The Films I've Watched This Year #29

Film Non-film viewing activity this week largely involved the BBC's superb coverage of the World War I commemorations on Monday, coverage which struck just the right balance between covering an event and providing enough contextual information about why that event exists.  The voice of Eddie Butler for the lights out service late in the evening was an especially good choice, with his deep, resonant, authoritative sound so reminiscent of Robert Hudson or even Dimbleby snr.  About the only criticism I might have is of the moments when the technology failed and we were left looking at a red or green screen, something I haven't seen before in a BBC live broadcast event to quite that extent.  But these things happen.  It was probably the weather.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Guardians of the Galaxy
Labor Day
American Hustle
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Under The Skin
Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari
Adventures in Babysitting

Busy week and I almost don't want to spoil it by writing about it.  Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari was covered yesterday.  Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is as exciting as all of these DC animations offering the kind of entertainment that you'd hope the live action film will but know for definite that it won't because for one thing it would require television's the Flash to exist in the big screen universe but the powers have deemed they're not connected so that's that.  Labor Day's a morally suspect, dull as dishwater misstep whose foley artists can't even distinguish the difference between a ripe and unripened peach (the latter do not crunch).  I think you know how much I love The Guardians of the Galaxy already and I can't understand anyone who would look at that thing and say they were bored.  Because, well, bored?  Really?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit's an efficient, entertaining thriller which doesn't have much to do with any of the previous installments about an analyst called Jack Ryan but proves once again that Chris Pine is at the spearhead of what can be best described as a new vanguard of film stars, even if the production and distribution model as it exists now won't let them "open" films in quite the same way as the old guard.  Of course, if you know Liverpool at all, one of the major action sequences falls apart as you notice the adversaries driving through the Mersey Tunnel, past our town hall, up and down James Street and Victoria Street and crash in front of Mann Island and the Three Graces.  But it's probably fitting that it should return here.  The first shot in The Hunt for Red October is of St George's Hall.

Much as I enjoyed American Hustle, I did, very much, it has a confusion of styles not many of which have much to do with David O Russell, as throughout I had this nagging sensation of seeing someone evoking other directors while submerging his own cinematic interests.  So there's a bit of Scorsese, bit of Woody, bit of Pakula, Soderbergh's in its DNA too along with 70s Pollack.  Perhaps his point is to as well as pay homage to the clothes and music of the time, the filmmaking style too, which is fine, but it can have a similar effect to the Liverpool location shooting of pulling the viewer out of the story.  There's also the nagging sensation of having seen this story before, until you realise that if you were to take the nationality from the title and set it in London in the 00s, you largely have.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a disappointment and I'm actually pleased that I decided to watch the Netflix stream when it became available rather than await the extended cut at the end of the year.  Kristen Thompson has a typically in-depth examination of what went wrong in the added material and the extent to which it ruins the integrity of The Lord of the Rings by retooling various story points and character points so that if you watch the whole lot together its full of pointless repetitions but the main point I'd like to add is just how rote the whole thing feels, the work of a filmmaker trying to make the best of a contractual obligation.  All the middle earth elements are there, glances to the future, the characters and peoples exist but its empty, rather like the disastrous third season of Star Trek under new producer Fred Freiberger.

Having deliberately avoided reading The Hobbit all these years in anticipation of watching a film adaptation without "it's not as good as" syndrome, I didn't know that the material with the elves didn't exist, but it seems that in laying on extra jeopardy, Jackson's fallen into the trap of many blockbuster filmmakers of replacing spectacle for heart and character, or at least forgetting how to integrate the two.  The best moments, the best moments in these Hobbit films are the character scenes, when these peoples simply talk, laugh, fight and fall in love.  In The Lord of the Rings films, Jackson realised that the very fact of us not having seen these characters on screen before, seeing an elf and a dwarf negotiating was as interesting as any action sequence, creating consequence when the battle scenes finally did occur.

But the most damaging is the lack of focus in relation to who the protagonists are.  In The Lord of the Rings, each of the different strands had a very clear point of view character, be it Frodo, Aragorn or Gandalf.  The first Hobbit retained this clarity by making it the story of Bilbo's acceptance.  As a consequence of some of the uneven structural elements of Smaug, it tries to be more of an ensemble piece when in reality it should still be about Bilbos adventure, but he becomes a background character for stretches as Thorin is given leading man status until he isn't because the story demands Bilbo takes key actions.  It's odd.  Perhaps it'll be make better sense when the whole trilogy is viewed as an eight hour binge but as an individual film The Desolation of Smaug doesn't work.  Sigh.

What stops the film entirely being as I'd imagine a Lord of the Rings film being is Jackson had been replaced with Brett Ratner, is his casting eye and immersive production design.  Never mind Cumberbatch, the real find here is Evangeline Lilly who carries the stateliness of the elf remarkably, that hierarchy of physical presence which isn't just to do with relative height in relation to other races.  Like Blanchett, there's a moment when she gives a look of recognition to Kili which seems to bounce of the screen into our own stomachs as they flip over in awe.  Her next film after these three is Ant-Man, but I think we can add her to the list of actress who should have played Wonder Woman.  Let's hope she's able to find the right projects to propel her forward.

I'd also be interested to know how the transfer of the film was given to Netflix, in what form.  Famously shot in 56 fps but released in the majority of cinemas in the usual 24 fps, through Netflix on my television, parts of it, particularly when they were on sets looked extremely odd, yes, televisual.  The sequences in the forest and amongst the wood elfs in particular looked like sets, which of course they are, but in a much clearer 1970s Doctor Who way, planet Hell from Star Trek.  My guess is that the frame rate of the stream is keying into the format of the original footage somehow, but not having seen it at the cinema, I don't know that it didn't look like this here as well.  That was another distraction.  Shooting digitally is all well and good but something has gone desperately wrong when the resulting image is this inferior to film in places.

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