Monday 29 February 2016

The Current Cinema - Shaun Heenan reviews Room, Deadpool, Hail, Caesar! and the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. This is his fourteenth set of reviews and reports discovering cinema old and new. His other posts can be found by clicking the posts on the side or using the search engine. More to come....

Room (Lenny Abrahamson, Canada/Ireland/UK, 2015) was the last of this year’s Best Picture nominees I hadn’t seen, and now I can say that I really liked every single movie on that list. The film is the story of Joy (Brie Larson), a young woman who has been locked in a shed in a rapist’s backyard for seven years, after being captured as a teenager. The other perspective we get is that of Joy’s five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), born of her abuse, who has never been outside, and whose knowledge of the world is confined to the shed he knows as ‘Room’. I’ll err on the side of caution, and avoid revealing any more of the plot.

This wonderful film focuses tightly upon these two characters and their bond. It deeply examines the differing effect the imprisonment has on Joy, who had her world taken from her, and on Jack, who has never known anything else. We see the irreparable damage the situation has caused, and we despair for these fully-realised characters, but we also take some solace in the way they guide each other through the experience. Room caused a stronger emotional reaction in me than any other movie I’ve seen for at least a year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. At the time of writing, Brie Larson has not yet won the Academy Award for Best Actress, but she almost certainly will have by the time you read this. Know that it is well-deserved.

Deadpool (Tim Miller, USA, 2016) is even duller and more formulaic than the average Marvel comic book superhero movie, but it contains bloody violence and nudity, and the characters all swear, so it comes with an age restriction. This minor detail has made the film inexplicably popular, and it did better opening-weekend box-office than any of the X-Men films, of which it is a spin-off, more or less. The film opens with a credit sequence making fun of the tropes which appear in every comic book movie, and then repeats every single one of them, despite pretending that it knows better. Even worse, the film opens mid-fight, but then spends at least half of its running time on flashbacks, giving us yet another superhero origin story.

Humour is supposed to be the differentiating factor for Deadpool. The character often speaks to the audience directly, acknowledging things like lead actor Ryan Reynolds’ history in other comic book movies, and the audience’s hatred of the character’s first appearance in the X-Men films. This film is wall-to-wall jokes, but the humour is one-note, and it’s a really ugly note. I counted four (possibly five) separate jokes in this movie about child molestation, and the remainder of the script is largely comprised of gay jokes. My audience cackled like idiots throughout.

Hail, Caesar! (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2016) is the first unmissable movie of 2016. If it is not one of the Coen brothers’ very best films, that is only because they have crafted a career from nothing but solid gold. The film is set in Hollywood in the final days of the studio system, using real-life MGM executives as characters, but placing them at the fictional Capitol Studios. The film jumps freely between genres as we visit different sets. There’s a great Gene Kelly style dance number featuring Channing Tatum as a sailor, an impressively-choreographed water ballet with Scarlett Johansson serving as a stand-in for Esther Williams and the fantastically-overwrought Ben-Hur knock-off Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ, from which we see several scenes.

These gags are perhaps too brief, and these characters underdeveloped, entertaining in their own right while serving as simple distractions from the actual plot. The through line follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), and his crisis of faith about the frivolous nature of his job. As in real life, Mannix’s job is to keep the stars out of the papers, unless he wants them there. I believe many of his scenes are based on actual events from early Hollywood, where the studios firmly controlled the entirely fictitious public lives of the stars. Hail, Caesar! also touches on the Communist panic of this era, though it uses the concept for comedy, rather than having anything in particular to say about, for example, the Blacklist. The payoff to that thread is one of the funniest scenes in the movie, and even more so for being played completely straight. The Coens have delivered the goods once again.

Netflix has done something very interesting this week, releasing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (Yuen Woo-Ping, USA/China, 2016), a sequel to the Best-Picture-nominated Ang Lee martial arts film from 2000. It seems like an odd license to revisit after sixteen years, but this isn’t the pointless knock-off many of us will have been expecting. Michelle Yeoh returns as Yu Shu Lien (the only returning character, as far as I can tell), who is once again tasked with protecting the mythical sword known as the Green Destiny, lest it be stolen and used by an evil warlord. The film is based on a Chinese novel, and it retains many of the cultural values and stylings of the original film, though it has bafflingly been made in the English language.

Director Yuen Woo-Ping is best known as a fight choreographer, famous for his work on the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as American films like The Matrix. It is fitting, then, that the fight scenes in this sequel are impressively creative and well-shot. These fights employ the same wire-assisted style as the original film, allowing the warriors to appear to fly, feeling like something straight out of myth. Sword of Destiny is lacking the quiet beauty which elevated the original film above the typical constraints of its genre, though there are scenes here which attempt to recapture that feeling. This is a quality martial arts film, though those looking for something more may leave disappointed.

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