Tag Archives: review

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”.

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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.

Of Gods and Men, ritual and magic

11 Jan

Loosely based on the life of a group of French Cistercian monks living in Algeria in the 1990s, Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des Dieux) won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Beautifully shot, directed (by Xavier Beauvois) and acted, it’s a wonderful mix of perfectly cast characters.

My particular favourite (although it was difficult to choose) is the wonderful, wise old bird Frère Luc (Michael Lonsdale), the order’s doctor. Clad in ribbed cardigan and beanie, he ministers to the local villagers and discusses life and love – both spiritual and temporal. However, as religious tensions in the area heighten and the violence increases, the monks must decide whether to leave their home. A quote from Pascal’s pensées, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction” could, suggests Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian apply to the monks, ‘secretly infatuated with the idea of a martyrdom that will fan the flames of violence for generations to come’ as much as the local mujahideen.

I’d argue, however, that the film specifically discounts this option. It takes pains to show the monks grappling with their motives and the struggle of each to reach a decision. The keyword here is struggle. Although stylistically the film is contemplative, the monks’ spirituality is anything but. Just how physical this struggle can be we see, or rather hear, through the cries to God of the youngest of the monks, Frère Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), alone in his cell. Belief, as portrayed in the film, is a powerful, dynamic force which depends on order and ritual if it is to be contained. (As a whole, the film could also be read as a refutation of Pascal’s quote: replacing the word ‘evil’ with ‘good’.)

Bradshaw also draws attention to ‘a cynical police chief, irritably preparing to wash his hands of the imminent bloodbath [who] tells Christian: “I blame French colonisation for not letting Algeria grow up.”’ Rather than cynicism though, the scene offers some vital context. I felt sympathy for the administrator (actually a local official rather than a police chief), caught as he was between a rock and a hard place. The scene draws attention to France’s colonial past, without claiming any easy answers. It complicates our response to the monks by providing a political and historical context – and perhaps even provides an echo of the phrase ‘the sins of the father…’.

Rituals are the spine of the film: the rituals of the land, or those of the villagers, are as carefully observed as those of the monks’ religious life. There are beautiful scenes of tending the land through the seasons. And it is no coincidence that the monastery keeps bees – a symbol of a community living in productive order and harmony. Ritual, representing beauty, order and life, is opposed to violence, disorder and death. But the film does not reduce this to a choice of either / or. Rather the struggle (that word again) lies in achieving balance.

The many panning shots seems to reinforce this holistic sense and the need to see the bigger picture.  Similarly, their control brilliantly suggests the  control of emotion. The photography, and in particular the use of colours (subtle enough to explore the amazing variety of tones possible in cream / white / grey) is stunning. One breathtakingly beautiful shot pans over the pale walls of the chapel before introducing a splash of colour (perhaps another echo of the links between the temporal and spiritual): the russet, earthy hue of Luc’s cardigan.

The final scene, after the monks have been kidnapped (by terrorists or the army – the actual events are still contested) shows them helping one another  through snowy mountains. For me it brought to mind Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where Hans Castorp awakes from a dream of being trapped in a blizzard. Contemplating the meaning, he concludes “because of charity and love, man should never allow death to rule one’s thoughts.” A tenet brought to life by the monks and echoed by Luc’s, ‘I am not afraid of the terrorists and even less of the army. I am not afraid of death either, I am a free man.’

Chico and Rita – style or substance?

26 Nov

I confess to having massive expectations for Chico and Rita. Not only do I love animation and it came highly recommended by people I respect, but I also completely fell for its directors, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, on BBC2’s the Culture Show. Plus I lived in Spain in the early nineties when Mariscal’s Bar-cel-ona logo and Olympic mascot, Cobi, were ubiquitous and, as boleros enjoyed a revival, Los Panchos played in every bar.

And on the whole I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a luscious, gorgeous film with a soundtrack (courtesy of Cuban composer Bebo Valdés) to die for and a humour I wasn’t expecting – in particular during the scenes in the tenement where Chico lives. The repartee amongst his neighbours provides some genuinely lol moments such as, for example, a neighbour defending his revolutionary credentials after criticising a power cut: ‘But I was reading Granma, and had just got to the interesting bit’!

Talking of translation (it took me a second to remember Granma is the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party and not just a variant of grandma) I’d have preferred to see Ramon’s advice  to Chico that he’s ‘enchochado’ translated as ‘in lust’ rather than ‘in love’ – ‘chocho’ being a (non-offensive) term for the female genitals.

The scenes in the tenement also touch on another aspect of the film I liked – its politics are lightly worn but deeply felt. When the action switches to Rita’s career in the USA not only is the obvious target of racial segregation criticised, but there are also visual references to the less blatant racism of the exoticising of, amongst others, Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda.

Blog on the box, however, calls Chico and Rita ‘one of the most profoundly moving films of the year, a heart-wrenching love story’ and I have to disagree. Although a feast for the senses, the narrative fails to grip. It’s unevenly paced and contains some check-your-watch longueurs. And, although I did shed three tears at the end (I counted), I was annoyed with myself for doing so.

But perhaps boleros always have prided themselves on being a triumph of sentiment over intellect: the style is the substance. As Trueba comments on the film’s website: ‘For me Chico & Rita is a song, a romantic song, a bolero. It’s the story of two young people in Cuba at the end of the 40s, and how life gets them together and separates them like in a song. It’s a film full of music and love and sensuality and colour.’

A paean to both directors’ passion for Cuba and its music, somewhat disappointingly Chico and Rita never felt more than the sum of its parts – as gorgeous as those parts were. As they’re passions I share it still earns 4 out of 5 stars, but if you want to be profoundly moved seek out Mary and Max.

My Afternoons with Margueritte

22 Nov

Ok, I’ll lay my cards on the table. I’ve loved Gérard Depardieu since seeing him strut across the room in leopardskin briefs (and they were brief) in Bertrand Blier’s Tenue de Soirée (Evening Dress) in 1986. And any film that gives a leading role to a dictionary (see Police, Adjective) is equally irresistible. Last but not least, not only had I just had a fabulous supper with congenial company at BangBangs, but I also managed to bagsy a sofa at the fabulous Abbeygate Picturehouse.

So, yes, I loved My Afternoons with Margueritte (La Tête en Friche). Even if no one seems quite able to decide whether it’s Marguerite or Margueritte (though film would suggest the latter). Congenial company did suggest that it was rather like going for a stroll, with no particular destination in mind, but sometimes a stroll is just what the doctor ordered. Particularly if it’s with lovely people with whom you can engage in pleasantly bookish conversation.

Depardieu plays Germain Chazes, a middle-aged man who lives in a caravan in his mother’s garden. Although not lacking in practical skills (he’s a successful gardener, good at whittling and odd jobs) amongst his friends at the local bar he’s certainly not considered, whether affectionately or otherwise, as the sharpest knife in the box. And, in flashbacks of his childhood (a difficult mother and sadistic school-teacher), we’re shown why. However, through his meetings with the 95-year-old Margueritte (equally wonderfully played by Gisèle Casadesus) who believes in the power of literature to help us understand the world, he learns to re-evalue his relationships – not only with books but with those around him.

David Jenkins’ hilarious description in Time Out of ‘Gérard Depardieu, looking like a hay bale in dungarees… It’s basically ‘Educating Rita’, if Rita were French, rotund and Forrest Gump’ certainly made me laugh, but I have to disagree. It’s a beautifully acted, warm, gentle and humorous film. Yes, it is sentimental, but it doesn’t quite cross over into maudlin as [SPOILER ALERT] Margueritte didn’t have to die for either Germain or the slower amongst us to appreciate its moral.

The Kid’s Aren’t Totally All Right…

19 Nov

Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian calls Lisa Cholodenko’s new film The Kids Are All Right ‘a witty portrait of postmodern family life in which script, casting, direction and location all just float together without any apparent effort at all’. And Time Out, too, focused on its ‘warm, wise humour’.

And, to be fair, there is much to recommend it. The performances are great, in particular Annette Bening as Nic. And I liked the sympathetic but realistic portrayal of a long-term relationship. Although I’m not sure why Julianne Moore’s character, Jules, chose to have an affaire with a man rather than another woman? It was just too neat, unrealistic and (surely?) plain old insulting.

However, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the mainstream press are rushing to praise it more to show off their liberal credentials than for any inherent value. I really don’t want to knock The Kids Are All Right too much. I’m sure it’ll help reduce the explaining those who’ve gone down the donor sperm route have to give their kids. And help reduce any pressure the children themselves feel, which can only be a good thing. Certainly I hope it’s a cause, as well as an effect, of things moving on since a friend, brought up by his mother and her partner in the 70s, was very careful to hide his home life from people at school.

But, I still felt the end result was unsatisfyingly lite. And found the supposed humour of the scenes with the Mexican gardener (Joaquín Garrido) offensive. What were they doing in a film claiming to wear its PC heart on its sleeve? (Read Daisy Hernandez at racialicious for an excellent analysis on the film’s racial stereotypes.)

So probably worth a look if you’re on a flight, and I won’t be at all surprised if it picks up an Oscar (see above re: liberal credentials) but I had some serious reservations.

Mary and Max rocks

12 Nov

Luckily, an hour after seeing Another Year, I was treated to the marvelous and moving Mary and Max. Although the themes are similar (‘Life’s not always kind, is it?‘ in Another Year, and ‘Dr. Hazelhof also said that everyone’s lives are like a very long sidewalk. Some are well paved. Others, like mine, have cracks, banana skins and cigarette butts.’ in Mary and Max) Adam Eliot treats it with subtlety and sympathy. In his own words, his latest clayography again ‘explores our desires for acceptance and love, no matter how different we are!’

I loved his previous short in 2003, Harvie Krumpet, and, as with that, found Mary and Max darkly comic, bleak in parts and gut-wrenchingly sad. But the humanity at their core, and their ability to put you through an emotional mill, makes both, finally, deeply life-affirming. As John Walsh in The Independent wrote, ‘Amid much childish dross this week, Adam Elliot’s “clayography” stands out as a genuine work of art, where Wallace and Gromit meet Dostoevsky and Diane Arbus.’

It’s tough to write about something you admire this much, that manages to name check Cherry Ripes, Caramel Koalas and Lamingtons, and that even has Philip Seymour Hoffman providing, brilliantly, Max’s voice –  but in the end I’m not sure I could love anyone who didn’t love Mary and Max.

Thanks to the Abbeygate Picturehouse in Bury St Edmunds for screening it (even if only once…). And huge appreciation to the whole creative team. May all your mood rings, but particularly Adam Eliot’s, always glow green!