Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Current Cinema - An exile returns to paradise - serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan catches up!

I’ve missed Sydney cinemas. Earlier this year I moved north to a little beachside retirement town called South West Rocks. The beaches here are beautiful, if you’re into that sort of thing, but if you love cinema it’s a little barren. My local theatre is currently playing Spectre and The Dressmaker, and nothing else. I decided I’d missed enough interesting films and, following an eight-hour train ride, spent last week staying with some very accommodating friends in the city, for the sole purpose of watching as many films as I could. The idea for the trip was initially spurred by the impending release of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, but I decided to make thorough use of my proximity to a number of proper cinemas, and caught up with eleven different films.

Mistress America is the second Noah Baumbach film released this year, and it’s a big improvement over While We’re Young, which relied too heavily on a who-cares web of intrigue. The new film is more interested in characters, and once they’ve all been defined, they’re let loose upon one another in a wildly entertaining non-stop talkathon sequence reminiscent of His Girl Friday. Baumbach-regular Greta Gerwig appears as an early-30s socialite whose vague plan to open a restaurant is enough to impress her freshman soon-to-be stepsister Tracy, played to perfection by relative newcomer Lola Kirke.

Mistress America is witty and perceptive from beginning to end, and with a runtime of only 84 minutes it doesn’t stick around long enough to do anything wrong. It’s a return to the themes and quality of Frances Ha, and comes strongly recommended for fans of that film. It’s still playing once a day at the Dendy in Newtown, and is quickly making its way to VOD.

The Lobster has found its way to an early release in Australian cinemas after playing in competition at Cannes earlier this year, and it’s another impressive oddity from Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos. The director’s first English-language film takes place in a society in which single people are viewed as criminals. If your relationship ends, you have 45 days to find a new partner, or you’ll be turned into an animal. They’re nice enough to let you choose which animal. Lanthimos cleverly uses this allegorical setup to explore the pressures of modern society, turning societal expectations into enforceable rules which take emotion out of the equation.

Emotion is largely removed from the performances as well. Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw and Léa Seydoux all speak like machines, who know the rules but can’t embrace them. The technique deliberately distances the audience, but it adds a desperation to the actions the characters take. This is a stronger film than Lanthimos’ Alps, which won the Sydney Film Prize a few years back, though the style is near-identical. The Lobster is still playing frequently at a number of Sydney cinemas.

I’ve seen Knight of Cups twice now, and I still don’t really understand how I feel about it. I’m a Terrence Malick diehard, and consider The Tree of Life my favourite film of all time. I was even wildly enthusiastic about his widely-derided follow-up To the Wonder. Knight of Cups simply isn’t up to the standards of those films, which is not to say it is without merit. The film transfers Malick’s astounding visual sense to the streets and buildings of Los Angeles, where he continues to find beauty in the mundane. Instead of grassy fields, women longingly brush their hands along chain-link fences. There’s a particularly wonderful moment when an earthquake hits, and the low-floating camera gives us the impression the Earth is deliberately lashing out at the city’s inhabitants, angry at their wasteful lifestyles.

The plot, while fragmented, is presented more literally than is usual for Malick. Christian Bale plays Rick, a film director who has become bored by his perfect job and by the endless parade of beautiful women who always fail to satisfy him, for reasons the film is not interested in presenting. Malick is repeating himself here, borrowing mostly from the Sean Penn scenes in The Tree of Life. It works as a small part of a film with a much greater scope, but there’s only so much unexplained moping a two-hour film can stand.

I’m glad I took a second look at Knight of Cups. I was initially severely disappointed with it, but on a second viewing I found more small moments and visual touches to enjoy. It’s definitely lesser Malick, but there’s nobody else making movies in this fascinating style. I suggest you decide for yourself. The film opened in very limited release, but you can still see it once a day at various Palace cinemas.

Bridge of Spies reminds us that Steven Spielberg is, first and foremost, an entertainer. Here is a true story of great severity and intrigue, set at the height of the Cold War and largely concerning political dealings in stuffy rooms, and yet it constantly wants to make us laugh. The Coen Brothers had a hand in the surprisingly jaunty screenplay, which improves on what could have been very dry material indeed. Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer who is asked to defend a Russian spy at his trial and does so with greater integrity than the American legal system intends to allow him. When an American pilot is captured, Hanks is brought to a newly-divided Germany to arrange a transfer of prisoners.

Leaving the cinema, a woman turned to me and said, “Well, it’s very Spielberg, isn’t it?” She intended it as a pejorative, but it could equally be taken as a well-earned compliment. He offers a simplified version of a complicated story about a noble man acting as he knows he must, for enjoyment by a broad audience. I’ll take that where I can get it. This film is showing everywhere, and you’ve probably already seen it.

Guillermo del Toro has never returned to the heights of his wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, and maybe he never will, but Crimson Peak is at least a solid step in the right direction after the disastrous Pacific Rim. This is a visually-splendid gothic horror with literary aspirations. It’s like Jane Eyre but with more stabbing and an added supernatural element. Mia Wasikowska plays the innocent girl, taken to live in a disheveled house by her sinister new husband, played marvelously by Tom Hiddleston. Jessica Chastain plays his creepy sister in a register approaching hysteria. Every moment in the film is enhanced by the amazing central set – a house with a gigantic hole through the centre. It literally snows inside as our heroine traverses the dark hallways.

The film’s pleasures come mostly from its set design and atmosphere, and these are enough to carry the action by themselves. It’s unfortunate that del Toro felt obligated to include the ghosts, which appear early and often, and spoil any natural sense of dread with their cartoonish visuals and snarled warnings. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, I’m afraid you’ve missed it in cinemas, but it should be making its way to home media shortly.

Man Up is the only film mentioned here which I saw out of convenience, rather than careful selection. It just happened to fit into my schedule. It’s a standard-issue rom-com between Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, with slightly better writing than is usually required for this formula. Bell accidentally steals another girl’s blind date, and goes along with it because she’s having fun. Cue angry discovery, temporary separation, sudden change of heart and grand romantic gesture. If you’re going to watch a rom-com anyway, it may as well be this one. It is somewhat charming but utterly inessential.

I’ve seen all of the James Bond films, and I think the Daniel Craig entries are the best the series has even been. Your mileage may vary on that point. Spectre is the fourth of these and, while for my money it’s the least of Craig’s films, there’s still some amount of pleasure to be found in it. There’s a continuity between these recent films which wasn’t present in older entries, and as Spectre attempts to draw together the plots of its predecessors, it starts to feel like yet another superhero franchise, offering us new episodes rather than standalone experiences. It’s not entirely successful in its attempts to redefine those films, but it’s full of solid action scenes which make up for some of these shortcomings. One highlight sees Bond sliding down an icy mountain in a plane with no wings, while chasing a convoy of cars.

Much of the plot relies on Bond’s relationship with Léa Seydoux, but I didn’t believe this connection as strongly as that with Eva Green back in Casino Royale. The villain is played by Christoph Waltz, whose impact is diminishing every time I see him. It should be noted that this is the longest of the Bond films, at right around two and a half hours.

Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert is a woefully miscast disaster, which offers very little to mark it as the product of such a fine director. This is the true story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman in flawless makeup) who traversed the same deserts seen in Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence is played here by Twilight actor Robert Pattinson, who looks like he’s wearing a Halloween costume. Pattinson has put in some good performances for David Cronenberg, but he is no Peter O’Toole, and he suffers for the comparison. Even worse is James Franco, Bell’s early love interest, who offers the same smirking non-attempt of a performance that he always does.

We’re occasionally treated to a nice shots of sand blowing across dunes, which are the film’s only pleasures. The structure is a mess, with no scene leading sensibly into any other, and no scene working well on its own terms. “Why?” I kept asking. Why include a scene where Bell displays her fortitude by eating a sheep’s head offered as a delicacy if Kidman refuses to do it onscreen? Why spend one of your closing title cards describing the fate of two men we only just met in the final scene? Why would Herzog choose this story, and then present it as though he found nothing of worth in it? Small mercies – Queen of the Desert is only two hours long. It played at the British Film Festival, and is not yet in general release.

Suffragette is the story of Maud Watts, played fiercely by Carey Mulligan, a British laundry employee who finds herself dragged almost forcefully into the Votes for Women movement. Between her abusive boss and her useless but willful husband, circumstances refuse to allow Maud to stay silent, and so she must fight, and so she does. There’s a real urgency to every moment of this film, which is heightened by its handheld close-up camerawork. It’s a style which traditionally might feel more at home in a frantic action movie, but it really adds power to these performances.
It’s an unusually grim film, in both tone and colour palette. Some of the actions taken by these women would be considered terrorism today, and the film pulls punches slightly when discussing the acceptability of that work. This is a strong film which seems primed for awards recognition. I saw it at the British Film Festival, but it opens in Australia on Boxing Day.

45 Years is a powerfully subtle work from director Andrew Haigh. The film’s success who owes a great deal to Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who play long-married couple Kate and Geoff Mercer. Just before their wedding anniversary, Geoff receives news which reminds him of a former life, before he met Kate, and this throws both of them into emotional turmoil. It’s a very silent turmoil, though, cast quietly across the faces of these great actors. It’s a very believable relationship, and we learn much more than is stated as the couple react to one another.

It’s a slowly-paced film which does exactly what it wants to, when it wants to, without ever slipping up. I’m very glad to have seen it, and I’m now likely to seek out Weekend, from the same director. 45 Years played at the British Film Festival, and I urge you to seek it out upon release.

Through an incredible stroke of luck, the final film I saw on my trip was also the best. Brooklyn made me happier than any other film I’ve seen all year. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis (pronounced “Aylish”), a young Irish woman who leaves her family for the chance at a job in America in the 1950s. We see her heart break at the reality of leaving her homeland behind, and feel her excitement as she discovers new opportunity across the sea. There’s a real levity to the screenplay, which helps us to fall in love with these characters. It’s perfectly effective. I haven’t been so emotionally invested in a film in a very long time. I felt such joy watching this, and such devastation when things went wrong for the characters.
I loved Brooklyn so much that I never wanted it to end. I woke up early on my final day in Sydney to seek out a copy of the novel to read on the way home, so it didn’t have to. This is a wonderful film, filled with either incredible optimism or incredible naïveté, depending on the viewer. This was another British Film Festival screening, so if you missed it I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until February.

All told I saw eleven films across Sydney’s various cinemas, one of them twice. I handpicked these films before I came down, so it’s no real surprise that I enjoyed most of them. Now I’m back home up north, where my local cinema didn’t even get the new Hunger Games film, so I’ll have to drive for an hour and a half to see it, and an hour and a half back. Sydney cinemas are a treasure. Don’t forget that if you’re lucky enough to live near them.

- Shaun Heenan

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