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Frank

Frank film posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender (in a papier mache head of South Park weirdness), as Frank written about by Jon Ronson (Domhnall Gleeson) who was bandmate of Chris Sievey who called himself Frank Sidebottom (who was an indie musician).  Jon wants to be a pop star but he falls foul of Frank and other band members Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Don (Scoot McNairy).  Jon tries to steer Frank in a commercial direction.  They play in Britain, the drummer tries to kill himself.  They do rehearsal sessions in Ireland and then are due to perform at SxSW in Texas and they break up.  Frank’s mental health fails, but they might get back together.  Jon learns wisdom…

Review

The weird papier mache pot that Frank hides his head in is intended to be disconcerting.  It’s an alienating joke and an Indie film leit motif which manages to avoid merely experimental caprice (because it’s part of Frank’s struggle for identity), and poses pertinent questions about our notions of acceptable behaviour.  At one point Frank says that the human face is a vulnerable wound so why not seek the freedom of the papier mache hideaway?  Those who talk to him must pay more attention to the intonation in his voice, in doing so they are at once in a what can descend to controlled monologue as they must cope with the attention drawing but emotionally deflecting absence of a face.  At times it’s like a satire on the retarded adolescence of a pop group with an artistic mission, but I do like their music.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is surely based on the Velvet Underground’s Nico, all Central European diva with a big bad attitude and questionable artistic talent.  She is like one of those people who want to spend their lives at the back of the class.  Jon is resolutely naive and exploitable, worshipping the religion of neglected genius that Frank has made of himself.  He tries to push them in a commercial direction and they despise him for it as they look like they’re auditioning for a David Lynch film.  Each of their solipistic personalities is the claustrophobic complaint of a group of outsiders whose very identity is based on rejecting the mainstream and being rejected by it.  My favourite song of theirs is “Lone Standing Tuft” (about a twist of carpet strand).  Jon becomes increasingly obtuse and you feel yourself like kicking him out of the band.

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Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave film posterSynopsis

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Soloman Northup.  He is a black musician in 1841 New York and is abducted, enslaved, and labours for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch ) whose sadistic foreman Tibeats (Paul Dano) nearly hangs Northup who is then enslaved by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Can Northup trust first a white worker on the plantation, and then Boss (Brad Pitt) to get his release?

Review

Steve McQueen has looked at the suffering of the tortured body in Hunger, and in this film there is the suffering of the slaves in the antebellum South of the US.  Amazingly, this appears to be the first film to look at the full horror of slavery.  Gone with the Wind is anodyne fairy tale, Roots was a  bland  TV product, Django Unchained opted for comedy, and Amistad was all courtroom drama in which white film stars predominated.  When Northup is abducted, he’s subjected to a relentless beating as an induction into everyday sadism.  The obscenity of this is so suffocatingly fetid, one looks for a hole to breathe through.  William Ford is comparatively decent even though a beneficiary of slavery, Tibeats and Epps are simply foul sadists.  One starts to think of the Hegelian view of slavery, how it corrupts the enslaver as well as the enslaved, anything to mitigate the horror where the Louisiana swampland is a sealed hell of tropical venom.  When we see slaves picking cotton it’s as if the lush appearance of it is mocking us with the promise of a Terence Mallick lyricism, instead there is just the lash and death.  Hans Zimmer’s music is like a tension pulled to snapping point.  In one scene, Tibeats leaves Northup on tiptoe with a noose around his neck as the life of the plantation goes on unconcernedly around him.  McQueen’s camera lingers over this for several long minutes.  Ford cuts him (and us) free.  There’s another drawn out scene in which Northup just looks out at the surrounding horror, his face registering terrified shock and dismay that never succumbs to despair.  Edwin Epps is the distillation of slaver evil: pathologically vindictive.  His insane jealousy of the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) leads to the most graphic details of a back wrecked by a whip.  Epps’s wife (Sarah Poulson) is insanely envious of Patsey, her cruelty just as unpredictably dangerous as that of Epps because it mostly lacks physical gratification and is more invidious.  It’s all like being taken on a concentration camp trip, each atrocity a shocking education.  It makes us look at some of those top hatted costume dramas in a different way, anyway it forcefully made me aware that even the recent Willberforce movie recoiled from showing a slave ship on its horrific ocean passage and it would have been better if it had.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Counsellor

The Counselor film posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender as the counsellor.  We see him in bed with Penelope Cruz as Laura.  Set along the present day Mexican border, Fassbender is caught up in the drug business and he falls foul of the drug lords.  Brad Pitt is also involved and appears to get away with it.  Javier Bardem plays Reiner also involved in drugs, as is his girlfriend Carmen Diaz who gets away to London.  The others might or might not escape retribution.

Review

The script of The Counsellor is by Cormac McCarthy (I enjoyed his novel The Road), but however good a writer he is, in this film he’s guilty of pretentious howlers.  Slick and glossy and as deep as glass cleaner, it thinks it’s so stylish it hardly has to bother with a decent plot.  It glides between Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino and is so self regardingly lifeless as you might expect.  It’s not as clever as it likes to think it is, we keep getting treated to cod philosophy which is so adolescently arch it gets embarrassing.  One of the more ‘thoughtful’ lines is “You can do anything to women but bore them”.  What?  Bardem speaks about the nature of evil and tells Fassbender about a torture device that fits on the head and cuts it’s victim to pieces (a bit like the film’s effect on the suffering viewer).  Advice on love and loss is wrapped in Kahlil Gibran inanities.  Situations become excuses for corny would-be philosophical advice.  Fassbender does cunnilingus on Cruz, Eros leading to gambling with death?  The film seems to want us to look for death in love in nihilistic luxury like a morality tale about the perils of big crime? Duh!  Cameron Diaz flaunts her bling wealth as vulgarly as any nouveau riche queen bee.  She likes to watch her pet cheetah bring down a hare as she talks cod Nietzsche about the purity of the act of killing.  She takes off her underwear and sleazily rubs her anatomy along the car windscreen, if this is a bid for originality McCarthy could have been more erotically inventive.  The characters only just manage to avoid Ryan Gosling’s non acting, the only faintly likeable character is Brad Pitt’s unpretentious crook.  Cold, empty, and crass.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Prometheus

Prometheus posterSynopsis

Ridley Scott’s prequel to Alien, though it has been denied that it is.  Scientists Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw) and Logan Marshall Green (Holloway) discover cave paintings showing giants pointing to the stars.  Then in 2093 a spaceship travels to outer space.  On board is an android (Michael Fassbender playing David) who wakes the crew up, and they explore the moon they’re on, which orbits a ringed planet.  Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers, head of the Weylon Corporation.  The scientists want answers to our origins, Vickers has other priorities.  The crew explore a giant installation and they find alien eggs and they are attacked by these aliens.  They find a giant humanoid, a survivor of the spaceship.  Will the humanoid attack the crew and what will the aliens do…..?

Criticism

In spite of protestations to the contrary, this is the prequel to Alien.  Ironically, of course, the earlier events in this 2012 film enjoy the benefit of advanced cinematic technology unavailable to the later events of the 1979 film.  There is little hint here of how the world of the Alien film could be tacky and picaresque, the antiseptic hi-tech of Prometheus would preclude this.   Prometheus is closer in appearance to the blander, more amenably hi-tech, world of 2001.  Prometheus is pre-occupied with life and death, the nature of mortality, and our own origins.  Elizabeth Shaw is committed to our being created by a high intelligence, so she is no Darwinist.  If you think about this, then a lot of sci-fi must be inimical to Darwin because it insists on the creation of artificial and natural life, even in 2001 there was the intervention of a black monolith to get us going.  Elizabeth Shaw wants to know why the giants turned against humans.

Ridley Scott also explores the boundary of human and non human intelligence in the relationship between the android David and the scientists.  Scott explored this in Blade Runner (1982) when the androids poignantly aspire to human status.  David likes to watch Lawrence of Arabia, no doubt identifying with Lawrence’s indifference to ordinary behaviour.  David seems essentially benign, which makes Ridley’s later fear of androids less excusable.

The dialogue between the crew members is mostly professional, political, and not disinterested.  The Weylon Corporation behaves in a sinisterly secretive fashion.  The scientists do not work as a team, more like business rivals.

Prometheus takes us back to the hollow installation with its Giger style that we first saw in Alien.  The look is all metallic insect exo-skeleton.  It is a sort of organic geometry which reminds me of Gaudi’s Barcelona architecture.  The humanoid giants look like Michelin men from the car tyre commercial and their eyes make them look like they’re wearing giant sapphires as contact lenses  The aliens have of course become familiar, and in Prometheus the parameters of their appearance have only extended a little.  Now they look like tattooed multi-eyed octopi.  Their modus operandi are insect like and parasitic.

Prometheus elaborates on the Alien scenario rather than explaining it, presumably to leave scope for a sequel, which looks likely given the ending.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Freud, and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein (a Russian patient).  Set in about 1900 in Switzerland and Vienna it concerns Jung’s relationship with Spielrein, it develops into love which must be stopped owing to his bourgeoise responsibilities to his wife and family.  Speilrein becomes a doctor in her own right.  We see the rift between Freud and Jung.

Criticism

Directed by David Cronenberg and written by Christopher Hampton, it’s about what’s supposed to be one of the great partnerships in history.  Mortensen plays Freud as the cautious smooth cultic figure whose authority must not be contested.  According to the film, Freud is a prophet who could tolerate only accomplices or disciples, any rival could become an enemy.  Jung is portrayed as the independent-minded colleague who becomes the great challenger.  Freud is committed to materialism and science, and Jung seems to be going off onto a mystical tangent.  In one scene Jung seems to have precognition about noises on the bookshelf, Freud is the urbane debunker, the imperturbable patriarch.  The film shows a very patriarchal view of well controlled family life.  The challenges to bourgeoise constraints were the constant threat of uninhibited sex, which broke out with sado-masochistic passion between Jung and Spielrein.  The eroticism is exacerbated by the hypocrisy and proprieties among the spotless decor.  The only other concession to sensuality amongst the starchiness of the Calvinist linen is all the smoking going on:  Freud’s cigar, Jung’s meditative pipe, and Vincent Cassel’s roll ups.  Cassel here plays the pantomime pseudo bohemian cad and perfectionist of style.  Dialogue between these guys is the effortless articulacy of the well massaged academic ego.  When Jung talks about mysticism you can see him nettling the self assured Freud whose own claims for the pseudo-scientific psychoanalysis he invented now look very dated.  In the mid 20th century I read books that bowed to Freud’s authority, now he needn’t detain us too much except as a figure of obvious cultural significance.  Jung is the rebellious son who casts off Freud’s biblical authority.  It’s all done with gentlemanly restraint, you can see the effort at self control like a hint of turmoil in a flick of oil in a painting.  These guys hold onto their authority in a Europe about to be steeped in world war, and of course Jung has to have premonitions about this, after all he is the grandfather of twentieth century cults, a shamon in a stiff suit.  Keira Knightley as Spielrein is all actorish gurning as she is driven into the sanatorium and she jumps through the hoops of an actor pretending to be mad but actually just being unconvincingly histrionic.  Later in the film she becomes a more sympathetic character.  The film is quite absorbing.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Shame

Shame posterSynopsis

Starring Michael Fassbender as Brandon a high flying careerist in New York who is obsessed with sex.  He keeps porn on his laptop and has sex with prostitutes.  He gazes at a woman on the tube train.  His needy sister Sissy visits him and gets off with his boss.  She is a singer with hopes of making it in New York.  Brandon has a date with a colleague but they can’t have sex.  He gets himself beaten up and tries gay sex.  Brandon falls out with his sister as he thinks she is queering his pitch and she tries to kill herself.

Criticism

This stars Michael Fassbender who played Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s film about the hunger striker, and we wonder if he is ready for another ordeal.  Brandon is so cut off from emotional commitment it’s apt that he lives in a coldly stylish apartment.  Steve McQueen’s camera work has been remarked on, how he holds the camera for a prolonged shot.  The actors of course don’t have a hair out of place whilst the camera is on them and this hilariously reminded me of that Monty Python sketch where John Cleese as a TV presenter sits on the top deck of a bus and the camera relentlessly stays on him so that he eventually snivels his personal problems.  No such luck here, these people are too cool and it reminds us that camera angles in most films are too flattering and short lived to put actors through any ordeal.  Carey Mullligan has the camera on her for five minutes in her slowed down rendition of New York New York.  With this she can pierce Brandon’s cynical armour.  Brandon’s on the metro where he predatorily gazes at a women who goes through the body language range from flattered interest to sudden revulsion.  Brandon is dedicated to the temple of his own fastidious and erotomaniacal body.  He is clean and neat and insists on total control, one suspects that he is a self loathing puritan disgusted with sex so that his predatoriness is a form of self punishment.  He is snobbishly incapable of commitment and love.  When he chats with his colleague Marianne, her interest in emotional commitment is not reciprocated, he thinks of people in terms of how they can satisfy him.  There isn’t much humanity in him, he is enraged by his sister’s need for warmth and support, he resents any demands on an empathy or sympathy which he knows he is incapable of.  He is a voyeuristic caricature of those aspects of ourselves we would rather not admit to.  He makes a futile gesture to self improvement by trashing his porn collection (his boss cleaned his computer).  Brandon is prudishly hypocritical as he gets angry with his sister for getting off with his boss.  He goes on a cleansing jog through night time New York, maybe to work off his self hatred.

The title of the film is Shame and one wonders if the shame is self awareness of his own worthlessness, a lament for his lost humanity.  When he rushes in to his apartment to stop his sister killing herself, I was reminded of that scene in The Apartment from fifty years ago, also set in New York.  Jack Lemmon stops Shirley McClaine trying to kill herself after all along showing her far more friendliness than Brandon will ever be capable of.  Lemmon’s film had a happy ending but I haven’t much hope for Brandon.

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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre posterSynopsis

From the Charlotte Bronte novel about a girl who survives a vicious aunt and a bulling school master to become governess in Rochester’s big country house.  Rochester wants to marry her but she finds out at the alter that Rochester already has a wife who is mentally ill.  Jane leaves Rochester and is saved from a stormy moor by Rivers and his sisters.  Jane teaches children and Rivers wants to marry her.  She returns to Rochester’s house to find it mostly burnt down.  She meets up again with Rochester…

Criticism

This story has been subjected to quite a few film and TV treatments.  We’ve gone from black and white Hollywood films which seem to be written by Daphne du Maurier to low key estuary accented  TV performances.  In spite of the over-familiarity of Jane Eyre, this film draws us in because of the erotic charge between Anna Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester.  Critics have complained that this film is too restrained, but I find it much more powerful than if they’d simply torn each other’s clothes off!  The austerely washed out colours enable you to focus on the dialogue and how much depended on the correctly chosen word and the correct expression.  Cleverness in dialogue was often a fight for survival in ways that maybe are more difficult for us to appreciate now.  For me, this comes out clearly in the film.  The second meeting between Rochester and Jane shows us the wearily familiar advantages of the privileged, how they feel they can exploit the candour seemingly wrongfooted, by giving such defensiveness even more reason to be defensive.  Rochester thinks he never gives anything away but of course we look for signs of the facial hard work that only fitfully camouflages vulnerability.  Jane must be required to impress.  She will have none of being patronized in that facile way, and the actor Mia Wasikovska does this very well.  Her supposedly plain face shows a shrewd and alert intelligence and we all know that Wasikovska herself with her model looks will undoubtledly be advertizing posh perfume.

When Jane is rescued by the Rivers’ household, even if you don’t know the story you know for sure that Rivers’ seemingly saintly constraint is only a front for sexually predatory self regard.  I winced at each scene he was with Jane because although I didn’t previously know anything about this character, I knew he would destroy the delicate membrane of disinterested friendship.  His Christian piety is merely a sanctimonious mask for his vanity as he asks Jane to become his wife and share a missionary’s life with him.  Jamie Bell does a good job of showing his self deceptive rectitude in all its life hating resentment.

Judi Dench plays a character that has become a fixture of costume dramas, the dependable elderly domestic boss with a northern accent that spits trivially status-panicky suspicions borne out of resentful self repression, which will soften under the kindness of the hero/heroine.  Sally Hawkins plays the vicious aunt who goes through a death bed conversion to goodness which is for me somewhat bland, as it takes place in a wealthy room, no blood-spitting consumptive death for her.  Like most 19th century costume dramas I’ve seen, this film avoids the horrors of 19th century disease and ill health (no bad teeth!).  All the actors look ready for the next Jane Austen drama.

With the faded colours comes a lack of spectacle.  Rochester’s guests we tolerate as silly impostors, their snobbery is so facile they seem like a vulgar painting Jane and Rochester want to get rid of.  Fukanaga, the director, could not give this such a radical treatment as Andrea Arnold has done with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the challenge is all the greater to make this much told story watchable.  This film manages to do that.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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