Shame… about Shame?

2 Feb

Shame, the story of a New York sex addict, comes (no pun intended) loaded with plaudits. Michael Fassbender’s role as Brandon earned him the award for Best Actor at Venice 2011, and Carey Mulligan, who plays his equally dysfunctional sister, Sissy, has been similarly praised.

‘Great’ I thought. ‘Whether or not you agree sex is a genuine addiction, it’s an interesting topic; director Steve McQueen’s previous film Hunger was stunning and I love Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. What could possibly go wrong?’

Two hours later – parts of which had me begging, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, ‘Noooo it’s a sin, Glenn and Johann Sebastian did no harm to anyone’ – I’m not sure where to start.

As we’re on music though, I guess the scene where Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sings a seemingly interminable rendition of New York, New York is as good a place as any. Suffocating under the weight of its own portentousness, the only meaning I could glean was self-referential: a reinvention that takes itself ultra-seriously but in reality is as empty as the lives the film portrays. The Guardian’s Philip French, though, called it ‘a sensational, painfully felt slow version’ so maybe I missed something. But then he also described – and was rightly taken to task for it in the comments – Brandon’s colleague Marianne as a secretary. A disappointing interpretation as the only grounds for it are that she’s a woman.

While we’re on the subject of sexism, I wasn’t at all comfortable either with the ease with which every woman in the film drops her kecks. I’m not denying it would be great to be hit on by Fassbender, but even one character who found his approach creepy – or simply didn’t have time at that precise moment – would have avoided the conclusion that every woman is up for it, all the time. It’s most glaring in the opening scene (the woman is on the tube, going to work) and when Brandon gets himself beaten up (the woman is in a bar with her boyfriend). Call me an old-school feminist, but I suspect many women find a man staring at them on the tube – with no attempt to smile, or make conversation – or hitting on them when they’re with someone uncomfortable, if not threatening.

It also undermines the argument that Shame positions itself against porn. I agree it doesn’t set out to be erotic and, yes, it does have better sets, better lighting, better-looking (and, one hopes, better-paid) actors and, basically, a lack of money shots, but attitudes such as this are deeply dangerous. It’s a shame as it undermines the film’s undoubted strengths, many of which – unsurprisingly, given the director’s background – are visual. McQueen has an unerring eye for detail and Fassbender, as Philip French points out, is gripping and intense. (Although, let’s face it, he’d be gripping and intense reading a shopping list.) Credit, too, must go to Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography – the long tracking shot of Bandon jogging through New York at night is particularly stunning.

Brandon’s date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) is another brilliantly observed and beautifully shot scene. The detail is spare and gorgeous, while the rhythms of a first date, down to the too-keen waiter and the embarrassment of – the man, of course – being expected to taste the wine, are perfectly captured. I don’t, however, agree with Philip French that, ‘we hope that this relationship will lead somewhere’. It would be too simple – and unbelievable – a solution for the messy addiction that McQueen portrays.

I also suspect that his approach to relationships is far darker than this. Personally, I didn’t find the choices the separated Marianne offers any more appealing than those of Brandon. A long-term relationship, dinner with someone with whom you have nothing left to discuss, is ultimately as empty as Brandon’s porn obsession and one-night stands. It’s a bleak view of relationships that is reinforced in the hints of Brandon and Sissy’s dysfunctional childhood, or the sleaziness of Brandon’s married boss. In reality, the only glimmer of hope that Shame does offer is in the title itself (cf. Edmund Burke’s, ‘Whilst shame keeps its watch, virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart’) and the love, albeit troubled, between Brandon and his sister.

For me, this lack of empathy with any of the characters – and the lack of momentum it leads to – is where the film’s main problem lies. I simply didn’t care what became of them. It may be the point (mirroring the characters’ own ennui) but it doesn’t make for a successful film. Art needs to work on both the intellectual and emotional level; ideas on their own – however beautifully presented – are not enough. Instead, Shame felt like the product of a too-clever sixth-former thinking that a dollop of sex with a pinch of misery and a dash of bleakness equals profound.

Now I’ve got that rant off my chest, though, I’ve softened enough to point you towards Mark Kermode who, as ever, is superb, highlighting McQueen’s confidence as a director and introducing the concept of thanatos. But, sure as I am that it would be an interesting film to explore in a seminar, it doesn’t make the cinematic experience any better. Basically I’m back to where I started: the elements and ideas were promising, but ultimately McQueen failed to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing”.

True Grit: language, Rooster & Omar

18 Mar

True Grit, the Coen brothers,  Matt Damon & Jeff Bridges: I can’t describe just how excited I was by that first trailer. And that’s before I even mention Johnny Cash singing God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

I took my preparation seriously, too, by re-watching the original. Although I regretted it when I discovered how much I’d forgotten, including both LeBoeuf and Blackie coming to sticky ends. In fact, I’d forgotten pretty much everything except Rooster’s iconic 4 against 1 gallop, a gun in each hand and reins between his teeth. But I recovered after a minor sulk: the Coen’s version was always going to be more about the telling than the tale. And how Jeff Bridges fared against John Wayne.

So, did it live up to my expectations? Well, yes and no. In some ways it was closer to the original than I expected. Often word for word, which I found slightly disconcerting, although interesting. (Think the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, where Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature.) And it didn’t always work. For example Rooster’s ride to save Mattie at the end felt so dated I can only imagine it was an homage to the original. Especially as, elsewhere, Roger Deakins’ cinematography was as bleakly beautiful as you’d expect.

As for the acting, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross was a revelation. At 14 years old, she was better able than Kim Darby to capture the mixture of grit and naivety the role demands. The scene, for example, where she attempts to ease the tension between Rooster and LaBoeuf by suggesting she tell a ghost story worked far better than in the original. Similarly, although I must be one of the few who didn’t mind Glen Campbell in the original, Matt Damon made a good stab at LaBoeuf, being more than willing to ham it up to bring some humour to his role. As Mark Kermode stated, he’s ‘become an actor of very great range almost while no one was looking’.

Another high point was the supporting cast. Revisiting the original, it was good to come across Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall who I’d been unaware of 30 years ago. This time the bonus was Josh Brolin as Chaney (although I agree with Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian that he struck a slightly uncertain note as a weaker man) and the aptly named Barry Pepper, brilliant in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, as Lucky Ned Pepper.

Sadly, though, I was disappointed by Jeff Bridges. I’m getting bored of his beyond the pale, dishevelled characters now and, unlike John Wayne, I never believed he cared for Mattie. Even if it was an affection based on egotism, as suggested when Mattie swims across the river on Blackie’s back and John Wayne’s Rooster comments admiringly, ‘she reminds me of me’. Interestingly, this was one area where the dialogue noticeably departed from the original, so I suspect it was a conscious decision to make the film less sentimental. I, for one though, missed both the affection and the swagger that this self-love brought to the role. A swagger reinforced by Rooster’s ‘I robbed a high-interest bank. You can’t rob a thief, can you? I never robbed a citizen’, which took me straight back (or forwards) to The Wire and Omar Little’s ‘Hey look I ain’t never put my gun on no citizen.’

There were also one or two moments that jarred, when the Coens couldn’t resist waving their hands in the air and going ‘ooh, me miss, me, I know this one’. For example, the ride at the end or the clunky humour of Mattie telling a young black employee she’s named her pony ‘Little Blackie’. I also missed the prologue of the original, which shows us Mattie with her father, although we were given an epilogue to compensate.

However, I adored the language (in another possible link with Omar): formal, with an idiosyncratic vocabulary and lacking in contractions, the Coen’s took their lead from Charles Portis’s novel. As Barry Pepper explains, ‘It was more like doing American Shakespeare… There’s almost like an iambic pentameter. There’s a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s about trying to hit certain notes… the scene blossoms, completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or odd or quirky or wonderful, bizarre.’

My feeling at the end (despite some false notes) was that, unlike LaBoeuf’s comment on Mattie ‘You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements’,  the Coens give out plenty with theirs.

Brighton fails to rock

20 Feb

Adapter and director Rowan Joffe’s remake of Brighton Rock is stylish but, ultimately, one questions its point. Relocating the post-war setting of John Boulting’s 1947 version to the 1960s adds little apart from the opportunity to give the violent, small-town hoodlum Pinkie a fishtail parka and a scooter. An unintended consequence, however, is that it makes both his Catholicism, and that of the naive Rose who he marries to prevent from testifying against him, an anachronism.

Joffe, in an interview in the Guardian, explained his decision, “We’re making Brighton Rock as contemporary as we possibly can because the story feels ‘modern’. It’s too alive, too vibrant and too relevant to be contained in the late 1930s.” A worthy enough aim, except for the implicit assumption that the audience, unlike Joffe, will be unable to recognise relevancy unless it’s given a stylish makeover. It may also be news for Joffe that the 1960s are ancient history for most cinema-goers – and  not only those who claim that not remembering is a sign they were there in the first place.

It’s not all bad though and the film does have some redeeming features. Here’s Matthew Turner in ViewLondon, ‘The film starts brilliantly, with a gripping opening scene, atmospheric photography by John Mathieson, gorgeous production design work and a terrific score from Martin Phipps. However, shortly after Hale’s murder, it completely runs out of steam and collapses under the weight of a confused, directionless script and ill-defined characters’.

To be fair, I thought Sam Riley made a decent stab at Pinkie. I wasn’t completely convinced by Andrea Riseborough as Rose, but I’ve now seen her in Made in Dagenham, followed by Never Let Me Go a few days before Brighton Rock, and failed to recognise her each time (a tribute to her acting rather than my lack of perception I hope). Unfortunately, though, I never believed in their relationship. And other characters were even less successful. Andy Serkis as Colleoni, the rival gang leader, was painfully laboured with speech patterns that made me want to slap him. While Helen Mirren as Ida, the blowsy broad determined to bring Pinkie to justice, and John Hurt, as her bookie friend Phil Corkey, both gave cold, brittle performances that veered perilously close to caricature.

The key to updating anything is to respect its roots. The fact that words such as ‘blowsy’  or ‘hoodlum’ – lovely, old-fashioned words – have crept into most reviews provides one key. Somehow, this remake’s heart wasn’t quite in the right place. Pete Postlethwaite (the original choice to play Corkey) and someone like Imelda Staunton for Ida might have struck the right note, bringing a genuineness and warmth to the roles that made us care what happened to them.

I’m also disappointed that Joffe didn’t take the chance to return to the ending from the book, rather than the one Greene wrote for the film. Or, given that the Catholicism at the heart of the plot is now difficult to understand, he didn’t confront the difficulty head on and explore the concepts of innocence and guilt.

I remember my own sense of surprise, almost shock, when a catholic priest friend stated that in an affair with a married man a single woman, having not broken any vows, had nothing to answer for. (Any guilt she therefore chose to feel was down to an unconscious desire to play the scarlet woman!) Such a clear-cut view of right and wrong challenged my more woolly C of E principles, but also left me questioning which of us was in fact more liberal.

It was any such challenging of assumptions that Brighton Rock failed to provide. I might have accused it of being muddled in its intentions, if I knew what those intentions were. Sadly, however, I’m not sure it had any, other than piggybacking on the style of the 1960s.

Barney’s Version: À la recherche du temps perdu

2 Feb

Barney’s Version, directed by Richard J Lewis, is like a generous portion of a gooey cake that you had great fun making and it shows – the icing might have slipped a little but it tastes fantastic! It’s a film-geek’s dream, too, with Dustin Hoffman’s son Jake playing his onscreen grandson Michael, cameos from Atom Egoyan and David Cronenburg and, for a British audience, a role for Mark Addy. (Although shamefully I failed to spot any of them until the credits.)

The film shares with us the memories of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), a Montreal Jew and head of TV company ‘Totally Unnecessary Productions’. Precisely, it does this at the point he’s starting to lose his memory through Alzheimers. If it’s a comedy then it’s one at which I wept so, like Billy Wilder films, it’s one of the better kind. Tellingly, both moments Barney  succumbs to hysterical laughter (once when he asks Miriam, a female guest he’s just met at his own wedding, to run away with him, and once at his father’s death) are deeply serious. Ultimately, both Barney and the film possess a finely honed sense of the ridiculous and a refusal to take themselves too seriously.

Paul Giamatti’s Golden Globe (for best performance by an actor in a comedy or musical) is well earned and the entire cast are a joy to watch. As Dana Stevens comments in an excellent review in Slate: ‘Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, and even Scott Speedman…all make hay from their tiny roles. Taken as a whole, the movie’s structure is lumpen, but scene by scene, it’s full of vivid moments between actors…The script doesn’t need to convince us that the prickly and incorrigible Barney Panofsky is, in the end, someone worth caring about. Paul Giamatti’s performance already did.’

It’s also true, however, that the narrative isn’t all it might be. Much has been made of the difficulty of bringing Mordecai Richler’s novel to the screen and, yes, the film is big, sprawling and slightly messy and, at over two hours, could have lost a subplot or two. But Stevens’ description of a ‘galumphing movie that nonetheless provides a bracing jolt of pure, uncut Giamatti’ provides the clue to its charm. Barney’s Version is hugely infectious and entertaining. It also has a fabulous soundtrack, with Donovan fast-tracking us back to the sixties and (this being Canada-fest) a double-bill of Leonard Cohen.

The only real flaw is that, in a film about memory (and its loss), the structure wasn’t more interesting – the flashbacks do start to pale. And apparently the novel (now at the top of my reading list) takes a more playful, teasing approach to how much memory can be trusted. But whether launching himself into bed wearing a proud paunch and jaunty boxer shorts, or wiggling a dance after a successful call to Miriam, you can’t help but warm to Barney. And, in a trick that must draw our attention to the moment’s transience, his leap into bed is frozen mid-air: from good to bad and back again, life keeps moving. We know, even without the benefit of the opening scene, that when Barney’s father Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), comments on his son’s domestic happiness with ‘you did good boychick’, it’s already an elegy.

It’s this Mickey Finn, slipped into the pure cocktail of joie de vivre, that elevates Barney’s Version to brilliance. For, if memories provide our identities, what happens when we start to lose them? And how reliable are they – and particularly their recording ? How far can the lettering on a gravestone, or the book written by the cop convinced Barney killed his best friend, be trusted? The film seems finally to suggest we – and life itself – are a glittering kaleidoscope of perspectives.

On Tour: teases but fails to seduce

27 Jan

Sadly the most enjoyable thing about On Tour (Tournée), directed by and starring Mathieu Amalric, was hearing The Harry Lime Theme on the radio as I drove home. Although it wasn’t  so bad that I regretted going – I may have been more resentful had it been a beautiful summer’s evening rather than a damp January one – I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to friends.

The story of a group of US new-burlesque dancers on tour in France with their producer, Joachim Zand (Amalric), Tour did contain some positives. Amalric is intensely watchable even, or perhaps particularly, with a dodgy haircut and moustache (Robbie Collin in the News of the World memorably described his look as ‘a pimp Oompa Loompa’). His beautiful suits though didn’t seem to quite match: a bona fide sharp-dressed man, perhaps he just couldn’t bring himself to wear an ill-fitting one.

It’s also heartening to see womens’ bodies as they rarely appear in mainstream films, with a cheering lack of silicone and in a variety of shapes and sizes. Interviewed in the Guardian, Amalric spoke of how the film is ‘struggling against perfection… If I’m Dita Von Teese of course I can be naked, but if I’m me?’ A line that is echoed in the film when Mimi Le Meaux (Miranda Colclasure), one of the more experienced dancers, explains the difficulties of a colleague not yet ready to strip, ‘you have to love your body first’.

Along the way, too, there are some beautifully composed shots and a richly sensuous use of colour, and I enjoyed Zand’s battles against muzak. Like the use of women’s bodies, it seemed to hint at a political subtext: that of corporate control and power, and an attendant abnegation of personal responsibility. However, although I adored the energy of the final shot, overall I’m afraid I didn’t see the point. The hints about Joachim’s past felt tagged on and ultimately we didn’t care. Other parts were just plain puzzling: I’m still not clear about the purpose of the scene where a supermarket cashier, inspired by the show, attempts to strip off in front of Joachim and Mimi and then, when they stop her, hurls Joachim’s shopping at him.

Joachim’s visit to an ex-lover in hospital was similarly unsatisfying. I appreciate that the film plays with the links between female identity, their bodies and appearance and perhaps even psychoanalytic theories of the gaze, but the fact she was recovering from a mastectomy felt forced. In the end I was left slightly bemused by Amalric’s best director award at Cannes. In the Guardian, he confessed he had worried On Tour ‘was going to be boring for the audience’ which I’m afraid I think it was. While I respect the intellectual framework, as entertainment it didn’t cut the mustard and as a director Amalric, a self-confessed ladies’ man, failed to seduce.

The King’s Speech: El Rey del Mambo

20 Jan

More ink, virtual and otherwise, has been spilled about The King’s Speech than about any film in my memory. Every day another Guardian blog jumps on the bandwagon: stammering, audience demographics, republicanism or – admittedly less often in the Guardian – royalism. Then there’s the rumours of an Oscar boycott, or the Golden Globes (including a bonus short feature starring Ricky Gervais).

I’m not sure there’s any stone left to turn but, on the grounds of it being inexcusable to ignore the cinematic event of the year, here’s my ha’porth:

Did I like it: Yes

Did I cry? Disappointingly no. Having turned up carefully prepared with a large handkerchief, in the end a few fierce blinks sufficed.

Did it make me think about life, the universe and everything? No.

But if that appears to damn with faint praise, it shouldn’t. The King’s Speech is easy on the eye and beautifully acted – by Firth in particular. (For the record I hated A Single Man, although I accept I’m in the minority.) It also has some great quotes, of which my favourite has to be: ‘Do you know the “f” word?’ Ffff… fornication?’

Mostly though, it’s fabulous to see that ‘British film’ and ‘breaking box office records’ doesn’t have to be an oxymoron – the mere fact of arriving at cinemas to be greeted with queues and sold out signs is exciting. Also, I chose the words ‘cinematic event of the year’ with care. It may not be my film of the year, but in terms of getting people talking about cinema and off their sofas and into the pictures, it deserves all the praise that’s being heaped upon it.

Blue Valentine – a tattooed broken promise?

18 Jan

[If you’ve stumbled across my review looking for Ryan Gosling’s tattoo, it’s the giving tree.]

Blue Valentine, directed and co-scripted by Derek Cianfrance, places the relationship of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) under the microscope. It’s an apt analogy as the camerawork often places us claustrophobically close – during Cindy’s visit to an abortion clinic for example, or focusing on her expression during an attempt to patch things up through sex. Many people who’ve been through a failed relationship would identify with this – a sort of living death of desire – so perhaps it’s brave and honest to portray it. But if you’re tackling big issues, and Blue Valentine claims to, then you need more than a talent for reproduction. Mark Kermode’s comment that ‘a little bit of quirky goes a long way’, is one that applies equally to misery.

I almost suspect that all the talk of the film being ‘an actors’ piece’ is a polite way of saying that the audience has been forgotten. I’m not suggesting that films should be saccharine, but anyone going to see this film who’s gone through the breakdown of a relationship certainly won’t learn anything new. We’ve received – and inflicted – those endless point-scoring arguments, and we know just how bad things have to get before you can make the break. So I’d question the point of a film that doesn’t add anything new to the argument. However great the acting, it’s never going to match the emotional punch of the real thing.

Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian ‘The questions it asks are important: how do relationships fail? Is there a stage at which the unhappy couple can do something, somehow change course?’ And Anthony Quinn, in the Independent, suggests ‘it’s a subtlety of the film that our sympathies keep shifting between husband and wife’, Cianfrance ‘preferring to nudge the audience along rather than semaphore every last message’. But the cues we’re fed are as subtle as sledgehammers. Rather than challenged, stock responses are appealed to – where Quinn describes Cindy as ‘martyrish’, I suspect women would support her. By simply restating tired battle lines from many a domestic argument, the film fails to deliver any serious investigation into why many women feel they end up playing Ernie Wise to their partner’s Eric Morecambe.

At the Sundance film festival Cianfrance commented: ‘I never understood this idea of sympathetic or unsympathetic characters. Because everyone I’ve ever known in my life is like both at the same time. When I met my wife Shannon I told her I was like Dr. Jekyll, but eventually I was going to be like Mr. Hyde.‘ But broad stripes of black and white aren’t the same as grey and it’s this lack of subtlety that changes the story from one of everyman/woman to one where it’s too easy to blame the individuals. (I’m thinking here of the relevance of revealing Cindy’s sexual past.) It’s a process, too, that undermines the validity of any questions the film asks. The earth-shattering conclusion of those increasingly manipulative and unlikely plot developments is *fanfare*: there’s faults on both sides!

As each scene is painted on thicker than the last – Dean marries her despite the child not being his! Cindy cares for her elderly grandmother! Dean gets beaten up by her previous boyfriend! – to be honest I stopped believing or caring. And if a potential medical student believes water is more effective than the morning after pill, all I can say is she was probably never cut out to be a doctor.

I did appreciate the honesty of certain scenes; the way fault-lines and power struggles are played out through sex, or how different emotions strive for supremacy during arguments. And the delicacy of some of the detail was mighty fine – especially the scene where Dean struggles to remove his wedding ring. Sadly, though, many of these touches were lost in the intellectual flabbiness. Even the symbols are so glaringly obvious it hurts – the ‘future room’ at a sex motel has no windows and a bed that goes round in circles. And this before I get started on the much-praised ‘moving’ scene where Cindy tap dances to Dean playing his ukulele and singing ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’ (geddit?). Even Mark Kermode thought it was ‘endearingly kooky’. Puh-lease. Perhaps when we were 18 and drinking Mateus wine to the soundtrack of Betty Blue.

Also at Sundance, Cianfrance shared the source of his inspiration: ‘My parents did divorce when I was 20, and it made me question a lot of things in my life. And question the point of falling in love.’ Making the film may well have been cathartic for the director, but it reminded me of adolescence when we all believed ‘profound’ equalled ‘bleak’ or ‘miserable’. The only interesting question was some hints about the unsuitability of our current cultural maps. Whether songs (as Dean says, ‘Everyone has a song’) or the romantic fiction that Cindy reads to her grandma. But, while I agree we need more useful guides, I don’t believe Blue Valentine is one of them. Do yourself a favour and instead listen to Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine or read Michael Donaghy’s poem Reprimand, “We fell out of love as toddlers fall / glancing down, distracted, at their feet”.

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