The Films I've Watched This Year #5

Film What a long week. For various reasons this has been a very long week, mostly due to contracting the man flu late on Wednesday which left things a bit blotto for a few days (which is why I missed Ignite Liverpool the other night) and which I'm still sniffing through.

Blood Glacier
Sunset Strip
Annie Oakley
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Dirty War
Cool World
Beautiful Creatures

Also a bit of a messy week film wise. About the only item on that list I'd unreservedly recommend was tonight's entertainment, Beautiful Creatures, which is an unabashed tribute to 90s supernatural teen films like The Craft wearing Tim Burton's coat and pretending to be for the Twilight crowd but with a far funnier script, hilariously arch and undeniably sexy performance from Emma Thompson and a relatively unexpected bit of experimentation in terms of how it deals with its protagonists which might leave some people unsatisfied in ways that they can't quite put their finger on or people like me who use phrases like "narrative agency" utterly thrilled.  Rotten Tomatoes isn't sure about it, having averaged out at 46%.  But the comments, as is so often the case with films on that site which hover around 50%, are roughly split between people who get it and those who've completely missed the point or already decided whether they'd like the film before they'd seen it.

The second most fun I had this week was with Annie Oakley, the mid-30s biopic-cum-western with Barbara Stanwyck in the title role of the backwoods small game hunter who joined and toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.  Turner Classic Movies has decent appreciation of the film which enunciates its importance within the Stanwyck canon, just two years before her breakout in Stella Dallas.  Although it has a relatively (relatively?) dated approach to race and animal rights, I enjoyed its simplicity and seeing something from the period when directors and cinematographers like George Stevens whose careers began in the silent era were still getting used to sound and the new camera technologies and their relative strengths and weaknesses - here the shows themselves are shot almost like live events and are intercut with relatively stagey character scenes.  We're currently undergoing a similar period of change as celluloid is replaced with digital and similar strengths and weaknesses are equally becoming apparent.

As for everything else?  11.6 is the story of a security man who stole the largest haul in French history only to give most of it back which drags terribly in places but remains watchable thanks to Fran├žois Cluzet's mesmerising eyes.  Blood Glacier is a German Lovecraftian monster hunt with a few decent scares.  Sunset Strip takes a impressionistic approach to documenting the history of the mile-and-a-half stretch of Sunset Boulevard that passes through West Hollywood via archive footage and staccato interviews with a galaxy of stars (and Stephen Dorff).  Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within isn't as graphically dated as I'd expected but the script is utter wash.  Filth tries to be an Irvine Welsh adaptation which isn't Trainspotting and ends up being an Irvine Welsh adaptation which is an inferior version of Trainspotting.  Elysium and Cool World offer roughly the same story in various ways and Dirty War is Adam Curtis's The Power of Nightmares narrated and reported in the style of This American Life.

If the list looks a bit short it's because I spent most (all) of yesterday ploughing through the second series of House of Cards, but it seems a bit premature for a length review especially since most of you have lives or work on days like Fridays and don't have the time or are just wanting to savour the thing.  I think I'm a bit of a fair weather friend.  Sections of both series are touched with genius and offer some peerless pieces of television in acting, writing and directing terms, and that's especially true of the episode in the middle of this series written by series creator/adaptor Beau Willimon and directed by Jodie Foster.  It's also gratifyingly determined not to stagnate in a particular format, but that can have the effect of creating a certain smushiness in its storytelling across the series, inconsistency in characterisation and tonal uncertainty as its not sure if its supposed to be straight satire ala the UK version or The West Wing with teeth (though its true that The West Wing was often very toothsome).  I'll get back to you on this.

Ballet Attention Span.

Dance You may have heard that archival footage of Margot Fonteyn leading in Sleeping Beauty in 1956 thought lost for years has recently resurfaced at the BBC's archive in Perivale. Seemingly in tribute the BBC are having a season of programmes about ballet across BBC's Two and Four, including the presentation of this seminal performance. Except, um, not the whole thing. The BBC press release is very excited about the whole thing, devoting four whole paragraphs to Fonteyn ’59: Sleeping Beauty which is on BBC Four, Friday 7 March, including this crushing disappointment in the final section:
"As part of the BBC Ballet Season, this reworked for television Sleeping Beauty (60 minutes) is believed to be the first time British audiences will have had a chance to see extracts from the ballet including the illusive Act II since the live transmission in 1959. This rarely seen film will give viewers a glimpse of an authentic 1950s style of ballet, transporting viewers back to the living rooms of post-war Britain. The 95-minute reassembled ballet will be available to view online in addition to the 60-minute BBC Four version."
My italics. So having found and having availability of the whole ballet at least in this version in some form, BBC Four have decided their television viewers wouldn't want to watch the whole thing and produced a sixty minute version instead. Yes, the 95 minute version will be online (and hopefully that included the iPlayer app across the various platforms) but at what point and how did the discussion go about deciding that an audience watching television, and the audience watching this programme, would prefer to see this sixty minute presentation instead of the whole thing?

This American Valentine's Day.

That Day Yesterday's International doodle on Google's homepage was this cute if otherwise entirely pointless chocolate box interactive thingy but in US visitors were treated to a special episode or Act of This American Life in which Ira introduced clips of people talking about falling in love hidden behind love hearts. Here's Google's take and at TAL's website Ira explains why they did it:
"I’ve been a fan of Google Doodles for a while (though I only recently learned they had a name and that name is Google Doodles). I liked that they seemed able to do anything on their homepage — a crossword puzzle, a Dr. Who video game, a tribute to Saul Bass, a Les Paul guitar or a fully functioning Moog Synthesizer (with its own four-track tape recorder). It’s interesting that in this big global company, with millions or maybe it’s billions of dollars in computer servers everywhere, and all this tech and engineering, they have people doing something for their biggest product – their search engine – that’s so... handmade. And idiosyncratic. This Doodle is their first foray into documentary storytelling and I hope they do more stuff like it. I hope they reach out to Wes Anderson and Laurie Anderson and Anderson Cooper and artists whose names are not Anderson as future collaborators."
Ira mentioned the Doctor Who game. Good god, imagine what an episode of This American Life about Doctor Who would be like: "Act III: I have a fixation with the Monoids..." that sort of thing.


People The comments underneath the YouTube version ironically provide a good illustration of many of things Ellen Page says in her speech and what has and no doubt will be missed even though she says it in so many words is that in coming out at her age she's risking her career or at least severely limiting, even further, the kinds of roles she's likely to be offered in the future.  That's why this is brave.  She's challenging Hollywood and the audience to be different this time.

Flappo Bird.

Games As per usual because I don't have a smart phone, I didn't discover Flappy Bird until it was taken down. Lucky I can still play, albeit in the Atari 2600 version:
"With the introduction of the mobile app "Flappy Bird", a simple game of keeping a bird flapping through obstacles grew into a worldwide phenomenon, earning upwards of $50,000 a day in ad streaming during the game. The developer, Nguyen Ha Dong, surprised the world when he announced that he was pulling the application down, citing discomfort with the addictive nature of the game. In its wake, a variety of clone games arrived, and this Atari 2600 port serves as another one, albeit with a completely different approach and on a much simpler system."
I am a leaf on the ... ack ....

Cartoon Cocker.

Film The Playlist offers this trailer for the Criterion Collection edition of Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr Fox featuring an animated Jarvis Cocker, which oddly enough is less animated than the real thing.  Click there for information about the extras and whatnot.

The Prince of Jutland explained.

Gabriel Axel, the director of Hamlet reimagining The Prince of Jutland died recently and The Guardian has an obituary which includes this nugget about the production:
"Prince of Jutland (1994), shot in English in Denmark, was a risible effort to retell the story of Amled, drawing upon the 12th-century work that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet. The starry cast - Helen Mirren, Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale – struggled against bad dialogue and cinematography. There was some excuse for its failure, because Axel fell ill during the editing process and was unable to complete post-production work. In the US, Miramax acquired the rights, re-cut the film and eventually released it on video in 1998 under the title Royal Deceit."
Which explains many of the film's problems, though as you can see from my old review, I really rather enjoyed it, especially the moment when Bale eats a tree.

This Blog Post (***).

Psychology Clash Magazine, which I recently began following online, has decided to revise how it provides a score with their reviews. The change isn't massive, they'll still be making things out of ten, but it's the justification for those scores which is changing at of their April issue. Along with the guidelines, they've posted a long read asking various journalists just what the marking system with a review means to them and the context within which they decide on how to reduce the couple of hundred words they've otherwise prepared to a series of numbers or stars.

 The general consensus seems to be that there isn't a consensus, other than there's a variance in audience expectation between marking something out of five or ten and that essentially everything in the middle is ignored so there's a temptation to overmark if the thing is worth listening to even if it's also a bit average (or pretty much what Clash themselves have done with the new Katy B album) (which is a disappointingly generic concoction) (though I do like the cover).

Applying this to film, I have considered giving marks to the texts featured in what's turning into my weekly review post. I think over the years I've become pretty adept at being able consider exactly where a film is on that scale, not least because both Lovefilm and Netflix implore me to do it. If we look at the films I watched last week:

Lovestruck: The Musical (**)
Mademoiselle C (***)
Sketches of Frank Gehry (****)
The Girl (****)
Hank: Five Years from the Brink (****)
Man of Steel (**)
Calendar (****)
Rapture-Palooza (***)
Uncertainty (****)
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (****)
The Wolverine (****)
Red 2 (***)

You'll notice I didn't award any of them with a single star - some of the dance numbers in Lovestruck: The Musical are pretty good even if the music's anodyne and the performances in Man of Steel are just enough to keep it watchable in the middle. There are no five stars simply because none of them bend the envelope in the way that something like Gravity or Inception does.  To offer some archival examples, When Harry Met Sally is a five-star film but Sleepless in Seattle is not. It's a four. Shrugs.

Here are Clash Magazine's new guidelines and the points are pretty sound especially in relation to music.  They will never give a new album a ten because it has to be a game-changer and sometimes such things take a while to seep into the zeitgeist.  Most of the time I really good record will get an eight or nine with everything below a six considered average or worse.  Interesting they're cautious about zeros because "if an album exists then it’s achieved what so many don’t: creation."

Could you apply similar rules to film?  I think it's a bit more ambiguous, actually.  The difference between film and most music is that so much of it is an industrial creation and the commercial imperatives are different.  There's a lot more work involved if a filmmaker wants to more obviously put their personal stamp on the product, especially now, in comparison to most musicians, though I understand that there still can be many hands between the recording studio and iTunes which is why I used the word "most" before the word "music" there.

I'm post critic, I suppose. Having spent years trying to watch everything award four or five stars in Empire Magazine or five stars at least in The Guardian and nominated for various awards and seeing some terribly average fare anyway, I've eventually come to the conclusion that most films are probably, actually worth watching and if you're a film fan that you're just as well going with your own taste because it'll never quite match everyone elses.

Rotten Tomatoes is a pretty good guide but it can be muddled if a film is under reviewed or the reviews are poorly researched. Uncertainty languishes at 50% largely because the splat piece writers failed to notice what it was trying to do structurally even though I think the filmmakers managed to capably communicate that within the film.  In some ways, I wish as in some other professions, film reviewers had to go through some kind of training before they were allowed to write.  But I would say that.

To an extent I've stopped reading reviews before seeing films anyway so that I can greet all of them cold.  I still listen to Kermode but I've largely forgotten the detail what he said by the time I watch the thing anyway.  These days, I tend to go with curated options like making sure you see everything Artificial Eye, Criterion or Eureka releases because they tend to know what they're talking about or keeping up with various directors and actors whose work I've liked before, in other words, what people tend to do anyway.

‘Like an avatar?’

TV If I hadn't been working I would certainly have been at the Cornerhouse in Manchester yesterday to see Jeanette Winterson interview Russell T Davies. Luckily Paul Magrs did have a ticket and has posted some of the flavour:
"Russell was explaining the idea of ‘Mary-Sues’ to Jeanette, who’d never heard of them. It was all about how people are being put off from writing before they even start by online bullying in writing forums. People – women, mostly – were being accused of creating ‘Mary-Sue’ characters.

‘It’s a pejorative term, apparently. For when people use a version of themselves in the fiction.’

‘Like an avatar?’

‘Yes, exactly. And they’re being told they shouldn't be using them in their stories.’

Jeannette looked appalled. ‘But what else do you have?'
Updated Later On Twitter, James Henry makes a valid point, though:

To which Eddie Robson added:

At which point I link backwards to some of my own fan fiction featuring "James Perry" meeting B’Elanna-Torres off of Star Trek: Voyager... (posted here over a decade ago...)

"Feminists don't have a sense of humor"

Music Back in 2008, Nellie McKay's TED "talk" consisted of a short set of her songs including the above, Mother of Pearl. In the prevailing maelstrom on Twitter, it's desperately disappointing in gender embarrassment terms to see just how many of these lyrics I've seen said in all seriousness by men @ women as though they have any right too and when they're criticised for it saying "I'm entitled to my opinion."  No, no you're not.