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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Current Cinema (and some classics) - Shaun Heenan's week in cinema

I know it’s a well-regarded film, but I really hated Fantastic Planet (aka La Planète Sauvage, René Laloux, France/Czechoslovakia, 1973). This animated sci-fi film uses an unusual hand-drawn stop-motion technique to create psychedelic imagery. I was reminded of the work of Terry Gilliam in the animated sequences of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the film, humans, now called Oms, are treated as disposable pets by the giant blue skinned Traags. Every three ‘cycles’, the Oms are culled, in order to keep the population down. One Om gains access to knowledge through a headset his owner uses for school, and then escapes and joins an uprising.

That’s the general thrust of the plot, but the film is more interested in showing us long philosophical conversations between the Traags, using a lot of nonsense words. I found these scenes literally sleep-inducing. The film is at its best when we’re able to just sit back and enjoy the visual creativity. Many oddly designed creatures make brief appearances. There’s a creepiness to the Traags which is aided by the animation style; they stare through wide, unmoving red eyes as they mistreat the Oms without considering their sentience. The designs on the Oms themselves are flat and dull. I don’t understand how a film so creative can wind up so utterly dreary, especially at a runtime of only 72 minutes, but I was bored out of my mind by the glacial conversations and the impersonal nature of the plot.

I should mention the pathetic presentation of the Australian DVD I watched. On this disc from Force Video, the film is shown in a 4:3 box, but is then further letter-boxed and pillar-boxed inside of that. On top of that, the film includes both burned-in English subtitles and unchangeable English audio (despite the fact that the film was originally released in French), each of which use wildly different translations.

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK/France/USA, 2015) is the newest version of a story told many, many times on screen, though it’s actually the first version I’ve seen. Kurzel’s version is all blood and flames, dirt and sweat. The final battle takes place against a backdrop of fire and smoke, and the resulting orange glow makes the scene look very impressive indeed. Michael Fassbender is great in the title role as a once-proud and noble man turned into a pathetic madman through the guilt brought to him by his treachery.

It always takes me about half an hour for my ear to adjust to Shakespeare films, especially those performed with Scottish accents, dialogue shouted across battlefields. After that, it just seems to click, and I understand every word. When looking at new versions of repeatedly-adapted classics, the main question I ask is whether I could imagine this new film being somebody’s favourite version of the story. In the case of Carlo Carlei’s recent version of Romeo and Juliet (2013), I decided the answer was no. I could very easily imagine this being somebody’s favourite version of Macbeth. It’s a visual treat, and a great film in its own right.

I’m a little reluctant to even discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, USA, 2016), since it’s already been so widely dismissed, but I like it more than most, so I become its de facto defender. To that end: it’s fine, the way all of these things are fine. It’s a sequel to Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), which I rather liked. This is a particularly grim and violent representation of these superheroes. Superman faces controversy over the civilian casualties caused by the fight at the end of the previous film, and Batman not only brands his bat symbol into the flesh of captured foes, he also sometimes just shoots his enemies dead. One of Batman’s core principles has always been that he doesn’t kill people, but this time, I guess he does. Oh well.

The film does indeed pit Batman and Superman against each other in an exciting fight scene, but its main goal is to bring them together, and to briefly introduce some of the other people who will become the Justice League. There’s one scene where Batman watches short clips on his computer which may as well be trailers for the upcoming The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg movies. Gal Gadot shows up briefly here as Wonder Woman, and she’s one of the best things in the movie.
So here comes another endless franchise. Snyder has already been named as the director of both parts of Justice League, which is The Avengers, but with DC characters. The DC movies continue to be more violent and (much) less comedic than the Marvel films, and why shouldn’t they? If we absolutely must have 40 superhero movies over the next few years, it is something of a relief to me that we will at least get 20 of one flavour and 20 of another, instead of 40 near-identical movies. I didn’t end up defending it all that well, did I?

Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni, USA/China, 2016) continues the adventures of overweight panda Po (Jack Black), who has become a somewhat unlikely master of martial arts. It is the least interesting of the surprisingly enjoyable animated trilogy, though perhaps only through overfamiliarity and repetition. This time around Po meets up with his real father, and must learn magic to defeat an ancient evil. I have already run out of things to say about this movie. The baby pandas are cute, I guess, and my young nephew was enthralled. If you’re taking a kid to the cinema this week, be aware that this is much more suitable than Batman.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (Kirk Jones, USA, 2016) comes 14 years after the 2002 original, and serves essentially the same purpose as rewatching that film on DVD. All of the characters are back together on screen, and they offer exactly the same characteristics as they did last time, and no new ones. In the time since the first film, Toula (Nia Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) have raised a daughter (Elena Kampouris), who is now 17 and beginning to think about leaving home for college. Toula’s family are still ever-present and frequently overbearing. The new wedding is that of Toula’s mother and father, who have discovered their wedding certificate was never signed, so they are not technically married. There are flimsier premises than this in film history, but not many.

The lack of originality and ambition could be forgiven if this was a genuinely funny film. A laugh or two can make me forgive a lot. British radio film critic Mark Kermode has a ‘six laugh test’ for comedies. If he laughs six times, the film is an acceptable comedy, and if not, it isn’t. I’m a little more generous than Mr. Kermode, requiring just a single laugh to avoid writing off a film’s comedic qualities entirely. This film failed my test, as have many alleged comedies before it. The film is well-meaning and kind, and offers roles to actors who may not find them elsewhere, but if it can’t make me laugh once, what’s the point?

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, USA, 1968) has a spectacular title and takes an intriguing format. It is, as far as I can discern, an experimental documentary, filmed under the pretense of creating a different film. We see actors repeating a single scene over and over, arguing with each other about their relationship. It looks like something John Cassavetes might have made. Meanwhile, a second and third camera crew film this scene, and the crew filming this scene, and the director’s deliberately vague instructions. Sometimes all three strands of footage are seen simultaneously, side by side.

The crew intuit that the director might simply be messing with them, and we see them talking about this possibility while they plan to shoot another scene without his input. Is any of this footage actually real, or are the crew simply another layer of actors, acting out their feigned confusion? I honestly can’t tell. I think that’s the point. The single scene does become repetitive as we see it over and over, slightly differently each time, but the film doesn’t overstay its welcome at a brisk 75 minutes. I’m not in love with the movie itself, but I love that it exists, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

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