Talking Movies

January 9, 2012

Shame

If Bret Easton Ellis and Harold Pinter had ever co-written a movie it would feel like director Steve McQueen’s second feature film Shame.

McQueen reunites with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender for another stunning drama that thrillingly re-imagines cinema’s possibilities. Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful Irish-American businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his entire life around his secret sex addiction. The crippling nature of this addiction is hammered home in the opening sequence. This intercuts Brandon’s daily routine of sex with multiple anonymous partners (and ignoring phone calls from his sister) with him ogling a woman on the subway who initially flirts back but then gets increasingly uncomfortable even as David Escott’s unsettling strings surge in tandem with Brandon’s compulsion. When Brandon loses her in the crowd, the panicked despair on his face speaks volumes. Our sympathy is with Brandon when he’s scared of being rumbled at work for the hard-core pornography on his hard-drive, but Fassbender’s smile has never been so predatory. James Badge Dale as his boss is the socially acceptable clumsy pick-up artist but Brandon, sardonically watching him flail about, is a shark slyly circling too easy prey.

Brandon’s life starts to disintegrate when his wayward sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay with him. Mulligan and Fassbender aid each other in achieving remarkably raw performances. Cissy’s eccentric rendition of ‘New York, New York’ in unflinching close-up is incredibly brittle and leads to a devastating reaction shot of Brandon tearing up. Cissy and Brandon’s lack of inhibition around each other recalls the siblings in The War Zone, implying they were sexually abused as children; a reading reinforced by Brandon being so tortured by her having sex that he embarks on a midnight jog. McQueen though, like Pinter, is uninterested in explaining. The enigmatic line “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” may refer to a traumatic childhood, or it may not, and it’s delivered while Brandon and Cissy verbally flay each other in an argument that achieves a stunningly theatrical intensity by being a fixed-position long-take. McQueen similarly transforms Brandon’s frustrated jog into an unexpectedly transcendent sequence by shooting it as an unbroken tracking shot across whole city blocks.

Brandon tries to cold-turkey away his addiction after Cissy confronts him, and even goes on a proper date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). McQueen’s middle distance long-take staging emphasises the comedy of their inept waiter but also introduces undertones of great unease. Brandon has no ability to commit to a normal loving relationship and his later (unflinchingly observed) failure to seduce her, and his subsequent exhibitionist recourse to a prostitute, emphasises that he has been empathetically corrupted by pornography. This is a film about sex addiction that avoids salaciousness as the sex scenes are made every bit as wincing to observe as watching an alcoholic friend falling off the wagon. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay this is bodies in motion – as Brandon’s spectacular succumbing to his addiction in the finale is rendered semi-abstractly. Shame is about addiction – the hopelessness of an overpowering compulsion derailing your whole life – explored with striking intensity and visual alchemy.

Shame lacks the narrative momentum of Hunger, and Brandon’s emotional epiphany feels slightly contrived, but it leads to a devastating circular conclusion emphasising that temptation is ever present for any addict. McQueen and Fassbender are proving themselves to be as seminal a pairing as Herzog and Kinski…

5/5

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January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call: New Orleans

Werner Herzog’s incredibly loose remake of Abel Ferrara’s portentous piece of provocation becomes his first dramatic feature in years to equal the heyday of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski.

Stepping into the shoes of Kinski is the unlikely figure of Knowing star Nicolas Cage, who remembers that he too used to do ‘wild and crazy’ authentically once, and so rediscovers his inner Kinski… The dangerous rescue of a man during Hurricane Katrina leads Terence McDonagh, our ‘hero’ cop, to the titular promotion but also chronic back-pain. The hunch this causes makes him increasingly resemble Kinski’s Aguirre as the film proceeds but McDonagh goes mad on drugs not power, as (like House MD) he soon finds his anaemic painkillers insufficient but instead of trading up to vicodin he trades up to cocaine, heroin and, well, whatever else he can lift from the evidence lock-up room.

There’s actually a surprisingly logical police procedural underpinning all Herzog’s madness. The investigation into a Senegalese family of five murdered by the local drug-lord (Xzibit) is complicated though by McDonagh trying to sort out the escalating problems of his hooker girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), which involves the greatest cameo involving nonsense repetition of one word you will ever see by any actor. McDonagh is also persecuted by Internal Affairs for, um, torturing a frail woman in a nursing home for witness-tampering, the witness being her devoted nurse’s grandson. Cage’s entrance in that scene is startling, shaving while he waves a gun wild-eyed, and the whole scene is jaw-droppingly outrageous but utterly hilarious – as if Sacha Baron Cohen was re-writing a thriller.

Cage’s matter of fact delivery of “I snorted some cocaine but it turned out to be heroin and I have to be in work in an hour” is almost the starting point for the film to go enjoyably and totally off the rails. Herzog lingers on the soul of an alligator observing a traffic accident, plays out an entire scene with iguanas sitting on a coffee table, and shows unnecessary violence being authorised to stop non-corporeal jiving. McDonagh tries to get incriminating evidence on Xzibit’s drug-lord by working for him, and the deadpanning of all concerned as Xzibit’s Big Fate explains his plan for going straight by building condos three years before it’s fashionable, while a dead body is disposed of in the background, is priceless. To gripe, Val Kilmer is under-used as McDonagh’s partner, but the ensemble, including Vondie Curtis Hall’s Captain and Brad Dourif’s long-suffering bookie, are uniformly solid and wisely under-stated opposite Cage’s rampaging.

Cage gives notice that he should be taken seriously again with his best performance in many years, while the ecstatic madness of Werner Herzog which has found full rein in his recent documentaries The White Diamond and Encounters at the End of the World finally returns to his dramatic movies. Essential viewing.

4/5

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