The Films I've Watched This Year #21

Film  Here's the usual mitigating circumstances as to why this seems like and in fact is a very short list.  On Sunday night I watched the latest BBC Arts escapade, the prosaically titled, The Summer Exhibition: BBC Arts at the Royal Academy, which despite essentially being essentially The Culture Show meets The Review Show, was a spry, often funny, enjoyably intelligent and far more watchable hour than the piece angles; whereas the Hay piece to some extent expected us to understand already the point of the book festival and why we should care about these authors, this piece did the leg work of explaining what the Summer Exhibition is, why it's important within the context of the art world and most importantly captured loads of the atmosphere of the show both from the point of view of the submitters and the visitors.

Of course, all of this already has an in-built relevancy for me, but there was an admirable sense of unity to the piece, drawing the different sections together.  The discussion between Tim Marlowe (new director of artistic director at the academy) Miriam Elia (artist) and Kate Bryant (director of the Fine Art Society) about the significance of the academy in contemporary art culture in which they agreed that it was pretty old school flew in the face of the evidence of what had already been seen in which a man who could clearly paint but was a traditional landscape artist found himself rejected for the fiftieth time, whereas someone whose work pastiched 80s garishness (and happened to work in the Academy's shop) found two of hers waved through.  Not so sure about the random musical number at the end, but The War Doctor seemed to be enjoying himself at least:

Che: Part One
Hard Boiled
The Five-Year Engagement
Center Stage

Still playing Soderbergh catch-up though for once it's one of his I hadn't seen.  On our genre tally, Che would be his old school roadshow EPIC, though I'm watching it in the release format of two separate films, though I don't think I'll be waiting a whole month before the next one.  I didn't not enjoy it, which is damning with faint praise, but despite the obvious care which has gone into the piece, not least the train crash which was shot practically without any CGI, it lacks something, perhaps has a certain Soderbergh-by-rote element in which he's almost providing what's expected of him rather than producing something especially fresh.  In the accompany interview, he says that he didn't have any knowledge of Che before the project was brought to him and that might explain why it feels so inert in places, paradoxically given that the fight scenes are effectively presented and Benicio Del Toro's central performance is mighty.

But I'm willing to be wrong.  Once I've seen the second part and finished the rest of his films I do plan to return to the Che dyptic and work through them in a single sitting.  The lack of inertia, the preponderance of low key moments, of repetition, of didacticism, may well be features rather than bugs and there may be moments in the first part which only really make sense when watched in conjunction with the second.  When Soderbergh sets out to make his version of the EPIC, as with all his projects he's presumably looked at and attempted to understand the tropes so he can put his twist on them and one of the tropes of EPICs is that character moments from before the intermission always return afterwards, even in the strangely involving technicolour horror of something like Cleopatra, where the geopolitical interactions (for want of a better description) between "Egypt" and "Rome" are contrasted pointedly across the hours.

The Five-Year Engagement is utter rubbish or as I said on Twitter, while it was on, "what a pedestrianly directed, miscast thing it is. The script is utter horse dip." Now I was slightly distracted during this, having had to pause the thing in the middle, as most of us did during the Tweetdeck javascript outrage, but it's quite some time since I've seen a film so aching disappointing.  As I again said on social media at the end, there's probably a decent 90 minute film hidden in there, but at two hours it feels like the we're experiencing whole five years.  The central performances are undoubtedly engaging even if Emily Blunt is miscast in a role clearly written for Zooey Deschanel, and Alison Brie's a trooper given the pretty thankless best friend role she's been dumped into.  There are also some good lines (Rhys Ifans as a college professor reflecting on the student body and why he doesn't bother to learn their names: "Everyone here is either called Zac or Ashley...").

But oh the litany of faults.  Director Nicholas Stoller seems to have attempted to produce a film in which no one has any agency.  As I noticed recently, I've been wrong in haranguing When Harry Met Sally for making the ending about Harry all these years because structurally the opening flashback half hour is from Sally's POV, the middle finely balances the two of them and then Harry takes over for the last half hour.  It's actually perfect.  In The Five-Year Engagement, none of the scenes are offered from a particular point of view which means that the audience is denied a point of identification and therefore empathy.  Stuff just sort of happens between the characters, but there are precious few reaction shots telling us how we're supposed to feel about things that are happening, they just sort of do.  Even the cretinous About Time manages to give us a clear protagonist, even if he's an arsehole.

Plus the structure's up the wall.  Ideally it needed a hook to keep the audience orientated to the calendar - there's a good piece in this month's Sight and Sound about how actual calendars can be used for this purpose - but for much of the film the audience is unaware of where they are in those five years.  We keep being told - oh this will be for another year, or another two years, but for those years to make sense, to have weight, we need to be aware of their passage and not just through weird beards and the addition of ill-advised bangs to Emily Brunt's fringe.  Pieces to camera and voiceovers are old hat which isn't to say neither would have worked.  But the really annoying thing is that it ends really well.  Despite these problems the last ten minutes are stonkingly good, mostly because Stoller throws out everything else he was doing and essentially does a Muppet set-piece with humans.

Which brings us to last night and Center Stage which I watched by mistake because I thought I'd added a Chinese film with the same title to my Lovefilm list and was sent instead this Nicholas Hytner-directed ballet film starring Zoe Saldana, Peter Gallagher and a bunch of near complete unknowns who can all dance and also act a little.  The Time Out review covers most of the bases.  It's a FAME retread but focusing on the single discipline of ballet, with Saldana in the Leroy slot but featuring some amazingly terrible rock music, which includes, for pity's sake, playing the Thunderbugs's Friends Forever under scene in which the students go out into the world together.  The gender politics is up the wall too, with the female ballet dancers constantly seeking the approval of their male counterparts, some of whom take some amazing liberties without much in the way of a comeuppance.

Yet there's no denying once all that gives way to the dancing, as is often the case with dance films, the results are jaw dropping.  Against the prevailing tide, Hytner often allows the ballet to play out in masters across the 1:2.35 letterbox which has to be the ideal aspect ratio for ballet, and must have looked spectacular in cinemas within an auditorium setting.  Plus, having watched the BBC's ballet season recently, I can see that Hytner et al have researched the incidentals of being a ballet performer, of the treatment the dancers must wrought on their shoes through, banging, scraping and soaking in order to make them wearable.  About the only omission I noticed was the apparent lack of anyone producing notations of the choreography, though the rehearsals scenes are generally kept to a minimum anyway so as not to spoil the surprises in the final performances, which are definitely worth sitting through the previous ninety-minutes for.

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