Richard Eyre on directing Daniel Day-Lewis at the National.

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.

Yan Preston's Mother River at the Open Eye Gallery.

Photography While the eyes of the world are on Brazil, as the few of you who bothered to read my weekly film review posts will know my interest has been with China and this week I’ve had the pleasure of investigating two massive artistic projects which have happened in the country and which have involved a lot of walking. On Monday, at Southport’s The Atkinson gallery’s group show about walking, I enjoyed the six images that are almost, bar some film, the only record of Marina Abramović’s The Great Wall Walk in which she and her partner set off at either end of The Great Wall of China with the plan that they’d meet in the middle and marry. They met in the middle and decided to do nothing of the sort, presumably having had a chance to think, not that it didn’t stop a repeat performance twenty years later.

Then last night, at the Open Eye Gallery I attended a slide presentation by photographer Yan Preston whose Mother River project involves visiting the Yangtze River and taking pictures every hundred and fifty kilometres in an attempt to understand and to an extent discover the extent to which this waterway which stretches across and unifies much of China lives up to its mythic reputation. After coming to terms with the initial shock of just how immense an undertaking this really would be and attempting some other performance projects involving stones and swimming, Preston returned to her original idea, dug in, and set to work. Over the following months she collected the photographs and the results are as stunning as you might expect, even more so because having decided to work on film, not everything went to plan. See below.

I loved everything about this. I have a real affinity for these kinds of, as I tend to describe my own, mad fool missions, viewing projects, wanting to photograph genetically surreal objects and visiting all of those fine art collections. Throughout I noticed how Preston had experienced many of the familiar frustrations, of spending half the time dealing with logistics and geology and technological failures, which in her case manifested itself in films being ruined and having to return to landscapes in order to replicate photographs again. Her set-backs were rather more epic than mine though. Where I’d turn up at Carr Lane to find a superlambanana missing, she was bitten by wild dogs or arrested by authorities who simply couldn’t understand why someone would be searching for a spot on a map so they could photograph it.

One of the tensions Preston’s had to deal with is between artistry and reportage. Initially it seemed as though the artist was about to abandon the fixed point part of the project because the resulting photographs wouldn’t reflect the romantic vision of the river. But thankfully she realised that she was capable of finding beauty or at the very least human interest at each of the points and that there is real value in recording the status of the river at this moment in China’s history when, as she also described, it's in a state of industrialisation. Amongst the photographs and video record, we saw landscapes in which nature had given way to concrete, areas in which Le Corbusier’s uniform urban ideas were flourishing, but soullessly, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character’s limbo from the film Inception made real.

The final result is a book, a specimen of which was available for viewing tonight. I decided not to look yet. Partly because we’d already seen a version briefly as a pdf but mostly because the project continues, as these things often do, due to setbacks related to health and budgets, and I want to see the whole thing together. The ideal approach would have been to begin at one end of the river and continue through to the other side, but no one has an infinite budget or the time to complete that immense undertaking in one go. Even Michael Palin, once he’d been round the world in eighty(ish) days, broke up subsequent televisual challenges into recording blocks. Preston clearly has the tenacity to see this through to the end and it seems only fair to wait until that end before enjoying the results. I hope she us visits again to report back.

Portrait Mode.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0:
Please Can I Go Now?

Written by Guy Sigsworth
[from: 'GMT: Music from the film', Island, 1999]

Music I never say goodbye to people. Even when they’re disappearing to another continent or I’m leaving a place never to return, I’ll only turn to people I’ve become close to and tell them to take care, and often that I’ll see them next time. I never used to be like that. When I was twelve, I stood on a station platform crying my eyes out because a school mate was going to Australia. The problem was that I always did see them. And usually in the strangest of places. And having said all of the things you need to say when you aren’t going to see someone again, there was the disappointment because even after five years there wasn’t much to add.

I stopped saying goodbye to people when I saw the Channel 4 adaptation of the Anthony Powell novels ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’. This told the story of a group of school friends as they grew up during the last century into old age. The dance being the weaving in out of their lives, spinning off into the ballroom floor of time, returning to each other’s company the way people do as the music hits specific beats and rhythms. Some of them have two left feet and fall to the side; some aren’t invited up and don’t waltz at all. As I watched I noticed the same movements in my own life. The best television informs us all.

Years later I did meet my school friend, back from Oz for only a few moments – he happened to be in the UK for a few days for a conference. Sure enough, because of our big pronouncements we just looked at each other and asked what we’d been up to. No spark in the old friendship. Post ‘Dance’, I saw someone I’d once worked with but also knew through a mutual friend; we’d been close enough to whisper secrets but had lost touch when I’d left the job. I’d just waved when I left, with a shouted 'See you!'. When we saw each other this time we just kept grinning insanely, and talked for hours (well for as long as our train journey). At the end, my friend had remembered what I’d said before and offered, “I’ll see you next time…”, and I know she will. [Originally written twelve years ago.]

[Commentary:  Still one of my favourite pieces of my own writing if you're allowed to say that sort of thing, though the sentiments are even more fluid in the social networking era when no one is entirely out of reach any more.  My one regret is that after all these years I can't remember who the second subject in the third paragraph is or if we did see each other again, in the real world at least though I have an odd feeling that she might be reading this in which case assume my embarrassment and apologies.  The song is from a British film I don't think anyone else has seen.  But I did have the album on repeat for over a month thanks to vocals like these, which seemed to admirably capture the time and place.]

Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

TV The BBC's website is full of clips of old shows. Most of them are only a couple of minutes. But sometimes they're many hours of content. Here's an example. It's the Simon Bolivar Orchestra playing Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. All fifteen minutes of it in a the usual enormous embed:

The actual programme its from or rather was cut from since this is a "web exclusive" is long gone. Yet here this still is. With its very present crowd.  I let you know if I see anything else.

Joss Whedon on Speed.

Film Joss hasn't talked about Speed much across the years. Here's probably about as definitive an interview as we'll get in the Huff Post. As you might expect, some of the best things about the film came from him:
What were some of the biggest changes you saw in reworking those other drafts that weren't great?

The biggest change for me came for me came from Keanu. The whole "Pop quiz, hot shot," was not me. There was this idea of Jack as this cop on the edge, who plays by his own rules, you know, "He's a maverick! He's out of control!" Apart from “Die Hard,” which really made room for a thoughtful action hero, everybody had been that sort of thing. So, when we sat down with Keanu, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald and Jan, I think, they said, “Keanu, these guys are not mavericks. They’re whole thing is diffusing the situation, and they’re unfailingly polite, and they always say sir or ma’am.” And I was like, “I know exactly what to do! That’s it, that’s the whole meeting, we’re there.”
Note on release dates. It might be 20 years old in the US, but it didn't turn up in the UK until October of that year. I know because it was the film I saw at the Lounge Cinema in Leeds on my 20th birthday [via].

The leftovers of Doctor Who.

Television It's the new Flash Forward everyone. But it's on HBO so it might be good. On the downside, it's from one of the co-creators of Lost. On the upside, Liv Tyler, (the new Doc ... potential Doctor ...) Patterson Joseph (who must really like these apocalyptic stories) and Christopher Eccleston (who'll apparently turn up for any genre show now so long as it isn't Doctor Who).  Plus I love the title.  It has moxy.

"HBO and Showtime don’t care how many people are watching any given show"

TV Indiewire has a brief but excellent analysis of the US television networks and how the construction of their shows do differ markedly even if it all seems like a jumble from this side of the Atlantic:
"The reason premium cable changed television was because they were dependent upon subscribers, not advertisers. The implications of this are profound: unlike all the other networks, HBO and Showtime don’t care how many people are watching any given show. And they don’t care if, after "Game of Thrones," you watch "Silicon Valley." The moment you subscribed, they made their money. They are after an aggregated audience, not the largest audience in any time slot.

"HBO doesn’t care if I watch "Girls"; it was designed to get young women to subscribe. My viewing is a bonus. And they don’t care if the "Girls" audience watches "Looking." That show is designed to get the gay male audience to subscribe. Falloff from one show to the other doesn’t really matter."
The section about Netflix is interesting because the experience of Orange Is The New Black differs markedly from mine. Unlike House of Cards, I'm finding it very difficult to get through the first season of OISTNB. I've stuck at episode six I think. Each episode feels like enough in the same way the author suggests Breaking Bad is. It's not something I have been able to binge.  With the launch of the new series I am feeling a tug to get on with it, but I wonder if it's simply that we don't see eye-to-eye, if I'm just not enjoying the thing.  What could that mean?

No More Weeping.

Theatre Watching the twitterbituaries for Rik in which everyone seemed to have met him at some stage, I flippantly tweeted that I hadn't met him.

 Then a few hours later realised that if I hadn't actually met him, I had seem him and Ade in Waiting for Godot during my A-Levels, when our English group minibused down to London from Liverpool for their production.

 Sat near the back of the theatre it was difficult to see much of their performance, but I always remembered the set (which I now realise was designed by Derek Jarman!) and how they reacted off script to one audience member and his very power laugh.

 Imagine my surprise to find now that Channel 4 Daily's rather sober Box Office slot covered the production and filmed the double act in character.

 Find above this astonishing piece of archive and as a bonus, below, a publicity interview from Tonight With Jonathan Ross:

That Time Again.

Sport Grant and Hurley reunited, sort of, in the name of football:
"Celebrities and football fans have taken part in the BBC World News's England team 2014 World Cup poem, written and filmed by poet Henry Birtles.

"The poem, called That Time Again, makes reference to the first and only time England won the tournament, 48 years ago, in 1966.

"The 2014 Fifa World Cup kicks off in Sao Paulo on Thursday when the hosts Brazil play Croatia."
It's the Perfect Day of poetry. I'm glad I spent it with Hugh.

Reedless to say.

Film This news is over a day old, but since I've written about this before I thought I'd offer an update to my original opinion too.

Peyton Reed to direct Ant-Man.

Oh, well, good. He was originally attached to the last attempt at producing a Fantastic Four franchise before the Tim Story iteration so he knows what it's like to be replaced on a superhero project and he has some excellent to decent films on his CV (Bring It On, Down with Love and Yes Man) as well as a bunch of television work so he's happy to be a gun for hire. 

He's not directed anything on this scale, assuming the project has scale in the traditional MARVEL sense, but that also continues the general MARVEL process of hiring directors who tend to be happier working with actors (see the Russos).

On this basis of this new hire, here's my modified impression of the Edgar Wright thing. It's not that much different from what I wrote last time but I'm in a slightly warmer mood towards MARVEL Studios now (not least after spending hours this afternoon reading about the hash which was made of the comics version of the 'verse in the 80s & 90s).

Essentially my feeling is that it's probably fair enough that they don't want to stray too much into giving directors an individual voice when trying to create a cohesive universe.

In this massive website about the Fantastic Four, they talk about how one of the reasons MARVEL worked so well narratively speaking in the 60s and 70s is because there was a concerted effort to create realistic continuity across the titles and more importantly for the characters to age realistically and have history and to grow and learn.

Then in the 80s & 90s, they decided that in fact that's the last thing they wanted and it was left to individual voices on different comics to decide how best to effectively create reboots with the unfortunate consequence that continuity went out of the window, retcons agogo and it became increasingly difficult as a reader to keep up with things because titles seemed to go out of their way to contradict one another with some writers on different lines seemingly in open warfare with each other about visions of what characters are supposed to be like even to the point of level of maturity.

One of the keys to the MCU is that there's a concerted effort to create realistic continuity across the titles and more importantly for the characters to age realistically and have history and to grow and learn.

If you flip the Wright situation its head, he's hired in 2006 before Iron Man's a success, then given every opportunity to modify his vision so it fits the new regime right up to the point that the thing has been cast and has a start date, but he's still under the impression that his vision counts on this occasion and when he and Cornish still can't produce a version of the script which fits with the vision of the people who, to be fair, are financing the thing (though admittedly at this point we don't know how they divert), they step in and get someone else to write what they want and probably need instead.

Not liking that, he walks and they hire someone who will produce a film which fits in their idea of what the MCU is. Again, fair enough.

To a degree you could then argue that this means the death of creativity.  On the other you could argue that the overall creative endeavour of creating a cohesive screen universe on a scale which hasn't been attempted before in quite this way (across films and television at least) is taking priority.