The Films I've Watched This Year #30

Film Heavily abbreviated list this week (and a bit back catalogue at that) because I've been catching up on Veronica Mars, The Honorable Woman (which is storming towards a pretty marvellous conclusion), Extant (which frustrates beyond measure) and the European Athletics Championship which is a potent enough drop of methadone after coming down from the Commonwealth Games. The clear highlight's been the mascot, Cooly, far more visible on screen than usual, and the commentators reaction to his existence. Their befuddlement at his or her sheer energy and athletics skills clearly has them wondering just who is behind the mask, though after this monumental bit of hurdling the other day, they probably know full well.

It Rains On Our Love
Bright Young Things
John Dies At The End
The 6th Day

Some people don't like Bright Young Things.  The machinations of "society" people are an acquired taste.  Bbut I think Stephen Fry works hard to magnify the satire in Waugh's book (not that I've read Vile Bodies) but also to make the characters sympathetic enough that we understand that there was just as much human wreckage at the top of the society as to the bottom, especially at this nexus point in history between the two wars when many such families lost everything.  I was interested to hear on the commentary that Waugh set his book in the future ending it in a world war.  So many other narratives seem to suggest it wasn't inevitable, that we had seen the war to end all wars.

The other reason to watch, especially if you're of a certain disposition, is that it's simply easier to list the people who haven't been in Doctor Who.  Tennant's in there of course and Fenella Woolgar plays a character called Agatha for goodness sake.  At a certain point in this rewatch I joked that Mark Gatiss would probably wander through, not suspecting for a minute that he'd actually turn up about ten minutes later.  It was the screen debut Stephen Campbell Moore and he's remarkable and if we had a proper film industry would have gone on to bright young things himself.  Unfortunately for him Toby Stephens exists in the world and probably snaffled what could have been some his perfect roles.

John Dies At The End is fine, but you can see that something as mega as Guardians is just at the edges if only the filmmakers had been working with a massive budget rather than the coppers which led to whole sequences being played out against green screen and cgi settings less convincing than early period Wing Commander or Red Alert cut scenes.  Bits of it are fabulous, and there are dozens of interesting ideas and some funny jokes not least in relation to Paul Giamatti but there's an incoherence which doesn't quite work in its favour.  Comic films are always less funny when the action is undermotivated or the storyline poorly explained which is odd in this case when you consider how much of it is narrated.

The 6th Day was genuinely simply a round to it; for a while Columbia/TriStar dvds (I think) had the same advertising booklet within and this was about the only film on it I hadn't seen.  It's about what I expected, Arnold thrown into a sci-fi concept (cf, Total Recall) and dealing with the consequences.  Apart from the way it dancing around the fringes of "Religion good!  Science bad!" without quite committing to either, is how back in 2000, there was no concept of a future with tablet computers (despite the preponderance of PADD on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and their lack is strange, especially in the remote control helicopter sequences which seem bizarrely antiquated now.

Jennifer Lawrence's Cinematic Crush.

"I met Bill Murray once and I was like can't even can't get started, I can't talk to you."

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0:
My So-Called Life.

Composed by W.G. Snuffy Walden
[from: 'My So-Called Life: Original Soundtrack', 1995]

Music  There is something gut wrenching about the cancellation of a favourite television show, especially a drama. Over the period of broadcast the viewer invests a certain emotional interest in the lives of the characters. So when these characters are left in the middle of story arcs or plotlines we are denied something which he rightly expect in real life. Closure. One show in particular was a particular pain.

For some reason I keep coming back to ‘My So-Called Life’. Every year I get the shows out and watch them again. Every year I see new things. I understand more. I'm twenty-eight now. What's going on?

When you're a teenager, and you have those problems, and you know your friends will make fun of you if you tell them, you look to film, music and TV for answers. Living in England, honest to goodness teen shows are pretty thin on the ground. There's 'Byker Grove', 'Grange Hill' and hints of 'HollyOaks' and that's about it. The trouble is that none of them quite has the audacity or time slot to cut to the heart of what its actually like to be a teenager. Most of the time you have to look to US shows like 'Dawson's Creek' or 'Buffy: The Vampire Slayer'. But standing above them all was 'My So-Called Life' a television programme that answered all of our questions. When the show was transmitted on our Channel 4 in 1995 it was stupidly popular.

No one had seen anything like this. Suddenly you knew what to do about that older boy or girl you fancy. Or if you have feelings for the girl next door. Or if you weren't sure about your sexuality. Or if someone loved you but you couldn't return their feelings. Or if you got handcuffed to a bed. Your heart was broken by it week after week, but you came back for more because you knew it was doing you good. A free hour of therapy.

Even if you didn't want to admit it, you were one of them. You were Rayanne Graffe, afraid of the world and overcompensating. Sharon Cherski, searching for your own identity beneath the expectations of others. You were Ricki Vasquez unsure who you were but quietly finding an equilibrium. You were Jordan Catalano torn between your friends and something else. You were Brian Krakow, the romantic with so many high expectations of people. You were Danielle Chase, always being kicked out of different rooms. You were Patty Chase fighting to keep your family together. You were Graham Chase fighting to keep yourself together. And you were always Angela, your world falling apart around you, every choice being wrong, every moment a battle, but somehow slowly working it all out.

Then, after nineteen episodes, it was gone. Replaced, I believe, by a rerun of 'Matlock'. The show should never have been cancelled. It wasn't fair goddam it. And not on that cliffhanger. But perhaps it had the right end. The perfect ending. The only ending this show could have had. Making a choice then watching in pain the road not travelled. So like life. So-called Life.

This year we would have had its sixth season. All of the contracts would have been up for renewal. The teenagers would have been twenty something. Characters would have gone, new characters brought in. The writing teams change. But it would not have been the same show.

The show I keep coming back to.

[Commentary:  One of my many, many obituaries this was originally posted to the IMDb on 27 October 2000 where it sat on the front pages for many, many months.  Since the series wasn't released on dvd for at least another two years, the above was written from memory and multiple viewings of the final episode, the only episode I managed to record on original broadcast because I happened to be home from college that week (I think).  We've probably talked enough about this in the blog's history, though there's always something new, like discovering this track by The Ataris which probably sums up how most of us feel about Claire Danes, even now.]

Liverpool Biennial 2014:
John Moores Painting Prize 2014:
The Exhibition.

Art Having studious attempted to ignore seeing much of the exhibition at the press event, today I had the opportunity to see the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition in full and my overall impression is that it’s the best show in some years. In recent times there’s been an overall lack of balance between the abstract and figurative, the former overtaking the latter by quite some margin which hasn’t always been to it’s favour. In 2014, there’s a startling number of people on the walls, walking, working, living, sleeping and although there are works in which the absence of us is the point, often it’s the results of their interference with the landscape which is.

Admittedly the most eye-catching imagine in the largest room is an expression of the very worst of humanity. Reuben Murray’s Sister Is That You? shows us a young woman’s swollen, beaten face, her eye covered haphazardly with bloodied bandages hiding goodness knows what painful horrors beneath. The title indicates that her treatment has been so severe her sibling doesn’t even recognise her. But it’s the scale which creates a confrontation with the viewer, this face at the height of an average person, always in our peripheral vision as we walk around the rest of the room, and no matter what else we might see here, it’s this face we’ll remember.

On the opposite wall, in People 69104, Frank Pudney reduces his people to the size ants and renders them across his canvas like point on a map, in various shades so that collectively, looking at the entire composition, they resemble a topographical map, or is it a cloudy alpine mountain side, or even the detail of a pencil drawing of human anatomy? There’s no accompanying notes, but we have to expect that there are 69,104 tiny people here or close to, a staggering painting achievement in and of itself? What is that statistic? The population of the country? Is this the map of that country? There are other examples at his website.

But these are the extremes. Between we find Robin Dixon’s abstract teenagers beneath Estuary Bridge. We find the naked form of Frank As Androcles, Robert Fawcett’s photorealistic investigation of the mature form. We find Nicholas Middleton’s Black Bloc, in which hooded figures, scarves across their faces prepare for a fight. The void behind them accentuates the deliberate blankness of their identities, “black bloc” being the choice of clothing which makes it near impossible for authorities to prosecute them or is supposed to. Anarchism ironically utilises conformity for its own ends.

There’s also a void in the painting I chose for the people’s vote, Charlotte Hopkins Hall’s A Private Space. A women in a purple checked blouse is side on to us, her face obscured by shoulder length straight blonde hair. Like the anarchists she’s lost her identity but on this occasion we’re not sure why. Is the blouse a uniform, is this some shop worker on her break trying to find some space to herself, the void her attempt to block out the outside world or some far simpler reason? What’s striking is the fine detail of the painting, each individual strand of hair distinct from the others, the squares of her clothing. But not photo-realistic. We’re always aware it’s a painting.

Which isn’t to say it’s my favourite painting. My favourite painting is Juliette Losq’s Vinculum, but that’s already a prizewinner so I decided to send my love elsewhere. The internet tells me that a Vinculum is an overline horizontal line used in mathematical notation, but it’s the English translation which is most resonant in this context, "bond", "fetter", "chain", or "tie". As we look up at this massive watercolour, were looking down some precarious stairs into an overgrown garden covered in weeds and ivy, graffiti and bin bags, perhaps a shared garden at the back of ancient office spaces or shared housing. What of the barred windows?

As with many of the paintings in the exhibition it’s the massive scale which draws the viewer in, as well as the detail, and the mystery. But it’s also the perspective, the sense of looking up and down at the same time, the three-dimensionality. Judging by her website its typical of Losq’s work, to emphasis those spaces created by us but almost relinquished to nature. Her installation work often combines similar images together with furniture-like sculptural pieces almost to remind us that man or woman still retains some control over space, that we can never quite abandon it. Which now I come to think about it could be a theme which underscores most of the paintings here.

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.