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Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Current Cinema and more - Shaun Heenan on the old, the esoteric and a new Oz movie

Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. This limits his choice of new movies but produces random discoveries.

As usual, this was a week with cinematic highs and lows. I discovered a new director, whose work I’ll be exploring further, and I was impressed with a new film from an old favourite, but I was also seriously unimpressed by a new Australian release. Let’s begin on a high note.

Martin Donovan & Adrienne Shelley in Trust
I’d never seen a Hal Hartley movie before, though I’d heard the name mentioned amongst film fans and strewn throughout lists of great films. If Trust (Hal Hartley, USA, 1990) is any indication, he may quickly become a favourite of mine. This is a version of the oft-repeated story about two misfits so disenchanted with the world that they can’t help falling in love with one another. She is Maria (Adrienne Shelley), a pregnant high-school dropout whose boyfriend immediately dumps her and whose father dies upon hearing the news, causing her mother to kick her out of the house. He is Matthew (Martin Donovan), a technically-minded depressive who refuses to hold a job if he can’t be proud of his work and fights bitterly with his father about it. These are characters I loved from the start. They’re the kind of people we want to root for, as we see how close they are to the possibility of happiness, if they can only accept one another completely. Their conversations take place in a rapid back-and-forth monotone, filled with impressive wit. This is a very sad, very funny movie. The film’s unusual score perfectly underlines the melancholy tone of the writing and makes me wish I knew how to write about music. I’m really excited to watch more from this director.

I missed Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, USA, 2015) during its brief local theatrical run and caught up with it this week on VOD. This is a music biopic of the rap group N.W.A., produced by members of that group and named after their wildly successful debut album. The group found fame by rapping about the violence and racism they faced in their home town as teens, and especially by lashing out at a police force that oppressed them at every opportunity. The first half of the film is exciting, dealing with the group’s rise to fame as they record and tour their first album. This is a very long film, however. The director’s cut runs for almost three hours, and the second half is largely concerned with contract disputes. Yes, these are sometimes violent contract disputes, including weapons and beatings, but they are still contract disputes, and they go on for too long. Still, for the most part this is a well-crafted film, and a better-than-average biopic. I like the band, and I like the film.

I took a brief detour into the land of television to watch some more of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Incident at a Corner (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960) was an episode of the TV series Startime, which remains otherwise unknown to me. It tells the story of a school crossing guard, fired after he is falsely accused of being a pedophile. The episode gives us a good look at the incident which may have caused this allegation, showing it three times from three perspectives, before delving into the hunt for evidence. I suppose this was a shocking subject for American TV to examine at the time, and though there is skill in the telling, the gravity of the situation is largely ignored. The episode focuses on the mystery behind the identity and motivations of the accuser, ending happily once the answer is found. But do you think this man would be given back his job once that rumour had started, whether or not it had been proven false?

The involvement of animator Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) led me to watch The Prophet (Roger Allers and guest directors,Canada/France/Ireland/ Lebanon/Qatar/United States, 2014). The film is based on a work by the Lebanese-American philosophical poet Kahlil Gibran, and it blends his poetry with the story of the political activist Mustafa (voice of Liam Neeson) imprisoned for his teachings, who is finally allowed to leave house arrest after many years of confinement. The story is seen mostly from the viewpoint of a young girl named Almitra, who refuses to speak. Mustafa has no problem speaking, and he does so vaguely and at great length about whatever seems to be on his mind whenever someone gives him the chance, as poetry is quoted directly from the book. The visuals for these sections are drawn by a collection of guest animators from around the world, who each illustrate the poems in their own unique styles. There is great visual beauty in these moments, but I found the writing empty and dull. The film is mercifully short at 84 minutes.

For the first and probably last time in my life I took a look at the Hellraiser series, watching both Hellraiser (Clive Barker, UK, 1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, UK/USA, 1988). These gruesome horror films show people returning from Hell after being tortured, through the application of blood to their place of death. There’s a truly horrifying special effect in the first film, showing someone’s bones returning to life, and muscles and organs slowly returning to the body. The resulting creature then spends most of the movie walking around with no skin. It takes a lot for a film to make me queasy, but that sequence is especially nasty.The first film deals mostly with earthly events, as a woman discovers a skinless man in her new house and then brings victims to him, so he can use parts of their bodies to restore his own. The second film is largely set in Hell, where we see some creative visuals and special effects, but the plot becomes almost impossible to follow, buried in the surrealism. The famous villain of this series is the demon Pinhead, who shows up occasionally to talk about the combination of pleasure and pain in a deep voice, while sending hooks into people’s skin. Two of these was enough for me, but all nine of them are on US Netflix, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, USA, 2015) is the kind of biopic we always hope for but rarely get. It’s a piece of art about a person, rather than a literal life story. The screenplay comes from Aaron Sorkin (writer of The West Wing and The Social Network), and it takes a bold form. The film is split into thirds, each section set backstage at a press event where Steve Jobs (played perfectly by Michael Fassbender) is preparing to unveil a new product, starting with the original Macintosh in 1984 and ending with the iMac in 1998. As is the norm for Sorkin, the film is full of quick, complicated and witty dialogue, which pours out of characters non-stop. The film accepts that Jobs was a tech genius and a superb frontman for Apple, but it questions his qualities as a human being. Before each event, Jobs argues with his employees and more importantly with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston). The film focuses on Jobs’ refusal to acknowledge his fatherhood of Chrisann’s daughter Lisa, and the effect this had on the girl. This thread brings real emotional heft with it, and forms the heart of the story. The convergence of the same set of characters at each of these product launches is a fascinating piece of artistic license, allowing the film to serve as a scrapbook, displaying the important aspects of Jobs’ life while the structure lends urgency to each situation with a countdown to the presentations. It’s a real gamble, and it absolutely pays off. This is an excellent film.

Richard Roxburgh, Radha Mitchell & Odessa Young in Looking for Grace
Last and certainly least, I headed to the cinema to see the new Australian film Looking for Grace (Sue Brooks, Australia, 2016). The film tells the story of a teenage girl called Grace (Odessa Young), who has stolen a lot of money from her father and run away, apparently to see a band playing several days’ drive away. The film’s structure is jarring at first, as we discover the story will be separately told from the perspectives of each character. It opens promisingly with ‘Grace’s Story’, which would work as a good short film on its own, showing her scenes in order but without context, before moving on to several other characters, starting over and filling in more blanks each time. The longest sections are those for Grace’s mother (Radha Mitchell) and father (Richard Roxburgh), and these are where the film becomes uneven.There’s a serious story here, and small sections of it are well-told, but the film’s tone frequently veers off into awkward, completely unsuccessful comedy. The film’s bouncy, irritating piano score only serves to frustrate further. None of the pieces here fit together in any sensible way. Odessa Young gives the best performance in the film, but she is sidelined by the structure, and the film suffers without her. She’s even better in Simon Stone’s great film The Daughter, which opens locally next month. As for Looking for Grace, I sat in stunned silence, watching numbly as scene after scene after scene was sabotaged by misjudged attempts at comedy. The film adds insult to injury with a baffling, arbitrarily tragic ending, which then begs for our sympathy. I couldn’t get out of the cinema quickly enough.

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