Tuesday 29 December 2015

The Current Cinema - serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan runs through his Christmas viewing

Since my last post I’ve seen seven different films, one of them twice. The double was Star Wars: Episode  VII – The Force Awakens, which I have already reviewed in full on this site (here ). Long story short, I loved it. Apart from that, the past two weeks have included a classic crime film, some Video On Demand catch-up of recent releases, my 9-year-old nephew’s first triple-bill at a cinema and a major Oscar hopeful.

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, USA, 1953) has the historical value of being the first mainstream film noir directed by a woman. These days we’d have called it a horror film, with its intense focus on the situation of a murderer and the two men unlucky enough to offer him a lift before spending several days held hostage at the end of his gun. The film was based on a then-recent true story, and both the marketing and the film itself play up the idea that this could just as easily have happened to any person sitting in the audience. The film’s single-mindedness is fascinating, as we watch the men being ordered around at gunpoint to the exclusion of almost anything else, but Lupino was wise to keep the film to a tight 71 minutes. There’s not quite enough here to make for a truly satisfying film, but it’s short enough to get away with that.

On VOD I caught up with the documentary Meru (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi,USA,  2015), which is the third film I’ve seen this year about what a bad idea it is to go mountain climbing. While I enjoyed the Hollywood disaster film Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, USA, 2015) more than most, the pick of the crop is the as-yet unreleased Australian documentary Sherpa (Jennifer Peedom & Renan Ozturk, Australia, 2015), which was co-directed by one of the subjects of Meru. Renan Ozturk is a relative newcomer to the extreme form of climbing depicted here, joining veteran Conrad Anker and filmer Jimmy Chin in their multiple attempts to become the first to scale Meru, which is a significantly harder climb than Everest itself. It’s less a mountain and more a sheer cliff face. The scenery on display is incredible, as is the fact that Chin managed to film it while hanging off the side of the mountain. We worry for the safety and the sanity of the participants, who make some seriously reckless decisions, but you can’t argue with the results. All told, this is an above-average extreme sports documentary, but it doesn’t approach the political and human intrigue seen in Sherpa, and so it looks worse by comparison.

Also viewed on demand was the sci-fi thriller Self/less (Tarsem Singh, USA, 2015), which is overlong and visually flat. It’s odd to have to say that, but Tarsem (as he is often credited) is best known for his visual flair, which even managed to elevate his otherwise dreadful Mirror Mirror (2012). In a plot I hear is largely borrowed from Seconds (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1966), Ben Kingsley plays a CEO whose knack for making money is outliving his failing body. He is offered a chance to be reborn into a younger, healthier body (that of Ryan Reynolds). He’s told the body has been grown in a lab, but discovers it may have come from elsewhere. A number of boilerplate action sequences follow. At almost two full hours, this film drags badly. One or two reveals shake things up later on, but it’s too little, too late. I wish I’d watched Seconds instead, and I still probably will.
My nephew and I spent Boxing Day at the wonderfully decorated Plaza Theatre in Laurieton, which I’d visit more often if it wasn’t an 80-minute drive each way. Along with a rewatch of the new Star Wars film, we took in two new animated features of wildly differing quality. He had hoped I’d also take him to the fourth Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, but his grandfather took that bullet for me.

Let’s start with the bomb, which unsurprisingly was the Adam Sandler-starring sequel Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky,USA, 2015). I took the same kid to the original film, and I didn’t hate it, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. Sandler plays Dracula, who is joined by the rest of the Universal monster canon including the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man. Dracula’s daughter has married a human, and it seems like the resultant baby might be more human than vampire. The film pretends for more than an hour to offer a message about acceptance of those who are different from us, teaching Dracula to accept the idea that his grandson isn’t going to grow fangs. Then (spoiler, I guess) the kid sprouts fangs suddenly and fights off a bunch of bad guys. He is then immediately embraced by everybody who had a prior problem with him, the ugly message now being that it’s okay to be different, but it’s really much easier for everybody else if you aren’t. Sandler doesn’t even realise that he’s doing this, which I think makes it worse.

Pixar’s second film for the year is The Good Dinosaur (Peter Sohn, USA, 2015), which is beautifully animated, though the story is more simplistic than that of the studio’s best films. The premise is that dinosaurs avoided their extinction event, and eventually learned to use tools and plant crops. Humans exist, but essentially fill the role that dogs fill for us, howling and running around on all fours. In the great tradition of Disney works, the young dinosaur Arlo, whose father has been killed in a storm, finds himself lost miles from home, with only a human puppy for companionship. He meets a number of odd characters on his journey, the most interesting of which is a cowboy Tyrannosaur voiced by Sam Elliott. As is usual, Pixar manages to draw surprising amounts of emotion out of this story, but it is aimed at a younger audience than the excellent Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carman, USA, 2015), which is easily the better of the two. Special attention must be drawn to the near-photorealistic backgrounds, which are a serious technical achievement.

My final film for the week was Joy (David O. Russell, USA, 2015), which is a good film, if not quite up to the high standards of Jennifer Lawrence’s previous two collaborations with the director, Silver Linings Playbook (USA, 2012) and American Hustle (USA,2013). The film is based (somewhat loosely, I hear) on the true story of Joy Mangano, whose many inventions included the Miracle Mop. The film focuses on the investment she and her family put into this invention, and the struggles she had getting it onto the then-new QVC shopping network. This is more interesting than it sounds on paper, thanks to a strong cast including Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen and Isabella Rossellini, who factor into Joy’s hectic and complicated home life. Joy herself is a great character, played with fierce determination by Lawrence. She always knows how close she is to a breakthrough, and she’ll fight for it. Some moments work better than others, and the film’s tone switches from serious biopic to full-blown comedy to something approaching self-parody at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to keep up. The chaos can hurt, but it’s also part of the fun. This is well worth seeing.

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