Local cinemas this week

An exquisite portrait of an artist at work, a whole bunch of date movies for Valentine’s Day, and finally, that all-important question: Do cyborgs go to the toilet?

Pick of the week: At Eternity’s Gate

Vincent van Gogh’s life has certainly has attracted quite a few filmmakers, in fact this is the second movie treatment of his final years in so many years. It’s a project is well suited to Julian Schnabel – a noted artist himself and quite a visionary behind the camera (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). And here he’s created a vivid, intoxicatingly rich visual feast for our eyes.

The giddy camerawork (by noted cinematographer Benolt Delhomme) allows us to see the world much as this searing, sensitive man must have, at times disturbingly so, and Willem Dafoe deserves all the praise (and the Oscars nod for Best Male performer) he’s getting for this incisive portrayal. He’s an actor with a fantastic gift for making obsessive intensity look natural, and in a career littered with stunning work (The Florida Project), the life of van Gogh seems seems a role tailor-made for him. It may be crowded and competitive field, but if there’s to be any justice on Oscars night, he really should have written his acceptance speech already.

With the memory of last year’s Loving Vincent fresh in mind,  the “plot” may be familiar: There’s his insecurity as a painter and pain at not selling any work; his brother Theo’s (Rupert Friend) devotion and financial help; his troubled Arles years and falling out with his friend and roommate Paul Gauguin (Oscar Issac); and of course his consequent mental fraying – that ear “incident”, when he wrapped and gave the sliced off body part to a bargirl. Schnabel adds illuminating context though, and there are long powerful scenes showing him at work out in the countryside, with the gorgeous light changing from golden to pale wintery blue. This is what he saw, though here’s another telling one when he’s disturbed while painting by a bunch of schoolchildren and he reacts furiously. That is what he felt… There’s an pivotal scene too in a mental institution with a priest (Mads Mikkelsen), where the the two men discuss the meaning of life and religious transcendence. That may sound dull, but in this filmmaker’s hands, its anything but. In the few month prior to that, van Gogh had painted 200 of his greatest works, and he knows, or he can sense, that nothing else now matters – he’s achieved everything he ever could. Not long after there’s that puzzling shooting incident which prematurely ended his life. He was 37. Schnabel does give a new version of what could have happened, but no one knows for sure.

Now it hardly matters. Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant troubled man, but Schnabel isn’t interested in any of the “mad genius” cliches. Instead he confronts van Gogh’s mental instability with inventive creative style and philosophical reflection. The result is one of the most original and visually-striking films about an artist ever. PG from Feb 14. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★

Alita: Battle Angel

She may be centuries old, but sleek super-cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar) doesn’t look a year over 15. Apart from being a super-warrior her powers extend to being able to conjure her body into her own idealised self-image. So naturally, despite those weirdly huge peepers, her fighting bod looks damn hot… Though she does have the mind of an typical adolescent girl, so likes nothing better than defying adults and hanging out with a cute cyberpunk bad boy (Keean Johnson) with a fast (single wheeled – very nice!) motorbike. Her palate is as immature as her brain too, and her favourite food is chocolate. Though exactly how her mechanical body – put together by steampunk genius and scrap cyborg body parts dealer Dr Ido (Christoph Waltz) processes food and drink isn’t explained… Surely that’s the question on everyone’s mind. Does she (ahem…) go to the toilet? Normally in Hollywood movies now, no sooner are we introduced to a female hero and that question is answered (affirmative) with a gratuitous bathroom scene. But this James Cameron (Avatar) and Robert Robriguez (Sin City) produced and directed co-creation is nothing if not unusual. Despite the familiarity of its dystopian sci-fi/manga and YA themes (Ghost in the Shell), we haven’t seen anything quite like Alita before…

As a 3D state-of-the-art spectacle, it’s a genuine stunner, but sadly the story is not quite so stellar. Its boilerplate action/romance plot is all over the place, its inscrutable villains’ (Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali) motives unclear and its dialogue lame. That’s well compensated though by its handsome production design, well-choreographed and muscular action scenes and superbly fluid digital effects though. Fantastic too that we finally get to see a future teeming metropolis that’s not an identikit Blade-Runner knock-off – it’s not even dark and raining… Actually its blue sky climate looks like quite nice (note to doomsayers – 500 years hence and the planet still hasn’t cooked). It is, however, the victim of a catastrophic war with URM (United Republic of Mars), and even though that was 300 years ago, they still haven’t yet cleaned up all the rubble. Mind you, since this is only part one of an obvious franchise attempt, there’s still time. M from Feb 14. Locally it’s screening at Dendy Newtown and Burwood, but best head for the biggest 3D screen you can find for this one (George St’s Vmax) ★★★1/2

If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry JenkinsMoonlight gave us a richly nuanced and truely original vision of growing up black in today’s America – particularly what it meant to be a man. It was a tough act to follow, and if his follow up doesn’t seem as fresh and “out-of-the-box”, that’s at least partly the fault of its source material – James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. While its racial injustice themes are still depressingly relevant, this story and its issues feel like they’re from another time. As does its female protagonist’s sexual passivity. Events are slow to develop and there are what what feels like hours of loving looks, gentle murmurs and long languid embraces between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) before the (risible) deflowering scene. That’s just short of scared choral music and a gentle scattering of rose petals… but really? This was the 70s – the era I grew up in, and actually quite raunchy and liberated times – far more so than today. That scene feels like not so much from a bygone era, but another planet.

It’s being marketed heavily as a Valentine’s Day date movie  – and given how swooningly romantic and lush it is, that’s fitting enough… The cinematography is  gorgeous, everything is perfectly designed – the lovers even have colour-coordinated outfits matching the falling autumn leaves – and the score is achingly lovely. Though the depressingly downbeat (well, tragic really) result of the relationship for Fonny – who is locked up after being framed for rape by a viciously racist cop (Ed Skrein), may not produce the sort of happy ending Valentine’s Day couples are expecting. Jenkins resists rewriting Baldwin’s novel, though at one stage events were so heart-warming as everyone heroically pulled together to help the couple, I thought he might. Baldwin was angry at the ugliness of oppression and persecution – furious at the tragedy of the Black experience in the US. He wanted us to head to the barricades and “Fight The Man”, not retire to the boudoir for a cosy cuddle. MA15+ from Feb 14. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and  Dendy Newtown ★★★

Also opening this week

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, so naturally there’s a bunch of date movies and special events around… Roadshow had Life Itself (above, at Palace Norton St) on its release schedule all last year but kept postponing it. Finally it vanished (something to do with its  13% Rotten Tomatoes score no doubt), only to turn up –unannounced, with no media screening, now.  Well at least those unable to fit into what will probably be the weekend’s hit  What Men Want (46%) will have another choice. Assuming, that is, Happy Death Day 2U is out of the question. (All not previewed).

Reviews – Russell Edwards