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Saturday, 12 January 2013

THIS WEEK: Silver Linings Playbook/Shame/Coriolanus

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Full Price

5 - Must See!



It must be said that despite its plaudits, The Fighter is not a film that was particularly impressive to me, and David O. Russell is not a director I can safely rely on for a guaranteed great film experience.  Likewise for Bradley Cooper, who has proven himself as a perfectly fine leading man previously, but is most notable for his role in films I don't rate.  Add to this the fact that one of the greatest screen actors of all time, Robert De Niro, has made similar-looking film choices in recent years that were questionable, and that the marketing campaign for Silver Linings Playbook seemed to have it setup as a rather forgettable rom-com, set awkwardly around the subject of mental illness, and you might understand my concern going in.  I am therefore happy to say that not only was I pleasantly surprised, but that I actually put it straight in as one of my favourite films of 2012!

The film centres around Pat, who suffers a bipolar disorder and who has, due to an unfortunate incident involving his wife and her lover, recently spent eight months rehabilitating at a facility.  He is brought home to live with his parents while he gets back on his feet, but is convinced he can make contact with his wife by means of a letter and that everything will be back to how it was, despite the fact she has had a restraining order taken out against him.. Exactly as you might expect from the synopsis, it is very much a story which, in the wrong hands, could have become a debacle of bad taste; as it is, Russell marshals it all rather well and creates a solid, engaging drama.

Now let's not get carried away, it is not a masterpiece; some notable technical errors, including at least one scene that bordered on misguided and farcical, though admittedly well staged, do hold it back.  It is also, in the end, little more than an extremely off-beat romance; even in dealing with mental illness, and addressing issues like the ill-judgement of people affected, it still has nowhere near the same important resonance as, say, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  Beyond this, however, there is a lot to be admired, and it starts with the grace with which it handles the subject.  This seems to stem from the fact that the author has great respect for the characters, and that Russell apparently has a personal relationship with the subject through his family.  I must say it shows; every character has some relationship with mental disorder, and though there are moments of lightness, the humorous edge of the film grows organically from the story, in the way it would in reality, rather than being forced.  We are never made to feel we are complicit in pointing and laughing; on the contrary, I found every single character, major or minor, to be very well drawn and someone I felt I could believe in and in whom I could invest emotionally.

It is also a film that seems determined to defy quite a lot of convention; just as you suspect certain plot points or moments are about to go one way, some might say the Hollywood way, it in fact goes somewhere else, on one hand surprising you, and on another carving a deeper sense of empathy and realism.  To cite examples, watch out for a scene in which Pat gets into a real physical fight with his father, or his discussions with his therapist; moments like these, due to their sense of realism, engage you all the more with the characters, and make them so much more than mildly humorous cliches.  It does, of course, go into Hollywood land eventually, but by this point, such has been the good judgement of the movie in nearly every way, you find yourself enjoying it rather than being cynical.  De Niro's reaction to the "big moment" in the finale, as well as the moment itself, is so wonderfully, awkwardly, and realistically amusing, it is one of a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and the scene also features possibly my favourite line in the movie, by an extra, no less!

Much has been said for the performances, and rightly so.  From the smaller roles, such as the one filled by Chris Tucker, to the major, I don't think I can find a weak link; if anything, it is their drawing I would like to have seen more of, rather than better performances.  Jennifer Lawrence is exactly the effortless performer I have come to expect, and I only take this opportunity to recommend to everybody a film called Winter's Bone which, whilst not perfect, features a quiet, intense, star-making performance from a younger Lawrence.  When Bradley Cooper is given good material, he is a terrific lead, and I just wonder to what degree he sought advice from his on-screen father De Niro who, forty years earlier, may have easily walked away with an Oscar for a performance Cooper is here required to give.  Speaking of De Niro, it is good to see his chops not lost and that he still owns his time on screen; it is fair to say I have not seen him this good for a while, and it is a joy to watch him back on form.  Best Supporting Actor nomination, ahoy!

For me, one of the big surprises of 2012, and in the strangest way, the best feel-good film I have seen for some time, Silver Linings Playbook is an engaging, well-crafted piece of storytelling.  Some of its ideas are ultimately a bit above its station, but it is still a wonderful two hours.

At cinemas now



Catch it if you like: Good Will Hunting, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. 


I was aware of Steve McQueen as an artist, whose work I even recall studying at GCSE here in the UK, but it was his debut feature Hunger that confirmed him as a serious film maker.  Hunger also confirmed the suspicion I had roused by the movie Eden Lake, that Michael Fassbender is a screen force who demands some real attention.  Here in McQueen's second feature he plays Brandon, a thirty-something living on his own in New York, whose professional life remains steady, while his personal one is absolutely driven by a need for sexual gratification.  Whether it be through pornography, random women like the one at a bar his boss wants to take home, prostitutes, or simply regular trips to the bathroom to have a friendly get-together with his hand, he is in need of release through sex.  To understand a film is about such a topic, two things come to mind: it sounds funny, and even if it is not, it is undoubtedly going to be a piece of erotica not far removed from pornography.  In fact Shame is neither funny or erotic.  It is explicit, but that is to be expected.  What it is actually about is far more interesting; a sincere examination of a lonely, lost soul in a vast, faceless city, and the need, and importantly the lack of desire, to find something more, to feel connected, to feel human.  This need seems highlighted when Brandon's sister arrives in the form of the terrific Carey Mulligan, their fraught relationship and her attempt to connect with him managing to pull his life apart and force his self-reflection.

This is a movie I did not get to writing about straight away, as I felt the need to let it settle before feeling I knew what I wanted to say about it.  With that being done, here it is.  There is a lot to be admired about this film, and here is where the problems also begin; it is a film to be admired in its bits and pieces, but not embraced as a whole.  When it gets dynamic and dramatically gripping, it is primarily because Fassbender and Mulligan do outstanding work with what they are given; they have a terrific chemistry as siblings who are both disturbed in their own way, and particularly in scenes where a disturbed past is hinted at, they perform expertly.  At no point are we told anything, and in the end it is down to us to consider their potentially unsavory history.  This has two functions: the absolute lack of exposition between characters who already know everything about one another keeps it realistic, and the sense that we never really get to know them properly keeps them devoid of something vital, preventing them from being utterly human, which is of course the point.  It must be said, as superb as Mulligan is, she is not given a great deal to do overall, and so it becomes very much Fassbender's film in terms of performance.  Once you get around the fact that you see a reasonable amount of his penis in this movie, you can easily see why many eyes were on him at the Oscars last year; Brandon is a difficult, quiet, damaged and complicated man to play, and the fact the majority of our understanding comes only from the actor's expressions and behaviour is impressive; that we actually see a character development and arc in Brandon is testament to Fassbender's talent.  As was shown in McQueen's debut, he clearly works well with the man.
The film has a stunning score, which is arguably the best thing about it.  Sounding like Hans Zimmer half asleep, its haunting nature captures perfectly the sad tone of disconnection, loneliness, and ultimately the apparent futility of the effort to change the situation.

McQueen has an undeniable eye for excellent composition, which is no surprise; as an artist he has a keen understanding of how powerful an image can be, how one tableau can speak a hundred words, and that is very obvious throughout.  The whole thing is shot with they eye of a man who is first and foremost an artist, so there is no denying the film's urban beauty.  Such is his insistence, however, on getting across the points through visuals and long, protracted scenes in which so much is unsaid, or so much is about the internal, and which sometimes border on overdone, that I found myself often realizing I might do just as well to read a memoir of this man, rather than watch it be played out.  It looks and feels like a book.  In terms of the story unfolding, it does so in quite a stagy way at times, and this highlights an issue McQueen has not really overcome with either film, which is his inability to drive forward with a narrative.  His desire to put individual scenes together and create moments is a priority, and so the drive of the film seems laboured.  This said, staging of said moments is impressive, much of the film having an almost Kubrick feel of precision, keeping us intentionally somewhat removed from the characters, which, given the subject matter, brings about an obvious comparison to Eyes Wide Shut.  This is true for all scenes barring one towards the end, which seems decidedly unrealistic; set against the impressive realism of the rest of the film, this was strange and took me out of it. 

I consider Shame rather flawed, and can't say I liked it, yet I found it compelling and moving; in this way it is a strange movie to pass a clear verdict on.  McQueen is very confident in his transition to film; his work thus far is admirable and does have a power, but in the end Shame equals, for me, less than the sum of its parts.  To each their own, of course, but I would suggest you can see some similar issues tackled, with perhaps more narrative flow, and far less handsomely, in work like Intimacy with Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, and Open Your Eyes with Clive Owen and Alan Rickman.

On DVD/Blu-Ray now.



Catch it if you like: Eyes Wide Shut, Hunger, Intimacy, Open Your Eyes.


Ralph Feinnes takes one of William Shakespeare's lesser known, longer plays, and adapts it for the big screen.  Those familiar with the play will argue it has been too cut down, and some purists will decry any modern adaption, almost on principle, it seems.  Just as with Romeo and Juliet, though, we see the beauty of Shakespeare's poetry pushed to the front, delivered with much power by a cast featuring some surprising players.

Most notable by the fact he should seem out of place is Gerard Butler, who actually fits right in as Aufidius.  He is an interesting character, he respects his enemy, and wants to overthrow him; both facets have to be made clear and this is a dramatic task Butler rises to rather well.  Also giving a surprisingly exciting turn is James Nesbitt, as an angered Tribune.  Alongside them is a host of far more immediately comfortable-looking actors, including Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox, and Vanessa Redgrave, who almost steals the piece as Volumnia.  Shakespeare did love his strong females, and she is no exception.

Unlike Baz Luhrmann's bombastic take on the star-crossed lovers, Coriolanus is treated with a far sterner hand; you can almost feel Feinnes scowling from behind, as well as in front of, the camera!  What a performance he gives, though, intense and frightening on one hand, spitting the vitriolic monologues with relish, yet just as convincing when playing sheepish and pathetic under his mother's authority.  If you like to hear this stuff acted out, this is definitely a treat of a movie.  The reason for the firm handling is, of course, that this play has no sense of frivolity or fun about it; this is an all round meaner piece about social upheaval, prompted by a Roman warrior who is too proud of his position to care about being a voice for the common man.  The commoners revolt and banish him from Rome, we see his loyalties easily corrupted by his pride, and we watch him turn to his life-long enemy in order that he may attack his people.  The tension heightens, and we cannot help but understand Feinnes' choice to make it; one cannot fail to see its relevance today.  The inclusion of familiar BBC faces playing their part as news readers and talking heads in the piece is a smart move, really bringing the drama into modern day and making it feel all the more familiar and relevant.

With the good comes some of the bad, of course; Feinnes' lack of experience in handling action sequences shows, the city of Rome appears to consist of very few people, which does not help give weight to the idea that there is an uprising, and there is a sense of the film petering out rather than ending with the real dramatic bang one might expect.  The power of the writing, however, an exciting use of music, and the principal performances make it a compelling adaption of a play that illustrates how relevant the Bard remains.

On DVD/Blu-Ray now.

3.5 / 5


Catch it if you like:  Romeo and Juliet, solid Shakespeare adaptions.


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