Wednesday, October 19, 2011

NYFF Review #6: SHAME

SHAME infuriated me. I can't blame this on the film's lead, Michael Fassbender, who delivers an undeniably physical performance as an NYC executive who's disinterested in anything that doesn't involve the stroking of his cock (and, in case you're interested, Fassbender has quite the member). I often blanched in fury at his blank stares, but I have to admit, Fassbender's quite good in this movie. You can feel his soul connection to co-writer/director Steve McQueen, with whom he did the vastly more affecting 2008 prison bio-pic HUNGER (though, for Fassbender's own health, I'd recommend he distance himself from the director, as he seems bent on driving the actor's body to a too-frail point). Also excellent here is Carey Mulligan, who punctures the lead character's emptiness as his effervescent, needy sister whose invasion of his world disrupts his steady routine of prostitutes, one-night stands, and internet porn sessions. She's a sweet presence, as she has quickly come to be in all the film's she's been in since her breakthrough, and she has a terrific extended play moment here where she sings the most drowsy version of "New York, New York" you're ever likely to hear. The moment where Fassbender's Brandon sheds a tear at her on-stage hurt (a hurt which we're never let in on) might be this empty movie's emotional high point.

My problem with SHAME lies in its barely-written screenplay (by McQueen and Abi Morgan). It shows, but never tells. Watching SHAME is like looking at a crime scene photo without being told what the crime was all about. Yeah, there's all the carrion. So what? Nearly nothing is new here. Predictably, this vacuous character named Brandon has a cold, sparce apartment, devoid of personality. You've seen AMERICAN PSYCHO? Yeah, like that. And we have Fassbender's unerring stare, which more often says nothing rather than everything (it's a slate that's decidedly TOO blank, which I DO have to blame on Fassbender). Glimpses into his work life and relationships make you wonder how he landed such a high-paying job in the first place, much less kept it (though Brandon seems to be on increasingly shaky ground here). All throughout the picture, I kept wondering why Brandon never realized he was just simply stupid; his lack of interest in anything other than sex is astonishing (I mean, even alchoholics are interested in more than just drinking).

Finally, there is the inevitable rock bottom--an addiction movie staple. There's a fine scene in which Brandon attacks his sister, demanding to know what she wants from him. I loved Mulligan's play here, in which she at first thinks it's a joke and laughs as he's pinning her down on an inevitably beige couch, and then fights back strongly, calling him a weirdo. Well, this transpires into the titular shame spiral, and McQueen's camera finally captures one yellowed, indelible image that's seared into me--Brandon's horribly pained face as he tries (and probably fails) to reach orgasm while schtupping two exotic girls in tandem. The end isn't far off from here, and you can probably predict what will happen.

But, again, so what? SHAME is one of those movies that's all about pushing buttons. They're not those Spielberg buttons, of course. They're the Solondz buttons. And they suck. There's only the slightest revelation for the main character ("Shithead"), and even when the final scene comes, we con't be sure if he's really moved forward, because we don't see Brandon actually reaching out to another for help. McQueen's movie makes it seem as if we can all handle the problems of addiction alone. But this is an untruth. If his main character had any sense, he'd remember back to an almost perfect date he has with a co-worker (played with zest by Nicole Beharie), and at least come to the slightest realization that this is what's he's been looking for (their dinner date scene is SHAME's pinnacle, punctuated beautifully by a pesky waiter who continually inturrupts their smooth rapport). I'm sorry, but being in the throes of addiction affords you a lot more opportunities of self-revelation than SHAME dramatizes. The film screams out for another character that has their feet on the ground.

I know a lot of people are loving SHAME for its supposed bravery. But if the sex in the film had been replaced with, say, heroin, I think we'd all see McQueen's movie as the "whatever" sham that it is. Yeah, it's a challenging movie, and maybe one worth seeing for those who want to see everything, including the bottom. But I nearly hated it, mainly because I thought it was boring.


There's a moment in David Cronenberg's A DANGEROUS METHOD in which Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (a transformed Viggo Mortensen) are on a steam ship approaching that longtime home of all things neurotic, New York City, where they will unveil their "talking cure," called psychoanalysis, at a prestigious doctor's conference. Freud puffs on his ubiquitously phallic cigar and, knowing his relationship with Jung has reached an unfixable impasses, he wonders "Do you think they know we're bringing the plague with us?" It's such a perfect Cronenbergian line, since the director's dealt with so many plagues in his movie career. Yet this bitterly witty bit belongs to screenwriter Christopher Hampton. He's the hero behind this smart adaptation of his play THE TALKING CURE, which is in turn an adaptation of John Kerr's book A MOST DANGEROUS METHOD, which takes much of its content directly from Freud and Jung's copious letters to each other. This is most certainly Hampton's finest work since winning the Academy Award for adapting DANGEROUS LIASONS for the screen back in 1988.

But there's a third player in this juicy slice of history who's been unjustly forgotten, and that's Sabina Speilrein, a Russian woman played by a committed but sometimes too stagey Keira Knightly. A knowledgeable student of psychology herself, Sabina's torturous malady is, at the film's beginning, a violent reaction to her adolescent sexual arousal experienced at the hand of her strict father, who beat her mercilessly. Let's face it--she liked it. Humiliation begets humiliation in Sabina's tangled mind, and this leads her maniacally laughing and screaming into Jung's office, where the buttoned-down doctor's blue eyes jump in barely contained delight at her jaw-jutting affliction and his opportunity to remedy it. Soon enough, Sabina is begging Jung, who's stuck in a marriage that bores him, to break with ethical boundaries; she wants this cure to involve much more than mere talking.

Jung vacillates between cavings and protests, and it takes Sabina's reach out to Freud to seal the deal. In a jealously semitic whirl of strategy (Sabina and Sigmund are jews; Jung is not), Freud encourages Jung to stray from his moral boundaries, and thereby perhaps unknowingly opens both Sabina and Jung up to a doomed relationship that was somehow perfect in its imperfection. I find all of this incredibly funny stuff. This might be Cronenberg's most amusing film, in that it takes such wonderful jabs at psychoanalysis, and how the process very well might be more about the doctor than the patient. Of course, Hampton's always entertaining, intellectually challenging screenplay is key to this aim.

Cronenberg's newest chilly foray into the human makeup eventually being to resemble in inventive ways his 1988 masterpiece DEAD RINGERS, another film in which two doctors--twins, even, who are reflective of each other--find a woman standing in the way of their relationship's further consummation. A DANGEROUS METHOD might benefit from some pre-viewing research into the circuitous nature of psychoanalysis, as it contains a tidal wave of detailed psycho-geekery that I suspect could be even more highly amusing to the more informed. However, the corseted performance from Fassbender, and the really adroit support from the remarkable Viggo Mortensen, coupled with Knightly undeniable energy and capped off with Hampton's deft wordsmithing all do their part in helping Cronenberg achieve his slyly worked-out goals.


The writer/director of my favorite movie title of 2011, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, is named Sean Durkin, and he's a newfound wunderkind of disorientation. In his debut feature, he puts us right in the dizzied headspace of his film's title character, played with giggly, goggled, shell-shocked charisma by Elizabeth Olsen. From scene to scene, he makes it difficult to determine where we are in the story, and it's a dazzling effect. We may be with Martha as she seeks solace at her mildly rich sister's lakehouse, which she shares with her architect husband (this happiness-seeking couple are compassionately played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). But, then, upon another cut, as we plunge into the lake with Martha, we may be seeing her as Marcy May or Marlene, frolicking in a bizarre green liquid with other searching souls.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE strikes us as a sideways take on a horror story. It's about a girl who has her nowhere ambition taken by an upstate New York cult which demands that she pledge sexual and domestic allegiance to a steadfast, folk-singing leader, assayed with sinewy, slight menace by John Hawkes (who, in a memorable scene, delivers what may turn out to be the creepiest Best Song nominee in all of Oscar history). For me, the cult aspect of Durkin's movie falls short of letting me know anything about the inner-workings of such a spirit; once Hawke's character starts talking about death being a doorway into life (which comes later in the film), I felt I was in the well-traveled territory of Charles Manson and Jim Jones, and I fell out of the movie. But I had to remember that it's been a good two decades since movies have been made about such subjects, and so I felt I had to cleanse myself of this divisiveness. Still, the memories made my opinions about the movie veer towards seeing it as cliche (there's one moment of violence in it that's just too much).

The movie is photographed in a distinctively murky widescreen by Jody Lee Lipes, and it's this shadowy, still feature that most definitely helps propel this off-axis character study into bonafide horror movie territory (after the NYFF screening, I approached Durkin about my suspicions, and he confirmed to me that his two favorite movies were ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE SHINING). Olsen's well-studied Martha is truly haunted by her past. She can't even eat properly without being told it's okay to do so. She jumps and literally pees her pants at every errant sound. She can't suppress laughter at the normal things she now finds to be abnormal. She joins her sister as she's having sex with her husband. Sleep for her is impossible. And dealing with her reappearance strains her sister's marriage to the breaking point. Up until the very end, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a scary movie.

Olsen's performance is nothing short of superb. She's the breakthrough actress of the year. Every tiny movement she makes is perfection. I wish that I had never read HELTER SKELTER or seen the jittery 1981 Canadian movie TICKET TO HEAVEN or lived through 1979's Jonestown massacre, because I'd then be able to more fairly assess MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE for what it might be to most viewers. As it is, I see the film working strongly as a delivery device for Durkin's steady directorial hand and, most primarily, as a vehicle for a handful of searing performances, spearheaded by its welcome lead actress. You'll know what I mean when you hear Elizabeth Olsen's voice transform into a hardened devil's as she lays into her sister with a remark that's nearly unforgivable.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Don't be fooled: Nicholas Ray's final directorial effort, 1976's WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, is not really a Nicholas Ray film.

Yes, he's in it (playing himself), and yes, he spent too many minutes from his emeritus years trying to make sense of it in the editing room. And yet the film--largely shot and performed by some bombed-out film students of his at Syracuse's Binghamton University--is an unwatchable mess, even by experimental film standards. I like me some Brakhage, Warhol and Belson, but this thing is a headache machine. Though a multitude of 8mm and 16mm images often crowd the screen at the same time (with a little 35mm thrown in for welcome relief), there is little to look at and less to enjoy in this plate of scrambled eggs. Dang, this thing was enough to make me swear off split-screen filmmaking forever, and I've ALWAYS been a split-screen fan.

Ray landed a gig teaching film at Binghamton after alcoholism and poverty had decimated his once florid Hollywood career. But this thesis called WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN plays like ugly wallpaper at the worst freak-out you've ever stumbled into. Interesting only for the most diehard film buffs, it does allow us a peek into Ray's final years, where he's been hobbled by his demons and thus is instantly inattentive to his classroom charges, who apparently were too enamored of a dying youth movement to listen to what this moviemaking master had to impart (the students say, in an opening scene, that REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE was just "okay"). Or maybe it was the eternally youth-loving Ray who, himself, smothered his own know-how in the face of a powerful rebellion with which he was just then coming into direct contact. At any rate, the film makes you sadly feel as if the director was pitifully cashing in his meager teaching pay check and spending it all on booze and young girls, some of which probably appear nude here. I'm thinking, now, maybe I'm being mean writing this. But YOU try sitting through this film...

There are moments of truth: I liked a scene in which a young student talks to Ray about how his recent weight loss really didn't change his life, and there's a full-framed sequence where and un-eye-patched Ray walks with another, more contemptuous student as the kid throws punches, trying to test if the great director is really blind in that eye. There's also a tweaked-out exchange where a girl student admits to hustling her body in order to raise money for the film (I really got the impression Ray was fucking this girl, too, and good for him, I guess). But these moments are fleeting in the extreme.

Instead, throughout most of the film's interminable 95-minute running time, we're treated to go-nowhere arguments, one endless close-up of some guy's rotten face, messy video art, unrelated views of student marches, and sub-par first-time filmmaker narratives involving cops and their wandering suspects. But we do have one clue that that Ray KNEW this movie had nothing to do with his great career. When it's all thankfully done, the movie's most memorable image has Ray, presumably watching dailies with his famed eyepatch on, augmenting that accessory with a second eyepatch so that he can't see anything. The inevitable DVD release of WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN should come packaged with two such eyepatches, to advisedly be administered to both eyes by the unfortunate viewer.

NYFF Review #2: 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH

Though the ominous title of Abel Ferrara's newest movie is partially self-evident, it's really a film about living fully in the present. Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh play a May-December (or at least November) couple, ensconced in their Lower East Side NYC apartment, making copious love, meditating, being creative, watching TV, and talking to far away loved ones via Skype as they await the long-predicted and accepted burning away of the ozone layer's last vestiges, which will ensure the death of all living things.

While a slowly-building background rumble grows bigger on the soundtrack, this sweet and romantic (though sometimes overbaked) film does something that no other apocalyptic scenario has ever considered: it largely forgoes portraying humanity's cries and teeth-gnashings (there is one on-screen suicide), and instead favors the examination of our love for one another that would probably surface when we all found out this race has been run. As the 24-hour news cycle winds down for one final time (in one of Ferrara's most chilling moments), the value of money and status becomes distant as we all become as close as we'll ever be. There are drum-beating parties in the streets as friends and strangers try to say goodbye to each other in the most upbeat manner while that mean, green haze begins to overtake the sky.

It takes the end of our relationship with the world to make it happen, but Ferrara's happiest film dramatizes the raising of ultimate knowledge, the promotion of generosity, and the inspiration of understanding (this is most evident in a moving scene where the couple facilitate the last goodbye for a Vietnamese delivery boy who's desperate to talk to his family). This feeling of warmth, which pervades 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH, is what I liked best about the film; it's undeniably flawed in its most shrill moments and possibly improvised moments, but it has a tremendous heart, and heart is what counts. Shot quite sharply with the Red Eye digital camera (which, when projected digitally, provides its own shot at pin-point 3D quality) and edited with utmost precision by Anthony Redman, 4:44: LAST DAY ON EARTH occasionally goes overboard, but I'm on board with that.

New York Film Festival Review #1: PINA

Shot in a bright, vibrant 3D, Wim Wenders' tribute to the works of German choreographer Pina Bauch is suitably called PINA, and it's a real hoot. Wenders and Bauch closely collaborated on the piece during the years before her recent death, and it's not only the best 3D film out there, but also takes its place among the greatest dance films ever produced. It's only nominally a documentary, as there are no talking heads or narrative devices used in the film (the closest we come to these tropes are the regal portraits of the dancers in Bauch's Tauztheter Wuppertal, backed with their heartfelt remembrances of their mentor).

Instead, and wonderfully so, PINA is mostly built around spirited recreations of Bauch's athletic and often riotously funny dance works, which are staged in a variety of deep-focus locales that take maximum advantage of the 3D process while providing the dancers a surplus of, or an inventive limitation of, space to move around in. There are stagebound moments, like the rapid opening involving the whole company as they move through a dirt-covered space, or another as dancers create in-air sculpture with water. But Bauch's works are also set in public parks, on the side of highways, at the edge of cliffs, and most memorably, a solo dance set on a striking, red-accented escalator. With its unconventional costuming (I don't think I've ever seen dancers dressed in business suits before), stinging cinematography by Helene Louvart and Jorg Widmer, and a palpable depth of so many feelings, PINA will make even the most skeptical viewer a lover a modern dance, just as Wenders' BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB did for audiences unfamiliar with Cuban music.