Maybe Fox Searchlight won after all: anyone who cares about Margaret will buy the recently released Blu Ray and watch the 180-minute cut. For the rest of us who haven’t seen it (yet), I’ll trust what Hans Morganstern wrote about its power. The extant version, sad to say, is a heap. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s depiction of teenaged Emily (Anna Paquin), who quietly loses her bearings after being indirectly involved in a bus collision that kills a pedestrian (Allison Janey), looks cobbled. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing can’t fill the lacuna, or worse, make the lacuna signify on their own. Relationships aren’t unclear. Characters appear and vanish without reason. For example: the schoolteacher (Matthew Broderick) who reads the Hopkins poem from which Lonergan plucked the film’s title gets two scenes, one a pretty good freakout between him and an arrogant but correct student over interpreting a passage in King Lear. Pristine shots of Manhattan set to soaring music produce no correspondence between them and character mood. Anna Paquin, who based on the evidence devotes herself to Emily a hundred percent, isn’t modulated; her gulp of a voice doesn’t work when forced to shout (it’s excellent at being petulant though). Unexpected developments involving Emily’s math teacher (Matt Damon without wrinkles!) ask too much of our patience. Finally, the four-hour cut can’t be a masterpiece if it includes slow-motion scenes. Lonergan’s ear and eye for the casual revelation still shines in small moments like the one between Emily and the cop who has to patiently explain why the bus driver (a vacant Mark Ruffalo) will never be fired, much less charged with second degree murder.
Because critics have a penchant for sentimentalizing mutilation originating in corporate malfeasance, I understand the interest in promoting Margaret as a masterpiece, especially when Lonergan’s beloved first film You Can Count on Me eschewed this kind of grand canvas. Certainly he deserves a pat on the back for dusting off Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) and directing her to a sharp, caustic eighties-Woody-Allen-supporting-actress turn as Paquin’s companion, one of the beneficiarires of the suit she and Janney’s family file against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Dismissive and curt, Berlin shows the damage wrought by living too long on revenge (“Don’t handle me!” she barks at Emily after she says the wrong thing at dinner). This restraint — conceptual and otherwise –shows up Paquin’s character, whose epiphany at the end of the movie is pure Act Three dramaturgy. If Lonergan thought like a filmmaker instead of a playwright he would have trusted us to make those connections. Maybe the scene is gone in the longer cut. While it sucks to review the movie before I’ve seen the whole thing, the raw material of Margaret is unpromising.
A shattering portrait of lives ravaged by the AIDS epidemic during a period when federal dollars were short and misguided fears long, the documentary We Were Here clarifies for the young (i.e. anyone like me born after, say, 1970) how the plague decimated the San Francisco gay male population (more than 15,000 deaths by the early nineties). Photos show how alarmingly healthy young men at the apex of their beauty and confidence as disco waned transformed into emaciated wraiths, their bodies speckled with Kaposi’s sarcoma, their flesh hanging off their bones. Former dancer Guy Clark, one of the four principles, relates how his first boyfriend succumbed to an early miracle cure as part of a research project; then, almost an hour later, we learn that Clark’s second boyfriend also died more than ten years later. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber are like that; far from being didactic or leaden, the chronological narrative creates a sense of lives lost, love blooming among the ruins, fleeting hope dissipating. None of these people are heroes: death was such a part of their lives that pieties didn’t interest them. This is especially true of Eileen Glutzer, a clear-eyed and unsentimental nurse who was often the first and last person whom patients saw (they’d lost touch with their relatives years ago or died so quickly there was no time to notify the living). Less true, though, of Ed Wolf, a crypto-bear who admits sheepishly, “I was terrible at anonymous sex” but whose services as a caregiver demand the best of his capacious warmth. We Were Here’s lesson, if it offers one, comes in classic show-not-tell format: if you worry whether anyone will remember you when you die, it’s because you haven’t shown anyone you know how to live.
Playing Voldemort has done wonders for Ralph Fiennes’ acting. No longer burdened with projecting warmth, for which he has neither talent nor forbearance, he can concentrate on the lethal hatred he can squeeze out of his impenetrable blue eyes. Making his directorial debut in John Logan’s adaptation of Coriolanus, Fiennes emphasizes the lacquered, oblong surfaces of his bald head, a relic of the hours spent playing He Who Must Not Be Named in the Harry Potter multiverse. Coriolanus, “not schooled in graceful language,” excels only at spilling blood, beside which the pleasures of the hearth like wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) and a son pales, not when he boasts Virgilia (Vanessa Redgrave), a mother whose own monomania is her ecstatic tally of the wounds on Coriolanus’ body, of the men he’s killed for Rome’s sake.
The texture of pre-millennial CNN footage of Srebrenica or Kosovo suffuses this update, in which Fiennes in camouflage fatigues and beret, evoking memories of General Mladić, kills everything in sight, shrugging off wounds like an Avenger. Or like praise from his countrymen. A patrician warrior so proud that he cannot stomach flattery, Corialanus is sickened when reminded of what he knows already; the love of the people, with their bad breath and sickly miens, disgusts him. The paradox that Shakespeare explores is how a man this duty-bound subverts the Republic to which he has devoted his life. He could be a model — a statue worthy of veneration — if politics repelled him less. Fiennes and Logan’s movie understands this. “Must I with base tongue give my noble heart/A lie that it must bear?” Coriolanus cries during one anguished moment.
Easily his finest acting since Quiz Show, Fiennes honors Shakespeare’s conception: he offers no concessions, does not soften Corialanus’ unpleasantness (the famous insult “Triton of the minnows” becomes as intimate as a sonnet). Although Chastain is wan and wilted in the manner of other young actresses cast in modern Shakespearean adaptations (e.g. Irene Jacob in Othello, Julia Stiles in Hamlet), Vanessa Redgrave brings such demotic ease to the verse that her lyric power is astounding in its purity; you understand why she dresses Coriolanus’ wounds and not his wife, why the consuls regard her as a last resort when their would-be hero joins forces with their worst enemy. Brian Cox and Gerard Butler are fine in smaller roles.
The film falters after Coriolanus’ exile; it stops when he tries to find his bearings in Aufidius’ camp. Fiennes’ good instincts for editing wilt. But the shrewdness with which Fiennes stages Coriolanus’ death — it presages what will befall the Republic when another putative icon named Julius Caesar is assassinated — made me wish for Shakespeare movies this alive and so attuned to historical crisscrosses.
Although like most coming-out movies the imaginative conceptions are hardly compensatory once the autobiographical material is consumed, Pariah is worth watching for the milieu and the wide-awake performance of young Adepero Oduye (the title is its most histrionic element). A straight A high school senior who dabbles in poetry, Alike (Oduye) has been comfortable with her sexuality long enough to frequent lesbian bars with best pal Laura (Pernell Walker); in the movie’s first and best sequence writer-director Dee Rees makes the audience share Alike’s sensual abandon at one of these clubs. We so rarely watch a film in which a middle class black American home is sketched with something approaching verisimilitude that the stiff exchanges between Alike’s warring parents – a frustrated striver and employee at a health clinic (Kim Wayans) and a taciturn police detective (Charles Parnell) – matter less than Lee’s attention to nuance, such as the wine the mom drinks with dinner (Dad would rather drink beer) and how Lee’s younger sister acts more excited about Alike’s private life than Alike herself. The scenes between Parnell and Oduye are the film’s heart: a rational man who wants to believe the fiction he wrote about his daughter’s life collides against her own fiction.
The sort of movie for which lazy writing exists. Let’s list the adjectives: “devastating,” “frank,” “raw,” and, my favorite, “Dantean.” The second movie in which Michael Fassbender offers his flesh to director Steve McQueen’s fetishization, Shame shows a New York paralyzed by color schemes of gray and periwinkle blue. In case you don’t get that Fassender’s Brandon is a Shallow Person, McQueen’s camera loiters, like Caravaggio on one of his shepherds, on Brandon’s body nude except for a loincloth of a blue-grey blanket covering his formidable badoobies; he works in a high rise doing corporate stuff that’s never defined (to give this man an identity would mean he has a chance of making it to purgatory). After fucking prostitutes and coitusly interrupting a coworker turned on by his oh-so-conventional “I don’t believe in marriage” speech (he says this drivel and he’s supposed to be a pussy hound? He should move to Miami), he descends into said Dantean depths, bottoming out in a ninth circle which consists of a gay bar not even dignified — a movie whose images are so clean and oversaturated that you can probably scrub your hands clean of microbes with one — with a clear focus lens shot of the territory. Not that it matters: Brandon visits this gay bacchanal so that he can get the most unconvincing blow job in cinema history. William Friedkin’s notorious Cruising at least shows the body sweat and poppers. But his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, won’t be tamed; McQueen helpfully scores her suicide attempt to classical music, the better for Brandon to let out one of those silent screams for which hacks get Oscar nominations (Fassbender is no hack, so credit the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for recoiling).
Calvinist and inert, Shame won’t dignify its characters with interiority or their own motivations; the tile pins them wriggling to the wall. Since Fassbender doesn’t play Brandon as a psychopath there’s no reason for me to judge his indulgences as presented by McQueen as anything other than the hedonism of youth. Better yet, Fassbender’s Brandon has money! Imagine if we’d had money in our late twenties. How would it have hurt their cause if they’d presented Brandon as a sex fiend who, like, enjoys his addiction? That would have been the radical movie. Putting the audience through the Stations of the Cross represents art though. Shame even ends with An Ambiguous Shot!
Tom Cruise wears a mustache and speaks Boris Badunov Russian, destroys a quarter of the Kremlin, climbs skyscrapers like Spider Man, remembers to wear wraparound sunglasses through a sandstorm in Dubai, and shares a car with a grim Jeremy Renner — anything, anything to turn us and skeptical Hollywood casting agents on. To say that he’s ridiculous is like arguing that Rick Ross isn’t real: when the simulations tick off the usual erogenous zones, why stress? In other words: stolidity and conviction may be simulacra for grace and wit, if you’re willing to settle for ten dollars instead of fifty.
Of course Mission Impossible: The Languor of Gnomes has no jokes — it stars Tom Cruise. The best Brad Bird and his screenwriters can do is include a camel sight gag that I first saw in a Hope-Crosby picture. But the aforementioned set pieces in Dubai made me pine for a film culture in which subtitles and funny accents signified exoticism (there’s even a scene at a swank “Oriental” party where Cruise and Paula Patton in their formal best make like Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw in The Temple of Doom), which means the movie meets its goals of what used to be and maybe is still called slam-bang entertainment. Your friendly neighborhood Cruiseman’s goals too. “Failure for a terrorist is just rehearsal for success,” he says, like George W. Bush admitting the existence of yellow cake in Niger. But that’s what he’s there for: to do the things mortals can’t. Because Jeremy Renner is another kind of mortal he gets a fillip of introspection that’s included in the script to give his agent a sense of satisfaction: you don’t hire Renner for a picture like this without expecting thick-jowled Hurt Locker pain (Simon Pegg’s agent on the other hand probably wasn’t happy). For all its acclaim and healthy box office, I’ll take the Bourne films in the furrowed-brow international action genre.
A bearded, obese lech is tortured in the nude. Daniel Craig scowls at scraps of paper with writing on them; Stellan Skarsgård, wearing impeccable sweaters and drinking red wine, wanly smiles as if at a joke he won’t share. As the title character Rooney Mara, dressed and made up like Karen O imitating one of the Slits, is terse and dark and mysterious while tonguing other women and mangling a Swedish accent to the accompaniment of a Trent Reznor soundtrack whose fetish for portent matches the winter chill of the light and compositions. That’s it. David Fincher’s focus on reportorial banality combines the worst of Zodiac and the torture porn of Seven. It’s almost three hours long.
Almond-eyed ad rep Justine (Kirsten Dunst) turns into the white-winged dove of Stevie Nicks’ fantasies when Earth’s imminent collision with an undiscovered blue planet threatens her marriage to a colorless hunk (Alexander Skarsgard). Writer-director Lars Von Trier, whose fetish for sadism is surpassed only by Michael Haneke, keeps the film light by keeping one hooded eye fastened on the ch-ichi cinema chic of early sixties Antonioni. The “Justine” chapter’s assured tone and pace almost compensated for risible ideas that (a) only Von Trier could conceive (Justine’s boss asking her to think of taglines on a wedding night. REALLY?!); and (b) only a male director can conceive (e.g. Justine can release her existential angst only by fucking on a golf course and acting like Kirsten Dunst).
Still, I don’t get the complaints about Dunst; she’s an actress excellent at projecting sensuality, as avid here as she was playing a cipher devouring pink cookies in Marie Antoinette and a hellion in the crazy/underrated Crazy/Beautiful. Melancholia‘s first hour, despite uncertain command of demotic English and a hard-on for angst incarnated by mom Charlotte Rampling’s toast (you don’t need to hear a word to know she’s going to say something catty; that’s why Von Trier cast her) represents Von Trier’s best work since the late nineties. His camera knows how long to let each scene at that wedding linger. Charlotte Gainsborough is the rotten egg here; with this and I’m Not There she’s cornered the market on bourgeois sourness. On the other hand, may Keifer Sutherland play bourgeois sourness for the rest of his life; it’s what his raspy voice is for. Otherwise as far as apocalyptic dramas go I prefer Take Shelter.
Now that The Artist has joined the pantheon of bores, Glenn Kenny tries to destroy a popular canard:
I understand that everyone’s kind of sick of yammering on about the relative assets and liabilities of The Artist, but I have to admit that one not-unpleasant sidebar of all the yammering is that Singin’ in the Rain tends to get brought up a lot. And if there’s one thing I enjoy thinking about, it’s the 1952 film co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
However. What is actually kind of weird, if not actually unpleasant, about this sidebar is that, aside from one single solitary thematic point of comparison, I’m largely convinced that the two films have, if you’ll pardon the vulgar turn of phrase, sweet fuckall to do with each other…
After all—I’ve heard the argument go—Singin‘ itself depicts silent-film acting as broad, exaggerated, hammy, and the makers of the films as ego-and-revenue obsessive near-hacks, not artists. This is in fact largely the case, and so what. There’s a big aspect to Singin’ in the Rain that partakes of self-parody, which is somewhat distinct from pastiche. Comden and Green, we may recall, got their start in at least semi-satirical sketch comedy; they, with Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein and others, were founders of The Revuers, a troupe that sent up the show biz of their day and before, in a tradition that was followed by outfits as diverse as the SCTVers and the creators of Forbidden Broadway. That is to say, the mockery of tradition/convention was entirely within the bounds of another, not unrelated tradition/convention. While the movie has a great deal of fun not just with silent cinema tropes but also the technical difficulties involved with the transition to sound, it also (unselfconsciously) situates itself within a particular continuum. Most of the comic stylings provided by the almost-literally-born-in-a-trunk former vaudvillean Donald O’Connor in the Kelly/Donen film would not be at all out of place in any non-talking Sennett or Roach short. The joking on silent cinema in Singin’ in the Rain is “inside” in the very best sense of the term, while the condition of The Artist is one of near-complete alienation from silent cinema.
The Artist boasts no lunacy comparable to one of Donald O’Connor’s muggings.
Directed by Jonathan Levine from a script based on true life by Will Reiser, 50/50 is the sort of movie in which scenes gleam like newly minted clichés. A morning scene between Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, henceforth known as JGL) and girlfriend Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) emits the kind of domestic tranquility created so that the filmmakers can subvert it in a few minutes. We know that as soon as Rachel lays her toothbrush down and gets her hand out of Adam’s ass that (a) a Biblical plague will descend upon him (b) his girlfriend will do Something Terrible to him because men wrote and directed the script.
Thanks to his uncanny talent for projecting conflicted emotions through a Noh Mask of inflexibility, JGL is the most fortuitous casting choice; he’s incapable of a sentimental gesture or false note, unlike 50/50 itself. Whimsy, the first resort of the chowderhead, dominates. When Anna Kendrick as a counselor clears her throat and fumbles through feel-good patter (e.g. “From what I understand it’s really rough. But it will pass”), that’s the end of her performance; she plays New Age Music, as if to underline the point. JGL, reluctantly accepting a pot brownie from Philip Baker Hall, wanders down hospital corridors with an idiotic grin to the accompaniment of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” As for Seth Rogen, his riffs on blowjobs and abstract art, his token allusion to a historical figure outside the audience’s purview (Gorbachev and his tattoo) — if you laugh at this point, have fun. But there’s a sinister side to the male gaze. With his liberal use of “cunt” and “whore,” Rogen teases the audience’s baser instincts before Levine and Reiser gratify these macho fuckwads by exposing Rachel as a nattering, cheating airhead. Besides one emphatic exchange he isn’t even given the dignity of having a complex reaction to her boyfriend’s undoubted terminal diagnosis.
At least the makers allow Angelica Huston a chance to breathe as Adam’s devastated mother. Taking the audience back to her shattered, drunken amble through grief in 1995′s The Crossing Guard, Huston stops the movie cold the second that JGL snuggles up to her for a hug. But playing an archetype with which men are comfortable, she doesn’t startle; the leash won’t stretch that far. Levine doesn’t suggest why Adam might be wrong about keeping his mother at arm’s length for three quarters of the running time; he raises and dismisses the suspicion with a flurry of tears and Kleenex.
The immediate pleasure offered by A Dangerous Method is literate dialogue. Adapting his own play, Christopher Hampton makes Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) not a pillar so much as a stalk of rectitude and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) a droll ironist addicted to cigars and ascending octaves. A reputation for gore, high-toned or otherwise, has shadowed David Cronenberg’s talent for rendering jargon, the excitement of meeting another person who understands you. He makes scientific badinage kinky. Like Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and William Lee in Naked Lunch, Fassbender is attracted to a female partner’s sympathy and professional intelligence, here represented by neurotic and future psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein and played by Keira Knightley. After an uneasy start, in which she writhes and aims her jutting lantern jaw at any moving target in the Oscar-honored manner of playing wacko women, Knightley actually improves: I could believe that she would meet Jung on a bench in Vienna to swap theories about the connections between sex and death.
A good thing too, for I didn’t feel the supposed warmth between Jung and Freud to which their letters allude. For every smart editing choice (i.e. cutting from Knightly’s astonishment at seeing hymeneal blood on white sheets to Jung’s family playing in his plush quarters), Cronenberg elides much. A Dangerous Method could have benefited from an extra half hour or three quarters of an hour. Why do Hampton and Cronenberg make such a fuss about Freud and Jung’s trip to America only to film two scenes aboard ship? Why does their friendship fray when we’re barely introduced to them? One of the film’s strengths is its unsentimentality about human relations. Barely a personal remark passes between Freud and Jung. The latter’s wife Emma (a subtle Sarah Gadon) tolerates his philandering as long as he keeps her pregnant. But Cronenberg and Hampton haven’t thought through this paradox. A Dangerous Mind just stops. Still, it’s a movie of smart, quiet grace, none more so than when Mortensen’s Freud, easing back into his leather chair, surrounded by African kitsch, drinks in his young colleague’s flattery like aged port.
In which sandpapery-voiced political consultant Steve Meyers (Ryan Gosling) realizes that the Democratic governor and candidate for president (George Clooney) is a louse, and, as a bonus, realizes that he’s a louse too. That’s all that’s at stake in what Tim Robbins’ louse of a Hollywood executive in The Player would classify as a cynical political thriller with a heart. The dialogue, written by director Clooney, Grant Heslow, and Beau Willimon, based on a play, is recognizable to anyone seduced by the chipper chihuahua excitement of Mark Halperin monologues on the cable talk shows, which I suppose adduces the film’s verisimilitude: it’s as shallow and “process”-driven as any “issue” hot enough to raise a tingle up Chris Matthews’ leg. Clooney as director errs in showing Clooney the actor’s point of view (e.g. the Sensitive Moment between the candidate and wife in the car); for this thing to work at all the candidate has to remain in the shadows, a smirking non-entity. At least Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, ladling irony like cold soup, offers a few rancid bon mots. I was especially offended by how Evan Rachel Wood exists to get seduced and abandoned for the sake of a gross and obvious plot twist in the sort of film for which the just as gross buzzword “homosocial” exists.
Clooney The Actor is the problem too — an example of a performer famous for what makes him least interesting. Called upon to express warmth, he’s merely self-absorbed; when he gives himself a blackguard moment he projects TV-actor malevolence. After Up in the Air, The Descendants, and this, Clooney better watch out: William Holden got trapped in the same place by the mid sixties. Would that he and Gosling have switched roles.