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Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Current Cinema & More - Serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan goes out, stays in and records his diary

It’s been a while since I updated this film diary, and I’ve been watching more films than usual, so this is  going to be a long one. Let’s jump straight in.

I’m a long-time fan of Quentin Tarantino’s, so I’m always excited to see him back in cinemas. His new film is a western, The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2015), and he’s made some very interesting decisions about its presentation. The film is intended to be displayed on 70mm film, and that  version includes a few extra scenes, an overture and an intermission. Nobody near me is playing it in 70mm, so I saw the standard DCP version, which is perfectly fine, though the voiceover reintroducing the film post-intermission makes less sense when there isn’t one.

Despite the gigantic frame, much of the film takes place inside a log cabin, where various miscreants are trapped together during a snowstorm. They talk and argue at great length, and once people start dying, a mystery presents itself as to the real identity of those present. It’s an enjoyable movie, despite its great length and verbosity, with Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell offering some of the strongest performances. For my money, this is a better film than Tarantino’s last mildly-disappointing effort, Django Unchained (2012), but is not nearly as good as my favourite, Inglourious Basterds (2009).Middling Tarantino still makes for an above-average film.

I saw The Hateful Eight back to back with The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, UK, 2015), but the discussion around that film has proved to be such a minefield of political correctness that I’m inclined to avoid discussing it at all. Alicia Vikander’s performance is quite good, and Eddie Redmayne’s performance is quite bad. The script is awful. I do not recommend the film.
Back at home I watched Sleeping With Other People (Leslye Headland, USA, 2015), which is yet another disappointing romantic comedy. The formula for these things is etched in stone, and this film does almost nothing to deviate from it. The specifics are that Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie)took each other’s virginity in college, and have both since become serial cheaters, unwilling to stay with the same partners. They meet again, and choose to become friends instead of romantic partners. Guess how that turns out.The film has reviewed decently elsewhere, but I didn’t find it very funny or very creative. It’s not actively unpleasant, just uninspired. Some of the quieter scenes between the two leads are touching, but they’re wasted in a film which then has the same characters teaching dance at a kid’s birthday party while high on drugs.

Next , by way of a copy from the local library’s DVD shelf, though I later realised I already owned it. Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1930) was one of Hitchcock’s earliest non-silent films. The film opens with a lengthy shot rolling down a quiet street. We hear a clamour, and are taken into the scene of a crime, where a woman lies dead, and another woman sits stunned, looking at her. A poker lies on the floor between them. Hitchcock lets this image sit still as the camera pans around, showing us the clues in various parts of the scene. The sitting woman is convicted, but one of the jurors is troubled by the case, and sets out to solve the crime himself. Murder! is missing most of the sure-handedness of Hitchcock’s later work, and some of the plot elements are less than convincing, but we see some hints here of what was to come. The real issue is the dialogue, which is flatly written and performed. Scenes seem overlong and lifeless. Hitchcock made worse films than this during his early sound years, but this is far from the highlights of even that early period.

I spent the next day watching three streaming rentals from Vudu , beginning with the fairly enjoyable western Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2015), which will eventually become notorious for a single scene of  extreme violence, though it has much more to offer along the way. Zahler’s film begins troublingly, with badly-paced expository scenes and cheap-looking sets. In these scenes, we meet Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who must set off on a dangerous mission to rescue his wife from her vicious captors, despite his broken leg. He’s joined on this journey by the town Sheriff (Kurt Russell again), a doddering deputy (Richard Jenkins) and a well-educated, condescending gunman (Matthew Fox). Their clashes and conversations are the real meat of this piece, and they harken back to the westerns of the 1950s.I mentioned some ‘vicious captors’. This is a Native American tribe shown to be so brutal and savage as to approach inhumanity. It would be very, very easy for this concept to be wildly offensive, and the film walks a very fine line here. One Native American appears in an early scene to calmly and clearly distance the captors from all other tribes. This reeks of tokenism, but to be honest, the movie more-or-less gets away with it. This is the sort of thing that bothers me when handled poorly and, in this case, it didn’t.  While I recommend this film, it comes with a big caveat. That one scene I mentioned earlier is one of the single most violent things I have ever seen done to a human being in a film, and I have seen all of the Saw movies. If you’re sensitive to violence, give this one a wide berth.

Melanie Laurent
The second of the streaming films was one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Breathe (aka Respire, Mélanie Laurent, France, 2014), is the story of high-school girl Charlie (Joséphine Japy). She quickly becomes best friends with Sarah (Lou de Laâge), a new arrival at the school. Charlie is impressed with Sarah’s intelligence and sense of style, and she begins to ignore all of her old friends as the pair become inseparable. During a trip together, jealousies begin to come between them, and Sarah uses Charlie’s attachment to her as a weapon, toying with her emotions for the rest of the film. This relationship is shown tenderly, and the pain caused is ruinous. I was wrapped up in this film, completely invested emotionally, and was left shaken by the perfectly-staged conclusion. French actress Mélanie Laurent was the best thing about Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and here she proves she’s just as good behind the camera as she is in front of it. Her direction here feels like that of a much more experienced director. One long take in particular really stands out, as we learn a great deal about one character and then, after a small pan, a great deal about another. This is an excellent film.

The Visit
The final film I streamed this week was The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, USA, 2015), which serves as another cruel reminder of how far its director has fallen since earning a Best Picture nomination for The Sixth Sense (1999). As hard as it might be to believe after some of his recent output, I think The Visit might actually be Shyamalan’s worst film. It takes the ugly form of a found footage horror movie, filmed by a pair of young siblings played by Australians Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould. As with almost every example of this genre, we have to sit through endless idle chatter and explanations of why somebody is always walking around with a camera before anything remotely interesting happens. The children are being sent to stay with a set of grandparents they’ve never met before, and once they arrive, they learn that their grandparents get a little creepy after the sun goes down. When the film is not simply dull, or cheating with jump scares (at one point, someone literally hides below the camera, jumps up and screams), it is baffling. Ed Oxenbould’s character likes to think he’s a great freestyle rapper, and he spouts verses of idiocy towards the camera not once, not twice, but three times. These are the worst three scenes of the year. I felt embarrassed to be sitting in the same room as this movie. Imagine how embarrassed Shyamalan must feel to have directed it.

I headed back to the cinema for an infinitely better film. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, USA, 2015) is an expertly-crafted film based on the true story of a group of journalists at the Boston Globe carefully researching reports of Catholic priests molesting children. The systematic protection of these many, many offenders, and the way they were relocated each time instead of being prosecuted, is one of the great injustices of our age. This film powerfully uses plain facts to remind us that we should still be angry about this. The Boston Globe team is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James and Rachel McAdams, and this is just a small portion of the large and uniformly excellent cast. This film made me weep, and it made me furious. All the while, it gripped my attention firmly as the investigation uncovered threads and hit roadblocks. This is one of the year’s best films, and it’s rightfully being considered one of the favourites to win the Oscar for Best Picture later this month.

In a small community theatre in Coffs Harbor, I watched the exciting closing night film of a festival I discovered too late to otherwise attend. Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2015) played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and is the first English-language film from the director. The film examines what remains of a family left devastated by the suicide of a mother (Isabelle Huppert). Gabriel Byrne plays the grieving father, and Jesse Eisenberg plays the older of two sons, who has moved on to have a family of his own, though the pain of the loss still affects his behaviour. The most impressive performance in the film comes from Devin Druid, as the younger brother who was emotionally crippled by the loss, and by the information his family has been hiding from him about the circumstances of his mother’s death. This is one of the most realistic depictions of a damaged introvert I can remember seeing in a film. The film flows freely through time, filled with flashbacks and revelations, and it uses a number of different cinematic styles as the perspective changes between characters. The most striking scene in the movie is a deep dive into the thoughts of the younger brother, shown as a series of rapidly cut images. Many scenes impress on their own, but the movie struggles somewhat to tie these fascinating fragments into a cohesive whole, leading to a conclusion which felt false to me, though I appreciated the restraint it showed. I struggled to embrace the film too fully, thanks to the frequent outbursts of the two dumbest, loudest young men on the Mid-North coast, who somehow ended up next to me at an expensive festival screening of an obscure art film. I’ll need to watch this one again when I get the chance.

The final film I’ll cover today is another Palme d’Or contender from Cannes 2015, seen at a cinema in general release. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy, 2015) is another examination of aging in the art world  from the director of The Great Beauty (2013). It serves as further confirmation that Paolo Sorrentino’s  interests and my own overlap upon a general appreciation of film, and otherwise differ entirely. The film  takes place at a secluded resort in the Swiss Alps, where retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and still-working director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are temporarily escaping from the world. Cue endless discussion between the two about the importance of art and the fear and acceptance of aging. Rachel Weisz is mildly more interesting as Ballinger’s daughter, though her storyline devolves into a ludicrous, out-of-character romance with a mountain climber. Paul Dano also offers a small amount of interest as a young actor who is best known for a special-effects action film he has come to hate, despite his earnest efforts in more meaningful fare (in the vein of Shia LaBeouf or Robert Pattinson). Many of the scenes which aren’t dreary just feel misguided. There’s one moment in a spa where the two old men are joined by the (unnamed) nude Miss Universe which I’m sure Sorrentino envisioned as a reminder of the fleeting beauty of youth, but in practise feels more like two over-aged frat boys leering. Some people like this film very much, but I couldn’t wait for it to be over.


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