious elements throughout, the significance of which he slowly reveals and there's a genuine sense of being in control of form and of trusting the patience of the audience and treating us with some intelligence.  Come to think of it, Calendar is probably also an art house example of a romantic tragedy, what with its unhappy ending and its flashback structure which twists back in on itself.  It's certainly leavened a bit with comedic moments usually of the "lost in translation" kind which are often very funny as the photographer finds his inability to understand Armenian is becoming the problem and cause of his ensuring irrelevancy.

No, my favourite film of the week was Uncertainty which is just extraordinary and which you probably haven't heard of.  I certainly hadn't when I saw it in a charity shop last week, buying it on the strength of Joseph Gordon-Levitt being on the box, the quote from The New Yorker.  Well, and indeed then.  Uncertainty is a genre experiment in which the same couple, Gordon-Levitt's girlfriend played by Lynn Collins, find themselves on opposite sides of New York in parallel storylines, a family drama and a paranoia thriller running concurrently in seemingly different realities and we see how they react to each.  In other words, it's Melinda and Melinda, Run Lola Run or Sliding Doors with even wider genre extremes and sense of experimentation which makes it sounds like an intellectual exercise like Calendar and to some extent it is, but Gordon-Levitt and Collins's chemistry also keep it grounded.

It is also a film which works best without much in the way of prior knowledge so I don't want to go into too much detail.  But if you'd told me Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the directors of Bee Season (the Richard Gere explains Buddism scene still haunts me) were capable of producing this I wouldn't have believed you.  It sounds derivative, but McGehee and Siegal pointedly and directly reference all of the above mentioned films (there's a moment about catching trains for example) as well as Kieslowski in identifying each of the storylines with colours that are forever visible within the mise-en-scène.  This is complex, exciting, rich film making of the kind which seems designed to be the stuff of film criticism papers but thanks to weak distribution found itself ignored.

In other words, I'm probably predisposed to love it.  For hours afterwards I found myself saying things like "Ooh, ooh, ooh.." as I noticed some of the clever, clever directorial and writing choices.  As well as the self-awareness, as the stories intercut with one another pieces of exposition about the characters are revealed in one story become vitally important in the other.  Gordon-Levitt's character has all the narrative agency in the action section of the film, Collins in the family drama and although that looks initially like genre stereotyping, the way it's done could also be seen as genre commentary.  There's also the climax of the film which truly lives up to the title.  There are amazingly cheap copies available at Amazon and its rentable at Lovefilm.  Yes, indeed, recommended.

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