The Films I've Watched This Year #11

Film Missing from the bottom of this week's list is the BBC's adaptation of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes which went out on Boxing Day in 2007 and sits in sort of a grey area because it was theatrically released in the US and even has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100%. Due to their increased production values thanks to digital cameras which produce images indistinguishable from "film" and increasingly starry casts, single dramas on television are becoming an increasingly grey area when it comes to defining their status as "films" or "tv movies", especially since the old "Screen" and "Film Four" strands dissolved.

So even though I can't put Ballet Shoes below, it has all the elements. The cast is starry, Emma Watson gets an "and" with, well, just look at the imdb page.  People like me will of course straight away notice that we're in Journey's End territory as Marc Warren, Yasmin Paige and Lucy Cohu appear bringing together all three corners of that period in the Doctor Who franchise.   Much of the action occurs in an old house on Earls Court and theatres and the photography, for all its mid-noughties BBC drama aesthetic, really captures the musty period atmosphere.  Well worth tracking down, though I think my off-air copy with all the Christmassy trailers and bumpers (for Torchwood Season Two) is probably the best.

The Shooting Party
Primal Fear
Me and You
The Missing Picture
House at the End of the Street
1 - Life On The Limit
Battle of the Sexes
In a World...

Bit of a raggle taggle week all told but there is something of a thematic through line about the class struggle if you really want to look for it, though its tenuous enough for me to not really bother with here other than to wonder if, as an old film studies lecturer used to joke every film is about Vietnam, every film is about the class struggle too, but I've argued continually that every film is about politics so that just encompasses everything so we don't end up learning anything.  Actually now that I come to think of it, all of these films are about politics even Grabbers if you want to take the line that everything which happens on the island is as a consequence of running law enforcement on a shoestring in rural areas.

The name which presumably sticks out is Diana.  I've seen the Diana film now so that some of you don't have to and honestly, it's not that bad.  Oh no I mean it's bad, but if you try to ignore that it's a true story about real people it's actually a pretty decent romantic tragedy version of Notting Hill covering many of the same themes about an ordinary man attempting to date the most famous woman on the planet, and the most famous woman on the planet trying to have some glimmer of an ordinary life.  Essentially it's at its least interesting when it's trying to recreate the iconic Diana moments or sledgehammering in portentous moments of pretentiousness.

Looking about as much like Diana as, to be fair, Helen Mirren looks like the Queen, Naomi Watts nevertheless manages to convince us, if not as Diana, as royalty at least with a real sense of presence and glamour, aided by direction and photography which continually keeps her at the focus of attention in scenes.  Naveen Andrews also manages to balance the poisoned chalice without spilling it too much and I suspect if like Citizen Kane, this had been about fictionised figures in a different story the reception wouldn't necessarily have been as hostile.  But nevertheless this is about Diana and it's a pity that its many virtues have been obscured by the politics of its existence.

This week's J-Law film was House at the End of the Street, the third wheel in 2012, the year which also brought Silver Linings Playbook and The Hunger Games.  It's the kind of film an actress like her makes between massive franchise projects either as a favour to someone or to remind themselves what it's like to act against real rooms rather than green screens and dayglo sets.  It's an old fashioned genre picture with a few surprises, not least that, friends, Elizabeth Shue is playing parts like Jennifer Lawrence's concerned mother now.  Of course, I also want to see J-Law in a remake of Adventures in Babysitting.  She'd rock.  But she'd rock in anything.

Speaking of which, Ellen Page turns up in the determinedly weird Peacock, as a waitress who does tricks in order to pay for the shitty trailer she shares with her son.  But the focus is Cillian Murphy as a bank clerk who after the death of his mother  has experienced a split personality syndrome in which he begins to share his body with a woman that everyone assumes must be his wife.  The director calls it a psychological horror and it really is as the two personalities fight for supremacy in a story which seems designed for the films studies circuit and a dozen college papers about gender identity comparing and contrasting a very conventional mis-en-scene with the entirely unconventional content.

Shot in 2008 but not theatrically released until 2010 and only now turning up on dvd, my guess is that audiences have had problems suspending their sense of disbelief that despite his extraordinary performance when Murphy is in the female role of Emma, none of the other characters, not one, realise that he's also her husband.  As a big fan of Shakespeare I was less bothered, happy to along with it even when Page meets both of them at opposite ends of the same scene, but it is an occasion when an actor, writers and director take a big risk on something like this and don't quite succeed (see also Lars and the Real Girl).  Starry cast here too; Susan Sarandon play's Murphy's boss's wife.

[spoilers]  Both House at the End of the Street and Peacock are slight companion pieces in that they riff on Psycho and particular Norman's relationship with his mother, with gender identity issues as the fallout after the death of a parent.  The former is especially on the nose with its final shot of the antagonist looking directly into the camera after the big reveal, but Peacock is arguably Psycho with a happy ending as the false female identity simply wants to offer benevolence in general, apart from the approach she takes in dealing with her other self.  Yes, that's pretty hideous.  Actually, let me retract that.  The doctor's speech from Psycho resonates throughout.  Nope, not happy at all. [/spoilers]

Me and You is Bernardo Bertolucci latest, his first since The Dreamers and he's still in thrall to the French New Wave, though it's Truffaut this time rather than Godard.  Effectively resurrecting Antoine Doinel's character from The 400 Blows, making him affluent and trapping him a basement with Penny Lane from Almost Famous (an unfair description probably given that it's based on existing material) it oscillates manically between lyrical and boring and a general gloomy sense of the director having a go at making a film about young people for young people without really knowing much about them.  Which is odd when you consider Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers which are entirely the opposite.

The Missing Picture was an unfortunate way to start the day on Wednesday, but only because of the subject matter, not the film itself which is a passionate, enthralling approach to explaining exactly what it was like living under Pol Pot in Cambodia in a way that hasn't hit me quite as strongly since Simon Groom visited the graves on Blue Peter.  As Shoah demonstrates, the imagination can be a powerful tool when trying to capture the visceral feeling of what real life horror can be like and The Missing Picture is at its most powerful when director Rithy Panh replaces the contemporary footage, however important a discovery that is, with his small carved representational figures and dioramas.

Not that I mean to diminish that archival footage, some of which is extraordinary considering the source and the fact of its existence.  There's a similar sense in the two sport films, both of which have archive footage throughout but used in contrasting ways.  In 1 - Life on the Limit (a title which demands a colon but blokely doesn't have one) its part of a barrage of rapid cutting sometimes showing explosions and fatalities from different angles and not always television coverage.  In Battle of the Sexes, long periods of the match are shown via on court 16mm footage allowing us to enjoy the flow of play, cutting between two different camera angles as the ball passes across the net and into the rackets of the opponents.

 1 - Life on the Limit is fine, as it goes, even if it can't quite decide what it's about.  On the one hand it wants to be a wizzy history of F1 with dozens of interviews with all the major players, but tries to have a central thread about the development of safety in the sport cataloguing the many deaths which have occurred on the track and can never quite resolve itself between the two.  The topics are pointedly interconnected, of course, but unlike Senna or Rush it assumes the viewer is already a fan and its dizzying watching all of the names and faces flash past with barely enough time to notice that Damon Hill's gone grey or appreciate the chronology of events and the structure of the various seasons.

By contrast, Battle of the Sexes, in concentrating on one thing and explaining it's importance as a thing in history is just about perfect.  As well as a sport documentary, it's also a strong documentary about the feminist movement in general with archive footage of Germaine and a long soundbites from Gloria Steinman.  It's impossible not to see contemporary counterparts to the chauvinist Bobby Riggs, though I imagine now he'd probably spend his time sniping on Twitter rather than making a show of himself on television.  What the film doesn't cover is how he came back at the age of 67 and challenged Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver to a doubles match.  They beat him too.

But my film of the week, if I have those, is inevitably In a World..., Lake Bell's romantic comedy about voiceover artists which questions why so few of them do movie trailers.  Featuring plenty of members of the industry most of whom fortunately act too, the real surprise is how Bell utilises that industry as a back drop for a story which is really about sisters and fathers and family.  As with the best films, there's a moment about ten minutes before then end when you realise you don't want it to end because you're enjoying the ideas and characters so much not least Bell who if there's any justice will have a long career making these sorts of things.

Part of me wonders if Bell wouldn't have been just as well to make the idea into a series for HBO or Showtime or Netflix - there would certainly have been enough material of at least six half hours.  It's episodic enough to hint that it might even have begun life as just that.  Which sort of puts us back at the beginning because sometimes the "film" and "tv" boxes aren't clear and material which works well in one could be treated equally well if not better in the other.  When Eva Longoria wanders through playing herself entirely happy to have the piss taken out of her for her rubbish attempt at a cockney accent, you kind of wish you could see other "stars" being given the same treatment on a weekly basis...

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