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Monday, 15 February 2016

The Current Cinema and more- Shaun Heenan goes to the movies and stays home for his week's viewing

Serious Young Cinephile Sheen Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales.

I’ve seen a lot of films since my last diary, and there is a real highlight amongst them. I’ve crossed another major Best Picture contender off the list, and revisited a movie which had initially disappointed me, to find I liked it more on a second viewing. I’ve run into some annoying technical difficulties, and I’ve caught up on a number of films which didn’t  show anywhere near me upon their Australian theatrical releases. Let’s start with the strongest of the bunch.

I’d been meaning to watch The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1948) for years,  ever since hearing it mentioned in reviews of the excellent Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2010). The influence on the latter film is clear, but I loved The Red Shoes all on its own. The film tells the story of Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a dancer whose life mirrors that of a fairytale character she plays in a ballet. The ballet, invented for the film and based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, is about a girl who tries on a pair of beautiful dancing shoes only to discover they are enchanted and will make her dance against her will for all eternity. Something she loves becomes a nightmare. Victoria’s life heads in this direction as well, though not before we are treated to a constantly engaging backstage story of creativity and jealousy. This is one of the strongest films I have seen on the subject. The film’s greatest achievement lies in its central dance sequence, when Victoria performs the titular ballet for the first time before an audience. The film makes the fascinating decision to show a fantasy version of this scene, using special effects and camera movements to offer viewers a show which couldn’t possibly be that seen by the ballet’s audience. I found this sequence literally breathtaking. It’s the best dance scene I’ve ever seen in a film, and I don’t feel the need to further qualify that.

On VOD I watched The Keeping Room (Daniel Barber, USA, 2014), which combines genres to a modest degree of success. Set in the South during the American Civil War, the film stars indie-constant Brit Marling as Augusta, who lives with her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and a slave named Mad (Muna Otaru). These three live in a large, isolated house, otherwise unoccupied since all of the local men have gone to war. Augusta catches the eye of a pair of wandering Union soldiers, and from here the film shifts to become a home-invasion thriller. The chaotic nature of the setting and the relationships and conversations between the women make the film easy to recommend, but the invasion is played too traditionally to really impress. The performances from the three women are strong, with Brit Marling’s usual full commitment making her especially convincing. Marling is what drew me to this film, and she continues her long track record of great performances in smaller films.

Boiling the Oscar race down to basics, The Big Short (Adam McKay, USA, 2015) is one of three films (the other two being Spotlight and The Revenant) which have a realistic chance of winning Best Picture. This is one more possibility than is usual, two weeks before the ceremony, making this the most exciting awards season in years, if you care about that sort of thing. Based on a book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis, who used to work in finance himself, The Big Short
aims to explain the 2008 financial crash to the masses. To this end, the film pauses occasionally  to  introduce a celebrity, who will speak directly to camera, offering a simplified explanation of a
deliberately-difficult financial term or concept. This feels at least a little condescending, but it sort of
works. The film works against itself here, though, with its frantic editing style and love of loud music
unnecessarily making these explanations more difficult to understand. The film offers an unusual perspective on the crash, showing the story through the eyes of three groups of people who, through rigorous investigations and/or dumb luck, saw the failure of the housing market coming, and made enormous bets with major banks, allowing them to profit greatly once it all fell apart.  We don’t really root for these characters, since they’re part of the problem, but it’s fascinating seeing the corrupt nature of the financial system robbing even the people who see through the lies. This is a big, loud, flashy, complicated movie with an all-star cast including Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale among others. Not everything it tries works, but a lot of it does. It drew me in enough to read the book, which I hope offers further clarity.

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, USA, 2015) was the first major film since my move to South West Rocks that didn’t open anywhere within driving distance, causing me much irritation. Now, five months later, I’ve caught up with it on VOD, and I’m pretty underwhelmed. Woody Allen has made many, many great  films, but his rapid output (one film a year, every single year since 1982) has also led to a large number of disappointments between the hits, and this new film falls into the latter category. The lead is Abe, a philosophy professor having a mid-life crisis, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Abe’s profession allows Allen to fill the film with a barrage of pointless academic discussions, which bored me silly, but work to attract not one but two female characters. These are Rita, a married professor of approximately Abe’s age played by Parker Posey, and his student  Jill, played by Emma Stone, who is quite a bit younger. Allen’s films keep including these creepy relationships with younger women, but at least this one admits it’s inappropriate. Abe and Jill overhear a conversation which leads him to decide a stranger might be better off dead, and the characters converse endlessly about the morality of doing something about it. It doesn’t really matter that this movie isn’t any good, since Allen already has another film in post-production. And so it continues.

I don’t know why I keep watching Eli Roth films. His latest is Knock Knock (Eli Roth, USA, 2015), which thinks it has something interesting to say about the nature of fidelity, but instead just drowns in the inconsistency of its characters. Family man Evan (Keanu Reeves) is home alone, working while his wife and children take a trip, when a pair of bedraggled, barely-clothed young girls appear on his doorstep, seeking shelter from the rain. Evan politely plays host, casually brushing off their advances until, whoops, suddenly they all have sex. When he wakes up, Evan finds himself at the mercy of the girls, who plan to hold his actions against him. This is one of those horror movies where the lead spends half of the film strapped to a chair, screaming threats into a gag. When the girls’ motivations are revealed, they make no sense, given the events which have come before. It’s an unpleasant experience, and it contains a lot of ugly conversation with no relevance to the situation. To add insult to injury, my rented DVD froze up halfway through the movie, and I had to pay again to finish watching it on iTunes.

My nephew and I headed to the local cinema to see Goosebumps (Rob Letterman, USA, 2015), and we both had a good time. This film has been carefully timed to hit two generations, as the people who grew up reading the books are now old enough to take their own children to see it. This series of children’s horror novels was a favourite of mine, and I found myself well-served on a nostalgic level, while my nephew loved the variety of monsters on display, without finding them particularly scary. The hero of the film is young Zach (Dylan Minnete), who moves to a new town with his mother to find himself living next door to Goosebumps author R.L. Stine (Jack Black). Stine is a shut-in, keeping his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) locked up in his home to protect the secret that the books he wrote brought the creatures within them to life. Zach falls in love with Hannah, enters the house and accidentally unleashes all of the monsters into the world. These include zombies, werewolves, killer lawn gnomes and the talking dummy Slappy, who controls the other creatures and holds a grudge against Stine for keeping him captive. This is a lot of fun, and it’s a rare children’s movie which works for adults as well.

I missed The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015) both at the Sydney Film Festival and during its brief theatrical run, so I was glad to catch up with it on VOD. In the mid-1970s, 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) keeps an audio diary of her experiences and emotions, which is largely concerned with her discovering sex. For most of the film, she stays in a secret relationship with her mother’s much older live-in boyfriend Munroe (Alexander Skarsgård). We get a rare perspective on these events. The film obviously condemns Munroe, but most of what we hear about him comes from Minnie, who views him not as a predator, but as a disappointing boyfriend. Kristen Wiig gives a great performance as a mother whose love for her daughter runs deeper than she shows at first, seemingly inattentive during  frequent drug-fuelled parties.We’ve seen this story before, over and over, but Powley’s take on the situation helps to differentiate  this telling somewhat. The film remains visually interesting, as well, as cartoon illustrations invade the photography. The film meanders somewhat, and repeats itself too often, but it’s worth a look if you’re not completely sick of the genre yet.

I finally found time this week to watch the Extended Edition of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA, 2014), which runs 20 minutes longer than the already-lengthy theatrical version. The Lord of the Rings films are amongst my all-time favourites, and I’ve seen them all dozens of times. The Hobbit films represent a pretty clear drop in quality, stretching far less material across a similar amount of time, but I still mostly enjoyed them. It’s a world I love, and I like wading through the lore. The Battle of the Five Armies was the most disappointing of these to me on an initial viewing, filled with badly-misjudged humour and obvious CGI. These elements have not been removed from the Extended Edition, and they still annoy me, but I found more to like upon a second viewing. It’s still the world I love, more or less.
The most unusual addition to this longer version is a scene where some of the dwarves ride a chariot through an icy path, using the spinning blades to bloodily dismember a succession of orcs. The entire scene is new for the longer cut.  Jackson knew he couldn’t include it in a PG-13 film, so he made the whole sequence far more violent than anything else seen in the series, knowing the rating mattered less on this DVD version. Sure enough, it’s the only one of the six films to carry an MA rating in Australia, and an R in the United States.

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