Sunday, February 26, 2012

Actor in Search of a Character

Michael Fassbender has a very strange quality. Unlike most famous actors, he looks like several personae in one.

From one angle he resembles the great German actor Maximilian Schell, which is not so far-fetched because he actually has a German mother and was born in her country.

From another angle he looks and acts a bit like Ed Harris, though he isn't blond and grew up Irish. But then Fassbender doesn't  look or sound like a traditional white Irishman either. There are passing resemblances to Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins too.

So the big difference between him and these actors is that he doesn't exactly look like, well, himself. Neither is any of this helped along by the fact that the two films I saw him in this week had such contradictory and indeterminate characters in them.

In Jane Eyre he plays a man who is torn between his pre-industrial sense of decency towards an ex-wife who has clearly gone bonkers and his desire for that great no-no: the governess. This unnatural state of affairs leaves him deeply misanthropic, if not filled with self-loathing, but his real character - through no fault of his own - seems to be somewhere else. Meanwhile, Mia Wasikowska delivers a fine performance of a woman who knows what she is and wants in a time when she was meant to serve and basically shut up.

In Shame he has even less to work with as a character. Brandon is a sex addict, someone who has an indeterminate corporate job and oozes a kind of cold, robotic sexuality. The fine soundtrack by Harry Escott tells us that he is a tragic character from the start, and this slowly reveals itself to be true. He is indeed an empty shell.

Director Steve McQueen saves us the background story as to why this man and his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, are so messed up. Almost everything happens slowly, which is not a criticism. Far from it. Her  rendition of the rousing New York, New York is painfully slow and slowly brilliant. You can almost hear souls breaking.

If anything, it's Mulligan who is the real find here. Up to now she's played somewhat moon-ish, cardigan-wearing-type characters, but not this time. Her Sissy is nothing short of fucked up, so much so that I didn't recognize her at first, and that's not only because she was stark naked, as Fassbender is full-frontally for much of the  movie.

All we are waiting for is to see how the penny is going to drop for this man whose work and home computer is stuffed with porn, as is his mind. Anything to keep whatever humiliated him in the past at a distance, and that includes his sister, who obviously only reminds him of that trauma. One of the few things that happens fast is a montage of the smut Brandon finally tries to eject from his life. It's almost subliminial cutting, but the image of an anus in big close-up remains. This is Brandon's psyche: the arse end of everything.

But the only clue we get to any interiority is the fact that he listens, somewhat implausibly, to Bach, and when he develops any feelings for a woman he can't get his considerable schlong up. That that women should be black (like the director), warm and have a character might also be forcing things a bit.

If we're meant to feel anything for this man whose lovemaking finally assumes a grimacing, ape-like desperation it's difficult at the time, just as it's difficult to believe that one of Sissy's more serious traumas (not for the first time) is going to be enough to change him. He will need something much more cathartic than that, but for all this there is something mesmerising, brave and finally moving about this film and its two siblings who - in the final analysis - only have each other.

And that's a real shame.

Neil Sonnekus

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Silence Ain't Always Golden

It’s amazing how vicious and self-righteous certain members of the self-appointed Left have been over the death of Whitney Houston last week, as if she never had a smidgen of talent and operated in an industry that is a veritable rose garden.

Another industry that comes up smelling of morning dew, film, would have been as dismissive about its silent era stars with the advent of talkies. Many lives were destroyed, as we know, yet those stars were probably as guilty of vanity and pride as Houston was.

So is George Valentin (the much-nominated Jean Dujardin), who just cannot see the writing on the wall. Yet, as he is riding the last crest of silent stardom, he literally bumps into the young Peppy Miller (Argentinian-born Berenice Bejo), who truly has the effervescence of another era.

As his life falls to pieces, so her star doesn’t just rise, it rockets. And, in true Hollywood style, Bejo just happens to be wife of the director (Lithuanian-born Michel Hazanavicius). So far so predictable. Moreover, a cynic would say that at least they don't have to dub their French accents into American. But what about the story?

Most of us aren’t old enough to remember the real era, apart from the only artist who surpassed it, Charlie Chaplin, so we’re looking at that time not with nostalgia but with a talkie, TV and social media consciousness. Yes, it’s very sweet and helped along by the cutest dog in all creation, Jack, as in Russell, but does it add to that/or and this era?

Taking the route of homage, Hazanavicius goes soft and merely tries to imitate that time, complete with a forced happy ending. It isn’t even an ironic conclusion, it’s a reward for the audience, he says, for sitting through a “difficult film”.

The words, from my point of view, are more like boring and implausible than difficult. Would someone with such a meteoric career have had time to love and care for such a self-pitying egotist? Possibly, but not likely.

Whatever the case, The Artist needn’t have taken this route, though it certainly is earning plenty of nominations and plaudits. But the only anchor through a film that is destined for a dusty shelf like those it emulates, finally, is Bejo's wry, sideways smile. That, for this twitchy viewer at least, is enough to launch a thousand careers.

Neil Sonnekus

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Needle in the Eye

After I’d seen Blind Terror starring Mia Farrow in 1971 I swore I’d never watch a horror movie again. I was about 15 at the time, but I broke that oath quite often and did so again this weekend.

The thing about Farrow is that she probably brought out the protective instinct in older men with her fragile voice and porcelain-doll looks, but if memory serves (and it doesn’t very well, as we all know), there weren’t any point-of-view shots. That would have meant the screen had to go black because she was as blind as a bat from the start.

Things are slightly different in Julia’s Eyes, a film the marketeers go to great lengths to say was produced by Mexican master Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).

For one the titular Julia (Belen Rueda) has fading sight, a POV we often see, but when she goes completely blind we still have black POV shots – to great effect. This is all enhanced by the excellent cinematography of Oscar Faura, who also shot Del Toro’s haunting The Orphanage.

Secondly, there is nothing doll-like about Rueda. She is a blonde, full-blown Spanish woman and she is infinitely desirable. Yes, she’s a little overwrought, like the film itself, but who cares? We will do anything to, well, see that she finds her twin sister’s killer, if indeed he or she exists. Sometimes these Latinos can imagine all kinds of morbid things, you know, especially if they have a Catalunian disposition like director Guillem Morales.

So, a film that's also about seeing. There are even references to that iconic image of an eyeball being slit in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. This time, however, it’s a syringe that enters said orb, though it might have been more effective if we didn’t see the needle actually piercing what looks like material. Morales should have studied his Cronenburg. Suggestion might have been more effective. A slight popping sound perhaps? 

But imagine having to act blind while your killer has a very sharp knife millimetres away from your pupil, testing you. Rueda does a great job and has us on her side from start to finish.

But is it a good story? Well, it’s full of twists and turns that certainly kept me on the edge of my seat, but the plot did start getting implausible towards the end. Julia was starting to do quite a lot for a blind and blindfolded person and, frankly, if my killer offered me a mug of boiling water filled with poison and I knew it, locked up in his (or her) house, I would simply chuck it in their eyes and brain them with anything at hand.

Another Dali-esque reference pertains to Julia’s husband (Lluis Homar) seeing the universe in her eyes, literally. That, and the conceit that the more emotional Julia gets the more her eyesight will deteriorate, is much more acceptable than Lars von Trier’s twaddle about planet Melancholia heading our way to destroy our Danish angst.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, February 3, 2012

Not All Men Have Islands

A radio critic recently said director Alexander Payne (born Papadopoulos) tends to make male buddy movies, like Sideways, which is obviously true. But his masterpiece, in my humble opinion, is about a woman, a very simple but determined postwoman from San Diego who has always had this thing about France.

Speaking the most cringeworthy, American-accented but nevertheless accurate French, 14e Arrondissement in Paris, Je’Taime might only be about 10 minutes long, but it says everything about loneliness and bravery that needs to be said.

Anyway, here Payne gets back to a male protagonist and this time he’s no ageing star like Jack Nicholson or anti-star like Paul Giamatti, he’s George Clooney. The cinema was packed with wine-drinking women and they were there to see their man with his matinee idol good looks, no matter what he did.

When his Matt King hears that his wife had an affair prior to her water-skiing accident you can almost hear him (and his fans) thinking: but who could be better or more handsome than me/him? Which is probably the whole point Payne was trying to make, for King is no angel. He’s a land baron on Hawaii.

Just to rub it in, the man she had an affair with is not exactly an oil painting - and he’s an estate agent. This is all very sly and gently ironic. The only difference is that Clooney gets a lot of screen time to let us warm to him while his reportedly adventurous wife, played statuesquely by Patricia Hastie, gets a non-talking opening shot of about 10 seconds, after which she spends the rest of the movie as a vegetable. Even her teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), hates her for what she did.

The only person who can and does come to her defence is her father, since her mother has Alzheimer’s and thinks everything’s wonderful. Robert Forster’s small but important role is deeply affecting and somehow feels more real than a film that is pleasant enough to watch and makes all the right noises about indigenous land ownership, but swings a little uncomfortably between family tragedy and comedy. 

Also, Alexandra’s rather lovable jerk of a friend Sid (Nick Krause) suddenly disappears towards the end of the movie, almost as if he might spoil any possibility of a sad-but-united tableau. Clooney, of course, is never going to entirely lose his rag or spill his guts at his loss, but then there are hordes who will forgive him for much, much more than that.

Neil Sonnekus